You just said it aloud, admit it.
After the dusty safari, I was ready for the southern beaches. My driver, a cute young guy too shy to say much of anything to me, was polite and careful. Every quick stop or sudden turn resulted in "I am sorry, madam." He was sweet. What was most definitely not sweet? The dozens of itchy, teeny tiny ant bites I discovered on my backside and legs after arrival.
Seriously, how can one small country have so many ants?!
Unawatuna Beach is a tourist haven, a beautiful crescent-shaped beach dotted lines with beach bars and tiny hotels. The waters are Caribbean blue and the palms high. Beach lounges and dining sets run all of the way down the beach and are full morning and night. A small street runs behind the beach with lots of shops and restaurants. It's really a lovely place, though as different from my first weeks in Sri Lanka as one could imagine.
At 9:27am on December 26, 2004, this place, along with parts of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, was decimated by a tsunami. In total, approximately 35,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka. It's hard to sit here and not imagine it exactly how it was on that beautiful, ordinary morning before the sea rolled in.
My hotel manager told me that he was able to get all of his guests to safety, on the top floor of what was then the hotel building. Afterward, it had to be torn down. Most were able to run to higher ground - and safety - after the first wave and before the second. But little of the beach remains the same. Most have rebuilt, but here and there, ruined buildings can be seen, somewhat swallowed by the jungle. What amazes me is that most hotels look fairly shoddily constructed and are built right on the sand. It appears that not many have learned.
But it's gorgeous all the same. Yesterday morning, I took a tuk tuk into the nearby town of Galle to shop in Galle Fort. The Fort has quite a history. Galle itself can be traced back to the time of Ptolemy and appeared on one of his maps as a trading port around 125 CE. The fort was first built by the Portuguese in 1588, captured by the Dutch in 1650, and taken over and reinforced by the British in 1798. Sri Lanka was a British colony until independence in 1948. (Sorry, I'm a history nerd.) Now, the fort's a tourist hub, full of shops and small inns, but still integral to the people of Galle, containing the district courthouse, schools, a temple, Dutch church, and a mosque.
As soon as I hopped out of the tuk tuk at the fort gate, excited to meander and simply get lost, another driver was quick and tenacious to offer me a ride and a tour. As many times as I politely said no, he wouldn't let me be, nor would he move out of the way to allow me to leave.
So I had to be a bit of a bitch. A loud one. And that got the attention of some Australian tourists who quickly came over to make sure all was well. I was fine, but I appreciated them! As wonderful as so many Sri Lankans have been, the attitude of some toward solo women is a bit draining.
I walked along the walls and watched a man with a monkey at his side charm a king cobra - but I kept my distance. He put the cobra back in its basket and got out another snake. My face must've given me away, as two Australian guys nearby made a comment about my obvious affection for snakes. Then one of them, looking at the giant second snake said, "Ah. It's only a python. Let's go."
A few hours later, I was hot and tired. It's so reminded me of the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar. I'd recalled passing a spot earlier that called itself a Taphouse.
Thinking that a beer sounded fan-freaking-tastic, I headed that way.
The place was full of more Australians, including the guys who'd made fun of my snake face earlier. Their tables were littered with empty bottles of Tiger and Carlsberg. Sri Lankan beer, Lion, much like the Yala leopard, has eluded me. Rumor has it that the brewery was damaged or destroyed in the epic floods that they had last spring.
I tried though. I ordered a Lion, as the Taphouse had exactly one tap. And it was a no. A Taphouse. With no taps. Go figure.
So I tried for some Tiger in a bottle. Nope.
I worked my way down the list of six beers, striking out each time, until I finally sighed and ordered a ridiculously overpriced Corona. In Sri Lanka.
Which brings me to my next point.
In no time at all, all of the Aussies (in town for a major international cricket event) and myself were laughing about the beauty of Sri Lankan culture and the general swings and missed attempts at western culture.
We laughed for a few hours and it was time for me to head back to Unawatuna. I hugged the guys goodbye and hopped in what would be my last - and most memorable tuk tuk trip.
As we raced through the bustle of traffic, I closed my eyes and felt the night air on my face, soaking in all I could. Soon, my only interaction with traffic will be behind the wheel of my air-conditioned Honda amongst people much committed to the confines of a lane and for whom the use of a horn is only an insult instead of the nuanced method of communication it is here. My driver Amal told me he'd seen me eating in the restaurant. Said I looked like a butterfly. Said he wished he could change his skin with mine, because his was brown. My heart broke. I told him that his skin was beautiful. He was silent for a bit. Then:
"You want to drive tuk tuk?"
He turned down the dark lane to my hotel and stopped.
I slid in the front beside him.
Down a bumpy and rutted alley, stopping and starting and stalling, the only sound above the whine of the engine was the unabashed squeal of a nearly 40 lady who'd forgotten, for a moment, of anything in the world except pure joy.