Going to Sri Lanka was a surprise to me since I hadn’t really planned or considered going there until I was forced to book a ticket at Dubai airport trying to get to India, but it was one of the best unplanned decisions I’ve made on this five month journey. And the next two weeks in Sri Lanka were full of surprises and the country is now among my list of favorites.
I spent a few days in Colombo, the capital city. You don’t find many positive travel reviews of Colombo as many sites warn you that it’s hectic, crowded and most people land there and head straight for the mountains of Kandy or the beaches in the south. I enjoyed my time in Colombo and after a month in India, I didn’t find it too crowded or hectic. Everything really is relative.
I was going to head south to a yoga and surf retreat about 30 minutes from Galle and needed a few things for the trip so it was nice to be in a city where I could run some errands. I searched for a new swimsuit as mine, along with most of my clothes at this point, was starting to look ragged. Turns out that looking for a bathing suit in a country that’s predominantly Buddhist and Muslim is challenging unless I want to wear a dress in the sea, which didn’t seem very practical for surf lessons. Once I abandoned my swimsuit search, I spent the rest of my time doing a bit of sightseeing and visited a famous Buddhist temple where I attempted to practice Vipassana meditation (made it 45 minutes of the hour but then I HAD to get up to check out a Buddhist drum performance), practiced yoga at a gorgeous studio near my B&B and checked out a very cool art exhibit which led to an unexpected and thought provoking conversation with one of the artists.
While at the Colombo Biennale Art Exhibition featuring international artists, I was asked by a young woman if I would attend a “performance”. I agreed and when asked to leave my purse with her, I took a leap of faith and left it with her and entered through black curtains into a dark room. I couldn’t see anything, but as soon as I entered, someone took a photo of me and the flash was blinding, there was this rhythmic, hypnotic foreign music playing and a woman’s voice called out to me as she took me by the hand and began to dance with me. While we swayed to this music, her hands landed on my hips and then she gently twirled me around, and began asking in a calm and seductive voice, a series of questions such as:
“Are you a terrorist?”
“Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?”
“How much money do you have in your bank account?”
“Have you ever stolen anything?”
“Are you telling the truth?”
The questions and frankly, the entire experience was unsettling. I was surprised at myself as I answered the questions but I was so uncomfortable and increasingly agitated, but at the same time the music, dancing and this mysterious stranger’s voice had the opposite effect. After the “performance” was over, I had a chance to speak with the artist Venuri Perera and she was much younger and her face was sweeter than I expected. Her piece titled “Entry/No Entry” was about the immigration/passport control experience and as someone who has spent the past five months going through this process, her piece really reflected the awkward and uncomfortable dance quite perfectly. She shared her perspective as a person who holds a Sri Lankan passport, which I learned was one of the “bottom 10” passports in the world, prohibiting her from being able to enter many countries when she has been invited to study or exhibit her work. It was a humbling reminder of the privilege of being an American and having most international doors opened to me. It also added to my growing concern that we maintain positive international relations so that this continues, but understanding that the doors must open both ways. I worry about America abandoning our founding principle of being a country of immigrants and welcoming those who are escaping tyranny or just looking for a better life.
After booking my Sri Lanka flight, I knew that I would be spending my birthday in the country and asked myself what I would want to be doing on my 43rd birthday on my own. I’ve been practicing yoga for over 20 years, sometimes religiously and sometimes not at all, but I always feel so much better when I am doing it with some regularity. So I looked up yoga retreats and found one called Soul & Surf, which combines yoga with surf lessons. I recalled a hilarious and memorable trip to Costa Rica to go to surf camp with two of my closest friends Andy and CaroLu back in 2008 and thought “perfect”. I loved surfing and always wanted to keep doing it, I’m sure I’ll still love it! So I headed to the southern coast to a beach town called Ahangama for what I was certain would be 7 days of a perfect balance of relaxation and physical challenge.
Ummm… turns out Soul & Surf was less Soul and definitely more Surf and I was once again going to experience early morning wake ups and physical exhaustion that, while different from meditation prison there were also some uncanny similarities. And it turns out that muscle memory doesn’t last for 8 years without practice and I am a disastrous surfer. The first day or two, most of the first timers (the majority of the group) were struggling, but as more and more people started to progress and I felt like I was regressing, I started to beat myself up harder than the waves. I kept thinking to myself “how did I get up the first time in Costa Rica? Maybe I’m too old to do this?” It was a mind-fuck and for the first time since I started this adventure, I felt defeated and inadequate. Thankfully, there were some really fun, hilarious and amazing people in this group and they kept me laughing and from taking all of this “fun” too seriously. I also realized that this was the first time in my trip that I came into a situation with specific goals and expectations, which is probably why I was feeling like a failure. Being a goal oriented person my entire life and then changing the script the past five months, it’s easy to go back to your old habits and I think that’s ultimately what kept me made from standing on the board. I managed to get both feet on the board several times, but those moments were so brief that I never caught that surfer’s high that I remembered from Costa Rica.
Once I reminded myself that I was actually here to have fun and that I am not here to become a pro surfer, I had a great time. Well, except for the time that my friend Jen and I were pummeled by wave after wave until a baby tsunami hit us and took us down during a surf relay challenge (yeah, Soul & Surf = intense). And then a couple of days later, my board flew into the air and landed on my head giving me a bump and pretty sure a minor concussion and that’s when I retired my board and just hung out with some of my favorite girls for beers on the beach aka my professional sport. It turns out I wasn’t the only one struggling with surfing and also wanting to take the intensity down a level. My new friends Michaela and Rachel and I all enjoyed relaxing with cold beers, talking about life, love and travel. I began referring to us as the Bad Girls of Surf Camp and by the end of the week, pretty much the entire group was ready to drink with us and mend their bruises, rashes, sore muscles and clogged ears. And despite my lack of prowess on the board, I loved the daily yoga and time spent with this group of gorgeous and interesting international friends. Shout out to my Villa 2 girls: Kinda, Alice, Maddy and Jen!
One of the craziest and most hilarious surprises of the trip was when Jen, my British surf camp wife and I were in our tuk tuk heading to Galle for our field trip, our one “free” day. Just a few minutes after we got in the tuk tuk, our driver, a sweet-faced and constantly smiling man named Annura pulled over to the side of the road, got out, came back to us and calmly beckoned for us to get out. Jen and I looked at each other with confusion and hesitated uncertain as to why we would need to get out in the middle of the street when Annura politely motioned us out. We complied and then noticed that he had a small broom in his hand and proceeded to move the broom close to the steering wheel where there was a SNAKE!! After he got the snake out on the road he told us to go ahead and get back in. Jen and I sat back in with trepidation and after she peered over her side of the tuk tuk, she yelped, “OH MY GOD! It’s coming back in! It’s under the wheel!” And we both leapt out. The next few minutes were spent watching Annura and other locals try and find the snake inside the engine, all of us laughing nervously and then they managed to get it out by squirting a bit of petrol on the engine, which drove it FLYING away from the vehicle. Don’t worry animal lovers, no snakes were harmed in the making of this comedy.
Another wonderful surprise in Sri Lanka was that my niece Jinna was there at the same time, surfing the island with her boyfriend Tom. Jinna’s in her twenties and after suffering the tragic loss of her dad a few years ago decided to quit corporate America and take her talent in photography and social media to see the world. You should check out her beautiful videos and posts at projectinspo.com, but be warned these gorgeous images and people may cause you to want to quit your job and pick up a surf board. Unlike me, Jinna has completely taken to surfing and surf life and by looking at her radiant face, toned physique and fierce tan, I see that surf life has taken to her. When I think back to some of our times together in NYC where both Jinna and I lived before our nomadic chapters, I recall seeing the sadness of loss and grief on her face, it’s so gratifying to see the light shining so brightly within her now.
I spent my last few days in Sri Lanka staying in Galle Fort, a small and gorgeous little town not far from Soul & Surf High School. I spent one really fun night hanging out with the founding members of the Bad Girls of Surf Club, Rachel and Michaela (and Dani, Michaela’s friend). The last day/night I spent alone having a chance to reflect on all that has happened from India to Sri Lanka and to watch one of the most memorable sunsets I’ve ever seen. As I took in my last sunset, I had my final Sri Lankan surprise, which was a conversation with a local guy for about 10 minutes which resulted in about 25 text messages, phone calls and declarations of LOVE. We literally talked for 10 minutes about Sri Lanka, my surf camp experience and the U.S. and then he proceeded to try to convince me to have tea, take a drive, etc. and wanted to walk me back to my hotel, all of which I politely declined. He wasn’t a creep and didn’t say or do anything inappropriate except for calling/texting and declaring his love, but it was a good lesson for me that it’s not culturally insensitive to say no to giving out my phone number.
I cannot say enough positive things about Sri Lanka. The people are warm and kind, the island is beautiful, the food is spicy and delicious and there are surprises from start to finish. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead on the rest of my adventures in the east.