Sri Lanka 1: Negombo

My 11 hour flight from London Heathrow to Sri Lanka (at £530 one way, presumably due to it being July) was pleasant enough, and more enjoyable than other flights due to being in a row of 2 instead of 3 so I only had to force one person out of their seat when I needed the loo form my window seat, but I was already exhausted before boarding the 9:30pm flight so to then not be served dinner until just before midnight was painful (I would never even consider skipping the meal in favour of sleep). So I only managed to fall asleep gone midnight once they finally turned the lights off and was then woken at 5am by the lights to be served our breakfast – a full 3 hours before we were due to land – which, quite frankly, I found inconsiderate (no I wouldn’t be missing this meal and as if I would be able to sleep anyway with everyone else around me munching away as the light is glaring in my eyes).

Anyway, we landed into Bandaranaike International Airport at 12:45pm local time and after collecting my bags I made my way through out the front of the terminal (after withdrawing cash at one of the few ATMs inside) and was immediately targeted by taxi drivers insisting it would cost me the same as taking a tuk tuk at 1,500 rupees, which apparently would be a 1km walk to get to. It took me all of 3 minutes to actually exit the front of the terminal and cross the road to locate the array of Tuk Tuks on offer and it cost me 700 rupees (about £3.50) for the 40 minute drive to my hostel on Lewis Place in Negombo. You can also take a local bus for a lot less but I was shattered and hot and just wanted to get to my hostel.

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Aurora Hostel left a lot to be desired in my 6 bed, stifling hot dorm but at £6.30 for two nights it was hard to complain and the woman running the place was absolutely lovely, trying really hard to communicate in English. Although Roman – a fellow backpacker from France – found a bed bug on the second night.

I had a shower as soon as I got there – a cold shower, which was deliberate as it was super humid and sticky, but apparently I wouldn’t have a choice over it anyway. At around 3:30pm I went for a wander to the beach, picking up a fresh coconut to drink on the way that looked uncannily like a pig once the shop owner had rearranged it for my consumption.

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It may have been the time of year but the beach wasn’t that sunbathe-able with the treacherous waves and high winds making it impossible for me to read my book with both sand and my hair, at alternating points, blowing in my face.

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I had a few locals trying to sell things to me and another Sri Lankan male deciding to come right up to me and startle me out of my reverie by asking a group of questions that quite quickly have become the standard course of interaction between the men of Sri Lanka and myself; “where are you from?”, “are you married?”, “do you have a boyfriend?” I should have at least said yes to the last one as I was lying there half naked, with him looking me up and down, and this seemed to make him think he could sit and join me. I told him I was tired and just wanted to rest (all true), but he then he said I was angry with him so I somehow ended up reassuring this strange man whom had interrupted my peace and quiet.

By 5pm it was far too windy so I left the beach and took a walk further north to find Rohans Place – a restaurant recommended in Rough Guides – for some dinner. I settled on the traditional Sri Lanka dish of Rice and Curry – opting for pork – which arrived in six separate pots and was absolutely delicious. So much flavour and spices yet not too hot on the palate, and for 750 rupees (£3.75) I was pretty happy with my first meal in Sri Lanka. Oh and the ginger beer – a popular Sri Lankan drink – washed it down a treat.

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The following morning I set out to explore the area of Negombo around the lagoon and Dutch canal, opting to walk the 30-40 minute journey rather than take a Tuk Tuk – the main roads of Lewis Place is fine to walk along but Sea Street more difficult due to the lack of pavement and hoards of Tuk tuks, motorbikes and cars zipping down the road. If you can, instead walk along the Dutch canal. Anyway I first made it to the Fish Market by the lagoon, grabbing a papaya fruit juice blended with ice for 100 rupees (50p) before heading in, where I was straight away approached by a fisherman wanting to show me around. I had read about locals offering to help and then trying to charge you at the end so I said I was happy to walk around on my own, to which he replied I would then learn nothing and leave having no idea what I had witnessed.

So he showed me the parrot fish, sting ray and cat fish eggs before taking me outside the fish market shack to the shore out front where hundreds of sardines fish were lined up on netting being dried in the sun – having first been soaked in salty water for 2 days they then spent 2-3 months in the sun, rotated every 4 hours, to then be sold as dried fish.

It was interesting to watch the process and informative, so at the end I gave him 200 rupees as that was the only change I had, to which he said he wanted 500 and 200 would get him nothing – but when I suggested he could give it back if he wanted he decided to keep it even though “200 rupees is nothing”

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I then wandered around the periphery of the lagoon, passing by local men bringing their boats up to the shore and packing away their fishing nets, all smiling and waving at me as I passed. I looped around to the prison, which I had for some reason assumed was an old prison for visiting but when I arrived I was greeted with amused stares from a whole group of locals whom I suddenly realised were probably visiting inmates and perhaps it wasn’t an old prison after all but a fully functioning one!

After ducking into St Mary’s Cathedral right before it closed I then walked alongside the Dutch canal and almost made it to Custom House Road before being approached by a local boat operator, offers me a boat tour of Negombo lagoon.

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I had read that nearby Muthurajawela offered more interesting boat tours around the wetlands and they were cheaper than in Negombo but it would take about an hour to get there by Tuk Tuk and, still tired from my flight the day before, I decided to settle on Negombo so I could sit back on a boat just there and then.

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As it was only me it cost 2,500 rupees (£12.50) but I probably could have haggled yet for some reason didn’t even try. But he included drinking water and fruit in the price and he said it could last as long as I wanted so I agreed. We set out from the canal at around 1pm and into the lagoon nearby the port, passing by wreckage from the 2004 tsunami followed by local fisherman out catching sardines near the shore.

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Tsunami boats

We continued around, passing by large fish boats with Nuduya telling me how they go out into the Indian Ocean for 3 months at a time to fish in self-contained boats complete with mini kitchen, to then come back to Negombo for a week or so before going back out. As we passed by the boats most of the fisherman were sat abroad eating lunch so I was acknowledged with waves and smiles and permitted to take photos of the front of one of the boats, just about capturing the tiny fridge and breakout area.

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Nuduya then took me further out into the lagoon, the mangrove trees and little patches of “island” (or just exposed patches of sand) before mooring up on one of the sand banks for a rest stop. Right in the middle of the lagoon.

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I hopped out into the water and Nuduya grabbed plastic stools from inside his boat, which he then positioned into the sand right in the middle of the water and passed me a plate of cut up watermelon, pineapple and banana. So there I am, sat on a plastic stool (reminiscent of the chairs in Vietnam) smack bang in the middle of a lagoon, munching on some fruit with the sun in my face and water cooling my feet. Standard.

Of course, being me, it’s now that I need the toilet so I wade over to one of the sand islands and squat behind one of the bushes to take a wee. My first marking of territory on Sri Lankan land! We spend almost an hour here, walking around in the water and sitting on the patches of sand before drinking a Bison strong beer (8.8%) together.

Afterwards, when I’d had enough of the heat, we hopped back into the boat and circled the lagoon before pulling in at a section of the mangrove the trees where there were a group of monkeys just hanging about. Apparently this isn’t their natural habitat but they would bought and put there by the government, which seems a bit bizarre, but considering we can equipped with bananas and watermelons for them to munch on they didn’t seem to mind our presence too much.

We then made our way back to the Dutch canal, Nuduya bravely letting me drive the boat out of the lagoon, passing local men fishing out over one of the main bridges, and arrived at the starting point at 4pm, a solid 3 hours after we left.

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I was planning on taking a Tuk Tuk back to my hostel but decided to first take a slow walk along the Dutch canal, where I passed by a group of local Sri Lankan men sat by the sad of the canal, eating crab from the fish market and drinking “coconut tonic”.

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After the usual hello-where -are-you-from pleasantries they invited me to join them, so I sat down to be immediately passed a slice of thick toasted bread and chilli crab to munch on and a glass of coconut tonic – not my favourite ever drink but refreshing in the heat. One of the men – it turns out they were all cousins or brothers or close friends – offered me some whiskey for one of the other men to put his hand out and shake his head; following translation, it turned out he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of them being a group of men giving alcohol to a female on her own and what that might imply. Sweet, really. Besides, my head was already feeling woozy following the huge, high percentage beer devoured in the sun at 2pm.

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That evening I went out with a couple of people from my dorm – Charlotte from England and Roman from France – to join Kimo from France and a few male locals at a beach side restaurant for happy hour cocktails. The ridiculous wind on the beach was refreshing at this point and after a few drinks we decided to eat there, but the food took 1 hour 15 minutes to arrive and was cold, bland and small when it eventually did so it wasn’t the best dining experience (I definitely had rage) but it was a fun, spontaneous evening, laughing about the only French I could remember from school (jambon and l’escalier will get me far, I think) and generally mocking one another.

It was the most ridiculously hot night with the air con making absolutely no difference to our room so I didn’t sleep very well before leaving the following morning for Jaffna. I’d been told I could get a direft bus from Negombo bus station to Jaffna so I paid 200 rupees (£1) to take a Tuk Tuk to the station to be informed I had to first get a bus to Colombo, only costing me 60 rupees (30p) but taking at least an hour. I could already tell this was going to be an eventful day…

LS

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