Thursday, May 14, 2015

Birthday in Sri Lanka

Last week, Elise and I took the kids and my mom on a beach vacation to Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, a tiny, tourist, beach town three hours south of Colombo and a short ten minute tuk-tuk ride from the Dutch colonial town of Galle on Sri Lanka's southern shore.

We stayed at a private villa with its own pool, butler, and cook. We left Chennai in the morning. The flight to Colombo was short, but the experience was nothing less than luxurious on Sri Lankan Airlines, easily the kids' new favorite airline. As soon as they wiggles their tiny tizus into their seats and snapped their seat belts closed, the flight attendant brought them cups of apple juice, cookies, and coloring books. Though the flight was only going to be an hour, all the seats had TVs in the headrests, and the kids immediately plugged their headphones in and dived into cartoons. Lunch was shortly served after take-off.

Come to find out, the flight was the short part of the trip. After arriving in Colombo, we were greeted by our driver, Nihal, who was almost as friendly and accomodating as Sundar is. He guided us through the parking lot to an eight-seater Toyota van. Unfortunately, there were no seat belts for our three hour drive south to Unawatuna, but the real challenge was keeping everyone on their aforementioned tizus for the drive.

After passing through Colombo, we got on the highway south. Everything around us was green. We passed rice paddies and water buffalos, not an uncommon sight in Chennai, but watching them wade against the backdrop of rolling hills really made me feel like we were in a foriegn land.

When we arrived at the villa, a late lunch was waiting for us on the table set for six on the veranda, a tomato pasta and fresh fish. The kids love fish which would be a good thing on this trip.

We never got an early start on this trip which was a good thing. At 8:00 sharp, the chef would arrive to prepare for us a resort-worthy breakfast, combining Western eggs, toast and fruit for the kids, with more traditional Sri Lankan breakfast items which were fantastic. Before coming to Sri Lanka, I had assumed it would be a Little India or India "Lite" and was surprised to find Sri Lanka as culturally distinct as it was. It had obvious Indian influences, but it was also a unique combination of Indian and Asian. There were South Asian, Chinese and Buddhist influences in the architecture and food. The people shared the same kindness towards strangers that South Indians do, but many of the similarities ended there.

After breakfast on our first full day in Sri Lanka, we headed to the beach. Jungle Beach, to be specific. We took an auto from our villa up a small hill. The auto sputtered like the Little Engine that Could trying to get up the hill, and when it finally did, the road dipped, then undulated. Peter squealed like we were on a roller coaster. We pulled over along the side of a dense forest where our auto driver guided us down a steep trail to the secluded Jungle Beach.

The bottom of the trail opened up to a small cove with blue water and white sand. There was a small restaurant/cafe there, too, under a thatched roof. We weren't the only ones on the beach, and we would discover that Sri Lanka was a popular spot for Russian tourists. Everyone at Jungle Beach was Russian, and everyone at the resort in Hikkaduwa we would go to on the following day was also Russian.

We played in the ocean the better part of that day. I remember Sam yelling, "This is the best day ever!" even as thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. Dark clouds hovered on the horizon over the Indian Ocean, but stayed offshore which was fortunate, because had they decided to take the beach, we had no shelter and no way to keep Elise's camera dry.

Even Clementine got into the surf. She was fearless. The boys were still very wary of the ocean when they were her age, but perhaps seeing how carefree they were in the water helped free her of any inhibitions she may have harbored.

The day we went to Jungle Beach was a Tuesday and just also happened to be my 43rd birthday. Our cook made a magificent meal of grilled shrimp and calamari. Even Sam and Pete tried a calamari ring. Toward the end of dinner, Elise started whispering secret instructions to Sam, and he disappeared inside for a few minutes.

When he came back, Elise made me get up from the table on the veranda and walk around the villa. It was dark. In the grass, were candles flickering in the breeze. There was a chocolate cake on a table by the pool and flowers. That morning, at breakfast, Elise had given me the first of what would be a deluge of gifts. She said they were all things I needed, but I wasn't so sure about that, because the first was a pair of sunglasses which I really did need and which came in handy at Jungle Beach. The second was a new watch. Yes, my old watch was broken beyond repair, but I didn't ever think I needed a new one. I mean, my cell phone tells the time. It is a nice watch, and I am not wholly sure I deserve, but I am going to keep it anyway.

They sang me happy birthday, and we had cake. I felt loved, and there were even fireflies that came out, twinkling intermittently in the dark.

As mentioned, the next day we took a forty-five minute auto ride to a beach resort in Hikkaduwa where we had heard we could swim with sea turtles.

The boys immediately stripped to their swimsuits and waded into the surf. I watched from the beach as the boys, holding hands, splashed in the ankle-high surf, scanning the water for turtles. Elise and Nanny soon joined them, then Clementine and I went out. Sam put on his goggles and looked for turtles and we soon spotted several. Everyone was a little hesitant at first to get too close. Pete has for the longest time had, Dottie, his stuffed animal sea turtle and to see him eventually get close enough to touch one (while holding my hand) was like watching him reunite with his spirit animal (until the say he swims with blue whales. There is no doubt in my mind he will).

We purchased a day pass, and I had been specifically warned not to pay for the buffet lunch which I was told I would be suckered into doing. Well, unbeknownest to me when I checked into the hotel, I bought the buffet lunch. But--for us, anyway--this ended up being a good thing. The kids ate way more than they would have off the back of a lounge chair (more fried fish!) than they would have otherwise, and everyone needed a break from the sun...not to mention an ice cold Lion lager to help cool off. We swam in the pool afterward and, before we knew it, it was late afternoon already and time to head back to our villa.

On our last full day in Sri Lanka, we did a little sight-seeing in the nearby colonial town of Galle. Originally founded inside a colonial Dutch fort, the town was quaint with good shops. We toured the forts ramparts before stopping at Exotic Roots where Elise spied a totally awesome new dream-catcher made from feathers, seashells, and porcupine quills to catch our dreams. We escaped the heat by ducking into a cafe with no A/C. It wasn't as hot as it sounds. We feasted on french fries and milkshakes, and made no general swift movements to the exit. Rather, let the kids make puzzles and read childrens' books from a convenient stash in the restaurant.

That night, we searched out the best burgers in Unawatuna. When I told Pete that we were going out for burgers, he asked me, "What's a burger?"

Oh, India.

We sat at a table on the beach sands. As it grew darker, tiki torches were lit in both directions, and down the long stretch of beach, one could see tiki hut after tiki hut serving ice cold Lions and fried delicacies from the sea. The whole time, I couldn't help think about Elise's dad, lover of good tiki bars, because the beach at Unawatuna was like one giant long tiki bar.

We were visited by a kind, stray dog that slept in the sand next to my chair and one of the restaurant's owners, craddling a newborn, trying to get him to go back to sleep. They lived above the restaurant in one room, married to an American ex-pat, with two other children who would grow up on the beach, barefoot the whole time, no doubt, loping in and out of the waves whenever they wanted. The only other existence that could possibly be better than that is ours. 

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