Waking with a start, instinctively my hand shot up. My gaze slowly focused on the plastic airplane gliding around a small fraction of the world. Two lines pointed straight up, nearly in line one with one another.
Outside a small oval opening to my right : midnight’s darkness.
My watch showed the airplane circling round, acting as a second hand while the big hands showed 12 o’clock.
Click on an image to view photos from the streets of Galle, Sri Lanka up-close:
In a state of dreamy delusion, I silently wished a “Happy New Year”, moved my watch toward the black hole, shut the white plastic shield separating me from the outside air, and closed my eyes. Drifting back into a deep sleep, I dreamt of a mermaid swimming beside sea turtles and whale sharks. I imagined waves pulsing along sandy beaches, and palm tress lit by the sun’s gaze, casting their shadow as if dancing on the coral-covered lands of the Maldives. I smiled while remembering that evening’s complimentary holiday dinner thanks to Eastern China Airline: a Whopper Junior Meal, no ketchup, extra mustard, with a side of Diet Coke. After a six hour delay which left all passengers stranded in the airport rather than outside watching fireworks and listening to bands rocking out on their sandy stages as the year 2016 came to a close, I was seated alongside 200 others en route to Sri Lanka.
A traveler’s dream come true, I was neither here nor there. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was gliding through the air above the Indian Ocean.
Shortly into the first hours of 2017, I stepped off the plane and lethargically passed through immigration and into Colombo airport’s main hall. Rows of connected metal chairs were set up in blocks throughout the room where arrivals meet departures, meet welcoming committees, cafe, money exchanges and bustling taxi squads. Not yet fully opening my eyes in hopes that I would soon be able to sink into an empty chair and find sleep once more, I squinted into the crowd. Two chairs were open and I calmly took one, cuddling up for a quick nap while waiting for the sky to transition into morning’s fiery gold. Around me, several awaiting passengers sat in their own metal thrones, each fast asleep. Amongst this welcoming committee less enthusiastic than any other, I fit right in.
As the room began to awaken, so did I. Tourists toting surfboards and 70-liter backpacks stuffed to the brim shuffled from money exchange to seat to exit. I stayed put while a flight from Kuwait landed, knowing Sri Lanka’s infamy amongst expats in the Gulf States and holding my breath that I might see a familiar face from days gone by. I didn’t hold it too long, and with a relaxed exhale, stood up to see what was waiting outside.
The air was already warmed from the sun and thick with humidity. Taxi drivers swarmed their prey looking to start their day off on the right foot. I continued past, trying to look confident while sneaking peaks of the airport’s perfectly manicured grounds. A covered walkway shielded me from the sun as I walked the short distance to an awaiting bus. “Colombo?” the bus driver beckoned. I nodded and followed his waving hand up the stairs. Once on board, I wrapped up in my shawl once more. As I fought to turn the rush of air blowing from each vent away from me, I wondered why a bus driver’s answer to tropical temperatures always seems to be to soak passengers in blowing air cold enough to turn even Rudolph’s nose blue.
From bus to train, I transited through Colombo to the country’s Southwesterly UNESCO World Heritage City.
Click on an image to view photos of Old Town Galle, Sri Lanka up-close:
Galle is an ancient city, a fortified diamond sitting on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Buildings of the well-preserved Old Town reflect the Portuguese and Dutch colonizations of the 16th through 18th centuries. Latticed gates, a rich mahogany, stand out against whitewashed stucco sidings. Two story structures are fashioned with perfect symmetry, with arched double-doored entries positioned between identical shuttered windows. When glances inside are allowed, open courtyards can be seen within, the home’s center as a meeting point serenaded by two layers of handcrafted balconies.
Mosques, temples, and churches are found within tight quarters of one another and religion aside, locals gather together for an elevated view at the seaside park, a green strip laying upon the fort’s upper edges. For sale within the walls are elements from across Sri Lanka. Carved elephants and woven textiles entice visitors to take home a souvenir or ten as a memory of their trip to India’s quiet little sister.
It was there I began my journey through the southern half of Sri Lanka. New Years celebrations were in full swing at the Buddhist temples. Monks roamed the streets in their neon orange robes. Women in white lit candles along the sidewalks. Children formed a single file line behind local musicians toting drums in preparation for a late-night parade.
Click on an image to view photos of a Buddhist Temple in Galle Sri Lanka celebrate New Years up-close:
Tuk tuks, graffitied trucks, bicycles and bulls kept busy at night taking their owners from place to place. The single owner of several hotels and hostels in the city offered to take me for a ride to and from Old Town on his motorbike so I could enjoy the city at a faster pace than my Crocs could walk. Loving the thrill of moving on two wheels, I squashed my curls with his extra helmet and sat sideways as a ‘proper lady should’ while enjoying the sea breeze.
I returned home a few hours later to the room I’d booked on the far side of town. After a night spent under the lace of mosquito netting and a breakfast of bread smothered in sugary jam with a side of masala chai and a sweet seeni banana, one of my favorite fruits, I walked away with a sugar buzz which would undoubtedly take hours to subside.
Click on an image to view photos of Galle, Sri Lanka’s Accommodations up-close:
From Galle, I was able to head toward another of Sri Lanka’s distinctive elements : the Stilt Fishermen. These men gather each day at different spots along the southern coast. They appear as birds dipping baited strings into the waters which they are perched high above. It is easiest to find them at dusk and at dawn, but after traveling heavily for the few days before, I’d willingly overslept my alarm clock and missed their morning ritual.
A bus traveled along the coast, and spotting a sign “Kegalle”, I eagerly climbed down. Above, stubborn clouds were rolling in, flashing lights at nearby fields. Asking them in a whisper to please, please stay away, I crossed the street and stepped onto the sand. Looking left and right, there was no sign of stilts nor fishermen. Instead, a couple was engaged in a too-cute photo shoot at the water’s edge.
Crabs the color of that morning’s sunrise crawled along waist-high boulders. I shuffled past them, keeping my sights set on the horizon. A few drops landed on my shoulders and nose as I rounded a sharp corner to reveal a hidden bay.
Click on an image to view photos of Sri Lanka’s Stilt Fishermen up-close:
A trio sat together, delighting tourists who’d easily spotted them while approaching from the opposite direction. Contrasting heavily against the glistening waters beneath their toes, their coffee skin appeared as dark as the bight’s sky which greeted me two nights before while we touched down in Sri Lanka.
I had planned an extensive itinerary to be completed in a short time, and so far had every bit of success I could’ve hoped for. There was plenty more to be seen, and as I waited for another eastward train, I watched the sky begin to clear and wondered how long this New Year’s luck would continue.