Sri Lanka in Lockdown - a tale of serendipity
Updated: Feb 18
Serendipity : a word coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, describing the heroes of a Persian tale who were 'always making discoveries, by accident or sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'.
Hundreds of year earlier, Arab traders, plying the island we know as 'Sri Lanka' for rubies and cinnamon, called it 'Serendib'.
At the time of writing, May 3, it’s now 44 days since Sri Lanka imposed a strictly-enforced COVID curfew, and I’m worried that when it eventually comes to an end I’ll have, in a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome, fallen in love with my captor.
Just to be clear, though, I haven’t found myself taken prisoner by the Sri Lankan constabulary or been body snatched by fisher folk.
above: It's the First Full Moon in May today (7th May), and my street is decorated for Vesak Poya - 3 days celebrating the Birth, Enlightenment and final passing of the Buddha
Arriving in late February after working in India since December, I’d timed my week’s break to renew my Indian visa with an invitation from friends for a long weekend by the beach. I’d be back in Jaipur before the end of the month. Easy
Deviation from Plan #1: The Road to Colombo
Now let me just say that I adore India. As a peak travel experience, the Sub-Continent set my benchmark years ago. It is the definition of exotic. A land of everything. And everything to excess. In India, more is more.
But put me in a swift AC taxi as I exit from Sri Lankas’ friendly little airport, whizz me along the smoothest road I’ve experienced for months, and suddenly, I’m on holiday, and somewhere between lowering the window to feel that moist night air brush my skin and alighting into Colombo’s cultural heart, I’ve decided that I deserve a fortnight here.
At the invitation of Sri Lanka’s luxury hotel company, Jetwing, I spend the weekend discovering the East Coast.
Decimated during the 2004 tsunami, the region has languished in the island's tourism stakes, although surfers well know Arugam Bay’s famous right-hand break and its cruisey bamboo beach shacks, but our journey reveals unexpected riches...
Buddhist ruins, more than 2000 years old, sprawling amidst jungle enclosures along quiet, barely sign-posted roads; a colonial homestead in low-lying tea hills offering rustic fare transformed into haute cuisine, and the rarely-visited Kumana National Park, which I found so much more interesting that its nearby, and more famous rival, Yala.
above: ornate ablutions within a queen's bathing precinct. Despite Sri Lanka's 2500 hundred years of written history, the details of this ruin remains obscure and conjectural.
The pearl in our oyster of weekend indulgence is ‘Jetwing Surf’, a lazy haven of sea-side living, its pavilions and bungalows inspired by conch-shells and shaped in natural materials. Just being amongst this architecture is an adventure, the dazzling cuisine a bonus.
Often inspired, and sometimes designed by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa - who gave the world 'Tropical Modernism' - Jetwing’s hotels are a collection of 40 unique properties. As the founding family who still manage the business are dedicated art lovers - it’s how we met 3 years ago - I’m thrilled to next be accompanying them ‘up station’ as they review their recently-opened 'Kandy Gallery', a boutique haven by the riverside, just 20 minutes from Kandy's bustling centre..
Home to Sri Lanka’s last kingdom before it succumbed to British rule in 1815, Kandy’s gilded pre-eminence as the jewel in the island’s cultural crown remains undisputed.
For Victorian tea planters and the generations of colonialists who followed them, the neat green hills are one of many elevated respites from impossible coastal heat, but for Sri Lankans, Kandy is the very heart of the nation’s identity, for here resides the nation’s most venerated religious relic: the Buddha’s tooth. In kingly times it was said that whosoever held this tooth, held power.
Cool tea slopes and musty temples prove irresistible, and for my second week I head to a high altitude guesthouse in the pukka Richmond Hills, all Corinthian columns and sweeping staircases - a colonial setting just begging for a Barbara Cartland novel throbbing with tropical ardour.
Above: Not recommended for luggers of heavy luggage … Richmond House In Kandy - the only way is up
Deviation from Plan #2 : India Locks Down
Meanwhile, India’s first corona cases emerge in Shekawati, just 5 hours north of Jaipur, and friends there advise me to postpone my return - the spectre of a pandemic running rife in the Pink City too horrifying to imagine.
So I engage a 3-wheeler tuk tuk driver for the week ahead (far more economical than day-by-day, and so much less argey bargey), and we contentedly trundle up and down the Kandyan hills, from one sacred site to another, slipping rupees to well-fed monks whose hands slyly extend from saffron robes before they’ll produce a key to open ancient cave temples painted in lolly colours and smelling of candle wax.
By mid-March, Sri Lanka’s first COVID patient is successfully returned to China. My 30-day visa will soon expire so I take the glorious Blue Train to Colombo, only to find everything closed, as ad hoc ‘public holidays’ are declared in an effort to keep the population off the streets while the government considers its next move.
above: Confusion plus on the platform of Kandy railway station … could I be forgiven for thinking that the famous Blue Train with its AC observation saloon would actually be... blue ?
March in Colombo is enervating. Stepping from my cool bedroom into the hallway of a lovely home designed by Geoffrey Bawa acolytes, the morning heat reaches out and wraps itself around my bare arms and legs like a panting animal breathing on my skin. Moist and threatening, the heat has a presence. It feels very alive. It takes real determination to not merely slump after breakfast and await the possibility of an afternoon sea breeze.
However, relieved to have my visa extended by a month, I begin to get my bearings in C5, Colombo’s gentrified suburb of large homes behind high walls. Now looking forward to the weeks ahead, dawn walks beneath the beautiful spreading foliage of Independence Square, coffee here, juice there … I’m secretly pleased for this opportunity to feel at home in another place in the world.
Deviation from Plan #3: Sri Lanka Locks Down
Now, just sometimes in life, synchronicity takes on a dimension so astounding, that truly, there ought to be another name for it.
My phone lights up with a message “Are you ok? I can be there in 2 hours”
Which part of this story is missing? Ah yes, the part where I return from my morning walk to discover my host in a state of panic, alarmed that the government of Sri Lanka has just announced a nation-wide curfew from 4 pm today … until further notice.
In hindsight, I realise that whilst the implications were only dawning on me, my host, who had stalwartly remained in Colombo throughout the years of civil war, knew well that having another mouth to feed through prolonged curfew was a serious liability. I had to leave.
And sure enough, by the time my bags are packed, the garage door rises on a tall, lean bloke in wrap-around sunglasses getting out of a ute. A Vision Splendid!
Instantaneously cossetted by a blanket of safety I didn’t realise I missed, I silently thank Facebook for the one-in-whatever chance that a lovely woman who had several years ago joined one of my Bali art and yoga retreats, happened to notice that I was in Sri Lanka and notified her husband there that I might need a hand.
Deviation from Plan #4 : Curfew in Kalutara
Exactly 43 km south of Colombo is North Kalutara. The bookends of my life have started, perhaps, to assemble with my arrival here. A lifetime ago I arrived on the train, which I now hear rush past every other day – the track is just 50 meters from the house where I stay. In the other direction, then, as now, groves of beachfront coconut palms strung with hammocks lean seawards, but the beach shacks are replaced by resorts nervously pampering pale Russians and sunburnt Brits in the last few days before Sri Lanka’s only airport closes.
Back then I’d arrived with a copy of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Now I’m grateful for a collection of random paperbacks well-thumbed by the Aussie miners who’ve set up a base here for an operation they’re anxious to get underway. The manager departed not long after bringing me here, leaving their three houses in my care for the last 6 weeks.
The curfew is mooted to end next week, after Vesak Poya, normally a huge celebration heralded by the May full moon to mark the birthday, enlightenment and final passing of the Buddha, but this year, a quiet suburban affair - like so many birthdays at home during COVID.
‘Adventures’ are not something one usually associates with being confined to home, but I have to confess that I’m already wondering if I really have to step outside the gate so soon. Something very special has evolved here since March 20. I’m incredibly grateful not only for a home, but a gently, distant sense of community which is still evolving here and marks for me, a very personal experience of Serendipity, that "chance occurance and development of events in a happy or beneficial way''.
I hope you enjoyed the story - and you can leave me a comment - just keep scrolling down a bit - and I'll be sure to get back to you.
If you wold like to receive my travel storis and postcards staright into your inbox, please consider subscribing to my occasional newsletters.
More Sri Lanka stories
- The Galle Literary Festival
- My Ayurvedic Retreat in Sri Lanka