Sri Lanka, Ceylon, Southern Province, Induruwa, Stilt fishermen
© Julie Hall

Back to a future

  • TEXT SASCHA BORRÉE
  • PHOTOS JULIE HALL

First civil war, then a tsunami – until recently, only fearless travelers sought out Sri Lanka. That’s changed and people are flocking to the island again. Our author went in search of its magic and discovered an urban jungle with a soul, legendary beaches and a holy mountain

Happiness, it seems, is here for the taking – the ocean so blue, the flowers such a blaze of color, the streets so clean. Glittering towers dreamed up by the world’s best architects reach for the sky. A tantalizing vision, but too good to be true. For now, at least, only a computer-generated idyll, this vision is plastered on construction site fences around Colombo. The reality is quite a different story: Sri Lanka’s city of millions stinks. It’s a sweaty, noisy, rattletrap of a place that stifles your breath. Its streets are dangerous and the weather makes you suffer – one minute the tropical sun is frying your brain, the next, a cloudburst knocks you off your feet. Tourist attractions, parks, beaches? Palaces or museums? Such things barely exist here – as yet.

Civil war raged in Sri Lanka for a bitter 26 years. Although most of the fighting took place in the north and east, the entire island seemed paralyzed, including Colombo on the west coast. Today, more than six years since the end of the war, investors are flocking to the city. Tourists are also returning to Sri Lanka, their number nearly four times that in 2009. Most still give the unlovely urban sprawl that is Colombo a wide berth, but this is set to change. On Galle Road, just steps from the Indian Ocean, hotel tower blocks are taking shape, and there’s an entire new neighborhood planned next door – an ambitious, classy, ultramodern development project built on land to be reclaimed from the ocean.

The mood on the art scene is also euphoric at present. “We are seeing collectors and curators coming in from all over the world,” says Saskia Fernando, 33, whose art gallery shares her name. Its snow-white walls display works vaguely reminiscent of Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí: surreal, opulent, brilliantly colored. And yet, a sense of identity grounded somewhere between India and the South Seas is already apparent. “For the first time in Sri Lanka, artists are able to make a living from their work,” says Fernando. “When I set up my gallery six years ago, that was unthinkable.”

How does she envision the future? “Sometimes I am concerned for our soul,” she replies. “Construction is in progress everywhere – at the expense of our environment, culture and tradition. But of course we urgently need development, tourism, jobs. And mostly I do feel positive because the soul of Sri Lanka is its people. They are so amazing, so irrepressible.” Later on, wandering through the city, I begin to understand what she meant. No matter how crowded, noisy or down-at-heel Colombo is, people smile at you as though their life depended on it; almost as if they had decided to be the happiest people on earth in spite of everything.

Galle: old splendor, new money

 The man about to take the plunge could almost be Bob Marley’s son: broad grin, dark skin, black dreads. The water lies 15, maybe 20 meters below us. He wants to dive in? “No problem, mister,” says Asanka, 26, “it’s my job.”

I’m in Galle, once Sri Lanka’s largest port. I made the journey by express train; it took us nearly three hours to cover a stretch of coastline slightly more than 100 kilometers long, the doors wide open as we headed south. If Colombo is the island’s present and future, Galle represents its past. Just outside the actual city, there’s a fort, which was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later added to by the Dutch and the British. With ocean on three sides and mighty walls and towers to shield it, Galle Fort was long considered invincible.

Asanka is now standing on one of these towers. He takes a running jump, flies, swoops down with back straight, arms stretched wide and is received by the ocean below. He disappears beneath the surface and the next moment, is standing – the water only reaches to his hips. “I’ve been doing that since I was 15,” he tells me, after climbing back up the wall, “just for fun to start with, along with my friends. Now I do it for tourists, for money, as a job.”

There are 400 ancient houses behind these high walls. Living here, until recently, was like inhabiting an enchanted world. Then along came the foreigners, who bought the weathered colonial buildings, fixed them up, and either moved in themselves or turned them into luxury hotels. When Sri Lanka’s first highway was built between Galle and Colombo, the city’s elite discovered the fort for themselves. Actors now live here, and sports stars, including cricket legend Kumar Sangakkara.

Has the fort lost its magic? Anything but! The intersection of Lighthouse Street and Pedlar Street is teeming with tourists, backpackers climbing out of tuk-tuks, and expensive restaurants, souvenir and gemstone stores line the streets. But further on, I encounter some elderly women in colorful saris. Boys in white stand outside the large Koran school, while Buddhist monks in orange robes stroll high up on the city wall. From inside a primary school, I hear the voices of dozens of exuberant children, drowned out only by the spine-chilling call of a huge peacock perched on the roof next door. Oh yes, there’s life in the old fort yet.

Peace reigns supreme in the verdant highlands

Peace reigns supreme in the verdant highlands

© Julie Hall
Noise, sweat, stink: Colombo is not beautiful, but plans exist to turn it into a futuristic city

Noise, sweat, stink: Colombo is not beautiful, but plans exist to turn it into a futuristic city

© Julie Hall
Life in Colombo: vegetables on every street corner

Life in Colombo: vegetables on every street corner

© Julie Hall
An artisan making masks

An artisan making masks

© Julie Hall
Saskia Fernando runs Colombo’s first international art gallery

Saskia Fernando runs Colombo’s first international art gallery

© Julie Hall
Buddhism has informed Sri Lanka for more than 2200 years

Buddhism has informed Sri Lanka for more than 2200 years

© Julie Hall
Asanka used to dive for fun off the mighty walls of Galle Fort …

Asanka used to dive for fun off the mighty walls of Galle Fort …

© Julie Hall
… but today, tourists pay to watch him perform his spectacular feats

… but today, tourists pay to watch him perform his spectacular feats

© Julie Hall
Two of Galle Fort’s most famous buildings: the old lighthouse and the snow-white Koran school; 400 historical buildings have stood the test of time within the fortress walls

Two of Galle Fort’s most famous buildings: the old lighthouse and the snow-white Koran school; 400 historical buildings have stood the test of time within the fortress walls

© Julie Hall
Irfan and Irsah plan to open a surf school in Arugam Bay

Irfan and Irsah plan to open a surf school in Arugam Bay

© Julie Hall
Fishermen haul a boat onto the beach in the early morning

Fishermen haul a boat onto the beach in the early morning

© Julie Hall
Prayer flags await pilgrims at the top

Prayer flags await pilgrims at the top

© Julie Hall
A walk in the dark, then a glorious sunrise. Equally impressive: the Buddhist ceremonies celebrated by monks and pilgrims on Sri Pada mountain

A walk in the dark, then a glorious sunrise. Equally impressive: the Buddhist ceremonies celebrated by monks and pilgrims on Sri Pada mountain

© Julie Hall
Arugam Bay: potheads, surfers and a great dream

 Exploring the real Sri Lanka is best done by bus. What you should know: Buses never use their brakes, and love to overtake. Rock-hard benches, diesel engines that sound like tractors and a Bollywood-style soundtrack are all part of the trip to Arugam Bay. It’s a genuine experience and takes ten hours.

A two-kilometer stretch of street lined with huts, houses and small hotels: This is the east coast’s legendary surf spot. West of the place also known as “A-Bay,” peacocks strut across paddy fields, and further south, elephants lumber through the wilderness. I arrive with a headache, a backache and hurting ears: I need a beer. The Siam View Hotel, owned by A-Bay veteran Fred Netzband-­Miller, 65, serves the best beer, I am told. “I came here in the seventies, to smoke pot and surf,” says the Dutchman. “Then I met a ­local woman. She said there’d be nothing happening between us unless I married her first. So I did – ten days later.”

We are on the roof of his hotel, on the Flower Power Terrace. Over a beer – homemade and excellent, by the way – Fred talks about the wild days in A-Bay – and about the civil war, the battles that raged on other beaches not far from here. Surfers still came to A-Bay, though – for the spectacular waves – if necessary even traveling through the region occupied by the rebel Tamil Tigers. Fred also experienced and survived the 2004 tsunami in A-Bay: “I was up here, partying with my staff. All of a sudden, there was salt water sloshing into my gin and tonic. Absolutely unacceptable!” Then the easy smile he has worn until now disappears. “But seriously, you know: The party saved our lives.”

Others were not so fortunate: Up to 38 000 Sri Lankans lost their lives in the tsunami, among them the father of Irsah and Irfan. On the beach in the morning, I meet the 25-year-old twins, who work as surf instructors and fishermen today. “We were 14,” Irfan says, “and had to quit school because our mother had no money.” Today, they are short of cash again; this time to fullfill the great dream they share. Irsah points to a structure at the top of the beach with no walls, but a large roof about 14 to 15 square meters in area, made of palm leaves and supported by tree trunks. “That’s going to be our surf school,” Irsah tells me, “as soon as we have a few spare rupees, we’ll carry on building, buy some second-hand boards. And then we’ll really make a splash – you’ll see!”

Shop, climb, pray: The road to Sri Pada, here reaching for the heavens on the horizon, is flanked by souvenir stalls

Shop, climb, pray: The road to Sri Pada, here reaching for the heavens on the horizon, is flanked by souvenir stalls

© Julie Hall
Sri Pada: steps to the stars

 The stars are signposts to heaven. But no, they’re not stars at all – my first impression deceived me: Behind a string of lights shimmering like pearls rises the dark silhouette of a pyramide-shaped mountain: Sri Pada, aka Adam’s Peak. Roughly 5500 steps lead up to its 2243-meter summit. I want to climb it. Why? Nimal, 43, owner of the hotel where I’m staying, has told me the mountain’s secret. “If you climb it regularly, you will live ten years longer.” He himself has been up there 1500 times, and he really does look quite youthful for his age.

Like most people on the same mission, I set out just before 2 am so that I can reach the top before sunrise. Sri Pada, in the highlands of Sri Lanka, is the spiritual heart of the island. The Buddhists, who make up the great majority of the population, claim that Buddha left a footprint almost two meters long at the top. Not so, say the Hindus: It was Shiva. Muslims ascribe the footprint to Adam, Christians to Thomas, the Apostle. The mountain is sacred to everyone, and together they drag themselves to the top. But if you expect to find a special, spiritual atmosphere there, you will be disappointed at first. We walk for half an hour past vendors’ stalls packed with sweets, soft toys and figures of deities before we enter the dense undergrowth. The starlit path now begins to rise steeply. The entire country seems to be on the move: boys leaping up the steps, like almost everyone else here in flip-flops or simply barefoot; whole families resting beside the path or huddled close in sleep, and men actually carrying their grandmothers – wrinkled bundles of skin and bone – piggyback. A few steps, a pause, a deep breath and then onwards and upwards.

I make it to the summit at around five o’clock. Shoes off and into the temple I walk amid the throng of pilgrims. I turn my eyes east, to where the pale sky is turning a deep red. A little old woman beside me folds her hands, smiles rapturously, and then flits through the crowd in search of a spot with a clear view of the sun. Maybe she’d like to sit on my shoulders? I point to my back, crouch down. She gives me a bashful look, giggles like a little girl and then bursts out laughing. The climb has been worth it, if only to hear her beautiful, easy laugh.

All I have left to investigate now is the footprint. Who really made it, I wonder? That particular question remains an open one. Worship is permitted, but on no account may you look directly at the footprint, which is covered by a cloth and closely guarded by monks to make sure it stays that way. The mountain evidently prefers to keep some of its secrets to itself.