2012: A Trincomalee Odyssey

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who shaped the modern genre of science fiction as we know it and gave us the landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey, loved Sri Lanka and finally moved to this serendipitous island. Why?? A picture is worth a thousand words.

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Briefly Bentota

As soon as my husband and I realized that even a two-day weekend is enough for an out-of-town trip in Sri Lanka, we started going through Tripadvisor reviews of hotels in the beachside town of Bentota and ended up reserving a suite at the Taj Vivanta in Bentota. (We’re not usually this fancy but felt we deserved a special treat after the whole hectic move and whatnot.)

I was keen on taking the train  – it was supposed to be a beautiful coastal journey by rail and I didn’t want to miss it snoozing in a hotel car. The Sri Lankan Railways website is fairly helpful, and so is The Man in Seat Sixty-One’s lucid explanation of the country’s railway system.

We made our way to the Colombo Fort station early Saturday morning, bought the tickets for LKR 190 each (less than US$ 2) and hopped onto the second-unreserved compartment. This was the first time my husband was getting into an unreserved compartment and he had the hunted look of a cub being forced to make its own way through the big, bad jungle! As it turned out, we didn’t get seats and had to settle down, bag and baggage, next to the open door of the compartment. It wasn’t too bad – pleasant breeze, coastal views and barely a 2.5-hour journey. The only major downside: your butt goes numb after the first half-hour and it take some serious walking to get nerve sensation back!

From the postage-stamp-sized Bentota station to the Taj Vivanta is a five-minute walk. On the way we passed the highly recommended Malli’s Seafood Restaurant (where we were unable to have a meal – not enough time!) and the budget-hotel Wunderbar Beach Club.

The oasis-like pool at the Taj Vivanta.

The Taj Vivanta is a lovely property, the perfect luxury beach hotel: bright and colourful, yet tasteful; laidback and serene, yet attentive; casual and fun, yet mellow. The beach right next to the hotel is practically private, with only hotel guests lounging about on the clean sand.

The beach by the Taj Vivanta.

We devoured the divine seafood at the outdoor SHACK – wonderful service, a good wine list, and live music. We had crabs, prawns, and calamari – freshly and sumptuously prepared with light, flavourful dressing – and washed our meal down with a Californian Chardonnay.

Selecting fresh seafood at Shack.

The next day we ventured to the Bentota river and found ourselves a little shop offering equipment and guides for various activities on the river. My husband, a keen fisherman, had brought along his prized fishing rod, so off we went on a little speedboat with a sunbeaten, utterly friendly fisherman. Prices were a bit steep compared to other services (US$ 60 for 2.5-3 hours of fishing), but perhaps this is the one area in which the residents can make good money considering how many water-sports and fishing enthusiasts come to Bentota all year round. The fishing expedition proved successful, with plenty of jackfish ending up in a red bucket on our boat. Afterwards, we took a quick round of the deep, dark, and mysterious river mangrove forests.

The Bentota river winds its way to the sea.

However, my absolute favourite part of the trip, the one that will make me revisit Bentota again and again, was our visit to Brief Garden. Lonely Planet calls it a “barely controlled riot of a Jungle Book garden”, and I really cannot think of a better way of putting it. Brief Garden was the home of Bevis Bawa, brother of famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. The home and the gardens are both equally Xanadu-like, with exotic sculptures, bric-a-brac, artwork, and flora and fauna. The hallways are filled with paintings, many of which contain humorous limericks about Bevis and his friends. We arrived too late for lunch, but if you call ahead, they lay out a meal in the garden for you – something I am really looking forward to for my next visit. The trip takes about 30-40 minutes each way in a tuk-tuk from the main town – the (often unpaved) road is absolutely deserted though and passes through tricky marshland and dense jungle, so take a cab if you tend to get jumpy in foreign lands! Entry tickets are LKR 1,000 (approx. US$ 10). The pictures don’t come close to doing the wilderness and secrecy of Brief Garden justice – it’s something you’ll have to see for yourself.

The entrance to Brief Garden.

Bevis Bawa's very own paradise.

A hobbit-hole in Bentota...?

All in all, we managed to pack a lot into a brief weekend trip. Next time, we hope to spend more time in Bentota, catch a meal and explore the house in Brief Garden, and try our hand at a couple of water-sports along with the inevitable fishing trip!

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Barefoot in Colombo

Just another day in paradise

As I sit here in Barefoot Garden Café, I am happy to be in Colombo. Is the place a tad pretentious and slightly overpriced by Colombo standards? Yes it is, no doubt about it. But it’s also completely and utterly delightful: scattered wooden chairs and tables, plenty of potted plants, tall trees growing in between stone tiles, dappled sunlight falling through large tropical leaves, brightly striped tablecloths, eye-catching canvases hung on walls, a bloom-laden hibiscus tree hanging over a small green pond, and a general sense of space and calm….

Yet, it isn’t all bright and sparkly. Faded, broken wooden and stone statues dot the perimeters of the café courtyard, old-world wooden chests and cabinets line the corridor, and the shingled roofs are heavy with fallen leaves. The new and colourful meets the old and slightly ruined: the overall effect is charming. Mellow strains of music (mostly an instrumental blend of local and Western influences, with an occasional Enya number thrown in) play in the background, while constant chatter fills the air.

There’s a mix of the usual suspects sitting at the tables: groups of expat catching up over a late lunch, Colombo’s well-heeled out for coffee, bookworms sitting with a novel and a smoothie, and those like myself – armed with a laptop and enjoying a quick bite while working on something or the other. The café has free Wi-Fi for customers, which makes life for us Internet junkies so much more convenient.

The service is unexceptional – a few waiters are friendly and smiling, others appear rushed and not particularly eager to take orders. Westerners do get quicker service and wider smiles – perhaps an inevitable result of sizable tips in dollars compared with tips in local currency. However, this is certainly not limited to Barefoot Café or even to Colombo – nearly all tourist-heavy destinations in the subcontinent are characterised by a distinct preference for Western customers. (If you’ve been to Pushkar, Old Manali or the northern beaches of Goa, chances are you’ve come across this already.) Call it racist or economically expedient – there’s no escaping it!

The menu is a single-page affair, and not particularly inspiring: there are plenty of beverages, but the food options are limited. Pick from a couple of sandwiches, salads, and side orders like potato wedges or falafel with pita bread; all food items on the menu are in the range of LKR 200-700. A cup of (excellent) cappuccino is for LKR 300, while the fresh juices and milkshakes are priced between LKR 280-400. Make sure to check the daily specials if you’re going for a meal. Some of the dishes are delicious albeit pricey. I highly recommend the grilled prawns with rice! The desserts are all between LKR 400-500. (Please note, all menu prices are inclusive of 10% service charge and government taxes.)

The café is entirely open air, so there’s no air-conditioning. However, the sea breeze and the shade of the trees ensure that it’s nearly always pleasant, even on a hot summer day like today.

Adjoining is the large Barefoot store, which, amongst other things, stocks a collection of select titles. There are plenty of Michael Ondaatje’s novels – Sri Lanka’s favourite home-grown, English-language author, settled in Canada for the last several years. There is also a huge range of funky local handicraft items, including furniture, toys, and home décor items. The pricing is inconsistent and a little difficult to comprehend: I picked up a beautiful pen-stand cleverly created out of old newspapers and splashed with pleasing shades of green for LKR 200 (something a Delhi boutique shop would charge at least thrice as much for); on the other hand, a painted mug is inexplicably priced at a LKR 2000.

There’s also a small art gallery that’s accessible through the café courtyard. You can browse through the painting at leisure – and don’t forget to sign the guest book on your way out!

As I watch the water lilies swaying in their big stone pots and sip my coffee, I am filled with a strange sense of nostalgia and possibility, all scrunched together. I now have a phrase to assign to this feeling: “barefoot in Colombo”.

Who can say where the road goes, where the day flows, only time.

And so it is.

My first glimpse of Sri Lanka was from the aircraft. Having forgotten to carry a book amidst all the hustle-bustle of carrying and checking in multiple bags, I was on my third perusal of the surprisingly well-written JetWings magazine when I happened to look out at the exact moment the plane was flying over the little strip of ocean between India and Sri Lanka. It’s an amazing sight – one I haven’t been lucky enough to see before: bright blue ocean meets vibrant green land. It’s all very Google-maps, except it’s actually right under you!

What struck me right away (and I venture to say that it’s probably what strikes most folks) about Sri Lanka was the green. From the plane, the island is a mass of tree tops and dense foliage. Once you land at Bandaranaike International Airport and drive out, the island seems to be bursting with trees and plants. Even if you come from a fairly green city, chances are the tropical, singing, shining greenery will take your breath away.

Colombo, despite being the commercial capital, is densely covered with palms and banyans and banana trees and all manner of beautiful coastal flora and fauna. The best part is that it rains every few days so there’s never enough time for the trees to start looking dusty and stooped; everything is constantly rejuvenated.

The fact that most Sri Lankans are friendly and generous with their smiles made me feel even better about my new home. Resplendent Serendip, I look forward to getting to know you better!