After Komari, the highway moved inland and we were treated to a beautiful landscape of lush, green paddy fields. The afternoon light was particularly beautiful, but it doesn’t seem possible to capture the beauty of this flat landscape with the small camera I travel with. I decided then and there to etch the scenery into my mental memory bank so that I could recall it without ever having to turn on a computer.
Just as we approached the small town of Pottuvil, at the entrance to Arugam Bay, we noticed some colourful dome-shaped buildings to the right of the highway. They were the strangest building we had seen in Sri Lanka but with gardens and laundry lines around them, I quickly figured out they must be tsunami relief housing, but very different from the other homes we have seen elsewhere.
Manjula wanted to stop and take a closer look, and I was only too happy to do so. Not all of the homes appeared to be lived in. Perhaps they were too far from the ocean, or too weird for people to accept. One will never know. I imagine the design was someone’s idea of a safe structure where waves can wash away metal roofs and flatten walls standing in defiance of the water. I was reminded of the hobbit homes in ‘Lord of The Rings’; perhaps it was the movie that inspired the design.
At the far end of Pottuvil, we crossed a large new bridge over the entrance to a lagoon. The sandy curved beach lay before us, and inviting place to stay for a night or two, if we found a hotel to our liking. We stopped at the first large resort, the Stardust Beach Hotel and were underwhelmed to say the least. The Lonely Planet described it as ‘not the friendliest place to stay’ and we second that notion. We drove on to the Hideway, the LP’s ‘Our Pick’ and found a warm reception and a cool room.
The Hideway is owned by a Sri Lankan family that grew tea near Bandarawela, for over 50 years, and invested in the property at Arugam over thirty years ago. It is managed by a tall gentleman named Christopher, who later told me that he had a German grandparent. He mentioned that he is from a group known in Sri Lanka as the ‘Burghers’. These people are Eurasian, primarily descendants of the Portuguese, Dutch and British traders who lived in Sri Lanka in times past. As Sri Lankan nationalism grew, many of these mixed-race people emigrated to Australia and Canada. Indeed, we have good friends in Edmonton by the name of De Silva, one of the common ‘Burgher’ names of Portuguese origin.
The Hideaway was a perfect place for us to wile away a couple of days at the end of our swing through the ancient cities and the east coast. There are plenty of guesthouses and funky restaurants, but this is the low season for tourism. During the months of April to September, surfers are drawn to the best surf in Sri Lanka just off the point at the south end of the bay. The beach is not particularly safe for swimming, so we didn’t venture into the water, but instead took kilometres-long walks up and around the point where we found the beaches virtually deserted.
Manjula was great company on these long walks, and we were happy to give him a break from the long hours of driving over rough roads and busy towns. He encouraged us to get up really early and join him on the beach for sunrise, but somehow we just weren’t ‘up’ for it. He told us that he jogged all the way to the next village and back, but was surprised how difficult it was to run on the sand. We met him at 7:00am the second morning and enjoyed another long, lazy walk around the point.
When we returned, the fishermen were unloading their boats on the main beach and ox carts were arriving to haul the catch into the Pottuvil market. I regretted not bringing my camera along that morning, there were some great opportunities for interesting pictures, but it’s another scene I will just have to commit to memory.
We returned from our walk to eat breakfast, pack and say goodbye to Sharon, the daughter of the owners of the Hideway. The previous evening we had chatted with her and learned that she had just arrived in Arugam Bay after making the decision to leave her previous life in San Francisco and return to Sri Lanka to manage the Hideaway. She has lived abroad for many, many years travelling with her engineer husband who worked on the Canada-France-Hawaii radio telescope project in Hawaii.
By chance, we knew exactly what she was referring to because our interest in telescopes had been sparked by our visit to an observatory in La Serena, Chile last year and then we had attended a showing of a film in Victoria, by a French researcher. He had taken footage mainly in Hawaii at the same location where Sharon’s husband worked. Of course, she knew of La Serena and the telescopes associated with the University of Victoria. She mentioned the name of the French filmmaker, and of course she was dead on. What a small, small world.
Sharon was very curious about our travelling lifestyle and the fact that we had ‘chucked it all’ and were living the life we had dreamed of for years. She later told us that we inspired her to carry on with her dream of bringing the Hideway back to life now that the war was over and it appeared that tourists like ourselves would at long last be able to visit areas that were formerly off limits to visitors. We exchanged email addresses and I truly hope to keep in touch and find out how she manages. Fortunately, her husband appears to support her wish to come home to Sri Lanka, he too has roots on the island, and will be ‘coming’ home as well. We wish them both the best of luck.
We could have easily stayed longer in Arugam Bay, but it was time to get Manjula back to his wife and family. He was married only last February and has not yet reached his first anniversary. He and his wife Situ are expecting a daughter in April and it wasn’t the best time for him to be away for so long. Still, he left his police job to work with the tourists and he was happy to have a long-term hire, the first time he has had such a trip. He was in new places in Sri Lanka and is now in an even better position to show foreigners around.
His English is excellent, he’s a warm and friendly young man, and there’s a shyness about him that is very endearing. We count ourselves lucky to have spent the past nine days touring the country with such a capable driver; we would recommend him to anyone who comes. I will even go as far as to list his mobile number here (071-435-7799). If his number changes, I’m sure he could be located in Ella, it’s such a small village and his father is a well-known building contractor.