MIRISSA, SRI LANKA — I was shuffling my way along a south coast beach at dusk, kicking up sand and ruminating over love found-then-lost-then-found back in Canada, when I nearly collided with four figures hunched in the dark. Three were human, silent and still. The other bucked and flapped. As my eyes adjusted, a scene of veneration took shape before me: the trio was genuflecting to a giant sea turtle at a shore-side alter. It was laying eggs.
“I’ve been travelling all over Asia, searching for a mama turtle giving birth in the wild,” a woman in the group whispered to me in a French accent. “This is the first time I’ve found her.”
Together, we watched as the turtle pushed and then paused and panted against the beat of the crashing waves. It rested its chin on a ledge above the deep muddy hole it had dug out to deliver its eggs. The other bystanders were transfixed, but the young woman was anxious. She explained to me that after securing its nest, the turtle would look to the moon as its guide back into the Indian Ocean.
“But those lights over there could disorient her,” she told me, pointing at beams streaming from a humble beachfront eatery.
With that information, the solution became obvious. Once the turtle patted the sand down over its trove, the woman and I stood up synchronously, locking our bodies into a shield that shadowed over the light casting a false path.
We, two strangers, never even exchanging names, shared a euphoric trance as the creature flippered back into the sea. Overhead, galaxies of stars seemed to sparkle in rhythm with our rejoicing; we twirled and the world turned around us and we bonded in that simple moment. “Thank you,” she said to me. “Thank you,” I said back.
From the first evening I arrived in Sri Lanka, I’ve met random people and made genuine connections in an instant. At a guesthouse in Negombo, a town just north of the capital Colombo, I’m about to turn in for bed when the owner plainly states that tomorrow I must wake up at 9, eat his homemade breakfast by 10 and then go by tuk-tuk to the closest train station, departing for my next destination at 11. He wants me to get all the things I need out of my holiday, after all. I chuckle inwardly: “In Sri Lanka, you don’t choose vacation, vacation chooses you.”
Above: Sri Lanka is an emerging country but transportation methods are still evolving.
I have flown to this sublime island nation south of India from Hong Kong, where I’ve been living and working as a journalist for two years. It’s been a struggle to build my second life a world away from the love of my family and friends, but solo travel has never failed to deliver to me raw human goodness to restore my depleted spirit. I’ve longed to visit Sri Lanka, first named Ceylon by its British colonizers, since a fellow traveller elsewhere in Southeast Asia once regaled me with tales about circumnavigating it by sailboat.
One friend told me it’s “the new Thailand.” Another exclaimed it’s on his Top 10 list of favourite countries. Such sensational reviews stand in contrast to a nation embroiled in bloody civil war for 26 years that only concluded in 2009. I’m honestly not sure what I’ll encounter and anticipate a tourism industry in its infancy; that turns out to be true but the stirling appraisals prove true, too.
A local researcher, who, unbidden, gives up his prime train seat to me so I can optimally view luscious green landscapes bursting with tea plantations, tells me there’s been rapid development over the past decade. Fewer than half a million tourists visited in 2009, but closer to two million tourists arrived in 2015. Almost 40,000 Canadians were among them that year, placing 10th on a list of origin countries (travellers from India, China, the United Kingdom and Germany took the lead), said Sashika Weerasuriya, with the University of Kelaniya, who works with Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority.
The sunshine is broiling my bare knees as I press my arms around the waist of a tall young man chauffeuring us by motorbike on a three-hour journey northbound toward a giant, sacred rock. We have only met the night before, our paths fusing on the stairs at a diner in Kandy, the country’s cultural capital, for a late-night bite of chicken kottu roti.
“I noticed you earlier today walking in the street,” he told me with the grin of a Cheshire cat.
“It looks like you’re joining me for dinner,” I flirted back.
Above: Sri Lanka is a country of treasured temples and stunning landscape. No wonder it's become so popular in recent years.
We fall into lockstep again during a punishing climb up Pidurangala Rock, an untarnished monolith formed by volcanic activity now taken care of by monks. Foolishly, distracted by our blossoming attraction, we have neglected to buy bottled water. So he offers me parched kisses for the illusion of moisture as we scramble up lopsided steps and then mammoth boulders. Stray dogs scamper over to lick our sweat-drenched legs after we pass a 10-metre reclining Buddha nestled in the rock face. Finally atop the summit, we survey the jungles below in awe. We are completely alone and the only sounds are the electric buzz of insects and heave of our breaths. It feels like we’re in the prehistoric ages, overlooking lands unspoiled by human touch. Our personalities have been stripped bare by the shared exertion; we, only newfound friends, have conquered this rock together. We absorb the panorama and each other, unencumbered.
As the gem dealer fastens the bracelet’s delicate gold clasp around my right wrist, I close my eyes to feel the weight of five blue sapphires against my skin. The precious rock is Sri Lanka’s national gemstone; the storm-coloured bauble in Kate Middleton’s engagement ring (worn by Princess Diana, before her) was apparently unearthed here. I have spent more than two hours watching a film on the mining process, quizzing the dealer about sustainable and safe working conditions, and inspecting the dazzling array of jewellery in his upscale showroom. I regard an Eastern European couple and businessmen from Mainland China, all engrossed in their own treasure hunt. Many of the pieces have been crafted in this building by hand.
Above: The rapidly developing capital city of Colombo at dusk. It's an ancient city with a modern skyline.
I keep a poker face but already know I’m about to purchase the most expensive keepsake of my life.
“I lost a special gold bracelet given to me by my mother in Canada,” I tell the dealer, casting my eyes downward and thinking about how she would have loved to share this experience with me. “And I snagged and broke the one she gave me to replace it.” We both understand the transactional nature of our relationship, but with over a decade in this business and a desire to gain more than money from his work, he nurtures my emotions: “You can wear it every day,” he says kindly.
Zooming away from the store on my suitor’s motorbike, I shout into his ear against our helmets and the wind.
“To me, this bracelet represents self-love and self-compassion,” I announce, really just conveying the message to myself.
“If I can fully love myself, then I am liberated to fully love others — no matter who they are. And that only amounts to more love for everyone.”
Like the breathtaking sapphires linked by gold threading in my new bangle, every real moment I share with another person can be an occasion of life-affirming connection.
“We’re all just silly, stupid humans stumbling around this ridiculous planet in need of acknowledgment, and understanding, and love,” I continue, gushing woo-woo clichés but meaning them. “We all need the same things at our core.”
In Sri Lanka, those things are easy to find.