Sri Lanka has heart. I think if you asked me what I liked most about our time there, it would be that: this earnestness, this particular openness that I can only describe as heart. Very few countries seemed to open themselves up quite so willingly as Sri Lanka did for us. Everywhere we went people were curious, quick with a smile, and genuinely interested in the crazy foreigner and his Malay/Philippino/Cambodian/Thai/Something wife (Canadian?! But you’re not really Canadian?) and their big adventure in the little red Tuk Tuk.
We were peppered with questions at every turn. Police would pull us over just to chat, and then remember to check our papers, almost as an afterthought. With one policeman on each side of our tuk tuk, talking to each of us independently, the questions came in stereo. Where are you going? How long are you staying? How old are you? Same as me! Any children? No!? Finger and head wagging at me now, a big grin, Ah! Bad lover! Why did you come to Sri Lanka?
This last question was never interrogative in a hostile way; it was always asked as though they just couldn’t understand how we found out about this place, how we ended up here and not somewhere else, as though the universe conspired to keep others away from this teardrop island. The question contained a particular note of humility that was refreshing and slightly confusing, since the answer seemed so obvious. We’d say that we were here for the natural beauty, the food, the people, that we’d always wanted to come, and that we were loving it. Cue giant smiles all around, and an overt, almost perplexing gratitude, as though they were on the brink of thanking us for coming (and some actually did). A genuine concern that we were enjoying ourselves was always clear on their faces. You like the food? Are you getting enough to eat?
After an epic stay in Galle, it was time to make our way to Mirissa. We’d heard good things about the little beachside town, and it was an easy 34-kilometer drive from Galle around the southern tip of the country. Of course, this was made three times longer by random stops to take pictures and share drinks with other road warriors, also taking a break beneath the palms, listening to the surf. More smiles, more questions. You like Arrack? A cup was extended, filled with a caramel-colored liquor, and topped with Sprite. It tasted a bit like rum and palm sugar. And Sprite.
As we made our way to Mirissa, we learned an important lesson about Sri Lanka, that we should calculate our travel time based on how pretty we thought the drive might be (and, word to the wise, the drive will ALWAYS be pretty in this country) , or how many friendly locals we might encounter (rough estimate: a lot), and not necessarily how far away our destination empirically was. We always managed to underestimate both of these factors, sometimes comically so. The ride to Mirissa was no exception what with the friendly locals and the infamous (and oh so photogenic… for a price!) stilt fishermen; so when we finally rolled into town, hours later than we had guessed, we only knew one thing for sure: that there was a guesthouse called Minara and Steph’s internet research had suggested it was supposed to be quite nice.
After rambling around the back roads of Mirissa and a few trips up and down the main road, we finally found the little driveway leading up to what looked like a private residence. Behind the house was a lush garden ringed by four basic, but spotless, little bungalows. No hot water, no air conditioning, but a strong fan, a comfortable bed, and breakfast included. After some haggling about the price we decided to give it a shot and settled in for a few days of relaxing near the ocean.
The owner was an affable young man, always smiling and in some state of motion. By day he drove a blue tuk tuk, nearly the same as our own, and in the afternoon he puttered around the guesthouse, cleaning and making sure we were comfortable. If we were headed out to explore in King Tuk he first made sure that every grain of sand had been swept out of the cabin and that the windshield was spotless. If we looked thirsty a pot of tea or some lemonade appeared. If we hadn’t eaten in a while he would ask if we were hungry. After our first taste of his wife’s cooking, we quickly discovered that the correct answer to this last question was always yes.
Before arriving in Sri Lanka we had read that at a guesthouse it was a good idea to order our food at least a few hours in advance, as home cooked meals often took a long time to prepare. The reason for this was simple: everything was done from scratch and nothing was done halfway. Meals often involved five to six different dishes in addition to a massive quantity of rice and fresh fruit. Everything, right down to the curry paste, was made to order. It sounds hokey, but we really could taste the love that went into every aspect of the food. The result was spectacular, and the meals we had at Minara were some of the best we had in the country. It’s impossible to pick which meal was our favorite (not just at Minara, but in all of Sri Lanka), so spoiled for choice were we; trying to pick our favorite meal here was like trying to decide which diamond in a handful was the brightest. Inevitably during dinner each night, we would decide to extend our stay one more day, because we couldn’t bear the thought of this meal being our last. When the owner told us that they had some Russian guests who had ended up staying for three months, we were not the least surprised, merely envious.
After our first dinner we noticed loud, persistent music and chanting echoing down the lane behind the guesthouse, but didn’t think too much of it. After two years in Asia we were pretty used to random racket of all sorts; the noise usually sorted itself out quickly enough and in any case we were largely immune to all but the most intrusive sounds at this point. However, this disturbance continued well into the night and was still going strong the next morning. That day, our host explained that the village was sponsoring a “devil dance,” essentially a mass exorcism, in order to expel lingering spirits that were thought to be the cause of a particularly bad drought affecting the region. This ceremony lasted two days and was non-stop for the duration, with some sort of action happening every minute of the 48 hours allotted for the dance.
With some timidity, our host asked if we might like to go and see the dance with him. Having already heard a little about such things, we readily agreed, and it was decided that we would head over around 10:30 that evening, when things really got going. Later in the day he found us again and told us, rather excitedly, that there would also be people walking on hot coals, though he didn’t know when that would happen.
When the appointed hour arrived, we piled into our host’s tuk tuk and trundled down the road to the festivities. A sea of curious faces awaited as we pulled up. People scrambled to find us chairs and made sure we had a good view. There was a tremendously loud brass band, blasting jubilant, slightly inharmonious and nearly arrhythmic, songs into the night sky while dancers thrashed and pranced in front of a temporary shrine erected outside a local’s house. Sweat ran down their faces, soaking their white garments. A woman appeared, spoke in tongues and was wracked with spasms before being ushered away. Children cried and squirmed and everyone tried to figure out just what we were doing there and if we were enjoying the show. We had heard that it was still possible to see devil dances in Sri Lanka, but it was our understanding that much of the time the ceremonies were for the benefit of tourists. This, however, was clearly not a tourist show, and it was a confusing mixture of boring and fascinating.
Neither of us had ever really seen anything like it in our lives, and we understood virtually none of it, so we were stuck in an odd position of trying to soak in this very otherworldly situation while being utterly on the outside of what was happening in front of us. Since none of it was intended for us (and was entirely in Sinhala, one of Sri Lanka’s principle languages), much of our time was spent wondering what was happening, what would happen next, or waiting for a particularly long speech to end and the wild dancing to resume.
As the night wore on, the ceremony began to stretch out, filled with a lot of speeches and incantations we couldn’t understand. Eyelids began to droop, and we resolved to head back to our bungalow. When our host informed us that the fire-walking wouldn’t happen until nearly 4:30 a.m., Steph decided she was too tired to make the journey back on less than four hours of sleep, but I thought I could power through. Our host agreed to bring me back sometime before the fire-walking began, to make sure we didn’t miss anything. We left, glad to have seen the dancers and this highly traditional and hauntingly foreign slice of Sri Lankan life.
When our host and I returned in the wee hours of the morning, a bed of glowing coals had been laid on the ground in front of another house, the heat rising to daunting levels, even at more than six feet away. When our host had said that people would be walking on coals, I hadn’t thought he meant coals hot enough to quickly roast a large piece of meat! Small flames licked the hottest embers and beads of sweat broke out on my forehead. I looked around for the poor souls who were going to cook their feet, but they were out of sight. The coals were clearly the apex of the entire ceremony, and we wouldn’t come to the ultimate performance without some pomp and circumstance first.
Once more the enthusiastic brass band wandered around, making a huge amount of noise. Bunches of peacock feathers were waived about. A longish (seemingly quite successful) comedy routine involving props, actors dressed as water buffalo, and money being tossed on a sheet took place. Finally a procession of attendants took plates of food to the shrine, bells were rung to gain the itinerant spirits’ attention and the crowd surged over to the coals to get a good view of the spectacle.
Coconuts were smashed. Trumpets blasted and drums boomed. And, one by one, people walked, jogged, danced, or outright sprinted across the coals. Some of them went more than once. The crowd was ebullient, and they cheered often. When the bravest souls had made their walk, the music stopped, and people nervously checked their bare feet. Somewhere a rooster crowed as the sun’s first rays broke the clouds on the horizon. And just like that, everyone went home.
I’d never actually seen a fire-walking performance before, in fact I’d never really seen anything quite like what I saw that night. It was an experience I’ll never forget, not so much for the oddity, but because these utter strangers, without even really thinking about it, had opened up this part of their life to me. I’d seen something nearly no one gets to see and not once did I feel as though I wasn’t wanted. The people of Mirissa had been surprised by my presence, but they certainly welcomed me as though I had a place among them. They made room for me in the crowds surround the dancers, making sure we could see well enough to take photos. They brought chairs, and tried to explain what was happening. Whether anyone there that night truly believed that the dance would chase away the spirits or not, everyone involved poured every ounce of their heart into the spectacle and the throngs of people who came to watch did so with open fascination, and as a community they, almost without thinking, let me in and made room for me where there easily could have been none.
Sri Lanka has heart, and at its heart is its people. They unabashedly welcomed us wherever we went, offering what they could, really trying to learn about who we were and where we were from. Our host in Mirissa could have just as easily not offered to bring us to the devil dance. His wife could have kept our meals simple, shaving hours off her time in the kitchen. Any number of people we met could have simply turned away, not met our eye, not smiled, not beckoned to us. But, instead, we made friends, and were allowed into another world, even if only for a moment here and there. What was supposed to be a one-day stay in Mirissa, swiftly morphed into three, and likely would have lasted longer had there not been so much more of this beautiful country beckoning to us.
As our host’s little blue tuk tuk bumped its way over gravel roads back to our bungalow, the cool air of the morning took the sweat from the coals off my face. Smelling of smoke, sage and perspiration, I crawled into bed next to Steph, well into some dream or other, and kissed her forehead. She stirred a bit.
Was there a pig? What? A little pig, was there a little pig? I don’t think so, no. That’s too bad. It is. Goodnight, Stephy.
My heavy eyelids closed and I fell asleep, excited for what the next day would bring: another new day in Sri Lanka.