Mirissa: Finding Sri Lanka’s Heart on the Southern Coast

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...

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.

Minara guest house, Sri Lanka
Minara guest house, Sri Lanka

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.

Just across the street from our guesthouse
Just across the street from our guesthouse
Mirissa, Sri Lanka

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.

At a Sri Lankan Devil Dance

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.

At a Sri Lankan Devil Dance

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.

At a Sri Lankan Devil Dance

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.

Our host and his family
Our host and his family

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 morning would bring: another new day in Sri Lanka.

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23 comments Leave a comment

  1. wow.. what an absolutely amazing experience and how blessed for you to be able to appreciate it, even while having very little idea what it was all about. Those little peaks behind the tourist curtain and into the real culture of a place are so often totally unexpected. I just can’t wait to go to Sri Lanka!

    Jul. 28 2014 @ 5:47 pm
    1. Rhonda author

      Sri Lanka is an amazing place, that’s for sure! The best parts of traveling are always those glimpses behind the curtain, when you really get to see what the locals see, and do it just as they do. It’s a rare thing anymore, but I’ll always be grateful for the chance!

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 3:06 pm
  2. Yay! Now THIS is more like it… Thankfully they didn’t decide to exorcise the “White Devil”… that would’ve been HEE-LAR-EEE-US. I’m picturing the tuk-tuk pulling up, the whole crowd growing deathly silent, until one little boy points and then EVERYONE points… sigh. I think I’ve been watching too many movies… Great post, Tony!

    Jul. 28 2014 @ 8:52 pm
    1. James author

      Thanks James! Yeah, you’ve definitely seen too many movies. But, who knows what they were saying up there, could have been anything. We did leave the day after, so maybe it worked ? 🙂

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 3:08 pm
  3. such a great story! It makes me want to jump on a plane and get down there. Wonder how many hours from Goa anyways… and how funny that the fisherman wanted paid 🙂 I would totally pay for a shot like that though! Amazing.

    Jul. 29 2014 @ 12:46 am
    1. Rachel of Hippie in Heels author

      Thanks! Looking back at our pictures makes me want to jump on that plane with you! We really miss it. Sadly it seems as though most of the stilt fisherman pretty much only work for pay, and not to catch fish anymore. They have a handler who prowls the beach and haggles over the cost of a shot. Not all that wonderful really, but very photogenic.

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 3:09 pm
  4. What an amazing opportunity – such serendipity that you arrived in town on just the night the procession moved into town. As always, the photos are fantastic with such vivid colors and the focus is always spot on, especially when you focus on more than just the main event.

    Each post you guys put up about Sri Lanka moves it further and further towards the top of our “Someday” list. Really glad to be able to experience it vicariously as we had never really considered it for our current trip.

    Jul. 29 2014 @ 4:21 am
    1. Tyler author

      Thanks Tyler! Sri Lanka has always been high on our list, especially for Steph. I’m so glad we got the chance to go. And, honestly, on this trip most of our favorite places have been places we never planned on visiting, so I definitely recommend staying flexible with your list of potential places to visit!

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 3:13 pm
  5. Ahhh so THIS is where the stilt fishermen are!!! Good to know for next time… yes, very photogenic.

    Which brings me to a point; your pictures are always beautiful!! The colours especially… they’re vivid and striking 🙂

    Jul. 29 2014 @ 8:17 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Thanks so much! We didn’t really see those guys anywhere else, so I guess the route we took is a popular tourist path or something, because, as I said above, these guys were definitely fishing… for rupees.

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 3:15 pm
  6. Stories like this one make me regret not going to Sri Lanka (not yet at least). I love hearing and reading about stories related with the local culture of a country, for me those are the ones that really make travelling something special.
    Now I just want to book a flight to Sri Lanka.

    Jul. 30 2014 @ 3:28 am
    1. Franca author

      It’s really the best, plus cheap, delicious vegetarian food is everywhere, so I know you and Dale would love it. I hope you guys get the chance to go one day!

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 3:17 pm
  7. Wow, this is awesome! What a privelige to be able to witness such a significant event for that local community. It’s so cool that the community welcomed you so warmly too. No wonder people don’t want to leave!

    Jul. 30 2014 @ 7:04 am
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      Yeah, Sir Lanka was a hard place to leave. The people, the beauty and the food just kept drawing us in everywhere we went. It’s an easy place to spend a lot of time, that’s for sure.

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 3:19 pm
  8. Love your photos! The curiosity of those policemen (and people in general there) remind me of Filipinos, except that we would never think of stopping you just to ask you questions haha Never been to Sri Lanka. Am hoping I can go this year.

    Jul. 30 2014 @ 8:32 am
    1. Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com author

      You’re right, Sri Lankans did remind of of Filipinos quite a bit, especially since Filipinos did stop to ask us questions all the time! (except why we came, I think they knew as well as we did why we came – it’s beautiful and the people are great!) Both very open and welcoming cultures, and we did think Sri Lanka reminded us of the Philippines in some ways! I hope you get to go, I know you would have a great time!

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 4:42 pm
  9. How amazing that you managed to see that devil dance; it’s always the random events like these that you didn’t even plan on seeing which turn out to be the most interesting I find. Beautiful pictures, the food looks amazing too 🙂

    Jul. 30 2014 @ 12:05 pm
    1. Amy author

      Thanks! It really was amazing, and it was a total coincidence. I don’t know if we would have felt comfortable showing up on our own, not because of the people, but because we would have felt like we were intruding. We love stumbling into things like this, it’s what makes travel so addictive!

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 4:43 pm
  10. What an amazing experience! That’s fantastic you got to witness something like that and you could share it with us! I’m glad you were able to stay awake for the coal walking!

    Jul. 31 2014 @ 2:30 pm
    1. Lauren author

      It wasn’t easy staying awake that long, I was dragging pretty bad by the end of it, but it was so worth it, and I’m really glad some of my photos turned out well enough so that I could share it with you!

      Jul. 31 2014 @ 4:44 pm
  11. What a fantastic experience you guys. You were so lucky to be able to see this ceremony, and of walking on hot coals too. That is so (excuse the pun), cool!

    Aug. 9 2014 @ 5:51 am
    1. Victoria author

      Thanks! We were really lucky, but the people made it so easy to feel included and a part of what they were doing. Sri Lanka wouldn’t be half as good if the people weren’t so remarkable!

      Aug. 15 2014 @ 1:28 pm
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