Saturday, November 30, 2013

biking, snarling dogs, and food at the bus station

Yesterday morning we borrowed two bikes from the hotel -- big old-fashioned bikes with a basket and a bell, and one speed -- and took off in search of the lagoon. Which is RIGHT THERE, visible from our room. We'd had no luck the day before, but yesterday we went straight to it. The map we'd been given bore absolutely no spatial relationship to the route, but we found it and that was enough. It was a glorious morning, sunny blue skies, few people around, birds and insects singing. We passed beautiful little homes, an occasional Sri Lankan man or woman walking somewhere, and for me it was one of those experiences that are sharp and defined, a signal experience, one I'll return to when I think about our vacation in Sri Lanka. We decided to go out in a kayak the next day, which requires a bit of coordination with the hotel, who hires a tuk-tuk driver to load the kayak on top of the little vehicle and drive us there, and then wait for us.

quiet and beautiful and so remote
In the late afternoon, we took a tuk-tuk into town to eat at a little restaurant called Prem. In the wake of the last big tsunami, an American man named Prem gave the family enough money to open the restaurant. It's a little covered patio attached to a home tucked away in the corner of the bus station parking lot, next to a cricket field. 

come on in!

the brightly decorated interior, and Marc trying to find someone who works here

We arrived around 4:30pm -- very early, though the sign said 'Open' (it probably always says open) -- and found no one in the restaurant. Finally someone told Marc to wait five minutes, and suddenly the owner, Jeeva, walked in with her washing, kind of surprised to see us. Oh! She smiled, we smiled, we told her we wanted to eat and she waited for us to tell her what we wanted. We kind of fumbled a little then she said, "Rice? Curry?" We nodded, yes yes, rice and curry, and kind of waved our hands around indicating more, other things too. Marc asked for a tomato salad, and she nodded and said an hour and a half. We'd read on TripAdvisor that this is how the restaurant worked, so we were prepared but asked for an hour. She was hesitant but agreed, and we headed out to walk around the nearby market. Our darling tuk-tuk driver waited there.

The market is at the bus station and no sooner had we stepped away from the restaurant than a pack of wild(ish) dogs surrounded us, fell in step with us, and wouldn't leave. They snarled and barked at each other, wound themselves around my feet and tripped me once, and just wouldn't leave. We were right in the middle of the honking buses, the honking cars, the crowds of people, and the hot end of the day, and the frightening dogs were just too much for me. We walked into the market hoping the dogs would leave but they didn't; as we passed a stall, one woman asked me if the dogs were mine, and I said no -- she warned me that they bite, a warning I really didn't need. We decided to leave the market and as we did, an older man walking past me said, "Beautiful flowers!" pointing to my tattoo. I smiled back, yes, beautiful flowers. We walked away from the market, always trying unsuccessfully to lose the dogs, and we turned on a quiet side road. A couple of young boys chased the dogs with big sticks and threw rocks at them, so Marc picked up some rocks for his pockets too. We'd been too afraid to lash out at the dogs, afraid they'd bite us, but seeing how they responded to the boys made us a little less worried about that.

the eternal ubiquity of Che graffiti. 

trucks, motorcycles, and cows.

fish two ways: filets for dinner, or live for your tropical fishtank needs.
I wonder if the live ones see the fish next door as a cautionary tale.

so much orange here -- the cinema, the cabs, so much of the clothing.
and check out that magnificent tree.

downtown Tangalle

that's a poster of the president on the left (the mustaches are the giveaway).
local boy done good.

We wandered around, 35 minutes still to wait for our dinner, and then a tuk-tuk pulled up alongside us. It was our darling tuk-tuk driver -- no idea if he'd come out looking for us, or if he was just killing time too and came across us, but he asked if we'd like to see the harbor. We jumped in and he took us to another part of the beach where the swimming is much easier, a part that's lined with inexpensive little homestays where young backpacker-type kids stay. We walked along the beach, sat in chairs, talked a little to the tuk-tuk driver who told us that the president of Sri Lanka, a man with an enormous, glorious, 1970s-style mustache, is from Tangalle. We'd apparently passed his giant private home without realizing it. The president's eldest son, age 24, is a minister of something, and is building a large hotel on the beach too.

never tire of the ocean, ever

Finally it was time to go back to the restaurant. We took our seats and a couple of women ran in through the front door -- helpers, we later learned, because the owner's daughters weren't there to help and she literally did every last thing from scratch. It was like going to someone's home and saying, "hey, how about some dinner," and she runs out to the market for the ingredients then makes it for us. We were the only guests, though perhaps others were coming later. First she brought out a big platter of the most fragrant white rice it made me feel kind of drunk, and then bowl after bowl after bowl of curries: eggplant curry, okra curry, dal, green pumpkin curry, chicken curry, some kind of amazing cold salad of an herb that was slightly bitter like parsley combined with finely chopped red onion and tomato and fresh ground coconut, sprinkled with lemon, and then a gorgeous little tomato salad we requested, delicious tomatoes and chopped onion and hot little green peppers, topped with crisp curry leaves. There was also a plate of the lightest, crispiest papadams we have ever nibbled. Every single dish was incredible -- rich and delicate, sophisticated and layered with flavors, perfectly prepared. The okra had just the right bite, the lentils were perfect, every single bite was better than the one that came before.

we would dearly love to come again!
So far this vacation has been our best vacation for food, of all the places we've been. It's hard to imagine, but it's simply true that the grilled seafood we had the other night, and the Indian food we had last night, are easily among the top meals we've had our whole lives. 

This morning we went out early on the lagoon for about an hour, paddling our little two-person kayak along the perimeter, floating next to mangroves, peering into shadowy coves, watching bunches of little silver fish hopping out of the water and skimming along the top for a minute before re-entering the water. It was so quiet, so beautiful. We saw beautiful little homes tucked back a ways. A man in a boat, far enough away that we can only guess he was fishing -- we couldn't see well enough to be sure. An older man driving a small number of water buffalos along the road. No mosquitos, no bugs, just a few birds here and there, and a big blue sky overhead. Rings of coconut palms around the bank of the lagoon. And Marc and me, once again in a boat on the water in some place far away from home.

this morning's breakfast:  "all in one," which is French toast with fresh fruit,
buffalo yogurt, and treacle

This afternoon we'll swim and relax, and tonight we're returning to the Cactus Lounge for another round of that amazing grilled seafood we had a couple of nights ago. Tomorrow mid-afternoon we'll leave here and head to Galle, and we are both feeling sad and sorry to leave Tangalle, and Buckingham Place. The owner, Nick Buckingham, is a Brit who not only owns and runs this hotel (ranked third in all of Asia in the 'small hotel' category, we were told), he has also donated a lot to the hospital in the wake of the tsunami. People seem to regard him highly, and we are sorry not to meet him.

And so November winds down and I see on my phone that it's very cold back home, and I know the Christmas season has begun, but here we sit in this sunny color-drenched paradise, talking to such warm and friendly people, shouting hellos back to those we pass on our bikes or walks. I'm so grateful to have the chance to learn how beautiful Sri Lanka is, and how warm the people are.

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