“What do you mean there’s no social media?” are amongst the first panicked words out of my mouth on arrival at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. I’m trying to sort out a SIM card to stay in touch with my kids, my husband and the world at large, but am informed that while I was airborne, a country wide social media ban has been implemented. Already distressed at the prospect of social withdrawal, my new friend also casually drops the news that there’s a curfew and a National State of Emergency has been declared.
Wait, what? So, let me get this straight. I’m alone in a strange country. Its 12.30am and I have no contact with the outside world. Oh, and outside there’s rioting that has set off a National State of Emergency. No biggie, I think to myself as I search the airport for a store selling Sri Lankan smelling salts…
I am about to start rocking back and forth, when a smiling gentleman approaches and introduces himself as Dilan from Beyond Travel. He’s my private guide and driver for the next week and is here to take me to my hotel, Jetwing Beach, even though its the middle of the night. It is this bespoke, attentive service that will become a signature of my week with Dilan.
As we drive the the inky night, there’s not a soul around. I ask him about this sudden State of Emergency, and he shrugs. Other than proffering a warning to stay off the streets after dark, he promises me everyone is happy and there’s no problem, it’s all just a temporary precautionary measure. Relieved, I check in to my hotel at nearby Negombo and fall into the kind of sleep only someone who’d been gallivanting through airports for close to 20 hours can.
I’m awoken at sunrise by a series of loud explosions. WTF! I was sure he said NO problem. Quietly crapping myself I reach for my phone to find out what’s happening only to remember that I have no access to the world or news of any kind. Another blast rings out like a gunshot and I sneak a peek outside to see a shimmering swimming pool and a golden beach, which is oddly devoid of rioting and bloodshed.
In fact, the whole place appears to be deserted except for a cleaner unhurriedly sweeping leaves from the pool.
Another loud rumble bursts out, only this time it’s really close. In fact, it appears to be coming from the vicinity of my stomach. I still have no idea where the explosions are coming from but given the choice between death and breakfast I opt for the latter and head down to meet both my maker and the lovely lady serving up fresh cooked hoppers (rice pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk topped with a fried egg) in the dining room.
She seems completely unfazed by our impending deaths, but I figure at least if I’m going to die anyway, I can stop worrying about calories and stack my plate high with fragrant curries, a huge spoonful of dahl and a hit of milk rice.
A waiter offers me tea, just as another explosion erupts and I dive under my table. He laughingly explains that the noise is just a bunch of fireworks set off in pots surrounding the restaurant to scare of the relentlessly cheeky crows that are lined up and eyeing off my breakfast.
Oh. That’s right. I’d forgotten that I’m a melodramatic idiot.
Relatively satisified that I will not die this morning, I decide to take my chances outside the hotel. When Dilan arrives he kindly escorts his overly imaginative charge to the rather fragrant Negombo Fish Market.
It’s a hive of early morning activity and I watch happily as fish are unloaded straight from the oruvas (outrigger canoes) that line the beach.
Fisherman, with their sarongs tied high, fill baskets high with fish and haul them up the beach for cleaning.
In the uncovered wet market, busy vendors sell the morning’s catch of yellowfin, squid, prawns and crabs, along with a bunch of unidentifiable sea creatures glinting in the sunlight.
There’s blood and guts strewn everywhere as fish are scaled and gutted, and cats and dogs are waiting patiently by to sneak off with any stray object that might fly their way.
It is smelly, messy and chaotic but, having been raised by fisherfolk, I feel quite at home.
Outside the wet market are brightly coloured stalls packed high with the freshest of fresh fruit and fragrant spices sold in paper cones. This is my happy place.
Im fact, fully recovered from my heart pumping morning of amateur dramatics, I’m now feeling utterly relaxed and grab a fresh coconut to sip on as I explore the greater expanse of the market and its glinting silver tapestry of fish laid out this way and that to dry.
The endless carpet of drying fish is a surreal sight.
Huge swathes of fish, all different stages, are strewn for miles. Judging from the back breaking efforts of the local ladies laying them out each fish is individually laid out each morning for the sun to do its thing.
This is Sri Lankan culture at its most authentic and I am in my holiday happy place, even if I am social media deprived. Dilan is right, State of Emergency or not, everyone is happy and I feel completely safe.
At least, I do until I spot at the dude coming straight at me waving a basket full of live and cranky cobra… but that’s another story.