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If you like the sand dunes and salty air

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Bandaranaike International Airport
Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The reception desk at the Heritance Negombo resort gave me a late checkout of one o'clock after I told them that my flight home didn't leave until after midnight, an offer which I gleefully accepted. They also offered, without me asking for it, the right to use the shower in the evening for free as well as luggage storage.

I woke up at eight, quite a bit later than when I have been waking up lately. (This is just wrong. I thought people were supposed to get up early on their work days and late on their holidays. With me, it's the other way around. I guess if you hate your job, there is an incentive to keep hitting the snooze button until the latest possible minute at half past eight.)

First I went to the Blue Tan hotel restaurant for a breakfast buffet. This was very good, there was a massive selection of dishes - continental breakfast foods such as croissants and fruit, full English breakfast foods like bacon and baked beans, cereals, a cheese platter, yoghurt, bread rolls and Sri Lankan breakfast fare like egg hoppers and string hoppers. My stomach cramps had disappeared, I didn't eat much the day before so I was starving and I certainly got my money's worth. It was a lot of money - I think Rs. 2,800.

The restaurant was packed with guests at breakfast time. They were overwhelmingly from Britain and Europe, a very large proportion were Eastern European. The guests were a mixture of young families, young couples and older couples, and unsurprisingly considering how expensive it is to stay here, they were all upper- or middle-class.

I changed into my swimmers, put my valuables in the safe in my room, grabbed a bath towel and went for a swim in the large figure eight-shaped hotel pool. It was a nice pool, the water was a perfect temperature, and in one corner was a bar with a thatched roof cover you could swim up to. You could order drinks and just give them your room number and it would be added to your bill. There were even bar stools under the water you could sit on while drinking. I tried to do some laps, as I often do after work in Sydney, but every muscle was sore and tired and my heart just wasn't in it. After all the strenuous activity of the past three weeks, I just wanted to float in serenity and enjoy just paddling around aimlessly. There is also a gym available for guests that I couldn't bring myself to use.

The Heritance Negombo is luxurious but it is not a sociable place. I had hoped when I booked my room on Booking.com that there would be a hotel bar that was vibrant where I would meet interesting people on my last night in Sri Lanka, that the pool would be like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland where we were all one big happy family, and that I would be able to regale other guests with tales of defying the Grim Reaper himself on faulty bicycles, dangerous buses and dangling live wires while they listened with mouths agape.

I was disappointed. Everyone else just socialised within their little family groups. At all the guest houses I stayed in outside of Colombo, I had lengthy conversations with other guests. We would compare our travel itineraries, talk about our lives back home, give each other restaurant tips or public transport information, swap social media details. It was one big community of travellers, constantly shape-shifting across the country, and it was a community I was thrilled to be part of. There was no community here.

As much as I wanted to just chill and relax, there was one last challenge I had promised myself. Every single pereon in that community of travellers I met were spending lengthy periods of time at beaches. Many seemed shocked that I had had no beach destination at all on my itinerary. It was time to change that and go for a dip in Neptune's kingdom.

Negombo Beach is Sri Lanka's Gold Coast or Cancun or Benidorm - a long, narrow strip of yellow sand fringed by a succession of resort hotels stretching to the horizon. There is a small gate attended by a security guard that connects the hotel grounds to the sandy beach. I walked through the gate, past some traditional catamaran sailing vessels for hire attended by touts who didn't understand that no means no, and walked into the Indian Ocean.

I am naturally most familiar with the beaches of New South Wales so I will compare Negombo to them. Beaches back home have massive surf. Powerful waves that stretch one arm that way, one leg the other way, and somersault you through the rushing water while water goes up your nose and into your lungs are quite common. The west coast of Sri Lanka is much more sheltered, presumably by being closer to the bulk of the Indian subcontinent; the waves on the south coast are much bigger and more like those in New South Wales. There are waves in Negombo, you just won't be able to surf on them, nor will they bury you head first into the sea bed. The biggest waves were perhaps one to two metres tall. They came in a pleasing rhythm, gently washing back and forth over me.

The sand at Negombo is much nicer too. The sand in New South Wales is very pale gold, almost white in some places, and consequently gets very hot. New South Welsh sand is also fine and very squeaky when you step on it. It sticks to every surface of your body like talcum powder, even parts of your body that never came into direct contact with the sand. The sand at Negombo is a bit darker, maybe a light beige, and somewhat coarser. It was compact, almost like a well-graded dirt road, and didn't stick at all, barely even on my soles.

Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere, has ghastly intense sunlight. Australia must be the only country on earth where people look forward to cloudy days. People of British heritage like me often burn to a crisp within half an hour - even with sunscreen. This is why I generally do not go outdoors in the summer in the daytime if I can possibly avoid it. In Sri Lanka the sunlight is much more muted even though it is so much closer to the Equator (seven degrees versus thirty-four degrees in Sydney). I put on one medium coat of sunscreen - careful rationing of my supply resulted in more than enough left over for my last day - and I was outside for two and a half hours and did not get burned at all.

The one thing where New South Welsh beaches win is the water. The sea back home is a brilliant, pure cobalt blue with crystal clear water. The sea in Sri Lanka is a weird blueish-brownish hue and is quite opaque. Oh, the lack of touts and tacky souvenir sellers too is another good thing about Australian beaches. But they don't have surf gangs or race riots at Sri Lankan beaches, so that counts in their favour.

Excepting the water quality and the touts, I wish beaches in Australia were like Negombo. I might not hate Australian beaches so much. I redsicovered the childlike innocent joy of swimming at the beach in Sri Lanka, of being rocked back and forth as the waves wash over me, of the rhythmic incantations of the water coming to and fro over the sand.

As great as going for a dip in the ocean was, all good things must come to an end. I went back to my room, packed my things, stored my luggage, and checked out of the Heritance Negombo resort hotel. I do not regret coming here, a night of luxury is probably what I needed. The service was professional, the rooms were comfortable, the food was good, the amenities were excellent. But I found the experience oddly dissatisfying. I missed the guest houses with their achingly slow ceiling fans and hard matresses and mosquito nets and dribble-like showers. Here at the Heritance, I was given great service and treated like a prince, but it was impersonal. I was just another sixteen-digit credit card number. At the guest houses I might not have been treated like a prince, but I was treated like family. The owners were interested in me, my story, my family back home, what work I did, and I was likewise interested in them. I ate the same meals they served their families.

Also, staying at a luxury beach resort was like staying in a bubble. All your needs - food, drink, exercise, entertainment - are met within the boundaries of the land parcel the hotel was on. You could spend an entire holiday here and never actually experience Sri Lanka. Travel is a very individualistic hobby; there is no "right" way or "wrong" way of travelling and no traveller has the right to lecture other travellers on what to do. So if you want to spend your holidays in some hedonistic luxury utopia by the beach where you are hermetically sealed from the real world, go for it.

I can only speak for myself - being pampered and living in luxury is not why I travel. I don't travel for pleasure. I travel to see things I have never seen, taste things I have never tasted, hear things I have never heard. I travel to immerse myself in other languages, to be stupefied by some historical site, to understand how other cultures tick, to challenge myself by climbing some moderately tall mountain. In short, I travel to be educated. And there isn't much lecture material on offer in the curriculum at luxury resort hotels.

After I checked out I caught the lift up to the fifth floor. Up there was an ayurvedic spa. Wherever you go in Sri Lanka touts and accommodation providers are always trying to sell you massage treatments and alternative therapies at ayurvedic spas. I just knew I had to try it before I left and so for Rs. 10,700 I had my own masseur for ninety minutes.

I had booked something called the "full body deep tissue repair therapy" or something like that. My body was aching all over after doing so much hiking, climbing and cycling. I thought this might be the thing that would help me get some sort of sleep on the flights home.

I waited in the reception at the spa. Incense was burning and soft flute music was playing. It reminded me of the final scene in Soylent Green where Sal goes to the euthanasia centre and soothing music and relaxing film scenes are played as the lethal injection is administered. The kindly masseur shook my hand and he led me into the treatment room.

I had to change into special underwear. It looked like a piece of black stocking a few inches wide. But it was so stretchy that it fit comfortably. I laid face down on the table and the masseur buttered me up with scented oil and started nice and gently. Then the "fun" began! His knees, elbows, fists, the entire weight of his body were used to press into the deepest parts of mine while all I could do was clench my teeth in agony. I felt like a ball of pizza dough in the kneading machine at the pizza restaurant I worked at when I was a teenager.

There was one part of my body, in the flesh of my lower right back near my kidney. There was possibly already a bruise there, perhaps it was a knotted muscle, maybe the masseur had caused a bruise there with his pressure. But for some reason the masseur kept returning to that spot over and over with his sharp elbows pointing all the way down to the inner organs.

I couldn't help it, I screamed in agony and my feet flailed up and down in reflex. "Stop! Stop! For goodness sake, just stop!"

"Why, is it painful?" he asked.

"No shit! Why do you think I'm screaming!" But he didn't stop. All I could do was breathe tightly through gritted teeth and sigh in relief when he turned his attention elsewhere.

After ninety minutes it was over. I showered to wash the oil off me and was offered a cup of tea with jaggery in the spa's lobby. It was weird - how is it that something so painful is so relaxing? I felt so good leaving the spa.

There wasn't much more I wanted to do. My flight didn't leave until 00:45, most places even in a tourist strip like Negombo were closed due to the Poya public holiday. I got my hair cut at a salon that was still open for eight hundred rupees, saving myself about fourteen dollars compared to if I had waited until I returned to Sydney. My hair had grown quite fuzzy. I looked like a mad Austrian scientist who had stuck a butter knife into a power point. I like to keep my hair neat and short and normally I would have got it cut well before now but I reasoned that longer hair meant less sunburn on my scalp.

I decided to head back to the beach to watch the sunset, my last ocean sunset for quite some time, living on Australia's east coast. It was as glorious as the others. Because of haze on the sea, the sun actually disappears from view before it reaches the horizon. It gradually gets redder and dimmer before it is extinguished completely. It was so glorious that I decided to stream the sunset to all my friends on Facebook Live.

While I was filming the sunset, my phone held in front of me as I was sitting on the sand, a Sri Lankan man came up to me. He introduced himself, I forget his name - it's very easy to forget Sri Lankan names - and he sat down next to me. We talked about my travels, he asked which Australian city I was from, he asked what the climate there was like. He seemed like a friendly, genuine guy.

Then the scamming began. His wife was suffering blood cancer! He was out of work! He couldn't afford to buy powdered milk for his baby! Please, please, could I help him?

There was a slim possibility that he was right and he was truly in dire straits. Most likely he was yet another one of the plague of locusts who hang around tourist areas looking for a sucker.

"No sorry, I'm not giving you money."

"Then can you give me milk?"

"Milk? It's a public holiday, the supermarkets are not even open."

"Yes they are, the shop across the road is open. Please! Please! Please!"

I know that in Australia there is currently a problem with black market milk powder and infant formula. Chinese groups are buying up a huge percentage of Australia's domestic powdered milk and infant formula supply to sell on the black market in China. The problem is so bad that supermarkets introduced limits on how many tins you can buy at once. The thought occurred that perhaps a similar thing is happening in Sri Lanka. Maybe I go and buy a tin of powdered milk for, say, five hundred or a thousand rupees or however much it costs, give the tin for free to this con artist, and then he sells it on the cheap at his market stall or out the back of his tuk-tuk and makes a tidy profit.

"No, sorry, I'm not giving you money or any milk."

He then got on his knees and made a praying gesture. "Please, please, I need milk! For my baby! My wife has blood cancer! You can come and see the baby! Please!"

This is the moment when I definitely knew he was a con artist. Real beggars are too ashamed of their penury to act like this. Real beggars know how to take no for an answer and move onto the next person. Real beggars wouldn't trap someone with what seemed like genuine friendly innocent conversation and then segue into a sob story.

"Listen, I am just watching the sunset and--"

"Please! Give me milk! You must give me milk or money! Please!"

"I'm very sorry for your misfortune, but I'm not giving you money, sorry."

"Please, give me milk!"

"No! You are not getting any milk or any money! Now leave me alone! For f#$k's sake!"

He finally got the hint and tried the same thing with another tourist also watching the sunset ten metres along the beach. The scammer was such a moron he didn't realise the whole exchange was being recorded and streamed live for all my friends to see on Facebook. I will miss Sri Lanka. I will not miss the teeming masses of slimy con artists and touts. I don't care if Sri Lanka doesn't have a Western-style welfare state. The vast majority of Sri Lankans do it tough. The low wages are not adequate for the cost of living, secure work is hard to come by, the tuk-tuk is always just one bad month away from repossession, an accident or a chronic illness often means disaster. But the vast majority of Sri Lankans still go about their lives with dignity, integrity and amazing resilience. The sleazy scammers have no excuse for dishonesty.

And so I watched the sun set on my last day of my three-week adventure in Sri Lanka. I will miss Sri Lanka, the warmth and friendliness and hospitality of its people, its divine curries, fruit and vegetables, its incredible natural beauty, its mountains, its beaches, its wildlife, its rainforests, its uproarious energy, its ancient ruins sticking out of the verdant plains.

Sri Lanka, thank you. You challenged me, you inspired me, you frustrated me, you helped me, you entertained me, you scared me, but most importantly of all, you educated me.

Traditional boats on Negombo Beach

Traditional boats on Negombo Beach

This Negombo convenience store is not a ripoff of a UK supermarket chain at all

This Negombo convenience store is not a ripoff of a UK supermarket chain at all

Negombo Beach

Negombo Beach

Heritance Negombo

Heritance Negombo

Negombo sunset

Negombo sunset

Negombo Beach

Negombo Beach

Posted by urbanreverie 02:56 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged sunset beach resort spa sri_lanka negombo ayurvedic

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