I woke to my alarm after a night of listening to strange owls croak outside my window, donkeys neigh in the distance, packs of dogs bark, and mosquitoes whining around my head. But I was excited to get up, for my friend Ty and I were making a journey to a remote fishing island off the west coast of Sri Lanka. After a hasty breakfast and some coffee, we drove a scooter to the boat harbour. There were no passenger boats, or rather nothing that I knew a passenger boat to look like. Our guesthouse host showed us to a cargo boat with people sitting on the top half of it – it looked like a roof had been built on top of the boat to accommodate people sitting here in the open air. We jumped up with our bags and my ukulele, paid 500 LKR, and waited for the boat to leave the dock. It eventually did, and for three hours we sat in the cool ocean breeze with locals around us, all of whom had discarded the orange life jackets next to them like we did. To the amusement of the people around us, Ty and I sat on the hull of the boat and got splashed by the cool water. Refreshing.
Long after the novelty of being on a boat had worn off, we started to head towards what we thought would be our island. We knew nothing about it, other than that it was a small fishing village. On the way we passed several islands to the left and right of us, dotted with small huts and boats, or just trees and sand. Slowly, we bobbed toward Bathalangunduwa, realising just how small and rural it was. A single phone tower stood as a beacon among the coconut trees. All we could see were fishing boats and speed boats lining the shore’s edge, and behind them stood what I would call sheds, made out of tall tree branches and woven palm leaves, which housed the boats when they weren’t being used. The people of the village spent most of their working day under the dappled shade of these sheds, picking through fishing nets for fish, crabs and shells, or repairing the nets. Behind these sheds were houses, made out of woven palm leaves, or weatherboard, or cement. As we neared the shore, I noticed how much rubbish floated around the edge of the water and scattered the sand. It was everywhere, and appeared to have floated in from the ocean rather than come from the island. I was perplexed, as we had seen no rubbish floating in the ocean on the way over.
We disembarked, with a crowd of surprised and interested local women and men watching us. Very quickly this look came to be familiar to me, as it turned out that Ty and I were the only white people on the island of about 300 people, almost none of whom spoke any English. Just as I realised that we had no phone reception on the island, the man who was to be our host for the stay, named Vassanta, walked up to us and told us his name. We were relieved, as we had no idea how we would have found him. Vassanta lived on the other side of the crescent shape in which most of the houses on the island were located. Instead of weaving through the boats and sheds to get to his house, all three of us perched on his tiny boat, which was more like a surfboard with a motor, and sped over to his side of the island, cautiously holding onto our bags.
Vassanta’s house was primarily made out of woven palm leaves, which constituted the walls and ceiling. Logs of wood made up the frame of the house, which were pounded into the sand ground. Inside were three rooms; there was a big room at the back with no windows for sleeping, and two rooms divided the front section, serving as a narrow kitchen and a sitting room. Inside the kitchen and bedroom, the sand floor was covered with a woven rug that was made with coarse fibruous string. I never found out what it was, as all of my conversations with Vassanta were achieved through sign language and motioning. After setting our bags down in the bedroom, we asked if there was anywhere good to swim. The rubbish on the shoreline had disheartened me, but I later found out that the rest of the island wasn’t as badly polluted as the main bay. We hopped back on Vassanta’s motorised surfboard and found a spot of calm water to swim in, with no rubbish. Bathalangunduwa was even hotter than Kuddawa – I remembered to put suncreen on this time. After frolicking for a while, we all went back to Vassanta’s house for lunch. The afternoon sun was glaring down, and even Vassanta said it was hot. Our lunch was one of the best meals I’ve had in Sri Lanka – just white rice, vegetable curry and papadums, but somehow the simplicity of the ingredients and the perfection of Vassanta’s cooking made it delicious. We later found out that what food Ty and I ate of was of much interest to the villagers; everything about us was. But being vegetarian was incomprehensible to these people, who lived off the fish they caught.
When the sun had sunk lower in the sky, Ty and I went out to explore the island. It seemed that only one breed of dog had been brought to the island, as all of the hundreds of dogs there were a homogenous orange colour that reminded me of dingoes. They acted in a similar way, walking around in packs, and were not domesticated at all like the dogs on mainland Sri Lanka. It seemed that each had its own territory, for we would get unapologetically harassed for walking along particular strips of the beach. The only other animal living in abundance were the crows; hundreds of them perched on top of trees of buildings or boats, beedily eyeing the fishermen and waiting for the moment to swoop in and snatch an stray fish lying on the sand. It took about half an hour to walk from one side of the island to the other. Houses lined the east side, where the crescent-shaped bay was, but the western side was deserted beach, strewn mostly with shells and some rubbish. It was the perfect place to swim and watch the sun set over the ocean. Being from the east coast of Australia, I had never done this before. It was beautiful.
After the sun set, Ty and I made our way back to Vassanta’s house over the sand dunes. In the distance, something big and dark suddenly appeared and came rapidly towards us. We had no idea what it was until it was almost on top of us; a cart with two wheels being drawn by a brahmin cow. A man drove the cart, while a woman sat on the back with her legs dangling off. She yelled out to us to ‘Come sit!’ We scrambled up onto the cart and without warning the cow lurched forwards, pulling the cart along surprisingly quickly. In broken English, we communicated with the driver where we wanted to go, and we bounced up and down over the sand dunes, both laughing at the absurdity of the situation, until we reached Vassanta’s house. Ty had about 90 rupees in his pocket and gave this to the driver, which was received with a head waggle. We both couldn’t believed if we had really just hitched a ride on a cow-drawn cart.
After another incredible meal made by Vassanta, Ty and I took turns playing the ukulele and singing. Over the course of the day, a lot of people had dropped by Vassanta’s house to oggle at us, smiling when we smiled at them, or explicitly grinning when they saw us. A lot of the young men went to no lengths at all to conceal their admiring stares at me – I wondered whether they had ever seen a young white woman before. The electricity, which powered a single bulb in each of the rooms, went out at 10 p.m., so we made up a bed on a woven straw mat on the ground and went to sleep to the sound of palm leaves whispering, wild dogs howling at the full moon, and crows scampering over the woven roof above us. Surprisingly noisy for a rural tropical island, but then, when are our expectations when travelling ever right?