Today we walked the sands of Unawatuna, released a baby turtle at the Turtle Sanctuary and Hatchery, and wandered the historic, atmospheric streets of Galle, a Unesco World Heritage town.
Though we woke late, we made it the simple breakfast at the Gloria Grand. We sat on the terrace, watching life on the quiet streets below, the peace broken only occasionally by the clucking of a tuk-tuk, invariably accompanied by little road-runner style ‘beep-beep’ sounds. It was a glorious sunny day, and I drank about 2 litres of tea up there before we headed languidly to the beach, where we lay down under the shade and were set upon immediately by beach hawkers selling saris, bracelets, coconuts and the like. Vero bought a few lovely bracelets, I gave the poor chap standing under the shade next to my sunlounger Rs500 and signed his little book detailing money he had been given, the person who gave him it, and their nationality. He even had a license for what he was doing. Poor chap. A withered arm, a crippled foot bent nearly backwards. He was hot, the sand was hot. It was burning his feet. He shook my hand and a huge smile creased his leathery face. He hobbled over to the next shady spot. A hard day lay ahead.
Vero and I strolled to the end of the cove, to where the Buddha shrine is. Here we were able to relax in the calm sea – the rest of the cove is bashed ceaselessly by waves and the shore is at such an incline that you almost roll down into the tempestuous sea when walking down the beach. Again, it was all Sri Lankans down here; families enjoying playtime in their natural pool – coastal kids cartwheeling into the sea. We found Hot Rock restaurant and had lunch – a chop suey for Vero, a thick wedge of bread with a sliver of tomato and cheese inside (called a Jaffle), for me. We decided to do something. We wanted to see the turtle sanctuary.
We bargained with a tuk-tuk driver outside the restaurant – a round trip to the turtle sanctuary and hatchery for Rs700, including waiting time, which I thought very reasonable. We passed one or two places on the coastal road which were advertising themselves as turtle sanctuaries on the way, and when we arrived at the tiny shack on the beach I knew that the tuk-tuk driver probably got a lot of commission from his ‘old friend’ who worked there. Whether this was an ‘official’ sanctuary and hatchery or not, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think so. It was Rs500 in, Rs1000 if you wanted to release a turtle. Vero wanted to release a turtle, so it was Rs1500 in all. An old chap under the long narrow shack which housed open tanks full of different types of turtles – leatherbacks, hawksbills, green turtles; big ones, small ones, baby ones – began explaining something about turtles, but he was incomprehensible, as are the majority of Sri Lankan’s I’ve encountered who try and speak English. As a result I learned very little, but did catch the odd word in the babbling brook speech.
He showed us different tanks. Some turtles were clearly injured – fishermen brought them in with injuries from fishing nets and hooks, and got a good price for them – Rs10 – 15,000 per turtle. I wondered if business-minded fishermen actually injured the turtles themselves to make a profit. Surely not. But I wouldn’t put anything past a hungry man. Some turtles were missing eyes – chunks of their heads were missing. These were victims of, not fishing gear, but other turtles – little terrors who had had to be separated from the others and were now swimming in separate tanks. Some big turtles looked fine to me. The old man tried convincing me that the big ones were injured, and only when the government gave the order could they be released. I thought they might be happier taking their chances in the sea than swimming in circles in a tiny tank and being man-handled by tourists, but who am I to question the motives of the Turtle Sanctuary and Hatchery.
And so, Vero’s big moment came. She wanted to release a big one, but that opportunity came with at least a Rs10,000 price tag. A man in a sarong scooped up a baby in a bucket, tired of Vero taking her time picking one, and we headed to the shore. Vero released the 4-day-old turtle into a huge new world. It got pounded back by the waves but then sucked back in again and it was away into the ocean of dangers and possibilities. If it survived, it may well return to lay eggs on this very beach one day.
We went back to the hotel, changed and got the same tuk-tuk to take us to Galle – for Rs350. It’s only 15 minutes away from Unawatuna. Galle is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site, a huge fort wall built by the Dutch rings the town. It’s one of those magical, time-trapped places that reminded me at once of Cartagena. Narrow streets, Victorian lamp posts, art galleries, cafes and bakeries everywhere, a quaint little place that seems to be trapped in a perpetual sun-drenched siesta. It could also have reminded me of York, but there were no moody skies, no cold snap in the air, no tracksuit-clad youths looking for a fight.
We had a coffee and an ice-cream, then went up to the fort walls, the sea crashing over rocks and into wall below. A fall would hurt – there are no safety barriers here, no meshing to stop the suicidal from jumping, they don’t need warning signs – it’s not Disneyland. It’s not England, nor Singapore. If you’re not careful, it’s wet, or perhaps you’re drunk, and you fall, then that’s probably the end. We walked to the higher rampart, where a couple of enterprising young chaps have set up a wall-jumping enterprise – you pay them to watch them jump into the rocky sea from the top of the wall – and a group of Korean tourists were whooping in delight as one of the local lads dove into a narrow chasm and into the sea, and eventually emerged intact.
The iconic Galle Lighthouse stood erect and proud as it has for about 100 years, and as darkness began to fall, the light came on, as it has every night, warning ships of the proximity of land. Vero and I had a good time wandering around, where each doorway held secrets. We walked out of the walled city, and to the pier, where a group of young Navy students were playing volleyball. Vero caused quite a commotion amongst the boys, and they were more than happy to pose for a photo with her, all huge smiles. One of them bravely offered a ‘Que tal?’ We headed to the end of the pier, where old Muslim fishermen stood gazing at their lines. The sky was being painted with shades of pink, sunset yellows, and orange…..the day was almost over. We sat with the fishermen for a while. It was peaceful. Lovely.
Wandering back inside the walled town, we ducked inside Indian Hut for a drink as the heavens had opened. When all had subsided, we headed to Mama’s Restaurant and to their rooftop terrace to enjoy a delicious curry (for me) and a tuna steak (for Vero) overlooking the lighthouse and it’s revoloving light, as the Muezzin issued the call to prayer from the mosque opposite, creating a hauntingly beautiful scene in this predominantly Muslim town. The Old Dutch Hospital was next, which has been converted into a string of upmarket restaurants and cafes. We had a drink at the imaginatively-named ‘One Minute by Tuk-Tuk’ in a great spot right over the sea. Then it was back to Unawatuna by tuk-tuk for Rs400. We stopped by the Blue Crab cafe for an arak cocktail, then to a deserted beach bar for a shisha session under the stars, not quite as romantic as it could have been with the pounding electronic music coming from the beach bar next door, which also had no customers. At midnight, we walked back to the hotel. It was silent. It was also time to move on. Mirissa was next.