Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ceylon Dreams VI: A Door Closed, A Raft Opened

The little house – it actually belonged to a British man who used to live here and then converted it into a guesthouse before leaving – was cozier than a sheepdog. There was a small kitchen and living room with beautiful mirrors, dark wooden chairs and dining table, and a chic cart-turned-into-a-coffee table (straight from Pinterest), plush sofas with lilac and white cushions. Every time I sat in the lounge the hotelier would bring me a cup of coffee.

Our room was tiny with a lovely window down which the rain streamed steadily, the bed was soft, white and comfortable and the rain outside made you want to stay under the soft cloudy blankets forever. The sound of the rain on the tin roof, the cozy blankets, hot cups of coffee and our 9-year-old matching LUMS hoodies – and even though we were back in our guesthouse at 5 pm, the rain called for an early evening –  we were content as two kittens in a basket.
Still no TV but we watched Youtube videos on my phone – Fahad’s selection of sinister short documentaries.

Dinner consisted of pizza – and lays chips, an expensive meal because it had to be delivered by a guy in a rickshaw who went in search of it to the town and returned an hour later. The Sri Lankan hotelier (who knew some Urdu because he had lived in Dubai for a while – where he picked up Hindi. Ah I love globalization!) struck up conversation with me and we realized that if the rain continued, it wouldn’t be advisable to go on our adventure trek. “It’ll be too muddy and slippery, and the clouds will hide the view at the ‘End of the World’ point.”
Which made sense, but I had been dreaming about this magical trek through the birds and the bees and the trees to a place dreamily called the End of the World. “I guess we can just see around 3 or 4 am, if it has stopped raining we can go.” and my friend agreed, told me he would get up and check, and if it had dried up, he would prepare a breakfast-to-go.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well despite the coziness of the room – I usually love the sound of rain but that night every time I woke up, it dampened my spirits a little bit more, till finally I tiptoed out of the room around 5 am and the hotelier was standing in the dimly lit kitchen – “still raining,” he said and I nodded sadly. “I don’t think we will be going.”

The next morning we had breakfast at our guesthouse and left just before midday. Our next destination was Bentota, a beach town about two hours from Sri Lanka. We left the cool windy drizzly green Little England and just forty minutes later, when we stopped at a viewpoint it was pretty warm. Strawberry juice was available (in December?) and there was a funny little museum showing how the water plant worked. Tea fields layered the mountainside and the hills looked bright green against a now sunny sky.
Later, as we tumbled down the road, our driver asked if we wanted to stop at the river for White Water Rafting. I was still bummed out about the morning and like I usually do, I decided to ensure that everything else would go down the crappy road too (I know, very mature) – but that’s where marriage helps and Fahad cajoled me into saying ‘okay…let’s see’.

I think it must be my age but I started to get butterflies in my stomach as we passed by the little shacks advertising water sports, red, yellow and blue rubber rafts drying on the roofs. (The older I get, the greater the population of these temporal butterflies!). We stopped at a cool restaurant-lodge where our driver’s friends who own their adventure group met us.

The hotel was very cool, very rainforesty, with grey stone walls, pebbled pathways, quirky décor – a rusty tractor, wooden benches, old typewriters and Picasso-inspired statutes. There were trees everywhere and by now the sky was overcast again so it was dim and mysterious as we walked down to the restaurant. ‘This is where the rafts land,’ the adventure guy told us, pointing to some large flat rocks at the end of a dirt path from the restaurant.

The river was calm here, maybe about 20 feet wide, a light brown tinged with the emerald of trees that were leaning in from both banks.
We agreed on a rate, changed into water-friendly clothes and walked up to the hut with the rafts. There we put on a few helmet sizes before finally admitting that we both needed the largest size for our large heads, put on the life jackets and grabbed the oars. Our two guides lifted the large raft up on their heads and deftly put it on top of the small tuk-tuk – it hung precariously over the sides and we went up the road to the starting point. A two-minute walk down a steep path and their our guide gave us the low-down on rafting. The most nerving part was the way you sit on the raft – not safely snugly inside on the floor but perched on the round edge! “Really?” I gulped. “Just tuck your foot into this strap so that if you tip over, you’ll be close to the boat!” the guide offered helpfully, gesturing at a gray strap attached to the floor.

There were a few basic commands: Forward (where you paddle), ForwardForward (where you paddle more furiously to avoid rocks and such – and the best part is, this usually happens when the water gets rough so that’s not when you want to use all your muscles to churn the water, this is when you want to duck and curl into a ball on the floor of the boat), Relax, Lean In (you lean into the boat to avoid toppling over) and the most exciting one of all: ‘Get down!’ which was for the really scary parts, and which the guide used just once to mess with us/or create a higher level of excitement.

Before getting into the boat our guide kicked some water to acclimatize us and then we all hopped on to the boat, our leader at the back and us sitting across from each other at the front. And onwards!
It was absolutely lovely. I’m sure it was a very beginner’s course but it had at least three rocky rapids through which our boat would tip forward with the waves white and foamy hitting us happily, and here we would paddle as furiously albeit pathetically I’m sure as possible.

The scenery was breathtaking so I enjoyed the calmer parts of the river as well – we were in a valley with the mountains all around, the sky with roiling blue gray clouds, the banks covered with lush green trees. And then our guide told us that there was a patch where we could ‘body raft’ – the rocks created very mild friendly rapids that you could just go over without the raft – as in, just jump into the river, cross your arms and float straight up and down over the rapids. We politely declined that but agreed to the ‘swimming patch’ which was just jumping off the boat into the river and swimming! It had started to drizzle by now and since I had my lifejacket, I jumped off and into the cold brown water.
Best. Decision. Ever. Fahad and I swam lazily by our boat and the joy of floating on a calm river, with the spray of rain on your face, the mountains green and blue and happy looming around us – it was thrilling and beautiful and I hope I never forget that happiness in my heart!

Back on the boat, we landed at the restaurant, changed into dry clothes (this time not in the hotel’s nicer drier bathrooms but a creaky old room with a creaky old pipe that spewed cold water in one thin stream outside the hotel in its gardens). Grilled cheese sandwiches and ginger ale for lunch and then back into our car.
We had around four hours or more left and it rained intermittently. Closer to our destination we left our mountain roads for a highway, which felt so strange and developed after the last few days, and entered Bentota, the beach town with several large mosques by the main road around 7 pm.


We arrived at our hotel – the only fancy place we had booked for this trip: Centara Ceysands. I hadn’t realized we had to take a boat to the actual hotel – it was actually built on an island with the Indian Ocean on one side and a river on the other. Here we bade farewell to our sweet guide and driver and then sat down in the lobby to wait for a boat, exhausted but content. 



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