We asked for Tissamaharama, the town everyone called Tissa, and pulled up to park outside its painted white temple under the full moon. We had taken the long road from Hambantota past the right turn at Wirawila, up and around through Kataragama. We asked for the hotel, “Tissa Lake View” and followed fingers that pointed back where we came from — back to “Tissa Lakeside”, a hostel blasting music and completely full for the night.
The manager, a burly Sri Lankan with an unrequitable love of high-fives, bustled out to help us make a U-turn back on to the street, talking about America and how awesome Sri Lanka is and how his place is totally the place to stay except that there is no room. He pointed toward “Lake View”.
Starving and exhausted, we followed convincing directions and reinforcing points from passersby, but all we found was a riverbed. The good traveller in me was fading — the one that says, this is what you came here for and not, McDonalds, please, I’m a quitter — but there was no way we weren’t stopping. Dozens of Sri Lankans, splashing each other and bathing in the riverbed, jumping off the banks and the stone blocks of a small dam. Whatever it is, this was it.
In boxers, we jumped in to the packed pool of cheering dudes — young women, covered, were washing themselves at a small distance. I found myself in a circle of friendly questions, inquisitive faces, and really good English. Some who talked to me first seemed inclined to stick by my side, to make sure I didn’t feel lost in the chest-deep river water.
It looked like the whole village had found a way to keep bath time alive. Remember when you were a kid, and your parents maybe washed you in the tub or a pool with a cousin or two? And it was the only way cleaning could be fun? Multiply that by twenty. I thought I found a strong, bristly plant used for washing. I held it up to the jokester sitting on concrete stairs that sloped down into the water and mimed scrubbing myself. He lost it.
Look! in Sinhalese, he was guffawing to his friends in the water. This is just a plant from the river (pine-like, I found one floating later) and he thinks we wash ourselves with it! Who does he think we are savages!?
Uh-oh. These guys thought bathing in the river was just as much of a country bumpkin novelty as we did. I wasn’t just the guy from America anymore — I was turning into a big time tourist. The kind that doesn’t see the bar of soap on the step because it’s too boring. Or the one that follows clues to a town populated by tigers (the animals, not the separatist group), that all disappeared decades ago.
“But it smells good.” I put the bristles to my nose. (It actually did, like a dangling pine tree air freshener).
I held it out to him — Smell this. He took a whiff. Gotcha.
The swimmers exploded laughing. I made a note to self: making people smell things is funny here.
Except that the 30 guys in the water weren’t actually from “there”. They weren’t locals, and they sure as hell weren’t bathing with trees. They were the cooking staff from a fancy hotel in Colombo, and they were driving around the country for three days in one of the giant buses that spread heart arrhythmia to the whole island.
Their friends were some high-school students and old buddies. A monk with a shaved head waded up to me in a Playboy t-shirt. Aside from his head, every limb and uncovered patch of chest was carpeted in human fur. Everyone rubbed his head, “No hair! No hair!” He had escaped from the monastery for the weekend.
To one side was a perfect footbridge, and downriver was a woven canopy of overarching tree limbs and dark water — I tried to soak it all in as picturesque as it was. But after a long while, the bad traveler in me still wanted to go to bed — to be ready for our five a.m. pick-up for the National Park. I got out of the water to think about changing, and voilà: the Tissa Lake View Cottage. It had been there all night, right above the footbridge by the river.
The pull of easy tourism was intense. After a whole day on the road, and no food, a hotel restaurant was like a Jacuzzi to a colonial English sailor. But we were invited to spend the night with them — “You can get up at 4!” — and to barbecue with them back at their camp. They were starving, too. This is what you came here for, dammit.
We followed, to a compound of a few large buildings and no one but Sri Lankans. They brought packaged boxes of noodles with foods with no names plastic-wrapped for freshness, to eat with our hands on mattresses in a big common room. Spicy, savoury — not bad to room with all cooks. And then came the barbecue, shrimps and meats, until we had forgotten what hunger was and why we ever would have thought twice about following the hotel staff from Colombo.
I set an alarm for 4 a.m., a necessary wake-up call for a mistaken reservation in a hypercrowded national park. But when we all squished in together on a row of mattresses in a big common room, I didn’t care at all what animals we were going to see.
“Subha ratria,” I said. Good night. These days in a Sri Lanka the tigers have left, it’s all about the people.
The writer has reported for Haaretz in Tel Aviv and is the founder of the online travelogue INGULFED.com. He works for New York University in Abu Dhabi.