Dawn in a rural corner of Galle and the light is soft and milky, the air cool. Across the road, Langur monkeys scrabble through trees. On the lane a solitary cow grazes on the verge. A man wanders into view pulling an empty cart and disappears again. A cyclist wobbles round the corner before dipping behind the hedgerow. This world is oddly silent despite the activity.
Back inside the house muted Buddhist chants fill the air as the television screen shows Lord Buddha from every angle. Madam Kahandagamage hands a china cup of sweetened tea to the driver.
It’s the quiet before the onslaught.
My newly adopted Sri Lankan family pile into the hired van: Vi, her family, her best friend and sister, their distant cousin … and myself, the stray European. We’re going to Yala National Park.
We stop for breakfast, Sri Lankan style, by the Indian Ocean: spicy chickpeas, curry and egg and onion toasties. Further on at the temple, Mr Kahandagamage offers up prayers for a safe journey. We light oil and incense sticks, palms placed together, heads bowed.
It’s mid-afternoon by the time we reach Yala. We’ve been waylaid by temples, coastal blowholes, opportunities for toe-dipping, and beach-combing for miniature crabs, corals and shells. There’s also the distraction of food: skeletal dried fish; rambutan and figs; watery ice-creams and takeaway noodles.
At Yala, I hope to see leopard. We spy boar and buffalo, jungle fowl and wild peacock, even a family of elephants, but the leopard remains elusive.
Sometimes the magic is not where you expect it to be. Driving out of the park again, the light is fading out. A youngster herds cattle from his motorbike, farmhands drift past us huddled on tractor trailers. The street lights dance like fireflies on Lunugarnvehera reservoir. Above it the pale sky swirls a signature.
“I wish I could write in the sky,” Dimuthu says as we gaze upwards.
Driving on through the night, we pass open-fronted shops of garish souvenirs. We stop by one, weaving through tomato-red lions and fluorescent-orange dogs, ducking jelly-green bats, nets of balls and cascading plastic dolls.
Incongruously the counter is laden with great blocks of dodol, a toffee-like delicacy made of coconut milk and rice flour: sticky, thick and sweet. We pounce on the samples, trying every variety offered. “We could make our way down the street sampling dodol from each shop without having to buy any,” Vi giggles.
Leaving the shop, Yasas, the distant cousin and our travelling clown, picks up a revolver and presses it to his skull. His head falls, eyes roll and tongue lolls. “Cheer up, Yasas,” I say. “We mightn’t have seen any leopards, but I’ve got a kilo of dodol for the journey home.” Yasas resurrects and grins.
Homeward bound, I dip in and out of sleep in the darkened van. I see prowling leopards and roaring seas, shadowy roads and the flash of street lamps; bald-headed dolls and the light spinning across the faces of my new Sri Lankan family. It’s been a grand day out.
About the Author: Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. She’s still wandering. Helen was runner-up in 2011 British Guild of Travel Writers Competition and was highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing Competition in 2013.
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