During our month in Myanmar, we travelled a lot. Toward the end, I think we all felt our stamina running low as we ended up hanging around in cloudy little Hsipaw for several days longer than intended, walking to small villages, visiting with Shan princesses, that sort of thing. We flew from Mandalay to Bangkok, with one short night back on Khao San Road where this adventure began in late December – allowing us to reflect on how we’d changed since we were last there. The mood was congratulatory: two months on the road, countless adventures, saying goodbye to Southeast Asia. We were feeling like world travelers. It was time to move on to Sri Lanka.
Our flight landed in Colombo after midnight. The plan was to relax there for a few days. After weeks in single rooms in guesthouses, we had found an actual two bedroom apartment where we could spread out, do some homeschooling, cook, and catch up with a few people we know in the city. On all these counts, our Colombo stay was wildly successful. The boys studied their math books, we shopped at grocery stores and enjoyed meals at home, we slept and lounged at the apartment’s rooftop pool. What we didn’t do in Colombo, however, was sightsee. In fact, some days it seemed as though we barely left the apartment. There are no journals, no blog posts from those five days – it was as if we’d landed on one of Odysseus’ shores where all time was forgotten. Colombo was an easy place to relax and regroup, with excellent food, quick transportation, English spoken everywhere. “Sometimes it seems like we’re not travelling around the world anymore,” I said to Seth. “It’s kind of like we just. Stopped.”
After a few days, though, the rest of Sri Lanka beckoned, and we were off again, this time to the South coast. In our slowed down state, we were somewhat overwhelmed by the plethora of options for housing – it seems that everyone and their auntie is renting a villa or a room near Galle or by one of the beaches. Our vision, initially, was to find a house near Galle, settle down for a few weeks, and possibly enroll the boys in a local school. And, as luck would have it, our connections in Sri Lanka seemed to be working for us: a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend had a villa near Galle that was available. It was listed at $60 US, which was more than we wanted to spend, but a little negotiation brought it down to half price. We realized we didn’t know quite where it was, but it seemed a reasonable choice and, yes, I will admit, we congratulated ourselves on knowing locals and avoiding the increased tourist prices.
Galle is easily reached by train from Colombo, and it felt good to be moving again, setting out to a new destination. As we approached Galle station, a rainstorm began. We were met at the station by the villa’s owner and a van driver. Very little English was spoken as we bundled into the van and set out, driving out of Galle center, and then continuing down the beach road…for miles. Which was odd, given that we had thought the villa was near Galle. Priding myself on my flexibility, I whispered to Seth, “I guess we can just skip the staying in Galle part, and stay wherever this is instead…” We drove on, through the rain, intrepid.
Finally, at a small lane from the main beach road, we turned inland and arrived at the villa. And as we opened the gate, any delusions I’d held about “intrepid” or “flexible” were almost instantly revealed as utter pretense. It is hard to convey the sheer awfulness of the villa, but perhaps it is best captured by the verbiage on the owner’s website, which we had looked at before booking. According to this piece of fiction writing, “Although the villa is only one year old, its elegant architecture and antique furnishings tell a different tale.” Which was both true and not true: it was immediately clear that the tale we were walking into bore only a remote connection to the one told by our host — the crumbling, dark interior, the rusted broken ceiling fan, and piles of trash stowed in corners of the little building certainly were all much more than a year old, yet there was, bizarrely, a brand new flat screen television. The website fiction continued, “Soaring ceilings, gentle archways and deep verandas that wrap around the house allow gentle breezes to infiltrate and cool the interiors. The house offers a plethora of living and dining areas that are beautifully positioned for admiring the views.” But there were no views from the villa, nor was there a plethora of anything other than, perhaps, mosquitos – unless the tall exterior metal fence, which the owner somewhat anxiously reminded us to lock at all times, counted as a view, or the squat toilet located in the back of the property. And without AC or a functioning fan, nothing was cooling the interiors – it must have been at least 100 degrees in the main room.
Most surprising, however, was a bizarre architectural feature of the main room: an open rectangle cut in the roof, allowing rain to bucket down into a concrete depression in the floor – sort of a built in natural fountain, I guess, with a little bit of standing water at the bottom. It was not particularly beautiful to look at, but it did form the most effective mosquito breeding ground imaginable; great swarms of the insects flew out from the clammy bathroom in a grey cloud when we opened the door.
Seth and I looked at each other dubiously. “Well, we can just stay one night,” we whispered. The owner looked on happily, and we asked, “Mosquito nets?” He looked bewildered for a moment, then said, “I get,” and indeed drove out to find and hang them immediately, which was incredibly kind. So, at least we were unlikely to contract dengue fever while we slept in the midst of a mosquito swamp. I ushered the sweaty, rain dampened boys under their net, gave them a computer to keep them occupied, and turned to Seth. The storm outside intensified. The owner and van driver took off, smiling helpfully, into the dark, stormy night, and we were left alone to try to figure out our next steps.
First, we did not actually know where we were. We had no wifi, no food for dinner, no transportation, we were sweating buckets, and the rainstorm outside had intensified to a torrential thunderstorm.
“Okay,” we reasoned, “We’ll go to the main road, find a tuk tuk into the nearest town, and maybe from there we can find a different place to stay tomorrow.” We spent a little time trying to figure out hotels to call, but not knowing where we were, with no wifi and very little phone access, it was slow going. The heat and damp kept rising, as did the mosquito infestation. And then, just as I was thinking, “Okay, this is a mess, but we’re figuring it out,” the boys called out from under their mosquito net. “Mom? Um. It’s raining. Inside our bed.”
Sure enough, just above the big, unmoveable bed, there was a leak in the ceiling. The right hand side of the mattress was soaked. And there it was; the proverbial last straw. Forget intrepid, flexible, open minded, traveling like a local, or any other of my own fictions. I was going to panic instead, and I was going to do it dramatically.
Sensing impending disaster, Seth said, “We’re getting out of here. Now.” Grabbing umbrellas, we headed out in the dark, into a weird, vaguely surreal setting, as if the Coen brothers were travelling the Sri Lankan coast: a few steps down the muddy lane, a young man stepped out in front of us and offered to have us over for tea the next day. “Sounds nice,” we said, vaguely, through the storm, “We need to find dinner.” “Go to the Ceylon Café,” he suggested, “Just around corner. Very nice. Very very expensive.” “We’re not really looking for very expensive,” we noted. “OK, I call my friend. Tuk tuk driver! He can take you to town.” We stood a few minutes in the muddy downpour until a tuk tuk driver materialized and agreed to an extortionist fee to drive us to town – one’s bargaining power is starkly reduced when one is surrounded by wet, hungry, muddy children in a rainstorm, and even more so when one does not actually know either where one is, or where one is going.
A short drive to town did provide us with the useful information that we were in Ahangama, so at least our hell had a name. It did not, however, provide dinner – the few shops still open eyed us with vague curiousity, but nothing like a menu appeared forthcoming. It looked as though dinner might be ice cream for the boys. “We’re going back to that Ceylon Café,” I decided, “Screw very expensive”.
Another tuk tuk, back, and through some gates to…a secluded oasis. A huge garden with sparkling fairy lights guided us to the restaurant. The Cafe’s big veranda had ceiling fans lazily cutting through the damp air, jazz music playing overhead. We ordered fresh fish and a cocktail. Everything was delicious. Midway through the meal, I burst out laughing. “What is it?” Miles asked. “I honestly think that, of everywhere I have ever stayed, that might actually be the very worst place I’ve ever rented in my entire life.” We took out our phones, using the cafe wi-fi to figure out our options. And then, just as our meal was ending we realized — salvation — they had rooms at the Cafe itself. A big, airy one, with two double beds, air conditioning, breakfast provided at their lovely restaurant. And suddenly, we were looking at the new face of “intrepid”: at 10:00 PM, as the rain dwindled, we ran the block from the restaurant back to the rental “villa”, threw everything back in our bags, then ran back to the cafe, wheeling our bags behind us down the muddy lane as dogs barked and growled after us in a final unpleasant farewell. We texted the owner to explain as best we could the situation — we weren’t going to be staying there.
And just like that, the adventure was over. We awoke in the morning to sunshine and breakfast by the garden. And it turns out, Ahangama is a perfectly lovely place, with a beach that is beautiful and secluded. I think the town may even have restaurants, though we didn’t stay to find out. We were ready to put a little distance behind us, and moved on quickly to the next beach town of Mirissa. We ate fish on the beach. The boys took surfing lessons. We took a day trip back to Galle and imagined the old Dutch, Portuguese and British traders sailing to its crumbling fort. We were back to our scheduled plans.
But the mishap in Ahangama was an important moment for us as well — travels aren’t all perfectly executed excursions with air conditioning and beauty and smooth sailing. Sometimes travels throw you in with things like a tropical mosquito breeding colony in a thunderstorm, and rain in your bed. And I suppose how you weather those moments says more about “intrepid” and “resilient” than how you enjoy the good parts. I am delighted to report that in all ways, the boys were truly intrepid — even saying they shouldn’t have bothered to report the roof leak to me (“It was okay, mom. We could’ve just slept there.”) And me, well, I’m still working on intrepid — but Ahangama reminded me of humility, of how privileged we really are (plenty of people in the world sleep without fans or mosquito nets every night, though I don’t suppose they would choose to either), and the need to always be just a little more flexible than I think I am because, of course, it all worked out in the end. And honestly, the memory of our family making a silent, hasty dash for it in the middle of the night, towing our bags behind us down the dark road, headlamps lighting our way, laughing as we went — that’s a memory I wouldn’t trade for anything.