curfew

Sri Lanka beach

A Trip to the Beach as Curfew Ends in Sri Lanka

The sights and sounds of the beach were as they had been before. At the hotel, set back in the jungle, monkeys scampered along the roof in the early morning, leaping onto palm fronds and sliding down slender, grey trunks. Peacocks meowed. Street dogs lounged on the dirt roads. From the balcony, you could see a sliver of golden sand where waves, barely audible because of the birdsong, rolled and crashed.

But the rhythm of beach life was different than it had been when we came to this same Southern Province beach three months ago, our last trip before the COVID-19 curfew began. Everything was, as they like to say in South Asia, “same same – but different.”

The most notable difference was the lack of people. Domestic tourism in Sri Lanka, i.e., travel between provinces, has been permissible since the second week of June. But many travelers – rather, those who have the income and privilege to travel – have been understandably slow to dip their toes in the water, taking a cautious approach to getting back to “normal.”

Then there are the hotels that are still closed, the restaurants that are shuttered, and all of the auxiliary hospitality services – tour guides, surf lessons, beach shacks – that had to shut down when the tourists stopped coming. Gone were the beach shacks that had previously rented out chairs and kept us hydrated with cold Lion beers and coconut water.

During our last trip to this secluded beach, which we took about one week prior to the coronavirus-induced shutdown, we were overwhelmed by choice.

Sun-faded surfboards and boogie boards sprouted every few meters, make-shift “surf schools” run by local boys who sat in plastic chairs in the shadow of the jacaranda and palm trees. For a couple thousand rupees (around $20-30), you could rent a board and an instructor for an hour and a half.

Some of the more enterprising schools had sophisticated cameras with zoom lenses and one of the guys took photos while you were out surfing with one of their buddies. I bought a few from my session (about $.50/photo) and they emailed me a google drive link for downloading them the previous morning.

Sri Lankan surfers

But this time, none of that was there. One restaurant within beach-walking distance was open, so we ate lunch and dinner there and also bought beers and waters from them during the time we were on the beach. My husband spoke to the owner one night at dinner and learned that he had had 60 covers the night before. As the only game in town, he was not hurting for business nor was he eager for the shacks or expat-run restaurants to re-open.

In many ways, it was the beach of dreams. The sea was empty and so was the shore. Those who had come to surf, and had brought their own surfboards, did not have to compete for waves. Swimmers did not have to dodge surfers. The crescent of sand around the bay was wide open, absent of touts and Instagrammers. The only nuisance was the docile beach dogs, who were so happy to see humans in their territory that they weren’t a nuisance at all. Tourists were few, either Sri Lankans or us foreigners who lived in Sri Lanka. I like to think that we outsiders were low maintenance since we had been there during the entire quarantine, if not longer, and knew what was available, what was and wasn’t possible.

It was liberating to finally get out of town for a few days, to see new surroundings. But it was also sad witnessing the immediate effects that a global pandemic has had on a tourism-dependent economy.

Sri Lanka was just starting to get back on its feet after the 2019 terrorist bombings destroyed livelihoods for many in the tourism industry. So a second year without tourism is an especially devastating blow. One hopes that the country can begin to recover its losses once international travel resumes. But as of this writing, the reopening of the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo has been pushed back beyond mid-August.

You can read more about post-curfew travel in Sri Lanka – the ins and outs, sights and sounds – in my twitter thread below.

An empty Galle Road, Colombo, during lockdown

I Should Be Writing This Down

I should be writing this down. All of this.

This is what I tell myself daily or weekly, whenever I am doing something incredible or even mundane. I should be writing down what flowers that are in bloom, the sounds of the birds, how I feel, and what I am thinking.

I should be writing down what is happening in the world around me. Right now, the world is at a standstill because of coronavirus. And I should be writing about what it has been like here in Sri Lanka.

When I started writing this, Sri Lanka had 136 active cases out of a total of 180. Six people had died. (Now, a few days later, I’ve returned to this post with different numbers: 165, 233, 7.)

The kids have already been out of school and I have been teleworking for more than a month. Sri Lanka’s nationwide curfew began on 20 March and I have barely been out of the house since then. Today is April 15th.

I have been tracking the coronavirus situation in Italy obsessively since the end of February. So I felt okay, even relieved, when Sri Lanka began shutting down. Most cases were coming from people traveling here, either Sri Lankans returning home from Europe and the Middle East or Europeans trying to “outrun” the virus. After watching what was happening in Italy, I knew it was the right decision for this country to quarantine for a while.

Like everywhere else, it has been a challenge here. We are under a curfew so our lockdown situation is quite different than the ones I am reading about in the U.S. and Italy.

No one is allowed on the streets unless for essential reasons, like delivery of groceries, street cleanup, trash collection, etc. I can walk my dog down the street but I can’t go to the park or go hiking. We can’t go to the grocery store or order take-out food but we can order groceries and a few restaurant foods. Taco Bell, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut are delivering in some areas; Uber Eats and local delivery service PickMe are operating but not serving all areas.

Anyone who wants a curfew pass must present themselves at a police station and apply. We have been lucky because we are diplomats and have freedom of movement by virtue of our status. But we are complying with the ordinance, staying at home, and generously tipping delivery drivers and trash men.

We have also been fortunate to be a part of the embassy community, as everyone is coming together to discuss supplies — who delivers what, for example — and plan virtual activities like trivia nights and talent shows. Any time vegetable and egg trucks pass through neighborhoods, a buzz starts up on the WhatsApp group. It reminds me of years ago (2011?) when food trucks used Twitter to announce their whereabouts.

An empty Galle Road, Colombo, during lockdown
An empty Galle Road, Colombo, during lockdown

This curfew will overlap with the one-year anniversary of the Sri Lanka Easter bombings on 21 April. That’s another thing I should have written about when it was happening. But it was just so depressing and destabilizing. We were at church on that Sunday, albeit one that went untargeted. And we were ordered to evacuate a little over a week later. So there was little time for me to process what was happening and what to write while packing suitcases for an undetermined amount of time.

So, the curfew in Sri Lanka has been helpful in several ways. Sri Lanka has a population the size of the state of Florida but so far has seven deaths compared to Florida’s 571. Of course, there are many factors that differentiate these two spits of land. But I can’t help but think that Florida’s numbers would be lower if they had been able to enact a stricter stay-at-home order like the one we have here. I’m also thankful that the curfew will take place during the anniversary of the attacks so no one feels obligated to pack the churches in a fearless act of defiance.

I have grown weary of being at home and of waking up confused to what day it is. I doubt that I will come out of this having written the great coronavirus novel. But I am glad that I am finally taking the time to write this.

Now, I hope to start filling this blog full of travel photos — as was my original mission! And, if you have read this far, you can help me. What should I write about next?