GOYAMBOKKA, Sri Lanka — After three days of sweating through the grime, frustration and technological maze of Colombo, after a four-hour bus ride in the dark, I have found paradise’s paradise. Goyambokka Beach is off the charts perfect. Not that this place is off the beaten path, but people in Colombo had never heard of it.
A narrow path leads from the dirt road outside my guesthouse down through the jungle for about 100 meters. At the end it opens up to a spectacular half-moon bay, lined with palm trees facing a turquoise sea. Gentle waves ripple against sugary white sand without a pebble in sight. A few comfy, cushioned lanais chairs sit under umbrellas next two little beach bars on stilts. I grabbed one lounge chair and a friendly, pot-bellied man said hi.
“KEY-a-duh?” (“How much?” in Sinhala.) I asked, pointing at the chair.
“You eat here lunch, it’s free,” he said.
I spent the next six hours going from gorgeous sunshine to under the umbrella to a sea as warm as bath water. Only about 20 people were on the beach. If this beach was in Hawaii, it would be pockmocked by Hilton and Marriott and seafood restaurants charging $50 for mahi-mahi.
I’m reading “Seasons of Trouble,” about the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war that ended only six years ago. The disgust of prison life and the oppression of the military while I sat on this postcard perfect beach made me wonder if I was on the same planet let alone the same country. One of the book’s three main characters watched her father die of diarrhea. Is there a more degrading way to die? Myself, I dined on garlic fish with an ice-cold Lion Lager beer for lunch. Cost? About $3.
I chatted with the pot-bellied beach bar owner, Christian. He is from Goyambokka and I bridged the possible sensitive topic of the 2004 tsunami. It cost 100,000 lives in 25 countries and few countries were hit harder than Sri Lanka. I asked where in Sri Lanka it hit. He waved his index finger sideways.
“All along here,” he said. “In Tangalle (the main town just two miles to the east), many people die. Three people here die.”
“How high did the water come?” I asked.
He pointed straight up, to the pointy bamboo-thatched roof of his bar. It stood about 15 feet.
“It came to about one meter under the roof,” he said. “It went almost to the road.”
Think about it. A six-meter wall of water sweeps through the beach and goes nearly 100 meters up the beach. The three who died were tourists asleep on the beach. They didn’t even hear the wave. It didn’t come crashing down. The whole ocean rose in one big wall of water and moved forward. Way forward. I asked where he was.
“Here,” he said. “I saw it coming and ran up into the coconuts.”
While playing in the surf, which is one of the safest in Sri Lanka, I could feel the slight tug of undertows as the waves went back out to sea. The thought of an 18-foot wave as it rolls back down the hill after crashing made me shiver in the warm surf. You’d need to tie yourself to a redwood tree to keep from being swept out a mile. If you were, what a way to die. You either swim a mile or drown.
I found myself looking out at the surf, seeing for any kind of rise.
I returned for happy hour for another Lion Lager and was joined by three couples and a tall blonde. She was about 5-foot-10, athletic, pretty, probably mid-30s. As she paid, she asked about renting a chair tomorrow. Christian said, if you eat there, it’s free.
“Order the garlic fish,” I said. “It’s fantastic.”
“Oh! A single traveler! We’re a dying species,” she said.
She came over and plopped herself down and ordered a beer. We chatted for three hours. She’s a Dutchwoman from Utrecht and quit her job running her own company. She’s traveled all over alone: China twice, Thailand, Mexico, New York, Spain. She studied in Spain for six months. Like every other woman traveler, she’s tired of getting approached by men.
“A LOT of men,” she said. “It’s the same story. Where are you from? How long have you been in Sri Lanka? Can I show you around?”
Traveling solo is massively different for women and men. For women, sexual harassment is as common as ATM withdrawals. It’s worse in some countries, particularly Muslim ones. In North Africa and Turkey, Western women stroll around wearing beach clothes while Muslim women remain primarily virgins. It seems every man has a friend who “scored a Western chick” and wants to be the next one.
Men are only harassed by financial hustlers. We get harassed sexually but only in Thailand. And prostitutes take no for an answer.
But, like me, she loves traveling without answering to anyone and having her own schedule. Then again, you find yourself in an impossibly romantic corner of the world like this cove on the south end of Sri Lanka and you wish you were with somebody.
“I wonder about that, when I find romantic places,” she said. “It’d be nice to be with someone.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s better to be alone than be with someone you don’t want to be with. Ever done that?”
Our conversation never got past the rudimentary travel tales and comparisons of cultures. She loves Holland and one thing she’s learned from travel is she’s so glad she grew up in Holland and lives there now. I told her I’ve learned to be happy with so much less. That’s true. Take Christian. He makes a rudimentary living selling cheap seafood to tourists but he has a happy family and lives in one of the beautiful corners of the world. How much more does he need?
I live in Rome. How much more do I need?