Trincomalee: Sri Lanka's East Coast
January 1, 1970
by Shahle Amirpanahi
Upon my arrival in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, I was made aware that the time I am traveling is “Not Season”. This came to be a phrase I heard Nationwide. Sri Lanka is divided into various seasonal regions and Colombo, on the island’s West Coast is affected by the south west monsoon, which happened to be during my stay in May.
A brief time in Mt Lavinia
During my stay in Colombo it didn’t seem like monsoon season at all. Perhaps it was the relaxation and my four days under the Mount Lavinia sun, soaking up the rays with chili mangoes for breakfast and local Lion beer for dinner. The only inklings of the monsoon season was the sprinkling of rain in the evenings, the heat of the air turning it to mist before it hit the ground.
And the sea.
Strong undertows, rip tides and pulling swells which waves slap you in the face with their force. The ocean grew murky with movement and filled with swirling dark sand and as the days went by. I knew that my little paradise could be found elsewhere in the pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Research had led me to the decision of traveling East to a town called Trincomalee. I rode a tuk-tuk from Mount Lavinia Beach to Colombo Fort station to take one of the two direct trains to Trincomalee. One service at 6:15 a.m. (far too early for a girl on island time) and one “Night Mail” train at 9 p.m. Purchasing a first class ticket was a breeze, strolling to the office one hour prior to departure and selecting a berth for a reasonable price. I later learned that I got lucky and you usually need to book far in advance.
At last, the east. The horn marks the sound of arrival, departure and my alarm clock. Waking up at 6 a.m. you find yourself hanging your head out the window of your cabin while the train chuggs through the countryside. Children wave and scream ‘hello’ after you as the villages wake up from their slumber. The landscape is relatively sparse, small patches of trees and clusters of homes surrounded by fields the harbour peeking out from the horizon.
I arrived at the Uppuvelli beach after meeting a local hotelier who led me to his guest house. Sanju, affectionately known by his guest house/Western name of Alex introduces me to what Trincomalee, (Trinco for short) has to offer. But first, a cup of coffee -on the house of course. His guest house is well and truly run by family. Early morning, the kids are getting ready for school, the sisters and aunties are having tea and coffee while catching up on the gossip. Sanju recommends the major Beach hot spot, Fernando’s for good food. You should try the house-made hummus. The big attractions in Trinco are snorkeling diving and marine life. Many guest houses and hotels provide tours and PADI open water dive training. The most popular tour is Pigeon Island. You can take a day trip to the islands by boat where they provide snorkeling equipment, a bite to eat and the entry fee. Rumor has it that you can spot leatherback turtles.
A snorkeling adventure
Being a shoestring kind of girl, I opted out of this one to follow some local advice and go to a secret spot. So off we went. We, being myself, a lovely English couple and a Dutch girl. We heard the spot was called ‘Navy Island,’ and to this day I’m still not really sure of the name. We were dropped at a beach that didn’t look so snorkel-friendly. Trash, debris and a drainage pipe doesn’t usually make a recipe for good snorkeling. We thought that surely it wouldn’t be the spot, so off we went, wandering around the town, trying to locate Navy Island.
The pace here is relaxed. Fisherman ride through the neighborhood with a set of scales and a bloodied chopping board on the back of a bicycle, selling their daily catch. Children smiled at us everywhere, big toothy grins and high-fives. We stumbled to the edge of the Naval Base where we were informed that we couldn’t go any further and no swimming was connected in the surrounding water. After exhausting all our options we returned to our original spot, tiptoed through the litter and settled by the rocks.
Why not give it a go? I’m in the water, putting my mask on, ready to wade in.
“I would swim if I were you”, says the English bloke, Sean.
“Eh, why’s that?”
“Just saw a needle on the seabed.”
“What?! Can you grab it?” I’m trying to think when I last had a tetanus shot.
He fossicks in the sand and finds a small needle, one used for insulin. Just give it a go, I remind myself.
Good thing I did. The water around the rocks was devoid of litter, but certainly not devoid of sea life. Angelfish, clownfish and rainbow fish, Malou, the Dutch girl said. Schools of small silver fish that darted past like a spray of bullets. I’m not the best with names of marine species, only characters from Finding Nemo. Dory, Nemo the whole gang was around. Josie had seen a puffer fish, Sean spotted a moray eel. I’m glad I didn’t see those. When we surfaced, a tour boat had pulled up close by.
“How did you know about this place?” they asked.
Aha! So we had found the secret spot! Turns out this was one of the special places that the boats go, the other being around Swami Rock.
At midday, it was time to avoid the sun and grab a snack. Roadside fruit stands are all over Sri Lanka, but I feel as though the ones in the east were my favourite. In true coastal style, it was coconut time. Four king coconuts, the water sweet and hydrating, cut open to reveal the soft and smooth meat inside. Eaten with a chip of the husk as a spoon. The texture like a soft but juicy marshmallow, the taste, fresh but slightly creamy, a taste I will always associate with Trincomalee.