A couple of dives in Sri Lanka

Wednesday 03 April – Unawatuna.

I was up at the crack of dawn this morning, by 7:00 anyway and was down in the restaurant before they started serving breakfast at 7:30! I wanted to make sure I had a reasonable feed to make up for my lack of dinner last night. I had had a very late lunch! Today was diving day and I wanted breakfast fully digested before I hit the water.

I walked round to the dive shop and arrived on time to the usual dive shop scene of vaguely organised chaos. There were a lot of divers going out today, more than I have seen anywhere else on my travels, and it I think more than the dive shop staff could really cope with. Fortunately we split into three groups and even more fortunately I ended up with a group who were primarily English speakers rather than Russian. Usually I am not so lucky! We had a very hurried dive plan brief, were split into buddy pairs and then got our gear sorted. You can see how close the buildings are to the sea…

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Our first dive was a thirty metre deep wreck dive on the Rangoon. I don’t know anything about the wreck and disappointingly we were not told anything either. I guess I could google it! The dive was OK at best, visibility was rubbish and the dive master was too quick to move round the skeletal remains of the ships infrastructure, we really did not have time to look at much as we were constantly lost. My dive buddy ran low of air early so it was a short dive – though to the dive plan time I guess.

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We started making our way back to the shop to get a second set of tanks when the outboard on the boat stopped dead in the water. It took a while to get started, though there was no need to worry as we were only a kilometre or so from shore and well within cell range. Finally the engine took and we were off again. There were five customers on board and a pretty good group to chat with which was really nice for a change, I have had way to many silent rides on dive boats.

Once we had loaded up with fresh tanks we were off again, I thought we would change boats due to the engine failure but no, same boat and same problem on the way back from this dive. I think it summed up the dive shop for me, shonky!

The second dive was a shallow reef dive. Though there was not a lot of coral or anything much else to see, a few fish and that was about it. Visibility was poor even at ten metres and there was a reasonable wash that made buoyancy awkward and looking into all the small overhangs almost impossible. I was pretty unhappy with it, possibly the worst diving I have had yet, though I was OK, buoyancy and air use were both good, a shame about the dive site.

I was not impressed with the dive shop, as always I don’t name names, it is not their fault the visibility sucked, but I thought our dive master was very average. Having said that, there was a minor incident underwater with one of the other divers and the dive master reacted with utmost professionalism to ensure that diver safety was not compromised. That was at least a good sign.

The other thing I didn’t like was that the staff all smoked in the shop, it is reasonable normal in SE Asia, but I didn’t sit around for a coffee and chat after because the air was thick with stinky smoke. Bad customer service… On the subject of smoking the boat boy threw his cigarette butt into the sea, something I have never seen before, they always put them in a bin on the boat. I think it summed up the shop and probably Unawatuna; little or no respect for the environment that has given them the opportunity to make money.

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I walked back along the beach to my hotel at the far end. I had extended my stay here by a night, and just like the place in Tangalle, I had to change room, so my stuff was all moved while I was out diving. The room is nowhere near as good as the last one and I have the noisiest bed I have ever had the misfortune to sleep on, it didn’t just squeak at every movement, it yowled and screamed, a shame as it was quite comfy.

I had a much needed shower and then went down to the restaurant for a late lunch of pizza and beer. It was the best pizza I have had in Sri Lanka by a million miles, very nice – chilli chicken. It was the first chicken I have eaten as well, I have been sticking to a mainly vegetarian diet with the occasional egg, fish or sea food meal. The food has all been good though, I have not had a bad meal in Sri Lanka and have eaten a lot of the ‘short eat’ snacks, curry roles, curry wrapped in roti etc. I will miss them.

I hung out in the restaurant for a bit after the pizza, got a blog post completed and a few emails done, making the most of the wifi while I have it. I went for a short walk in the afternoon before heading back to the beach bar for another G and T or two on the beach while reading my book. Once it was dark I headed back towards my hotel. It was depressing walking past all the deserted and semi-deserted restaurants. I was not particularly hungry, but if I had found a restaurant with the right atmosphere I would have gone in and found a snack to go with a final, or two, G and T. There just was not one, the thought of being alone or joining the other sad lonely bastard sitting there with his or her book was too much. So I went back to my hotel and became the sad lonely bastard there; sitting over a laptop with a G and T.

Though I was not sad or lonely – just alone.

Galle Fort

Tuesday 02 April 2013 – Unawatuna.

I was in no rush to do anything much today so I mooched in bed till 8:30. I had been trying to avoid using the air con all night but the room is so vast the fan just did not create enough cool air so in the end I had to turn it on to try and bring the humidity down to a sleepable level, it barely worked. I had a western breakfast in the hotel, part of the room charge so I wasn’t going to go hunt down a Sri Lankan one, much as I would have enjoyed string hoppers and dhal again.

Late morning I Skyped my mum and youngest son back in NZ, I wanted to update them on my plans and it is always so nice to see them. I had the added bonus of being able to see one of my sisters as well and I have not seen her in ages ! I will update a bit more on my plans in the next couple of days.

In the early afternoon I wandered through Unawatuna and out to the main road to catch a bus into Galle, which is a few kilometres up the road. As I was standing in the bus stop a tuk-tuk came past after dropping people off and gave me a price for a ride into Galle that I could not turn down – win / win for both, so I took the ride into town.

Galle Fort was first built by the Portugese in the 16th century and then added to by the Dutch in the 17th and finally by the British in the 18th. Galle, as a significant port has been on world maps since the 2nd century, so it has a fair amount of history. Like a lot of places on the Sri Lankan south coast it was badly damaged during the 2004 tsunami. Though the old sea walls were largely undamaged, there was damage to many of the historic buildings inside the walled area. The fort section of Galle is a UNESCO protected site and is quite cool, sort of. Like a cross between Hoi An in Vietnam and Stone Town on Zanzibar.

My tuk-tuk dropped me off outside the main gate into the old forted part of town, the walls were mightily impressive even seen through these fairly jaded ‘been impressed by walls in the past’ eyes. I started walking up into the town, mainly in search of a cool drink and a wee lunch time snack, however I got latched onto fairly quickly by an old guy who assured me he was not a guide and then proceeded to guide me. I gave him five minutes, a couple of bucks and told him I did not want a guide. He left in a huff, but only after I got him to take a photo of me…

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I walked around the walls for a while in the sun, a habit I started in the Angkor temples, walking around the outside of a site first – look at the walls, look inside the walls, look for some of the interesting things to see outside of the centre.

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Like all the major tourist places I have been to in Sri Lanka there was a large school group visiting Galle Fort, I think it is very cool that the young people of this country visit some of the historically important sites, and in this case bring a drum and have a sing and dance as well.

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There are a number of large signboards around the town showing where the major highlights are, a couple of them, like the Black Fort are out of bounds to tourists. I fail to understand why a place as cool sounding as the Black Fort has to be the office of the deputy police commissioner.

Which brings me to briefly comment on people in uniforms carrying automatic weapons…. They are everywhere in Sri Lanka, every major tourist town seems to have a military base of some description, Galle has navy. I have no idea what was in Tangalle, but the whole town seemed to be covered in serious faced young men with guns. I know there was a long and ugly civil war here, but, come on, guns suck ! Remove them from the streets, especially in places like Galle. I want to see the Black Fort, I want to know why it is called the Black Fort, I probably would take a photo. Why does it have to be some deputy friggin cop’s office…. grrrrrrr

I spent the next couple of hours (calmly, I will add) wandering around the inside of the fort area, me being late in the tourist season it was quite deserted which was really nice, though it did make me an easy target for tuk-tuk drivers and others with things to sell.

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I loved this sign.

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I did eventually stop for a cold drink and a snack, but found it difficult to find much that was open and not selling western food, a bit like Hoi An, pizza and lattes seemed to be the choices of the day.

I took a walk out of the fort area and back to the high street area, I walked around for a while looking for a pair of board shorts but didn’t find anything that appealed.

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I ended up grabbing a tuk-tuk back to Unawatuna. I got the driver to drop me on the highway so I could walk back up the street and enjoy the much nicer atmosphere than that on the beach.

As I was walking I heard the music from a New Zealand ice cream van coming up behind me, but it turned out to be a small truck selling local foods, so grabbed a couple of egg and vege rolls – lovely 🙂

I had a cool down shower in my room then read by the pool for a while before heading to one of the beach bars for a G and T and to read some more. I had been put off by the whole beach bar thing, not that I am opposed to them, I love them, just don’t like the way it seems so rapacious here, but I did enjoy a drink until it was too dark to read anymore.

I had dinner at my hotel and went to bed early and read some more. I am reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and it is beyond addictive, it was a late night.

Paradise Lost.

Monday 01 April 2013 – Unawatuna.

I had another one of those terrible sleepless nights with the inevitable dropping off into a doze around 6:00 and getting an hour of sleep before waking and getting up ready to leave Tangalle. I kinda liked Tangalle, it had a good mix of plush – and not so plush tourism as well as dusty old daily Sri Lankan life. I cannot say the same about my next stop though…

I had breakfast and coffee at the guest house before leaving, a very radical concept given I was about to catch a bus, though in theory it was only a short journey of seventy ish kilometres to my next stop of Unawatuna. I took a tuk-tuk back into town to the main bus stop and got on a bus heading towards Colombo. It was very hot and humid under cloudy skies in the bus station so I spent most of the time standing outside with the wise locals as we waited for departure. I feel entirely secure here in Sri Lanka, there are not many places where I would leave my pack under a seat and my day bag with laptop and camera in it on the seat, while I stood outside. Admittedly I could see my day bag, but in some countries that means nothing at all. In the main the Sri Lankans are an honest people – no one will steal your stuff anyway.

The ride to Unawatuna was the wildest yet, man – we were going so fast, the horn blaring loudly all the way, the bus was absolutely packed and I was stupidly on the inland side so missed seeing all the famous beaches as we screamed through village and town, screeching to a halt to pick up and drop off passengers at seemingly random points. The conductor gave me a couple of minutes notice so I could untangle myself and my possessions from all the people around me and get off the bus without delaying it too long at the stop. This will be my last bus ride in Sri Lanka. I am not sure if I will miss them or not.

I am going to stay in Unawatuna for three nights and then catch a train from nearby Galle to Colombo for my final night in Sri Lanka. I am staying in a hotel, which is by my standards very expensive, at 60NZD a night. I have a massive room, air con, a TV and mini bar. But the wifi sucks – it is always the way. Wifi works great everywhere except my room!

The first thing I did once I had gotten to my room was to flick the air con on and then take a shower to remove the deep sweat from a solid humid day. My room is quite well covered and I thoroughly enjoyed walking around in the cool air in um, not many clothes, as it were – luxury !

I have come to Unawatuna to do two things, to dive in Sri Lanka and to visit the historical fort section of nearby Galle city. Unawatuna is a tourist town on the side of a bay that allows for reasonably safe swimming – unlike other parts of the coast. I took a walk through the single main street of Unawatuna back towards the highway where the main dive shops are. I had a short feeling of good will towards the town, it reminded me a bit of El Nido in the Philippines – a town I have fond (rose tinted maybe ?) memories of. Unawatuna too, is dusty and beach side and touristy and a bit jaded and faded and I kind of liked that.

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Though I would not stay here – ever.

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This all changed when I had found the dive shop I wanted and booked myself a dive and then headed back up the beach rather than the road. They have completely ruined what would be a nice beach, guesthouses and restaurants and bars litter the narrow beach, in some cases, past the below tide line. It is a scene of unrelenting destruction and I decided there and then I didn’t like Unawatuna anymore. OK, I will admit unrelenting ugliness is a massive exaggeration, but it could be so much more than what it has become and I am sad for Unawatuna.

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I walked dejectedly back to my hotel and had a cooling swim in the pool, not being able to face the thought of swimming in the sea. I had another great Skype call with El, maybe the last for a while before I head out on the yacht in a few days time – I will miss her smile and her sort of East London accented voice. I went to bed early feeling a wee bit melancholy.

Unawatuna is definitely the best sounding town name I have been to, so much easier to say than Anuradhapura!