© Mark Lowey 1979, 2023. All rights reserved.
In September 1979, Mark Lowey completed a two-year stint working in the oil fields of the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia. Afterwards, as a solo backpacker, then 24-year-old Mark spent three months exploring Nepal and India, and then headed to Sri Lanka, the island nation below the southern tip of India.
In Part 1 of this series, Mark visited Colombo to take care of errands at the bank and airline office, visited the botanical gardens, and encountered a snake charmer-street performer.
Slow Train South
Journal entry, December 22, 1979: “Woke up early, rushed breakfast, checked out of Hotel Nippon and taxied to Maradana station. Big crowd waiting and they all started jumping on train. I jumped through a window only to find train going wrong way! @#$%&! Carried all my stuff over to the other train that had just arrived. Sweating profusely. Crowded humanity!”
Hikkaduwa in southern Sri Lanka.
It was time to escape crowded, steamy Colombo city and head to Hikkaduwa, back then a primitive beach resort, three-hours south, by train. Brown, faux-leather duffel bag in hand and maroon JanSport day pack on my back, I arrived at Colombo’s main train station, Maradana , and the platform was packed. Travelers were crowding onto the train. I couldn’t get near the doors. I noticed people climbing through the open windows of the 2nd class compartments. I did the same, first handing my duffel bag to the passengers inside. I found a spot on a hard bench, the train lurched, and we set off.
Immediately I realized I was on the wrong train heading north! As the train slowly edged forward, I still had time to exit the same way I came in. My would-be compartment mates smiled and laughed good-naturedly, and my duffel bag followed me out the window.
By now I was a sweaty mess. I went up the steep stairs and down again to the adjacent platform where a southbound train was waiting. Throngs of passengers had already climbed aboard, and all the seats were taken. I found a spot on the steps of the open door to the baggage car and sat on my bag.
This time, rolling southward, I finally relaxed. We were soon clear of the dense, urban neighborhoods and suddenly my view was a lush green foreground and blue ocean beyond. Passing coconut palm trees, thatched-roof villages, and long stretches of beach, I put on my sunglasses, took in the scenery, and gradually became covered in the dust and grime of the railroad wayside.
Traveling south from Colombo.
Arrival in Hikkaduwa
From Hikkaduwa station I set off on foot in search of accommodation. A little way down the narrow road along the beach was Brothers Spot, a simple, open-air, thatched roof restaurant, catering to young travelers. The Brothers menu featured sandwiches, burgers, beer, juices, and salads made with a myriad of local fruits. At Brothers, I encountered jaffles for the first time. (Originally from Australia, a jaffle is a toasted sandwich cooked between two heated steel plates like a panini grill.)
I sampled a savory veggie-cheese jaffle, had a cup of tea, and met a few travelers from Holland and England. Collin, a Brit, said he was leaving town that day and that I should check out the room for rent across the street. “It’s cheap,” were his parting words.
I needed a room and a shower. Across from Brothers was the household of Mr. Tally, a sinewy, grey-haired Sri Lankan who lived there with his wife and family. On his modest compound he had a detached studio of sorts, a small room with a concrete floor, single bed and one window. The room had no electricity. Tally wanted Rs50 (USD $0.60) per night.
He showed me the room, and I accepted his offer. Tossing my luggage on the bed, I asked, “Where’s the shower?” Tally led me across the dirt courtyard to a low stone wall near his water well. Behind a few banana trees was a small flagstone platform and a plastic bucket. A short distance further into the trees was a crude outhouse latrine. I decided it would suffice for the duration of my stay.
A departure from the relative luxuries (and indoor plumbing) of the Hotel Nippon, water-well bucket showers became the norm for the next ten days, setting a lifelong fondness for outdoor showers that persists to this day.
I posed with Tally and his family.
A Relaxing Routine
I spent my days at the beach and hanging out at Brothers Spot. I embraced the leisurely pace of life. I let my hair grow and even managed to grow a beard.
Journal entry: ‘Lovely body surfing, frisbee on the beach and an incredible sunset! Took photos. Sat around Brothers for dinner and played backgammon with Jamie and that skinny Dutch girl. Lost to her on a bet for an ice cream!”
Sunset in Hikkaduwa.
At night my little room at Tally’s place was airless and stuffy, and, with the screenless window wide open, I needed mosquito coils  to combat the insects. Balanced above a small tin tray, I struck a match and lit one end of the coil hoping the fragrant incense smoke would do its job. A coil typically lasted for four or five hours.
Journal entry: “Read 'Shogun' by candlelight. Mosquito coils keep going out on me.”
Just offshore from Hikkaduwa were coral reefs and a submerged shipwreck. At the Poseidon Station dive center, I rented equipment and booked several dives during my stay.
“Went out in the dive boat and found that the current was too strong to dive at the shipwreck as planned. So, we motored past the rocks, almost opposite Brothers Spot, to some coral and submerged rocks. Was better there and went down for around one hour. Not too clear but had no problem negotiating the ever-reversing currents. Saw some nice fish.”
“Tough getting back on board and felt mildly seasick on rolling, hot ride in. Felt better after a jaffle and milkshake at Brothers.”
“B’fast at Brothers then went diving out at the wreck with about sixteen Germans. Easily cleared ears while descending. Left ear has been a problem. Saw a lobster, huge grouper, parrot fish. Took photos of the shoreline opposite Galle.”
Unloading the Poseidon boat after a dive.
Journal entry: “After breakfast, rode my rental bike south to Donanduwa village. Stopped to take photos at the beach and all these cute kids came and sat around me asking me questions and asking for a song.”
Donanduwa village was an easy five-kilometer pedal south along the beach road. When I arrived, I took a break, sat on a fallen palm tree overlooking the beach, and promptly attracted a small group of children intent on meeting me to practice their English.
After “What is your name?” and “How are you?” one of their questions caught me by surprise, “Will you sing a song?” My first reaction was to politely refuse, but I had nothing to lose. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star? The Birthday song? I decided on a rousing rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. I’m not sure what they thought, and they didn’t ask what Crackerjack was. Looking back, I probably should have taught them a simple song they could learn and sing themselves.
The friendly kids in Dondanduwa.
Sri Lankan Fishermen
I resumed my bicycle ride southward from Dondanduwa towards Galle and stopped to watch the fisherman go about their daily routine in the manner of their forefathers.
Stilt fishing is one of the ancient methods of fishing in Sri Lanka. It consists of a single pole and crossbar planted in the sea close to the shore. Fishermen balance for hours to fish for their daily needs. Sadly, stilt fishing in Sri Lanka is now mainly a tourist attraction where locals can earn more posing for photographs than actually fishing.
A stilt fisherman at sunset.
Net fishing. Sets of large, connected nets, with weights and buoys attached, are pulled around fifty meters offshore by boats and left for several hours to gather the day’s catch. From above, the configuration resembles an elongated U-shape with the nets at the curved end and two parallel rope lines attached to both sides of the nets extending to the beach. When the time is right, twenty to thirty men waiting nearby are called upon to drag the nets ashore.
Starting at the water’s edge, the men form two single-file lines on the beach and grasp the two long ropes. Then the pulling begins. Rhythmic chants from the group signal each synchronized pull. As the nets approach the shore, the men at the back trot up to the front of the queue and take their place at the water’s edge to resume pulling.
Anticipation grows as the nets edge closer. Finally, the nets are pulled onto the sand to reveal their bounty. Crowds of men and women gather, and the catch is distributed equitably to the villagers according to a time-honored code.
One morning I confidently agreed to accompany an expert surfer to the surf break north of town. My only previous experience had been in Waikiki, Hawaii, on a longboard that was pushed, helpfully, by a surfing instructor just as a gentle wave arrived to carry me to shore.
Journal entry: I woke up early to go surfing with the Frenchman, Didira. Hired a surfboard for Rs20 (US $0.25). Paddled out there, Didira helped me attach the ankle leash and I had a crappy time. Waves were big, board was too small, and I couldn’t stand up. The coral just below the surface was ruthless on the short runs I tried. (As I tumbled in the waves, I had to keep my hands under water to make sure I didn’t bump the sharp coral.) Then the @#$%&! surfboard sprang back on its leash and put a gash in my forehead with its fin! Yeow! Miraculously, American Andy was on the beach and gave me a band-aid.
Then I rode my bike to the village pharmacy and was directed to the local doctor-surgeon, but he wasn’t home. So, I let the pharmacist put in one stitch with fishing line. Not a bad job and it only cost Rs15, including penicillin. (Turns out the pharmacist is also the village veterinarian and takes care of all the local livestock.)
Dinner at Tally’s
That evening my host family prepared a traditional meal for me. Chicken and beef curry with chutney and vegetable side dishes, fresh cow curd, mango, and coconut water.
Journal entry: “After frisbee on the beach and watching the sunset I returned to Tally’s house for dinner. They had it all decked out for me, an incredible curry feast and I was worthy of it. Mmm.”
Tally prepares a coconut for drinking.
Christmas Day was another lowkey day of swimming, snorkeling, and frisbee on the beach. That night Brothers Spot threw a dinner party offering a special menu of seafood curry and arak  punch. I sat at a table full of Americans. We danced to bad disco music. Later that evening, after a walk on the beach under a half-moon, I reflected that I hadn’t been home for over eleven months, and suddenly felt homesick.
Journal entry, December 25-26, 1979: “Just before midnight rode bike to Coral Sands Restaurant where the guy booked my call. Good man. Fell asleep on a couch in the lobby for four hours and at 4:30 a.m. spoke to mom, dad, [sisters] Sally and Robin, and Grandpa Carl. They were just sitting down to Christmas dinner in California without me! Great connection and good to hear their voices! Really good.”
After ten days in Hikkaduwa, I felt recharged and ready to continue my Asian walkabout. Next: one night in Colombo and a flight to Bangkok, Thailand the following day.
Journal entry: Woke early, returned rental bike, had that tear in my backpack repaired, drank three glasses of orange juice at Brothers, gonna catch the 3:11 to Colombo. Ate a last lunch with the Australians and said goodbye to Tally and his family. Gave him my pocketknife, but he wanted my towel! Went to pharmacy to get my forehead wound redressed and waited for the train with Jamie. Drank a coconut. The train was so full I almost gave up. But I rode in the baggage car and sat on my bag the whole beautiful sunset way to Colombo.
 Maradana Railway Station. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maradana_railway_station
The Maradana Station is a major rail hub in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The station is served by Sri Lanka Railways, with many inter-city and commuter trains entering each day. When the railways first opened in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1864, trains terminated at Colombo Terminus Station, a now-retired station near Maradana. In 1906, a project was launched to reorganize the railway within the Colombo area. Colombo Terminus Station was closed and replaced by the new Maradana Station. The main building is an example of British colonial architecture.
 Mosquito Coil. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosquito_coil
A mosquito coil is a mosquito-repelling incense, usually made into a spiral, and typically made using dried paste of pyrethrum powder. The coil is usually held at the center of the spiral, suspending it in the air to allow continuous smoldering. Burning begins at the outer end of the spiral and progresses slowly toward the center of the spiral, producing a mosquito-repellent smoke.
 Stilt Fishing. https://www.mewithmysuitcase.com/2021/02/sri-lankan-stilt-fishermen.html
 Arak. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrack
Arak is a distilled alcoholic drink typically produced in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia. It is made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers or sugarcane, and also from grain (e.g. red rice) or fruit depending upon the country of origin.