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The Emerald Isle of Sri Lanka

The Emerald Isle of Sri Lanka
I  was on my way to the Island of my dreams–Sri Lanka – which conjured visions of sun, sand and music that featured my favourite pop legends like Des Kelly and his ‘Lovely Island Home.’ My flight to Colombo began with a soothing back and neck massage – courtesy Business Class of Sri Lankan Airlines – in Mumbai, before I boarded the aircraft on a two–hour flight to Sri Lanka. It was a contrast of scenarios hovering between twilight and bright sky in the Emerald Isle of the Indian Ocean as my flight ferried me from Mumbai in the wee hours of the night to rain–soaked Colombo, and then by car to Negombo 30 km away. My spirits sank – my first sight of Sri Lanka being a gloomy, cloudy sky hovering over a massive greywater lagoon but then  my heart soared at the echoing sounds of fishes leaping in the air and splashing into the water, and gentle waves lashing the breakwater shore of the Jetwings Lagoon Resort at Negombo, near Colombo. 

I was in Colombo for the ‘Smart Villages’ conference, where the focus was the environment and ways to green it and make the world’s rural areas a better place to live in. With one day free before brainstorming, I decided to experience the sights and sound of Negombo in Colombo. The Resort arranged a taxi for Rs 2,400 (split into three between me and two other journalists) to visit Negombo village several km away since Colombo was too far away (30 km) and would cost a hefty Rs 8,000 for a round car trip. 

As we passed from the countryside into the city area, the scenes evoked familiar memories of the village life in erstwhile Portuguese Goa – where women walked in colourful dresses and men in shorts plied their baked goods and farm produce on bicycles to market. The rain–washed and clean roads were a delight to walk in, the rain splashing on our flip–flops as we went past the fish market (tuna, kingfish, red emperors and other fishes on display), before being drawn to aromas of spices drifting in from the shops. We bought aromatic cardamom at Rs 3,000 per kilo but gave up on the locally–grown cinnamon, which was thinner and less aromatic than ours.

The drive through Negombo was full of surprises. I thought the ‘White House’ was in the USA. Imagine seeing one here in egombo, outside Colombo in Sri Lanka, though this one had nothing to do with world politics except maybe selling novelties and curios to global tourists. Negombo has plenty of churches as tourist attractions just like Goa, with statues of the various saints at many street junctions. When I entered one of them – St Mary’s Church – my eyes were drawn to quaint yet colourful little wooden side stairways that led to the choir and belfry above. Colourful Biblical scenes could be seen in massive paintings and statues, besides a huge yet ancient–looking ‘confessional’ – that was probably a leftover from the Portuguese era 500 years ago, like in Goa. 

Our return at dusk saw us making a thirsty tea–stop at a tiny near–the–beach caféstore named ‘Amma’— in Mangkuli area of Negombo – run by Jayawardene and his wife Anuja, who whipped up cups of delicious cocoa–flavoured milky tea. The sight of Mr J deftly preparing egg–parathas made us hungry for some – despite our huge afternoon lunch.

I must mention the two little ‘Red–wattled Lapwings’ (who seemed to be permanent residents at the Jetwings Lagoon Resort and whom I named dicky birds) that maintained a keen–eyed, one–legged sentry watch on the shore, awaiting the odd insect or the tidbits from diners’ plates blowing off in the wind that was constant yet cool here, in 20 degree temperatures. Our return to the Resort was amusing as our familiar twin dicky birds greeted us with musical shrieks and dainty dances like models sashaying down the breakwater in brightly jewelled shades.  

I regretted not checking out the famed gemstones of Sri Lanka, which I had heard about in India. But time was too short and we had to return back to the resort by dark for a familiarity gathering of participants in a wine-and-dine setting. Eating at the Jetwings Lagoon Resort was a delight. Diverse flavours for diverse palates - the food at Jetwing Lagoon captured the rich tastes and heritage of Sri Lanka’s multicultural cuisine. From fresh seafood to haut cuisine, the meals were simply intoxicating as we unwound while sipping exotic cocktails and drinking in the stunning view of the lagoon. Traditional Sri Lankan meals of rice and curry, string hoppers and pol sambol were featured alongside international favourites like Corn-on-the-cob in cream, barbecued lamb, and fish and chicken skewers and sizzlers, Thai noodles, et al. 

Even though it could never compete in a beauty contest against many Sri Lankan beaches, Negombo’s beach, which stretches north from the town right along the hotel strip before fading into a palm tree distance, has been recently tidied up and, in front of the big hotels, is now quite pleasant. Sadly, the water does have a distinct brown colour thanks to estuary run–off and pollution, but it’s no longer bad enough to stop people swimming.

Foreign tourists can often access the beach in front of most big hotels even if you’re not staying, but for a more colourful (and noisier) scene, join the locals at what is known as Negombo Beach Park.Even though the next few days were hectic, I made time to explore the town. With a friendly local community, an interesting old quarter and a nice beach, Negombo is a much easier place to get your Sri Lankan feet than Colombo. The Dutch captured the town from the Portuguese in 1640, lost it, and then captured it again in 1644. The British then took it from them in 1796 without a struggle. Negombo was one of the most important sources of cinnamon during the Dutch era, and there are still reminders of the European days, like the old Dutch Fort.

Each day, fishermen take their oruvas (outrigger canoes) and go out in search of the fish for which Negombo is well known. They’re a fine sight as they sweep home into the lagoon after a fishing trip. Fish auctions on the beach and sales at the fish market near the fort are a slippery and very smelly sight, but one that’s well worth forgoing some swimming pool time for. The catch is not all from the open sea: Negombo is at the northern end of a lagoon that is renowned for its lobsters, crabs and prawns. Across the lagoon bridge, there’s a second fish market. If you can stagger out of bed at 6 AM, it’s a good place to watch much bigger fishing boats return with their catches. On the last day, I went for a short boat ride from the Resort breakwater landing to the Lagoon’s mouth, where the Bay meets the Sea. Next day saw me back in Mumbai, carrying back pleasant memories of the Emerald  Isle.

MEMORIES OF RADIO CEYLON MUSIC

Sri Lanka evoked delightful teenage memories of my favourite ‘70s Radio Ceylon pop music (When Mumbai’s “Saturday Date” on All India Radio was also spinning its musical magic). when I met news editor Darshana Ashoka Kumar from Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, I asked him if he remembered Sri Lankan singer Desmond “Des” Kelly, whose ‘My Lovely Island Home,’ a huge hit in the mid–1970s, played then over Radio Ceylon – was one of my favourites. I was disappointed when he did not remember hearing the lyrics as I sang them – and I felt sad at such haunting melodies disappearing overtime. Later, I went online and saw that a Sri Lankan guy named Jude had introduced the song on the Internet.

Desmond “Des” Kelly was born in Ceylon in 1936 and was discovered by Radio Ceylon, whose broadcasting legends Vernon Corea and Christopher Greet, often played his music –  which became very popular in the sub continent. In 1962, Des migrated with his family to Melbourne, Australia, but continued his singing career. Meanwhile, in Negombo, I settled for listening to the Resort’s weekend singers –Kith Siri on guitar and Priyanth Pereira on accordion, regaling diners with popular songs including my favourites like Malaika, Guantanamera, and some Hindi numbers.  

JETWINGS LAGOON, NEGOMBO

Jetwings Lagoon, an Ayurveda & spa resort in Negombo, on the west coast of Sri Lanka, is of considerable historical significance, as it is the first resort to have been built by the legendary architect, Geoffrey Bawa. The resort is decorated in graceful hues of white and brown and features the longest swimming pool on the west coast (100 meters), nestled in the center of the property, adding to the serene atmosphere of the whole place. Jetwing Lagoon is on your own private island, embraced by the serene waters of the Negombo Lagoon on one side, and the magnificent Indian Ocean on the other, with recently developed beach access – featuring a beachside pool, bar, and lounge area. 

The unique architectural style of Geoffrey Bawa is well complemented by the more modern fittings, with views of the lagoon from the 14 Deluxe Rooms. The 22 Bawa Rooms are Bawa originals, with distinct living spaces which make creative use of light and space, the soft shades of white and brown blending in harmoniously with their environment. The 22 rooms are located on the ground floor of the hotel and come with their own private terrace. Catering to newly–wed couples, as many weddings are conducted at the resort, the Honeymoon Suite is a little bit of heaven on earth, with its own private courtyard and terrace facing the lagoon. The resort features two restaurants and two bars. 

At Jetwing Lagoon, guests have the choice of immersing themselves in the peaceful surroundings of the lagoon or jumping into the hive of activity in the busy Negombo town. With the sea on one side and the lagoon on another, it is an ideal place to indulge in watersports. From the thrills of fishing, kayaking, motor–boating, canoeing, yacht sailing, water–skiing, windsurfing, jet–skiing, rowing around in a fishing boat, there is hardly a dull moment. The town of Negombo is also an interesting cultural destination with a Dutch Colonial Fortress, a colourful fish market and some scrumptious restaurants to try out at night. The ancient healing art of Ayurveda, passed down through generations, is available to guests at the spa within a garden of paradise,with massages provided by trained therapists.
Dominick Rodrigues

Dominick Rodrigues

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