Inside the Fort: Galle, Sri Lanka

Arriving in Galle after 5pm – exhausted, hot and sweaty, dirty and frustrated – having only minutes earlier been prayed upon by a sea of tuk tuk drivers ready and willing to rip us off, we arrived inside the Galle Dutch Fort.

Instantly, we were taken a back by the impressive forte walls and the beautiful UNESCO heritage streets and  lane ways, lined with quaint, old-fashioned Dutch homes with intricately carved window frames, peeling paint and charming little gardens. Handicraft shops, art galleries and cafe’s are all around, and I was very much looking forward to exploring

Early morning empty streets inside the fort

Early morning empty streets inside the fort

Surveying a small area of the fort, we hoped that local touts would be quick to identify us (how could they not, with our bulging packs and disheveled looks) and show us a room somewhere – and it didn’t take long. We got a good little room for a good price, above the family room of an elderly couple who, although spoke no English, were happy to smile at us every time they saw us.

It took four face washes before the white cloth would run clean on our skin, and two hair washes before the shampoo foam was no longer a grey colour. Never before had a cold shower felt better, and with the dirt, grime and pollution that the water washed away, so did any past frustrations and stress; with that, we were ready to spend our first evening in Galle exploring the fort.

Inside Galle Fort is beautiful and intricate, with quaint little shop fronts, tea houses, antique boutiques, homes, miniature gardens and cafes. A mix of old and new can be seen there; old in the architecture and buildings, lane ways, and of course the large fort walls, and new in flashy cafés, stylish shops and refurbishments. Tuk tuk drivers line the streets – as like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, but the vibe here is relaxed and laid-back, and the salty sea air and crashing waves beyond the light house and fort walls makes this place idyllic.

Galle Fort Light House

Galle Fort Light House

Quaint Dutch House Windows

Quaint Dutch House Windows

Heritage building inside the fort

Heritage building inside the fort

Street Art

Street Art

Heritage building inside the fort

Heritage building inside the fort

A section of Galle Fort

A section of Galle Fort

We settled in very quickly, thanks to our very generous couch surfing hosts, our beautiful surroundings and copious amounts of tea!

Our first day in Galle was spent simply walking around the Fort – we explored the little handicraft and chic shops, selling exquisite teas, beautiful gem stone jewelry and hand-made all sorts. We visited the lighthouse, and walked along the historic walls of the massive Dutch fort. We passed through the streets to the ocean, and found a perfect way to wind down after hours of exploration – lots of cups of tea.

King Coconuts for sale

King Coconuts for sale

The locals here are so friendly, with big smiles on their faces, and on our second day, when we moved guest houses, we were welcomed by an incredibly generous couple who looked after us well for our short stay.

Sun down in Galle Fort is a sight to be seen, and a really wonderful experience. People are just, suddenly, everywhere – locals and foreigners, young and old, school groups, families, couples, friends – they all come out to enjoy the evening; to walk along the fort walls overlooking the crashing waves of the ocean, to play cricket in the grassy area, to eat ice creams and street foods, to swim in the shallow water, and to socialize.

An evening in the fort

An evening in the fort

We passed so many people along the fort walls at sun down, and everyone seemed to be so simply happy. We passed a group of young men – one with a drum – who were singing and clapping and moving to the drum beat as they danced along the fort walls. We joined in with them – more by force than choice – and it was wonderful to share smiles and hand shakes with the locals.

Singing,  Dancing, Drumming and Smiles

Singing, Dancing, Drumming and Smiles

Sri Lankans seem to love hand-shakes; we’re forever putting our hands into the open, outstretched palms of smiling locals… but, then they never seem to want to let go: they hold on after the initial shake and continue to hold your hand until they’ve finished talking with you. People are so friendly with each other, with us, and it feels wonderful to be so welcomed.

We got caught up in the crowd of young singing and dancing boys who all wanted to talk to the foreigners – one was apologizing and claiming “I sorry, we are a little bit drink” – at which we all burst out laughing. It ended with the large group taking photo after photo after photo of us whilst they posed in every different way they could’ve thought of. After thanking us a hundred times over, I was able to put into practice the one Sinhalese saying I know – “pachnayak ne”  (no problem) – and the response was a group of boys all squealing with delight, and so, so many more hand shakes and smiles.

...Old Mate in the pink wants a piece.

…Old Mate in the pink wants a piece…can you guess which one is a little bit drink?

When we haven’t been exploring the fort, we’ve either been in the bustling, busy New Town area, taking small day trips to near-by coastal beach towns, or drinking cup after cup after cup of tea.

In new town, once you exit the walls of the fort, things are much more happening and lively; where you can easily get caught up in a whirl wind of people and traffic, beeping horns and touters, food vendors, lottery tickets and market stalls.
We found the old Dutch Markets where colourful vegetables are sold (and cheeky cows munch on stray egg plants), the fish mongers selling their massive tunas and other daily catches, and the fruit market area where we’ve been buying bunches of bananas and rambutans on a daily basis.

New Town bustle

New Town bustle

A cheeky cow sneaks an eggplant or six

A cheeky cow sneaks an eggplant or six

Back in the fort, we spend a happy couple of hours at the start, of end – or both – of each day drinking pots of tea at “our local haunt.” The owner of the café knows us already as his regulars; we sit down and he doesn’t even have to ask – he just says “I’ll get you a pot of tea” with a huge smile on his face. We can easily spend hours watching the passers by, and the frequent, but short lived, massive downpours of sudden rain.

Close to Galle city, easily reached by bus, we’ve been taking small half-day and day trips to beautiful beaches with wild, crashing waves. The places have been as equally fun to say, as they have been to actually visit. Hikkaduwa, Welligama, Koggala, Mirissa and Unawatuna; all little beach towns with palm trees hanging over the sand and waves and roti shops catering to western taste buds.

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Along the stretch of coast, on the road from Galle to Welligama, stilts jut out of the ocean with fishermen perched, somewhat precariously, on tiny seats. The ‘season’ for the fishermen is not so good at the moment we’re told – the oceans are rough and wild, the waves big and the rain heavy. We were lucky enough to see a handful of fishermen amongst many more empty stilts, and the sight of them alone is really fascinating. The stilts are passed on from generation to generation, and there is an absolute art to their trade – including making sure no foreigner captures a photograph of them without handing over a wad of cash.

Empty stilts

Empty stilts…

The weather in Galle has been on and off rain; enormous down pours that last just a little while, but dump massive amounts of water. Last night the rain was heavier than I’ve ever seen, and within minutes the water was flooding the roads and gushing down the streets.

Our mornings and evenings for the past three days have been spent with our couch surfing hosts (if you don’t yet know what Couch Surfing is, google.com it and get on it – it’s amazing!) who have been incredibly generous in making sure we are extremely well looked after, and just as well fed. On our last evening they requested pizza, and we were only too happy to cook for them. Finding the appropriate ingredients for western dishes, and furthermore, cooking in a foreign kitchen was a bit of a challenge – but we hope our pizza made them happy; it was a lot of fun to make! It’s been a fantastic experience to share the home of a local family, and we will miss our Sri Lankan family when we depart Galle tomorrow morning, with our sights set on Colombo.

We’ve been in Galle longer than the average tourist generally stays here; but then again, we don’t consider ourselves tourists – we’re travelers. Hours just spent watching and ‘being’, has meant that some of the locals have started to get to know us – they wave to us and come up to say hello. Being involved in Couch Surfing has meant we are not so much looked upon as tourists, but instead another friendly face in the fort.
It’s true – we could’ve left days ago, but we’ve been happy to mull about and explore a little longer, and Galle, and it’s people, have truly been a highlight destination during our in Sri Lanka.

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Lions and tigers and… wait! Leopards and Elephants and Bears, Oh My!

On the morning we left Ella, we planned to head to Haputale, to base ourselves for the 9.5km round walk to Hortons Plains and World’s End. Sipping tea from “our balcony”, as had become our daily routine, we “rock, paper, scissored”, and let fate (and Jake’s cheating!) change our plans.

We’d asked Sujatha, the cook at ‘our’ restaurant, if she could prepare us some roti for breakfast – we’d bought ourselves an avocado from the markets and wanted to eat it with roti. Declining sugar for the avocado (as Sri Lankans seem to eat it only with sugar), Sujatha was shocked at what these two weird westerners were eating!… so shocked, that she’s quickly added it to her menu!

That’s right. We started a new trend in Ella – and possibly Sri Lanka. Fresh, hot roti with avocado, salt and pepper… Try it; it’s our new thing, and it’s bloody good.

After tea, and roti and avocado, we decided that since it’s our last day in Ella – home of the specialty food buffalo curd and kittul – we better get some curd “for the road”… In the curd shop, our plans changed again with the help of a local guy who explained the bus system and the complex “some buses is direct, some buses is not, all is not direct – must change the bus, most is direct, sometimes direct, sometimes not” time tabling.
Helpful yes, but of course at the same time, he tried to coax us into going via taxi, very cheap – of course, with his “brother driver friend” who was leaving Ella and heading back to Tissamaharama, the same route we were now planning on going.
3,000 rupees was too much for us to part with, and instead we took the 300 rupee direct bus which came with added bonuses; the threat of a cardiac arrest and through-the-roof stress levels.
At 1014 meters above sea level, Ella is situated in the hill country area – surrounded by mountains and valleys and big, big cliff edges – of which our bus driver seemed to thoroughly enjoy driving through at record breaking speeds. Sri Lankan buses don’t seem to be able to close the bus doors, and lucky enough for me, my seat was opposite the open door – revealing the cliff edge way too close for comfort. As the bus breaks squealed every time they were slammed into use at the last second, just before the bus nearly hurtled over the cliff face, I banned myself from looking anywhere but ahead at the flashing-light neon gods and overflowing flower garlands stuck to the front of the bus, above the driver’s head.

I may not be religious, but during that bus ride I prayed to every neon god that we would get through this journey – without hurtling over the edge to our deaths; in return for saving our lives, I promised the flashy neon gods, and myself, that we will never again compromise our safety for the sake of a few thousand rupees.

Once the nightmare journey was over and I was able to remove my white-knuckled grip from the seat handles and my backpack, we were no longer in the hill country, and instead, way down south in Tissamaharama. Try saying that name fast 5 times over.

Tissa, as it’s referred to by tongue-lazy travelers like ourselves, was to be our ‘base’ for a safari trip to Yala National Park – one of the big parks in Sri Lanka, and known for the highest density population of leopards in the world. Yep – stuff the lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – no, no, we were going so see some big, spotty cats… And actually, hopefully a shaggy sloth bear or two.

The hype for this park was massive, and the town of Tissa is brimming with rust bucket (and a few not so rusty) safari jeeps, all driving into town mid afternoon carrying hoards of daggy hat wearing, sun-burned and tired looking tourists. What an exciting prospect to think that we too, the following day, would be one of them (minus the daggy hats – we’re not that tragic just yet… give us time.)

Our guest house owner was a bit of a weirdo; very pushy for us to pay some ridiculously over-priced amount for his safari tour, in which we would get to ride in one of his glorious rust bucket jeeps. We turned him down and went for a highly regarded tour company, decked out with a new, luxury Mitsubishi jeep – for way less money. Mr. Guest House owner was not too happy, and basically kicked us out at 4:30am the following morning before our safari began – gloating that if we aren’t going with him, we’re obviously going to have a shitty time. Proudly, he promised us a glorious afternoon of fun-filled happy times on our return, where he would make us read about “how terrible independent jeep companies are” on his lap top.

As lovely as that sounded at 4:30am, that was not high on our list of priorities for the afternoon, and we had to politely decline.

A 4am start was the beginning of a very, very long day. Seeing as I don’t do early mornings well, and reserve these sorts of ungodly hour wake-up times for only the most important occasions – “we better see a leopard!”

Bleary-eyed, we climbed into our luxury jeep and drove off to Yala National Park, leaving behind Mr. Guest House owner who was trying to quickly repair his jeep before take-off.
The cold air rushing through the windowless jeep reminded me quickly of, firstly, what it felt like to be cold, but more so, that this was to be our first real safari experience…

In the park we spent around 6 hours bouncing around in the back of the jeep, and whilst we saw a lot of deer, water buffalo and peacocks, elephants, crocodiles, coloured birds and some fluffy mongoose-animal, we did not see a leopard or a bear. A little disappointed, we reminded ourselves that this is nature, not a zoo (although some of the jeep drivers drove around as though they were a bunch of crazed animals at times), and we were overall very happy with the fact that we got to see anything at all. The elephants we did see, including one very gorgeous baby, were the highlight of the tour.

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On exiting the park, we passed our guest house’s jeep, which proudly sported a large “INDEPENDENT JEEP COMPANY” sticker on it. What was that Mr. Guest House owner said about them all being terrible?

Driving back into town at 12pm, after having already been awake for 8 hours, we had become those sun burned, tired looking tourists. Eager to get out of Tissa (Mr. Guest House owner ruined the vibe of the place a bit) we got our bags, paid and marched slowly down the road towards the bus station in the heat, with our bulging packs on our front and back.

Exhausted, sun burned, dehydrated, head-achy and sore-bummed (after 7 hours of bouncing around in a jeep), we boarded a bus headed for Galle, our next destination. I hoped – oh, how I hoped – that this four hour journey would be a peaceful one…

It was not to be.

The next three hours – yes three hours – should’ve been four, but our driver drove at speeds I did not know buses could do, and wiped off an entire hour by breaking the speed limit the entire time. Within the first five minutes of the trip I’d lost count of the near misses, my neck was starting to ache from whiplash – caused by the slamming of breaks, my ear drums were about to burst from the combination of incessant horn beeping, break screeching, and incredibly loud Sinhala music that blared through several speakers, and I was struggling to breathe from all the pollution being blown into my face through the open window.
Jake found it to be a real life example of Einstein’s Relativity Theory – Relativistic Speeds really do appear to slow time down; three hours (although better than four) felt like an eternity.

Five minutes in, and I was reminding myself of the promise I’d made on that terrifying bus journey just one day earlier. Five minutes in, and we were planning at which stop we would just get off at, in order to save our lives.

But we didn’t get off, and we survived again to tell the tale – along with every other local passenger who slept their way through that entire ordeal.

We arrived into Galle, absolutely shattered with exhaustion, wrecked from the stress of the drive, covered in sweat, sun screen, dirt and pollution, and with really sore bums. Instantly hassled by a surge of quick thinking tuk tuk drivers, we were easily ripped off by a driver who would not agree to my excellent bartering deal, but were too tired to care.

Driving into the Galle Fort, it was an effort to keep our eyes open, but we did – we were here, we’d made it, and now, all we needed to do was find a budget room in one of the most expensive, touristic places to stay in, in Sri Lanka – without any prior reservations…