Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Sri Lanka 2005 - Howzat!?

This article has been variously published in The New York Post and Abroad Magazine. In January 2006 the article won Turtle the award for Travel Extra Longhaul Journalist of the Year. The award was presented at Holiday World 2006 in Dublin's RDS by James Malone, President of the Irish Travel Agents Association.

THE guy in the flowered shirt is chewing gum furiously, staring intently at a fuzzy cricket match on an old TV above my head. Oh yes, and he's cutting my hair. As the scissors stop mid-snap over a graying forelock, a crucial ball is bowled and swiped. I recall a swell of blood on the ear of his last customer and decide to think of other things.

New Yorkers don't know a lot about cricket. Sri Lankans live for it. They're currently champions of Asia (they won the Asia Cup this past summer) and are causing headaches to batsmen and bowlers the world over. A country like Sri Lanka, which witnessed some 60,000 deaths during its recent Civil War up North, deserves to be champion of something.

I'm in Galle, a bustling market town on the South coast. I'm here to survey some villas (on behalf of a friend with loot to burn) in the Galle Fort, a 17th-century Dutch fortress on the eastern side of town. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the somewhat shabby Fort area is surrounded on three sides by ocean and contains 473 villas. It is now in the early stages of gentrification; fifty of these villas are now owned by foreigners willing to put in the work needed to restore them.

And more are buying. Sri Lanka, approximately the size of West Virginia, is rapidly growing both as a place to own real estate, and as a tourist destination (particularly with honeymooners, which the increasing number of boutique hotels along the coast are aiming at). Jungle landscapes dotted with elephants, tropical weather, 1,000 miles of sandy coastline and cities awash with jewels are bringing the formerly British-run island of tennis and tea right back into vogue.

The boom, which began soon after the February 2002 ceasefire, has been mostly concentrated on the South coast around Galle, in the gorgeous highlands between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya (tea country) and in the ruined cities of Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Yala National Park and the surf beach of Arugam bay, both on the East coast, are also increasingly popular.

Mostly for the good, but sometimes for the bad, Sri Lanka is not always ready for its close-up. The night before, my contact, a goldsmith named Rukman, took me to dinner at his local haunt. We were served an atypically indecipherable feast of sweltering curries, gloopy yoghurts and disconcerting cocktails such as chicken with egg on top.

Later, we ventured on to Unawatuna, a beach resort waiting to happen, about three miles south of Galle. The beach is great and the sea popular for snorkelling, but the nightclubs need a lot of work. As it's not yet socially acceptable for a Sri Lankan woman to go to a club, the places we stopped in were filled with men sporting pencil mustaches and inexcusable perms. They danced to very bad music and were getting drunk on a potent rice liquor called arrack.

With the cricket match still on and the barber still not paying close enough attention, I stare out the window and am reminded, as people bustle by, that Galle is home to a million Sri Lankans, including Muslims, Hindus, Catholics and Buddhists. Their major bond: a mutual passion for public holidays. Sri Lanka has more national holidays than any other nation in the world on account of all the different religions, there are holidays for Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Shiva and pretty much all 330 million deities of the Brahman pantheon.

I think back to a villa that Rukman had showed me earlier. Okay, so the roof isn't actually there anymore, but these coral walls look pretty strong and I reckon the place has potential. Sri Lanka seems like a place to be. Maybe it would be a good investment.

A man in white lets out a curdling scream on the TV and a sudden stabbing sensation overwhelms my right-side ear. Sri Lanka has won another game. Before passing out, I see children outside leaping victoriously in the air. Yes, Sri Lanka deserves to be champion of something.