12 July, Balapitiya, Sri Lanka

By Shalini Jayasinghe

We are like birds of a feather flocking together; recently let out of our cages, on a close family trip to the ‘River House’ in Balapitiya.

We take the highway from Kohuwala to reach Balapitiya, stopping at the halfway point in search of the famous Monis Bakery biscuits. We have thought of them longingly through lockdown. But sadly the shop is closed. Soon we turn off the highway, and pass through the hustle and bustle of Dharga town, the charming beaches of Induruwa and the luxurious hotels of Bentota. This was after a quick detour to the local post office, on account of an unwelcome traffic fine. From then on we are on high alert for any and all markings, on the black and white tarred road.

It is a narrow winding road to approach the ‘River House‘, fenced on either side by trees and branches. Lightbulbs illuminate our drive, like a grand welcome and make us curious. Is it for the upcoming elections? Is there a temple event in the area? We drive on to find our new home for the weekend, with its sprawling verandahs, swimming pool, and views overlooking the river and gardens with king coconut trees, anthurium flowers, cardamom and much more. It seems like the perfect place to relax, while social distancing. Our first night passes with a barbeque and a belated birthday cake, driven all the way up from Colombo.

In the mornings we are met with a range of colourful fresh juices; melon, mango, lime and pineapple. We take a boat ride down the Madu River, wishing we‘d brought along some of the juice to quench the sweltering heat. But soon the skies become slightly overcast and we are enthralled by the sights on the river. We see black comorants and white cranes on stilts, catching fish. We even see a monkey or three. Fishermen row by in little boats to catch prawns and more. There are over sixty islands on either side of the river. One is called bird island, known for its birds; another called five cents island, I ponder why; and the biggest island has its own ATM for bank transactions. Fish massage centres line the banks of the river.

I was most excited to stop at the cinnamon island. There we are welcomed with glee, with a hot cinnamon tea, into wattle huts with thatched roofs and long wooden benches. They tell us the cinnamon is good for lowering cholesterol and reducing diabetes. The cinnamon peelers are male and female. One shows us how they use five tools to complete the peeling process, and how they dry the cinnamon peel on coir string racks for a week, in the open air and away from the sunshine. The peelers sell cinnamon sticks, cinnamon powder, and cinnamon oil made from the leaves to keep the mosquitoes away. Due to COVID-19 the numbers of visitors to the island have reduced, as has the peelers’ daily income. I buy the sticks, oil and powder. I think of using the powder in a fresh juice drink. Pineapple blended with one king coconut (with pulp), and two teaspoons of cinnamon powder. When cooled it is very refreshing.

On the way back, we enter through the mangroves. We opt to take photographs at this point. Just as we begin to approach the villa, it begins to rain and the guide is quick to open the boat‘s canvas hood and protect us from the rain.

In the evening, when the weather improves, the uncles are commissioned to fly a colourful kite for my granddaughter Amisha, who is one and a half years old. The kite has travelled all the way from Negombo, to Colombo and now to Balapitiya. The string has only come from as far as Nugegoda, bought from ‘Hulangs’, just before the trip. The kite is purple, red, yellow, blue and white. The wind is not great for kite flying, but Amisha watches keenly as it rises. Soon it gets entangled with a king coconut tree. Her mouth becomes the shape of an ‘o’, and the word ‘OH!’ escapes her lips. It is a spontaneous reaction she often has, when something goes wrong. We look for a long pole to get the kite down, and walk it back safely inside, for Amisha to fly another day. We avoid the water monitor creeping around the garden. Zain and Tahani, the neighborhood children, will also want to see the kite when we get back to Kohuwala.

Back inside, we learn that the function down the road is actually a party thrown by a local businessman for his daughter‘s attaining of age. In the evening music and fireworks are in the air. The businessman is a well-connected fish dealer; we are told all kinds of meats and drinks are on offer for hundreds of invitees, under a large red and white marquee. We settle down for our own drink. This time instead of water, water, Amisha asks to gulp down ginger beer, ginger beer. She has rapidly grown up, during lockdown.

Our trip soon comes to an end. With heavy hearts we return, hearing that a second wave of COVID-19 may be hitting our lovely little island. We maintain a steady mantra. Masks are for the nose and mouth. Not for the chin. Wash your hands for 20 seconds, with soap and water. Social distance. We are back at home, being protective of ourselves.