It started years ago with a tiny bowl of finely chopped greens, lime juice, shredded coconut and a wild array of spices. Forming a perfect synthesis with the creamy beetroot curry in front of me this humble pile of spicy greens won me over right away. My very first sambol – a traditional Sri Lankan condiment – was served to me in the middle of a grey Berlin winter and came with the warmest smile I’d seen in days. The friendly waiter visibly enjoyed my excitement and we started to chat about food and what it means to a Sri Lankan – how the family gathers to enjoy all the little lovingly prepared dishes together and how every curry always tastes slightly different. Every family has their own recipe. Like many of my decisions the wish to travel to Sri Lanka one day came viscerally and was committed to paper (my secret bucket list) directly after visiting the restaurant. It took me a while to fulfill it but here I am on my very first trip to Sri Lanka, figuring that my gut feeling was right and I’m in love. And here is why:

The people

Let me start with those responsible for the kind smiles and the not-so-kind usage of chilli – the people of Sri Lanka. The history of their island is long and eventful, shaped by colonization, a clash (all in all, mostly peaceful) of cultures and religions, a long and devastating civil war and the big trauma, the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004, that vanished thousands of houses and families and left many with nothing at all.

Despite all those scars the people I met here caught me with their positive attitude, painting their houses in the brightest colours and warmly welcoming you into their diverse culture. When you stay with locals, Sri Lankan hospitality consists of a lot of homemade food, huge amounts of fresh produce from people’s gardens and many nice little chats. Oh and tea! We learnt that important lesson when we got slightly lost in the middle of Weligamas midday heat and Krishan just appeared out of nowhere, like the nicest Fata Morgana I’ve ever seen: “Are you tired? Come inside, I’ll make you some tea and you can rest in the shadows”. Sipping pitch black tea out of bright yellow cups, we ended up staying in his lovingly decorated home and guesthouse, the whole afternoon. After giving us a tour through his garden, where he grows all the different herbs and spices he uses for his grandma’s favourite recipes, our host followed up the tea with a tasty vegan curry. When we left not only our stomachs but our hearts felt warm and well-fed.

A life in sync with nature

Chatting with Krishan and watching him cook also harkened back to what had already impressed me before – many locals’ immense knowledge about the nature around them. Encircled by the forceful beauty of the ocean, they depend on nature’s mercy, but also get to experience its splendour on a daily basis – a bond for a lifetime. The majority of the day is spent outside and most people from rural areas have a garden that they lavish care on. Feeling sick in the stomach? Your skin is not amused by all that sun? Most likely there is some plant with superpowers just around the corner and some friendly Sri Lankan is happy to share his or her knowledge and leaves. Just ask.

The island’s flora and fauna truly is special and hopefully awareness of this will defy the dangers of fast tourism and harsh agriculture. During recent years Sri Lanka has become a destination that appeals to more and more people – there is a lot of construction going on and new hotels are popping up on a regular basis. The sudden boom supplies many people with work, but can also severely endanger human and environmental health. This is why people like Krishan impress me; he makes a living out of tourism, but still sticks to his roots.

Another place I really loved for the same reason was Huma Terra, a few, calm kilometres away from the buzzing surfing hotspot of Hikkaduwa. Solange and Jean-Luc, originally from France but now fully assimilated in Sri Lanka, put their dream of a tourism in sync with nature into practise and built five tree houses to rent within a wild, gorgeous garden. The wooden beauties are embedded into lush greenery and run on solar power only, totally sustaining themselves. The couple and their team of locals take really good care of their guests and happen to also come up with the best home-made ice-cream creations. These and more are served in their enclosed treehouse restaurant, which opens only on demand. I highly recommend demanding some mango tabasco or passion fruit curry ice cream though if you are around. Just saying.

Even though the safari stuff seemed weird to me at first I ended up being really happy about visiting Uda Walawe national park to meet some elephant families and a lot of grass. Our guide introduced the animals around us like a very proud mom and made me smile. Oh and so did all the baby elephants in the orphanage enclosed. Turns out that 30 baby elephants eating dinner together is just the cutest thing ever…

The land’s fruitfulness

Talking of nature: Sri Lanka’s fertility is immense, with ideal growing conditions for almost everything. If you are like me, you’ll quickly turn into a fruit market shopping queen, buy as much as you can carry (or more) and won’t be seen without a coconut in your hand for three weeks in a row. Sri Lanka spoiled us with the most tasty papayas, pineapples, guavas, melons, passion fruits and much more. There are many fruits, veggies and herbs that you might not know from home but that are totally worth trying. Just give it a shot. If you are not sure how to prep a certain product just ask. The answer might be hard to understand, but at least you tried and you can still just go for it. One of our hosts cooked us a final dinner on our last night with all the vegetables we failed on before, which was quite funny. And delicious. If only there were more banana blossoms for me to practise my banana blossom curry skills on…

If you are interested in growing (and eating) things you might also be interested in visiting a tea or spice farm. Sri Lankans are very proud of their produce, especially of their tea. I did a tour at the virgin white tea plantation close to Ahangama and found it quite interesting. I also loved how the plantation looked more like a forest than the permaculture field of tea I might have expected. So wild and gorgeous.

Going with the flow

This is a good one too! It’s easy to not plan ahead too much and just go with the flow when you’re traveling in Sri Lanka. And that is great. Apart from the big hotels and resorts there are many small guest houses and local people renting out rooms via Airbnb available spontaneously. Most people speak at least a little English and are very willing to help, so mostly it’s not hard to find a place to stay on short-notice. The west and south coasts are quite accessible and if you are not afraid of a little adventure there are many ways to get around. We mostly traveled via train or bus. Both are very cheap and run on a frequent basis. The trains are a bit more chilled, since you can pretend you are in an old movie and munch on some peanuts or do some work without having to worry about the slightly manic traffic situation. However the buses are also alluring with fun tunes, pretty wild decorations and a more flexible and broader schedule. For shorter distances you can also use a Tuk Tuk – little auto rickshaws, equivalent to a cab. The drivers often are very chatty and willing to help you with directions or places to go to, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Salt on your skin and sand in your hair

All of the above. Straight. For two weeks in a row. Because the beaches are just beautiful and the water is wild and warm and makes you want to stay forever. Definitely a reason to love Sri Lanka! The more famous ones can be found in the south and west of the island – they might be more crowded but you will still easily find a nice, private spot to rest in the warm sand, happily gazing at palm trees. The beaches of Dickwella are said to be some of the most beautiful, but I also liked the ones close to Ahangama and Hikkaduwa. Sri Lanka happens to be a surfers paradise, so whether you are just kicking off your wobbly surfer girl/boy career (like me) or are a total pro you might wanna bring your board or rent one for a little money. The east coast is a bit more wild and untouched and definitely worth a visit if you have a bit more time and are able to do hikes or camping trips. You can find a good list of beaches here.  If you recently visited Sri Lanka feel free to tell me all about your favourite beaches via the comments. I need to stop dreaming of that turquoise now…

The food. Oh the food!

I once read: I can only recommend going to Sri Lanka – unless you are allergic to coconut. I second that. Since I’m all about coconut I’m allowed to go. And in heaven. If you thought it was just like Indian food you are underestimating the amount of dishes and little condiments the traditional cuisine has to offer -  it seems like there is a different food for almost every hour or mood. Shaped by the land’s richness and influenced by many different cultures (and coconut palm trees) an eclectic mix of spices, methods and produce is taking place here. My ultimate tip: try out as much as you can! I’m still not done testing and might have to come back. What a shame. The classic would be a rice and curry – which means a variety of (vegetarian) little curries, a huge pile of rice, a mix of sambols and pickles and some crunchy papadam. A breakfast classic is string hoppers, something that looks like a tiny noodle nest and is freshly made out of red rice flour. String hoppers are eaten with different, mostly savoury sauces and you should totally go for it.

Dinner is mostly cooked at home, so if you are in less touristy areas opt for lunch for the bigger variety of dishes. Also don’t miss out on all the street food, there is a huge variety of doughy or roasted stuff happening. I really dug the roasted jackfruit seeds. Try those if you get a hold of them, they taste like the love child of a sweet potato and a brazil nut. Be aware that even some tame-looking, puffy cuties might be really really spicy. But don’t be afraid…

The colours

If you’ve been following me around, you might know how much of a colour lover I am. And this humble island did not disappoint me and pampered my eyes like nobody’s business. I’m talking pink houses, splendid traditional clothes, sundowns, fruits, flowers and much more. Thank you for all of that, Sri Lanka. I’ll be back for sure!

All images © Tabea Mathern