This piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 12, 2008, eighteen months before I started blogging. Since I own the rights and since I have journals filled with similar travel stories, I thought I’d share it. Enjoy.
We choose Ambalangoda with care. It is, after all, the final destination of our three-week backpacking trip in Sri Lanka. Besides having a name that rolls off the tongue in a way that would please even Dr. Seuss, Ambalangoda has one of the whitest beaches on the island and can serve as our one-stop-shopping destination before we depart.
After we spend the afternoon debating the merits of various hand-carved masks – should we purchase the one that wards off vomit or the one that cures lameness? – we walk until we find a restaurant populated with Ambalangodans. Outside the open-air structure, which leans haphazardly toward the sea, we study a pond filled with the catches of the day, trying to pick the unfortunate fish that will become our dinner. My fiancé and I soon realize that two kids from the Canadian Prairies choosing fresh seafood is the equivalent of a teetotaller selecting rieslings for a sommelier. We settle on something that moves and has gills.
En route to our table, I ask, “Where is the toilet?”
“This way,” the waiter gestures. I open the door, step over the threshold and see the squat toilet, a veritable island surrounded by a sea of water. My bladder begs me to go forth, but my sandal-clad feet stop mid-stride. I can’t do this tonight, I think, embarrassed that my sense of adventure has vanished.
The waiter observes my about-face. “Come,” he says, “I’ll show you a Western toilet. Much better for you.” Sheepishly, I follow – through the kitchen, across the alley, up the street and into a tailor shop. We climb a flight of stairs into a second-storey family home.
Before exiting stage left, the waiter explains my situation to the homeowner, a woman clad in an “I love Pepsi” T-shirt and a colourful batik sarong. My hostess smiles at me, nods encouragingly and proceeds to bang on a closed door, shouting in Sinhalese. A male voice, also yelling, answers. A shower provides the soundtrack to this cacophony.
“No. No. Really. It’s okay,” I stutter. “I’ll go.” Smiling again, the woman guides me to an empty room, carries in a plastic patio chair and motions for me to sit.
In between my hostess’s pleas, I recall other Sri Lankan bathroom memories. My mind returns to a dark hut outside a gift shop in Kandy, the island’s cultural centre. Armed with hiking boots, a day’s supply of single-ply toilet paper, antibacterial wipes, coins for a possible surcharge and the prerequisite courage, I hover precariously over the toilet – only to notice a hairy spider the size of a softball creeping my way. Are tarantulas native to this part of the world? I immediately regret skipping the “Dangers and Annoyances” section of the guidebook.
My reverie is interrupted by more shouting and the opening of the bathroom door. A twentysomething Sri Lankan man emerges, dripping wet, with a towel clinging to his waist. “I’m so sorry,” he says, apologizing for showering in his own bathroom.
“No. I’m so sorry,” I say. We continue our mutual apologies as he scurries past my chair. We are both embarrassed – he for being semi-dressed and for showering when a spoiled tourist needs a special toilet, and I for invading his house, his bathroom, his privacy. We acknowledge the awkwardness with smiles.
I clamber into the washroom and see the Western toilet partly submerged in shower suds. The water swirls over my feet, snaking slowly into a drain. I squat over the soaked toilet and shake my head at the irony.
I struggle to exit gracefully, leaving sopping footprints in my wake. I thank my hostess profusely and apologize for having no money. She shakes her head saying, “No money.” Despite our near language-less state, we exchange names, countries and smiles.
The dusky Ambalangodan breeze greets me as I wander in the direction of the restaurant. This final night has confirmed what I have suspected since arriving: Even though the north is war-torn and parts of the south were ravaged by a tsunami in 2004, Sri Lankans are a generous people. They love their country and, like the woman who opened her home to me and the waiter who led me there, they want outsiders to know a story different than the international media tells.
Addendum: I did later check the guidebook’s “Dangers and Annoyances” section. The spidey was indeed a tarantula.
Have you ever trusted complete strangers?
Any tales of toilets? creepy crawlies?