Wide smiles and early birds

It’s as if I’ve never been away. The sticky heat; the salty waves, warm as a summer bath, and the blue-black belch of the tuk tuks as they scurry back and forth between Banderanaike airport and Negombo ‘beach-side’. It’s January, it’s a new year; it’s high season and tourists are arriving by the plane-load after four long years of crisis following catastrophe. Unaltered is the resilience, the resourcefulness and the optimism of the Sri Lankan people. They are still smiling, and I can only wonder at how.

This is just some of what I felt as I arrived a few weeks ago to host the Land of Smiles sketching holiday which saw five returning guests and one ‘newbie’, though as she is firmly ‘one of us’ now, I hope she will join us again in the future! Just to be back in one of my favourite countries was enough to make me beam from ear to ear, but to be bringing a group of wonderful people along to experience the unique atmosphere and landscape, whilst helping get the beleaguered economy back on its feet, was blissful indeed.

While I arrived a couple of weeks early and headed up the coast to Kalpitya for some well-earned rest, relaxation and reading, the others began arriving in Negombo ahead of schedule and were all assembled well before I got there. So as they were raring to go, we thought we may as well make a start, and the painting began as soon as I could distribute the watercolours. There’s nothing like a bit of enthusiasm!

Joan had arranged a bird-watching boat trip on the lagoon (‘Muthurajawela by Boat’, Negombo – discoverable on Google) for us all, beginning at dawn the next morning. It was a good habit to get into as there are a few early starts on this itinerary. While it’s not easy for the habitual late risers among us, it is definitely worth it: the animals and birds are all active at this time; the air is pleasantly cool; there are very few other people around and we get to feel self-righteous for the rest of the day. Aside from the flash of a brilliant green kingfisher, the breakfast of mango, papaya, watermelon, freshly-cooked omelette and coffee tastes all the more delicious when you’ve ‘worked’ for it, too.

By the time we reached our first official stop on our journey, Bentota, everyone was getting used to their colours, the climate and rhythms of Sri Lankan life. I realised that the benefits of extra days are not limited to jetlag recovery or possible flight delays. From now on, the Land of Smiles itinerary will include two nights in Negombo at the start of the trip instead of just one. The free day can be spent sleeping (for those who have just arrived); gentle painting around the pool; exploring the beach; taking a tour of the neighbourhood (perhaps by tuk tuk); availing of the Ayuvedic massage treatments offered by our hotel and others; or perhaps, for the larks, a boat trip.

The itinerary will run again in November 2024, so if you are considering this holiday, be sure to claim your place soon. In the words of Caroline, who left a lovely review via Responsible Travel:

‘It was all pretty WOW, to be honest.’