Let's get something straight: I'm not a "nature" kind of gal. Never was, never will be.
The sight of a spider at home still makes me call out, "Daaaaaaddddd!", I've never been camping (not even "glamping"), and I once wore a Tommy Hilfiger trench and Steve Madden rain boots (which were obviously for fashion purposes only, which only became apparent when halfway down a hill) for a hike in the Peak District. That went well. Not.
So, I was kind of dreading our stay at The River House in Balapitiya. Set in acres of lush Sri Lankan jungle, I got a little worried about things like, oh, I don't know, lizards, snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, strange-unidentified-moving-objects, monster spiders, and, you know, jungle-y things.
Which was all really silly, because when it came time to leave? I cried. I actually wept. On this balcony:
This was our view every morning when we woke up, though the birds were up way earlier than we were. And although the most exotic bird I've seen since I've been back in London has been a red-breasted robin (that was the singular most exciting thing that happened to me this week), it was at The River House where I saw a kingfisher flash its brilliant colors beside me before setting off for shade; where we watched, poolside, as langur monkeys (and baby langurs) leaped from tree-to-tree; where we saw hundreds of flying foxes (fruit bats) soar over the treetops - their Batman-like silhouette unmistakeable against the still-blue sky; and where we saw the fat, slow-moving shape of a water monitor snake navigate its way along the brush bordering the Madu River.
It was kind of where I fell in love with, well, nature.
(Okay, it was also where I was bitten 7 times by one mosquito on both legs within 2 minutes of standing still, and where John looked at me and said, in a not-so-steady voice: "Don't. Move." and proceeded to brush off - yes - a gigantic spider off my shoulder.)
We took dips in the private plunge pool in our suite, when the heat became unbearable and the water in the resort pool felt like a boiling kettle, rather than a warm bath (not that I'm complaining!). I picked up the bell on the table you see there, just to inspect it and to hear its tinkling sound, only to hear a knock at the door seconds later and a friendly face say, "Madam? You called?" when I opened the door. Deeply embarrassed, I vowed to never touch the bell again (even though that's what it's there for) - the thought of summoning someone at whim horrified me!
My goodness, this pool. Just add monkeys.
I became so comfortable at The River House, that I snored satisfactorily through the night, even as lizards and chipmunks ran amok on the roof, making strange, scampering noises, and John (who's usually the stoic one) lay awake, seeing things in the shadows.
Early one morning, we set off on a boat tour (just the two of us!) of the river for which the hotel is named.
We sped past an abandoned temple, floating on a tiny island in the middle of the river. "Oh!" I said, pointing to the temple. "Can people swim to that?" I asked our guide, who immediately looked terrified. "No, madam, no swim," he said making a sweeping gesture with his hands. "Crocodiles in the water!"
Gulp. Really hoped we wouldn't go overboard, then.
Turns out we didn't have to swim our way through croc-infested waters to get to a temple, though. Our guides took us to a beautiful Buddhist temple where hundreds of people would gather later to give offerings, as it our excursion coincided with Full Moon Night. A monk tied a piece of string around our wrists and blessed it; our guide explained that we would have the blessing's protection as long as the string remained on our wrists. For some reason, I was moved by this; suddenly, our journey to Sri Lanka felt meaningful. Important.
Continuing on, we did finally meet a crocodile: in the form of this female baby crocodile, which I refused to hold, but John seemed quite comfortable with. "She's quite placid!" he kept repeating, as he held her out to me. I gently poked at a thigh, and, upon realizing that she was much squishier than I'd expected her to be - freaked out. I have no idea why that bothered me, but it just did.
See those fish, below? They also serve the purpose of providing fish pedicures (or "massages", as they were named by the guides). You sit on the edge, roll up your pant legs, and let the fish work their magic on your calluses and corns. YEAH, NO THANKS. I let John take the hit on that one too. He was squeamish at first, then decided that it was "slightly addictive". Not convinced.
The River House's sister resort, Shinagawa Beach, is a mere tuk-tuk ride away (provided by the hotel) and was a great place to spend some time on the beach (not to mention its equally gorgeous pool).
We dozed off in the sun and read in the shade. I nearly lost my Michael Kors sunglasses when a wave knocked me over, but some kind Sri Lankan soul saved them for me (I also wonder if he was the same "Nahil" who left his number - no joke - in my sun lounger).
It's strange: when I look back at these photographs while writing this post, they look unreal. The palm tree trunks look fake, and the sand/sea/clouds background looks like it could be a flat, 2D painting used for, say, a movie set. The sun looks a little too bright. A little too artificial. It's hard to remember that it was real. And you don't, until you feel the heat on your skin. That sticky, suffocating, humid heat, with an occasional breeze from the ocean.
On our final night at The River House, John and I watched the sun set from our suite, and I cried. I cried because I had such a good time, because I hadn't expected to have such a good time, and because it was all coming to an end - I basically acted like a child being pulled away from the party too early.
One of the lovely butlers suggested bringing our dinner to enjoy on our balcony, instead of eating downstairs in the outdoor seating area, and when he dimmed the lights outside, we saw a beautiful frangipani blossoms artfully arranged around the table, with a candle as the centerpiece. My heart swelled.
We ate while listening to the crickets and bullfrogs speak to each other, as fireflies blinked their way across our line of vision. And after we finished, we watched one more DVD from the sumptuous, beautiful bed, fell asleep, and woke up the morning to pack our things.
Although I loved the beaches of Thalpe and the colonial charm of Galle, it was The River House that stole my heart and made me fall in love with Sri Lanka. There was so much to discover: to do, to see, to taste. I felt like Alice falling quicker and quicker through that rabbit hole ... transported to a strange land where everything felt new.
Where I felt new.
And that's why, I think, we travel: to feel new again.