Wake with a Start

by Ant Stone on January 21, 2008

in Sri Lanka

Imagine returning home from work in the city to discover your world had been wiped out. Your mother, the woman who tightened your school tie and licked her hand to clean your cheek. Gone. Two sisters, who you’d grown up alongside squabbling while silently admiring. Gone. Their three small children, your nephews and niece who’s eyes harbored your world. Gone. Your childhood sweetheart, the girl who undid your school tie and held your blushing cheek. Gone. Now, really, try to imagine. That’s what I tried to do, on a visit to the Sea Turtle Farm & Hatchery in Peraliya, near Hikkaduwa, here on the island of Sri Lanka. The tragedy of the Boxing Day Tsunami – the event I’d gleaned abundant information about purely from the global media – began to unfold into a friend, fronted by a glazing pair of eyes. The story of brothers Nimal and Ruwan, their compassion born from cruelty, and the admiration I’ve formed for them is the reason I’ve emptied the bag for two weeks and volunteered to walk alongside them, and a handful of nippy sea turtles.

After almost a week, life in the small Sea Turtle Farm & Hatchery (STF) for Reb and I has been a combination of quick-fire knowledge and six scuffed knuckles. Founded in 2000 by Nimal’s father, the STF takes in sea turtle eggs from locals who would otherwise sell them at market to villagers after a quick protein fix. His foresight to pay a 50% premium to divert the eggs to the Peraliya charity laid the foundation of the STF we see today and is a small step towards protecting this fascinating reptile. Without looking, hands on the table, I can tell you that the waters around Sri Lanka home five of the world’s seven species of sea turtle; Olive Ridley, Green Turtle, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Leatherback. They hatch after approximately 48-60 days and live (depending on species) on a diet of fish, crustaceans and jellyfish and sea plants until they’re over eighty (again, depending on species). The baby loggerheads in the hatchery are just 2.5 inches long and mill around their salt water tank like soldiers on a break from drill. Their neighbours, are a pair of one year old Green turtles who whiz around with the air of mischief expected of their age, while over the way their big brother swims along waiting for a hug from a passing tourist. His neighbours, a duo of two year old Olive Ridley’s, sleep on the base of their grey concrete tank, away from peckish predators – like the baby black tip reef shark circling a nearby tank. Close by, a sand pit full of mounds covers nests of 100 eggs a piece and waits to start the cycle over again. Three Hawksbill, two more Green and an Olive Ridley old boy named Victor (by Reb) glides graciously between fallen dreams, despite having lost a front flipper to a hungry local some years previous. The laminated photo album atop the fish tank details, graphically, ‘that day the sea is coming’ and offers us a stark reminder of the fateful day.

Away from the STF, Hikkaduwa has, by default, become a temporary home. If I were to put the towns components into words – like I’m dutifully about to – you’ll drift away on a wave of wanderlust from the palm of your hand. The town tightly hugs one of the island’s main roads, Galle Road and this is by far it’s worst attribute. Local dogs seem oblivious to their vocation to infect you with rabies, instead they act more like loyal pets than strays, they appear throughout the day, sitting silently beside you in a bar (until the table next to you is served food, when they’ll trot off to sit unobtrusively doe eyed, wagging tail). Inexplicable sunsets melt into the blue evening sea, allowing a fiery orange reflection to trickle over the aqua waves before dispersing from a break onto a coarse golden sand beach, lined – obviously – by lazy, stooping palms. The air is clean (despite the road), the sun shines bright and the temperature of the ocean causes me to suspect my mothers elbow had a final say. Locals intertwine with tourists as if they’d known each other for a lifetime. Spotless rickshaws fly passed bulging roti restaurants while on the sea the fishermen look passed muscled surfers, while underneath both, weave bubbling scuba divers. The only time we’re mildly hounded is by the hash pushers or the repetitive ‘aloe vera’ or, my favorite, the ‘pineapple, mango, coconut’ sellers who I occasionally oblige, they then dust the treat with chilly powder and I smile contently before laying my head back down on the sand. To my disgust, there is a skinny local with a baby monkey (he claims it’s a beach baby) on a chain, a python who’s girth shadows it’s captor and a sleek cobra who slopes upwards from his wicker prison. The evening horizon is ablaze with an endless chain of lights from the faraway fishing boats, while cloaking the sky is a shawl of stars competing with a boastful moon, completing yet another of Mother Nature’s Asian masterpieces.

Maybe unfortunate for you, my decision to donate two weeks to the STF comes at the expense of the remainder of Sri Lanka’s west coast, and the entire south coast (mostly beaches), but Reb and I will still be venturing inland to feast on Kandy and hopefully Ella before kicking our heels and returning once more to Chennai, in southern India and no doubt pinching ourselves. Before then, it’s scrubbing tanks, designing information boards and educating visitors about the plight of the endangered sea turtle, in remembrance of the brothers’ family. I won’t lie, the STF is far from perfect, and even further from my minds eye matchstick-model complex (complete with turtle-suited tour guides and virtual reality shark fights) but it’s a start, and from my current point of view, everyone needs a new one of them once in a while.


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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Aunty Christine January 28, 2008 at 5:30 pm

Hi darling
So pleased you are enjoying Sri Lanka ,its the one place that Brian wants to go back to. We had a great holiday there. In Kandy if you pass the Queens hotel (i think it was that one) make sure you have an umberella or a hanky to put on your head otherwise you will get covered in bat poo.
Are you going to the Maldives ?
Happy New Year (better late than never ).

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sue pathak January 28, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Hi Anthony, Have fun hatching turtles! Glad you found something interesting to do. Make sure you take lots of photos. Hope you get them online soon. We are waiting for your next story! Say hi to Reb for me. Lots of love from Sue. P.S. Make sure you go to Kandy, I always wanted to go there.

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reb January 29, 2008 at 2:56 pm

It still gets me……and i have heard it so many times…..a wonderful story you have done the turtle farm proud!

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Gethin February 5, 2008 at 9:26 am

cracking blog mate! reminded me of eveything i’ve experienced so far!

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Percy February 5, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Hiya Ant,
Thought I’d drop by and see where on the planet you were currently residing. You look like your surviving the “Trail” pretty well. When you’ve got a mixture of Dutch, Australians and Mongolians then you have a good recipe for the finer cultural activities in life, especially when you’re 8 million miles from the nearest pub! I’ve been busy this last 12 months, got divorced, got married, got ripped off, got pissed, got a new employer, got same job, got a tan, got my old EMAP shares cashed in Woooooohoooooo!! then I went back to Oz fer 5 weeks in Dec07 just for the hell of it. Oh, say hi to Airlie Beach in QLD if you pass it by. Ok my mate, stay in good shape, don’t get too close to any strange natives, they ain’t good fer yer health! – CUL – Pers in poxy cold England

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Clezpencil March 27, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Hello Ant

I love reading your blogs – i’ve got the day off so i’m catching up on your site!

I really really really want to just come out and join you! You sound like you’ve done so much.

You paint the picture really well with your words (and i can kinda hear you say it too) anyway, catch you soon lovely. Clare. xxx

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Ant April 1, 2008 at 5:52 pm

One day I’ll narrate them to you if you want… but first, you have to build a podium, dim the lighting and we have to dress to the nines for the readings! haha, wow, that would be great fun! x x

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