Same room, same plans (no plans) during the COVID-19 lockdown had me daydreaming about all the things I could have done and places I could have seen this year. I find it particularly hard to forgive this “force majeure” for depriving me of my long-anticipated springtime family reunion in Sri Lanka. The only memory associated with it is bitter, with a ticket refund still processing.
One day, while sitting by a tiny kitchen table and sipping on my sixth cup of white tea in my Bangkok apartment, I suddenly felt a serious need for some magic vortex that would take me anywhere else. Stimulated by Google Earth’s flexible universe and with my “Expedition Sri Lanka” computer folder unopened since April, I decided to make some fanciful plans of the trip that could have been and asked my family to join me — virtually, that is.
At a click of a button, bending the axis of time and logic, I was suddenly standing in the middle of Colombo’s Bandaranaike Airport with my partner, mom, and dad.
The airport looked like the side of a harmonica from above. We were supposed to head south to the coastal UNESCO World Heritage Site Galle, but I changed our plans to analyse if Sri Lanka does in fact look like a teardrop of India. I also compared the road density across north and south and discovered the tiny Sober Island just outside the northern city of Tricomalee, naturally thinking that it would have been funny if they sold alcohol there.
In map time this detour felt like a day or two and we eventually found ourselves in Galle. I decided to take us for a historic walk down the surprisingly spacious streets of the small old town. Close to the iconic lighthouse, we approached the street food vendors. I salivated at the likenesses of parippu vade (prawn lentil fritters) and pani kaju ice cream with kithul honey and cashew nuts, so I ordered some for us to share, or at least I pretended to. I loved how everyone was silently submissive to my whims on this trip. So I made use of that and planned a lavish crab dinner at Tuna and the Crab and for the fun of it, I ordered the entire menu. It came complimentary and guilt-free.
Leaving Galle for the south, we stopped in Unawatuna at Happy Spice for some fabled homemade curries. As we ‘stuffed’ ourselves, the sky kept turning purple and I wondered if we were eating our faces off figuratively or literally. It turned out that our frozen screens were contorting our faces. We continued our virtual vacation and roamed around the belt of Ahangama beaches. We watched little square people tanning, surfing, and whale-watching in the rays of the little square sun.
Around the Yala National Park, our only choice was to glamp. Glamping there comes with different packages including safari tours. Knowing our preference for the cats, we ‘opted’ for the leopard safari and barbecue combo. To keep things in theme, we ‘slept’ in the glamping campsite provokingly called Leopard Nest. I liked the idea of sleeping in the treetops. But the testimonials from Wild Trails Eco Camp were also very persuasive, so I guess we slept at both places at the same time. Things you could only do on an imagined trip. I visualized us at night, gathered around a crackling bonfire, laughing until the nature noises weren’t so scary. Of course, we were all dressed in khaki.
From there, we took a two-hour ride north to the small town of Ella, to catch the famous blue train. First, we took the compulsory family shot with the view of the Nine Arch Bridge, and then we boarded the train. One of the most picturesque rail routes in the world, the trip normally takes three hours, but my parents’ attention span was limited. Here I had to fast forward our trip, cutting our travel time to three swipes of the screen to the left before finding ourselves in Nuwara Eliya.
A little “drag and pull” of the map later and we got to the Castlereigh Reservoir. Staying at one of the Ceylon Tea Trail’s Bungalows, our plan there was to pay a visit to the tea estates and Adam’s Peak. Exploring Adam’s Peak from all angles, I saw the sunrise and sunset. I don’t remember the tea harvest much. That’s because I lost my mom and dad in the fields for a little. I think they wandered off with the singing tea harvesting ladies, or at least that is what I imagined when they lost their connection for a while.
We met again back in the capital, where we ate into oblivion. It seemed that way by the look of the screen densely adorned with food pins. Our version of La Grande Bouffe started off in Pettah, searching for faloude and rotis with what seemed like 1,001 stuffings. Suddenly on our tour, it started raining samosas. We caught some at the hole-in-the-wall shop called Bombay Sweets, some along the Galle Face Green city park, and then some more at the Fort train station. At Nana’s street food opposite the Taj Samudra hotel, we had kottu, which sort of reminded me of a Tuscan panzanella (bread salad), yet it looked nothing like it. Although there was already too much food on the agenda, I knew we would still order everything from the home-style classics at Upali’s by Nawaloka. We had their fish head curry twice. Ahead of us were still a couple of more addresses, so we kept ‘eating.’ How were we never full? Right, we were actually just drinking tea that had turned cold.
We parted somewhere between having a lamprais and a hopper, without the sad goodbyes. We closed our laptops and disconnected, parting into different skylines of the northern hemisphere. The best part was we could be back there tomorrow.
It was a strange experiment but I’m glad it wasn’t a complete waste of time. We even managed to get some family photos, as if being apart was actually an illusion.
The other day, my Dad placed our framed blue train group shot on his office desk. The suntan he had been working so hard on in the Polish sun made it almost believable.
It still feels nice to make some new memories at no extra cost, even if they weren’t real. With a few clicks, you can become an explorer. There’s no need for bookings, travel stress, or jet lag. All you need is a computer, internet, a vivid imagination, and remote friends or family on a Zoom call, to share these memories with. Just pick a destination. There are no limits. Tomorrow, you could choose between discovering Mars or checking out the crab migration on Christmas Island. But don’t fall for one-way tickets, the real world will still needs you.