Author’s Note: My trip to Sri Lanka was a worldwind of amazing experiences. Sadly, I couldn’t recount them in real time, so I’ll be sharing postscripts over the next week or so. There is so much to tell, from a rockin’ Da Silva party to Buddha spotting across the countryside, so stay with me, if you can. The following is a compilation of events having to do with the healing properties of Sri Lanka.
When I walk into Uncle Emil’s private spa one day, Narangela is preparing something in a pestle. She’s combining those magical herbal leaves with garlic and coriander for my thermal massage later. Dr. Princy arrives with her collection of oil bottles along with an assortment of jars containing savory-smelling powders. She points out dried flowers and a root good for healing arthritis, again she doesn’t know the exact words for these things in English. When she starts with my facial mask, I can guess one ingredient, honey. It’s sticky and cool on my face. She says the mixture also includes herbal powder, which contains some 60 herbs and spices, including pepper, turmeric and ginger. The concoction is left on my face for several minutes along with cucumbers over the eyes–there’s another familiar ingredient from previous spa treatments. My facial is then followed by a foot soak with the same flat herbal leaves from my steam baths. I wiggle my toes in the hot water filled with flowers and seeds to soothe the hundreds of nerve endings in my feet, which in turn affect the health of my brain and the rest of my nervous system, I’m told. I have to say all feels right with my body, especially as I sip a delicious herbal tea. The next treatment goes straight to my head as I lay over a steaming pot of herbal leaves and I know garlic is one of the ingredients because I kind of want to taste what’s in the pot. The doctor tells me to inhale through my nose and mouth, again, for the health of my brain, along with the sinuses and ears. I should be one clear thinking person after all of this. Then it is time for the syncopated massage again, doctor and therapist applying liberal amounts of oil to my limbs and torso and working it in rhythmically. Instead of ending with the steam bath, the pair then pound my feet, legs, back and arms with warm, cloth packs of herbs, the same ones I saw Narangela preparing earlier. The process of patting and pounding up and down my body is called thermal massage and has a similar effect as the steam bath. It’s meant to draw bacteria out of the muscles. Dr. Princy says that the treatment has been effective in helping AIDS patients and she shares more about the principles of ayurveda, which is basically about achieving balance. Essentially, various parts of our bodies correspond with natural elements like earth, air and fire. For instance, Dr. Princy says, fire is associated with the stomach. If there is an imbalance there, she seeks the proper herbs and methods to treat that imbalance. The ultimate goal is to achieve a natural harmony throughout the body.
It seems a lot of people come to Sri Lanka seeking balance. Ayurveda is big here and it appears to be a selling point for hotels and guest houses all over the island. Uncle Emil says he sees a lot of people who are sick. He points out one German man in Speedos who’s been standing in the ocean for a good 15 minutes stark still, staring. There is another man who comes to the Coconut Bar everyday with a white kerchief covering his head. He says little. He finds a chair and waits for the sun to set. I see others walking up and down the beach with the same kerchiefs and wonder what that is about. I find out when I meet Helga at the Coconut Bar one day. She’s a German doctor of Chinese traditional medicine who vacations in Sri Lanka for ayurvedic treatments. She’s also a guest at the Barberyn Resort next door and she raves about the experience, so much so that I ask her for a tour. She’s thrilled to oblige. When we met a few days ago, she and a fellow resort guest were watching the clock as they had to get back for their evening medicine at 6pm, timed with the setting of the sun. I was curious about all the rituals of the place. As we walk the immaculate grounds, Helga tells me about the daily treatments that sound very similar to the ones I’d been receiving at Uncle Emil’s. She explains that the resort’s doctors consult with guests to learn about specific problems and they add treatments and natural medicines accordingly. Helga is getting an additional treatment at 3 pm everyday to address pain in her legs. After all the toxins have been cleared from the body and it is time to achieve maximum balance, warm oil is poured on the forehead and over the head, then the head is covered with a cloth, or kerchief, to keep the oil in place over 3 days. Helga says you aren’t to leave the resort during these days and in this time she had very intense dreams and things around her became more vivid. And, they make the resort a place that you wouldn’t want to leave with babbling water features, open airy spaces and lounge chairs facing the beach in a walled garden. The rooms look spacious with mosquito netting draped romantically over bedposts. Helga tells me that she is nearing the end of her stay. She isn’t looking forward to leaving and is already thinking about when she can return.
Sid and Uncle Emil aren’t impressed with Barberyn, as I may have mentioned. They can’t understand how anyone could come to a country as beautiful as theirs and spend all their time indoors. Uncle Emil is convinced that the resort is polluting the area, complaining of stagnant water behind the place. I wonder if they are really ready for the tourism that is sure to come to their shores soon. I’d learn later that a popular hotel chain called Chaaya is building a luxury resort steps away from the Coconut Bar and is said to include some 300 rooms. I’m sure ayurvedic spa treatments will be included, too.
There is more than ayurveda being practiced in Sri Lanka. The country has its own licensed traditional medicine that is passed down from generation to generation. One of Sid’s childhood friends, Suranga, is a doctor of this traditional medicine as was his father and grandfather before him. It is hard to imagine that the reserved, lanky man with a puff of grey-streaked hair was a DJ with Sid in his teens. Now, people with grave illnesses who’ve tested the bounds of Western medicine come to him seeking a cure. We are on our way back to Sid’s guest house when I meet Dr. Suranga on the path between the Coconut Bar and Uncle Emil’s place. Night has fallen, so I can’t see him well but I sense his height and feel his presence. He definitely has presence. You can tell that he knows and understands things that many of us could never understand. The grounds of his private hospital look like an enchanted forest and his outdoor lounge is in the center of a tangle branches and low-growing king coconut trees. He tells us of a patient that came to be cured of AIDS, but when he examines the patient he find no signs of AIDS and tells him so. But the patient insists that he has the illness and it becomes Dr. Suranga’s job to cure the patient mentally through meditation. He says he helped cure a young patient of a rare liver ailment through a personalized mixture of Sri Lankan herbs and meditation. He’s received some referrals from Barberyn, but most have just found him through word of mouth. He likes it this way. It feels like the work of the universe and that he’s meant to help the people who find him. I leave Dr. Suranga’s enchanted hospital with Sid feeling somewhat enlightened, especially now knowing the Sri Lankan name of the flat leaf used in my ayurvedic treatments–eredu.