By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Just before Covid-19 was everyone’s biggest concern, Sri Lanka was recovering fast from the devastating effects of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks and was on its way to reclaiming its throne as one of Asia’s most trending tourist destinations. At the forefront of it all was Ella.
With the gorgeous Nine Arches Bridge, Ella Rock, and the most scenic train ride you’ll ever take in your life, Ella was one of the hottest travel spots in the island, hosting an endless number of tourists and local travellers coming in and out of the city, enjoying its mild and pleasant weather and mind-blowing scenery.
However, like everywhere else, Ella too has suffered greatly due to the effects of the pandemic and Government-imposed curfew. Business owners have no choice but to close down their establishments, particularly restaurants and hotels targeted at tourists, and considering that Ella was largely dependent upon the tourism trade, the city right now is unrecognisable.
While Ella may paint a familiar picture when looking at all the other tourist destinations around the world, there’s one thing that is setting the city apart from anywhere else – good old Sri Lankan hospitality and kindness.
This is a world where stories of stranded tourists struggling to get home are reported everywhere; you’ve heard the BBC sharing unfortunate tales of tourists stuck in India and Saudi Arabia due to the coronavirus lockdown and have been forced to live off instant noodles, rushing out to procure even that, hoping every day their own countries would figure out a way to fly them back as soon as possible, or heard that nearly 500 tourists stranded in the Maldives are being given accommodation for discounted rates. But Sri Lanka has gone above and beyond.
In Ella city, tourists are facing a far different experience. Tourists in Ella are currently being well taken care of by the Ella community. Speaking to some of the business owners in the area, it was most heartening to hear the reasoning behind them stepping up to provide for strangers from another country.
Taking the lead is Café Chill. It is currently providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the 40 or 50 tourists stranded in the city, on top of having found them free accommodation to wait out the travel ban and curfew period.
Café Chill Owner Dharshana Ratnayake – the mastermind of the entire operation – and General Manager – and friend of the owner – Thanuja Hewage shared that they called in some favours and reached out to some of their contacts around the city asking for those who would be willing to house a few foreigners. He said they also have a hotel called “Chill Ville” with rooms where they have housed some foreigners.
Sharing why they chose to step up and go out of their way to help out, they said: “The reason why we are able to wait out this curfew and the reason why Ella is where it is now is because whatever income we gained was from tourists, so we have a duty to take care of them now that they are helpless. They are in a strange land, have no friends, can’t see their families, and don’t know the language – they need our help.”
Dharshana has not only allowed a comfortable and worry-free transition for stranded tourists, but is also providing donations from his own private income for distributors and suppliers associated with his establishment in and around the Ella city limits. He has set up a collective fund where he would make a deposit, which would then be transferred to a thousand accounts specified to the bank, providing somewhat of an allowance for those who may need it at this time.
“We are responsible for our communities, and we have a duty to take care of each other,” Dharshana said, adding that he is someone who truly believes in this message and so has chosen to make as many contributions as he could.
We spoke to MozzarElla Pizzeria Owner Chinthaka Wickramasinghe, who also shared that Café Chill has taken it upon themselves to help the community and they’ve really stepped up, inspiring those who have the means to do what they can as well.
“We have all been forced to shut down our establishments, but morale isn’t as low as one would assume,” Chinthaka said, adding that most of the tourists stranded in Ella, according to the four or five tourists he has spoken to, had shared that to them it feels like an extended vacation in a beautiful tropical country.
They have received holidays from their respective countries, and Ella city is treating them as a part of the community; to them, there could not have been a better scenario in such a bad situation.
Chinthaka said that many foreigners have said they are looking forward to heading over to Arugam Bay as soon as the curfew is lifted, so that they can enjoy the beach a little bit, which was part of their original plan when they came down, before they are allowed to go back to their own countries. He said they are all extremely grateful and that our hospitality is likely not going to be soon forgotten.
Both Jade Café Owner Sujatha Jayasuriya and City Café General Manager Sanjeewa Bandara shared that while they have been made to temporarily halt their operations, they are hopeful that all of the good their community has done, along with the hope and positive energy they collectively share, could possibly give them a boost when it comes to readjusting and rebuilding once the pandemic is under control and over.
One could only hope that we are able to overcome this pandemic and emerge unscathed on the other side. Until then, it is truly inspiring to see communities coming together, showcasing humankind’s greatest assets of empathy and kindness.
If you’re looking for positivity and inspiration and you happen to be in Sri Lanka, you needn’t look too far away.