This was meant to be a surfing holiday, but now, our Sri Lanka trip was taking an unexpected turn. We were heading to meet a local healer, a practitioner of ancient Ayurvedic medicine, to see if she could work her magic and salvage our journey.
We heard whispers this woman could use her wizened hands and herbal remedies to fix a broken bone in a matter of days. It couldn’t possibly be true, right? And yet, here we were, making our way along a narrow jungle path, following a hand-drawn map, with me fighting to remove the mental image of bubbling cauldrons from my mind.
My partner Alex and I had arrived in Sri Lanka as part of an epic, year-long backpacking trip around Asia. Our plan was to kick off with a few weeks on the coast, learning to surf and ringing in the new year, Sri Lankan style, before exploring the tea plantations and rolling hills of the highlands. Sri Lanka is well known for surfing, and Alex – a keen board-sports enthusiast – was ready for the challenge.
We had caught the train from Colombo to Midigama, a quaint surf village on the south coast blessed with perfect weather and great surf breaks from October to March. Most of the breaks here require experience, so our instructor, Baba, loaded us and a couple of longboards into a tuk tuk to nearby Welligama, known for its wide-open beach and slow waves – perfect for beginners.
The tuk tuk dodged buses, cars, and surfers who were skillfully balancing their boards on their mopeds as they wove through the traffic. Once in Welligama, Baba gave us a quick rundown and then we went for the waves, paddling furiously like the rookies we were – well, at least I was.
Alex was in his element – with his years of snowboarding and skating, he was soon carving gracefully through the white water. I was not so adept. Baba was convinced I’d be standing up and riding a wave by the end of the session, but I harbored serious doubts. Much to my amazement, his prophecy came true.
When the lesson ended, I was thrilled, exhausted, and hooked, in equal measure. But Alex’s glorious day of surfing ended with an unfortunate anticlimax. Shaking from exertion, he dropped his heavy longboard onto his little toe, which immediately swelled and turned purple. This tiny injury had the potential to not only ruin surfing but also impact the rest of our time in Sri Lanka. Our plans to hike through the hill country and climb Adam’s Peak might have to be put on hold, if not canceled.
Baba recommended we see Sara, the local Ayurvedic healer – the other surfers in the village nodded their approval. We were told she might be able to help fix Alex’s broken toe. We thought it sounded a little crazy, but with nothing to lose, we decided to give it a try.
Map in hand, we set off, armed with an open mind and a bag of gifts. The other surfers had told us that she wouldn’t accept money, so we should bring her useful items along with something from our home country. On their suggestion, we bought some slippers and fruit in the local market, and added one of Alex’s favorite scarves from England – if she was actually going to able to save our trip, it felt like the least we could do.
We squeezed our way down a tiny path through the dense jungle and crossed the railroad tracks before arriving at a white gate. We were nervous with anticipation.
But standing in the beautiful garden with not a cauldron in site, being met by the wise, smiling faces of Sara and her sister, our nerves dissipated. Suddenly, we couldn’t remember why we’d ever been concerned in the first place.
We took a seat on the porch of their little white cottage, and as Sara poured us some tea – a delicious blend of herbs from her garden – she told us the old wooden bench had been used by her father and grandfather who had treated generations of people before. We felt in very safe hands.
Sara and her sister must have been around 70 years old – if not older – and had lived here together since their father died, cultivating a kingdom of medicinal plants and wildflowers, and treating those who needed help.
While examining Alex’s swollen toe, Sara explained the practice of Ayurvedic healing, a traditional Indian medicine dating back 3,000 years, that was passed down through her family for generations.
Meaning “science of life” in Sanskrit, Ayurveda is based on the premise that the human body exists in a state of balance and status quo, and that outside influences and disease can create imbalance and disrupt the natural order. Practitioners believe that the body has the capacity to heal itself, but sometimes needs a helping hand – which comes in the form of treatments like therapeutic massage and herbal remedies – to restore the alignment.
As she massaged Alex’s toe with natural oils to stimulate the blood flow, Sara explained the main differences between Ayurveda and Western medicine, especially regarding broken bones. In her view, the hands-off approach of Western medicine means that it takes longer for injuries to heal and that, without manipulation, the bones don’t always set correctly. She ensured the bone was in the right place, then applied an herbal compress of oregano oil and other locally sourced ingredients designed to reduce swelling.
The change was remarkable. That night, the throbbing pain ebbed away from Alex’s toe, and the deep purple swelling began to fade. We returned to Sara’s tranquil old house over the next three days, sipping herbal tea while she worked her magic hands and healing potions on Alex’s toe. Our love for the people and the fascinating history of Sri Lanka was cemented.
Although the injury sounded the death knell for our surfing plans, we were able to continue our adventures through Sri Lanka, and just a few weeks later, Alex (and his toe) made it up the 5,000 steps to Adam’s Peak to see a sunrise as memorable as our experience with Sara had been.
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