Rabbi Goldschmidt


Shabbat with the Turtle man of Hikkaduwa

Shalom U’vracha,

One of the more challenging aspects of life on the road, without the family or a nearby Jewish community is the loneliness of Shabbat – some hotels are less equipped for the needs of the Halachic traveler, even when those needs are met there is still the element of social and personal isolation that can make Shabbat far less of a pleasure than it would be normally.

In general, I myself do not find it particularly hard, I catch up on my Learning schedule much-needed sleep, and enjoy the silence after the often dizzying rush of visiting various factories, meetings,

This week in order to achieve some audits in the more rural southern area of Sri Lanka, we decided that we would stop for a break in the beautiful Hikkaduwa, a popular tourist area – the area is near the coast with golden beaches, guest houses and a range of interesting sites including many moonstone mines.

As things transpired we arrived at the hotel rather late and had time to cook up some food and prepare the room for Shabbat, I feel that I have trained in some ways for this experience and was able to achieve everything well before Shikiyah (Halachic Sunset).

However the following morning after the prayers and Shabbat meal I felt that I needed to take a walk to escape the room, I headed down to the beach on what can only be described as golden sands thrashed by magnificent clear waves.

As I was sitting there I heard a small and friendly voice say “Shalom!”, a small and happy looking man waved to me from the beach, “you are from Israel? Jewish? Yes? Ayubowan!” (a traditional greeting in Singhalese) what transpired was a very friendly conversation about the Israeli visitors to the coast who come for the surfing after their army service, he told me his name (Wasantha) and then told me “I am the turtle man of Hikkaduwa! Everyone knows me here! Would you like to see the turtles?” – intrigued, and without much of a plan, I dropped my shoes and key, grabbed my mask, and headed down the beach.

In travel, as in life/business/love; opportunities, as well as disasters, come from taking a certain degree of risk and weighing up the possible outcomes of decisions, as we walked along the shore I realized that I had made one of those never-to-forget lifetime decisions:

Wasantha paused to collect plastic trash, explaining to me that the turtles mistake the floating bags for jellyfish and hence eat them and unfortunately die, as we walked he collected seaweed from the sea and we discussed the town he grew up in that has become a tourist center.

Suddenly he began to shout and clap excitedly and called me to walk with him into the sea, I rolled up my trousers and followed him, he continued to clap and hoot and throw the seaweed into the water and then, suddenly before my eyes out of the water lifted a giant leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys Coriaceaa). Its size was approximately 3 meters long minus head and tail; its tail indicating that it was a male (The largest leatherback ever recorded was almost 10 feet – making this a normal specimen) – he called me over and showed me how to feed it the seaweed, provided its head was submerged in the water and one’s fingers far away from its powerful jaws and he further explained that experts are uncertain of their lifespan and they estimate between 50 or more (upper estimates by some researchers in herpetology suggest that in the wild they may live upwards of 100 years or more).

After some time feeding the giant turtles, he turned to me and said,
“would you like to see something really amazing?” – at this point I felt like there was nothing possibly more amazing that my new friend could show me.

What was slightly less practical about it was the lack of shoes, although living in India and my preference for being barefoot had prepared me slightly, the terrain we began to walk was at times rocky and hot from the sun, beach gave way to roads as we entered the town and then gave way again to the lush tropical forests in that area, as we walked he pointed to various trees and birds and told me about them, their medical properties, their local names; we saw the larger water monitors (Varanus Salvator), giant lizards sleeping on trees in the midday sun, at the garden behind a larger temple we saw an Ayurveda garden with dozens of plants used in traditional medicine.

Eventually, we came to his own humble home where I met with his wife and mother before we started on the long forest trail back to the hotel, I really felt subsumed in the wealth of animal and plant life, in the warmth and friendliness of the villagers in the rural areas – In relating the story to my father he said the following:

“That is what travel is all about, its about what happens when you least expect it, the adventure of following the road, the people you meet and those unexpected things you see along the way to your destination.”.

As I left Hikkaduwa the following morning to continue with our tour of factories for Kosher food production, I gave a last gaze out towards the gentle azure sea hoping that I would see those giant turtles one last time.