In this April, 2020, photo, stranded tourists rest at the Cafe Chill in Ella, a tourist hot spot about 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of the capital Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photo: AP)
The tourists came to see the magical waterfalls and mountain views of the lowland jungle and rainforest. But then the pandemic hit, and they were stranded in Sri Lanka.
When flights were canceled and the airports shut down, Darshana Ratnayake came to the rescue.
Ratnayake, a cafe owner in Ella, a former colonial hill station in Sri Lankan tea country, organized free food and shelter for dozens of stranded tourists.
“We were totally blown away,” said Alex Degmetich, a 31-year-old American cruise line entertainment director.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” he said. “Coming from Western society, where nothing is really given to us and we have to pay for everything which is fine. But here, locals providing us — tourists — free food and accommodation, is really humbling.”
The Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide curfew on March 20 to curb the spread of the virus, sealing off entire regions of the Indian Ocean island nation. Degmetich was among 40 tourists from 11 countries stranded in Ella, 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of the capital, Colombo.
Ella’s famous treks tend to draw a young backpacker crowd, and Darshana knew they’d soon be out of money, and the small bed-and-breakfast lodges out of food.
He was right: Many of the tourists had just enough money to pay for the trip, and broken supply chains meant the lodges were running low on provisions.
Darshana established his Chill Cafe as a juice bar with two tables 13 years ago. The business has grown to a full restaurant and boutique hotel with 72 employees.
Just after the curfew was imposed, Darshana prepared a list of those staying in lodges and began boxed dinner deliveries. And he convinced lodge owners to let their guests stay on for free.
“Our livelihood depends on tourism. We must help tourists when they are in trouble. Money isn’t everything. We must help and share at difficult times like this,” he said.
He said he also donated 5 million Sri Lankan rupees ($27,000) to tour guides who lost their income when tourism came to a standstill.
Darshana said Sri Lanka’s bloody, decades-long civil war had a huge impact on tourism in Ella. Any time a bomb went off in the country, he said, tourist arrivals fell sharply. For 25 years, separatists from the minority Tamil community fought for a separate state. By the time government forces crushed the rebellion in 2009, U.N. estimates say some 100,000 people had been killed.
With the war’s end, Ella’s visitor numbers rose sharply, averaging a thousand people a day, he said.
Darshana has expanded his support to both lunch and dinner each day — without, he insists, sacrificing on quality or customer service.
Rebecca Curwood-Moss, a tourist from England, felt hopeless when Sri Lanka’s curfew was imposed. She said Darshana’s meals have done more than fill empty stomachs.
“In the box, we didn’t just find the delicious homemade rice and curry, but we found hope,” she said.