Some places are both nothing and everything like you thought they would be.

When I stepped off the plane in Sri Lanka, a gentleman waved confidently at me, holding a placard that read “Miss Jade.” He already knew who I was, even though we had never met.

His name was Amila, and he, apparently, had looked me up on Facebook so he could match a face to a name. This may seem insignificant to some, but to me, it was the perfect representation of Sri Lankan way of life.

I often dream of places where a stranger’s gaze stretches for miles, not only in length but also in depth and integrity. A place where holding a stare helps you travel deeper into less predictable waters. If we only took the time to look a little closer …

People today seem so curious to know what will happen next, where they are going after, and what life will be like in the coming year. I look for ways to make a whole lifetime out of a single moment. Because when I opened my eyes on my first day in Sri Lanka, I was living in my dream.

After three hours of conversation with the ever curious Amila, I was dropped off at Ceylon Sliders in the coastal village of Weligama. Weligama translates to “sandy village,” and that is exactly what I got.

This traditional fishing village hugged by the Indian Ocean has a single main street with a few shops, banks, some oceanfront seafood shacks, and an epic surf break for beginners. It was 2 am, the perfect time to open the door to the balcony to feel that cozy, salty humidity warm my skin. I took a moment to listen to the sound of the trees swishing back and forth, stubborn waves crashing against the rocks, the ocean roaring.

I fell into a deep sleep in my oversized suite and woke to the best coffee and avocado toast in all of Sri Lanka. I felt a bit like a cheat for not eating traditional food right away, but Ceylon Sliders had gone above and beyond to create the ultimate surfer’s hideaway and, after traveling in Sri Lanka for a few more days, I was fully able to appreciate the meal.

Sri Lanka’s southern province is a magical enclave where fishermen and gorgeous women dressed in sarees live alongside surfers from all walks of life. The communities mingle and thrive, with simplicity and the catch of the day as the only prerequisites for survival. Days are colored in bright shades of blue and green from the ocean, and though life on the coast is breezy,a few hours north a raging war kept Sri Lanka off limits to visitors for years. The 25-year-long civil war, at the most basic level, arose from ethnic tension between Sinhalese and Tamil citizens. Of course, in reality, the causes are more complex and arise in large part from Sri Lanka’s colonial legacy. I had a hard time picturing any of the gentle and generous people I encountered during my trip engaging in any sort of conflict.

Since the end of the civil war in 2009, the country has seen an influx of tourism, which surged to a new high in 2016. Many flock to national parks and “resort” beach towns, but this popularity, naturally, comes with a price. Aware of cultural sensitivities, I always try to reconcile the political realities with my travels. In this case, I made sure to dress appropriately and travel solo, without signing up for guided tours or safaris. For obvious reasons, locals are keen to capitalize on this soaring revenue stream, and no part of me is ever amused by watching stressed elephants roam around. What did amuse me was renting a battered scooter and exploring the southern coast in my own way.

The towns of south Sri Lanka neighbor each other in a long, windy stretch along the ocean. In a rental tuk tuk or scooter, one can easily make the rounds from Galle all the way to Hiriketya with plenty of stops in between.

While visiting during high season guarantees epic days in the water, low season is ideal for cultural immersion and exploring the terrains. Slow down and take time to make conversation. If you’re lucky, it may lead to a cup of tea or a meal with a local.

When I accidentally wandered onto someone’s property, the owner, Shan, was generous enough to invite me for tea in his 185-year-old home that belonged to his grandparents. Antique picture frames with portraits of his great grandmother dressed in traditional lace attire adorned the clay hut. My head barely made it through the door without hitting a hanging pan. Lanterns made out of birch, coconut shells for ashtrays, and vintage wicker chairs made it cozy inside. So cozy that I stayed for two hours as Shan not only prepared Sri Lankan fresh lime tea for detoxing, but a full meal with all homemade ingredients and spices. He even made his own curry powder, which I was invited to smell and touch. Shan taught me to make fresh coconut milk by using his homemade special coconut grinder with a built-in stool. We then used the milk to make dhal and marinade for some tuna, which he pan-seared to perfection with cloves, cinnamon, and garlic.

Occasional rain drops cooled us off after this glorious meal, and they almost seem an attempt to slow down the pace even more. Nights on the coast were nostalgic, and a dark indigo sky gifted us with tiny little star diamonds.

Sri Lanka’s magic is only as complex as paper origami, politely encouraging you to get closer and appreciate the gift handed to you, until finally, you find your treasure.