A white sandy beach tucked in a bay shaded by palm trees and gentle waves, Arugam Bay is a paradise for vacationers. For Amanda Perera, returning to this picturesque magnet for surfers and sun-seekers to start a business felt like a homecoming not taken for granted.
Born in Sri Lanka, but raised in Milan, Italy, Amanda Perera’s parents fled their country during the decades-long civil war that finally ended in 2009. As Arugam Bay was the closest beach to her mother’s hometown, Badulla, Amanda explained that returning to the beach during summer holidays and playing with her cousins was a highlight of her adolescence. “It felt like it was more spacious and more breathable than being in the city. I guess when there is less space limitation your mind feels more freedom,” she shared.
Now in the country’s peaceful era, Amanda’s family returned to Arugam Bay to start a new life and boutique hotel, The Bay Vista Hotel. The Bay Vista is a melting pot of Amanda’s Sri Lankan and European backgrounds seen from what’s on the menu—you can order a traditional curry or avocado toast from the restaurant—to the common spaces that feature a modern yoga deck and traditional Sri Lankan crafted furniture.
We met up with Amanda in Sri Lanka to surf and talk more about the convergence of her Sri Lankan and European identities.
How was Sri Lankan culture part of life and identity while growing up in Italy?
I was always close to the Sri Lankan culture at home. We spoke Sinhalese at home and they always told me stories about Sri Lankan history, Buddhist talks, news about what was happening there. It wasn't easy for me to grow between such diverse cultures. I had arguments with my parents and confusion about my friends’ lifestyles, as they were contradictory to what my parents’ family values were. Especially during the teenage years, I had to battle silently between the two a lot.
Now I found the balance of both cultures. There are positive and negative things in both. I guess with the life experiences I got to figure out what to keep of both sides. And each situation is different; it’s important to understand where the other people come from before acting and speaking.
Did your parents ever talk about the civil war in Sri Lanka? What did you know about it?
[My parents would say that the civil war] was a useless war where the only losers are the civilians—both Tamils and Sinhalese were closely affected by it. There was also a lot of anger when there were attacks about why our beautiful country had to go through such horrible times. Imagine being afraid of doing everyday things that we take for granted with the fear of death for them or their family members. When the war ended it was one of the most memorable days for all of us, especially for the people who were still living in the country.
What brought you back to Sri Lanka?
I had enough of living in big cities. I wanted to breathe again and feel free like during the times I visited Sri Lanka. I left Italy when I was 18 to study fashion photography in London at the London College of Fashion. I ended up staying in London for five years studying, working at Vice, and then assisting photojournalist Carol Allen-Storey. After working with her for one year I was exhausted of the lifestyle in London and came back briefly to Milan doing some fashion work.
I felt like it was now or never. I knew if I stayed in Europe I would have been stuck and just sucked into that lifestyle. It wasn’t easy. It was a risk for all of us to sell everything and start the Bay Vista Hotel with no background in hospitality, but it worked perfectly. And it was the best decision I have ever made.
How did it feel to be back in Sri Lanka and build something new?
In Colombo, there are nice places to eat and interesting crowd but it wasn’t very fulfilling being there. When I started coming to Arugam Bay I felt more at home. The beginning was a bit difficult. Since two years, I found a good balance of relaxation and work especially since we started the healthy bar and yoga space on the hotel rooftop. The best thing is the amazing people that I meet at the hotel. It’s literally traveling without moving. The beauty of this area is the perfect balance of amazing restaurants, bars, hotels on the main stretch, and the wilderness just a few kilometers away. The surroundings are just wow. I still get excited watching it. And the sunsets and sunrises are mind-blowing!
How did you get into surfing?
I started surfing about a year ago randomly. I never thought of it before because of fear of waves. But once I stood up on my first wave, I just fell in love and went every morning for about one month.
Whenever I had time I went surfing with my friend Milan from Arugam Bay, a good local surfer and wonderful human being. I felt safe with him around, but whenever I had to go alone, fear was stopping me from catching the waves. With his help I became more confident and I surf now and then, but I always prefer to go with friends as it’s more fun.
Do you run into other women surfers in Sri Lanka? Is playing in the water part of the culture?
In Sri Lanka back in the days, they tend to fear the ocean when you are younger to make sure you won’t go too far in the water. My mum has said a few times that I had bad luck with water according to the horoscope! I guess the unpredictability of the ocean is what scared them the most. That’s why I was scared of waves; now since I started surfing it’s a mix of fear and excitement.
[Surfing is a new thing in Sri Lanka]. Before it was just done by the local boys as proper freesurfing lifestyle. Recently it spread more and there are a few local girls who are giving it a go.
The locals who lived abroad or are from Colombo are a bit more open-minded. For the village people it’s still a no-no [for women to surf]. Arugam Bay is a mix of Muslim, Sinhalese, and Tamils so the cultural aspects are very strong. Being in the beach is not seen as a good thing especially from the older generations, and also there is an absurd idea that fair skin is nicer and dark skin is seen as unattractive. That’s another reason why a lot of families don’t like girls to hang out at the beach. Girls go with their families fully covered for dips and playing in the water, close to the shore.
But a lot of these girls really would like to try it out, and those who did have sparkles in their eyes when they talk about it.
What’s next for you? Is your new life in Sri Lanka everything you dreamed it would be?
I am a strong believer of simple life, respect of nature, and kindness to people whoever they are and wherever they come from. I love traveling, exploring, meeting people, sharing experience, but I also love silence and simple.
My ideal life is to have small house by the beach surrounded by nature with surf, yoga, love, good food, and good people around. I guess I’m very close …
Thank you for sharing your story Amanda! Count us in to visit you at your hotel in Arugam Bay next season!
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