Palm trees, everywhere. Out of the airport’s beige interiors, met by a friend I shall refer to as the Tsarina, into a waiting taxi. Now that’s what I call weather: valleys of sun-stained cloud roof Colombo’s gleaming broil. Banks, tuk-tuks, billboards, shaded grocers and elephantine fruit, peeling Victorian megaliths, more banks. Massive construction works: a China-financed motorway.
Arrive at the residence, for a resplendent cup of tea. Exactly an hour’s sleep on an overnight flight from Heathrow. Another friend, Lord K, returns from the office, and then a blast around central Colombo in a car named the Beast, his Maruti 800. The driving intense, but the traffic forgiving: you elbow through with everyone else, fist-waving and language curiously absent. Towering trees veil grand villas, then McDonald’s, Mango, skyscrapers, metal-and-glass.
To a charming Korean family for dinner, Scotch, and Sri Lanka’s Three Coins lager. A quick slink out to a nearby supermarket for a bottle. Back to the table, a glass, and there it is before me. Arrack: gold malarial; hours drift, oozing to a shudder. It is gorgeously drinkable. I bid you good night.
Next morning a whistle-stop tour of Colombo sights by tuk-tuk, driven commandingly by Dudley, a friend of my hosts. Through rural-tinged suburbs to a grand temple, ancient dusky brown, where Buddha trod. He reclines inside, a shining giant amid infinite and fading illustrations. An enormous blinding white stupa adjacent, devotees march around the requisite banyan tree, brightly coloured strips of material tied to anything available.
Then on over a railway line to a huge Hindu temple, comprised almost entirely of little painted statues, some men chip away on a smaller version behind, years of work ahead. Fort, Galle Face Green, lunch. Challenging: press curry and rice into a ball using only one’s right hand. I’m left handed, a slow process, and much ends up on the face.
A brief stroll to Vihara Mahadevi Park. Schoolchildren chatter, fruitbats repose in multitude, occasionally shriek or take a flutter unfurling that notorious wingspan. Saatchi & Saatchi beside a roundabout, a turn down a street of colonial residences, now offices. International PR titan Ogilvy announces itself on a plate outside one, the Iraqi embassy another. An iced tea and back home.
Up early next day, through mild traffic in the Beast and onto the newly-opened Southern Expressway, verdure either side. A turn-off to country main roads, where single-decker buses are overlords of the right of way. Demented minibuses and cranking lorries slow the progress, as do tuk-tuks – collective noun: an inconvenience – to the hill country. Roadside stall, king coconut hacked open, straw inserted: thambili, an immensely refreshing juice, a celebrity health fad waiting to happen.
The heat chills, the roads precipitous, tea plantations emerge, and the small hillside town of Haputale. The White Monkey Dias Rest House, little cottages with a million-dollar view. Dias is a splendid gentleman, very welcoming, with whom Lord K and the Tsarina have stayed previously.
A half-hour walk into town, which quietly bustles with commerce. A Sri Lankan Lion lager in a bar, where I put the jumper back on for the first time since the aeroplane; a very English train station; and in a bakery some invigorating sweet spiced tea and a pastry containing hard-boiled egg pieces. Tuk-tuk back to the rest house for dinner, thank heavens for cutlery, and an arrack sat in front of that view. We are at the same altitude as the weather.
Next morning a visit to a country mansion built by a plantation owner in 1931. With the cold, the light rain, raked leaves and picturesque gardens, it could be a National Trust jaunt on a grim Sunday in November.
Back down into the heat, heading south. A three-foot monitor lizard struts between speeding cars, minus half its tail. A deleted scene from Jurassic Park 4. Detour to Kataragama, sacred town for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The approach is a country lane, then a dirt track, then crawling along miles of unfinished highway. The potholes. Is your exhaust pipe, ahem, well hung, sir? The heat.
We press on. Finally a main road, and Kataragama. The sites of worship in a park, thousands throng, monkeys conspire and from pilgrims pilfer fruit intended as offerings, leaving overflowing rubbish bins to roaming cows and goats. A turn around the stupa reveals elephants chained beside a car park. Marauding monkeys with the same faces as sour old men in East End boozers.
Back on the road, and in the absence of a radio station I instigate a truly appalling barbershop trio treatment of Frankly Mr Shankly. Which is swiftly matched by, er, Boom Boom Boom and Here Comes the Hotstepper. An evening of louche behaviour on the beach beckons.
Tangalle, a coastal town. The guest house is on the beach; palm trees, white sands, paradise rebuilt after tsunami devastation. Gaze at the ocean, the thunderous waves. We realise that after two days of dust-seared road, dressing for dinner is perhaps advisable. Followed by welcome beer, then platters of exquisitely fresh fish, caught the same day.
More beer, and I attempt to speak what little Arabic I know, for some reason. Small dogs pad about, cheeky like children. We are joined by the owners, and Lord K produces Scotch and cigars. Sprawl in deckchairs on dimly-lit sand. More whisky, sir? Chasing crabs which motor around in the moments after waves drain back. I require enormity, disrobe, and stand amid the waves breaking, sometimes rushing with it, joined by Lord K and the Tsarina. The power is at once intoxicant, euphoriant, and sobering. Exhausted, and electrified, to bed.
Up as soon as daylight allows for a pre-breakfast swim, followed by reassuringly strong coffee, with mango, pineapple, banana and toast. Do you sarong? I didn’t. But Lord K makes it a noble illustration of poise and comfort. Blazing sun, relieved by dips in the water.
I pick up War and Peace for the first time since the flight, astonished to be on a summer holiday during February. Devilled vegetables for lunch give way to a looming downpour, cliffs of rain sailing in with misty grey skies. Eventually it passes, prompting another sojourn in the ocean, discussing chronically angry middle-aged swimming instructors from school years. Train carriages roll sideways toward us: under or over? Under. Magnitude.
Next morning back to Colombo, via Hambantota. A waterfront city seeing the construction of a new port and international airport, roadsigns direct you to a new cricket stadium. A vast and angular feat of architecture some miles out is an in-development conference centre. A crumbling statue by the harbour is losing its limbs; local lads tell us he was a fisherman.
Busy country roads once more; cows, a town bearing German names for houses and businesses, then back to the Southern Expressway, zooming back to Colombo. Evening, and winding through metropolitan congestion to a Human League tune on the radio. Garnished by palm trees, a hospital block disguised as a multi-storey car park from Coventry catches the eye. Spectacularly unexotic, functional, familiar. It is five and a half thousand miles away – from what, a question? Flickering ambition stirs.
Dinner in the financial district, lager, and lamprais, a superb dish of rice and curry baked in a banana leaf. A guessing game: the Tsarina baffles delightfully, with famous lines from books and films unread and unwatched by Lord K and I in decades. We stick to Gladiator and Top Gun. And Highlander. Back to the house, and arrack.
A brief goodbye at the airport the next morning. Flight back stopping off at the Maldives. A watery fiction, the plane sinks lower and lower to land on what appears to be the Indian Ocean. Touchdown: ah, the Maldives are in fact a series of small, sandy and well-marketed aircraft carriers. The plane stands on an island runway for an hour as middle-aged Europeans disembark, while the President is apparently deposed. Boats in a nearby harbour bob about, unconcerned. Turbulence, two meals, three films, frozen London.
Thank you both so much; it is impossible to express adequately the gargantuan debt of gratitude.
First published in February, 2012, at www.lankaweminisu.blogspot.com