“It’s funny–it always strikes me how amazing it is–that in less than half a day you can be on the other side of the planet,” Lee, our fellow guest muses as the hostess carefully places dishes in front of him—dahl, rice, fried eggplant with mango chutney, bitter greens and chicken curry.
Lee has spent a few weeks in the country, a large part of it at an Ayurdevic spa doing nothing but meditating and having hot oil massaged into him, and he could easily be an advertisement for the practice. He must be in his sixties, but looks as healthy and lithe as a twenty-year-old and emanates perfect health and supreme calm. Pressed by us for an account of his travels, he obliges and gives some recommendations: especially the retreat in Bentota and the Bomburu falls at Ella.
Aside from me and John, Lee is the only guest at Randoni Villa, a secluded little place just 15 minutes’ drive from the airport. It sits at the end of a country lane, surrounded by greenery on the bank of Attangalu Oya river. Ananda, the father, is away doing his other job as a tour guide, so we are attended to by his wife, who is the talented cook, and his daughters, the eldest of whom, Huruni, speaks excellent English and acts as interpreter and travel advisor. The younger daughters don’t speak much but stand to one side smiling and looking on with interest, holding one of the three resident Persian cats.
Our first night there John sleeps well but I’m kept awake by jetlag and scary noises. At first, there is something like a katydid but more metallic, emitting a sound like rhythmic audible sparks. Then there are the chirps of geckos. Later in the night comes the ghostly loon-like whipperings of waterbirds from the river, then scamperings and scritchings on the roof, and a tuneful singing that might or might not be a nightjar perched in a tree in the surrounding garden. I finally manage to drift off when I am wrenched awake by the terrifying roar of an airplane that seems on the verge of crashing into our hotel room. Stifling a scream, I lie very still and wait for the fireball that never comes. During the silent aftermath, a gentle scraping sound starts swishing on the far wall, somehow reminiscent of a garden hose and I start imagining a giant octopus made of vines that goes forth in the night to devour what it may. No sooner does that calm down than something lands on the roof, does a little dance and starts to hammer like a woodpecker drumming up grubs. This manages to wake John, and after a few drumming sessions, he yells at it to go away, which it does. I manage to sleep a couple of hours but around five in the morning, I have to get up to the bathroom, which is a sort of roofed shack with gaps in the walls so you can hear everything. Looking down into the toilet and noticing that a colony of ants has inexplicably decided that it’s a fantastic place to congregate, I hear something that chills my blood—a very low and tuneful chanting that sounds like the Red Army Choir about to perform a ritual sacrifice. And over this, suddenly, is the shrill, jingling tune of an icecream truck playing ”It’s a Small World After All”.
At breakfast I’m a little strung out after my night of sound effects. Even so, I manage to polish off the feast of dhosas and green chilli coconut sambol along with toast, butter, jam, fresh pineapple and coffee. As we munch away, I see movement in the trees behind John and realize it’s a kind of palm squirrel, with a stripe that reminds me of a chipmunk.
Hiruni tells us that our taxi has arrived—we are going into Colombo for a day—so we gulp the rest of our coffee and jump in. The ride takes about an hour and the contrast between the green peace of the countryside and the frenetic activity of the city is marked. There are motorized tuk-tuks everywhere, each one decorated in a distinctive way, though not as elaborately as the trucks, some of which are mobile works of art. I gaze with interest at the people: businessmen in white shirts and black trousers, workmen in hi-viz vests, women in dresses and heels, school children in formal uniforms, mechanics in oil-stained T-shirts, tuk-tuk drivers in T-shirts and jeans, policemen in meticulously ironed uniforms and very skinny elderly people in long batik sarongs.
Looming over the whole city is the Lotus Tower, which our driver points out on the way past, though he really doesn’t need to—you can see it from anywhere. As we reach the coast, looking out to the Indian Ocean, he pulls to a stop and points to an enormous mall surrounded by fences and policemen.
“Brand new,” he explains. We realize that this is what he understands as ‘the shopping district’ we requested as our destination. John explains that we are actually looking for a big street with lots of shops on it, where the locals go. The driver shrugs, which seems to mean there isn’t really anywhere like that. We get out and go through the entrance, which is manned by security guards and x-ray machines for bags. Just outside, cars are checked by a Malinois shepherd in a police vest. It has only been eight months since the Easter bombings that killed 259 people, so presumably the dog is sniffing for explosives. On this occasion, luckily, nothing is detected and the car is allowed to go on.
At 10 in the morning, the mall is only very slowly coming to life. John and I find a bookstore that is one of the few shops open, buy a few tomes on Sri Lankan history but are disappointed that there are no city maps available. Waiting for other shops to open, we wander around the mall. Already, a big crowd is gathering around an enormous Christmas tree and young couples and friends are taking each other’s pictures in front of it. As we learn later from our host, Sri Lanka has quite a small Christian population (about 7%) and almost all of it is concentrated in Colombo and on the west coast. This, he explains, is due to the fact that the Portuguese stuck to port towns and converted people in those towns to Catholicism. This perhaps explains why we saw so many trees and nativity scenes around the city.
The main reason we’ve come to the city is that John needs a foreign-legion hat, the other one is lost somewhere in Italy. But a quick reconnaissance mission on all five floors of the complex shows that foreign-legion hats are as rare as Sumatran rhinos. These are high-end fashion shops where the only hats available are baseball caps or those little short-brimmed hats favored by Justin Timberlake. So we go outside and get into a tuk-tuk asking the driver for a shopping street.
“You mean the city centre?” he asks.
“Yes!” We nod enthusiastically.
“OK!” he zips around town and deposits us outside another big mall, called ‘City Center Shopping Centre’. Resigned to our fate, knowing there will not be a hat here either, we trudge in and go through another security check. Sure enough, this place has all the same hat-less shops. We decide to make the best of it by getting John some linen trousers. Pants shopping is one of his least favorite activities but he does it quickly and efficiently with only a hint of anguished groaning.
To celebrate this achievement, we go downstairs to have lunch at the supermarket foodcourt, where businessmen are grabbing a bite to eat before going back to work. I order beef and noodles for John and tuna curry, which are filling but nothing extraordinary. Before going upstairs we decide to look at all the weird food: dozens of varieties of locally grown rice; wood apples; rambutan; headless sprats that locals chew like peanuts; egg hopper flour and aisles of spice. It gives me a nostalgic feeling to find Commonwealthy food familiar from my childhood such as Marmite (which you can use on noodles apparently), Milo and tins of golden syrup.
At this point we are ready to head back to the hotel and venture outside in search of taxis. A man responds to our request, but when we realize he is leading us to a line of tuk-tuks, we stop and said we want a car—the mere thought of travelling the distance back to the hotel in a little open-air jalopy makes my bum hurt.
“OK, OK,” says the head guy, “I call car now. You wait 15 minutes, inside. I call you.”
We duly go back inside and sit down at ‘Il Caffe’ where I order a gelato.
“What flavor madam?”
“Um, rum and raisin.”
“Ahh,” he said knowingly. “Alcohol.”
“I no like this,” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
Soon enough, the taxi impresario returns, leads us outside and introduces us to a man with a moustache whose car is parked across the road.
“You know madam,” the driver says to me, sweating, “I need to drive by my shop, just ten minutes madam. There you go sit in shop. No need to buy, but if you want to buy OK. I need to pick up petrol vouchers there, two, three vouchers.”
He is avoiding looking at or addressing John, perhaps because John is glaring.
Sure enough, the guy drives us in the wrong direction across the city and decants us into a gem shop. The sofa by the door is taken, so we go and sit on a couple of chairs in front of a display case full of rings and necklaces. No sooner have we taken a seat than a guy drifts over and starts the hard sell, urging me to try on various rings and necklaces.
“Actually,” I say finally, with some apology, “We’re just waiting for our driver.”
He nods briefly and then just launches into the same spiel. John and I stand up and walk away, pretending to look at other stuff. The guy follows us.
“You like gemstones? We have many fine gemstones.”
“No thanks,” we say and sit down on the sofa, which is now free. We both start to read books intently. Coincidentally, just at this time our taxi driver returns to shepherd us back to the car. He has the Greatest Hits of Boney-M playing. They are very cheering, especially “Rasputin” (there was a cat who really was gone) and “Rivers of Babylon”, which includes an illusion to Psalm 137:4, “Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?”, which is used in a lot of songs and which I always find moving. However, even Boney M palls a bit as it takes us ages to get out of the city even though the driver takes plenty of short cuts through side alleys. By the time we near the airport, the driver starts periodically stopping the car and asking people where our hotel is. We’ve given him the hotel phone number, but his phone has run out of credit or something. Inch by inch we near our oasis. Finally, he makes it.
We get in and sleep for three hours, exhausted by the whole experience.