The place we’re in now is not the worst hotel in the world. It has a pool, wifi and air conditioning, as advertised. The breakfast is hearty, the sunset views are spectacular and the staff are (mostly) pleasant. But it is not a place for the lily-livered and shy and retiring, of which I am one.
Even before we arrived, our former host and driver Ananda suggested that Deutcsch Lanka might not be the best place for us. He spoke darkly of rowdy all-night weddings and the likelihood of being whisked away to tourist traps with alluring names such as Spice Garden and Moonstone Mines. Better, he suggested to cut our visit short and go
When we arrived, my first impressions lent credence to Ananda’s forebodings. The exterior suggested an establishment gone somewhat to seed. There was a nice looking pool, but a stray dog was drinking from it and I worried that it would get a stomach ache from the chlorine. Then I worried that the pool was not chlorinated. Near the entrance was a fish tank filled with murky green water containing a few cramped fish, including a small shark. There was a table still set for breakfast, but the tablecloth was sprinkled with mildew, as if it was never changed.
We ventured into an empty office and sat down on some chairs by the wall. Eventually a woman wandered in. We mentioned we’d made a booking online and she said the first thing we had to do was to cancel it.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry.’ She smiled.
‘But won’t we be charged a cancellation fee?’
‘Oh no,’ she laughed.
So, puzzled, I got my laptop out and cancelled the booking. Another employee entered, a young man with a long beard and fingernails. He smiled and calculated the price. When I handed over the credit card, he baulked.
‘Ah, you can pay some in credit card but this much you must pay in cash.’
I gaped at the large sum.
‘Oh, but we don’t have that much cash right now. Do we have to pay it today?’
‘Yes, today,’ he said.
‘Well, is there an ATM around here?’
‘Yes, I will take you in my car. Come.’
So, bemused, John and I followed him to his car and we all went to Hikkaduwa.
‘Is there a reason we can’t pay the whole amount on credit card?’ John asked.
‘Yes,’ said the serene young man. ‘It’s because the banks charge very high tax on all credit card purchases. All around Sri Lanka, you will find this.’
On consideration, Randoni Villa had also required payment in cash. I started to relax slightly—maybe this wasn’t a shakedown. Finally, we got to the Bank of Ceylon and the man led us into the ATM atrium. Luckily, we managed to withdraw enough in spite of the fact I’d already had to withdraw a lot to pay for our last hotel and for the drive south.
When we got back to Deutsch Lanka, the man quietly insisted that we give him the cash right there in the car.
‘Not in the office?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said pleasantly.
I handed it over, he counted it carefully, then put it in his pocket. Then we all got out of the car and walked to the office, where we paid the rest with the credit card. I noticed that he did not give us a receipt for the cash.
Taking our luggage to the room, I took in more of the surroundings. There was a very odd statue by the pool. There were a few hibiscus plants with flaming flowers. The dog that had been drinking from the pool was now lying sprawled in the shade.
Our room was basic but big and the bed, as we soon discovered, was comfortable. After our big drive and the confusing reception, we were tired enough to sleep for a couple of hours. When I woke up, though, I found that my arms and half my face had been eaten off. The bites weren’t itchy but they looked terminal. John mused that it reminded him of one of his favorite lines by Dryden, from ‘Upon the Death of Lord Hastings’, who’d died of the smallpox:
Blisters with pride swell’d, which thr’row’s flesh did sprout
Like Rose-buds, stuck i’ th’ Lilly-skin about.
Each little Pimple had a Tear in it,
To wail the fault its rising did commit
John’s ankles were similarly afflicted and, on investigation, I discovered there was a big gap in the bathroom between the ceiling and wall, along winged creatures free and easy entry into our apartment. A winged cockroach was lying upside-down in the shower stall, trying to right itself as a little gecko watched. On the wall I noticed a strange shape that, on inspection, turned out to be a large breadcrumb being transported up by a group of ants. A couple of scout ants were going on ahead, to determine the best way forward.
We decided to leave this insect paradise for a while to go and look at the beach. This was not as easy as it sounds. Between us and the beach was a busy highway. Huge buses hurtled past, honking at tuk-tuks. Cars sped up to pass long lines of tuk-tuks, and seemed just about to crash with oncoming traffic when they tucked ahead of the queue. Then some tuk-tuks slowed down, thinking we wanted them to pick us up, when we actually wanted them to get out of the way so we could cross without dying. By the time we managed to get to the other side, we saw that the so-called beach was a long wall of big rocks, acting as a buffer to some pretty powerful surf.
Dismayed, we trudged back to the hotel and decided to try the restaurant. This was a vast area, clearly designed to accommodate wedding banquets as the tables and chairs were decorated with white coverings. The pillars seemed to be made of plastic and were molded and painted brown to look like fake tree trunks. There was no one there. The places were set, though, so we sat at the table for ten minutes. We were just about to give up when a waiter came.
‘You want to eat?’
‘Yes,’ we nodded.
He smiled and brought us menus. We looked over the list and I decided I really wanted a curry. John wanted fried rice. At that point, the owner of the hotel came out. He was a man in his sixties, bald, dressed in a red shirt, with the authoritative air of a Roman senator.
‘Hello sir, hello madam,’ he said. ‘You want dinner? I recommend the
prawns. Big prawns. You will like.’
‘Um, I want curry,’ I said feebly.
‘Yes, prawns, very fresh,’ the man said, rubbed his hands together and went back into the kitchen to cook the prawns or to supervise them being cooked.
About ten minutes later he came out with the drinks and poured them out carefully for us. I noticed there was something a bit wrong with one of his hands, it looked all twisted. Then he insisted on putting my napkin on for me, slightly brushing me on my hip, which I didn’t appreciate. Then he leaned into John’s face.
‘You like Sri Lanka sir?’
‘Yes, yes, we like Sri Lanka,’ John nodded politely.
‘You want to buy a house here?’ he asked.
‘Yes, nice house,’ the man continued. ‘Live six months here, six months in America. Very good.’
‘Oh,’ John said, realizing this was a serious offer. ‘Ah, well…’
‘My brother has very nice place. I take you there, tomorrow. He has a nice pool. Nicer than here.’
The waiter brought along bowls of water with slices of lime in them and then placed different napkins down.
The boss guy yelled at the waiter guy for some reason, then he turned to us with a smile.
‘This is to wash fingers. You wash fingers.’
He watched to make sure we did as we were told, then nodded and disappeared.
A family appeared at the table next to us, utterly silent, even though there were two small children there.
The boss man came out again with a huge plate of lobsterine prawns. Eating them, I thought dully, would be like fighting the Bugs in Starship Troopers.
‘First you clean fingers, then you take the prawn and clean it,’ said the man, hovering.
‘And put the shell on the plate, here,’ he said, pointing and monitoring everything as we ate, nodding and simpering, desperately wishing he would leave.
‘You want come see the house tomorrow?’ he asked John again, patting him on the shoulder. ‘I take you in my truck.’
‘Uh? Oh. Well, no, we have to…tomorrow we are going to the beach.’
‘Pool much better than the beach.’
‘Oh,’ John smiled. ‘We want to snorkel, you know, see the fish.’
‘Ah,’ the man nodded but was dissatisfied. ‘Next day then,’ he said as if to himself.
‘Um, can I have some wine please?’ I asked, but he pretended not to hear.
After this ordeal, we decided not to eat at the restaurant anymore because we both left the place strung out and hyperventilating, unclear about whether or not we had agreed to buy a house in Sri Lanka. Instead, we would have big lunches in town and get snacks at the little shop nearby to eat at night.
At night, as we lay staring at the ceiling, we noticed the bright light outside our room stayed on all night. Furthermore, our neighbors were four Dutch people who were having a tropical holiday that involved falling down the stairs in the middle of the night. And then, at two o’clock, someone, somewhere–maybe another guest, or maybe the Universe, started playing, quite loudly, ‘Hotel California’.