I Spy With My Little Eye

by Ant Stone on January 13, 2008

in Sri Lanka

For some, there’re far things better. For others, there’re far things worse. An opportunity to devour endless possibilities dressed in no-limits attraction and capped, by an infinite defining line. Characters within it’s grasp perform ignorant of each others acts, yet well aware of their own golden stage. They’re drawn in, rising effortlessly, as if the wings of childhood had fluttered once again. Cradled up to the point of elation until they gasp, as Captain Reality begins to stoke the fires of fear. They lose control, blinded by the very thing that bore them wings and led by invisible surges, they feel their senses overlapping until a sudden, solitary moment causes their gullet to open and a yard of reassuring air jars them right back, to Square One. A backpacker on the beach, or a bather in the ocean waves? For a moment there, it all seemed the same to me.

Coming to Sri Lanka was never ingrained in me. I remember being sprawled out with a map of the world and realising it was an independent country (some 60 years after it the reality, from British-ruled India). The cost of the flight, I felt was pretty hefty (£80 return) for a short haul, though remember I’m from the Land of Ryan Air, the FCO website makes it sound like Armageddon and the BBC breaks news every other day which spurns a flurry of emails from my motherly peer. ‘Sri Lanka’s fine‘ insisted a friend-in-the-know, ‘just don’t go to Colombo’ she concluded.

After a battle of wills with my eyelids in Chennai International, myself, Reb and a man called John Hatt boarded flight IX671. Destination, Colombo. Four dozing hours later a bus dropped us aside a flock of rickshaw-wallah’s and after a swift tug of nicotine we skillfully squeezed in and set off in search of sleep. I’ll skip forward an hour. Now outside the fourth – or maybe fifth – hotel the wallah had managed to veto for us on account of insufficient commission we gave him his marching orders, along with a fair wedge of Sri Lankan rupees (LKR). He wanted triple (the going rate for a days driving) and subsequently, like a rumbling storm the most outrageous battle broke out, leaving him picking up his fare from the road and reaching for his phone to call the police, ‘please, do’ I insisted ‘because if you don’t, I will’ I promised. Pistols drawn, we turned our separate ways and paced swiftly to salvation – he to his rickshaw, us three to backstreet internet cafe.

An hour of flicking through websites and fumbling phone numbers we found a vacancy at the Renuka Hotel, at $45 a night it was far more than we could budget, but the room was a perfect place to destress. It was a haven, which we left mid-morning for brunch, idled away the day swimming in the pool or meandering around the local shopping district, returning for any length of time before briefly vacating for dinner and returning for the evening movie on HBO. They say ‘if it seems too good to be true then it probably is’, and as the three of us stared gob smacked at the hotel’s front desk awkwardly digesting the A4 bill demanding over 20,000 LKR (approx $200) from our moth-eaten budgets, the proverb soon hit home. The managers broken English – though I suspect broken morals – had failed to heed our multiple checks of his room rate, and the room now stood at a weighty $89. Per night. It was clear that after a thirty minute clash, we would lose – the 3 hour bus journey away from a much-cursed Colombo, down the coast to Hikkaduwa could not come soon enough.

The bus was full to the rafters, splitting the three of us off into separate worlds, each of us re-stacking the previous two days events into more amicable explanations and trying to wash away the stubborn stains of dishonesty. Reb sat, through some predetermined design aside the only other westerner aboard, extracting his romantic tale that’s taken him via Egypt to – in Marco Polo’s words – ‘the most beautiful island in the world.’ The man called John Hatt sat metres away extracting seemingly invisible images to his camera. I stood, by choice, in the stairwell of the open rear door absorbing day to day life on the external fringes of the bus, occasionally extracting waves and cheery nods from starstruck locals.

Life here, in Hikkaduwa, is what I suspect some people believe backpacker life to be per se. I wake around 10am in our whitewashed guesthouse, complete with smiley attentive hosts, mosquito nets and whirring fan. The sound of crashing waves wash away the evening slumber and after a hearty breakfast of Sri Lankan coffee, fresh fruit and toast we rest our weary bones on the idyllic beach’s sun loungers. Being a backpacker surrounded by so many plump holiday makers, causes me to feel somewhat like a spy. I read and write while clouds occasionally allow the sun to lick my torso red. The waves – a surfers dream – draw us in where we bob around like stray coconuts before the predictable lunchtime rains send us retreating into the nearest cafe where we feast on curry, rice and salads. The afternoon mirrors the morning, though the growing ocean swells now pierced by us gliding clumsily atop body boards before the white water at it’s shore swallows our tumbling bodies whole. An evening shower soothes the grazes before we regale our hilarities over dinner, beers and a round or ten of cards.

Sri Lanka (that is, Colombo, Hikkaduwa and the ribbon tying the two) has followed familiar verse. A tiring entry. A test or two of patience. A mound of myths dispersed and a ton of truths uncovered. The young are beautiful; obviously fit, fashion conscious and mostly affluent (at least in appearance). Their elders have grace; they’re proud, intelligent, stylish and practical. The void between rich and poor is there, as ever, but it somehow seems more compatible. Their island is lush; fervent, aromatic, gentle and forgiving. Reb’s conversation, the man named John Hatt’s imagery or my loose gaze won’t harbour memories of rickshaw wars, hotel showdowns (I won’t even mention the Hikkaduwan conman’s subtle success over a fragile Reb) or the tormented island the BBC and FCO forewarn us of. Like the oceans stray coconuts, only the useful will make it ashore.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mum & Dad January 13, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Are you enjoying Sri Lanka? Is it somewhere you think we would enjoy? Saw that dirty word rain! (Have forgotten what that is now). How long are you staying there?
Stay safe Love Mum & Dad xx

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