A grand tour: part two

Our visiting guest blogger, James Willsher, reflects on a memorable journey through Sri Lanka.

First read: A grand tour: part one

Tangalla, a coastal town of which Lord K has previously written. The guest house is on the beach; palm trees, white sands, paradise rebuilt. 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 beers, then platters of exquisitely fresh fish, caught the same day.

More beers, and I decide I can speak Arabic. 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.

The storm clouds roll in on Tangalla beach

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, road signs 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 strangely 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, beers 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 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. You will always be welcome in Baku.

James Willsher


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