I think this might be longish, so I’ll get stuck in.
On Friday evening I was joining Rick, Kris and some others for a meal: it was an interesting experience. Just before I was to set off to R&K’s the heavens opened again, albeit briefly, and I decided to wait a while and get a tuk-tuk. I had the address written clearly on a bit of paper, along with one or two landmarks likely to be familiar to locals, such as Beligaha Junction, a significant point near the end of the journey. I also had the route I would have walked locked into the GPS as I strode out the front door, umbrella in hand just in case.
Normally I can’t cross the road without a tuk-tuk driver hailing me and, if I’m waiting for the bus, turning down “taxis” helps pass the time. Friday was different as they were unusually scarce and already had passengers. Eventually one arrived and I had to explain my destination: now Madawalamulla is not all that easy to say and no doubt my pronunciation was dodgy, but Beligaha is a different matter and so well known that even I had heard of it, though not sampled its charms. As usual, the driver claimed to know exactly where I was headed. Not quite “I was born there, Guv and my old sainted Granny still ekes out a living picking winkles just down the road” but a definite claim to know the neighbourhood. Standard Question: “How much?” led to the ridiculous figure of LKR800 – I’d estimated LK250 – and the mistaken assertion it’s 14km, when the GPS had it about 5km. Still remonstrating, but telling the driver I could give directions from the GPS, I agreed to depart and negotiate a price later.
We shot off in a sub-optimal, but retrievable, direction and I kept trying to communicate with the driver to no avail. To cut a longish story short, at Labaduwa Junction I dismissed him and decided to start again, finding a guy in an ancient cross between a dune-buggy and a jeep. It was very battered and badly tuned and whilst the roll bar and canvas roof would be a useful safety feature in the case of an accident, the chances were that passengers would die of diesel smoke inhalation first. Still, the driver was a nice guy: I showed him the GPS, which he found fascinating, and we then set off with me leaning right forward holding the gadget so he could see the screen. He thought this was great fun: I think “Pimp My Tuk-Tuk” are missing a trick here, but would need to find a dashboard mounting that didn’t mean the driver avidly watching a screen on his left in the outstretched arm of a backseat passenger, rather than the road ahead.
When we finally arrived at R&K’s, surrounded by dense black smoke and frequent backfiring, Rick was already outside with a waiting tuk-tuk. He looked at our vehicle and laughingly called over “Where did you get that bit of shit?” I briefly squinted at his colourful patterned Bermuda shirt, but decided against replying in a similar vein.
K&R got into their tuk-tuk and we roared, stuttered and fumed along behind. It became clear that K&R weren’t quite sure of the address we were heading to next so there was a lot of doubling back, stopping to ask locals etc. “Safari!” grinned my driver, possibly with eyes misting over as he thought about his admittedly decrepit vehicle in its natural habitat. Eventually we stopped outside a grubby supermarket and a guy jumped in beside me: Nils, the next member of the party. He knew where we were going and, just as importantly, how to get there. We went through some very upmarket areas, Galle’s equivalent to leafy suburbs; the Governor’s House, Lady Hill with its eponymous posh hotel and then stopping outside another very smart looking building. We all got out, paid off our drivers, and ascended an outside stair to a magnificent balcony in the house of William (English), with his friend Alexa (Canadian). Rossini – I checked – emanated from speakers plugged into a laptop and merged charmingly with the chanting from a nearby Buddhist temple. The floor was covered in large cool marble-like tiles similar to the ones in my bed-sit here, but there were thousands, rather than the meagre number needed to cover my SL pied-a-terre. We sat on the balcony and drank “Arrack Sours” which William made: local arrack, soda, lime… The balcony had a partial view, beginning by now to disappear into night, of the sea. There was a light breeze, the drinks were good and we chatted until the next stage of the evening.
A walk to find tuk-tuks led to us dismounting in the Fort and heading for a restaurant called “Cannon” in a swanky new development. The six of us were shoehorned into a balcony table for four just beside the door to the inside part and we were frequently drowned out by raucous music, despite William trying several times to get it turned down permanently. I wasn’t all that impressed with the rather over-ambitious menu and, like most of us, chose a grilled tuna thing. It was OK, but William’s had a large block of what looked like cooked blood running through his and he sent it back: the second attempt looked considerably better.
I’m not convinced the ex-pat lifestyle is for me. William, semi-retired, is a permanent resident. Nils, retired from some international child care charity, splits his year up: winter in SL, summer in Norway. Alexa – whom I also met last year and whose grandfather / great grandfather used to own Inverlochy Castle in Lochaber – is just visiting as far as I know. Individually all the diners – with the possible exception of moi – are nice folk and at different times I chatted to all of them, but there’s something about the lifestyle and its potential for exclusivity that I can’t take to.
Today, Saturday, was diving day. Rick picked me up on his motorbike and – both helmeted – we rode to Unawatuna. I’d been told 8:15 and we were a bit early, but it transpired it should have been 8:30 and we weren’t ready to embark before 9am. Our boatmaster, Menan, recognised me from last year when he had started on the same diving course as me. For clarification, he was boatmaster and would not actually be diving: our instructor for our refresher course was a Czech guy called Daniel and, from what little I saw of him, he was very good.
I’d better come clean. We entered the water and I immediately felt uncomfortable. It might have been the rather too tight wetsuit which I had thought would be OK, but probably not. We set off but from the start I felt clumsy, my legs tiring immediately, and my breathing far too fast. The deep breathing made maintaining my buoyancy difficult and we stopped briefly, back at the side of the boat, for me to add another weight. But I couldn’t cope. It wasn’t really a panic attack, but I rapidly decided I could go no further and we returned to the boat. I was seen safely back on board and assured Rick and Daniel I was fine with Menan whilst they continued their dive. I also decided to opt out of the second dive: if we had been scheduled to return to shore between dives I might have tried it again in a bigger wetsuit, but we weren’t so Menan and I chatted as well as we could. Menan is a Tamil from the North of the island and says that things have improved greatly now, compared with a decade back when he reckoned a Tamil would have been driven out of the Sinhalese Galle area: he personally left SL during the fighting and worked in Dubai. It was nice sitting under the awning in the wee dive boat: we watched a couple of windsurfers whose boards were aquaplaning across the sea, their colourful banana shaped kites pulling them along at quite a speed.
Rick enjoyed the dive, I think: he saw stingrays and the small wreck where Jo, Sarah and I tried out diving years ago amongst other things and he is now re-accredited. I, of course, am not. The dive centre were very good about it and only levied a nominal charge for me. I intend having one more shot a couple of weeks down the line.
Kris had come down to meet up with Rick, so we sat on the beach then had a spot of lunch: Butter Fish, salad and chips. It was a sizeable beast and arrived whole, from withered tail to milky eyes. I showed K&R how to fillet a fish: I’m no expert so there were still plenty of bones and we tucked in carefully. The boss frequently came to check up on us and took the fish away to re-cook a rawish bit in the middle. He also removed the bones and head, whose glassy stare had been putting Kris off her food.
After that, I left the two of them to themselves and headed back to base by bus.