“So you’re one of the crazy ones,” that Slovakian girl said over breakfast. “India is full of people like you.”
I looked down at my mug of Ceylon (Sri Lankan) tea swimming with boiled ants and their eggs, now never to hatch. Did I kill them? Had they been on the tea bag? Or in the mug?
I went and poured out a fresh mug.
She said she had to get a tuk tuk to go somewhere – Badulla, I think – and I saw my chance to get moving again. I hurriedly packed up my bag and we split the fare, me to the bus station, her to the train.
I noticed the driver had a wine bottle in a little holder in the foot well. I’m sure it had some other use, but I couldn’t help but think this was the vehicle for me – the Drinking Traveller Mobile!
I jumped out, we said goodbye and they disappeared into the thrall of belching buses and tooting tuk tuks, all trying to turn around at once.
I took a bus to Kadaruwela, which wound through the green hills, alongside lakes and rivers – rivers crossed by little wooden bridges on stilts leading into those tall, waving trees of all kinds and putting me in the mood for adventure.
We passed tranquil homesteads, each one of which seemed to me then to be a perfect paradise, and I dreamed of buying one and living the simple life, in the same way that people think about Provence in the South of France and other such places where the golden sunlight streams onto the porch, the door and shutters always open, maybe someone fixing a motorbike in the shade of a large tree, a scattering of plants and animals to look after and which to live by.
Giant Buddhas in gold, in stone, gaudily painted – the kind you pay good money to see in Nara or Hong Kong – rose up on nearby hilltops, appeared at the very roadside, starring into the bus at me.
Everywhere plastered billboards and posters for cakes. Sri Lanka is obsessed with cakes – the English kind – the kind my grandparents have with tea.
The mountains gave way to vast expanses of luminous yellow-green fields – rice fields. Lush! That is the word for Sri Lanka! Just a shame about all the rubbish everywhere. I have a vision of it, clean and prosperous, and then there wouldn’t be a more beautiful island.
Occasionally a tree, a pool, a lake-sized puddle, where it’s not difficult to imagine hippos bathing, as they no doubt were in nearby Yala National Park.
Also more than a handful of military establishments – barracks, training facilities, etc – a single clue, remnant of the civil war that racked the country from 1983 until 2009 and which is in no small way responsible for the state of things today.
I never learnt to tell the difference between Sinhalese and Tamil, and never saw anything close to violence. The people of Sri Lanka seemed a peaceful lot. Nobody seemed to be of the thieving persuasion. Everybody seemed well-off – not rich, but content, reasonably happy. Apparantly the cost of living here is very low, even relatively, so maybe that explains that.
Women in their backless dresses, sarees, kurtas, shalwars; young men with incredible black, glossy hair; old, grizzled men with thin hair, dirty shirts, sandals, receding gums, dark skin like cracked, worn leather – one standing, dangling a bottle of Arrack (Sri Lanka’s national spirit) in a little bag that rocks from side to side in front of my face. Sharing these buses, amongst these people, crammed in as you often are, watching faces come and go – some stand out, they all join the flow – you find yourself feeling like you belong here.
At stops men would jump on and make their way up and down the bus selling “wadi, wadi, wadi!“, soft drinks, sacred things to touch, lottery tickets, corn-on-the-cobs, sticker books and toys for kids, mysterious pieces of paper that I’ve never understood – the same crap they sell on buses from Laos to Honduras and back again.
And yes, that sign just said “Punani”.
At some point I was dumped off and rushed onto another bus to Batticaloa, out of water and starving. I thought I was going to throw up from the stifling heat and the constant motion of the bus (remember I’ve still got the flu) but I got a window seat just in the nick of time and shut my eyes and shut off, as I’ve always been able to do (one of the reasons I love sleep so much) while Ruth is the opposite – has to have her eyes open and be sitting upright. I remember grazing my knee on the playground and having to stumble off and lay down on a bench, where everyone finally stopped harassing me and from where I heard Joe Tobin saying “look at Roy, he’s got his eyes closed! What’s he sleeping for?” – Ah, the things I’ve heard while people think I’m sleeping!
Then somebody nudged me and said I’d gone several kilomatres too far. I had to jump off again, tripping on my bags and literally falling out of the moving bus.
I crossed the road, this time bought water, then stood waiting for a ride in the hot sun and dusty street of an unknown town exactly as I had in Argentina – wild country – a few years before.
I got a final bus to Kalkudah and from there a tuk tuk (which, in light of the lack of other cars here, seem to be known as “taxis” or at least “three-wheelers”) to Pasikuda – otherwise spelt as Pasikudah, Pasikkuda, Passikuda and other variations thereof – a beautiful bay just up from the immense but not so “pristine” beach of Kalkudah.
I first heard of this place when I asked Nimesh, my only Sri Lankan friend, for advice and among other great recommendations he wrote “you should try and get to a beach called ‘Pasikuda’, its on the eastern coast of the island. Awesome beach, fricking pristine!”
I Google-image-searched “pasikuda beach” and was convinced.
The place I was staying was called “Pasikkuda Resort”, which is ironic as it’s just about the only accommodation in Pasikuda that’s not a resort – while the resorts all have names like “Centara”, “Anilana”, “Amethyst”, “Maalu Maalu”. Isn’t that always the way? The amount of times I’ve seen a “Grand Hotel” – example, in Shkodër, Albania – that’s far from “grand”.
But at £15 a night instead of £150, who can complain.
I took a stroll under what felt like a 40 degree sun, directly overhead, up Beach Road, a dusty track that ended abruptly in a big, red-earth car park, mostly empty – a few stands, some cows, mopeds, a tuk tuk or two, and a Police Station.
A path led to the beach over a bridge and big yellow signs said things to the effect of:
“DRINKING ALCOHOL AND SWIMMING IS DANGEROUS!”
“IT IS FORBIDDEN TO BRING ALCOHOL ONTO THE BEACH!”
A policeman eyed me cautiously and followed me as I wandered along the sand.
“Is there a bar here?” I asked him.
“Oh yes, just there.” He pointed to Centara.
I wandered across the resort – pristine, but almost empty – slumped into a big, wicker chair with plush cushions, just in the shade, and looked around for other customers.
A couple lay on sun-loungers. Another in the distance. They all looked like criminals – gangsters from Moscow or London – and their fat girlfriends.
An old German couple, long and lean, red in the face, came and ordered glasses of wine.
I wasn’t exactly sure why these people were here and neither, it seemed, were they. Everything about this stood in complete opposition to everything I’d seen so far in Sri Lanka. I suppose they go out from time to time, in organised tour groups in air-conditioned minivans. I’m not even sure where the air-conditioned minivans come from. Nobody else seems to have them here.
The staff – all well-dressed in black – stood around, vastly outnumbering the clientele. One polite, effeminate and very smiley guy came and took my order.
I kicked back, ordered a “Passikudah Memory” – one of their signature cocktails – Arrack, lemon juice, honey, lemonade – a bowl of wedges and some sausages stuffed with cheese, wrapped in bacon and smothered in a kind of tomato sauce…
…Not the right food for this heat. I grew drowsy, slumped further, ordered another cocktail, took some photos of the beach.
Leaning against the chair to take a photo I realised my eye hurt. Strange.
I watched the crows swoop in and slowly hop their way to the chair opposite me, edge their way along its arm and towards my food.
I realised all I had to do was stare menacingly at them – or even just be there – and they would lose their nerve at the large minute and fly away in fear. This repeated several times, and they never plucked up the courage to make their move.
When the waiters saw them they came storming over, throwing ice-cubes at them – never hitting one though.
The birds moved almost exactly like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, then occasionally doing a little dance by skipping sideways like a crab and it was easy to see how these guys could get so infuriated with them.
“Bloody birds!” they yelled, and angryflared into their faces as they threw their ice, destroying the illusion they’d worked so hard to build up of friendliness and politeness and peace. It was like all their pent-up anger at the customers, at the shitty job, was suddenly allowed to manifest itself on these crows.
I’m sure if one of them had got hold of one he wouldn’t think twice about ripping its head off. Or do Buddhists not do such things? But are these guys even Buddhists? Maybe Hindu? Maybe they’ll all be reincarnated as crows on Pasikuda beach. In their black sweeping aprons it’s not too hard to imagine.
Throwing the ice at the crows seems to bond the waiters to the customers, who share their hatred for these annoying creatures. It gives them a common talking point, I watch them laugh together over it.
Until one of the guys inevitably gets to carried away and glances a lounging customer with an ice-cube.
The guy jumps up.
“Oy! What the bloody hell was that?”
The waiter has to go and sheepishly apologise and explain himself. The guy accepts the apology and laughs it off, but you can see from his face if they try that again they’re dead.
For a moment it seems this whole thing is symbolised by those crows.
The waiter comes and starts the usual conversation with me:
“Where are you from?”
and that’s the end of it.
Only now he starts asking me if I’m “in resort” and I say no. He asks where I’m staying and he smirks when I tell him. Smug prick. Why do people working in posh places always act so posh, like it goes to their head or something – the act. With the obvious exception of chefs.
I wander to the shore, drop trow and swim out as far as I can. There’s nobody else in this stretch of the water. The sun is setting. I lay on my back and drift, floating on the warm, empty, pristine water.
When I get back the policeman wants a cigarette for watching over my clothes.
He gets a “thank you” instead.
Down the beach, off resort, Sri Lankans are swimming, playing, sitting in circles chatting.
I wonder if the resort will ever poison the crows.
But I expect the crows will be here long after the resort.
Funny places, resorts.
I go back and pass out in the dark for an hour, then the guy’s banging on the door – I foolishly ordered a fish curry – the thought of which now makes me want to hurl.
I go out, stare at my meal, poke at it with the fork.
I had thought I was the only one staying here but just then a door opened and a woman came out, said “good evening” and sat down at the other table. She’s dressed in a sun-bleached, powder-blue night gown, has long, straight hair (because I’ve reached that age I always thought would come, when ‘old women’ no longer have curled hair) and walks like a ghost. There’s something Miss Haversham about her and I can’t shake the feeling that she’s come here to die.
She eats in silence feel like I’m going to throw up.
“Excuse me?” I said.
I stood up, pushing the chair back with a deliberate squeal and say again louder, “Excuse me! Could you tell him I’m sorry, I’m not well, I’ll pay for the food.” At which point she began babbling incomprehensibly at me and I muttered “nevermind” and went into my room.
A while later I heard repeated banging on the door and the guy shouting, then the old lady said something and he fell silent.
Luckily sleep came before vomit and everything disappeared into darkness.
The mosquitoes ate me alive. I woke occasionally to hear them swooping close to my eyes – their buzz suddenly deafening – and made a few blind swats in the dark, too delirious to get up and put a stop to them.
Finally, in the early hours I got up, switched on the light, saw by the smears of my own blood on my own skin that I’d got a couple, and proceeded to go on a killing spree, not resting until I’d wasted more than 20 of the barstards, many of which, swollen with my blood, made easy targets and exploded in a blast of purple-red that I knew must’ve been mine.
Then I smothered myself in deet to keep at bay any hidden stragglers or new arrivals and went back to sleep satisfied and surrounded by the smears and stains of death.
I woke again in the morning – all symptoms of sickness gone – took a shower with the jumping spiders with their strange, almost mechanical movements, almost shit myself to find a fat cockroach hiding under my bag. He seemed equally taken aback and made a dash for it.
I tried the technique demonstrated to us in Marrakech by our valient riad night porter – namely, crushing the thing beneath be-flip-flopped foot – but I’m English, have no experience in such things, and missed – the fucker too fast for me and bolted under the door to become someone else’s problem – probably best for us both.
I went out and sat on the front patio, overcome by a sense of calm – the occasional bicycle passed the front gate, the oppressive heat that would come later was still a good few hours away.
I took a breakfast of dall and roti…and made a right mess of it.
The crazy lady appeared and said “good morning” in that same polite voice that had erroneously led me to believe she might be an English speaker.
“It bad your hyier?” She pointed to her eye.
“Yes.” How did she know? Are they that bad?
She disappeared and then reappeared with a handful of dirty-white powder, like crystals, which she gestured for me to snort.
Oh, she meant my sinuses.
Why people always assume you can snort anything with a blocked up nose is beyond me, but I made a good go of it all the same.
What language was that old sachet in? Russian? Greek? Hindi? I didn’t get a good enough look at it.
She also told me not to drink cold water or eat ice-cream in the heat (which is actually very sound advice) and said something about “wool” and pointed to her tiny feet in faded, pale-blue socks like a little girl’s and tired, old slippers.
She went and ate inside, I finished my breakfast, kindly informed the manager I wouldn’t be staying another night, settled my bill and jumped in a three-wheeler that pulled up out front – the same guy who dropped me there yesterday from Kalkudah – no doubt he’d been waiting for me.
As an afterthought – actually because I’d left my bottle of water in my room – I ran back in and said “thank you! Goodbye!” but the old lady didn’t even look up. Deaf as fuck.
I felt strangely sorry for her – wondered what her story was – but she seemed strangely content in this lonely silent world – and anyway I was soon out of there, bound for Anuradhapura…