We stepped up the early starts to 7am this morning, while the air still had a touch of cool freshness to it and the sun didn’t yet feel like a downward-pointing blowtorch. Down on the broad beach, the sun was still burning the top layers of the previous night’s moisture off the sand, leaving a mild haze along the horizon-line. Punctuating this low fuzz were dotted crews of fishermen along the beach hauling in the lines laid out on the water the night before, as if in tug-of-war with the sea itself.
As we swam in the calm, clear sea we could feel the temperature rising as the sun reflected off the sea and into our faces. The dull ache in the front of my head like a heavy wet cloth over my eyes had begun already, and as we walked up the Galle road to town it steadily grew until it eventually felt like an elephant was sat on my face. Heat-stroke is a real problem here, especially for westerners unused to the temperature or how much liquids they should be taking in. Sri Lanka is only five degrees from the equator and today it was, again, fiercely hot under the burning sun. Forget just necking a pint of water, more drastic measures were required. This hair of mine had to go.
On a way up to find ourselves a barber, we met a gentle old man sat under a tree who bore an striking resemblance to my late granddad, with his particular swinging-armed walk, his baggy shirt-sleeves rolled halfway up his forearms, the array of pens in his pocket and the stretch of his entire face as he smiled his toothy smile. Tilak, as he was called, showed us to a barber’s shop along the high street and managed to get me a local price on getting my head shaved, so we indulged him with our company for the afternoon. While the actual experience of the buzz-cut was something akin to being tarred and feathered thanks to the dusting of bristly hairs over my sun-creamed, sweating, sea-salted neck, the rest of the afternoon was much more pleasant, and we sat on our balcony slowly perfecting the particularly Sri Lankan art of doing naff-all. It seemed to be a common occupation, particularly here in Hikkaduwa.
People just…hung about.
I imagine there were many jobs going around when the town was busier with tourists and the occasional day-trippers; the only other westerner we had seen, though, was a pot-bellied, middle-age German man who we talked to briefly last night. On our way out the patron told us with a giggle and a wink that the German had been paying double the going rate for the last four weeks that he had been here. Tilak was also a temporary resident to the town for the summer season, and lived up north during the rest of the year. He usually produced hand-made cards of flower-pressings and sold them to tourists along the beach front, but, as we were beginning to cotton on to, this year had been particularly quiet.
After buying a handful of cards ourselves, we left Tilak and moved down onto the beach. There we strolled across the soft, warm surf with a cool Three Coins beer, watched the sun sink into the clouds and mingled with various locals that would wander up to us from small groups beneath palm trees and sat on plastic chairs outside shops. The contrast to our evening in Colombo could not have been more striking. With no heavy bags, no place to be, no tuk-tuk fares to be had or any other hassle, we all had the time of day to give them.
People here have none of the English-revered notions of privacy, and are not only intensely curious about you and your lives and what your opinion of their country is, but are very willing to talk about themselves as openly as any close friend would in the west. The totally unfamiliar experience of having been talking to a male stranger for two minutes and finding yourself discussing true love, annual salary, penis size, sexual history, religious beliefs, having children and any number of other psychiatrist’s-couch fodder is initially confronting. But given some training over time, it becomes an amazing exercise in personal therapy and openness seldom experienced back home. This was our first taste of the South Asian sociability.
The guy I was talking to was a tuk-tuk driver by day with an incredible disco-perm, pencil mustache and bright-red tuk-tuk that was parked up just near our palm tree and matched his GAP-style polo-shirt.
“I want to be white”, he told me, waving his hand at my face. “I want to be like you.”
Despite any such deeper aspirations for a different life, the situation in Sri Lanka was not ideal. Simply put, there were no tourists. And, in an economy as reliant on them as this island’s was, no tourists equals no money. No-where is this situation more pertinent than Hikkaduwa, traditionally the first and main attraction for westerners arriving here on the average fortnight beach-lovers winter break. The main street is testament to its economic mainstay, with its numerous empty beachfront restaurants and hotels, tatty second-hand bookshops and well-kept police station.
There is some disagreement amongst the folks here. Some blame the time of year. Some blame the relatively low-key insurgency in the north of the island putting off cautious tourists that are as happy here as they are in Thailand. A handful of recent bombings up in Colombo- the geographical distance is always stressed to us- haven’t helped. The Sri Lankan Christmas and New Year is just around the corner (‘Big problem sir, no money!’), and while it is easy to feel frustrated and conned in Colombo amongst the busy, traffic-ridden urban smog and sweat, here amongst the palm trees, beaches, clean air and leisurely sea-side pace, it’s a lot easier to feel empathy for the hard times these people have found themselves in. Make no mistake, take a 2000 Rupee taxi ride anywhere and you’ve been had, mate. But here, bashing in an extra 1.4x on the calculated bill almost seems fair- or perhaps justifiable. Understandable, at best.
As if any was needed, then further reminder of the calamaty that had befallen Sri Lanka could be found even in the proverbial tourist viewfinder. On one of our changes from Colombo, we passed the battered remains of a train carriage that had been on the line when the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2004. I don’t know whether it had anyone in when it was hit, nor whether it was moving or not. It now lay, inert and ruined, alongside the trains that still trundled past. I suspect that it was simply not a high enough priority for the sizeable crane that would be needed to come and take it away. So it simply sat as a rusty reminder for all to see.
We went for dinner at a Pizza place we had spotted earlier. We finished our meal with some seriously tasty batter-fried bananas, and then walked back along the beach, watching the lightning build up over the sea. Before long it’s a ninety-degree electrical panorama before us. Just as we are running back to our rooms to get our cameras, the rain starts.
Back out on the beach, it’s a surreal scene. Rain-swept darkness is punctuated with machine-gun bursts of rapid-fire lightning up in the towering cloud out at sea, the artillery-flashes soft and dulled by the dense swirl. The persistent, deep rumbles are buffeted by the wind into a shapeless ambience of noise around us, punctuated only by the slapping rustle of the palm trees being whipped by the storm. Occasionally a stab of sharp lightning emerges from beneath the flat-bottomed underside and crosses the gulf into the sea below. The random, blue-white light casts erratic, flickering shadows and leaves green-red trails burned into my retina.
We both got sand in our cameras. Luckily mine is older than me and had survived several world wars. Alec’s however, is a six-hundred-pound Nikon digital SLR, and is not quite as sturdy as my own. Travel lesson number three: sand and cameras are not happy bedfellows.