Heartsick, mashed up, exhausted and alone, I was in no fit state for a romantic break to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I sat in the departure lounge, business class, on my own, writing to him, expecting the plane to fall out of the sky, (he says: ‘name it and it won’t go down.’) Spilt tea over the floor, (not believing in this charm,) and waitresses dressed up as Emirates hostesses, with pretty box hats and veils, cordon off the spillage as if it’s an accident scene. On the plane, I switched to proper drinks, and drank so much I forgot to sleep (having too nice a time with the neverending champagne, forgetting we were in the air) only to land and stagger off to find another plane I’d call Zinedine Zidane. We touched down, as the sun rose, in the gleaming, empty airport of Mattala. (His advice proved sound – I pass it on.) And I watched the carousel go round and round, with no suitcase of mine, found myself unequal to describing exactly what it looked like for a beautiful lady in a sari (plastic, patterned, pink – the ugliest thing in Dubai) and then felt distinctly sick in the back seat of a car, racing down a six lane motorway the Chinese built for invisible cars, to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. Hambantota.
The Shangri La hotel chain has built its reputation on knowing exactly how to look after their customers, and I am booked for the full VIP experience… So the welcome team squints at me for half a second before curing all my ills. They sit me down and hand me some juice. Then they promise to track down my things and have them with me by morning. Escort me to the gift shop and let me pick out a sexy swimsuit and summer dress – for free. Then they show me to a pristine suite with ocean view – where it is cold enough to sleep – to get on with my hangover. And when I wake up, half-new, I find that one member of staff has volunteered to act as my dashing Sengalese boyfriend for the duration. Ashan Ranansinghe (an auspicious name, for future planes) meets me for a slap up meal at the first of three excellent restaurants, and compliments me for heaping all the Sri Lankan curry on my plate. God it tastes good. He tells me my hair looks fine when it is blatantly standing on end in its all time worst tantrum. He asks me about books and says he reads Dostoevsky; suggests excursions we might enjoy for the next five days. Shows me all three swimming pools and leaves me to have a think about it.
And I decide, yes, as a woman apparently sane, I’d like to get up before sunrise, and have him drive me to see leopards (maybe leopards, or maybe not leopards, leopards are hard to predict) but certainly elephants and buffalo and deer. And yes I would like to walk to the temple at sunset and listen to the Buddhist prayers on the breeze. And yes I’d like to scale a rock and have my photo taken with the ocean. And yes I’d like to pose in a tuk tuk and go for a ride. But in the meantime, I sit on a sun lounger under an umbrella and burn my shoulders swimming. Later on, I beat the specialist French golf instructor in a rigged game of pitch and putt, who sped me around in a golf buggy to show off a course of exquisitely sculpted, very green grass where 10,000 coconut trees were felled and elephants no longer roam.
There is a war going on between Hambantota and its wildlife. When I got home, bucked up and started acting like a journalist rather than a girl who sat on a sun lounger and stared at her thighs every afternoon, I began to think south Sri Lanka odd. The empty airport – which cost $209 million – services one flight a day, with a footfall of 10 to 20 passengers. The empty motorway spreads out to a deep sea port and an international cricket stadium – also empty. All three, it turns out, are named after Sri Lanka’s former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who wanted to transform the place he was from into Sri Lanka’s second most prestigious city. The airport alone, the Sri Lankan press reports, is ‘a largely redundant vanity project’. Its terminals have been used for storing rice and its runways for parking unused jets. Last year, a plane engine was destroyed because a peacock flew into it, and the government deployed 350 troops armed with firecrackers to clear 150 deer and 50 wild buffalo which had been trapped after an electric fence was set up to prevent other wild animals running riot. Deprived of their jungle, elephants now trample over human settlements. But what is bad for locals is, undeniably, great for tourists. And if you’re searching for peace and quiet – go. Go now.
I should have left the hotel, walked down the winding drive, and found that out first hand. But I didn’t because living a life of luxury paralyses the imagination and the will. I needed Shangri La to chaperone me and they did a first class job. The best day was when Ashan and I got up before dawn to visit the nature reserve at Yala and see a wild elephant taking a bath. It was damned hot, in Yala (without the dry wind that blows so fast in Hambantota the resort feels cool when it ought to be sticky as hell) and the cavalcade of jeeps stopped to let tourists walk out on the sands. I sat in the meagre shade, eating special sandwiches, under a rusty sculpture which was put up to commemorate the height of the waves that swept Chinese tourists away in the tsunami that hit a decade ago. Ashan pointed to new huts that are being built, as the tourists venture back, and then to a rock which used to be full of monkeys. The monkeys walked in land before disaster hit and never returned. On the drive back I had my only sight of the real Sri Lanka – where streets are so bright and colourful, full of daredevils riding mopeds without helmets or shoes, where pots and pots of buffalo curd are sold outside homes. When we get back to the hotel, Ashan has booked me a spa treatment, in case the jeep shook me up. The masseuse wraps me up in a silk sheet and treats me like something precious.
Later, Ashan treats me to a five course meal designed for men flourishing engagement rings. It took him a long time to pop the question – ‘would you like to try some buffalo curd?’ and naturally, I said yes. (It tasted disgusting). For months afterwards, he dutifully Whats App’d me until he got tired – as all men do, in the end. And I hope that he has moved onto a real girl, who he’s not paid to proxy-date, in steamy Colombo.
On the last night, I went out by myself, preparing to be alone again. I walked along the beach, where the waves crash madly. (To be unloved is not so bad when one’s naked toes are so passionately pursued by the Indian ocean.)