I was so smug. So smug about escaping Plague Island (Britain) just after Christmas to head for a more tropical one: Sri Lanka. Six friends and I had rented a house surrounded by palm trees in the south, on the banks of Lake Koggala. Our bedrooms had outside showers and grey monkeys that thumped across our ceilings every morning. We had a chef. We had staff who brought us king coconuts by the pool, the sweet, milky juice of which we’d sip through a straw. At 6pm, they subbed the coconuts for gin and tonics, along with plates of garlic murukku – a fried snack made from rice flour.
Unfortunately, we also had Covid. Not for the first few days. But two mornings after a New Year’s Eve party in the ramparts of nearby Galle fort, one of our gang woke with a scratchy throat and took a lateral flow. Positive. He texted a friend in another room, who texted her boyfriend (he was on the loo, it turned out), and so on and so on until all seven of us were alerted. An hour or so later, a Sri Lankan doctor in a hazmat suit and pointy suede loafers visited us for PCR tests, which revealed that everyone, bar me, was positive.
Seeing the pandemic through the eyes of another country is (even more) sobering. In foreign lands, there’s often comfort in familiar symbols: a Coca Cola sign; a Nivea advert; the Toyota emblem. Look, they have them here, too! This trip, it’s masks. Sri Lankans must wear them in public, all the time, or face a £30 fine. Not an insignificant sum for a country where the average annual salary hovers around £9,000.
Walking to the beach one morning (before our villa was struck down), I watch an old man in a sarong peddle barefoot on his bicycle, as unhurried as a snail, mask firmly on. Strolling back over the Habaraduwa railway line, a masked mother marches her son to school, his impish eyes only just visible over a mask decorated with cartoon birds. Moped drivers wear them; tuk tuk drivers wear them; a large woman selling mangoes from a wooden crate on the side of the road wears one. The fear is also high, one local told me, because so many Sri Lankans live with their elderly relatives.
This was my fifth trip here and I’ve loved the island more each time, but there was a sad poignancy to this visit. It’s not just masks and the constant reminder of the pandemic. There’s also a food crisis. Last April, the Sri Lankan government attempted to transform the country into the world’s first fully organic farming nation and banned all pesticides and chemical fertilisers. The result has been so disastrous (tumbling crop production; rocketing vegetable, sugar and rice prices; an economic emergency declared in September) that a partial U-turn was announced in October. But it could be too late to feed the country’s 21 million mouths in 2022, and the government is now rapidly importing supplies: grain and medicines from India, cash from China and Japan, which has, in turn, worsened a huge debt problem. In December, in a deal that sounds faintly as if it could have been bartered by the East India Company, Iran agreed to accept Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka in lieu of $251m owed for oil.
At the same time, tourism collapsed because of Covid. After various lockdowns, Sri Lanka’s borders only reopened to tourists in November and it still feels quiet. One evening I went to Galle to watch the sunset over the fort walls. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site, originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and usually heaving with tourists, locals walking with their children, Sri Lankan newlyweds in fancy clothes posing for official photos, and hawkers flogging old coins and cotton baby outfits. But on this trip, several shops and houses were boarded up and there were few tourists wandering around. And all this after years of other disasters for the country – the civil war, the 2004 tsunami, the terrorist bombings on Easter Day in 2019.
What Sri Lanka needs is for tourists to return. Why not? It’s a magical, unspoiled place. When I first came in 2004, the roads were so dismal that it took the best part of a day to reach the south coast. Now you can be down there, on vast sandy beaches, within a couple of hours. Or into the hills and tea plantations around Ella or Kandy. ‘The people make it so special but with the benefit of a landscape that has little bit of everything,’ says Mike Davies, co-founder of Teardrop Hotels, a group which has seven posh hotels across the island. ‘Mountains, tea plantations, beaches, surf, ancient cities and monuments, rainforests and safari parks.’
It’s true, although I was lazy this holiday and stayed put in the south, relishing simply being back, occasionally venturing out for lunch or an exploration to Galle (there’s a very pretty spot called The Persian Kitchen nearby which has opened since I was last here in 2020. Run by an Iranian couple and overlooking a small cove where waves crash in beneath you, it’s cold beers and kebabs for less than a tenner a head. As a result of the food crisis, prices have gone up but most places are still very good value – and you’ll eat a heck a lot better than you will in certain London restaurants.)
It’s true about the people, too; you wouldn’t know they’d had any troubles at all. ‘Welcome to my country,’ sings my taxi driver from Colombo airport. The next evening, in our villa, Vijith the chef carries out a bowl of crab curry from the kitchen and, beneath his mask, looks so anxious that we enjoy it, I nearly well up. A tuk tuk driver gamely tries to engage me in discussion about Arsenal which doesn’t last very long, so we move on to cricket and shake our heads about the Ashes.
When six of us test positive for Covid, I usher the staff away but they insist on staying to make us great pots of Ayurvedic tea (spicy with pepper and ginger). There are worse places to isolate, I think in my bedroom, while listening to a rutting monkey in a tree above me. You see? It’s very romantic here, too. Please go.
How to do it
Seven nights at private three-bedroom villa Kalukanda (note, not the same villa the writer stayed in), including international flights with Sri Lankan airlines from £2665pp, based on exclusive use of the villa for two adults. Including two experiences, one to see the elephants at Udawalawe National Park and a cooking, boat and cycling tour around the local villages of Galle. experiencetravelgroup.com