Sri Lankan Hospitality
Jayanaya was a balding man with a squint shielded by his pair of grandfatherly glasses, but truly his smile was his crown of glory. He was proud to have a foreign guest in his charge and took this responsibility very seriously.
Lunch at a simple restaurant was hyped into a royal affair, as he took on the self-imposed role of palace butler and supervised the staff’s service to impeccability. It brought him great dismay when I ordered a bottle of plain water, and had it upgraded to a ginger beer for a more celebratory effect.
His endless chatter and hearty laughter reduced the glum weather and Colombo traffic to the harmless ashes of a beautiful blaze, making the four hour drive to Unawatuna mostly pleasant, save for a suspicious fumbling within his backpack at a rest stop.
Surreptitiously pulling out a brand new iPhone 5, he snapped two pictures of me for remembrance while I flashed an awkward smile, trapped by the seatbelt in his car. His intentions were genuine, but the trigger happy city in me had instinctively rang a false alarm inside my head.
Thunder in the Ocean, Silence on the Sands
“The room with the best sea view, just for you!” declared the jolly manager at Thaproban Pavilion.
The Indian Ocean had been stirred into a magnificent fury by the violent hand of monsoon, but its relentless advances were halted each time by the steadfast rock front, which spat the remains of white foam ten metres into the air. I wondered if I would be the first person to perish should a tsunami revisit, but in truth a silent ocean is cause for greater fear.
Hardly any other tourists were in Unawatuna at all, and the entire enclave felt like a private paradise. I stepped out of my room after a big sleep in the next day, only to have staff who had been ‘waiting to serve breakfast’ materialise like sarong-clad genies in front of me. With a graceful bow, they led me down the archway and left me in wondrous solitude by the pool.
Introducing My Little Unawatuna Family
KK is a boyish looking man with a charming smile and endless interestingness; the sun whom people gravitated towards at a party, and whom good experiences revolved around.
He ran Queens Art Café with his Sinhalese ‘beauty’ Aruni, who adopted a brand new Muslim name, Shazna, after her marriage. The luscious curls adorning her lean shoulders were all natural, and her soulful gaze was an eternal enigma piercing through the focus of the camera, for she treated picture taking sessions with the sacredness of a holy ceremony.
Mother Ari’s makeshift sarong shop is right at home beside her son’s café, and they lived like a Sri Lankan fairytale in a warm little house behind. She had a sparkling laughter polished by adversity and was generous with joy. Having admired a handsewn red shawl at her shop, she thrusted it into my hands with a toothy smile.
Mubarak was their dear friend who ran his own gem store across the narrow street, and had a heart of molten gold. A stocky man who ambled like a bear, yet was the most innocent of them all. His eyes were wide and sparkled with the wonderful dreams of a child.
Backstage Access to Queens Art Café
Queens Art Café grew organically to become my default dinner place. I returned to it for the good curries, but more so for the delightful company.
Everything was cooked fresh on the spot; the thump-thumping of the stone grinder and chop-chopping to prepare my curries became comfort sounds.
Aruni was soft-spoken, yet commanded a presence in her silence. Pointing a firm finger at me one evening, she hooked it in the air and I was drawn by an invisible line into her humble kitchen. I would learn how to cook my own curry that day, her gift of knowledge to be enjoyed forever.
Doses of fish sauce and pinches of grounded spices from unlabelled jars, spills of coconut milk and chunks of chicken, fish or prawns – typical ingredients of a beautiful Sri Lankan curry.
The interior was a tasteful assortment of art and craft – traditional paintings lined the wooden walls, the presence of a sister whom I never met. Sturdy hammocks were rolled up for sale in the corner, handmade by a friend from Galle Fort. We visualised a coffee bar at yet another corner, musing the possibility of business, for Unawatuna lacked only a good coffee shop.