My trip to Sri Lanka (so the island Ceylon has been called for some time past) proved not as lucky as it could have been. Troubles began when my “friends,” who were due to accompany me, backed out at the last moment. Having paid a penalty, I made up my mind to go alone. As a result, I found myself running out of cash, which pressed me toward austerity and appeared as the major cause of my misfortunes. Leading me into the temptation to visit Sri Lanka was a lengthy and heavy illustrated article in “The Financial Times,” where this country was characterized as the island of “serendipity,” that is, of happy and unexpected discoveries.
So, I am again flying to the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the city of Dubai, where one has to change planes for a connecting flight bound for the capital of Sri Lanka, the city of Colombo. The connection time in Dubai was long, and I was hanging around the airport building. Then I experienced a sensation which was going to harass me throughout my entire trip, namely, hunger. Luckily, while hanging around, I managed to make the acquaintance of a friendly Russian family, who, too, were travelling to Sri Lanka. They were so kind as to treat me to dinner. When the connection was over, we changed our addresses and dispersed in different corners of the cabin of the plane heading for Colombo.
On arrival in the Sri Lankan capital, I and some other travellers were placed on a bus, and before too long I found myself in a small hotel situated by the ocean. That locality was called Negombo, and it lay north of Colombo. It was already dark, and, alas, lying in wait for me there was the same problem that had happened to me while in the Maldives. I arrived too late, and the dinner time was over, so, despite all my pleas and reproaches, I was never fed that night.
I slept badly, rose up early and, in anticipation of breakfast, walked to the beach. There, life was already going on in full swing: some people were swimming, others were tanning, local youth were playing some kind of baseball, and everywhere there were people going around offering various goods and services or just encouraging holidaymakers to contribute to a charity. But I was carried away by the sight of the ocean waves: it was magnificent. It was far from being like a rippled mirror of a lagoon. Ocean can be compared to the Baltic or Black seas, but only when they are stormy. But still it is not quite so. What is considered a storm for an inland sea is normality for the Ocean. So, despite Its huge waves, there is a certain calm in It. I was about to swim, but then diffidence came over me: whether I could cope with those waves?
Suddenly, I heard someone calling me: “Mr. Alexei.” I was very much surprised and, at first, could not figure out: who could know me here in Negombo? Still, it was addressed to just me: a minibus had arrived to take me far inland, according to the itinerary. I was asked to pack up my things promptly, so it was not only my yesterday’s dinner, but also my today’s breakfast that I had to “give to the enemy.”
Our nimble minibus, having gathered cruising speed, was rushing through Sri Lanka’s vast expanses. How beautiful it was all around! For an unbiased observer, the surrounding landscape could well have passed for ours, Russian one: the same fields, forests, lakes, and no palms whatsoever (the latter could only be seen along the ocean coast). Except that all this was evergreen and non-freezing, in other words, the same, but without winter (incidentally, it was the month of December outboard). Soon I saw something definitely indicative of my being not in Russia: an elephant came out of the forest into an overhead power line corridor. We stopped to admire the scene and take photos, however my guide asked me not to get out. Then again, I remembered that formerly elks had been called “elephants” (slony) in Russia, so, again, the strange affinity of Sri Lanka with Russia could be discernible even in this, one would think, completely exotic scene.
We continued making our way deeper into the heart of the inland. The air-conditioner was blasting freezing cold air on me, and I asked my attendants to turn it off. The temperature was quite pleasant outside, about 25 degrees Celsius, so there was no need for any air conditioning. A few words should be said about Sri Lankan roads. They are of good quality, but rather narrow, largely 3-lane, and there is left-hand traffic there. Motorists drive fast, and the vehicles pass inches in front of each other, when collision seems imminent. All in all, driving along Sri Lankan roads feels like going on the rides, where you engage yourself with bated breath and sinking heart.
We had been driving for already 2 hours, and I wanted to know if there was a long way to go yet? “About as much again,” – was the answer. I was surprised, since I believed Ceylon was not such a big island, and it was high time for us to arrive anywhere. But Ceylon proved to be not just a “big island,” but rather a “small continent.” I realized that I would not live till the end of the journey, if I did not have a bite. I started examining more attentively the surrounding landscape precisely for that purpose. I noticed that open-air bazaars could be found on our way, where coconuts were sold, and I asked the driver to stop near one of those bazaars. The coconuts proved cheap. I bought one and asked the vendor to open it, so as I could regale myself with coconut juice. The vendor cut the shell with a deft strike of the machete and put a straw into the opening. I greedily pounced on this exotic drink. But I was somewhat disappointed: the so called “coconut juice” turned out to be just slightly sweetened water, vaguely resembling our birch-tree juice (I did not know yet that such “water” was going to be my basic meal throughout almost my entire sojourn in Sri Lanka). A bit refreshed, however, I returned to the minibus, and we continued our drive.
In the meantime, the surrounding landscape started to change. Towering rocks appeared now here, now there, and full-fledged mountains looped up in the distance. All this somewhat resembled the Caucasian foothills in the area of our city of Kislovodsk. But whereas we have a bald steppe prevailing there, here everything is covered by forests. We were approaching one of Sri Lanka’s former capitals, Polunnaruwa. Still and all, we did not get as far as either Polunnaruwa or the full-fledged mountains (we made a detour around them, to be more precise). We turned into some side road and soon found ourselves in the territory of a hotel situated right in the forest.
A magnificent individual bungalow was placed at my disposal. And in general, the hotel’s entire atmosphere made one disposed toward exoticism: macaque monkeys were crawling on top of the fence, while the entrance was “guarded” by a jaguar cub. I arrived on time: I had still some time left before dinner, but, at least, I was sure that the latter would not pass from me this time around. In the meantime, I swam in a pool built apparently on the basis of the original swamp. It might have been a mistake, though: the water proved unpleasantly cool, so I could never get warm after swimming. But the dinner, in the contrary, turned out diverse and abundant. Besides, there were musicians in the hall, who would sit down at the tables and perform various pieces to the guests’ requests. I felt so self-confident that, when they came up to my table, I told them that I would sing myself and asked them to accompany me. I sang the Russian folk song “Monotonously jingles a bell” to the overall approval from all those present.
Having returned to my bungalow, I felt shivery. I turned the air-conditioner on, but it was “cooling only.” In the fridge, I found strong drinks, but they all were prohibitively expensive. To boil some water, I tried to use my domestic immersion heater, but the socket proved to have 3 apertures, while my heater’s plug had only 2 pins. Still, I decided not to disturb the hotel’s administration. I just pulled on everything I could, rolled myself in the blanket, and dropped off into a troubled slumber. I could never get warm that night, and I woke up totally sick, with all the symptoms of the common cold.
After breakfast I felt better, and I went to explore the surroundings. The weather in that part of the country was wet, it was drizzling now and then, I had to use an umbrella to walk under it, and all that was not conducive to the quick recovery from a cold. I plodded my way along a country road, which led somewhere into the depth of the forest. Certainly, I felt some fear, because I realized that all those elephants and jaguars, whom I was used to seeing in the zoo, lived there in the wild. But it looked like there was no immediate reason for concern: the surrounding silence would only be broken by birds’ chirp, and soon I again felt as if I was in our usual temperate-zone forest.
Having walked for about an hour, I saw a little house with utility structures standing near the road. Soon I also noticed the master of the house, who was pottering about the garden. When he saw me, he said hello, and invited me “for tea.” I felt pretty tired by then and accepted his invitation without a moment’s thought. And now we were sitting in front of his house and chatting like old friends. When he learned that I came from Russia, he nodded his head understandingly and seemed even pleased. I took the occasion to start learning Sinhalese (I had a notebook and a pen along for such a case). Samarakoon (that was my new friend’s name) helped me eagerly, using both the Latin and Sinhalese script for words and phrases (in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese is the official language, while English is just “equated” with the official one, and, as far as I could see, it plays the same role as Russian does in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia). However, I did not want to abuse Samarakoon’s hospitality and soon stood up to take my leave. In conclusion, I asked him whether the famous open-air museum with rock-cut Buddha statues was far away from there. “Quite near, – he replied, – I can drive you there in my 3-wheeler.” I was very happy to accept his offer, and we arranged that he would pick me up tomorrow at 10 from my hotel’s main entrance.
I spent the rest of the day in anticipation of tomorrow’s excursion. However, my health condition worsened. Added to the primary symptoms was cough, which tormented me by protracted fits. The next morning, I went to the hotel’s entrance gate and stood there watching out for Samarakoon. I have been waiting for him for about an hour, but he never emerged. Then I wandered towards his house along the forest road, which was already familiar to me. On the way, I saw a covey of kids who were playing some sort of a tag game. I asked them whether they knew where Samarakoon was. “He is sleeping,” – the answered laughingly and hinted that it could not had been done without a “sleeping aid” this time around. “Poor Samarakoon, – I thought to myself, – I may have so stressed him out yesterday, that he got sozzled on coconut moonshine, so as to relax.”
I turned back. At the hotel’s entrance, I got into conversation with a security guard and shared with him my worries. “This is no big deal, – he said, – anyone will drive you there, and at an easy rate.” “But, – it dawned upon me to ask, – is the entry to that open-air museum chargeable?” “Sure,” – he answered and cited such a sky-high sum that I lost any desire to go anywhere.
I was lying on a sofa in my bungalow being upset by another failure. Suddenly I remembered that it was the last day of my stay at this place, and I would have to check out tomorrow. In 3 days’ time I was due to arrive at the terminal point of my trip, Weligama (there should be a room booked for me there). Within those 3 days I was supposed to have been in another former capital of Sri Lanka, the city of Kandy, where the owner of one of the hotels was brother of my Maldivian friend, Ravi. So, the point now was to get to Kandy in the cheapest possible way. Without pausing to think, I went to the hotel’s general manager and, coughing hard, informed him of the situation I was finding myself in. The manager proved quite responsive to my needs. “Don’t worry, – he said, – just tomorrow we are sending there a lorry to fetch some food products, so we can take you to Kandy in the best possible way and absolutely free, at that. Besides, – he added, – the weather in Kandy is generally not so wet, and you will feel better there.”
I devoted the rest of the day to studying Sinhalese, using the notes left after the meeting with Samarakoon. Interestingly, It proved too hard for me to memorize the traditional Sinhalese greeting, ko′homada: I would persistently confuse it with the surname of the then popular Russian female politician, Irina Khaka′mada. Also, I traced some kinship between some Sinhalese and Russian words. For example, the Sinhalese for a “neck” is “griva” (a “mane”), while a “cat” will be “pusha” (close to the Russian word “pukh,” or “fluff”). And no wonder, since our languages come from a single Indo-European basis. But my crucial discovery was that “mama” in Sinhalese meant “I.” An important world-outlook conclusion followed therefrom: whereas many peoples are initially oriented towards the Parent, the Sinhalese are initially oriented towards the Self.
The next morning, I was woken up early: the lorry was already prepared for the journey. I got into the driver’s cabin, and we set off for Kandy. This yet another ancient capital of Sri Lanka is located some 70 km south of Polunnaruwa, in the very heart of Ceylon. At first, we were accompanied by mountains covered with forest, then tea plantations took their place. Again, I did not have time to have breakfast, so I asked the driver to stop near one of coconut bazaars. The driver shook his head as if were “no,” and I initially thought he objected. But suddenly I remembered that this kind of head shake indicates with the Sri Lankans not at all “no,” but exactly “yes,” about the same way it occurred in Greece and some other Mediterranean countries. As distinct from the Mediterraneans, Sri Lankans shake their head not in horizontal, but in the vertical plane, and it is called “waggling.”
Now from behind the hills, there appeared a valley with numerous buildings on it – we were arriving in Kandy. We found the hotel I had sought for quite easily, and before too long I was entering into the hotel owner’s office. My Maldivian friend’s brother proved not at all looking like a “little elephant.” He was a large-dimensioned man, lively and energetic at that. I told him hello for Ravi, gave him some souvenir I had brought from Russia, and showered praises on his hotel. I so doing, I stressed that it was famous not only for its convenience but also for its low prices. Possibly, my speech did have some effect, but, apparently, not enough to lead my host from businesslike tone to sentimental. “Will such-and-such price suit you?” – he asked stiffly. “Oh, abundantly,” – I replied. He jotted down some note and asked me to hand it to reception.
I was accommodated in a rather cozy economy-class room. Instead of the window, there was a wall-wide embrasure just below the ceiling looking out on a gallery that encircled the building. Sure enough, the socket, again, had 3 apertures. I helplessly looked at the room-boy, who had brought in my suitcase. He got the point immediately. He took a ball-point pen and put it into the socket’s earth hole, meaning something like “now your immersion heater will be operating.” I checked it up – it really worked! Hurrah! I will always have boiled hot water available whenever I like!
Despite this unexpected luck, I was staggering from fatigue, and, apparently, had a fever. I had again, missed the breakfast time, so I decided to walk out of the hotel to buy some cheap food. When going out of doors, I had a bad coughing fit. At that moment, a reception officer came up to me and kindly said: “I’m sorry sir, but you need to consult a doctor.” I replied that I had not enough money to pay a doctor and that I took aspirin. “No, – he insisted softly, – the lungs are not a thing to trifle with, so you surely need antibiotics, and, besides, a doctor appointment is not so expensive here.” But I don’t know where a polyclinic is round here,” – I kept on resisting feebly. “It’s quite nearby,” – the officer reassured me and explained every detail of how to get there.
I found the polyclinic quickly enough, and, indeed, an appointment with a general practitioner proved quite available and affordable. A chemist’s shop was also in the vicinity – there I bought the prescribed medicines, including antibiotics, their price, too, being within proper limits. Then I looked in a food shop, where I bought some inexpensive edibles and drinks, and immediately started taking pills. Having returned to my room, I had a good bite and drank a lot of hot boiled water. Finally, I felt pleasant warmth spreading throughout my body and soon fell into healing sleep. Thus, my slow recovery began.
In the morning, I felt much more confident and, having taken breakfast, went out to explore the city. First of all, I would like to see the main sanctuary of the Buddhist religion, the Temple of the Tooth, which was located well within a walking distance from the hotel. Walking down one of the lanes, I saw a house with windows and doors wide open, and people coming in and going out. I had already been a little “spoiled” by a relaxed atmosphere prevailing in that country, where I had never seen prohibition signs whatsoever, and, without pausing to think, entered the house. I found myself in a very la large room resembling a concert hall. People mounted the rostrum one after the other, and each sang some tune. I asked my fellow listener: “What is going on here?” “A congress of poets,” – was the answer. But what I liked best of all there were free pastries served around, which I, too, did not fail to taste.
At the entrance to the Temple of the Tooth, I had to deposit by shoes (a paid service) and also to undergo a pat-down (a war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil-Eelam was waged at the time in the country’s north, and the authorities rightfully feared terrorist attacks). I had been warned beforehand that I would have to take off my shoes. As regards the frisking, it was done so quickly and graciously, that it did not provoke any aversion in me. The atmosphere in the temple was also unconstrained: some people walked, others prayed. A prayer is called “meditation” with the Buddhists, and it is exercised while sitting motionless, cross-legged, with the eyes closed, and palms placed together under the chin (outward manifestations of religiosity are reduced to a minimum in Buddhism). You can also light a candle: they are not alight, but smouldering here, and you are supposed to place it in special “sand-box.” In the middle of the temple, in the dais, there is a shrine, where that very Tooth is kept. Leading to it, there are stairs, where I, at last, noticed a prohibition sign that read: “Please avoid sitting here.”
Having visited the temple, I decided just to wander through Kandy’s streets. A huge white statue of the sitting Buddha, which overlooked the city, caught my eye, so I set my mind on walking that far. Almost all the oncoming passers-by amiably smiled at me, especially children, who smiled from ear to ear, showing off their sparkling snow-white teeth. This swarthy-faced crowd made a charming impression on me: the entire street would be splashed with smiles, just as flowers would blossom out on a springtime meadow.
In the meantime, the road went steeply uphill, and I felt I was running out of steam. Then I realized that I would not be able to reach the desired goal. At that moment, I was approached by a man who started telling me something. He spoke so fast, that I could hardly catch a word of what he was saying. Gradually I understood that he was inviting be to visit a factory producing the “best in the world” batik. I tried to politely decline his invitation, saying that I was tired, not quite well, short of money, etc. (the more so that I had only a vague idea of what the “batik” was). But the man assured me that the factory was located in the very house in front of which we were standing and hospitably flung the door open before me. Having come in, I looked around: in one spacious room there were people working, while in the other there was a trade exhibition. I walked back and forth in the exhibition hall with an air of being an expert, chose the cheapest batik, and bustled off.
On my return to the hotel, I saw a Buddhist monk at the reception. Having looked at me, he greeted me, for some reason, in Russian. I was a bit taken aback: “How do you happen to know Russian,” – I asked. “I studied at your place… there, near the Yugo-Zapadnaya metro station” – he replied and, having waved his hand, left the hotel. The point is that in the city of Moscow, not far from the above-mentioned tube station, there is the Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, where students from developing countries used to study. So, I understood why he knew Russian, but I could never understand why he knew that I was Russian. However, I did not feel like going into those subtleties, because I had more important issues to discuss with the reception officer.
The main item on the agenda was that the next day I was due to check out from the hotel and in the cheapest possible way get to the end point of my trip, Weligama, situated in the very south of Ceylon. The reception officer assured me that there was nothing easier: from Kandy to Weligama there was a train departing at 6 o’clock every morning, the tickets being quite cheap and available from the railway station’s ticket office. The station itself was located within the walking distance from the hotel, not far away from the Temple of the Tooth. I thanked the officer, paid a hotel bill in advance, and asked to wake me up tomorrow at 5.
And yet, that day was unusual in many respects. It was December 31st, New Year’s Eve, so I wanted to call Moscow to felicitate my domestics on the upcoming holiday. Closer to midnight (the time difference between Moscow and Sri Lanka was an hour and a half), I, again, approached the reception desk and asked to dial the needed number. In doing that, given a lack of money, it was important to limit my conversation to 3 minutes, of which I asked the officer to give me a proper signal (the problem was that the international calls were billed there per minute starting at the moment of connection, not at that of the subscriber’s answer). Furthermore, to create an impression of complete well-being, I had to hold back my persistent cough while talking. But everything turned out supremely well: there was a prompt answer from that end, and I managed it perfectly to convey my greetings to the snow-clad Moscow from the ever-green Ceylon.
To celebrate the start of a New Year, I ordered a glass of wine to my room: I drank it to the imaginary bell-ringing and chimes of the Kremlin Clock. With it, I also washed down another portion of antibiotics. I fell asleep to the noise of festive fireworks, with which the night Kandy was seeing the New Year in.
In the morning, all went according to plan. I came to the railway station some 20 minutes ahead of the train’s departure, bought a ticket for the 3d class, and seated myself in the right carriage. At 6 sharp, the train started off, and I was off again on another journey across the vast expanses of Sri Lanka.
In the morning, all went according to plan. I came to the railway station some 20 minutes ahead of the train’s departure, bought a ticket for the 3d class, and seated myself in the right carriage. At 6 sharp, the train started off, and I was off again on another journey across the vast expanses of Sri Lanka. I looked around: the carriage was nearly the same as with our Russian electric trains. For all that, all the windows were openable here, and they did open, and also there were no sunflower-seed shells spat out on the floor. The passengers were few in number, and all of them looked quite decent, with no apparent vagrants or hooligans in sight. There was a toilet in the vestibule: it was open, and it was clean. Calmed by the favourable ambience, having become languid from the morning cool, and lulled by the rhythmic sound of the wheels, I fell into a light sleep.
I was awakened by a rattling of the wheels: our train was going through a tunnel (the locality around Kandy was mountainous, so one could not manage without them there). As we were advancing westward, the place was becoming flatter, although staying woody, which created the feeling that I was riding somewhere on the Moscow Region’s Circular Railway. And now, more and more populated areas could be seen on our way: we were approaching the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo.
In Colombo, the train made a 10 minutes’ stop, so I ventured to run to the platform to fetch a bottle of water. During the stop, our carriage was becoming more and more packed. A middle-aged married couple was seated in front of me. Certainly, we got into conversation. I learned that they taught at the University of Colombo and now were travelling to the country’s south to see their relatives. In the meantime, our train, having turned to the left, was running along the ocean coast.
I got off at Weligama station and took a taxi, which drove me to the hotel indicated in my itinerary (in Sri Lanka, 3-wheeler auto rickshaws are commonly used as a taxi, also known as the “tuk-tuks”). I did not like the hotel right away. First of all, it represented a multi-story building, whereas I had always preferred bungalows. But what I was unpleasantly amazed by most was the fact that the hotel’s guests were largely Russian gangsters, with gold chains on their necks, characteristic tattoos, and other similar attributes, with songs of the criminal world pouring out of its open windows. Certainly, I treated gangsters with understanding: at that time, they used to provide “protection” for the nascent Russian businesses, guarding them against the encroachments of various “ethnic criminal groups.” And yet, I would feel, mildly speaking, uncomfortable in such an ambience. Besides, the coastline in that place, despite all its charm, was rocky and indented, so entering the ocean was problematic there. And I had just ridden past hundreds of kilometres of a magnificent beach!
Something had to be done. I remembered that my new friends, whom I met in Dubai, had been planning to stay at a hotel, which was located just several kilometres away from Weligama, in a place called Koggala – I had ridden past it, when on the train. Certainly, I did not know whether their hotel was much better than the one I was presently staying at. Yet, I made up my mind to go there. I came down to reception and asked if I could change the hotel. To my surprise, they said there was no problem. However, the star-rating of the hotel in question proved to be lower than theirs, so some additional authorization was required. They had to send a pertinent fax message to the tour operator and, in case of a reply in the affirmative, I could get my way. By their experience, this could take a couple of hours, so I was advised to take a walk in the interim.
First of all, I would like to see Taprobane island, which I had planned as the terminal point of my tour of Ceylon. On my way, I dropped in a snack-bar and asked for a juice. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’ve got no fresh juice,” said the barman, and suggested to dilute a concentrate. I was dying for a drink, so I agreed. The barman strewed something into the glass, diluted it with tap water, hung a slice of lemon upon the glass rim, put a straw into it, and served this “cocktail” to me. I drank all this without a murmur, and nothing “special” happened to me thereafter.
I found Taprobane island quickly enough (it had been occupied by an elite villa for some time past). Having looked my fill of the island, I kept on making my way to town. “Where is a book shop here,” – I asked a cyclist who was riding by. He stopped and said: “Sit.” “Where,” – I asked, bewildered. He pointed to a bicycle frame. I, perched upon it, without thinking twice, and in a couple minutes’ time we were in front of a book shop (my “driver” refused to accept any money from me). Near the shop, I saw an elephant, who was sitting on a grass-plot, and a mahout was feeding him with lotus flowers. This scene made nobody wondering: that was Ceylon, after all. At the shop, I bought a Sinhalese-English phrase-book and, having taken a tuk-tuk, returned to the hotel. Good news was waiting for me there: the tour operator authorized my moving to another hotel. I grabbed my still unpacked suitcase, again took a tuk-tuk, and rushed to Koggala.
The targeted hotel stretched widely along the ocean coast and consisted both of the main multi-story building and individual bungalows, the latter being cheaper. I chose a bungalow without a moment’s hesitation, and that was the right choice then. One-story bungalow blocks, in 2s and 3s, were situated just behind the beach, in the shadow of the palms. There was no air conditioning in the bungalow (it was hardly needed, since its windows looked straight at the ocean, from which a refreshing breeze was continuously blowing). There was still a ceiling fan in the room, while an anti-mosquito net spread out over my bed. If it was not for ravenous hunger, all this could be considered the ultimate dream. I surely must have first come here and, after about a week-long rest, would have gone on various excursions. But nothing doing: it turned out just that way. If only I could wait until dinner …
I did not even suspect then how, in reality, extremely lucky I was. Could I conjecture then that in a couple of years a merciless tsunami would sweep away all these bungalows, as well as the hotel’s main building, all the coastal villages, and even the train I had been riding?
Having come to myself a bit, I decided that it was high time for me to have a swim in the ocean. I came right up to It, but hesitated to plunge into the water. Powerful waves surged one after the other, so one should snatch a moment, when one wave had already weakened, while the other had not yet surged: if you tarried, it would knock you down and badly dash you against the shore. At last, I got it: you can only enter into ocean at a run, and you have to dare to plunge into the surging wave, and then quickly swim offshore. So I did. Having swum a bit offshore, I could already relax a bit, lie on the water, and rock with the waves. Now the point was to neither move away from the shore, nor approach it. Suddenly, I remembered that there might be sharks around, and swam to shore. Getting out of the ocean also requires knack. You have to sail astride some wave – it will carry you to the shore and smoothly let you down on the sand. But then you will have to run again, so that the next wave would not catch you. If you have no time to run away from the surging wave, you have to assume a posture: get on your knees with your back to the wave, your head bent down, while your hands are clasped tightly together in front of your breast. You may be knocked off and twirled, but you will only roll, and not fall flat against the shore. All in all, bathing in the ocean is an “amusement ride” no less breath-taking than driving on Ceylon’s roads.
Having made the ocean out, I returned to my bungalow to take a deep breath. Dinner was already about an hour away, so it was just time for me to go and find my friends. I came up to the reception desk and asked for a guest register. It took me quite long to identify them. Their family name was pretty intricate even in Russian, so one could imagine what “rendition” it could have received with registering clerks here. Finally, behind the palisade of scribbles did I manage to discern something resembling their name. Indicated there also was the number of the room where they had been staying. In anticipation of a happy reunion and joint dinner, I rushed along the corridors of the hotel’s main building.
All of a sudden, I stopped. I saw some strange man walking in the opposite direction: his face had numerous abrasions, some of which were covered with plaster, his right arm being tied to his body. Having peered into his face, which was distorted by pain, I, with difficulty, recognized in this cripple the man I had been looking for. “Is it you, Igor?” – I exclaimed. “Ah, hello,” – he uttered, giving me a blank look. “What’s happened?” “I was dashed by the wave against the shore, and I’ve got concussion and a dislocated arm. It’s great you’ve come, – he went on, – now we’ll go to hospital, and you’ll help with translation, won’t you?” At that moment, his wife joined us. We took a taxi (this time, not a tuk-tuk) and drove together to the region’s administrative centre, the city of Galle.
“A pretty piece of business, isn’t it?” – I reflected down the road. Why then Ceylon is called the “island of happy discoveries?” Or, maybe it is my fate, and my discoveries will never be happy? But what depressed me most was that for the twentieth time I was being left without a dinner.
In the meantime, we are arriving in Galle, a city, which the local intelligentsia would pronounce in the British manner, like “Gohl,” and which would also would suffer huge damages from the tsunami. Here was a hospital building. We entered the admission room, from where we were sent to an admitting physician.
There was a queue of people sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, and we humbly joined the queue. I was in a twilight zone between sleeping and waking. Occasionally, I would glance at the local people’s faces. I had already noticed by then that among Sri Lankans there might be both dark-skinned persons and just black ones. Subsequently, I learned that the dark-skinned were those who had been mixed with the Portuguese, and the black ones, those who had preserved their primordiality. I also noticed that black Sri Lankans differed from black Africans. Their features may well be regarded as quite Slavic, even, one can say, kind of Ryazan’s: a bulbous nose and all that, which, again, suggests our common Indo-European roots. The expression on their faces was often stern, but as soon as our eyes met, they always smiled. “This is where we differ,” – I thought to myself.
At last, we were called in. We entered the consulting room, and the doctor started asking us pertinent questions, such as: How had it all happened? Whether the patient was allergic to anything? What diseases had he suffered from during his childhood? For how long had he been fasting now? And so forth. Then his wife and I were asked out for a while, so we could not hinder the process of examining the patient.
And now we again were called in. A sight that appeared before me was not for the faint-hearted: Igor, with wild-looking eyes, was sitting on a stool, wearing a Sri Lankan national men’s skirt (a sarong) instead of his shorts, having a thermometer in his mouth, and a number tag glued onto his forehead. The doctor said they had done their best, but as to the dislocated shoulder, it could only be reset by a surgeon, who was due only tomorrow. So, my friend was offered to spend the night in hospital.
We were escorted to the ward. It represented a big room, brightly illuminated and laden with beds, with patients lying on them. Igor was led to one of those beds somewhere in the middle of the room. “Here you are,” – said the doctor. Igor, having looked perplexedly around, all of a sudden, emphatically roared: “No!” The doctor, nothing daunted, gently remarked: “Then you’ll have to give us a written acknowledgement that you refuse hospitalization.” So we did, having arranged that tomorrow we would be there at 8 in the morning.
The next day, we arrived in the hospital at the hour agreed. The surgeon was already waiting for us. While leading Igor to his room, he told me that the surgery was going to be done under general anesthesia. I was surprised to hear that, but would not ask too many questions and submissively stayed waiting in the corridor. In about a quarter of an hour, the surgeon came out and, rubbing his hands, uttered: “Finished.” “What do you mean?” – I exclaimed. “I’ve reset it,” – explained he.
At that moment, the door opened, and being wheeled out in a wheelchair there was Igor, who kept on resenting: “When, on earth, will I have my shoulder reset?” “You have already had it,” – I comforted him. “I can’t remember – doubted he – I only remember that the surgeon was telling me something and that’s all…” Only then did we realize that, thanks to the surgeon’s skill, Igor blacked out for exactly the time period needed to carry out necessary manipulations.
Having returned to the hotel, I felt such an overwhelming thirst, that it seemed I could drink the ocean, which was so temptingly splashing right in front of me. I dropped into a bar and bought me a little bottle of Fanta. It proved properly cooled, and I was drinking it lingeringly, pouring it into the glass in small amounts and drinking it in tiny sips. Strange as it might seem, my thirst abated, and I sluggishly dragged myself to my bungalow.
For some time, I couched in slumber. Suddenly I heard someone knocking at the door. That was my friends’ son – he came to invite me to have dinner with them. I quickly got ready and walked to the main building, where a car was already waiting, in which we all seated ourselves. In about 10 minutes, we drove to the restaurant “Russki” (Russian), which was located in the forest, not far from the ocean coast. Considering the abundance of Russian tourists in that place, such a name of a restaurant did not make me wonder. However, the cuisine and service were at the top level there. We had a wonderful time, and I, at long last, could both quench my thirst and appease my hunger.
In the evening, we had the hotel’s dinner, which proved no less wide-ranging and substantial, than the one “out.” Generally speaking, I liked it at the hotel, which formally was rated as 3-star, but in point of fact, well matched the whole of 4. I had been told earlier that the service at a hotel might be both higher and lower compared to the declared rating: some hotels might be fighting for higher rating, while others, on the contrary, might be bringing down the amount and quality of the services provided. During the dinner, my friends invited me to go together to town the next day to buy some souvenirs, but I, with thanks, declined their invitation. I was too tired from th endless journeys and wanted to spend that day by the ocean, without ruffle or excitement, the more so that tomorrow would be the last day of our stay in Koggala and the penultimate day of our overall stay in Sri Lanka.
Certainly, I could not keep my seat that day, and I set off to explore the surroundings on foot. The locality there was fairly wooded, and I walked down a forest road, laid at some distance from the ocean coast. Along the road edges, miniature chapels could sometimes be seen with sitting Buddha figurines, and also candles and flowers, left by devotees. Soon, I came across some village. There was a sports ground there, where young men were playing volleyball. They offered me to join them, but I refused to, for I was not much of a volleyball player. Having passed by the village, I again, came out to the ocean: in that place, beautifully jutting out into it, there was a pier overgrown with palms. All of a sudden, my communing with nature was interrupted by a covey of Gypsies emerged out of nowhere. Having seen me, they welcomed me shouting: “Hello money!” Without saying a word, I gave them some small change. But they stubbornly went on accompanying me. Then I turned to one of the most importunate of them, took him by the hand, and, holding it tightly, uttered sternly and coherently: “You must earn your money, not beg for it.” The Gypsies seemed to have been taken aback and retreated. I, having conducted the character building work among “irresponsible elements,” went my own way.
Finally, the time came, when I and other Russian tourists were due to leave Koggala. But, before flying home, we would still have to spend yet another day (a night, to be more exact) in the capital of Sri Lanka, the city of Colombo. There, a splendid 5-star hotel was waiting for us, which was housed in 3 multi-storey buildings connected by passages. While we were relaxing after a bus ride, it had already begun to become dark (this commonly happens at about 6 p.m. in that latitude). We did not want to go out anywhere, so we were loafing around the spacious hotel facilities in anticipation of dinner. Suddenly, I saw through the window a macaque monkey family getting out of some opening on the neighbouring house’s roof. Leading the procession was the mother, and following her in single file were her little ones. The last of them tarried at the opening. Having noticed it, the mother, with her “face” turned crimson, ran up to him, seized him by the scruff of his neck, and gave him a good (bare) bottom spanking. “The fate of people’s everywhere the same,” – I called to my mind Pushkin’s lines for some reason. Yes, and not only that of people…
And now the dinner appeared in all the splendour of the European and Sri Lankan cuisine. Then we took a walk along the ocean beach, which represented in Colombo a sort of our “recreational area.” There you could see the unhurriedly sauntering folk, souvenirs being sold, various delectables being fried, and even small performances being played out. For the last time, I listened attentively to the murmur of the ocean, peered into the rolling waves, inhaled the refreshing ocean breeze, and saw in the sky the Lady of the Chair, turned upside down, which is so characteristic of the southern latitudes, and which made it resemble a running lion.
PS. The gangsters, whom I had earlier so nimbly escaped from, still caught up to me on board a plane. While they were dispersed throughout the cabin, their presence did not make itself felt in any way. But before too long, they started gathering together “in packs,” which implied swapping seats and carrying hand luggage from one place to another. One of those guys approached me and as politely as he only could, said: “Now, don’t be a piece of shit, can’t you see we need be together…” I would not kick against the pricks and, without saying a word, swapped seats with his teenage son, who, smiling guiltily, settled himself beside his wayward parent. And yet, they could not manage without a fight (thank God, I was not involved in it). One of the passengers, who had the imprudence to entertain the public with satirical sketches, got hurt. Having imagined himself to be the then premier Chernomyrdin, he walked round the rows of the cabin, begging money for the “Russian government budget.” Then one the gangsters, apparently, having not realized what was going on (nearly all of them were quite boozy), stood up and punched the “satirist” in the face. The latter withdrew, but I felt that was not the end of the story. And so it turned out. The hurt passenger, most likely, was a big shot (maybe even a deputy of that very Chernomyrdin). On arrival in Moscow, he came up to a policeman (a “militiaman” at the time), showed him his card, and I saw his offender being bagged right in the airport building.