Hello once again and thanks for dropping in. I do hope you are enjoying reading about my first little adventure in Sri Lanka. There have been others since which I shall hopefully get a chance to write up here some day. I realise I have done nothing at all in the way of sightseeing and “making like a tourist” so far so I give fair and ample warning that the most “scenic” sights in this episode are a couple of postboxes but don’t skip to another page or blog just yet.
A quick line with my usual advice, if you want this post to make more sense you might wish to read from the beginning of the series which you can find here.
As the title suggests, I managed to have a bit of an episode, and I use that term for a reason, without doing anything. Honestly, things just happen to me, I am an occurrence magnet. If you want to learn all about it then please read on.
Saturday, 11th January, 2014.
I awoke late on a slightly overcast Saturday morning on the principle I was on holiday and there was no need to kill myself getting up at daft o’clock in the morning. Anyway, the bars don’t open until 1100 or midday, so what’s the point?
With my TV on to the default food channel (I can and do watch food programmes obsessively), I had a quick shower, got dressed and headed out onto the not so mean streets of Wellawatta. It really is a pretty sleepy suburb and competely safe as far as I can tell, so what was I going to do?
If you have read from the start you will know that I had now been in Sri Lanka for couple of days and done very little but I should explain my reasoning here. My idea of travel Hell is an organised tour where you WILL have breakfast at 0730, you WILL be on the bus by 0815, you WILL visit Museum X from 0900 – 1015 etc, etc. I just like to wander about and see what happens and, as I said in the introductory paragraphs, I never seem to lack for experiences.
It was gone midday by the time I sallied forth, a lovely old expression, I should write folk songs. Tell me this, in British folk songs why does everything happen in May and nothing in October? You know the kind of thing I mean, “As I walked out on a May morning, a maiden I did spy………” I’ll tell you why. October doesn’t rhyme with anything and it is a pig to scan, that’s why. Enough of this.
I was sallying long the Galle Road which, even on a Saturdaay was ridiculously busy and being dug up everywhere and to revert to folkspeak again, “a tavern I was searching for, as all my throat was dry, when far away on the starboard bow, the Sapphire I did spy”. OK, it is not Dougie MacLean but it’ll have to do. I refer to the Sapphire Hotel and specifically the Topaz Bar.
Here is what I wrote about it at the time, unedited and so in the present tense. Ignore the references to tips etc. as this was written for the VT website which was mostly to do with specific travel advice rather than blogging. If you lovely readers have any thoughts on this, as to whether you would like a narrative style in the past tense or a straight “as is” cut and paste of the original, please let me know as I am here to serve.
“I have mentioned elsewhere in my Colombo and Sri Lankan tips about the difficulty of finding a decent bar to have a beer in as they just do not seem to exist, at least not as we know them in the West. I have yet to see what I would term a bar or pub anywhere and the best you can hope for is a hotel bar.
I was fortunate to find an excellent example of the type in the Topaz Bar which is attached to the Sapphire Hotel on Galle Road in Wellewatta and this was happily a short walk from where I was staying.
There is not really very much to say about the place. It is clean and tidy with spotless toilets. The staff are super-friendly especially when it became apparent that I enjoyed watching cricket as all Sri Lankans are cricket mad as far as I can tell. I spent a couple of wonderful afternoons here watching a Test match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan albeit that the mood was slightly dampened when Pakistan pulled off a fairly improbable run chase to clinch victory on the fifth day.
The locals are also very friendly and I had some very interesting conversations with them where I learned quite a bit about the country. Apart from the very obvious attractions of a cold beer on a hot and humid day I have always found bars to be great places to get a feel for any particular location.
As seems the norm here I only once saw a woman in the bar, an Australian lady who was staying with her husband in my hotel and had similarly stumbled upon the Topaz. They were the only white people I saw in quite a few visits here.
The only thing of particular note here is that they have a smoking room (pictured) which is the only one I have seen thus far on my trip. I think it is a good idea as everyone is catered for that way although oddly you are not allowed to take your drink in there.
There is very good food available and I shall deal with that in a separate tip or alternatively you can pop upstairs to the “posh” restaurant although the food all comes from the same kitchen.
The whole rather splendid establishment is run under the watchful eye of Thilak who is every bit as friendly as his staff, speaks excellent English and is great company. He has my business card now so if you do drop in there, and you should, tell him Fergy sent you!”
With breakfast and lunch sorted I thought I would go for a little walk, perhaps back down to the sea. You may wonder why I did not go into central Colombo for a look round and I have no intention of lying to you. I could claim I was still jet lagged although I had long since shaken that, I could say I felt a bit under the weather but I felt fine, I could hide behind the excuse of being unsure how to get there but you already know I had negotiated the capital on public transport. None of the above apply and there was no reason for me not to head for Colombo 1 (the central area) other than that I just didn’t feel like it that day.
I was booked into my hotel for seven nights and was extremely happy with it, in fact I went on to stay a further seven, so time was not pressing me. I had three months in the country which gave me ample time to do the sights / sites and, most importantly, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I remember a great quote from a writer on the VT website which was, “I like being in places where people don’t look like me” and that could be my travel motto if I didn’t already have about six!
I managed to survive re-crossing the Galle Road and if anything were to persuade me to be religious then that probably would, it is one crazy road. A little way along I spied two postboxes and, “So what?” I can hear you say. Well, apart from the fact that I thought they looked aesthetically pleasing and , yes, I do find such prosaic things attractive, I was slightly intrigued. I was about as intrigued with the postboxes as the poor bemused local in the second image seemed to be at me taking images of postboxes, he must have thought I was completely mad and he may have a point.
Strnge as this sounds, I had previously researched and written a whole piece on VT about postboxes, prompted by one of the very few Edward VIII boxes still standing in UK. British postboxes, of which the red one is an example and which dates it to pre-1947, always have the cypher of the reigning monarch on them. In this case it is George but which George? I can tell you it is George V which dates it to 1910 – 1936 and not George VI as his cypher had the VI between the G and R. I told you my head is full of the greatest nonsense. I wonder how much else of that vintage still remains on the Galle Road, not a lot I would have thought.
I can even tell you that the different boxes are for different types of post. The green is for post to the Colombo area and the red for everything else, I’ll bet you really wanted to know that.
Enough of Sri Lankan postal history and to quote John Masefield, “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by” or to quote Spike Milligan, “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky; I left my shoes and socks there – I wonder if they are dry”. I prefer Spike’s version.
I am not being unkind when I say that Wellawatta beach is never going to feature in any travel magazine features about the top ten beaches in the world, as the images show. I didn’t mind as I am not much of a beach bunny anyway and just walking by the sea with a pleasant breeze to temper the heat was more enough for me.
I turned left which was almost inevitable as there was a magnet pulling the 0.008% of my body mass which is iron towards it which shows you how powerful a magnet it must have been. It was the Beach Wadiya where I had been previously and had been informed would be open at this hour. I have been promising to tell you all about it in the previous posts and now seems an appropriate time to do so.
Beach Wadiya is, as every report online including it’s own website which I have attached, unpretentious. You would be hard pressed to find a less pretentious beach restaurant anywhere. As I have shown you, even the beach is nothing special and yet this place would surprise you. HRH Princess Anne, members of the Nepalese Royal family and anyone who is anyone in Sri Lanka have dined there. I was to dine there myself as I shall relate shortly and the food is exceptional.
On the principle that logevity in the restaurant trade, which is notoriously transitory, is a good sign this place must be the very best. I read online that in 2019 it celebrated it’s 45th anniversary which must tell you something. I do hope it can ride out the current chaos and survive until it’s half century which is a milestone in any circumstances but even moreso in such a cricket obsessed country. The bat will hopefully be raised towards the pavilion in 2014.
I mentioned in the last instalment that I had been chatting to the boss, but I have since found out he is not the top boss or whatever the Sri Lankan for “capo di tutti capi” is although I am not for a moment suggesting the Wadiya is a mobster hangout. That title falls to a man called Olwyn Weerasekera, who is very well known in Sri Lanka and my “new best friend” is presumably the general manager.
Olwyn, with his suitably British forename, had no experience of being a restaurateur when he opened Wadiya in 1974, he worked in a pharmaceutical company. Inspired by his love of the cuisine of his native Southern Sri Lanka he found a bit of beach, set up a shack or two and the rest, as they say, is history but back now from Olwyn’s culinary journey to my suburban pedestrian one.
When I got to the Wadiya I was surprised to see several people carriers, or MPV’s if you prefer, parked outside which was odd on a couple of levels. Firstly, it suggested customers which, as I have told you, seemed to be in very short supply the couple of times I had been there and secondly because there is no car park. To get to the Wadiya you leave the pavement (sidewalk), cross the railway line without benefit of a footbridge, then a small patch of sand and you are there. The vehicles were parked on the patch of sand beteen the main Southern rail line to Galle and beyond and the front of the premises.
When I walked in all became clear immediately as the images above show. I had wandered onto a film set and I told you that strange events follow me around. In UK such places would be strictly out of bounds and secured by some brainless thugs in black bomber jackets with the word “Security” in yellow embroidery on the back and left breast.
I know about film set security morons as I lived in an area called Wapping in London for ten years and it was infested (I use the word advisedly) with film crews because of the cobbled streets, disused warehouses etc.
In one notable incident in a James Bond film, the hero managed to take off in a motorboat in Shadwell Basin and land half a mile away in Limehouse which is impressive but managed to stop my bus service to work for a week. I have had many a row with these morons about obstructing the Queen’s Highway etc. but Sri Lanka was much different as it is in just about every respect.
I asked the barman if it was OK to get a drink and told him I would sit quietly out of the way and not disturb anyone. It was the barman I had met previously and he was hospitality personified. Of course I could stay and he didn’t even ask what I wanted, the can of Lion was produced in short order. Good stuff.
I was sitting minding my own business when, during a break in filming whilst the Director did some directing, one of the crew came over and asked if he could join me. Certainly, and this was to set the pattern for the next couple of days. I do not remember now who the first person I spoke but I was soon to get to know them all.
I don’t know if it was just natural Sri Lankan friendliness, which is a trait they posess in spades, or curiosity as to where this tall, hairy white man had appeared from but at some point over the next two days I had great chats with everyone involved, both cast and crew and they were brilliant.
I had known about it before but to paraphrase Spike Milligan, who seems to be getting a lot of exposure in this post, and who remarked on the subject of war that it is short periods of intense excitement interspersed with long periods of intense boredom, so it seems to be with filming.
I had great chats with the sound man as I know a tiny bit about sound due to my amatuer efforts as a musician but I think the most amusing conversation was with the makeup artist who I quite honestly told I had gone on a course at school to learn stage makeup. As I say, I have done some very strange things in my life. In retrospect I think the teachers were not so much grooming me for a career as a Hollywood makeup artist but more trying to get rid of me out of school for a few days, I was a bit of a handful.
The scene(s) being filmed were a two hander, as I believe the acting term is, between the lady in the sari who appeared to be playing much older than she was, as subsequent images will attest, and a younger male lead, presumably her son’s character. I never did get to the bottom of it.
The filming was for a long-running soap opera or teledrama as they call it there and I really wish I had noted both the name of the female lead and the programme. What I do know is that when I rather shamelessly namedropped her in a few subsequent conversations with Sri Lankans they all seemed to know her and were interested that I had met her. She even gave me her ‘phone number, get me with the mixing with the stars.
Somewhat emboldened by talking to these lovely people I asked if I could take some images of them filming and they agreed readily, director and all. I thought they were supposed to be prickly so and so’s who banned all outsiders from the set but not a bit of it. As long as I didn’t get in the way and kept quiet I could do whatever I liked. I did try a little bit of a “me filming them filming” piece which you can see here. Despite their reassurances I just felt a little intrusive doing that so still images, which I prefer anyway, will have to do.
Because of the presence of the film crew there were a few staff on hand and I ended up as a sort of babysitter for the little lad you see in the image above who was the son of one of the staff. They were all busy accommodating the crew and so I ended up doing something which I rather enjoy but have limited experience of. I have been told on more than one occasion that I am good with small children and it amazes me as I have none of my own to my knowledge. Perhaps they just sense a kindred spirit.
At one point I was trying to teach the youngster to salute although why I have no idea. It seemed to amuse the staff members in the background though and before any other ex-Serviceman or woman takes exception, I know it is an appalling salute, just look at the small finger on my saluting hand. Pete Roberts and Jimmy Dunbar, my first two drillpigs (drill instructors) would have bawled me out up and down the parade square for that. I am ashamed of myself but it was good fun. As you see, my putative pupil was thankfully far more interested in the camera than saluting drill.
Darkness began to fall which signalled the end of filming and the crew packed up because they had to get the thousands of pounds worth of kit back to the studio or wherever they store it but before they went several of them told me they were filming again the next day and asked if I would be around. They said they were going to have a bit of a meal after and I was welcome to join them, what lovely people. Are you beginning to understand now why I love Asia so much and Sri Lanka in particular? Imagine something like this happening in London, not a chance.
After my new found media friends had departed and the little lad packed off home I thought it only right and proper to fill the coffers of the Wadiya a bit more and so a few further beers were called for which must have made me a bit “mellow” which is obviously a euphemism. I always know when I have had a few when I look at my images and see pretty poor attempts to be artistic, an example of which you can see above. Nothing more than a palm tree underlit in blue in a beach bar but it just struck me as artistic and this is the best of the very bad bunch I took.
I have not got an artistic bone in my body and cannot draw two straight lines but, despite this, a dear frind of mine called Nadean aka Dino, who is an excellent trained artist who later turned to the much more socially beneficial occupation of running a bar (OK, that is my thinking) tried to tell me that anyone can create art.
I am not going to get on my hobby horse about modern art here as I am sure you are fed up of hearing it if you have read my other posts but she was even good enough to give me some books, an A4 sketch pad, some chalks and even a kiddies watercolour set and ordered me (yes, ordered not suggested) to make art.
I made a few attempts which were laughable but I suppose I repayed her by “appearing” in an installation which gained her a place in art college. It was a hard task. I had to appear in a small representation of a famous East End bar, half-drunk, and talk to people. I thought I was over-qualified for the role but I did it and it worked, she got her place despite me verbally abusing her lecturer, although in my defence I did not know who the lady was. I nearly died laughing when she told me later. Artistic I am most certainly not but at drinking and talking rubbish I would humbly suggest that I am international class.
Whatever minute particle of artistry that may reside somewhere in the uncharted backwaters of my soul probably lies through a camera lens, even the cheap little compact cameras that I favour for many reasons. This is one example and there will be more if you wish to drag yourselves through the rest of this series.
I could easily have eaten in the Wadiya that night but I didn’t for two reasons. Firstly, I had been most graciously invited to eat there with the cast and crew the following evening and I wanted to try as many places as I could. In those days it was so I could write as many “tips” as possible on VT although it is also a travel idea of mine to sample as many different places as possible for my own edification.
On my way to and from the Wadiya I had seen a restaurant called Keen’s which looked OK and so I thought I would go there for a bite to eat. It turned out to be a slightly odd but very rewarding culinary experience and again I shall let my original and unedited notes explain.
“Firstly, apologies for there not being an exterior image of this place. I walked past it many times and when I visited it at night I thought I would wait until daytime to take the image and then forgot to do it.
I mentioned passing this place frequently as it was near my hotel and it seemed to be consistently busy with locals which is always a good sign. I never saw any foreigners in there, although in truth I saw very few in the area at all.
I went in one night and looked around for a menu on a table. There had been a large banner outside with images of various dishes but it was all in the local script and there were no menus to be seen. Ah well, back to the old pointing routine that has served me so well over the years.
As is common in Asia, all the food is kept in a glass covered cabinet and the portion is taken out and reheated as required. It is a system that will be familiar to people who frequent less posh curry houses all over the UK as I do.
I pointed to a curry I thought looked tasty, some salad which I know is not always a good idea in foreign countries but did me no hrm and held up the relevant number of fingers to indicate how many roti I wanted from the huge pile sitting there and it was all duly brought to my table.
The staff were friendly enough and smiled at my antics but I do not think there was much English spoken here. Thankfully the curry had been well heated as they seem to have a practice here of serving it lukewarm. I am not sure if that was standard or for the benefit of the foreigner but it suited me.
It was not as fiery hot as is usual in Sri Lanka, just enough to pack a bit of a punch and everything was delicious. I mentioned that UK residents would have recognised the set-up of the place and they would also have been familiar with the taste. I am not sure which particular cuisine is represented here but it tasted very like the style of curry I would eat in one of the numerous Bangladeshi run restaurants where I live.
The title of this tip (which was “Great food, unusual setting.”) suggests an unusual setting. Nothing unusual about the restaurant per se but, in all my travels in Asia, I have never eaten in a restaurant that was playing host to a Muslim religious instruction class or at least that is what I took it to be. Have a look at the image and judge for yourself.
It did provide a point of interest as I dined, though. Being an obviously Muslim establishment there is no alcohol and but that was not a major problem as I had already had “an elegant sufficiency” of Lion lager as my late maternal grandfather would have put it. All in all an excellent meal and very inexpensive”.
Back then to the hotel and another night’s blissfully uninterrupted sleep.
Sunday, 12th January, 2014.
Up again on Sunday morning to another vaguely overcast sky but still pleasant enough and again not too early a rise, why do that? I should explain that Sunday does not have the significance it does in the West as was to be proved shortly by my friends in the TV film crew who were working away on this Judeo-Christian day of rest.
There are a lot of Christians in Sri Lanka and many schools, hospitals etc. are named for Christian icons but they are a minority group. The monthly “poya day” on the full moon and celebrated by Buddhists is much more important.
Poya days are what we in the UK would call bank holidays where all Government offices, businesses, banks etc. close and it is illegal to buy alcohol or even meat. I fell foul of it once but only once as I soon learned to lay in supplies ahead of poya day. Strangely, there seems to be no prohibition on drinking alcohol other than a religious one, you just cannot buy it anywhere. A word to the wise there.
I decided not to impose on my new friends too early and so I headed back up to the Topaz Bar in the Sapphire Hotel. I have a habit of eating local food wherever I go and so what prompted me to opt for omelette and chips (fries) is a mystery to me. I don’t often eat omelettes at home. It was, however, utterly delicious and set me up for the day which I had rightly anticipated was going to involve a bit of drinking. This excellent plate set me back about £2. The second image shows the rather posh practice they have of serving the HP sauce or whatver the local equivalent is, in a sauce boat rather than just plonking the bottle on the table.
I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the Topaz before I decided it would be about time to head for the “wrap party” or whatever it was, in the Wadiya. I once again survived the Galle Road which is no mean feat, I am rather proud of that, and headed back to the beach bar for my assignation with my TV chums.
When I got there filming was just about wrapping up for the day as I expected and so I sat down with a beer to let them get set out (tech term for putting the gear away). That did not take long and in the interim I was joined by the cast and those of the crew not involved in humping heavy film kit. Eventually we were all gathered in the one place and having a great time. I may be deluded and alcohol then and time since have undoubtedly clouded my recollections but they seemed to be genuinely glad to see me.
I offered to buy a round of drinks which seemed like the right thing to do although most of them were not drinking. Some of the guys had to drive the kit back and were quite rightly off the booze and I suspect others were not drinking for religious reasons but it certainly did not hamper the convivial attitude.
Then the magic started. Somewhere along the line the previous day I must have mentioned something about playing the guitar to one of the crew, or he to me, and that was it. Get two guitarists in the one place and everything goes out the window. The guy you can see above had packed his own very decent (exact make unknown) guitar onto the crew van and that was it, we were off.
The crew guy, whose role I cannot now remember, was a very accomplished guitarist / vocalist and he knocked out a few Sinhalese songs as well as a few old Western srtandards and, all too soon, the inevitalbe happened and the guitar was thrust onto my lap.
On the principle that, until my first illness, I had never played sober, I took off. A few of the 60’s fsvourites that my friend had not covered and a few old Irish tunes that I am sure they had never heard and the job was a good ‘un. If memorry serves, as it fails to do increasingly now, I taught them the chorus of Weile, weila waila (whatever that actually means) but it was not difficult as said chorus consists of seven words and some of the audience were actors so not much of a script!
I must raise a hand in my defence of the image above and state categorically that I did NOT, repeat NOT, stage it. This was someone else’s idea and I thought long and hard about even including it here but I thought I would as I firmly believe that hiding your head in the sand does not change things, take note Holocaust deniers. If memory serves this was posed by the Director who was, well, directing, even off set.
Whilst it was meant well and done at their insistence, I find it just a little uncomfortable for two reasons. For one it suggests that I am someone of some sort of importance which is certainly not the case and secondly it smacks ever so slightly of an old colonial image.
You know the kind of thing I mean where the British plantation manager sat with all his grateful “subjects” standing behind him. One one level I love it as it is a beautiful remembrance of a wonderful couple of days with the most open and unaffected people imaginable but it still makes me a little uneasy. As always I shall leave it to the reader to decide.
Next up was the food and, although I did not know at the time of all the luminaries who had dined there I find it easy to believe now. There was an absolute cornucopia of goodies set out for us and I stupidly only managed to take an image of the “star of the show”, the fish you can see above.
Do not ask me what they were but they were beautiful. There is just something extremely special about eating very freshly caught fish simply cooked over coals / wood on a beach with the sound of the sea as a gentle background note. It does not get any better in culinary terms, ask Rick Stein.
We all sat around in complete satisfaction eating the superb food, and there is no other word for it, that was set in front of us. It would be tempting to think that the kitchen had put on a show for the film crew and “stars” but I doubt that was the case. This is just what they do.
Taking a step back now and with the benefit of hindsight, which is always 20 / 20 vision, I appreciate these couple of days more than I probably did at the time. To use a much over-worked phrase, “you cannot buy this” and it is true. A totally random meeting which could have ended there and then with me being politely told the bar was closed for filming instead turned into two magnificent days with some of the loveliest people. I said that things just seem to happen to me and they do, this is just one example and there are plenty more to come if you care to follow this particular little escapade of mine.
Off I went to my comfy bed again, having done nothing in terms of “normal” tourist activity but having experienced a whole lot of the country I was going to call home for the next three months and, unbeknownst to me then (another old word I love), a further six months of my life later on.
On a “blog-logistical level” I had considered breaking this post after the first day but I thought it all rather ran into a complete narrative so I hope it was not too excessive for you.
In the next post I will actually get into Colombo for a bit of conventional sight-seeing although in my way of operating it turns out to be a little unconventional. If you want to see what transpires you know what to do by now, stay tuned and spread the word.