Despite being heavily tailored to meet various tourist needs, Sri Lanka has managed to retain its traditions and prettiness
Not bad at all, I think to myself as I suck the juicy brains out of an especially succulent tiger prawn. As some habitual readers of my more serious writings know, I have a thing for zombie flicks in which deranged ‘foodies’ eat each other’s brains. So whenever I encounter brain dishes on a menu, I’ve got to try them. A prawn’s brain matter is the tastiest part of the crustacean — pulpy like ripe avocado, in this case combined with a hint of garlicky oiliness. It’s so fresh and delicate that I can easily understand why zombies are on a full-brain diet.
These are the kind of strange thoughts that pass through one’s mind while one is doing nothing on a heavenly beach: Will eating brains make me brainier? Or will I get the intellect of a prawn? I sit on a restaurant terrace overlooking the Unawatuna beach, a few kilometres off the road that runs from Galle, one of the cutest cities in Sri Lanka, towards Matara. About as far south as it is possible to get on the island, and only 600 km north of the Equator, this closest beach to the sun forms a sweeping half circle around the blue waters and is considered, thanks to the reef that protects it from tall waves, one of the best in Sri Lanka. Somebody told me it is ranked among ‘the 12 best in the world’ while another source claims that Discovery Channel named it #1, and generally all websites put it in the top 100s, though I wonder how you’d measure something like that without visiting every beach on the planet.
But it is prettily pretty and the seafood is tastily tasty, and I spend a lazy afternoon watching backpackers swing over the frothy waves from a rope tied to a tall coconut tree. I’ve always felt that Sri Lanka is something of a gift-wrapped, pocket-sized paradise for tourists. Despite all the war and conflict, despite the tsunami in 2004 that wrecked beaches and hotels, it keeps bouncing back and offering us travellers its most welcoming smile.
Over the years I’ve found myself here quite a number of times, once barely escaping a terrorist attack at the Colombo airport — transferring planes just hours before all hell broke loose — and each visit makes me marvel and want to return asap. I’m taking a break in Unawatuna after a heavy sightseeing schedule that included the Cultural Triangle (which will be the subject of a future column), 10-course culinary feasts at rock-bottom rates in roadside eateries, handmade eco-friendly non-toxic Papier d’Elephant paper made of elephant poop sold in the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage souvenir shop, and meeting the local septuagenarian Samuel Perera who acted in the seven-Oscar-winning David Lean movie from 1957 — The Bridge on the River Kwai — as ‘Jungle Boy’ which made him into a village star at the age of nine. Although the film was supposedly set somewhere in Burma, it was actually filmed on Sri Lanka at the River Kelani.
What more can I wish for? My prawn-brain powered philosophising is interrupted by a man who holds up three boxes of Marlboro: red, white and green. ‘Cigarettes?’
“I’ve quit,” I say, cockily, proud of my clean habits.
“How about grass? 2,000 rupees for 10g.”
I shake my head but smile sociably, always trying to be friendly with the locals.
“I’ll give you for 1,800 because you’re my first customer today. Not okay price? Okay, how much you pay, friend?”
I feel a little sorry for him. He looks like an overage ‘beach boy’, the sort of male sex workers that Sri Lanka’s beaches have been notorious for. I’m debating whether to help him out by buying something, but then it strikes me that he is probably also a police informant and within minutes I’ll be in jail. So instead I suck another brain and say in my most authoritative voice, “I’m a cop.”
“But friend, aren’t you here on holiday?”
I want to offer the drug dealer some guidance, so I flash my writers’ union ID too quickly for him to see that it isn’t an Interpol badge and say, “I can have you arrested. Go stand over there with your hands against the wall, spread your legs…”
“Ah, you like toy boy?” he grins toothlessly.
I give up, pay the restaurant bill and decide it is time to move on. Even some of the sunniest beaches have their darker sides and wherever tourists go, there will be an underground industry providing unhealthy recreational options to those who are lured into the trap. For me, after this encounter, Unawatuna gets a bit too much, but the coastline is of course dotted with resort towns crammed with boutique spas and I stop en route at Hikkaduwa, Bentota and Kalutara beaches, before hitting Colombo again.