Somehow the tuk-tuk driver squeezed all our considerable luggage into his tiny vehicle. My big black monster jammed onto the shelf at the back and Kate’s slimmer red number on the right-hand end of the seat. Three feet remained for us, as we wedged in as tight as buns in a baking tin.
Tuk-tuks are incredible machines. Motorbikes with a passenger seat and canopy strapped onto the back. Nimbly they weave in and out of traffic, able to thread gaps no other three (or four) wheeled vehicle could manage. Not only do they convey tourists, but laundry, parcels, gas canisters and even building materials. They are versatile, multi-purpose and agile.
Following our night at a villa north of Galle, once more we whizzed back into the fort. Only this time in a tuk-tuk, lots more fun than a bus. We clattered through the main gate, then accelerated along the eastern rampart up towards the lighthouse.
After passing the mosque, we turned into Church Street. Here, we stopped outside Sega BnB where we’d booked to stay. Downstairs it was a shop selling artwork, postcards, carvings, and glitzy embroidered wallets. Upstairs somewhere was our room.
Immediately, the owner came out to meet us, the modest yet extremely welcoming Priyantha.
He took us up a flight of narrow stairs on one side of the shop, then across and up another set of stairs on the opposite side. Of course, my suitcase was a problem. Yet Priyantha manfully bore it up the first flight, and his son up the second.
Our accommodation was a pleasant light room with windows looking onto Flag Rock, the south coast, and the west. Beckoning us up another flight of stairs (this time with no suitcase) Priyantha showed us the piece de resistance – the rooftop terrace.
We could hardly believe our eyes. The floor wasn’t concrete, or tiled, but springy moist grass underfoot. Other plants and flowers grew at the side, while in the corner lay a water feature. And then there were the views: the finest views of the fort we’d seen so far. East we could see the mosque and lighthouse. South, Flag Rock. And in all directions except north, the wide blue ocean.
“You can bring a beer up here and watch the sunset.” Priyantha indicated a table and chairs at one side. “Or during the day, sit in the shade.” He gestured at an area of shade under the stair turret.
Once again, not only had we landed on our feet, but on warm friendly ground. Priyantha and his smiling wife were delightful, doing everything they could to make our stay enjoyable and treating us like part of their family.
Back in our room, we installed our stash of chocolate in the fridge, then tried out the wide four poster bed. A gentle knock at the door. It was Priyantha’s wife with two chilled mango lassis.
After two weeks of hotels, this was our first homestay. It made a welcome change from the armies of staff – receptionists, porters, waiters and room boys – we’d encountered so far on our travels. Here there were only Priyantha, his wife and son. Plus a grandfather who waved us in for breakfast the next morning in the family living room, where we sat at a small glass table surrounded by comfy sofas.
Later, Priyantha told us about the neighbourhood. People who helped, and those to look out for. Meanwhile Kate joked with his wife, gently rebuking her for getting her rain forecast wrong. Instead of deluging us at four pm as predicted, the bad weather veered north and soaked the place where Simon, from our tour, was spending a few days. Yet the following evening, the rain came our way. Thunder and lightning, blazing across the sky. Perhaps we’d skip beers on the roof terrace. Although it would have been an incredible sight.
One afternoon, I walked out of Galle Fort and into the modern town. Even as I reached the main gate, I became conscious the north fortress was not only an historic wall, yet remained a barrier. It separated the old from the new, make-believe from reality, tourism from the rest of the city. I didn’t need to show my passport or anything as I edged through the short tunnel, watching out for cars, yet as I emerged the other side it felt like I’d entered a different place. The green cricket ground ahead, dwarfed underneath huge black rain clouds. An even more furious menagerie of traffic – cars, buses, trucks, tuk-tuks and motorcycles circling the big roundabout. People too, mainly locals, standing in groups, leaning against vehicles, waiting to cross. And so many crows; this side of the wall they didn’t just caw, they pecked and squabbled over scraps of food.
Making my way around the side of the cricket ground, I reached the bus station where the pace went breakneck. Buses and tuk-tuks hooted at each other, fighting over road space. Pedestrians rushed and dodged and side-stepped. Poor people, worried people, mothers with children, and young men clutching phones.
There were shops too – far more than inside the fort – selling not souvenirs, but more mundane good such as furniture, TVs, clothes, food and wine. For a while, I wandered, on and off the pavement, along the side of the railway station, avoiding tuk-tuks and motorcycles yet excited by the bustle. This was the real Galle, I reminded myself, the living city, and not the colonial dreamworld I’d left behind. I felt like the hero of a dystopian movie – Ewan McGregor fleeing The Island or Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner escaping the village – so bewildered by what I saw. Then turning around, I slowly crept back the way I’d come. This might be the real Galle, but my place was back inside the fort, no longer the sanctuary of Dutch soldiers, but of tourists like me.