Once again it was time to move on, ten kilometres south-east of Galle to the seaside resort of Unawatuna. The hotel receptionist conjured up a tuk-tuk, but unfortunately – for us anyway – the driver had installed a massive sound system in the back. No room for my case. So a second tuk-tuk was summoned, this one driven by a calmer, less beat-browed man who did have space for both our bags and us.
Everything onboard, he accelerated down Lighthouse Lane and out through the main gate. Immediately we were engulfed in traffic, a red bus ahead of us, motorcycles and other tuk-tuks either side, and a truck behind. Not that I could see the truck with my case in the way, but I could hear it. Its big engine rumbled only a few inches from my ears,then its horn hooted almost inside my head. Pray the truck driver was alert and had good brakes.
It was a hair-raising journey along the main highway to Unawatuna, undertaking buses and overtaking motorcycles and bicycles. Everyone looking for a gap, seemingly in a hurry, yet not impatient but practical. This is how they drove here. Lots of swerving and tooting, but only to say “watch out, I’m coming through” and not as road rage. Quite a change from the rural byways of New Zealand, where there are less than four and a half million drivers and traffic is sparser.
We didn’t so much arrive at Unawatuna as gradually become absorbed. There was no break in the houses and shops. The outskirts of Galle were the outskirts of Unawatuna too, with nothing in between.
Our driver pulled off the road a couple of times to ask directions from other tuk-tuk drivers. Then he cut left up a narrow lane, and suddenly we found ourselves outside a black metal gate.
We’d arrived at our new hotel, Aurora. Yet with no one around and the gate locked, we began to wonder if any accommodation existed. Kate rang the bell, while I helped the driver unload our bags. The fare had abruptly increased to seven hundred rupees, the driver explaining something about a traffic diversion neither Kate nor I had witnessed. I paid him anyway. An extra hundred rupees was about eighty cents, or six minutes parking in Wellington CBD.
The black gate opened, and a man in a burgundy tunic came out to help us. He took our cases to our room, gave me a registration form to fill in, and then presented us each with a glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice.
Our room was the ground floor, set among palms and flowers, with a novel open-air bathroom at the back. While Kate slept (it was hot and already one thirty in the afternoon) I ventured out through the black gate again to explore.
The first thing I learnt was that the wine shop at the bottom of our narrow lane was shut. I heard a tourist asking someone and receiving the reply “all shops closed, all over Sri Lanka.” Not a surprise though. It was Christmas Day, and in a predominantly Buddhist country, a national holiday.
The next challenge was crossing the very busy highway to reach the beach. Buses and trucks whizzed from the left, and a string of never ending tuk-tuks came from the right. Never did the gaps in each ever coincide. Eventually, taking my life in my hands, I managed to dash across – only to discover that the beach, a long crescent of orange sand, was even busier.
Tens of buses and probably a hundred tuk-tuks were parked at one end. In the water below, people were singing, jumping and splashing each other. It was a hot day and a holiday. Where else did anyone go than to the beach?
Further on it was a little less crowded. Here were dive boats, placards for sea trips, and the verandas of beach hotels. After walking for five minutes, I found a free spot and went for a swim. The sea was wet, warm and refreshing.
We didn’t bother with lunch, but after dusk went out in search of a restaurant. The sky darkened alarmingly as if there might be a storm. We found a hotel on the beach, where I was pleased I could order a beer, although disappointed about the limited a la carte menu. There were pizzas and one or two curries and that was all. No seafood Christmas dinner, then. Perhaps the fishermen didn’t go out on Christmas Day.
The pizzas were mediocre but the storm was magnificent. Streaks of lightning flashed across the sky and rain plummeted in the most furious downpour we’d experienced so far. Water ricocheted onto our plates, and the waiter had to lower the blinds. On and on went the deluge, too wet to walk home, even two hundred yards, so we ordered another tuk-tuk.
A truly biblical end to Christmas Day. No shepherds watching their flocks, but the Flood.