My driver was quite insistent ‘you have come on the best day of the year’. Best in his view because there’s almost no traffic on the notoriously congested, not to say dangerous, stretch from Colombo airport to the coast resorts and what can take three and a half hours on a normal day is accomplished in just over 90 minutes of mild swerving and horn obbligato. We only almost get killed once. As he says, a good day.
Sri Lankans are big on ‘auspicious’ - apparently it’s Buddhist new year, which is why so much death is being kept off the Sri Lankan roads as most families take a day’s downtime of fasting and rest before a ceremony – at precisely 3.18pm to greet the new year with a meal of sweets which are taken facing North, your first taste of the new year should be something sweet as an augur of good things to come.
Our hotel has replicated the ceremony with what at first seems the ritual attendance of dumpy Germans at the Ceremony of the Removal of the Sacred Cling Film but when the hotel’s lady owner explains the rest of the significance, and invites us to swap a worthless coin for 20 rupees wrapped in a leaf and a small gift – mine’s a lovely handmade notebook with a cover featuring the image of a rather dark and moody elephant, how appropriate - the sense of generosity and inclusion is really rather sweet.
Later in the day I spot her own nephews and nieces come to make the same offering to her and her husband but their obeisance includes the youngsters kneeling to bow and kiss the avuncular feet, something they perhaps thought the Germans weren’t sufficiently telescopic to attempt.
It’s been a long day, preceded by a long night. I left home at 6.30 in the morning to fly on BA to Muscat via Abu Dhabi, itself relatively uneventful since it’s a journey I’ve done before, but then to change on to Oman Air for the ride down to Colombo, a sector I decided to endure in economy on the grounds that it’s only three and a bit hours, for £124 it was a bargain and they had spanking new A330 aircraft with generous 34” legroom, a four course meal (with four choices of mains) that was actually nicer than the bark and grit-filled tikka masala in BA Club World, free drink, hot towels, crew that weren’t bored or argumentative, and the most impressive array of movies and entertainment on a personal seat-back TV screen that was also possibly about the same size as my new laptop.
Of course the downside was that the cabin was mostly filled with migrant workers going home to Sri Lanka and the Maldives and not many of whose armpits had recently been on nodding acquaintance with a wash-cloth. Lest you think mine were two of them, I had a shower at Muscat in the oddest ‘executive lounge’ where the ‘napping cabins’, private cubicles with a relaxation couch in sticky vinyl one happy ending shy of a gay sauna, and a billowing voile ceiling were immediately adjacent to the also roofless and even at midnight rowdily noisy children’s play area. This seems a foolhardy juxtaposition when the airport shops also sell curved Arabic scimitars.
So thanks to the uncharacteristically empty roads, I arrive for breakfast but as my body clock thinks it’s 2.30 in the morning and after four airline meals it’s all I can do to eat a couple of pieces of fruit – I just want my bed. My delight that the room’s available at this early hour is punctured by the fact that, because of the festive occasion, the staff will be taking off early so my medical consultation and first treatments have to be done right away.
Dr Indaka is nice, early thirties and speaking perfect English he’s like an eager batsman in the cricket nets – every time I tell him a symptom he goes ‘anything else, give me another one’ but I run out of topics of medical concern and my over is soon, er, over. But he’s really assiduous and discusses the massages, herbal decoctions and treatments that can help lower my blood sugar, combat stress or increase my haemoglobin – something I didn’t actually tell him was an item of recent concern at my GP’s. I’m too tired and weak to resist when he asks ‘would you like acupuncture’ and actually alarmed when it turns out to be the first of my scheduled treatments and conducted in a slightly communal hall where we’re laid on adjacent slabs as in a mortuary.
The very pretty acupuncturist beguiles me with her turn of phrase, ‘I can needle you softly’ ... oh my dear, if I gave you a list of the people who’d done that over the years, we’d be here till Christmas. Apart from one in a little finger which I moved after it was inserted, it doesn’t actually hurt but I lie there wondering why I have quite so many pins in, or rather through my ears (diamonds if you’re thinking of buying) and in my stomach.
The ones in the ears are strange, I can sense ‘things’ rushing towards the locations of the needles, and my neurological pathways seem as busy at the roads were empty. I’m tense though and glad when she comes to take them out.
And so to massage, where I’m led by the (male) masseur, a man of about forty with only a casual handful of teeth but as we start with head massage it’s obvious that he knows what he’s doing and that this really is a therapeutic rather than a cosmetic exercise. For the four-handed full body massage, he’s joined by a mumsy co-worker but her hands aren’t as strong as his and I’m going to need them to swap sides if it’s the same team tomorrow to even out the pressure. I’ve no idea how long it lasted because I was asleep, waking only for an episode when they dab at your loins with hot poultices which smelt and felt like mushroom bhajis but turn out to be cloth pads filled with boiled herbs. It’s all quite culinary though, because the copious oil smells of cumin and turmeric and when I eventually get a chance to rinse out my underpants they’re bright yellow.
After that, it’s a bit of a blur – outside in a garden with running water and shady trees, someone applies poultices, hot or cold, to various joints and fatty areas, and gives me a facial with cucumber slices over my eyes before wrapping me in a gauze cloth. I’m fairly sure I’m now gigot of something on the restaurant menu but sleep claims me again. In the final phase, I have to shower whilst rubbing herbal paste into my loins before lying in a bath whilst a woman rinses me with what Lancastrians will recognise as a ‘lading can’ a lipless cylindrical metal jug holding about a litre of warm hibiscus water swished again and again and again down the lines of your haunches, flanks and rump. The last person to wash me like that was my granny, in her kitchen sink.
I’m done in, and sleep through lunch waking only just in time to collect my medicaments from the doc. Most of the liquids look like syrup of figs, or soy sauce in clear bottles, and the pills and powders come in twists of paper marked urgently with the time to be taken. I have eleven things to be taken with warm water at various times from 6am to 9pm, most swallowed in a single disgusted chug but there’s one of powdered shale that just won’t go down without rinsing the cup out with warm water again and again.
I think it’s lurking on the night table for my 8am feed too.