Bath time: wild ­elephants roam ­southern Sri Lanka

    Bath time: wild ­elephants roam ­southern Sri Lanka

    Paralysed in paradise — or how I didn’t see Sri Lanka

    23 March 2017

    Heartsick, mashed up, exhausted and alone, I was in no fit state for a romantic break to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I sat in the departure lounge, business class, alone, writing to him, expecting the plane to fall out of the sky. (He says: ‘Give it a name and it won’t go down.’)

    When I spilled my tea over the floor, waitresses dressed as Emirates hostesses, with pretty box hats and veils, cordoned off the spillage as if it were an accident scene. On the plane, I switched to proper drinks, and drank so much I forgot to sleep (having too nice a time with the never-ending champagne, forgetting we were in the air), only to land and have to stagger off to find another plane. I decided to call this one Zinedine Zidane.

    As the sun rose we finally touched down in the gleaming, empty airport of Mattala. (His advice proved sound — I pass it on now.) And I watched the carousel go round and round, with no suitcase of mine, found myself unable to describe exactly what it looked like (-plastic, patterned, pink) to a beautiful lady in a sari, had to leave without it, then felt sick in the back seat of a car, racing down a six-lane motorway built by the Chinese for invisible cars, to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. Hambantota.

    The Shangri La hotel chain has built its reputation on knowing exactly how to look after its customers, and I was booked for the full VIP experience. So the welcome team squinted at me for half a second before curing all my ills. They sat me down and handed me some juice. Then they promised to track down my things and have them with me by morning. They escorted me to the gift shop and let me pick out a sexy swimsuit and summer dress — for free. Then they showed me to a pristine suite with an ocean view to get on with my hangover. And when I woke, half-new, I found that one member of staff had volunteered to act as my dashing Sinhalese boyfriend for the duration.

    Ashan Ranansinghe (an auspicious name for future planes) met me for a slap-up meal at the first of three excellent restaurants and complimented me for heaping all the Sri Lankan curry on my plate. God it tasted good. He told me my hair looked fine when it was standing on end in its all-time worst tantrum. He asked me about books and said he read Dostoevsky; suggested excursions we might enjoy for the next five days. Showed me all three swimming pools and left me to have a think about it.

    Dive in: one of the ­Hambantota resort’s three pristine pools

    And I decided, yes, as a woman apparently sane, I’d like to get up before sunrise, and have him drive me to see leopards (or maybe not leopards; leopards are hard to predict) but certainly elephants and buffalo and deer. And yes I would like to walk to the temple at sunset and listen to the Buddhist prayers on the breeze. And yes I’d like to scale a rock and have my photo taken with the ocean. And yes I’d like to pose in a tuk-tuk and go for a ride. But in the meantime, I sat on a sun lounger under an umbrella and burned my shoulders swimming.

    Later on, in a rigged game of pitch and putt, I beat the specialist French golf instructor, who also sped me around in a golf buggy to show off a course of exquisitely sculpted, very green grass where 10,000 coconut trees were felled and elephants no longer roam.

    There is a war going on between Hambantota and its wildlife. When I got home, bucked up and started acting like a journalist rather than a girl who sat on a sun lounger and stared at her thighs all afternoon, I began to think south Sri Lanka odd. The empty airport, which cost $209 million, services one flight a day, with a footfall of ten to 20 passengers. The empty motorway spreads out to a deep-sea port and an international cricket stadium, also empty. All three, it turns out, are named after Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who wanted to transform the place he came from into Sri Lanka’s second city. The airport alone, the Sri Lankan press reports, is ‘a largely redundant vanity project’. Its terminals have been used to store rice and its runways for parking unused jets. Last year, a plane engine was destroyed because a peacock flew into it, and the government deployed 350 troops armed with firecrackers to clear 150 deer and 50 wild buffalo trapped when an electric fence was set up to stop other animals running riot. Deprived of their jungle, elephants now trample over human settlements.

    But what is bad for locals is undeniably great for tourists. If you’re searching for peace and quiet — go. Go now. I should have left the hotel, walked down the winding drive, and found out about the situation first hand. But I didn’t, because living a life of luxury paralyses the imagination and the will. I needed Shangri La to chaperone me and they did a first-class job.

    The best day was when Ashan and I got up before dawn to visit the nature reserve at Yala and see a wild elephant taking a bath. It was damned hot in Yala (in Hambantota there’s a dry wind that blows so fast that the resort feels cool when it ought to be sticky as hell) and the cavalcade of Jeeps stopped to let tourists walk on the sands. I sat in the meagre shade, eating special sandwiches under a rusty sculpture which was put up to commemorate the height of the waves that swept Chinese tourists away in the tsunami that hit in 2004. Ashan pointed to new huts that are being built, as the tourists venture back, and then to a rock which used to be covered in monkeys. The monkeys walked inland before disaster hit and never returned.

    On the drive back I had my only glimpse of the real Sri Lanka, where the streets are so bright and colourful, full of daredevils riding mopeds without helmets or shoes, where pots and pots of buffalo curd are sold outside homes. When we got back to the hotel, Ashan had booked me a spa treatment in case the Jeep ride had shaken me up. The masseuse wrapped me in a silk sheet and treated me like something precious.

    Later, Ashan treated me to a five-course meal designed for men flourishing engagement rings. It took him a long time to pop the question — ‘Would you like to try some buffalo curd?’ and naturally I said yes. (It tasted disgusting.) For months afterwards, he dutifully WhatsApp’d me until he got tired, as all men do in the end. I hope that he has moved on to a real girl, not one he’s paid to proxy-date, in steamy Colombo.

    On the last night I went out by myself, preparing to be alone again. I walked along the beach, where the waves crashed madly. To be unloved is not so bad when one’s naked toes are so passionately pursued by the Indian ocean.