That summer: South London turned into Sri Lanka...
In our series recalling memorable journeys, Fi Glover describes the surprising aftermath of a party in Clapham: a cricket match on a remote beach somewhere near Colombo
Saturday 27 June 1998
Not me, though.
"Friend of Max's ... friend of Max's?" asked the polite young man who came towards me as I crouched over my map of Sri Lanka. He could see that this was no ordinary, or sensible, map. It was, in fact, a photocopy on the back of a party invitation. As most maps should be. I had arrived in the still heat of Colombo equipped only with the following address: Max, Marrissa Beach, Sri Lanka.
And it really was written on the back of a party invitation. I can't remember now what the party itself was like, but since it was held eight years ago I should think it entailed cheap wine, expensive king-size Rizlas, ludicrously strong cocktails and rather weak men. Its glamour lay in the fact that Max (the host) was going off to Harvard to do something with his big brain for a year and, between leaving Clapham and arriving in Boston, he was going to Sri Lanka for the summer. He wanted all his friends to join him. So the invitations had that photocopy on the back, with a little dot showing where Marrissa Beach was. And it just said "come over". I did.
So there's this lovely Sinhalese man at the airport and among all the clamour he's asking me whether I'm a friend of Max. So, of course, I say: "Yes - why, do you know him too?" He says that he's in charge of some of the taxis, and that Max asked him to look out for pale young English people arriving on flights from London and point them in the right direction - south-west-ish. Fleeting thought: murderous, sweet-smiling serial killer, who says this to all the girls. But my mouth forms the reply: "Lovely, yup. He's in Marrissa, isn't he? Can I get a cab there? Super, marvellous. Yes, thank you very much, how kind."
The cab driver is equally lovely, and so we set off in a car that pays homage to a gearbox but doesn't appear to have one. If you take a cab out of Colombo and head south you soon lose the city, and the road follows the coast running between the white sands and the train line. Sometimes you go faster than the train; often you don't. It depends whether you're approaching a chicane of buffalo.
Five hours later we arrive in Marrissa. Now, I had thought on the way down that it might be a problem finding one tall, funny British bloke in what sounded like one of Sri Lanka's finest beach resorts. I was wrong. Marrissa Beach is just a beach, and back then Damarka's house and beach huts were the only accommodation available to optimistic Londoners. So we simply drove up to the gate, asked for Damarka, said hello, and at the mere mention of the name Max, realised that we had come to the right place. The taxi driver came in for dinner, and I walked out on to the beach to find that the party from Clapham had been pretty much transported in its entirety to a perfectly-formed hut, surrounded by palms, with the sun dipping down over a low sea. So it was slightly better than Clapham, really.
Damarka turned out to be a star. He was a tiny Sinhalese with almost ebony skin and the cheekiest grin, and dancing eyes that were kept constantly amused by the stream of white faces arriving at his gate. The bloke back at the airport must have been busy.
We had a rather magical time at Marrissa Beach. Damarka built us another hut when the numbers swelled and he organised a cricket match when we hit 12. We went down to the city of Galle to get a trophy made, and we played the local team on their pitch next door to Damarka's place. Guess what - we didn't get to keep the trophy. We girls were useless and kept trying to field in the shade, and we had to take a long tea break to get the water buffalo off the boundaries. The residents of Marrissa laughed a lot.
Max and the rest of the British cricket tour spent the whole of their summer there, but I had to return to my job filing bits of newspapers in a dungeon at the BBC. I wished I could have stayed longer. The only bad thing about the experience was that it made me keen to go to parties in Clapham. But maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe every Clapham cloud should have a Sri Lankan lining.
Since British Airways abandoned its London-Colombo route for the second time, the only airline flying direct between the UK and Sri Lankan capitals is Air Lanka (0171-930 4688), which has five flights each way every week. The best ones are on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, because these are non- stop. Lowest return fares are available through discount agents; expect to pay around pounds 550 for a direct Air Lanka flight, about pounds 100 less for a connecting flight on Emirates via Dubai or Kuwait Airways via Kuwait. Package holidays are widely available through agents such as Inspirations (01293 822244) and Somak (0181-903 8526).
Red tape: British visitors to Sri Lanka do not require visas for short visits.
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