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My Sri Lanka Diary 1995

When I was thirteen I went on a ‘Splendours of Ceylon’ package tour with my dad. It was 1995; a time when lively tour reps would rally guests on Nile cruises to dress up in clothes bought at the market and ‘walk like an Egyptian’. For an early teen whose world-view had been influenced by a combination of Woodcraft Folk, Judy Blume’s Forever and Round The Twist, this kind of holiday provided a real learning experience.

I had the luxury of going a bit further afield than friends with bigger families could afford because I was an only child. The idea of a kid-centred holiday was anathema to my dad however; who would always choose destinations for their cultural importance. A fortnight away would be filled with as many excursions as possible, meaning my legs never tanned and dad’s back would at some point give out.

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In spite of the grown-up company I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with Dad. I didn’t see him lots during the week because he worked a long commute and it made a change from being with Mum, who had MS so couldn’t travel comfortably. I missed Mum, but I enjoyed impressing her with my tall tales on our return, when she would read all about our escapades in my holiday diaries.

I found the diary I kept of our Sri Lanka trip the other day. The first few pages are water damaged from the time my bedroom caught fire when I was fifteen. I assume the fire swallowed up my records of our other jaunts: the Eurocamp holiday to France, the Nile cruise, Bodrum, Rome and Sorrento; the details about my splitting from the group to run after the red-haired lad… that freaked Dad out. You see the trouble with travelling with tweens is their raging hormones. Each year, it would get harder for poor Dad to understand what I was growing in to. It started with the ‘Amalfi Coast pursuit’ and ended on a trip to New York when I was fourteen, the last holiday we took together. We had an argument that culminated in my throwing a travel guide at him.

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Our penultimate expedition, to Sri Lanka, is embedded in my memory for two reasons. One: I had my period, my second one ever, and the cause of much anxiety when swimming. And two: the ants’ nest, an incident that touched me so deeply it still makes me clench. It happened on day fourteen, when our minibus stopped at a batik factory just outside of Colombo. I rushed urgently to the loo, not noticing in the darkness a swarm of ants covering the room. As I wrote at the time: ‘I’m surprised I didn’t hover above the floor… I swear they were half a centimetre long and in my espadrilles.’

It must have been traumatic, because even the knowledge that Mum would read my diary didn’t prevent me from calling the ants ‘bastards’ and ‘buggers’. Not to mention the drama of my sign off: ‘I never felt completely comfortable after that incident’.

The minibus tour comprised six guests, Dad and me, a sixty-year-old couple and a mother and daughter. My only peer, Hannah, I wrote ‘never smiles and hardly eats’: an observation that I imagine stemmed purely from my own obsession with food. I was probably frustrated not to be able to share with Hannah my interest in dinner, as each of my diary entries is pretty much just a polite lead up to an examination of the day’s meals.

I detail each meal with dutiful regularity and high expectation: ‘Dinner was ok but breakfast was fowl (sic)’… ‘I had fresh king coconut milk out of the fruit with a straw. It was quite refreshing’. My mixture of extreme brevity and certainty makes me laugh now, as does my preference for lists, as I realise I was a food blogger in the making even then. ‘Supper was alright. The calypso music is shit but it usually is. Spam and melon cocktail, vegetable soup, tuna steaks in tomato sauce with veg. Fresh fruit (including passion fruit).’

Other foodie highlights included a trip to a spice garden that I recall with less than my usual cynicism, ‘the spices smelt, looked and tasted lovely. We saw the spices and fruits growing including cocoa, coffee and pineapples.’ We also visited a prawn farm (‘smelly but interesting’) and a tea factory that was subject to some of my more biting criticism: ‘it’s amazing that the Health and Safety Inspector hasn’t closed them down – ants and all.’

Aside from the ants, a particular problem for me on this holiday was my body-consciousness. My trip to the elephant baths was marred by an invitation to have a shower on an elephant’s back, ‘They asked me to do this and take my top off so I firmly said “no”’. It seems a ‘flirty’ hotel waiter with sideburns, who was making my most important time of the day unpleasantly awkward, also troubled me. I wrote to him ‘BUGGER OFF!’ from the privacy of my hotel room… ‘I don’t need a drink to stop me being afraid of the magic tricks’.

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But in spite of the unwanted attention I had much to enjoy, most of all in the way of turtles (‘I am now mad on turtles’) and prawns. I loved the Pri-Kin restaurant in Negombo. ‘The cook was from Beijing and very good too. I had sweet and sour prawns with pineapple and rice… The prawns were large and lumpcious (sic).’ I had the chance to sample crustaceans I would never have at home: lobster and chips, shrimp with avocado mousse, Sri Lankan prawn curry… Again, I was impressed with the size of the prawns.

Reading it as an adult, I get a real sense of conflicting emotions from this diary. Of course there is the standard, teenage, Day 8: ‘DAD IS A BASTARD’ Day 9: ‘Dad isn’t a bastard really’ thing, but I think this trip genuinely opened my eyes to the inequality of the world. After a boat tour on the lagoon – where I still recall scenes of bloodied water caused by tuna fishing – I note in my diary how uncomfortable I feel as a young, middle class homebody from the south of England. ‘I feel a bit sad…’ I wrote. ‘It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been to before. The people are so much poorer. I feel like such a tourist and I don’t like that.’

After two weeks, and with much to digest, I seem pleased to be heading home. So must have been Dad, who was by that time in agony with his back. Of my own health on day 15 I note positively: ‘I’ve survived this holiday with no problems apart from a few episodes of the runs. That’s really good.’

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About Chloe King

I'm a freelance writer, designer and webby type. I live with my husband and daughter in the south of England. I like to cook and can throw a good party.

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