It was only a few weeks ago, but it seemed like we were living in a different age. My local grocery store had ample stocks of toilet paper and hand sanitiser. There was a virus somewhere out there, but the world still functioned. It was okay to travel. As I buckled my seat belt on Qatar Airways flight QR16 to Doha, en-route to Colombo, I ran through the collective CoronaVirus wisdom on social media. Avoid the Chinese, South Koreans, Iranians, Italians and anyone who looks like they are about to sneeze. Wipe-down every surface with alcohol wipes. Wear a mask.
How do I navigate this? Who do I avoid? I’ve been a follower of Oscar Wilde’s advice that it is absurd to divide people into good or bad; they are either charming or tedious. His maxim has served me well and I see no reason to change – if I am going to catch the virus I’d rather get it as a result of a charming interaction. In no mood to change behaviour, I relaxed and went into my usual pre flight routine of teaching my stewardess to mix a proper martini (click here for my piece on Mile High Martinis)
I was en route to Sri Lanka to spend time with my mother and various friends and relatives. A few years back I realised that many of the people who are important to me are in the autumn of their lives. I now set time aside to spend time with them, not out of a sense of obligation, but because I want to. These are the people who showed me things that my eyes couldn’t see, who made me listen when I didn’t want to, who guided me towards becoming the person I could become. How could I not make new memories with them? To do so I need to spend time with them. Not just lunch or a dinner, but calendar time. Afternoons, days, weekends – when the conversation moves beyond updates on children, partners and jobs, and moves to the interstices, the cracks and crevices in our lives. Connecting properly means falling into the easy cadence of old friends catching up on everythings and nothings. I was looking forward to visiting my homeland.
Entering Sri Lanka in the age of CoronaVirus is a confusing melee of sweaty officials in masks barking muffled orders, lengthy forms asking after your health and a chap hawking SIM cards. Stern military types monitor your body temperature on a thermal imaging device. If you are running a fever you get hauled off to a quarantine facility set up in the local leprosy hospital – apparently they have plenty of recently vacated beds. I am not making this up!
Escaping the airport into the bliss of tropical warmth I made arrangements with my most glamorous cousin to take our 80 year old relatives to the beach. We were heading to Bentota, a popular tourist destination about an hour and a half from Colombo. We mapped out an interesting agenda with plenty of toilet breaks. We then had to convince the 80 year olds that we were not planning on mingling with infected Chinese and Italians; apparently there was gossip about us taking them into a CoronaVirus kill zone for inheritance purposes!
Bentota is gorgeous. There are golden beaches, great restaurants, ancient temples, artist’s follies, yoga classes, and a general sense of bonhomie. I fell in thrall to Black Pork Curry, a southern Sri Lankan speciality. Making it involves an armful of freshly ground spices, hours of preparation and slow cooking in clay pots. But the key to a good black pork curry is in the butchering of the meat – each chunk of pork must contain enough fat to create an unctuous overlay to the spices that burst in your mouth.
As I was leaving Sri Lanka the requests from London started coming in to source hand sanitiser. Unfortunately Sri Lankan panic buying had already emptied shelves of sanitiser. However there was no shortage of toilet paper. Sri Lankans clean their bottoms with soap and water, a hygienic and eco friendly alternative to paper. Don’t poo poo this, perhaps the world can learn something…
Something to try at home
I came came across this spicy version of a Gin & Tonic at Botanik, a Sri Lankan fusion restaurant in Colombo. They use Colombo Gin, but any spicy gin works (I like Ophir Oriental Spiced Gin as well as Tanqueray Rangpur). Mash the gin with fresh curry leaves and a de-seeded green chilli. Go very easy with the green chilli because it will overwhelm your drink. Try using a small slice of chilli instead of a whole one if you are concerned about spice levels. Strain the gin into a highball glass filled with ice. Add a dash of lemon juice and stir. Top with tonic. Garnish with a chilli. This is a fine way to blast away your Coronavirus blues!