I hate early morning flights. I usually sleep through the alarm and miss them. A few years back I discovered that the best way to avoid oversleeping in a foreign city and missing your flight home, was to stay up all night. I can usually find a band of merry men and women to party with me until daybreak. At which point I have time to shower, collect my luggage, and make a beeline to the airport. I sleep on the flight.
A nocturnal tour opens vistas that remain hidden to the casual visitor. Bars and restaurants that stay open all night follow a different set of rules (usually none) than their early sleeping brethren. Civilisation drops its mask for a few hours and you taste the sweet dark secrets of a dangerous and beautiful place at once familiar and strange.
On my last evening in Colombo I finished dinner with mum and ventured out on an all night sojourn. My flight back to London left at some ungodly hour in the morning.
The band played “Delilah” in an oom-pa style. “Ooom pa pa, Ooom pa pa, Whaaai, Whaaai, whaaaaaai, Delilah!” Seventies covers played by a band who weren’t born when the songs made the “hit parade” are an essential part of any Sri Lankan evening. We were at one of Colombo’s reliable hot spots, the bang on trend Curve Bar. Serving tapas and cocktails it is part of a newly renovated strip of former stables and warehouses on Park Street Mews. There are restaurants, bars, an outdoor cafe space – and nary a hint of horse shit.
The Curve Bar serves a predictable tapas menu (fried calamari, flash fried prawns, mushroom toast) and a cocktail menu that’s perhaps more aspirational than the skills of the bartender would allow. They mix a decent gin martini – using an excellent local spiced gin from Mendis Distillers with a squeeze of fresh lime adding an interesting piquancy.
As the evening progressed and temperatures cooled, the crowd swelled. Everybody who’s anybody shows up. Politicians stop by for a nightcap following a hard day of making promises they can’t keep. Pretty young tourists gasp that the drinks cost as much as in London/New York/Hong Kong. Perennial night owls prop up the bar, attempting to buy drinks for pretty young tourists.
This is a friendly place. My all female all night vigil group attracts a random group of men who appear weirdly interested in staying up all night with us. We move on.
For the obligatory 3am morning snack we stop off at Pilawoos – a late night haunt so beloved of drunks that the government once nationalised it when it was in danger of going bust. Back then the government nationalised so many failing businesses that eventually it too went bust.
Pilawoos is famed for its Kuttu Roti – a chopped up pancake mixed with the previous day’s left overs. As a result it tastes different every day. Pilawoos is old school about food hygiene. The middle classes, who might ask inconvenient questions about food preparation, are banned from dining inside. Instead the food is brought to their cars parked haphazardly along the Galle Road. The waiters rush around waiting on cars, delivering food, drink, and mother nature. The police used to schedule a well publicised raid on this place once a month. The waiters would take turns serving the obligatory four week jail sentence for whatever it was they were caught doing. Crime doesn’t pay.
On my meandering way to the airport we spied a rambutan seller. Why he was selling rambutans at 4:00 am was a mystery. He wasn’t sober. Neither were we. My “day” was ending. His was starting. We did buy some rambutans. They were delicious; the impossibly juicy kind that leave you with the sweet nectar dribbling down your chin.
Who are these denizens of the night? What do they get up to beyond selling dodgy dinners and rambutans? Perhaps there’s enough material here for a PhD dissertation. Or a police raid.
I made my flight on time.