The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

‘The staff insisted on staying to make tea’

When her group is hit by Covid, Sophia Money-Coutts has to extend her holiday in Sri Lanka. But, she discovers, there are worse places to isolate


Iwas so smug. Smug about escaping Plague Island (Britain) just after Christmas to head for tropical Sri Lanka. Six friends and I had rented a house surrounded by palm trees in the south, on the banks of Lake Koggala. Our bedrooms had outside showers, and grey monkeys thumped across our ceilings every morning. We had a chef.

We had staff who brought us king coconuts by the pool, the milky juice of which we would sip through a straw. At 6pm, they subbed the coconuts for gin and tonics, along with plates of garlic murukku – a fried snack made from rice flour.

Unfortunat­ely, we also had Covid. Not for the first few days. But two mornings after a New Year’s Eve party on the ramparts of nearby Galle Fort, one of our gang woke with a scratchy throat and took a lateral flow test. Positive. He texted a friend in another room, who texted her boyfriend (he was on the loo, it turned out), and so on and so on until all seven of us were alerted. An hour or so later, a Sri Lankan doctor in a hazmat suit and pointy suede loafers visited us for PCR tests, which revealed that everyone, bar me, was positive.

Seeing the pandemic through the eyes of another country is (even more) sobering. In foreign lands, there is often comfort in familiar symbols: a Coca Cola sign; a Nivea advert; the Toyota emblem. Look, they have them here, too! On this trip, it’s masks. Sri Lankans must wear them in public, all the time, or face a £30 fine. Not an insignific­ant sum for a country where the average annual salary is about £9,000.

Walking to the beach one morning (before our villa was struck down), I watched an old man in a sarong peddle barefoot on his bicycle, as unhurried as a snail, mask firmly on. As I strolled back over the Habaraduwa railway line, a masked mother marched her son to school, his impish eyes only just visible over a mask decorated with cartoon birds. Moped drivers wear them; tuktuk drivers wear them; a large woman selling mangoes from a wooden crate on the side of the road wears one. The fear is also high, one local person told me, because so many Sri Lankans live with their elderly relatives.

This was my fifth trip here and I have loved the island more each time, but there was a sad poignancy to this visit. It’s not just masks and the constant reminder of the pandemic. There is also a food crisis. Last April, the Sri Lankan government attempted to transform the country into the world’s first fully organic farming nation and banned all pesticides and chemical fertiliser­s. The result has been so disastrous (tumbling crop production; rocketing prices for vegetables, sugar and rice; an economic emergency declared in September) that a partial about-turn was announced in October. But it could be too late to feed the country’s 21 million mouths this year, and the government is now rapidly importing supplies: grain and medicines from India, cash from China and Japan, which has, in turn, worsened a huge debt problem. Last month, in a deal that sounds as if it could have been bartered by the East India Company, Iran agreed to accept Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka in lieu of $251million owed for oil.

At the same time, tourism collapsed because of Covid. After various lockdowns, Sri Lanka’s borders reopened to tourists only in November – and it still feels quiet. One evening I went to Galle to watch the sunset over the fort walls.

It’s a Unesco World Heritage site, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and usually heaving with tourists, locals walking with their children, Sri Lankan newlyweds in fancy clothes posing for official photos and hawkers flogging old coins and cotton baby outfits. But on this trip, several shops and houses were boarded up and there were few tourists wandering around. And all this after years of other disasters for the country – the civil war, the 2004 tsunami, the terrorist bombings on Easter Day 2019.

What Sri Lanka needs is for tourists to return. Why not? It’s a magical, unspoilt place. When I first came in 2004, the roads were so dismal that it took the best part of a day to reach the south coast. Now you can be down there, on vast sandy beaches, within a couple of hours. Or into the hills and tea plantation­s around Ella or Kandy. “The people make it so special but with the benefit of a landscape that has a little bit of everything,” said Mike Davies, cofounder of Teardrop Hotels, a group that has seven upmarket hotels across the island – “mountains, tea plantation­s, beaches, surf, ancient cities and monuments, rainforest­s and safari parks.”

It’s true, although I was lazy this holiday and stayed put in the south, relishing simply being back, occasional­ly venturing out for lunch or an exploratio­n of Galle. There is a very pretty spot near by called the Persian Kitchen, which had opened since my last visit in 2020. Run by an Iranian couple and overlookin­g a small cove where waves crash in beneath where you sit, it offers cold beers and kebabs for less than a tenner a head. As a result of the food crisis, prices have gone up but most places are still very good value – and you will eat a lot better than you do in certain London restaurant­s.

It’s true about the people, too; you wouldn’t know they had endured any troubles at all. “Welcome to my country,” sang my taxi driver on the way from Colombo airport. The next evening, in our villa, Vijith the chef carried out a bowl of crab curry from the kitchen and, beneath his mask, looked so anxious that we should enjoy it, I nearly welled up. A tuk-tuk driver gamely tried to engage me in discussion about Arsenal, which didn’t last very long, so we moved on to cricket and shook our heads about the Ashes.

When six of us tested positive for Covid, I ushered the staff away but they insisted on staying to make us great pots of Ayurvedic tea (spicy with pepper and ginger). There are worse places to isolate, I thought in my bedroom, while listening to a rutting monkey in a tree above me. You see? It’s very romantic here, too. Please go.

‘The people make it so special, with the benefit of a landscape that has a bit of everything’

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 ?? ?? Shine on: Galle Fort lighthouse ‘It’s a magical, unspoilt place’: MoneyCoutt­s has visited Sri Lanka many times
Shine on: Galle Fort lighthouse ‘It’s a magical, unspoilt place’: MoneyCoutt­s has visited Sri Lanka many times
 ?? ?? Hooked: fishermen on stilts at sunset in Galle
Hooked: fishermen on stilts at sunset in Galle

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