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Paul Topping

Paul Topping

Russian karaoke singer, a book launch, wine tasting and the tattooed man: The Whinging Pome at the Arugam Bay

Jezzabel and I set off at 8 AM from Colombo and expect a six-hour journey to get to Arugam Bay on the east coast of Sri Lanka but with non-stop driving. I know it won’t be six hours even though Jezzabel has packed enough egg sandwiches for a full day family bus trip. Our Muslim driver Neaz is not a “speedy Gonzales” but we must thank god it’s not a Friday with prayer stops. We get on the expressway, heading south till it finishes, then take a short dual carriageway, then a fast empty road to our destination, The scenery is changing from arid areas to a green lush landscape with lakes, lagoons, and stunning views. With these changes come the herds of goats, then buffaloes walking in the water, back to herds of thin white cattle that remind me of cows I’ve seen in parts of India. In the middle of nowhere, the road is so straight and the trees are planted at uniform spaces, creating a guard of honour for the passing traveller. It reminds me of France with plantain trees which were said to give assistance to Napoleon’s troops moving in difficult weather conditions. These trees today are thought to be responsible in some way for one in eight road accidents in France.

We are finally in the village of Pottuvil, taking sharp rights and lefts through shanty houses in a strong Muslim area, then to Jetwing Surf, which is ten minutes from the more famous Aragum Bay. You can’t surf in front of this hotel as it’s too rocky and rough, and I ask the manager “so where do I surf?” Looking me up and down with some doubt about my surfing profile he says “a few minutes away.”

Whenever anyone uses the phrase “a few minutes away”, I’m always sceptical. In India, this can mean an hour. 

“Is this running, walking or driving?“ I retort.

We don’t get to the recommended beach but in fact, some people rank this area as one of the best surfing locations in Asia during May to September, along with other locations of some fame such as Whiskey Point, Crocodile Rock and Elephant rock. 

This is a very modern beach hotel with a funky reception area, a collection of circular chalets, and an open dining area overlooking a curved pool and the sea. The chalets are large and extremely well designed with lots of space, a big bed and a chilled outdoor bathroom.

The criticism we had heard of the hotel prior was that there is no air conditioning. As I pass the back office of the reception I see a mobile aircon unit and it’s not long before it’s in our chalet, with three fixed fans on full blast. My princess, Jezzabel likes a room ice cold when she gets to bed. I generally have to extensively cover myself as its too cold for a white boy from Africa. It’s good that we are all different but our different requirements for bedroom temperature generally results in me having less sleep and constant phlegm. Too much detail you may say, but bedroom temperature disputes amongst couples are more common than you think.

It’s a long weekend in Arugam Bay and likely the last of the season. Those who are here are from Colombo to enjoy the beach and party, or others who have just forgotten to go home. Some belong in the “unwashed” category. The last time I was here was two weeks before the Tsunami in December 2004. I recall staying at the Stardust hotel and canoeing along the river. Sadly the hotel and the town were hit quite hard by the Tsunami, both losing lives. The town is now a thriving tourist location, though given it’s post-COVID, it’s hard to spot many foreign tourists. Those that are here have likely exceeded their visa period and have no desire to go back to their home countries, which are still being hit hard by the COVID phase two.

Jezzabel is off to the “Hideaway”, one of the few larger hotels in the town. She is meeting girlfriends and to listen to their local heart-throb. Actually, Jerome is a Sri Lankan Aussie as is my wife. I’m off to Siam View, an institution here in the town and well known across the island to all who have visited A-Bay, as some call it. Fred, the owner has been in Sri Lanka for over 35 years, gives me a warm greeting. I’ve known him for twenty years. Fred has had a colourful life with a Maltese/ German background but always comes over as a carefree Englishman, with ten or more kids, I’m not sure he knows the exact number. His Thai wife is a really lovely lady who always has a beaming smile and a friendly greeting. His property was hit by the tsunami but Fred bounced back into business very quickly. It is the go-to place, everyone meets there and there is never a dull moment with music, musicians, karaoke etc.

At Fred’s place, I encounter a rather opinionated and overweight Ex British navy chap who says he is a secret squirrel working for the British Government, tracking undesirable Sri Lankan’s who are trying to get into the UK illegally. Exiting from the conversation as quickly as I could without being extremely rude I meet up with some friends.

Amazingly I find a wine I’ve never seen before, a Malbec blended with Pinotage, a great wine for the price. When I get the bill for the wine there is some mix-up, and the barman/waiter seems to have over-charged me. He is so laid back, he is nearly horizontal, and a few sharp words follow. We will meet again tomorrow.

Night two and its the launch of my book on the east side of Sri Lanka, “The Whinging Pome – To The Point.” The venue is Fred’s place, Siam house. I check if all my wines are here where I left them the night before, in the fridge. They are all there and I explain to the barman how the night will flow and what his role will be. It is 7.30 PM and my guests are meant to all be here. I ask Fred for the list of attendees, and he gives me some 36 names. I ask how many have confirmed, and he tells me none, which he says is typical of the folk in A-Bay. At eight my first attendee arrives. She is a Russian karaoke singer in a short white dress who tells me she sings every night at the place. My second attendee, or so I thought, is a partially clothed white man who tells me his body is tatted from head to toe. Turns out he works part-time at Fred’s place. Its 8.30 PM and as Fred had promised a crowd has arrived. A bigger issue for me then became the fact that the barman had gone AWOL, turns out he didn’t like my comments from the night before had walked off the job. At 8.30 PM I’m sharing the podium with the Russian whose dress only just covers her boobs, the tatted man whom I think believes he is a rockstar, my book display and a set of drums.

It’s my first book launch/wine tasting where I’m pouring the wine, serving it, and talk at the same time.

The Whinging Pome’s Random Rule No 185: Learn how to multitask. Prove the ladies wrong, men can do it!

Despite the chaos, I sell about 15 books, 5 to the local MP’s son. Not sure if he was sober. If he was then no doubt he would want them for free. A bunch of airline pilots who have just had their employment contract cancelled are hitting the wine. We have now over fifteen nationalities at the event. In between all of this I need to get the next wine out.

The Russian lady in white is bashing out a Russian song. By ten-thirty the numbers have swelled to beyond sixty people. I’ve got a deaf, out of tempo chap on the drums and the Russian lady giving it her all whilst trying to keep everything in her dress. The night continues with more book signings and characters now believing they are at a full Karaoke event grabbing the mike, whilst random people think they are Ginger Baker, the drummer of the bands Cream, Blind Faith, Hawkwind and more.

This I think is a new book launch concept; Books, Ballards, Booze, Boobs.

The next day we have the opportunity to visit the Kumana National Park but I’m keener to enjoy the beach and visit a few temples than visiting a bird sanctuary. It’s also about thirty kilometres from the hotel and my beach is in front of me and my first temple which is dated at 2nd BC is 4 kilometres away. The location is on a very wide beach, and its history is linked to Princess Devi being washed up at the location and some monastery being built. This is the third location in Sri Lanka where this same story is set.

Wifey finds some friends who are staying close by in another hotel and they take a Jeep and head to the park. Jokingly on their return, I make a jibe about “how were the birds?”. I’m bombarded with how great their safari was. This included sightings of two different leopards, an elephant charging their Jeep, and lots of other non-bird species.

So it’s another day, another road, and we are heading to Batticaloa. I don’t think this town is ready for The Whinging Pome but actually, after the Arugam Bay experience, anything and everything is possible.

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