On Christmas Eve, Mehesh collected us for our last drive together. After a couple of hours we arrived in Gampola, a vibrant bustling town and I realised I had been missing all the noise and activity – shop after shop open onto the street, everything on show, the beeping of tuk tuks, people chatting in doorways, colour and brightness, a sensory overload of sight and smell, although we are cocooned in the smooth, air-conditioned car, I rolled the window down to better take it in. It was something of a shock after the misty muted atmosphere of Nuwara Eliya where even the market alley seemed calm and quiet. We see all kinds of Buddhas: gold, white, serene, gaudy, sitting, standing. We even saw a Buddha at the centre of one of the two large military bases we passed – somewhat incongruous! Eventually we stopped for the ubiquitous rice and curry buffet. Behind me I could hear the conversation of two older white ladies and their driver. The Lion larger seemed to be liberating their tongues. In Received Pronunciation accents, one told the other about growing up in Africa and the pet snake she had that slept on her stomach. It was like being in a Joanna Lumley travel programme! The journey only became more surreal. Near Colombo we got on Sri Lanka’s only motorway, the Southern Expressway, a brand new toll-road which ends just south of Galle, cutting that journey from three hours to one. There was virtually no one on it. At most we saw three other vehicles. Tea and rubber plantations and the occasional temple sped past. The car seemed to be moving slowly and we were smothered in silence apart from the radio which played a bizarre mix of local music and western Christmas music and from time to time the tune of a Christmas classic with words in Singhalese. It was very hard to believe it was Christmas. Around 4pm we arrived at our penultimate destination. Finally we were to take the typical tourist route and spend a few days beach-side in a trendy and well-appointed boutique hotel. We had joked earlier in the trip that Mehesh knew everyone in Sri Lanka. He’d laughed this off – of course he didn’t. However on arrival at the Agua hotel, it transpired that the manager was an old friend and they went off for a chinwag while we checked in.

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