The Many Faces of Galle

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By 2017-03-19

By Jeffrey Bickerton

I remember as a kid, goofing off school one afternoon and going to the cinema to see the intriguingly titled, "The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao". I was sitting in my seat pushing popcorn and other muck into my face and thinking that, this was much better than slogging my way through logarithms and other rotten mathematical headaches, when the lights went down and we were off. It turned out that Dr. Lao did indeed have seven faces, and he used all of them in various scenarios to terrify, threaten and ultimately enlighten the hitherto miserable inhabitants of a small Arizona town, the name of which has slipped my mind; his motto was "You can't do that, there here".

And such was the impact that the good doctor had, the townsfolk cleaned up their act and became model citizens. A moral lesson well taught and learned, I always say. The film left an indelible print on me and I have strived to emulate the old boy ever since by always doing my bit, as it were. Of course I don't have seven faces, though goodness knows I could do with one of them, the old map having seen better days, but the point I'm trying to make is that the film had got me thinking, if Dr. Lao were to ride into Galle today, I wonder what he would make of the place and how many of his faces would he perhaps need?

To me, the fort, the town centre and the beach resorts like Unawatuna epitomize Galle. When I first visited, I stayed at a hotel in the fort, and very swish it was too! Four poster bed, boutique style furniture, en-suite and a/c. All for a price, though! The manageress was Sri Lankan and it was easy to see that although charming, friendly, and efficient, she had that air of not standing any nonsense. My first night there, I slept badly due to the fact that the people in the room above were making an infernal din and banging their feet on the wooden floorboards.

Typical tourists! I moaned. Enduring this outrage on my tranquility for about an hour, I rendered their mischief null and void by rather cleverly remembering and inserting the earplugs I had recently bought, thus blotting them out of my life once and for all.

The next morning I spotted the manageress emerging from her nest abaft the reception area. I was full of dudgeon and resolved to apprise her of my suffering. I oozed across to her and spoke, "Good morning"...."Morning", she replied cheerily, "Everything alright with your room? Oh, good!". And before I could reply, she had sauntered off, smiling away as though Joy reigned supreme and leaving a gap in the atmosphere about a mile wide. I stared after her with a combination of frustration and envy. Frustration because I had failed to register my complaint, and envy at the effortless manner of her dismissal of me. Sybil Fawlty couldn't have done it better! I mused awhile. Dr. Lao would surely have had a face for her!

Exploring the fort was delightful. There were the usual attractions that any tourist demands, ranging from arts & crafts shops to splendid restaurants and coffee shops, not to mention the views from the ramparts. Wandering into the shops, we were confronted by numerous fabrics and trinkets, all very desirable, though rather pricey for what they were, I thought. The food at the restaurants looked of a high quality too and had us licking our lips at the prospect of putting on nosebags and tucking in.

Seated at our table one day and marveling at the views, we scanned the menu of unbeatable eatables. First, I ordered drinks, "Two Lion beers, please" I trilled....cue awkward pause before the waiter uttered these awful words, "There is no beer, we are out". The man flickered before my eyes. I found voice, "Good God! No beer?" Ignoring my suffering, he explained, "No, we had a party here last night and they used up our supply, we've only got non-alcoholic drinks". Appalled at this news, he then left us with a list of perfectly foul non-alcoholic beverages to peruse, that would have made a nun yearn for something stronger. Wading through this list and wondering how my liver might survive the ordeal, I finally settled for orange juice, and when the admirable Crichton returned with the Hell brew, I stared at it suspiciously, you know, as though it may have been booby-trapped or something. Then throwing caution to the wind, I poured it over the tonsils and down the hatch. I fortified myself with the idea that, although falling short in the beer stakes, I would soon be one up by virtue of having eaten a delicious meal. Scanning the menu, much like Sherlock Holmes does when looking for clues in the ash trays, I spotted the winning combination and made my choice. The torment of my day approached to take our order. "I'll have the pork loin in mushroom sauce" I said, licking the lips.

His next words left me all of a doodah. "Pork's off today" he said, in that pleasing manner so beloved by all. My luncheon companion that day stepped in with his order, "beef bourgignon". "Sorry sir, it's off today, the party last night ate the last of the beef". I began to think that last night's party must have been quite an impressive binge, more like some Ancient Roman feast than dinner, when my friend, showing unexpected intelligence, asked what was actually available today. And so it came to pass, as a direct result of the bacchanalian orgy the night before, our meal that day consisted of a modest fish and chips for two, washed down with an orange juice of dubious vintage. Hardly a fitting meal for a restaurant in the fort. We left, wondering how these unforgivable shortages of food and drink could have occurred. Perhaps the restaurant manager had attended the party last night and by way of being the life and soul of the do, had had far too much to drink and forgot to order the grub? Or possibly the supply chain had given out? Well, whatever the reason, I think old Dr. Lao needs to take matters into his own hands and get the face working on whoever is responsible.

Venturing beyond the fort walls, our tuk tuk driver took us past the very beautiful Galle cricket stadium, its beauty marred only by the name. The egos of elected officials know no bounds, it seems. Be that as it may, it's no wonder the national team are so good. I mean to say, to stand at the wicket in that stadium and survey the beauty of the surroundings is enough to inspire anyone to hit a six! Next up in town was the splendid art deco railway station with its welcoming entrance, which set my imagination racing as to where its many travelers might be heading and who would be awaiting their arrival. Then I remembered that somebody told me that behind the bus stands were shops and stalls of all sorts and would definitely be worth a visit. As the actress said to the bishop, "It's all happening behind the bus stand!" She was right! The first shop we gate-crashed had a beaming proprietor who seemed pleased to see us. Nothing was too much effort for him but we were entirely unprepared for his offensive. He bombarded us with every item in his shop, it seemed to me. I then expressed interest in a little trinket that had caught my eye. It was a fatal error on my part. His eyes lit up, like a wolf that had just spotted its Russian peasant, and he moved in for the kill. He said I could have it for the special price of 5000 rupees, whereupon I asked for an even more special price of 2500 rupees. Recognizing this as comedy, he threw back his head and roared with laughter, and came back at me with 4500 rupees. We haggled some more and what with one thing and another we threw numbers back and forth until we agreed on 5500 rupees. It wasn't my best day for haggling. Appalled, I coughed up the money and our genial host wrapped the spoils of war, put it in a bag, slapped me on the back to signify his camaraderie after the battle won and shoveled us out of the shop. I mean to say, 5500 rupees! Where are you, Dr. Lao?

Next time...... a nasty fright in the pub and dirty work in Unawatuna.......

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