It’s early morning in a quiet corner of Galle, the light still soft and milky, the air cool. Behind the garden, Langur monkeys leap from tree to tree. On the lane beyond the house, a solitary cow grazes on the verge. A figure wanders into view pulling an empty cart; then disappears again. A cyclist wobbles round the corner before dipping behind the hedgerow.
Back inside the house, quiet Buddhist chants fill the air and the television screen shows Lord Buddha from every angle as he sits in quiet serenity. Madam Kahandagamage hands a china cup of sweetened tea to the driver.
It’s the lull before the storm.
Then our motley crew pile into the hired van: Dimuthu, Dimuthu's sister Purna, Purna's best friend Vi, her father, mother and brother; then there's the distant cousin, Yasas, and a pale-faced European. It’s going to be a grand day out: we’re off to Yala National Park.
First stop, breakfast by the Indian Ocean, Sri Lankan style: spicy chickpeas and egg and onion toasties. Further up the road, we pause at the temple. Mr Kahandagamage drops the perfumed jasmine. Contaminated, the flower heads can no longer be offered up. Instead oil and incense sticks are lit, palms placed together and heads bowed. The karma is still good.
It’s mid-afternoon by the time we reach Yala National Park. We’ve been waylaid by coastal blowholes, opportunities for toe-dipping and beach-combing for miniature crabs, corals and shells. Then there’s the endless distraction of food: displays of skeletal (dried) fish, unrecognisable tropical fruits, watery ice-creams and takeaway noodles.
At Yala, we hope to see leopard. We spy boar and buffalo, jungle fowl and wild peacock, even a family of elephants, but the leopard remains elusive. Driving out of the park again, the light is fading out. A youngster herds cattle from his motorbike, farmhands drift past us huddled on tractor trailers. The street lights dance like fireflies on Lunugarnvehera reservoir. Above it the pale sky swirls a signature.
“I wish I could write in the sky,” Dimuthu says as we gaze upwards.
On and on we drive through the night, passing open-fronted shops of garish souvenirs. We stop by one of them, weaving through tomato-red lions and fluorescent-orange dogs while ducking jelly-green bats, nets of balls and cascading plastic bald-headed dolls.
Incongruously, the counter is laden with great blocks of dodol, a toffee-like delicacy made of coconut milk and rice flour. Sticky, thick and sweet, it’s food heaven and figure hell.
We pounce on the samples offered, trying every variety on offer.
“We could make our way down the street just sampling dodol from every shop without having to buy any,” Vi giggles.
On the way out, Yasas, the distant cousin and our travelling clown, picks up a revolver and presses it to his head. His head falls, his eyes roll in his head and his tongue lolls.
“Cheer up, Yasas,” I say. “We mightn’t have seen any leopards, but I’ve got a kilo of dodol for the journey home.”