Years ago, when I was on business in Sri Lanka, in order to get to work every day I struggled through a two-hour, butt-jarring commute over fractured roads, through army checkpoints, around wandering buffalo, past wild-eyed drivers and the inevitable two-car, one-farm-animal pileups. Suffice it to say that the Voice of America station where I worked was not centrally located. So, recently, when I prepared for a return visit to the station, the staff was especially happy to tell me that since I had left, a luxury resort -- the Club Palm Bay -- had opened only minutes away.
The name evoked images of terraced beaches and fruit-laden cocktails, but I was a little dubious. Chilaw province, where the relay station is located, doesn't draw many visitors other than the occasional immunologist eager to see the effects of malaria, cholera and dengue fever firsthand. And I was doubtful it had become a tourist destination overnight, since it had recently been in the news for becoming the latest operations base for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam; this was the group that had narrowed the list of accommodations in Sri Lanka by sending a truck bomb into the lobby of the hotel where I had stayed on my previous visit.
Despite my skepticism and the fact that I couldn't find the resort listed in my Fodor's guide, I was willing to try anything to avoid that drive. And besides, for $70 a night, with food and drinks included, how wrong could it be?
To get to the "Club," I had to take the main road north from Colombo Airport, which is atrocious, and then a side road, which featured huge potholes cutting the dirt and mud pack (just a little too much like D.C., if you ask me). The drainage is also nonexistent, and during the monsoon season, this is especially apparent -- the road dissolves into giant pools of standing water.
In fact, drainage is such a problem that some of the better cars come equipped with snorkels so that the engines can pull fresh air when water comes over the hood (I swear on the Gideon Bible I stole from my hotel room that I am not making this up), and several times during the drive to the resort, I thought that we were going to have to swim for it. It quickly became clear to me that no self-respecting tourist was going to pay good money to bounce two hours over pitted roads only to risk getting some tropical disease. By the time we reached the resort -- at 2 a.m. -- I knew the Club Palm Bay was either some eccentric money drain like Mad King Ludwig's Bavarian castles or some sophisticated tax avoidance scheme. In either event, the place would surely be out of business by Christmas.
Only a few hours after checking in, when I hauled my jet-lagged body out of my
room, I was nearly trampled by a thundering herd of elderly British
tourists, straight off a Saga bus tour. As I staggered past the
karaoke bar, past the disco (which doubles as a movie theater; "Waterworld" was playing that night), past gaggles of sunbathing guests,
I realized that the Club Palm Bay was not an exotic tax dodge, but some
warped Sri Lankan version of Club Med. My instincts were confirmed
moments later when I inquired at the front desk whether there was a gym
and was chirpily told that one of the Club's "animators" would happily
guide me to it (in my sleep-deprived state, I would have happily grabbed
a gun from the guard and pistol-whipped someone for coming up with such
a ridiculous name, but it turns out that they are completely unarmed and
their only apparent function is to have their photographs taken).
Everything about the Club Palm Bay was slightly off. Every room had a
phone, but only the two phones at the front desk worked -- one for
incoming calls and one for outgoing calls. Go figure. There was
nightly entertainment at dinner, though it too was just a tad weird. On
the first night, a solo performer played the synthesizer and warbled
Neil Diamond songs; he was promptly followed by a different act -- a guitar-strumming puppet mouthing the identical songs in a suspiciously
But my personal favorite was the group from the third
night. They went from table to table seeking requests, except they
invariably did not know any of the requested songs and ended up singing
something by Dire Straits. The best part about the group was their lead
singer, who looked exactly like Abraham Lincoln --
if you are willing to believe, as I am, that Lincoln was 5-foot-5 and
Sinhalese. And then there was the beach, which requires a separate
The Club abuts a small, impoverished town named Marawila. It's a tiny
town: one road and a handful of shacks. It has some fishing boats, a
little subsistence farming and one identifiable business: a Chinese
restaurant that lacks both tables and chairs (I came to the conclusion that it must be takeout). You can walk through town; it does not take long and
everyone is very friendly. Most guests from the Club don't venture that
far, so the only forum for interaction is Marawila Beach. The beach
sits immediately outside the Club's main gate. It is a long, sandy
strip that at one point becomes a high dune that plunges down into the Indian Ocean.
In the afternoon, with the deck chairs and the beach umbrellas of the
hotel guests perched atop the dune, the beach has the stylized look of a
Bacardi rum advertisement. In the early morning, however, when the less
fortunate of us were bused off to work, it was impossible not to notice
that this same beach was dominated by hordes of cows, chickens, goats,
pigs, cats and dogs, and their actions, to put it delicately for the more
sensitive among us, did not conform to ordinary Western notions of
hygiene and sexual decorum. Sad to say, none of these scenes made it
to the club's postcard collection.