I leaped off the road, certain that the bus would hit me. The bus’s horn sounded, a deafening blast even louder than its ancient diesel engine. But this wasn’t aimed at me. Driving head-on was another bus, inexplicably overtaking a lorry on the two-laned road. In this deadly game of chicken, everyone’s accelerators were floored.
This was typical Hikkaduwa, a beach town on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast that’s anything but relaxing. The beach is badly eroded, its guesthouses are crumbling, and the national highway runs through the centre. Yet despite the flaws, Hikkaduwa has infectious charm.
I swiftly left the road and ducked down an alleyway, emerging onto a yellow beach. The sand glowed from the descending sun. Hikkaduwa’s reef break was pumping, the better surfers flocking to its peeling waves. Surfboard under my arm, I headed to the beach break, bad memories of the reef still in my mind.
After sunset I returned to the guesthouse where Jason was rinsing his surfboard. The house was silent and the lights were off. Three days earlier, Sri Lanka had experienced its worst power-cut in 20 years. There were still outages and the president suspected sabotage, so the army was guarding the power stations.
We sat in the dark, drinking Sri Lanka’s Lion beer before heading to Hikkaduwa’s other big draw, the nightlife. Hikkaduwa has the best partying in Sri Lanka, but that’s not saying much. People had come from everywhere to dance on the moon-lit beach as silver waves broke on the reef.
Jason and I joined a table of Korean mercenaries, in Hikkaduwa on shore-leave. Their job was to guard the ships that passed Sri Lanka on their way to Africa and beyond. One was former special forces, the wound he’d suffered in Afghanistan visible on his arm.
A similarly varied crew surrounded us at the beach-bar. British air-hostesses on a break from Dubai, Saudis getting loose, Russian wives on holiday. Poles, Lithuanians, Israelis. The night deepened, everyone getting drunker on Sri Lanka’s resident liquor arak.
The power came back on, and the mania increased. We stumbled home just before sunrise, followed by a pack of friendly stray dogs. The streets were deserted, the insane bus drivers had abdicated for the night. But this respite wouldn’t last, with the routine of sun, surf and partying certain to start all over again.