The Galle Forte Hotel is used to nocturnal arrivals and the friendly manager ushered me into a spacious apartment. I unpacked and slid under mosquito netting into the comfort of a four-poster bed. Morning revealed a beautiful sunlit room with a high ceiling; fashionably sparse, elegant and meditative. There was a walk-in shower, a desk, discreet WiFi but no distracting TV. It seemed the perfect place to turn thoughts into ideas; and so it proved to be.
Daylight encouraged a post-breakfast stroll to explore Galle Fort, with its trading history stretching back to Greeks and Arabs and encompassing a succession of Portugese, Dutch and British colonial eras. They’d all left their mark in blood, stone, culture and architecture along the walled ramparts, narrow mediaeval streets, and terraced cottages housing today’s religiously diverse Sinhalese.
The afternoon heralded the arrival of Aline and Eli. The hand-crafted wooden giraffe and silk elephant from a Thai market excursion worked their spell. Eli was up and away, brandishing his complimentary ice cream. A relieved Aline relaxed by the pool, reclaiming some of the sensuality that she’d sacrificed to work and childcare. Eli, meanwhile, established diplomatic ties with the youngest of the hotel staff, two A’s: Arunja (Dawn) and Ahmeel (Invaluable).
At dusk, Eli murmured a reluctant bye-bye to the A’s and accompanied Aline and I on a hike around fortress ramparts at the magic hour; that ultramarine moment before night’s curtain envelops black rock promontories and the velvet sea. Scanning this southern ocean, I was reminded of a song: Antarctica starts here.
In the respite days ahead, Aline read, relaxed, swam in the hotel pool. I paced and ruminated in my sun-filled room. Eli treated the Galle Fort Hotel like an adventure playground and, with balloons supplied by the playful A’s, he was chased, captured and cossetted. There were day excursions where hillside meals alternated with Eli stick-fishing, suspended on wave-defying stilts. Eli was at his happiest releasing baby turtles back into the sea and on twilight rampart strolls, where his tiny footprints landed lightly on ancient battlegrounds. There were wide-eyed stares at death-defying cliff dives by athletic locals and we were joined in nightly meals on fan-cooled verandas by Eli’s new best friend, KALA, the hotel dog; lazy, but loved.
KALA, pronounced Kar-Lu, means black; it’s the old Arab word for Galle, named after the harbour’s black rocks. Kar-luuu! It’s a primal yodel, and the word throbs in your throat. It became Eli’s banshee cry as he clambered over ramparts and chased balloons around the hotel before being corralled by Arjunja or Ahmeel and settled into angelic sleep on a foyer sofa.
Eli had two default states. One was as sweet and engaging as the hotcake butter from a Galle Fort breakfast, while the other was full warrior mode: loud; attention-seeking; destructive. His child’s world was a silhouette in black and white; more subtle colours would wait in the shadows to be etched in by time.
The sunlit room, the fort, the island; they ruffled my imagination. It’s 20 years on. Eli is 25. Aline is my age. I’m gone. Eli returns to Galle Fort Hotel to relive the sensation of his first encounter with the wider world. Arunja and Ahmeel now run the modernised hotel. They’re middle aged. The two A’s try to recall a rambunctious kid they once chased with balloons. They can’t. Galle is now a busy town and the once shanty-strewn road from Colombo is a neon-lit, apartment-flanked highway. Galle Fort is an international tourist mecca.
Sydney 2011: We sit on a step in a Sydney garden and Eli’s cry jolts us back to teardrops past. Adventurers return with treasure from their travels and Eli’s bounty is a single word: KALA. It conjures distant forts, enchanting hotels, animals, rocks and sea; its sound throbs and pulses across time …Kar – luuu!