The tuktuk bounced down the highway, overloaded with three women and their belongings stowed in backpacks. It had left Galle, the historic fort city of Sri Lanka, thirty minutes before, and with the sun setting with splashes of pink and indigo over the Indian Ocean, we wondered if the tiny rickshaw would make it to our destination. My phone buzzed with an incoming text: “which fish would you like for dinner?” accompanied by a photo of three stunning parrotfish. “The middle one,” I sent back, thinking it was a joke; the immediate “you got it” I received left me unsure, and hungry.
Finally, guided by the tiny headlights of the tuktuk, we arrived in Weligama in pitch darkness at the imposing gates of Villa Tissa. We had met a German traveler in Galle, who told us he was heading to this hotel on the beach, and suggested that we meet him there the following night. With no set plans, and having only stayed in rundown hostels for the past 5 nights, the idea of waking up in a beautiful hotel right on the beach was too good to pass up. Though our German friend assured us that he had made the arrangements for our arrival, including the parrotfish dinner, the night manager was not pleased to see us. Haggling ensued, and finally, we were lead to a blindingly white room filled with a massive four-poster bed.
Under the light of the stars, we could barely make out the beach, framed by palm tree silhouettes, but the rambunctious laughter coming from around the glow of a fire was impossible to miss. Heading to the beach, we found Rolf and his friend polishing off the last of a huge fish, and enjoying large bottled beers. “They’re here! Are you hungry?” Rolf asked. Without a response, two Sri Lankan men appeared, brushing past us to the edge of the sand, where they began digging a shallow pit. They vanished, reappearing carrying long, slim branches, which they unceremoniously dumped into the pit. The fire they started burned fragrantly, and upon asking, they informed me that it was cinnamon wood. They let the fire die down, and then brought out a huge, tin foil- wrapped package and laid it on top of the cinnamon embers. After covering the whole thing with sand, they began cracking open fresh beers for us.
Between the beer and the camaraderie, it seemed like no time at all before the cooking pit was being dug up and a steaming curried parrotfish was placed on the table in front of us, accompanied by vegetable rice. We hungrily pounced on the fish with our fingers, each flaking morsel barely making it into our mouths before we reached for more. The Sri Lankan curry spices made the flesh golden from the turmeric, spicy from the ground chiles, and perfumed from the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. The tears streaming down our faces from burned fingers and the heat of the spice blend were tempered with fresh cold beers that continuously replaced empty bottles. Before we knew it, the side of the fish facing up was picked clean, and so we flipped it over, and attacked again. Soon, only the eyes were left, and after only a bit of collecting my courage, the bones were all that remained.