If the Coconut Bar was an American television show, it’d be “Cheers.” It is a place where people come to take a break from all their worries, a place to get away. Everyone may not know your name, but they recognize you and make you feel welcome. Of course, Uncle Emil is at the center of the happy vibes at the place. Regulars at the Coconut Bar greet him like an old friend as they pass or stop in for a drink. Uncle Emil entreats people walking along the beach to come into the bar, attractive women mostly. He’s a good host who wants happy guests. But it is the other men of the Coconut Bar that keep the place running like a well-oiled machine and have their own interesting stories to tell. They are all multi-talented. Sid’s cousins Mahesh and Pradeep are the mixmasters, creating the bar’s popular pina coladas, caipirhinas and coconut cocktails. They also double as chefs and fixers, finding the right people to fix a boat or a jet-ski or organizing sightseeing tours. One day, Mahesh has to call some guys to go rescue his boss, Uncle Emil, when the battery fails on the speed boat. Pradeep will be our tour guide on a four-day drive along Sri Lanka’s southern coast and through the mountains. He knows almost every inch of the country. I’d later learn that he’s a favorite among the ladies on Beruwela Beach, but he’s probably the farthest thing from a playboy you can get, a quiet and friendly soul. Nihal, tall and lanky, is the picture of efficiency. Before you can ask for something Nihal is there with a ready smile. He appears to speak flawless German with the German guests and he can put out and put away beach chairs and umbrellas in the blink of an eye. Nihal also has a bit of a comedic streak. A man pedaling fragrances stops at the bar one day and I am his initial target. He rubs a little vanilla oil on my hand, some jasmine. But I’m not in the market for a new fragrance. Nihal’s interest is peeked though and he comes over to sample some scents for his wife, he says. The man presents a scent called “Cobra” and Nihal jumps backwards waving his hands wildly, saying, “Noo,” as if the small bottle were a cobra itself. But when the man understands what Nihal may be seeking, he offers a scent called “Pure Love.” Nihal grabs it immediately, rubbing it on his wrist and smiling. The packaging looks a little erotic, like something you’d find in a sex shop and we have some thoughts about what he has in mind for his wife later. Then there is Ramsan, the most subdued of the bunch. He appears for work everyday in a uniform of sorts, wearing blue slacks, a blue stripped shirt and a shy smile. He manages Uncle Emil’s jewelry shop and helped me pick a silver and peridot ring for myself. On a quiet day at the bar, he tells me that he lives with his wife and children a short distance away from the bar and in the next breath says that he has no family. I’m puzzled for a moment and he tells me that he lost all his closest relatives in the tsunami. A few days ago, Uncle Emil told me the story of how all of Ramsan’s family had boarded a train to go to a wedding when the tsunami swept the train into the ocean. I tell Ramsan that I am sorry and that he has a new family now with his wife and children. He smiles and nods, but I can tell that this doesn’t close the wound. No words will. But Ramsan and the rest of the guys there have formed their own little family and they seem to enjoy working together everyday, trading jokes beachside.
The rest of the Coconut Bar’s cast is the people who frequent it. A man selling roasted and spiced cashews on a bike stops by every day. Ladies selling sarongs stroll by with their colorful fabrics fluttering in the wind, followed by a group “beach boys”, looking to take tourists on boat rides and tours and act as general guides to the island. Some are to be trusted, others not so much. One day a man appears with a small basket containing a snake. (See the video below.) A German family comes frequently with their baby that plays naked in the sand. There’s a young man from Sweden with locs as tangled as Uncle Emil’s and a ring through his nose. I met an Austrian woman named Lisa who has been vacationing in Sri Lanka for years and has come alone on this trip while her husband, an Austrian world champion archer trains for the Olympics. Then there is Victoria from the Ukraine, one of the women that Uncle Emil has personally invited to hang out at the bar. She’s a tall brunette in a two-piece who has trouble understanding Uncle Emil’s flirtatious banter, but forms a fast friendship with me, taking me down the beach to meet her friend Monica, a Brit who married a Sri Lankan and lives on the island 3-6 months out of the year. It turns out that Monica lives in Oxford during the rest of the year and we talk about our favorite pubs, The Perch and the Trout. Victoria is a hairdresser back in the Ukraine and has been coming to Sri Lanka to vacation for 6 years. She spends most of her time on the beach and she likes it here because its warm, understandably escaping frigid winters in the Ukraine. She says speaking English with me is easy and she wants to be sure to stay in touch.
The music at the Coconut bar contributes to the personality of the place as much as the people. There’s an R&B mix on repeat featuring Jennifer Hudson’s “Spotlight,” Usher’s “Here I Stand and the Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up.” Then there are the reggae tracks, Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and Peter Tosh’s “African.” The lyrics of that one are still in my head, “Don’t care where you come from, as long as you are a black man, you are an African. No mind your nationality, you have got the identity of an African.” Uncle Emil even produced his own reggae song performed by a local band that he blasts from time to time. It doesn’t have a name but its about fighting pollution of the beaches. The music is a bit part of the the attraction to the bar and makes one linger and order another drink.
Before catching my last sunset at the Coconut Bar (Sid, Pradeep and I will take our road trip the next day), I walk along the beach taking parting shots. Guys play volleyball. There is a Sri Lankan family going for a late afternoon swim. Many Sri Lankans seem to like to visit the beach as the sun is setting and the women prefer to take dips fully clothed. I spot Bony chatting with locals under a coconut tree, sharing some arrack and roasted chicken. I am already trying to remember the smell in the air, the sound of the ocean and the warm feel of it enveloping my body.
When we return to Sid’s house to pack, his Uncle Sucil is waiting. He wants to have a farewell drink with me. He’s already got the arrack and cola waiting and he smiles as he tells me to sit. I can feel that he wants to tell me something important and he starts by telling me that he has heart and that I have heart and his heart is with me. Sid isn’t there to help translate, but it’s pretty clear that he’s trying to tell me that he likes me and it is really sweet. He then very clearly says, “I like black women. No like white women.” Then begins hiking up his shorts to show more of his leg. By this time Sid is back and says that his Uncle doesn’t like seeing European tourists who walk around half naked in the streets where children can see them. Apparently, he was impressed by my modest dress at the De Silva party the night before, sealing his respect. I feel proud to have nailed the Sri Lankan etiquette and left a good impression. Then Uncle Sucil rises, gives a soldiers salute and walks into the darkness.