How to Buy Beer in the Indian Ocean
The boat wasn’t big. It was a small dinghy with a motor, hand-painted the same shade as the ocean; not ideal should we encounter misfortune. This somewhat trusty steed was our transport to Vella Island, a small sandbar located one hour off the coast of Sri Lanka. The boat was shoved full of kitesurfing gear and enough food to last us the night. Our ride swayed gently with the push and pull of the tide, murky brown water holding it above the surface. Dense mangroves encapsulated the lagoon, their edge marking the start of the unknown. The wood creaked underfoot as we jumped on board.
There were five passengers in the boat: me, my boyfriend, our two friends and Jack. I took a glance at Jack, trying to make sense of his eclectic character. He had golden features with well-worn skin; his eyes were sunken but glinted bright blue. Spirits were high amongst us; laughter and conversation filled the air.
The small boat deceived us and took the bumpy trip at a hurtling pace. I inhaled the fresh salty air, which was a welcome change from the congestion of Colombo. To our left, groups of local fishermen dotted the horizon, to the right an abundant forest of green palm trees blurred as we fled past.
I struck up a conversation with the newcomer, Jack. He had arrived at our accommodation in Kalpitiya a few days earlier. He laughed a lot and conversed in a German twang. His long blonde hair blew persistently in the wind, distracting from the chat. We all looked up to him in a way; he was thirty-something, quit his day job as a dentist and had been travelling the world for the past two years. Money was no object to him. Although the number of beers he had consumed over the past few days was absurd from a broke student’s perspective, we thought he was pretty cool.
We warmly welcomed meeting dry land again, golden grains crunching underfoot. A group of fishermen lived on the sandbar in straw-thatched huts outnumbered by stray dogs who were flea-ridden and unhealthy. The dogs were dozy, the pounding hot sun proving too much. I cooed at one and the hope of food flashed through his kind brown eyes.
When darkness fell, dinner preparations began. We offered to pitch in while Jack sat outside smoking. We sat around our handmade fire devouring our fresh dinner and sipping prized beers that made the journey.
Jack got more talkative as the night went on. We learned out his failed marriage, how he burnt out overworking, and his globe-trotting adventures around Asia; his flamboyant character kept us entertained for hours. When the six-pack had run dry, Jack made a remark about needing more grog, which went ignored. His need for more booze remained the elephant in the room. We clambered into bed, my boyfriend and I lucky enough to score a tent. The others were under the stars.
Waking up on the cold hard sand with a dog pissing on your tent isn’t romantic, but there was something wholesome about camping on the sandbar and waking up in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Jack, however, didn’t seem to catch this vibe. He had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, or lack thereof. He was complaining about the pain in his head, evidently the first time he’d been bone-dry sober in a while.
It was about 8am when we heard the commotion outside. Jack was pleading our boat driver to go fetch him beers.
“I give you whatever money you want, man. My head, it’s pounding” Jack whined.
Our boat driver reluctantly gave in.
Sure enough, an hour later they returned, beers in hand. I couldn’t believe it: we were miles from shops, literally in the middle of the ocean, yet this guy was still able to buy beers and feed his addiction.
His drinking habits weren’t malicious at all, but our perceptions of him certainly changed as we got to know his character.
Later that day the wind picked up, we geared up and got on the water. The spot was world-class, hundreds of metres of butter-flat water was cast behind the sandbar. Jack flew past me; I was super impressed by his ability to kitesurf six beers deep. We tried some new tricks, stacked it a few times and then called it a day.
We returned that afternoon to our homestay on the mainland thanks to our trusty boat driver. Drowsy from the heat and saltwater, we spent the rest of the afternoon outstretched in hammocks, hiding from the baking sun. When the light disappeared, Jack tried to convince us to head to a local party with him. We kindly denied, being too surfed out to keep our eyes open. I heard his scooter head out the drive at pace.
The next morning we woke to a shock. There was a ruckus in the kitchen area; our host was pacing and muttering under his breath. Jack was sitting at the breakfast table in obvious pain.
“I need a beer!” he exclaimed.
His remark about beer wasn’t out of the ordinary but his distorted jaw was. He was holding an ice pack to his face as he slowly mumbled the tale of the previous night’s drama; shame gleamed in his blue eyes. He’d gone out drinking at a local party, taking his scooter with him. Knowing Jack, he would have been at least 10 beers over the limit on the way home, hence his detour into a large ditch, breaking his jaw. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and missed a large concrete pipe by millimetres.
“I fucked up. I fucked up so bad, man,” he kept repeating.
The incident shook some reality into him. He realised it was home time and booked a flight back to Germany that day. He rambled on about sobering up when he got back, the beer in his hand suggested otherwise.
He got told to sharpen up and put his best shirt on. Jack downed a beer through a straw and made his way to the doctor to confirm his fears.
The irony of it all: drinking with a broken jaw is particularly difficult.
Cover by Patrick Langwallner