Saturday 25 April 2020

1994 Sri Lanka

16.2.94 London, Amsterdam, Abu Dhabi, Colombo

A smart place – stuffy, but smart.  Strange, I don't really regard Sri Lanka as far: a short hop really.  Usual preoccupations of whether the taxi-driver will immediately tell his chums about the joint to be rumbled.  And strangely too an excitement about coming back already – largely because of the Internet, which is changing my life.  Apart from the fact that it is consonant with many of my ideas, it also offers the perfect for writing about from anywhere: truly global, all you need is a SLIP connection and you're there.  And as for Mosaic…

Trip long, not particularly comfortable – though the landing at Abu Dhabi was the smoothest I'd had in a Jumbo.  Abu Dhabi nicely familiar with its tiled plume in the centre of the lounge.  Plane full on both legs;  From Amsterdam sat next to Sri Lankan reading leaflet on Thailand in Polish… On the second leg next to a young woman who slept folded up like a deckchair.  As we came in to land she signalled that she wanted me to fill in her boarding card.  Aged 31, she was a housemaid in Abu Dhabi – and her passport was valid for only one trip out and back.  After immigration man came up to quiz my status as a writer – seemed very interested in "Windows User".  Bags arrived safely, found our hosts here.  Surprisingly their house is at least half an hour from the airport, which lies well south of the city.

Lots of trees everywhere – unlike India – and the cars are surprisingly modern – though also old British models in evidence.  Driving pretty insane.  Usual mess everywhere – bricks, rubbish, glass, paper.  Very flat, few higher buildings – and those mostly drab.  A few colonial remnants, quite attractive.  To a cul-de-sac, the house with large spacious rooms, overhead fans.  Air thick and warm, very like Indonesia.  But not oppressive.

18.2.94  Colombo

Well, yes part of the foregoing was 17.2.94 – but then time is so fluid here.  Pretty tired yesterday – crashed for a couple of hours after lunch (toasted cheese sandwich), then went for a walk to a "monument" – that of independence.  Pretty poor, a statue, a hall (built by the British) with curious friezes inside, showing scenes from Ceylon's history – weird, alien-like people.  Our host is negative about the people here, how nothing changes, nothing is done; and the rather tired monument confirmed this.  And yet there is a certain atmosphere, of Paradise Mislaid, that makes this place potentially interesting – and different.

Fine red snapper fish for supper – fortunately fish in abundance here.  Pudding crème caramel.  Then to Colombo – to the Hindu temple – wild orgy of colours and forms – 3D explosion of gaudy statues.  Sun out now: hot and humid.    Inside, shady.  The Big Ben chimes – electronic – outside.  Corrugated iron roof, cawing crows.  A view into the main shrine: rooms leading to room – like Denderah… Past the Buddhist temple, to the associated  ordination palace on the lake – very like Bali.  To the sacred Bo tree and Buddha.  A padlock on a shed: Made in Italy.  To Liberty Plaza – where clusters of men gawp at TVs – Sri Lankan cricket.  Very like Jakarta.  Then to Oberoi for lunch.  Salad – nothing special.  Impressive hanging drapes in interior space of hotel.  Then to Paradise – a real cornucopia.  Home to sleep – again.

Now at tea under a rotating fan, CD of Caldara playing – Gérard Lesne singing – very fine.  Rich treacle tarts, fine jasmine tea – very civilised, the advantage of visiting friends abroad.  I am haunted by images from across the continent – Kashmir (poor Kashmir), Nepal, Tibet (ah, Tibet – one day….)  Down Galle Road, to Beach Wadiya – on the beach.  We cross the main railway line (four tracks) to get here after parking the car.  Incredible night noises – birds and insects, the breakers – the sea at last.  Reminds me, of course, of Sanur, and of the restaurant with the lobster.  The meal punctuated by the scream of trains on the track.  Very atmospheric.

19.2.94  Sigiriya

On the road.  Here by a fine tank full of lilies, our host mad about the birds (feathered).  A baby elephant on display.  Also adult elephants on the road – very large, very majestic.  Dead fruit bats on the electric wires – short-circuited themselves.  The rain comes down, pure Tarkovsky.  Rich, verdant countryside, very Bali, shimmering under the grey skies.  Mad drivers everywhere, but ours – "VJ"  relatively considerate.  Rising up into the hills, the coconut and palm trees thin out.

Along the way we pass the potters village, the pineapple village, the honey village and most memorable of all, the cashew village.  Most memorable because of the alluring maidens signalling for us to stop; apparently they are offering more than just cashews.  Our host tells us that Sri Lanka is now picking up some of the sex trade from Germans frightened by AIDS in Thailand.  Sad that these paradises are corrupted in this way.  Sad, too, that this place seems to be drowning in corruption and inefficiency generally.  Life is perhaps too easy – the way everything just grows here.

The rain and the surrounding greenery remind me of the Lake District, except that there you go out in the rain.  As we arrive at Sigiriya Hotel, we see the rock, rearing up very sheer, shrouded in mist.  Volcanic plug, I assume.  Along the way, the usual small shops à la Indonesia, mostly with signs in English.  Road signs in Sinhalese, Tamil and English.  Fascinating the story of how the Tamil troubles began – linguistic discrimination caused by better education of the Tamils and so more of them in the civil service.  Monkeys visible here – and looking very similar to the ones in Bali. 

Yesterday, we had rather fine jaggery for tea, as well as molasses and cashew tart.  At the seafood restaurant we had fried fish (sardines), crab (very spicy), a huge and succulent lobster, prawns and white fish (grey mullet).  Back at our lodgings we have watalappam: delicious buffalo curd and molasses treacle – wonderful.  Rain finally stopped, but still very overcast.  Cooler now – that's another thing: stupidly I left my jacket at the house… mozzies pretty savage outside.  Sri Lankan roulette given the diseases they carry.

Lots of Bartolini's (ah, Budapest).  Evening noises: birds, frogs (there is one in our bathroom), bats (seen emerging most cinematically from the swimming pool's pump-room – their fluttering wings caught in the single bulb's rays, casting magnified shadows on the wall by the door.

This room reminds me strangely of Fiji, the room at Nadi, by the airport.  The Sigiriya rock also reminds me (perversely) of Ben Bulben, and makes me long for Connemara.  Indeed, in general, tropical countries make me feel a huge nostalgia for the cold and wet…

Being on a Jumbo full of other tourists: you wonder where they all go in Sri Lanka…

20.2.94  Avukana, Anuradhapura

Rain fell as if from a billion taps last night – such intensity.  I understand the word "monsoon" a little better (still not brilliant, so we put of ascending the rock, which is anyway wet).  A troupe of female monkeys groom babies on the roof, their faces black and terribly stern.  Again that sense of how close they are to humans, especially from close-up.  Sun shining now – hot and damp.  That feeling of the Raj, of Western civilisation meeting something so alien, so other.  And also the challenge of maintaining the British stiff upper lip in the face of it.

To Avukana.  Shoes off as we ascend the path to the Buddha – 30-40 feet tall.  Lovely garment, strong face.  Everything so green here.  Fine edible sandstone.  Rustling of the forest, hot sun – and flies… Offerings of flowers, dark schoolgirls in white dresses – cloth provided by the state.  Along the way, huge tanks.  Fields of coconut trees, wet and glistening after the rain.  In to Anuradhapura, for lunch: a hotel with a pool beside a huge tank.  Looks more like the sea, or an estuary.  Few tourists around – Sunday.  Few cars, too: on the back roads, waterlogged and rutted, this could have been a problem.  Lovely breeze.  Strange atmosphere in the restaurant here: empty and echoing, the staff moving around, unclogging salt cellars.  The Germans have arrived… Miridiya Hotel.

To the Holy City.  The Reclining Buddha, huge and serene, yellow and red.  Full hips, black curly hair.  The cave of the bats, squealing.  The Isurumuniya Lovers, a lively couple – she swelling, he paunchy as befits a prince.  Lots of movement for 500AD.  Further on to another – chanting – Hindu, even though Buddhists.  At the Bo tree – time incarnate.  To the main stupa here – Ruwanweli Maha Seya – really Cheops-like in its solidity.  A faded white, with elephants along the outer wall, and a few Balinese pennants – or tatters thereof – flying plus a line full of flags and offerings – a huge display of fading colours. That thought: here I am in Sri Lanka looking at this…  The skies turn pewter.  To a small dagaba, surrounded by pillars (Thuparamaya?).  Again, the flags. 

To Mihintale.  We cheat, and drive up half the way.  The steps remind me of the stupa in Kathmandu – no cheating, me weak on my pegs.  View over countryside from here – first we've had, really.

21.2.94 Polonnaruwa, Giritale

Last night – after we had gone to bed – a knock on the door: mosquito nets.  The first time I've slept under one.  Great  - though slightly strange feeling with this film hovering above you.  But also makes you feel deep in the heat of the tropics. Hotel here like at Sigiriya – open plan, rather as at Senggigi Beach Hotel on Lombok.  Interesting to compare here and Indonesia: the latter far more exotic, and interesting, truth to tell, though travelling here has also been fascinating, it's just that Indonesia is such a different world.

To Polonnaruwa – three tanks, glorious, terrible roads and female road menders.  A quincunx of dagabas – the reclining statue – portly, with a wry smile on its face.  To the king's palace – impressive to see ruins this high.  Sun really quite warm now.  To the audience hall – the smell of hot grass – the smell of childhood.  Fine stone elephants and lions.  The Hindu pavilion, then to the nearby Buddha, quartz in granite.  Main site: fine dagaba, and Nissankalata Mandapa, curious pavilion of curved pillars – a la Bernini in Rome.  Inside the main dagaba: one Buddha has a slight bend of the neck.  The Big Book – they don't make 'em like that any more.  To the three Buddhas at Gal Vihara.  The seated and standing fine, but the reclining Buddha better.  To my right (we sit on the lava flow in front of the reclining Buddha), a man with a notebook is sketching.  A Frenchman (of course) says loudly and authoritatively that the statues should be cut out of the rock more by blasting away the cliff.

In the Rest House at  Polonnaruwa.  Magic site, jutting out into the lake.  Cool breeze – needed now the heat is at its height.  Earlier, we saw a five-foot water monitor (and another smaller) – very impressive lizard.  Here, the central old Brit Rest House, reminds me of the square dining room in Pokhara.  And here the same necessity of travail, suffering, to get here – true travel.  One of the (few) advantages of Sri Lanka's limited infrastructure.

A bumpy rid back to Giritale (Hotel Giritale), where we sit now, on the terrace, looking across the great tank. Islands dot the shimmering surface – now almost blinding with the reflected sun (5pm).  To the right a hill and a saddle, and in the distance two or three ranges of mountains (to the southwest).  From here there is not a single habitation visible: just thick forest and hazy hills.  Not as breathtaking as Penelokan, perhaps, but stunning in its perfection, nonetheless.  On the lake, tiny boats are fishing.  Smoke rises faintly from the other shore.

This is a good place to rest and take stock.  We have now "done" most of the antiquities: only Sigiriya eludes us, and that can wait if need be.  The Buddhas today were the highlight, possibly of the trip – especially since the reclining Buddha seems to be unique to Sri Lanka.  Now out on the balcony by the pool.  Cool evening breeze – smell of grass and greenery.  Grey ruddy skies as clouds come in from the west.  Tank dull pewter.  We are aware of the symphony of noises.

At dinner (fine fish from the tank, instead of chicken), room full of what I had been told were Thai pilgrims.  And indeed a few did look like monks – shaved heads, the typical oriental monk's glasses.  And suddenly I was sad at the thought of the genocide that was taking place in Tibet, and how in many ways Tibet is probably my ideal kingdom, and how I would now never see the reality of that amazing theocracy. Sad.

22.2.94 Sigiriya, Kandy

On the rock.  Stunning view, of course.  So green, and misty hills.  The painted ladies most impressive for the way they were created – on scaffolding.  Brilliant pale blue sky, wraith-like clouds on the horizon.  The birds below – teeming forests.  A bell sounds.

On the top.  Stairs rather rusty.  Gobsmacking view – miles and miles laid out before me.  The view to the south.  Men strimming the grass around me.  Lovely breeze, not sun.  Nice idea to enter through the lion.  Nice too the wasp's cage: if some wild wasps near here swarm, you get in the cage – fast.  Another problem for those who ascend.  

To the Hotel Suisse – for high tea – nice interior, but needs a view over the lake – which it hasn't.  The road got worse as we rose – dreadful.  Driving through Kandy, looks bustling, attractive city.  Our hotel is out of the city: cool, with great views, but an even worse road leading to it.  Cheese sandwiches for lunch – unimpressive.  We go down to Kandy, awaiting the cool of the evening before strolling.  There are more people here: reminds me of Marrakesh, on a smaller scale.  (Our hotel is actually very like Hotel San Jose that I stopped in: simple, whitewashed and airy.  But of necessity it lacks the magic of that place.)

Kandy is much more Indian in its bustle, noise and smells – nice, because far less threatening.  No beggars that I've seen.  Dusk – my favourite hour here.  The lights in the shops come on, the evening crowd surges, the day nearly done.  To Queen's Hotel for a sundowner – to try arrack.  Today has been a day of drinking: avocado (liquefied) for breakfast; tomberly (?) for lunch, and now this.  Cheap rum – watery, not too bad.  Birds circling overhead everywhere.    The red pillar boxes – some with George V on them.  [I have this crazy desire to go to Greece.  Now.]  To the Young Men's Buddhist Association Hall for the ABCDO Associates' Kandyan and Low Country Dancing.  

23.2.94 Kandy 

The dancing was, well, not so hot: five plumpish maidens without much grace – nothing compared to Bali, where such traditions live.  The music, though, had an energy, even if it was limited to 12/8 with variations.  Impressive was the final dance, with shimmering, tinkling headdresses.  The fire eating and walking too were not without interest.  But sitting in a YMBA hall full of fat videoing tourists does make me feel rather alienated, and the event rather artificial.  It will be interesting to see what the perahera is like. 

Slightly cloudy now, but patches of blue.  Coldish last night – we're at 1600 feet here.  To the Temple of the Tooth – searched on the way in.  Glorious Escher-like arrangement of galleries, altars, rooms, stairs.  Drummers play awhile. Great background music.  Flags = life - blue, yellow, red, white, orange.  In the library – octagonal, full of palm-leaf books and ordinary paper ones.  View of Buddhist temple and Catholic church.  Inside a temple – rich velvet hangings – flowers everywhere – billowing silk curtains – a Buddhist monk in orange and saffron tends the blooms.  Carpet on the floor – heaven for the feet.  A sign "No Entry Except on Business", in front of a gold Buddha.  Heaps of white; heady odour.  A man goes forward, touches flowers with both hands, raises hands in prayer to forehead.  A fan chugs overhead.

Upstairs to see the Tooth – on its covering – we join the queue to pass a little closer.  Huge mounds of flowers, people praying.  VJ, our driver, makes an obeisance.  People in front carrying flowers as offerings.  Colours and images everywhere.  A man at the door takes offerings.  Babies (tiny) brought here for blessing.  Through to another temple, behind the Tooth.  Buddha under fire – looks very Siamese.  Huge lotus forms, with elephant heads above them.  Paintings on the history of the Tooth.  The sound of finger cymbals outside.  Outside we are weak and stroke a young elephant.  Very curious the skin – rough and unnatural almost.  Lovely animal – makes poaching all the more barbarous.  

To the Peradeniya gardens – for a pot of tea.  Very hot now – sky completely clear. [Also strange on the young elephant – a few hairs left from babyhood.]  In the gardens – huge avenues of palm trees (hundreds), like a cathedral.  A tree full of huge black bats.  Screeching surrounds us.  Huge butterflies.  Back in the cafe.  Alongside trees, waving like something in a Van Gogh painting.  The contrast between sun and shade – heat and cool.  Earlier, a man offered a scorpion.  Er, no thanks.  Umbrellas much in evidence everywhere.  Common to see schoolchildren with them.  Best sight is Buddhist monk in flaming orange, and his open brolly.

What can one say about Hunas Falls?  Not a place you stumble on by chance.  An hour-plus journey, on a wavering road.  Strange, because we rose and rose but everything remained as verdant as ever – unlike Morocco or Kashmir, say.  The people the same, the men in dhotis, the women in fetching blouses – strange not to see more saris – the children their umbrellas.  The buses, lorries (Isuzu, Mata, Ashok Leyland), the tractors (Massey-Ferguson, Chinese monoptics).  And around us the verdant landscape, valleys and hills.  Only the presence of tea told us we were changing scene.

We sit by the restaurant, outside, waiting for tea.  We hear two cascades, roaring amid the foliage.  This place is rather, er, different.  It even has a helipad.  All the rooms face south-west, perfect for the sun and sunset (hoffentlich).  Service impeccable, rooms spacious and of a high standard (although – tut-tut – we had to ask for clean linen…).  Our room (#205) looks out onto the lake which feeds the falls as well as the deep hazy valleys in front.  This place is just so distant from things.

Around the lake – declining the notice offering rowing boats.  The sun like golden fire on the surface.  Huge bamboos around it, and a fine outcrop at the top bridge – a view otherwise very like the Lake District – just a little too lush, too many trees.  The moon in front of us, gibbous.  Our shadows on the rocks.  Round to the front of the hotel.  A concrete bench by three flag poles, their nylon cords clanking against the poles.  To the left, the hills in darkness; to the right, the hills turn to velvet. In front, the landscape turns to a mystical haze of forgotten valleys.  The sun turns watery yellow.  To the left, the trees on the skyline look like silhouettes – the tree of life in the wayang kulit.

The sun gradually turns orange.  Dogs bark in the village below, crows caw, other invisible birds twitter.  And I remember another sunset, in Egypt, as the great god Ra died again (must re-read "Egyptian Romance" sometime).  A strange yolk of a colour, the air cooling as the sun's rays lose the battle with the night.  In my eyes, the after image of a hundred suns (again).  As it passes into a thin cloud the sun seems elongated, then egg shaped.  Orange now.  The valleys turning grey-blue, the hills an indescribable post-impressionist melange of orange and green.  A red-hot globe of molten metal as if touches the trees on the hill.  A Chinese lantern.  Peaceful.  And yet, as so often, the final moments turn out not to be huge and glorious, but a thin crescent sinking into grey oblivion.  And yet this too is no real disappointment, partly because I have seen so many fine sunsets ("leaves fifty more"), and partly because I was not really looking for a perfect sunset.

This trip has been unusual in that it has not only been with a driver – one almost offended if we dare to change the itinerary – but also one planned out in detail by others.  It has been interesting to experience this, its pluses – not having to worry about hotels (and most have been full, with the exception of last night in Kandy) – and its minuses, like not choosing the type or positions of hotels.  Probably not an experiment we'll repeat, but worth trying.  

Fine after-sunset, bands of finest light-blue, yellow, dull orange, grey and mauve.

24.2.94 Kandy, Pinnawala

Early.  As the sun rises behind us, the tops of the mountains opposite are touched with pink.  The valleys below are full of thick clouds.  Last night there was a strange flickering light on our window: a firefly, its light pulsing with incredible brightness.  Then there were two, then none.  Later that night, moonset, amidst the mountains and clouds.  Around the lake.  Monkeys eye us suspiciously.  Pollywoggles in the water.  Everything so watered and green here.  The smell of cut grass, and lemon grass.  We are sad to leave – a good sign.

To the elephants' orphanage at Pinnawala – down to the restaurant by the river – shallow, fast flowing.  A breeze – but it's hot.  Passed several working elephants on the way, one dragging two huge logs.  A bit strong.  Below us a woman beats clothes on a rock. To the orphanage; for the feeding time of the babies.  Incredible tactile sensation, hairs like brushes, skin like some synthetic stuff, tiny pink tongues, appealing eyes; how could anyone want to destroy them?  The huge cries – even the tiny ones – you can get the sense of how terrible an adult in the wild would be.

25.2.94 Colombo

Terrible journey back.  Hot, dusty, lots of traffic.  Then last night, woken at midnight by scuttling.  Turned out to be a huge cockroach two to three inches long, not worse, thank goodness.  So, sleep broken.  Out to Kelaniya via the new Parliament building (dull).  Today is paya – full moon (hence the perahera here in Colombo – this paya is their perahera) – so the temple is full of white-robed visitors.  Nice to see the living temple.  The picture house rather fine on the outside – rich yellow sandstone, rounded dwarves and maidens – beautiful reclining Buddha inside behind a curtain (semi-transparent). A crush of people, many bearing flowers in offering – beautiful purple ones.  Incense everywhere, people praying.  Then to the river (dull) – in bare feet across dodgy road – not a good idea.  Procession led by drums, a chanting priest oscillating around three notes – almost Arabic.  Back to our lodgings.  Curd and treacle for pudding – yummy, fish to start.

Waiting for the perahera – without seats…  By the lake and the temple.  Gorgeous sunset behind.  All seating full since 4pm (it's now 6.20pm).  Saw odd elephant and troupes of dancers etc.  Thousands of people – and lots of troops (the other kind: they say the President will be here).  Whistles blowing everywhere.  An army of monks passes by – the prelude – and the relic.  We move twice, trying to see.  I am now sitting on top of a drain…  The whip crackers spin, scaring off the evil spirits.  Nasty whips.  Round where we were before by the TV cameras a (presumably sick) tusker stayed in a compound.  Standard bearers with the Buddhist flag.  Banners by the hundred.  Curious incense burners.  Shawms and drums – some musicians surprisingly old.  Conch blowers.  Serpentine horns.  

And here comes the elephant – the Thai tusker carrying the relic.  Legs chained, poor thing – blue covering.  A man follows with a shovel.  Fine ear coverings.  Another caparisoned in red.  A man with a shovel…  Dancers, princes, elephants with bells around their neck.  The heat from the braziers – even 15 feet away.  Lots of elephants, men in masks, men on stilts, in drag, with swords, spinning plates.  And what do the elephants think of it all…?  The more I see of elephants, the more miraculous they seem, with their oh-so-gentle proboscis.  And why do they have nails?  We have not seen the tusker, it seems.  The tusker lit up like a christmas tree (generator following), treading on white (silk?).  We go.

27.2.94 Kalutara

Yesterday, nothing – a true enough reflection in that we drove down here at 8am along the Galle Road – full of madcap buses – to the Sindbad Hotel.  And very nice it is too: open plan, on a spit of land between the sea and a river.  Not much beach – and that sharply shelving – but our room (#300) looks straight out at the sea – and is 30 yards from it.  Food good, if expensive.

So to the beach.  I finished "Running in the Family" – interesting and evocative, but so over-written.  Perhaps I'm just too caught up in my own style.  Now reading a book with Byron – "The Difference Engine".  Well written, well researched, nice premise, but rather bogged down in details – I feel quite please that the plot of "Doing the Business" moves so fast.  Gorgeous sunset last night: classical globe dipping into the sea, the breakers (which continued through the night) pounding the sands below us.

The end of a long, hot day.  We watch the sunset, the sun a perfect globe sinking into the mists that run along the endless horizon – one of the benefits of this place – the hugeness of the view – rare to see.  Excellent lunch – roaring hot curries that blew the top of my head off.  Drank coconut milk – the best we've had.  To my left, a lighthouse on an island.  Sunset not as fine as last night.  Many people gazing at it – touching this instinctive response to beauty, to declivity, we have.

2.3.94 Colombo

Our last full day here.  In our palatial lodgings.  High rooms, objets d'art, CDs of Vaughan Williams, Villa-Lobos – our terrifyingly cosmopolitan hosts.  The great fans swooping overhead, the hum of the air conditioning (great at night).  Went to a seafood restaurant last night – very good, surprisingly light.  Had Chinese dates and lotus buds.  Sindbad Hotel was a perfect relaxing end to a perfect holiday – archetypal sea, sand and sun.  Food good too (excellent sweets on Monday – fudges, watalappam and strange star-shaped mould dipped in batter then boiling oil – crunchy and salty.  And yet Sindbad was a little too perfect, too touristy, full of fat Germans and chain-smoking French.  Not like Singaraja etc.  

3.3.94 Colombo

Ha-ha – the usual fun and games.  Taxi doesn't arrive, so our host has to drive us to the airport.  Get here to find plane is delayed by three hours – so we miss our connection.  We have seats 2A and 2B – right next to Business Class smoking… 

4.3.94 Amsterdam

Er, still travelling… No flight possible last night, so taken to rather fine(ish) Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza near Schiphol.  Now waiting for 7.25am to London Heathrow.  The joys of travelling. [Note, though, that 2A and 2B turned out to be right at the front, under the pilots, and above the wheel...]

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