Sri Lanka is a jungle on a rock watered by tropical rains in the Indian Ocean. It likes to bill itself as the original Garden of Eden, but this seems unlikely. Adam and Eve would have been too busy gardening to deal with apples and serpents.
Sri Lanka is bursting, pushing, thrusting, thriving. The inhabitants are rushing, scurrying, surging forward dementedly in their tuk tuks, vans and trucks. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere, in case the jungle gets there first. The tsunami hit in 2005, the civil war ended in 2009, and everyone is anxious to make up for lost time. “Sri” means resplendent, and the island is alive with colour. Houses are painted pink, turquoise, orange and yellow, the sea is an amazing shade of blue, and the jungle swoops through every tint of green.
My friend Liz and I arrive in Colombo at five in the morning and are met by Sid, who will be our driver-guide for the next ten days. He greets us with garlands of flowers. We spend the first two nights in Negombo, a beach resort close to the airport, recovering from our twelve-hour flight on Sri Lankan Airlines (stingy with leg space, generous with alcohol).
On the second day Sid takes us to see the sights of Negomobo, which are few. Liz buys a hat and some travel sickness pills, I get my glasses fixed, and then Sid invites us to his guesthouse for coffee and what turns out to be an introduction to Buddhism – or at least his version of it. He says we should look for the truth within ourselves, and not compare ourselves to other people. He informs us that our fundamental “me” is different from the “shell” that is Liz or Patricia or Sid. If Sid breaks a finger, that doesn’t matter to the “me,” only to the “shell.” What if Sid is a concert pianist? I ask, but he evades the question.
Back to the pool for the afternoon. Having had Buddhism for lunch, around four we’re hungry. The pool bar offers milkshakes and cake: brown and cream Mabel Velvet Cake [sic], pink and green Ribbon Cake. It’s like being back in the 1950s. The radio features Billy Fury in Halfway to Paradise, and Connie Francis in Lipstick on your Collar.
Next morning we set off to the Cultural Triangle, in the northern part of the island, where a succession of ancient kingdoms founded capital cities. The road is lined with unlovely shacks selling everything from cement mixers to cell phones. Sid proves to be a highly efficient driver, skilfully weaving his friend’s borrowed Nissan in and out of single-lane traffic, accelerating past buses, sliding between trucks, overtaking vans. Maybe the friend’s Virgin Mary on the dashboard protects us. Sri Lanka is mostly Buddhist, but there is a sizeable Hindu minority, and some Muslims and Christians.
At noon we reach Yapahuwa, which was a royal capital between 1271 and 1283. Sri Lankan history is wonderfully confusing, a mish-mash of obscure kingdoms which all seem to have flourished and died in the space of a few decades. Later things got tidier as first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British arrived and worked their way inland from the coast. The Cultural Triangle consists of ruined mediaeval cities that were built on impossibly high hills, partly to evade the clutches of the jungle, and partly to ward off enemies. There is nothing left of Yapahuwa but a granite staircase leading up the rock to the ruins.
Time for lunch. Sid steers us to a roadside shack which serves rice, pappadums and fiendishly spicy dhal. Sid eats with his fingers, and we get spoons. A lottery seller idles by on a bike, with a radio blaring out the latest hit tune. On the road to Aukana, we see children in white uniforms riding home from school. Pointy-faced dogs, who look as if they would give you rabies with a mere gnash of their teeth, wander aimlessly along the roadside.
Aukana houses a gigantic Buddha carved in the living rock. While Sid buys tickets, we attempt to find what they call the “washroom.” A little man in a grey shirt and sarong leads us down the hill into some kind of Buddhist parish hall cluttered with plastic cups and chairs, and points to a door. The door is locked. The little man knocks gently on the door. Nothing happens. He whispers through the door. Nothing. The ticket seller comes out from his booth and knocks slightly harder. Nothing. Liz hammers on the door, the ticket seller beats a retreat, the grey shirt cringes. The door is flung open and a glaring monk appears in the doorway, retying a bright orange sarong. All this because of a siesta? My inner memsahib bursts to the fore and I spit, “About bloody time too!” The spirit of this gets through, if not the words, and he waves us through the junk-laden inner sanctum into the washroom. When we emerge, he’s waiting to ask where we’re from. “France,” I say, not untruthfully, and his lip curls. Clearly one can expect no better of the French.
We stay the night in Sigiriya. Our hotel is called the Eden Garden, and it’s a bit like being inside the Serpent: dark and slithery. The sinister swimming pool is overhung with trees, the restaurant is shadowy and clammy. Our room is up two flights of unlit stairs, at the far end of a cavernous gallery. The wall bordering the corridor is made of glass, and the door doesn’t lock. We complain to the desk clerk, who finds us vexatious, but sends a porter to check. The porter can’t lock it either. Having announced that he had no empty rooms, the clerk now produces one. Game, set and match. Sid, who has decided to let the memsahibs fight their own battles, applauds from a distance.
Sigiriya was built by King Kasyapa between 477 and 495 AD. Kasyapa killed his father, took refuge on top of a quite spectacular rock, built an elaborate city with an ingenious water system, and carved dancing girls on the rock face. In the end, he had to come down from the rock to fight his half-brother. Fearing the battle was lost, he killed himself. It’s too hot to make the vertiginous climb up the rock face in the sun, but we visit the excellent museum, admire the water gardens, and consume pineapple juice (our new craze) lounging in brown plastic chairs that are got up to look like carved wood.
On to Polonnaruwa, which is blessedly flat. Originally a Buddhist holy site, it was taken over by King Parakranabahu in 1161. Here too there’s a good museum that shows what the buildings must once have looked like, but there’s so little left that it’s hard to imagine. The site has dropped out of time. No one goes there now but tourists and souvenir sellers. Sid is not good at bringing the past to life. He was a hurdler in his youth, and he’s a man of action. History is not his thing: he has a tendency to confuse BC and AD, and he’s not good with abstractions. Part of the problem is his command of English, his strange relationship with certain consonants, and his habit of referring to the seventeenth century as “the seventies” and the eighteenth century as “the eighties.”
A treat awaits us on the way home. Sid has talked us into visiting an Ayurvedic massage parlour. We decline the steam bath, which looks like a coffin with a hole cut out for the head, but submit to the ministrations of two young female masseuses. We are pushed, pummeled, kneaded and oiled like lumps of meat on the butcher’s slab. By the time they’ve finished, we’re ready to be put in roasting tins and popped in the oven. Instead we drive home. A wild elephant lumbers across the road ahead of us in the dusk.
Back in the Serpent’s Stomach, we need a drink. Having taken the precaution of procuring the essentials at Charles-de-Gaulle airport (one bottle Bacardi, one bottle Scotch), all we need is Coca Cola from the bar. We take our time. By the time we reach the dining room, a group of German tourists has polished off most of the buffet dinner.
Dambulla has a pink-and-white wedding-cake museum, a huge golden Buddha, and orange-clad monk statues lining the path from the parking lot. Pure Buddhist kitsch. Up the hill are rock temples dating from the first century BC, with an entrance porch built by the Dutch. The temples are stuffed with a great many Buddha statues of varying sizes, recumbent and seated. It’s rather like visiting a Buddha warehouse. Pleasant, but strange. Next comes a Hindu shrine in a forest glade at Nalanda Gedige, and then spiritual matters are shoved aside, and it’s time to shop.
Sid has a list of tourist shops where he is duty bound to take us. One of these is the Spice Garden just north of Matale. An obliging gent takes us on a tour of a mini-plantation, pointing out cinammon trees and pepper trees, explaining that vanilla is a type of edible orchid, vaunting the medicinal quantities of this and that, giving us creams to try, and finally escorting us into the shop where we spend a fortune on snake oil and potions that we will probably never use.
The road from Matale to Kandy goes through the centre of the island, and it’s here that the scenery is most luxuriant and most beautiful. There are high forested hills to either side, the sun glances off the jungle, it’s just gorgeous. Gliding through this splendour in our air-conditioned car, I feel like the papal emissary in The Mission, overwhelmed by the Jesuit paradise in the depths of the jungle. I can see exactly why the Portuguese and the Dutch and the British, coming from their grey, cold, rainy homelands, were so keen to get hold of this glittering, jewelled island with its plants and spices and rich fertile soil. The houses that line the road are painted Barbie pink, sea turquoise, lime-green, pistachio, lemon yellow. Sid stops at a Buddhist retreat with a bilingual bookshop, and tries to persuade us to buy a wonderful book about Buddhism that he is reading.
Kandy is the second biggest town on the island. It was the final seat of Ceylonese power, retrenched in the middle of the island, while the colonists nibbled away at the edges. The British took over in 1815, and packed the king off to India. The approach to the town is a scruffy commercial strip with lumber yards, a Buddhist Boys’ Home, a Rest Home for the Elders, and outlets for Nippon Cement (Bonds For Life). We check in to the Hotel Topaz, high on a hill overlooking the town, with amazing views and well-groomed greeter ladies, all smiles and saris.
And then Sid takes us out for a drink. Kandy is a ramshackle place best viewed from the surrounding hilltops, and he drives up to a bar overlooking the lake and the Temple of the Tooth. He suggests coffee, but by this time of day the memsahibs need something stronger. We inspect the liquor menu, and Sid notes that they serve Glenfiddich. I’m surprised he knows what it is, since he announced two days ago that, as a Buddhist, he avoids putting harmful substances into his body, but it seems he used to be a drinker. I ask if he would care to join me in a glass of Glenfiddich, and he accepts with alacrity, but then the barista sorrowfully explains that the bar’s liquor licence expired yesterday, and won’t be renewed till tomorrow. Back to Square One.
We adjourn to the Police Officers’ Mess. Sid used to be a police officer until he retired two years ago, and he still possesses a United Nations police pass (though we haven’t quite gathered why), not to mention contacts everywhere and an authoritative manner. The Police Officers’ Mess is deserted, which is a pity, sociologically speaking, but Sid orders Johnnie Walker Gold Label, which I’ve never heard of, but which is excellent, and some of what they call “short eats”: in this case chickpeas and fried potatoes. It’s the best food I’ve had for days. Curry and rice have palled very fast – far too spicy, and not very varied. The conversation gets on to Buddhism again, and Sid informs us that a bad action, if done the right way, is good. I can’t get my mind round that, and I wonder if he can.
Driving through Kandy next morning to the Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya, we pass pawn shops, a restaurant called Bite Me, and a great many schools, colleges, and other places of education. From the Little Wonders Nursery to the Cornerstone College, Kandy is bent on self-improvement. Sid says that secondary education is free, but access to higher education is very restricted. People are anxious to get ahead because salaries are low and so are pensions. The Botanic Gardens were founded in 1815 by the British. Tsar Nicholas II and Lord Mountbatten both planted trees there.
On to the Elephants’ Orphanage in Pinnawela. It’s a two-hour drive. Families are out on the road, in tuk tuks or vans, and there’s a lot of traffic, though not many private cars. Today is the first day of a long holiday weekend. We pass a man driving a scooter with his wife sitting behind him and the baby wedged between them. The journey is enlivened by bland instrumental versions of Homeward Bound, Exodus, and Sailing, punctuated by squeaky recorders and additional twiddly bits. Sid’s had the radio on non-stop since Negombo, and it’s driving us mad. At the Elephants’ Orphanage, we watch two baby elephants being bottle-fed by a keeper. The smaller one tries to push the bigger one out of the way and the keeper sends him off with a slap. He goes off into a corner and sulks for a bit, and then tries to edge his way back.
After a lunch of Chinese noodles, we head back to Kandy, passing the Ladies’ Prayer Hall and The People’s Bank (The Pulse of the People). “Peace begins with a smile” says the slogan on the back of a tuk tuk. There’s not much to see in Kandy, so it’s back to shopping. First on the list is a gem factory, followed by a tacky textile shop whose salesgirls have not been trained in Western shopping practices (Rule One: Totally Ignore the Customer), and follow us round the store breathing down our necks. Next comes a performance of Sri Lankan folklore, which we have been nervous about all day, but which turns out much better than expected, with gorgeous costumes and excellent dancing.
And then, as night is falling, we walk round the lake to the Temple of the Tooth. It’s an imposing sixteenth-century temple which allegedly houses one of the Buddha’s teeth. It has a comfortable family atmosphere that reminds me of a Burmese pagoda. People bring their babies to be blessed, toothless grandmas queue up to see the sacred casket. (The actual tooth is not on view. Why am I not surprised?) Sri Lankans make pilgrimages here from all over the island. Looking at people’s faces, your scepticism fades. They are moved by what they see, and you are moved by their emotion, even if you don’t share it.
The train ride from Peradeniya to Gampola is reputed for its scenic views. Sid drops us at the station. The train is packed. We’re wedged in the corridor in the middle of a group of young men clutching sports equipment. They clap their hands and bang on the walls. When the train goes through a tunnel everyone screams. God knows what the scenery’s like: we can’t see a damn thing.
Sid is waiting with the car at Gampola. We’ve asked him to find us coffee – proper Sri Lankan coffee, not the Nescafé the locals favour. As usual, he knows just the place. Sid is no good at history, but in other respects he’s a treasure. When we complain about the muzak on the car radio he finds an English-language station called Gold FM which plays a weird array of tunes from the Fifties and Sixties, all of which are instantly familiar, despite the fact that I’ve never heard them before. Maybe they’re all B-sides and the rights are cheaper. “Gold FM,” murmurs a guy with a fake American accent, “wherever you are, wherever you go, all over Paradise Island.”
In this part of the island (heading south-east), we are what they call “up-country.” No more history. Attractions are waterfalls and a tea plantation. We stay overnight in Nuwara Eliya, the former summer residence of the British governors, a scrubby little town built in chalet style. It claims to be inspired by the Surrey stockbroker belt, and the weather is just like the Lake District. It’s popular with Sri Lankans who come to get away from the heat. They rent the chalets, and drink. Sid packs us off to the park for an hour while he gets something fixed on the car. There’s nothing to see, which is good, because we’re all Buddha-d out. It’s a relief to retire to the Heaven Seven hotel, halfway up a hill, read Michael Crichton and listen to music on the iPod.
Independence Day. The tuk tuks all sport the national flag, which features an orange stripe (for the Buddhists), a green stripe (for the Hindus), and a lion (to commemorate the ancient kings). Sri Lankans claim to be descended from lions and the Buddha. Gold FM plays By the Rivers of Babylon, and gives us local news from Australia and Singapore. This year the main Independence Day celebrations are in Trincomalee, a town on the east coast that was once a Tamil stronghold. The purpose of this, says Sid, is to prove to the world that the nation is united. “If you’re listening in Trincomalee,” says Gold FM, “you’re right there! Hallelujah.”
Driving down the mountain to Tissaharama, it becomes clear that this part of the island is much poorer than the area round the ancient sites. The region hasn’t been developed for tourism, and the people live off agriculture. A lot of Sri Lankans work as domestic servants in the Gulf Arab states, and Western Union offices are much in evidence. The radio dedicates a song to “everyone at Ceylon Chocolates,” and another to “Terence in Montreal, Quebec, that’s Canada.”
We stop for coffee in Ella, a mountain town, at a restaurant perched on the hillside run by another of Sid’s good friends, and delve deeper into Sid’s biography. Now forty-two, he seems to have been a wild young man. When he was young he was a national-level hurdler and won competitions. When he left school he went to Colombo, ostensibly to study but in reality to pursue his athletic career. When his mother discovered this she told him that she wanted a son not a horse. She cut off the money, he joined the police, and found himself in a Special Task Force fighting Tamil insurgents in the jungle. A stint in the Foreign Intelligence Service running informants was followed by an assignment driving high-level visitors around, then came some years in the CID. He acquired the United Nations police pass when he was doing police training in East Timor. Now he’s retired from the police and is taking tourists around for a living. In eight years’ time, when he’s fifty, he says he’s going to change his name and withdraw from the world into an ashram he’s in the process of building. He will renounce capitalism and be self-sufficient. Visitors to the ashram will not be charged. They will live off the vegetables he will grow. We don’t know what to make of this, but he seems very sure of himself.
Liz has a craving for jaggery, a local toffee-type delicacy, but all the shops are closed for Independence Day, so Sid takes us to a local hotel for jaggery pudding, which is dark brown and very sweet. After checking into the hotel at Tissa, it’s off again to Kataragama, which is a holy city for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alike. It’s dark by now. The Hindus have an interesting little routine that consists of lighting a candle in a coconut shell, waiting till the light goes out, and then smashing it down to the ground with great force. The Buddhists make offerings of fruit, which they buy from stalls set up outside the temple grounds. We have an offering too, which we duly get blessed, and then Sid gives it to the pilgrims flocking through the grounds. Elephants wander the temple grounds, and it’s dark and rather chaotic. Leaving the temple, Sid finds the road closed off by police barriers. Without missing a beat, he gets out of the car, enlists the help of a couple of bystanders, calmly moves the barriers, and drives the car through.
Back at the hotel, we eat dinner in the rather gloomy dining room. Sri Lankans are big on dark wood. I order prawns and noodles, followed by curd with treacle. The curd is distinctly sour, and God knows what was wrong with the prawns. Retribution arrives at two thirty a.m. Liz was struck down half an hour earlier. The rest of the night is distinctly unpleasant. At eight, we turn off the alarm, at nine we warn Sid that we won’t be leaving just yet, and at eleven we stagger forth. Sid drives us straight to Tangalle, to the beach resort we’ll be staying in for the next few days.
The Palm Paradise Cabanas are individual bungalows, basic but functional, with huge covered verandas. Liz is feeling better, but I am not, so she summons a doctor via Reception. The doctor shows up half an hour later, a charming young lady who can’t have been qualified very long, accompanied by a uniformed nurse wearing white knee socks, a white apron, and a watch pinned to her bosom. The doctor examines me and consults by phone with higher authority. Then she doles out five sets of pills to be taken for three days, with a warning that if I’m not better by then I’ll have to go to hospital. So there’s nothing for it but to get better.
The next few days are quiet in our little palm-fringed ghetto. The hotel is run by two dour Germans called Siegfried and Brunhilde (well, that’s what we call them). We talk to some of the other people staying there. We become addicted to toasted cheese sandwiches. We visit Tangalle, a flea-bitten little town with not a lot going on. We get very burned on the beach. We take a trip by tuk tuk to Galle (pronounced Gawl), a port once used by Arab traders to transport gems, silks, and spices from the Far East to Genoa and Venice, conquered in 1597 by the Portuguese, taken over in 1640 by the Dutch. The old Dutch houses are being done up, and turned into boutique guesthouses and trendy clothes stores. The Heritage Café sells us Lavazza iced coffee and focaccia sandwiches.
This is the west coast of the island, where they take the enticing pictures of palms and white-sand beaches and coloured fishing boats to lure you to Paradise Island. On the way to Galle, we stop at Weligama to observe the local fishermen, who are renowned for perching on odd-looking poles to catch their fish. As soon as they see us coming, they leap up from the beach and jump on their poles. When we put our cameras away, they hop down and demand a tip. I’m not sure how they actually catch the fish. The sea is a wonderful colour, and the palms lean seaward at enchanting angles, but the approach to Galle is full of ratty beach resorts for back-packing surfers, crammed between the highway and the sea’s edge.
Tangalle is a good place to catch up on one’s reading. Especially when it rains. The monsoon is supposed to be over, but we have several evenings of rain and one full day. I tinker with Girl with Parasol, my work in progress, and consider how to get the hero and heroine back together. The cabin is damp, the sheets are damp, our clothes are damp. The roof leaks in puddles on the floor, and from outside comes the rich dank smell of something rotting.
Sid comes to take us to Mulkirigala, where there are rock temples from the 2nd century BC, built on a boulder sticking up from the plain. From there he escorts us to the site of his future ashram. This outing is not on the programme, and we are off the tourist map. At our own request, we are deep in the heart of rural Sri Lanka. First we stop at a wayside shack to drink coconuts. “This is the kind of atmosphere I like,” says Sid cheerily, setting his plastic chair on the earthen floor, while the vendor hacks away at the coconut with his machete. Lunch has been prepared for us at the home of the caretaker who looks after the ashram, a vast chili-less meal of many dishes and two kinds of rice, specially prepared for whining foreigners. The caretaker, a retired farmer, lives in a large, bare, basic house with his extended family. The table is laid for us alone. The rest of them sit around, play with the children, and watch us eat.
A post-prandial stroll through the jungle takes us to the ashram. So far it consists of a single hut with rudimentary walls, equipped with two planks to serve as a bed. Sid assures us that it’s a great place for a siesta. He urges us to return in eight years’ time to meditate and to write. Tempting, but how productive would you be with all the wildlife howling around, and the jungle making strange noises in the dark? At the future main gate a sign says “A Meditation Center For Realization Of One’s Own Self.” A mangy cow, donated by someone, is tied up near the entrance. Everything else is a work in progress. (Checking out the website when I get home, I discover an astonishing list of rules prescribing lights out at nine and no talking.)
A group of little girls stops to stare at us and giggle. Sid arrives with the car, the caretaker hauls his sarong up round his waist to walk home, and we crawl back into our air-conditioned cocoon. “When you reveal your deepest emotions,” says Gold FM, “it’s not just art it’s freedom. Especially when its essence is premium cocoa butter. It’s not chocolate, it’s Revello.”
We decide we need Revello, and Sid promptly finds us some, in a Western-style supermarket called “Food City.” There are two Sids: Sid Past, the highly competent, resourceful ex-policeman, who has possibly done things he can no longer live with, and Sid Future, the self-eclipsing, vanishing, nameless, meditating wannabe. Sid Present is a strange mix where sometimes one and sometimes the other predominates. “True liberty is to be free of all viceses,” says the slogan on a passing tuk tuk.
Our last day in Sri Lanka is Valentine’s Day, which Gold FM takes as an excuse for a shameless outpouring of schmaltz. “Men don’t care all that much about Valentine’s Day,” confides the (male) presenter, “but we know the ladies are more soft-hearted.” The road to Colombo is drowned in slushy violins. I can’t help falling in love with you, I’ll be loving you eternally, all I need is the air that I breathe in to love you.
Colombo turns out to be sleeker and more sophisticated than we had imagined. It has its share of scabby commercial shacks, but the centre is green and spacious. There are several well-preserved colonial buildings, and some flashy modern ones. The people on the streets are better dressed: shimmering saris replace the nondescript T-shirts and knee-length flared skirts of the countryside. There are sharp boutiques called Cool Planet and Barefoot and Odell’s where the golden youth of the capital go to do their shopping. Presumably they’re the people who listen to Gold FM: English-speaking, affluent, entitled, convinced of their right to shove past you and tread on your feet.
Our plane is due to take off at the uncivilized hour of 01.15, and Sid has offered to take us to his house to change and have dinner beforehand. Having seen what he considers good living conditions the day before, we are apprehensive. Sid ushers us into a house that would fit nicely into Elle Déco. The well proportioned living room has a high ceiling, open kitchen, computer, well-filled bookshelves, and a television. Sid’s twelve-year-old daughter is glued to a Korean-made series that goes out every weeknight. Part of the room is open to the air, with grass on the ground and plants in coconut pots on the walls. Sid designed it all himself. We start to think his ashram really will come to pass. His wife is charming and speaks excellent English. A few days earlier, he asserted that she was ready to become a nun as soon as he became a monk. When we tell her we visited the ashram, she seems bemused. We’ll check the website again in eight years time.