Cue the queue

 

 

I am one of the 20% of the human race that is currently in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

The appearance of the easily transmitted and often deadly virus caused Sri Lanka, my present country of residence, to announce a curfew last Friday evening.  This was a sensible decision in my opinion, as there are now about a hundred confirmed Covid-19 cases (though as yet no deaths from it) in Sri Lanka and, if its spread is to be slowed, the authorities needed to take drastic action quickly.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.

 

Consequently, the citizens of Colombo, where I live, were confined to their homes for the next four days.  The curfew was lifted at 6.00 AM this morning – Tuesday, March 24th – but re-imposed in the early afternoon.  This was to allow folk a chance to nip out to the shops and top up on supplies for their kitchens.

 

Okay, the prospect of everyone in Colombo ‘nipping out to the shops’ during the same half-dozen hours was a potentially worrying one, because the supermarkets suddenly being crammed with people trying to buy groceries could lead to a bunch of new Covid-19 infections.  To lessen this danger, it was announced beforehand that the numbers of people on supermarket premises at any one time would be restricted and everyone else would have to queue outside and wait their turn.

 

So I got up reasonably early and headed out at about 7.00 AM – first to the nearest ATM and then to the nearest supermarket, which was Food City on Marine Drive.  There was already much traffic on the road, and the line of vehicles waiting for petrol at the local filling station had already backed up along the next block.  But very few people seemed to be out on foot.  I nearly had the seaward pavement of Marine Drive to myself.

 

Then I arrived at Food City, on the corner of another block, and discovered good news and bad news.  The good news was that Food City was already open – normally it doesn’t start business until about 8.30.  The bad news was that already a queue had formed outside, which was being slowly threaded into the premises by a group of shop-workers and police officers.  I approached from the south and the queue was arranged to the north of Food City’s entrance so, at first, I didn’t see how long it was.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.

 

At the next corner, where Marine Drive formed a junction with Retreat Road, the queue turned 90 degrees and continued up the latter road.  I kept walking and counting people.  I finally reached the end of the queue two-thirds of the way along Retreat Road, having counted 173.  (Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a pretty long queue for 173 people.)

 

Figuring that I wasn’t going to find anywhere better than this – from what I’ve seen of it, the Marine Drive branch is one of Food City’s less known and less frequented outlets – I took my place as 174th person in the queue and started waiting.  My decision was confirmed when, sometime later, a flustered-looking English lady of about 60 years old walked past talking into a phone.  “I’ve just looked at the Food City on Marine Drive,” she said, “and the queue there’s as bad as everywhere else!”

 

 

The queue inched along.  At about 8.15, I’d advanced to the Marine Drive / Retreat Road corner and the sign with the red, round Food City logo was finally, if only just, in view.  Then, however, there was no further movement for about half-an-hour, which may have been because the Food City staff needed time to restock their shelves and nobody else was allowed in.

 

But movement finally resumed.  By about 9.15 I was standing underneath that sign…

 

 

…and maybe 20 minutes after that, it was finally my turn to enter.

 

 

Inside, the produce section had been entirely stripped, apart from a couple of trays of red onions and a few items of fruit.  But most of the things on my shopping list were available: water, eggs, milk powder, cream, pasta, noodles, margarine, chocolate.

 

Despite the frustrations of the wait, everybody outside Food City showed patience and understanding.  I suppose because of the 30-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami, and the Easter Sunday bombings last year, Sri Lankans are used to having to abide by, and understand the importance of, emergency security measures.  A big thank you is due, though, to the shop-staff and the assigned police officers, who kept the operation running smoothly.

 

To keep myself from going mad with boredom, I’d brought a book along and so I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1976 gothic opus Interview with the Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic crisis, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems the lesser of two evils.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 14

 

 

The previous post on this blog had a Korean theme.  So too will this one.

 

For the past half-dozen years, I’ve lived in the neighbourhood of Wellawatta’s busy Savoy Cinema.  At times, though, I’ve wondered why it doesn’t call itself the Marvel Cinema, seeing as for months on end its screens seem to show nothing but movies featuring superheroes who originated in the pages of Marvel comics: Ironman, Thor, Captain America, Spiderman, Dr Strange, Black Panther, etc.

 

Actually, as Marvel was bought up by Disney a decade ago, and for most of the rest of the time, the Savoy has been dominated by Disney films, most recently Dumbo, Frozen II and The Lion King (all 2019) and by Star Wars movies – a franchise that, yes, now belongs to Disney too – the cinema might more accurately call itself the Disney Cinema.

 

To be fair, the Savoy occasionally airs Bollywood movies and homegrown ones like the recent Sinhala disaster-drama movie Tsunami (2020) as well.  But as you pass it and see what’s advertised on its hoardings, you can be forgiven for thinking that it’s devoted almost exclusively to family-friendly Hollywood fare from the House of Mouse, which has now annexed the House of Stan Lee and the House of George Lucas.

 

Not that I want to knock the cinema too much for that.  It’s left me with some memorable images over the years.  The release of 2019’s long-awaited superhero movie Avengers: Endgame coincided with the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, which meant that cinemas here – like every other venue where people gathered in large numbers – were closed for several weeks.  Thus, while cinema audiences elsewhere in the world could enjoy the climactic movie in the Avengers series, it was a sight unseen for Sri Lankans.  I thought it was a heartening sign that things were returning to normal when, one morning a few weeks after the atrocity, I left my apartment and saw a massive queue of Sri Lankan kids extending from the cinema entrance and halfway back along the street.  Yes, the Savoy had finally reopened its doors and every nerd in Colombo had rushed there to catch the very first showing of Avengers: Endgame.  (Everyone who went by was shaking the hand of the proud nerd who’d managed to bag first place in the queue.)

 

And the day before 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker opened at the Savoy, I was initially alarmed when I saw two middle-aged Sri Lankan men having a fight on the pavement outside with what looked like a pair of swords.  Then I realised they were actually wielding plastic lightsabres and were apparently trying to re-enact one of the famous duels from the Star Wars films.  Bless.

 

Anyway, the Savoy has just done something refreshing.  I was walking past it the other day when I discovered that it’d put on a fancy promotional display in its entrance for a new film it was showing – not the latest thing to roll off the Disney / Hollywood conveyor belt, but the 2019 South Korean movie Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed and deliciously morbid black comedy / social satire about a hard-pressed South Korea family, the Kims, who gradually infiltrate the household of a wealthy family, the Paks.  Pretending not to know one another, let alone be related to one another, the Kims secure lucrative jobs one by one as the Paks’ servants and children’s tutors, whilst ruthlessly usurping anybody who’s employed in those jobs already.  The plot takes a simultaneously funny, tragic and bloody twist when one of the people whom the Kims push aside in order to win the Paks’ confidence turns out to be harbouring a bizarre secret.

 

I like how the Savoy’s Parasite promotion has life-sized cut-outs of the lovable but sneaky Kims positioned on one side of the entrance and cut-outs of the well-meaning but unintentionally patronising Paks positioned on the other.

 

 

No doubt Parasite broke the Disney / Marvel / Hollywood stranglehold over the Savoy because of the praise and recognition it’s received.  Not only did it win the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but, of course, it snapped up a slew of awards at the recent Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture and Best Director.  So although it’s fashionable to slag off the Oscars these days, they obviously retain some clout in South Asia.

 

I expect Parasite to draw enthusiastic audiences in Colombo because Korean culture seems to be pretty trendy in Sri Lanka nowadays.  A while back, I was talking to a young Sri Lankan guy who told me that South Korea has replaced the Gulf as the destination where people his age want to go to make money – he himself was taking Korean language lessons every weekend to improve his chances of finding work there.  And the other week, my own work took me to a school in the rural town of Eheliyagoda where I was intrigued to see, after school hours, an extra-curricular Korean language lesson being delivered to a motley group of Sri Lankan schoolkids between the ages of about 12 and 17.

 

Plus there are now plenty of restaurants offering Korean cuisine, in Colombo at least.  In my previous post, I mentioned the traditional-style Han Gook Gwan on Havelock Road.  I should also give a plug for the excellent (and super-friendly) Café the Seoul on the Kollupitiya stretch of Galle Road.

 

Ritigala

 

 

‘Ritigala Archaeological Site’ is not the most enticing name for a tourist attraction.  It suggests excavations, holes, trenches, mud and dirty, barely recognisable artefacts that have just been pulled out of the ground.  That might be the reason why Ritigala is one of the less well-known attractions in the Cultural Triangle of north-central Sri Lanka, which encompasses the historical cities of Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polunnaruwa and other tourist draws such as Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Caves.  Well, I say ‘less well-known’ in an international sense.  The day that my partner and I visited, we saw just three other foreigners there.  However, the site was still bustling, thanks to the arrival of a coach-party of Sri Lankans and the presence of a number of Sri Lankan students, presumably archaeological ones, who were busy surveying parts of it.

 

Ritigala is also off the Cultural Triangle’s beaten tourist tracks.  We went there by tuk-tuk from our hotel in the town of Habarana, which involved travelling down a series of ever-narrowing and ever-less-tarmacked roads and into ever-deeper woods.  Among the trees, bushes, ferns, brambles and long grass encroaching on the roadsides, we spotted several peacocks, while occasional vortices of white butterflies would suddenly and chaotically change patterns as they entered the slipstream of the tuk-tuk.

 

Among the historical names linked with Ritigala include King Pandukabhaya, who ruled during the fourth century BC and is said to have established a garrison there as well as, according to the site’s Wikipedia entry, building a reservoir called Banda Pokuna near to the present site’s entrance; King Lanji Tissa, who reigned in the second century AD and founded a monastery there, with the monks living in local caves and rock-shelters; and King Sena I, who reigned in the ninth century AD and whose endowment led to the construction of a whole monastery complex at Ritigala.  By the end of the 12th century AD, however, the monastery had been abandoned to the jungle and it wasn’t until 1872 that its remains were discovered by a British surveyor called James Mantell.

 

 

The site covers 59 acres and is traversed by a path that winds and twists roughly northwards from the entrance.  It begins by negotiating two sides of the reservoir, Banda Pokuna, which nowadays is full of vegetation rather than water.  Bordered by terraces of long stone steps, it slightly resembles a Roman amphitheatre.

 

 

Beyond Banda Pokuna, the path disintegrates and there’s an arduous descent down one rocky and rubble-strewn slope and then a climb up another one, which we found hard going.  Gradually, though, the rocks coalesce into a twisting stone staircase that, from some angles, struck me as being like one of those head-scratching illustrations by M.C. Escher.

 

 

The path links up several spaces that contain the foundations of vanished monastery buildings.  A map we’d seen at the entrance used the English word ‘library’ for one such spot, while describing others as padhanaghara, which in Sri Lankan Buddhism are buildings for meditation.  The patterns made by the rectangular depressions, the low, straight lines remaining of the walls, the stumpy remnants of pillars and the shallow trenches that once formed little moats around the structures give these places the look of giant, primitive, stone-hewn circuit boards.

 

 

Also along the route are two circular areas whose circumferences were composed of a dozen or more curved stone segments.  They’re like traffic roundabouts along a road but without the islands at their centres.

 

 

Once we’d navigated the steep, broken parts of the path just above the entrance, we found subsequent stretches of it lovely.  It becomes a miniature forest roadway, bounded by lines of long, narrow stones, paved with roughly oblong slabs of various sizes and lengths that fit together like a giant jigsaw, and punctuated by occasional sets of stone steps.  We visited on a day of fine weather and it was dappled with tree shadows and speckled by shafts of sunlight that penetrated the leaves and fronds.

 

 

In places along the path-sides, we passed big, crudely conical mounds of dried brown dirt, which were sinisterly pitted with small black holes.  I assume these were termite-mounds.

 

 

The far end of the path is no longer paved and becomes just a forest track.  Here we went by a banyan tree with an immense and elevated root system that made it look like a tangle of giant spaghetti oozing off a giant fork.  There were baroque gaps in the root-mass at ground-level where it seemed to somehow hoist itself up into the air.  The first time we passed the tree, it’d attracted a squad of kids from the coach-group who were clambering up, over and inside it and posing for photos and selfies.  When we returned along the path a little later, the kids had gone from the tree and that was when we took some pictures of it.

 

 

Though the site is rewarding to explore, it comes to an undramatic end.  The track finishes at a northern perimeter, described on the map as the ‘boundary line’, which is simply a wire fence displaying a green sign with some writing in Sinhala.  At the bottom of the sign, someone with a warped (possibly heavy-metal-ish) sense of humour had scratched in English the name ‘Satan’.

 

Finally, as my partner and I are animal lovers, I should end this account of Ritigala with a mention of the cute dog who was living on the site and who intermittently accompanied us during our walk up and down it.  Here’s a picture of him posing at the top of some steps with his tail cranked up proudly in the air.

 

 

Festive Jaffna

 

 

“Someone’s kidnapped the Baby Jesus!”

So exclaimed my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, on December 23rd when we checked into a hotel in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost city, and took a peek into the Christmas Nativity scene that had a prominent position in the hotel lobby.  And yes, there was a space in the scene’s central area that is traditionally occupied by the Holy Infant.  My better half also observed that only two Wise Men were present.  Could the missing third Wise Man have kidnapped little Jesus?

 

 

We’d decided to spend our Christmas break in Jaffna because, firstly, it seemed like something different to do at this time of year, and secondly, we thought that the festive season might be a little less mad there.  The second of those reasons proved to be wishful thinking.  For one thing, Jaffna is the main city for Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, many of whom are Christians, and obviously people there were going to make a big thing of Christmas.  Besides, as I have discovered during my travels over the years, trying to escape Christmas is a futile exercise.  Everyone, everywhere, loves Christmas.  (Even when I lived in North Korea, my local store had a Christmas tree standing in its forecourt – for 365 days of the year.)

 

Perhaps Jaffna’s most striking – literally striking – way of marking Christmas this year was to deck out one of its landmarks, the Clock Tower, in multiple strings of coloured lights, so that at night it resembled a giant lightsabre.  I should say that the Clock Tower does not tilt like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, as it seems to do in the following picture.  Its apparent tilting was caused by the clumsy angle at which I held my camera, possibly due to my having imbibed a couple of beers by that point in the evening.

 

 

Close to the Clock Tower is the Jetwing Hotel, in whose rooftop bar we spent Christmas Eve.  It was there that we encountered Santa Claus.  He was, it has to be said, a pretty disturbing-looking Santa Claus, equipped with not only a fake woolly beard but also a mask that might have been worn by a serial killer in a 1980s slasher movie.  In fact, he looked like the sort of Santa who should be popping out of the chimney at you at Halloween, not at Christmas.

 

 

Earlier on Christmas Eve, on Jaffna’s Main Street, we’d witnessed a scene that seemed to encapsulate Christmas in Sri Lanka more than any other scene could – a bunch of Sri Lankan blokes loading Christmas trees onto the roof of a tuk-tuk.

 

 

On Christmas Day, as an alternative to the normal practices of present-giving, festive-TV-watching and binge-eating and drinking, we decided to hire a tuk-tuk and go on a tour of the islands just off the Jaffna peninsula, which are linked by causeways.  We discovered on the island of Kayts what we thought were the nicest Christmas tree and Nativity scene of the season – not because they were particularly lavish or spectacular, but because they fitted in snugly amid their surroundings, the attractive interior of St James Church at Kayts town.  Our elderly edition of the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka had warned us that the church’s “façade and exterior walls survive, but the roof is gone and there’s nothing inside but wooden scaffolding, giving the entire structure the look of an elaborate film prop.”  Happily, since that edition was published, the church has been restored and is now a functioning place of worship again.

 

 

We discovered that Christmas had even made it to Punkudutivu, the furthest out of the causeway-linked islands, as this illustrated sheet draped down the front of a house-front shows.  I could almost imagine that Punkudutivu got its name from the fact that travelling on its ultra-bumpy roads is a pretty punk-rock thing to do – so using a flying sleigh is probably the most comfortable way to visit the place.

 

 

Finally, on the morning of December 25th, we noticed that – hallelujah! – the Baby Jesus had suddenly materialised in the middle of our hotel’s Nativity scene.  At the same time we realised that, since he was born on Christmas Day, he obviously wasn’t going to be present in the stable on the 23rd or the 24th.  There was still no sign of that third Wise Man, though.  Maybe he’d started on the eggnog a few days early.

 

 

A merry metal Christmas

 

 

After events last week, I definitely needed cheering up by the time the weekend arrived.  Happily, I was duly cheered up by the holding of Colombo Open Air 2019.  This was a heavy metal concert featuring mainly Sri Lankan bands held on December 14th at the premises of the quaintly named Otter Aquatic Club – actually a private club with swimming and other sports facilities – just off Bauddhaloka Mawatha in Colombo 7.

 

This was the first time I’d been to this venue and I much prefered it to Shalika Hall on Park Road in Colombo 5, which had hosted most of the previous live music concerts I’d attended in the city.  (The hall doesn’t have sidewalls, creating weird acoustics because much of the sound escapes out into the night, and causing discomfort because a lot of mosquitos get in.)  The Otter Aquatic Club provided a pleasant open courtyard with a covered stage for the bands and some other roofed-over spaces, including a makeshift bar, where the audience could shelter if it started to rain.  Fortunately, despite Sri Lanka being gripped at the moment by a protracted and seemingly interminable rainy season, the only rain that fell tonight did so during an interval between two of the sets.  Meanwhile, the Club evidently makes efforts to keep its premises mosquito-free because I didn’t see (or feel) one of the bity wee bastards all night.

 

The concert kicked off in the late afternoon with a competition whereby some less established / up-and-coming bands competed for the prize of a place in the line-up at the Indian heavy metal festival Bangalore Open Air.  Due to other commitments, however, I was only able to get there at seven o’clock, with the first in a series of established bands due to take the stage at 7.20.  It was here that I experienced the only bum-note of the night, because it transpired that the schedule advertised on Facebook differed from the schedule actually being followed, and the first of those established bands, Mass Damnation, had already performed their set and left the stage.  (At least I’ve seen Mass Damnation before, at Shalika Hall.)  What, things not following the official schedule?  That’s never happened before in Sri Lanka…

 

Oh well.  I still had three Sri Lankan bands to see, plus the concert’s headliners, Kryptos, a band from Bangalore, which seems to be the happening place for heavy metal in India these days.  (According to this Guardian article, Bangalore has Iron Maiden to thank for that.)  First on after my arrival were Paranoid Earthling, described by their Wikipedia entry as a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy.  One of their assets is their vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who always struck me as looking a little like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a little like the late, great Bon Scott; and who, with his between-song tirades about the state of things, is surely the grumpiest man in Sri Lankan heavy metal.  I was just glad that tonight when Buckman was railing against the media and the low standards of his country’s journalists that he didn’t glance behind him – otherwise, he’d have seen a screen at the back of the stage, which was advertising the concert’s sponsors, flashing the logo of Ceylon Today.

 

Next up were comparative old-timers – founded in 1995 – Whirlwind, who provide a denser and more mannered sound.  Due to ongoing scheduling issues, they hadn’t had time to do a proper soundcheck beforehand and were forced to give ongoing instructions to the audio engineer between songs.  I have to say I didn’t think this affected the quality of their music, which I found intense, immersive and even hypnotic at times.

 

 

After Whirlwind, by way of contrast, came death / black metal outfit Genocide Shrines.  Clad in ski-masks and gimp-masks, the Shrines present a thunderous assault of noise that, according to the Metal Archives website, is inspired by themes of ‘tantra / spiritual warfare’, ‘death’ and ‘arrack’.  So at that point, to get trantrically attuned to them, I bought a big glass of arrack at the bar.

 

The evening’s final hour was given over to Indian guests Kryptos.  It doesn’t surprise me that their Wikipedia entry says they are greatly influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  (They’ve even supported Iron Maiden, which must have been a dream come true for them.)  This is because while they struck their opening chords, I immediately thought: “Judas Priest!”  And every song that started up thereafter sounded like it was about to turn into Breaking the Law.  I say that in an absolutely complimentary way, incidentally.

 

At the end of the night, with a smile restored to my face, and with my body filled again with good cheer appropriate to the season, I took my leave of Colombo Open Air 2019.  Thank you, Paranoid Earthling, Whirlwind, Genocide Shrines and all the other great guys (and ladies) of the Sri Lankan heavy metal scene.  And a Merry Christmas to you all.

 

 

Dambulla Caves

 

 

As with several other famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka, the advice we’d received regarding the Badulla Caves Temple had been “Go early.”  We duly got up at the crack of dawn and by seven o’clock had arrived at the ticket office below the site.  In fact, the office’s window was still shuttered, and an old fellow had to shuffle out of an adjoining building to attend to us.  Then we were directed upwards, for there were steps to climb.

 

 

Even if we hadn’t been able to enter the temple, which dates back to the first century BC and is recognised as the biggest and most impressive cave-temple complex on the island, I think it would have been worth going there just for the ascent up the steps.  Filtering between the branches and fronds of the trees growing on the lower slopes, the hazy, dreamy morning light gave the stone staircases and the sections of pathway between them an enchanted look.  Later, when we emerged above most of the trees, we had a gorgeous view.  The land below was carpeted in now-bright and sun-drenched treetops, which parted close by to reveal long clay-tiled rooftops, while a high beehive-shaped mountain rose up across the way.

 

 

During our ascent we encountered monkeys.  People who’d put comments about Dambulla Caves on Trip Advisor had warned about those monkeys, portraying them as brigands hellbent on ambushing and robbing visitors.  But we waded through a squad of them and were treated with indifference.  No doubt it helped that we weren’t carrying any food – which according to Trip Advisor is the thing they’re determined to steal.  At one point, three monkeys became visible sitting on the steps ahead, and I half-expected their three pairs of hands to clamp over their eyes, ears and mouth in a see-no-evil / hear-no-evil / speak-no-evil pose.

 

 

The highest steps are smooth, worn slots that long ago were carved out of the rock and are more awkward to climb.  These take you up onto a big flat surface with the temple-entrance on the left and a hut containing racks for visitors to leave their shoes on the right.  The entrance is a white building with doors and a tiled roof, while the steep line of the hillside – actually a huge, sheer bulge of rock – rises behind it.

 

 

Having passed through this building we went down a flight of wide steps into the temple grounds.  These consist of a long, narrow compound covered in rectangular stones no bigger than bricks.  The compound’s features include a broad tree wallowing within a stone dais, surrounded by incense sticks, candle-cups, little figurines and multi-coloured Buddhist flags and exuding long, low branches; and a horseshoe-shaped pond whose circumference-wall is made out of boulders and whose surface has floating canopies of water-lilies with purple water-flowers poking up between them.  However, the real attraction of the temple is along the compound’s right-hand side.

 

 

At the bottom of the wall of rock – whose height the temple’s Wikipedia entry puts at 150 metres – runs a veranda with diamond-shaped flagstones, white walls, arched glass-less windows and a long roof.  This veranda gives access to the caves, which burrow into the rock’s base.  Where each cave-entrance opens at the back of the veranda-structure, a corresponding stone staircase leads up to a doorway with an arched top and pillared sides at the front of it.  There are five caves in total, the biggest one more than 50 metres across and almost 25 metres deep.

 

 

Wikipedia states that the caves house some 160 statues, mostly ones of Buddha.  There are rows of them seated in a lotus position, with long earlobes, broad shoulders, hands cupped on their laps, gowns rippling around their legs and torsos and left shoulders – their right shoulders bare.  In one cave, a ring of eight of them surround a miniature stupa.  There are also many upright figures, right hands raised to give blessing; and occasionally a giant reclining Buddha, the wedge of daylight that makes it through the entrance and the dark shadows elsewhere meaning that only a small section of the figure is properly visible.  Other items in the caves include flowers garlanding the surfaces in front of the images, and cauldron-sized, cauldron-shaped pots, and blue-painted metal donation boxes set at strategic positions.

 

 

Despite the considerable dimensions of some of the caves, I always got a faintly claustrophobic vibe from them because of the lowness of their ceilings and the obvious, tremendous weight of the rock above.  These rock ceilings are painted and illustrated and, though the murals have faded with time, they remain impressively intricate.  (When I entered the first cave, my immediate impression was that the temple-monks had covered the cave-roof with some fancy but now-aged wallpaper.)

 

 

At the same time, however, the caves are wonderfully atmospheric – dim, shadowy and full of mysterious dark recesses and corners.  The fact that the statues often loom up half-seen in the gloom, their outlines, proportions and details hinted at by the meagre light creeping in through the doorways (and very occasional windows) just adds to their grandeur.  Conversely, when I turned on my camera’s flash and took pictures, the images that appeared in the artificially-lit photos looked slightly flat and not quite as exotic as I’d hoped.

 

 

As we emerged from the final cave, we saw a just-arrived package-tour crowd seeping in through the entrance, down the steps, onto the far end of the veranda and into the first cave.  And as we walked back past the first cave, we heard a multitude of voices babbling and saw a frenzy of camera-flashes popping inside it.  We’d had that cave to ourselves an hour earlier.  Its stillness and quiet had added immensely to its atmosphere.  So getting there early, before the main influx of tourists, had been a good decision.

 

 

There followed an interlude on the temple steps, during which my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, spent a few minutes befriending the temple cat, a which was a charming white creature with tawny face-patches and a tawny tail.  Then we descended from the temple by a route different from the one by which we’d come up.  This took us to a site at ground level where a giant golden-skinned Buddha statue sat on a building containing a museum.  A sign informed us that this was the largest statue in the world – 30 metres high – depicting Buddha in the ‘Dhammachakka’ posture.

 

 

A stone ridge extended off from the statue’s left side and along this stood a line of human-sized statues, swathed in red robes, presumably meant to be queuing to pay homage to Buddha.  Bald-headed and blank-faced, these adherents bore a slight but unfortunate resemblance to plastic shop-window dummies.  Meanwhile, the museum building that served as the statue’s pedestal had turrets at either end, had pink, red and blue lines of flower-shaped ornamentation along each of its three tiers, and generally looked like an over-iced wedding cake.

 

 

We didn’t hang around there for long.  This modern site – the statue had been built between 1997 and 2000 – felt a bit too Disney-fied after the majesty and ambience of the ancient temple complex in the giant rock above.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 13

 

One of the best films I’ve seen in the past year has been Widows, the 2018 American movie directed by Steve McQueen and based on an old British TV drama series written by Lynda La Plante.  The opening minutes of Widows show a gang of bank robbers getting blown to kingdom come when their latest operation goes badly wrong. Thereafter, the film focuses on three of the dead robbers’ wives, played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki.  They discover the plans for what would have been their late husbands’ next robbery and decide to carry it out themselves, recruiting as their getaway driver a fourth lady, a beautician and babysitter played by Cynthia Erivo.  What follows is a bracing heist movie with a feminist slant, featuring great ensemble performances from the quartet of actresses heading the cast.

 

Anyway, the other day, I was in my regular DVD store in Colombo when I noticed this DVD case for Widows sitting on a shelf.  I don’t know…  I can’t quite explain it, I can’t quite put my finger on it but…  Somehow, I think there’s something missing in the way this DVD has been packaged for the Sri Lankan market.   What do you think?

 

© Regency Enterprises / Film 4 / 20th Century Fox

 

Knuckling down, part 4

 

 

The weather had been less than splendid during my first three days in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains.  Would my fourth and final day see some improvement?  It did.  The sun made a welcome appearance.  This was fortuitous because this morning was the first time I started trekking in clothes and boots still damp from the day before.  Only three guests had stayed at the campsite the previous night, the staff hadn’t bothered to light a fire and I hadn’t had any way of drying them out.  But dry out they did in the morning sunshine, after I’d trudged uncomfortably in them for a short time.

 

My guide, Asela, kept apologising about the bad weather we’d put up with during this trek.  He maintained that the conditions a month earlier, before the rainy season started, had been brilliant.  Unfortunately, back then, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was still reeling from the impact of the Easter Sunday bombings and there’d hardly been any visitors to go trekking.

 

First, we went through the nearer of the two tea-plantation villages in the vicinity.  Rather than continue along the path to the second village, however, we took a sudden turning that led into the tea plantation itself.  At one point, we went up behind some sort of plantation-related building with a big, steep-sided roof, which resembled a Victorian warehouse and was presumably another lingering trace of British rule.  Later, crossing a plantation slope, we passed a half-dozen white goats as they roamed amid the shrubbery.  Goats are allowed to wander there, Asela explained, because they don’t care for the taste of the valuable tea-plants.

 

 

Then we traversed a forest.  Asela sometimes takes tourists on birdwatching tours and often during our trek he spotted distant specimens of wildlife that otherwise I’d have walked past without seeing.  He was also extremely knowledgeable when he talked about them.  In the forest’s undergrowth he pointed out a horned (male) ‘barking deer’, named because of the noise it makes when something frightens it.  He also showed me an example of Sri Lanka’s indigenous brown squirrels.  These are very different from the grey palm squirrels that are ubiquitous in the cities and towns and, indeed, in any place inhabited by humans – I’d seen several of them scuttling around the campsites in recent days, but they shun the unpopulated forests.

 

We emerged into an area by a river where attempts had been made to build another accommodation / recreational complex.  Some fancy timber holiday cabins stood up on a bank, while nearby an empty concrete water-slide ran down a slope and ended at the bottom with a worryingly small and shallow-looking concrete pool.  (Surely, I thought, you could bash your head in or break a leg if you went whizzing into that pool too fast?)  From there we walked for a time alongside the river, which was actually down in a small gorge, its course clogged with boulders.

 

As we walked in the direction of Kandy and out of the Knuckles Mountains, our path gradually descended.  This made for a fairly easy trek and it felt like compensation for the previous day, which had contained some stretches that I’d found hardcore.

 

Surrounded by tall, deciduous forest, we saw more wildlife.  At one spot, the path passed between two trees where two varieties of stinging insects lived as neighbours.  One tree had a big hornets’ nest, shaped like a rugby ball, suspended from a branch while the other was home to a sagging, faintly V-shaped wasps’ nest.  We spotted another barking deer, this time a non-horned female.  And Asela identified a bird called a ‘hanging parrot’.  As if to meet our expectations, the hanging parrot promptly hung itself upside-down from its tree-branch so that it could peck at a dangling blossom.  The hanging parrot, incidentally, is the green-winged, orange-headed bird that’s pictured on the Sri Lankan 1000 rupee note.

 

From leftovercurrency.com

 

The path took us past the site of what had been a former coffee – as opposed to tea – plantation.  It also took us to the scene of a recent landslide, where the way was blocked by the mingled wreckage of two trees that’d toppled off the slope above.  One tree lay on top of the other and we had to climb over them.  The upper tree-trunk seesawed alarmingly when I put my weight on it.  Meanwhile, a gorgeous view gradually unfolded ahead.  Our route wound down between spurs of steep, wooded mountainside and the sky was, for the first time in four days, a clear, almost cloudless blue.

 

We stopped for a breather on top of a giant boulder overlooking the ever-descending path.  In the foliage surrounding the boulder, we saw a water buffalo, which Asela said was a ‘wild’ one – I’m not sure if it was deemed ‘wild’ because there are herds of untamed water buffalo roaming loose in the Knuckles Mountains or because it just happened to be untethered.  Meanwhile, as we sat there, two different trekking parties came up the path, in the opposite direction that we were heading, and joined us for a few minutes.  We’d already encountered a party before the giant boulder and would meet another one a short way after it.  The route, apparently, is commonly used for one-day treks.  The trekkers are driven out of Kandy, get dropped off at a place ahead that’d be our eventual destination today, hike up the path, and are picked up again at the site of the holiday cabins and concrete water-slide.

 

 

The final trekking party we met were a five-strong French family and their guide.  All the French people wore anti-leech socks, tightly fastened, encasing their legs up past their knees.  (They reminded me a little of King George IV during his famous visit to Scotland in 1822, wherein the obese monarch wore a kilt, but with grotesque flesh-coloured tights covering his legs under it.)  I was tempted to play devil’s advocate and ask, as Asela had asked three days before, what they would do when the leeches climbed to the top of their socks and then moved onto their thighs.  But, diplomatically, I kept my mouth shut.

 

Then we came to a bridge across a gorge, consisting of three steel girders spanning the chasm and a layer of wooden planks placed across the girders.  Asela warned me to walk only on the parts of the planks that had solid steel underneath them.  This was wise – as I crossed the bridge, I realised how flimsy those planks looked and wondered if they’d have supported my weight by themselves.  After the bridge, the landscape became more domesticated and we walked past rice-paddy terraces and small farming settlements.  For a time, a labyrinth of paths – some earthen, some concreted over – and stone steps took along the backs and down the sides of people’s houses.  We also went down flights of concrete steps next to a terraced slope where some of the terraces hadn’t been planted on and had been left fallow, due to the wretchedness of the recent weather.

 

 

Finally, we arrived at a villa with a pleasantly shady veranda – the sun was quite strong now – where we ate a mid-afternoon lunch.  The villa was also the end-point for my four days of Knuckles Mountains trekking.  Parked nearby was a pick-up, ready to shuttle me back to Kandy.  The driver was none other than Ravi, one of the leading lights in the Sri Lanka Trekking company with whom I’d booked this expedition.

 

When we got back to the hotel in Kandy where I’d spend the next night, I settled my bill with Ravi and made sure Asela was tipped for his excellent work as my guide – as well as being observant and knowledgeable, he’d been a very affable companion during those four days.  “Here’s some hanging parrots,” I said as I passed him the money.

 

 

I realise that in my blog posts about this trip, I’ve written a lot about the inclement rainy-season weather and about how some parts of the treks were tough going.  But overall, I finished those four days feeling invigorated and inspired.  I’d been able to do something that I really enjoy, hiking, that unfortunately I don’t have much opportunity to do nowadays.  I’d also been able to see a part of Sri Lanka, the wild, natural part of it, that I also don’t have much opportunity to see – having got into the habit of going to historical attractions and beaches that are usually swarming with visitors.  So, if you’re in Sri Lanka and you fancy exploring its remote mountains, why not drop Sri Lanka Trekking a line?  They provide an excellent service, and with the Easter Sunday bombings still sending a chill through the local tourism industry, I’m sure they’d be grateful for your custom.

 

And while we’re on the topic of recommendations, I suppose I should give a shout-out to the Dettol company, whose disinfectant I applied to my feet and legs before setting off every morning in an effort to make my flesh unpalatable to the Knuckles Mountains’ leech population.  While other trekkers I met were having a terrible time with the little bastards, I remained unmolested by them.  Dettol may not make everyone’s skin leech-proof, but it certainly seemed to do the trick for mine.

 

© Dettol®

 

Knuckling down, part 3

 

 

My first two days in the Knuckles Mountains had seen much bad weather – unsurprisingly, since my visit coincided with the middle of Sri Lanka’s rainy season.  However, there’d been times during both days when the sun appeared, the air warmed up, the landscape dried out and the views became crystal-clear.  I had no such luck on my third day.  It was wet, windy and (as my photographs will show) misty throughout.

 

Asela, my guide, planned to take me to the top of a local mountain.  We set off at ten o’clock, walking back along the route we’d followed to the campsite the afternoon before.  This meant that after ten minutes we passed through the little tea-plantation village again.  Consisting of a few terraces of one-storey stone buildings, whose rusted corrugated-iron roofs often had loose sheets that were weighted down by boulders, blocks and logs, it looked pretty impoverished and represented a side of Sri Lanka that most foreign tourists, cooped up in plush seaside-resort hotels, never see.

 

But still, it was somebody’s home, and they made the best of it – a fact underlined by the presence of some village kids playing cricket with basic, improvised cricketing equipment in a nearby field.  (By this point it was damp and misty, but not raining.)

 

Asela mentioned that most of the people living here were ‘Hill Tamils’, i.e. descendants of folk whom the British had moved from Tamil Nadu in South India to work in Sri Lanka’s high-altitude tea plantations.  A blue-painted statue of the Hindu elephant-god Ganesha standing at the village’s entrance was evidence of this.

 

A little later, we entered the second – and bigger and richer – tea-plantation village in the area, where we collected packed lunches for the trek ahead.  Then Asela led me on a twisting-and-turning route through the village that a couple of times involved us walking along people’s verandas and right past their front doors and windows.  We left the village behind us and started up a mountainside.  Along the way we passed a herd of goats that, apart from a couple of parakeets, were the only animals we sighted today.

 

The path we followed underwent several permutations.  For a time it was a track of wet sand, pebbles and crystal-y pieces of quartz.  Later we passed through a roughly triangular tunnel of bamboo.  Then there was an awkward-to-walk-on course of mud, rotted leaves, slimy rocks and many twisting, intermeshing tree-roots.  Finally we emerged into an open area that was shrouded with mist and where visibility lasted only a few metres.  The ground was covered in sheets of exposed rock separated by seams of grass, moss and muck.  I felt I’d suddenly strayed onto Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

 

 

As I said, the intention had been to scale one of the local mountains, but now Asela confessed that we were unlikely to see anything from its summit, given today’s weather.  So he proposed a change of plans.  Plan B was to cut off from this route and visit a couple of waterfalls instead.  Apparently, there were four notable waterfalls in the area, which the trekking guides simply called Numbers One, Two, Three and Four.  He reckoned we had time to take in two of them: Number Four first, and then Number One.

 

Getting to Waterfall Number Four involved descending a high, steep riverbank.  We went down a helter-skelter of mud and rocks and under a claustrophobically low canopy of branches, creepers and bamboo.  It was tough going.  For the first time, I felt like I really was in the jungle.  When we got to the river, the waterfall was veiled in mist but just about discernible.  It made a ghostly but still majestic-looking sight.

 

 

We then had to go back up the steep riverbank, which proved even more gruelling than going down it.  Scrabbling upwards, but having to crouch all the time so that my head and backpack wouldn’t get caught in the roof of foliage we were passing under, was murder on my knees and back.

 

We emerged alongside a higher stretch of the same river and walked along it, treading carefully on flat, wet stones next to the gushing water.  They were treacherously slippery, but this part of the trek still felt much pleasanter than the punishing ascent we’d just made.  When we got to Waterfall Number One, it also proved to be mist-shrouded and mysterious-looking, but more detail was visible than at its predecessor.  Short, white, pointed rivulets that resembled shimmering icicles trailed from the cracks, ledges and fissures in the rock behind the waterfall.  Meanwhile, the boulders lying below the fall had been so eroded by the constant cascade of water that they looked like a townscape of steep, sharp roofs.

 

We had lunch sitting on some rocks at the far end of the pool in front of the waterfall.  Two other trekking parties were there tucking into lunch when we arrived.  We’d already encountered another trekking party up on the misty, Hound of the Baskervilles area so, despite the weather, there was evidently heavy traffic on the trekking routes today.

 

The climb up the bank from Waterfall Number One was also tough, involving much scrabbling, clutching at jutting rocks and tree-trunks and hauling ourselves upwards.  But again, it was preferable to the ascent from the previous waterfall, because this time there wasn’t a low canopy crushing down on us.

 

Later, our route from Waterfall Number One linked up with the route we’d taken from the second tea-plantation village, so we ended up going back the same way that we’d come.  When we arrived in the village again, we stopped off at the big white house where we’d had lunch the day before and ordered some tea.  This tea was very necessary in my case – in order to get some of my energy back, I stoked my cup with four or five teaspoons of sugar.

 

Just as we were about to enter the house, the grey clouds parted overhead and a shaft of brilliant sunshine pierced through.  “Aha,” I said to Asela.  “Decent weather at last!”

 

A split-second later, the clouds clamped shut again, the sunshine vanished and it never reappeared during the remainder of the day.

 

 

The campsite tonight seemed much quieter because (a) the adjacent enclosure didn’t mount a repeat of the previous night’s song-dance-and-booze party and whoever was staying there went to bed at a civilised hour; and (b) the five-strong British-Israeli family had departed, leaving just me and two other guests staying there.  (The family had planned to do another day’s trekking but the two little kids, following their ordeal by leeches the previous day, understandably didn’t fancy that.  So their guide got hold of a vehicle and they went off on a ‘safari’ instead.  They’d dealt with the previous day’s misfortunes with admirable cheerfulness and good humour, so they deserved to have everything go well for the rest of their Sri Lankan holiday.)

 

The other remaining guests were a New Zealand couple whose company I really enjoyed.  They’d been ravaged by Sri Lanka’s leech population as well.  The previous day, when they’d arrived in the camp, the man’s arms had been weirdly covered in splotches of grey and orange.  It transpired that he’d suffered a number of leech-bites and, to staunch the bleeding, their guide had tried out a couple of traditional remedies.  First, he’d rubbed fragments of burnt paper into the wounds.  When the paper-ash hadn’t worked, he’d then rubbed in turmeric powder.

 

When I say the camp was ‘quiet’, I mean in terms of human activity.  However, it certainly wasn’t quiet in terms of the weather.   That night the wind generated an epic amount of noise.  Sometimes, it made a hurtling, booming noise, as if there was a huge express train going hell-for-leather through the middle of the campsite.  At other times, it sounded like the rumble and crash of tumultuous sea-waves – so that although I was inside a tent, I felt like I was on board a little ship pitching about on those waves.  Meanwhile, the metal roofs of the campsite’s huts and sheds strained and groaned and clattered so much that there might have been a giant animal scrambling on top of them.

 

It finally occurred to me to roll up two pieces of toilet paper and use them as earplugs.  And with loo-paper inserted in my ears, I got to sleep.

 

 

To be continued…

 

Knuckling down, part 2

 

 

I began my second day in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains early.  I’d been told that the ‘sky camp’ – where I’d spent my first night in the mountains – was an excellent spot for observing the sunrise.  So I and three other guests staying there (an Englishman and two Australian women who were making a separate, two-day trek) emerged from our tents at about 5.30 AM, a quarter-hour before the sun was supposed to come up.  Already the night had given way to an eerie early-morning twilight.   The mountaintops directly across the valley were still black silhouettes.  However, further along and presumably due east, distant peaks were visible in a haze of grey.  Higher up, the greyness segued into a glimmering strip of pink and then into pale, barely blue sky.

 

We went a little way down the road from the camp to a place where a new hotel was under construction.  This had been recommended to us as the best vantage point and there was even a concrete platform in front of the hotel buildings that seemed to have been designed for this purpose.  Gradually, the eastern sky became brighter, revealing patterns of streaky clouds.  The grey haze underneath lightened to show more mountaintops, covered in a fur of trees, and even the glint of a distant lake.  Then a wan red bead rose into view out of the haze – the sun, not quite appearing from behind the horizon but suddenly materialising over it.  At the same moment, the area of sky above the sun suddenly resembled a pool of fiery lava.  Thus, the day had an inspirational start.

 

When I got up, my boots, shorts and other gear were still damp from the previous day’s wet weather, but they dried out in the early-morning sunshine and I was ready to leave the sky camp at 9.30 AM.  Asela, my trekking guide, and I soon encountered an abandoned tea plantation that’d been installed long ago by the British.  Some tea-plants remained, growing wild.  Later, we came across a ruined stone bungalow that’d been the home of the plantation’s superintendent.

 

At another point in the morning, our path took us to a pool below a slope, fed by a boulder-choked stream.  Here, we met the Englishman and Australian women – who’d left the sky camp a short time before us – and their guide.  They were under attack from leeches.  The pool-area was hoaching with the creatures and the Westerners were busy picking them off each other.  Already, one of the ladies’ woollen socks were polka-dotted with blood.

 

 

To digress a little…  A few years ago, I went walking in the Udawattakele Sanctuary above Kandy, where my ankles became the site of a major leech pile-on.  Their bites bled for hours afterwards.  Not wanting to undergo that again, before leaving Colombo for the Knuckles Mountains, I’d gone to a camping shop on Galle Road and invested in a pair of ‘anti-leech’ socks.  These were big tubes of canvas-like material that you put over your feet and roll up your legs to your knees, fastening them at various points with lengths of cord.  However, before the start of our trek the previous day, Asela had pointed out that the leeches would simply climb up my boots, then climb up the anti-leech socks, and then climb onto my exposed thighs and start feeding.

 

“Wouldn’t the leeches,” I asked hopefully, “be too tired to bite after they’d climbed all that way?”

 

“No,” he said.

 

Instead, Asela advised me to rub Dettol into my feet and legs before we set out each morning.  Leeches aren’t hot on the taste of Dettol, apparently.  And that seemed to do the trick because I wasn’t much bothered by the little bastards during our four days’ trekking.  Incidentally, I continued to wear the anti-leech socks – over my feet and socks, under my boots, and rolled down above my boots – as a way of keeping my feet dry.

 

This Knuckles Mountains expedition was the first time I really noticed leeches in their skinnier, non-blood-swollen form.  Everywhere on the ground, it seemed, they squiggled out from under fallen leaves, like animated slivers of evil; and then probed insatiably upwards, desperate to clamber onto your boots and onto your flesh.

 

 

Anyway, after trudging upwards for a time, we came to a pine forest – presumably also the handiwork of the British.  The forest looked aesthetically pleasing as we approached it but, once we entered, we saw how the forest floor was carpeted with dried brown pine-twigs and almost devoid of life.  The only vegetation was an occasional clump of broad-bladed grass.  By way of contrast, when there was an interruption by indigenous trees among the pines, there was also a great eruption of green foliage underneath them.

 

After leaving the pine forest, we crossed a ridge and came within sight of a valley on the other side.  This was possibly the most spectacular view I’ve seen in Sri Lanka.  Various mountains stood in towering rows, which receded and became blurred, misty and ephemeral.  Everything in the valley beneath them – roads, dwellings, fields – was insignificant and puny-looking.

 

Then we ended up on a path whose surface was a mixture of broken asphalt, stones, pebbles, occasional smooth rocks, sand, grit, puddles and, for one stretch, a shallow stream.  A forest of low indigenous trees grew around the path and a froth of grass, weeds, ferns and creepers crowded against its sides.  So far today the weather had been reasonable but there came a point, while we were making our way around a bend, when the air suddenly turned cold.  Thereafter, the weather alternated between mist, drizzle and relentless, miserable rain.

 

It was on this path that we discovered a centipede that was a good seven or eight inches long.  It had a black body, dozens of pairs of yellow legs and two longer red antennae at the end that served as its head.  It was the strangest specimen of wildlife that we saw today.  The wildlife also included a big green chameleon perched on top of a fencepost, a couple of woodpeckers, more freshwater crabs and several monkeys.

 

The path finally took us to a village inhabited by tea-plantation workers.  Our lunch – though we didn’t eat it until the mid-afternoon – was served up in the biggest and fanciest house in the village, a white, two-storey block with a balcony that was decorated with stone doves and bas-reliefs showing ancient chariots.  The house’s owner ran his own trekking company, apparently, but also supplied other companies’ customers and guides with refreshments and food when they  passed through.  I suppose the meal I received there was standard Sri Lankan fare but, with my appetite whetted by hours of trekking, it seemed absolutely delicious.

 

 

Because the electrical sockets in the sky camp hadn’t been compatible with our chargers, neither Asela nor I had powered up our phones the night before.  We were able to do this in the white house, although it meant hanging around for a while.  In the meantime, rain began to bucket down outside.  I was at the front doorway, gazing out at the downpour, when suddenly a tuk-tuk came barrelling into the front yard.  A diminutive Sri Lankan guy clambered out of the front of the tuk-tuk – not, it transpired, the driver, but another guide.  Then the driver got out too.  They lifted one of the side-flaps that’d been fastened down against the pounding rain and five Westerners struggled out of the back: a father, mother, teenaged daughter and little boy and girl.  So that tuk-tuk had arrived with seven people on board.

 

Everyone was bedraggled, but especially the two young kids.  They were whisked into the house, dried with towels and plied with hot tea.  The family were British-Israelis who’d been visiting a waterfall when it started to rain torrentially.  They’d been stranded there for a time, until their guide managed to phone and summon an emergency tuk-tuk.  They said they were staying tonight in a local campsite, which sounded similar to the one Asela had described to me as our next port-of-call.

 

The rain finally relented and the family and their guide set off on foot for their campsite.  Asela and I departed from the house a quarter-hour later.  We followed a path out of the village that took us alongside a river and then through another tea-plantation village – a smaller and decidedly poorer-looking village than the one we’d recently left.  By now the rain had resumed and was almost as severe as before.  As we tramped past a little shop in the middle of the second village, we glanced through its doorway and saw the British-Israeli family huddled inside, in front of the counter.  They looked utterly bedraggled again.

 

About ten minutes after the second village, we arrived at our campsite.  It was part of a conglomeration of recreational facilities in the middle of the mountains – we’d just walked past some fancy wooden chalets and an enclosure with holiday-huts and a garden.  Our place consisted of a central dining area, under a big V-shaped roof held up by eight wooden columns embedded in a concrete wall about three feet high – above that wall, there was nothing to block out the wind; a nearby cabin where the campsite staff and guides could prepare food; two family-sized tents contained in big, garden-shed-like huts overlooking a greenish pond that was stocked with carp; and, up a slope, a terrace of four concrete-walled, iron-roofed huts containing four tents that was similar to the arrangement in the sky camp.  There was no wi-fi or telephone signal and the only electricity was provided by a generator each evening until about 9.30.

 

Shortly after we arrived there, while I sat in the dining area with a much-needed cup of hot tea, the British-Israeli family came charging in out of the rain.  Their guide ran in with the little girl perched on his shoulders.  Their walk from the white house to here had gone badly.  The little boy and girl had fallen prey to leeches and when Asela and I had seen them in the village shop, their parents had been buying disinfectant and plasters to apply to their bites.  Thank God, I thought, for Dettol.

 

 

Later, one of the campsite staff lit a fire in a big brazier at the end of the dining area, just under the edge of the roof so that it wouldn’t be doused by the still-falling rain.  I placed my sodden boots and hung my sodden clothes near to it and by the next morning they’d dried out – just about.

 

That evening, I suffered the only real annoyance of my four days in the Knuckles Mountains – by annoyance, I mean an avoidable, human one, not an unpreventable fact-of-life like bad weather.  On the other side of the carp pond was the enclosure with the holiday huts that I mentioned earlier.  It was under different ownership from the campsite.  Early in the evening, a group of people, mostly men, started playing music loudly over a sound system – warbly, sometimes dance-y Sri Lankan popular songs, latterly accompanied by drunken live singing.  It was fully audible in the campsite and was going strong when I ate dinner.  It was still going strong at about 10.00, when I decided to call it a night.  And it was still thumping away an hour later when I was lying in my tent.

 

Finally, I checked the time, saw that it was 10.55 and resolved that, if the music continued after 11.00, I would go to that enclosure myself to tell them to shut the f*** up.  At 11.01, yes, it was still playing and so I got up, dressed and left the tent.  I was halfway across the campsite when I encountered a guide – not Asela, but one who’d accompanied a couple of other tourists staying there – and he tried to talk me out of breenging across and making a scene.  “They’re local people,” he explained, “but I am sure they will stop soon.”  I pointed out that I, and the campsite’s other guests, had paid good money to have a peaceful sojourn out in Sri Lanka’s remote countryside.  Spending the night next door to a disco-from-hell was the last thing we wanted.

 

In the middle of our discussion, the music cut out.  This was probably connected with the approach of a minibus on the road, presumably hired to ferry the revellers home.  (The following day was one of Sri Lanka’s monthly, alcohol-free Poya Days, and I wondered if the noise was being made by some arseholes having a blow-out prior to 24 hours of enforced sobriety.)  The music didn’t resume after that and so I returned to my tent – my complaint and a potential scene unmade.

 

The next day, Asela told me that he’d gone across to the enclosure that evening and asked the revellers to turn the music down for the sake of the folk on our campsite.  His request wasn’t well received.  He was abused for being an upstart ‘Kandy boy’ and one drunkard even challenged him to step outside for a fight.  I suddenly felt relieved that I hadn’t breenged across there.  Getting involved in a bare-knuckles brawl in the Knuckles Mountains?  That wouldn’t have impressed my employers.  Nor, indeed, the Sri Lankan police force.

 

 

To be continued…