If you squeeze my lizard*

 

I haven’t posted anything on this blog for the past fortnight, apart from one item about Remembrance Sunday.  This is not because there hasn’t been anything to blog about.  On the contrary, there’s been a great deal – for example, the recent midterm elections in the USA, where some 46-47% of the electorate saw fit to vote for the party of a racist, misogynist, preening, loud-mouthed pile of sentient manure like Donald Trump; or the manner in which the UK’s epically incompetent Conservative government has continued to let the country career towards the disaster of Brexit like a dysfunctional troop of baboons at the controls of a spaceship while it disappears over the event horizon of a black hole; or indeed, the constitutional crisis that has rocked the country I’m currently living in, Sri Lanka.  But it’s all so bloody depressing that I don’t feel like writing about any of it just now.

 

Often, when people feel down while they’re putting stuff online, they try to cheer themselves up by posting pictures of cute cats.  However, because I’m weird, I thought I would offer a variation on this custom by posting pictures of cute lizards (which, by the way, are a prominent form of wildlife here in Sri Lanka).

 

For starters, here’s a picture of a little fellow I photographed on top of a wall in the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee.  Basking in the Sri Lankan sun, he’s surely the happiest lizard I’ve ever encountered.

 

 

And here’s one that scampered into view one day while I was tramping about the grounds of Avukana Temple in North Central Sri Lanka: a frilled, inquisitive and slightly insolent-looking character.

 

 

Monitor lizards are a well-known type of lizard in Sri Lanka.  They’re slow, ponderous, lugubrious, a bit grumpy, a bit ugly, but they usually get to their objective in the end – so I feel some affinity for them.  This one was snapped in the gardens below Sri Lanka’s famous Sigiriya Rock.

 

 

Finally, my partner and I were staying in the town of Habarana a little while ago, in a hotel-room that had a partly-outdoor bathroom.  The shower end of the bathroom was roofless and there was even a large bush growing out of one of its corners.  This bush was home to two lizards who spent the five days we were there clinging to and crawling along its branches (with the occasional foray out across the wash-basin and in front of the mirror).  One was a skinny creature, not much more than a glorified gecko.

 

 

The other was a bigger specimen with a green stripy body and an impressively long, whiplash-like tail.  He had a strange ability to change the colour of his head.  Sometimes it would be a verdant green, like the rest of him.  At other times it would become alarmingly orange.  Come to think of it, that would be a useful talent for a British government’s Secretary of State to Northern Ireland to have.

 

 

* This is a reference to the 1984 Motörhead song Killed by Death, which begins: “If you squeeze my lizard / I’ll put my snake on you / I’m a romantic adventurer / And a reptile too.”  Lemmy’s lyrics were always poetry.

 

The temple of revenge

 

 

Just offshore from the coastal village of Seenigama in south-western Sri Lanka, you’ll find a temple consisting of two small buildings perched on top of a rocky little island.  The temple is devoted to an imperious-looking deity called Devol, who’s believed to look after the local fishermen and, it’s said, local truck drivers too.  But he’s more famous for being a god of revenge.  If someone has wronged you, you can travel to the island and make an offering to Devol in the hope that he’ll impose retribution on the culprit.

 

To get from the island from Seenigama’s beach, you have to travel in a flimsy-looking blue-brown boat with an outboard motor.  It can take a dozen or more people at a time, some of whom – not all – are given life-jackets.  When I got to the beach, I discovered that most of my fellow passengers were feisty old Sri Lankan ladies who boarded the boat by enthusiastically beetling up over its stern and sides and into its two rows of seats.  A little later, they transferred themselves from the boat to the island itself with a similar, impressive display of agility and sprightliness.  I couldn’t help but wonder if those elderly ladies were heading to the temple to call on Devol to wreak revenge on their enemies.

 

 

The boat-trip only took a minute and the island quickly swelled up out of the sea ahead of us.  At the island’s waterline were black rocks and higher up were grey ones, and then the natural formations gave way to man-made walls of faded yellow with blue-painted arched crests along their tops.  The boat ended up bobbing and swiveling drunkenly in the surf next to some slimy boulders that, further up, transformed into stone steps.  Walking around the island in footwear isn’t allowed and I’d already removed my boots and stashed them in my bag – which was just as well, because to get from the boat and onto the boulders I needed to wade through a swash of seawater.

 

While I ascended to the steps, I felt uncomfortably like Stephen Maturin, the landlubberly and accident-prone ship’s surgeon in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books, who “at one time or other… had contrived to fall between the boat that was carrying him and almost every class of ship and vessel in the Royal Navy.”  But I managed to negotiate the boulders and steps and get onto the temple grounds above without slipping and falling and drenching myself.

 

 

In addition to the buildings, the temple contains a tiled yard, a clump of palm trees, a well, a shed with a pump inside, a small metal sculpture of a rooster and a tall concrete pole with spotlights attached.  The day I was there, many pigeons were perched on the golden-yellow roofs and for some reason flies were crawling in great profusions about the tiled ground.

 

Inside the smaller temple-building I found a tall statue of Devol with a coppery-red face and a curly moustache.  His image is partially obscured by curtains, supposedly – I’ve read somewhere – to lessen the harmful effects of his wrath as it radiates from him.

 

 

After taking a few photographs in that building, I turned around and stepped out of it again.  The moment my bare feet touched the moonstone at the threshold – which like all the horizontal surfaces here was wet and treacherous – I slipped spectacularly and landed with a great thud on my ‘jacksy’, as they say in Glasgow.  Thankfully, my bag, with my boots inside it, muffled the impact of the fall and possibly saved me from breaking my tail-bone.  It was embarrassing, however.  All the visitors in the yard outside promptly looked my way and enjoyed a quiet chuckle at my haplessness.

 

 

The larger temple building contained an altar on which, if you wish Devol to wreak revenge on someone, you present offerings of chilis, garlic and hot spices that, later, a priest grinds up in a ritual outside.  And that’s how it works here – to place a curse on the person who’s mistreated you, you need to contribute to the making of a chili paste.  Three deities lurk in alcoves behind and to the left and right of the altar.  The central one looks fairly benign, but the other two are more sinister.  The left-hand deity wears a helmet and girdle made out of interlocking cobras while the right-hand one is even more ghoulish, with a rictus grin and fangs protruding downwards from the ends of its long mouth.

 

 

Various travel blogs in which I’ve read about the temple have gone on in detail about how the visiting pilgrims, seemingly intoxicated by the idea of getting revenge on their persecutors, work themselves into states of ecstasy and hysteria.  But I saw none of that.  The crowd who’d come with me in the boat seemed calm, composed and quietly respectful.  (Well, apart from their moment of mirth when I keeled over on that slippery moonstone).  As I’d said earlier, most of them were elderly local ladies.  It occurred to me afterwards that Devol has several roles – he’s a guardian of fishermen and truck-drivers as well as a bringer of revenge – and maybe the ladies had come with a more peaceful purpose.  Maybe they just wanted to pay their respects to Devol and ask him to look after their sons and husbands, who were making their livings out on the waves or on the roads.

 

 

Cosplay in Colombo

 

 

It’s a typically hot, humid Sri Lankan afternoon and I’m walking along an avenue in the quaintly-named Trace Expert City, a business park west of Fort Railway Station and Beira Lake in central Colombo.  Ahead of me, beneath the trees that mercifully cast a little shade over the avenue, I spy a gathering of people.  What’s going on?  What are they crowding around to see?  Intrigued, I draw closer…

 

…And discover that everyone’s attention is focused on Spiderman, who’s strutting his funky Spidey-stuff while he engages in a dance-off with his sinister, black-costumed, alien-symbiote nemesis Venom.

 

 

For yes, I have just arrived at Lanka Comic Con 2018, Sri Lanka’s annual convention for enthusiasts of comics, films, TV shows, anime, games and books in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror (and anything else that’s suitably weird and quirky).

 

At this year’s Comic Con, which was held on August 25th and 26th, Spiderman and Venom were just the first of many cosplayers I saw, i.e. fans who devise their own costumes, make-up and accessories in order to impersonate their favourite characters from the more fantastical reaches of popular culture.

 

This year the impact of Marvel Comics’ commercially and critically successful superhero movie Black Panther (2018) was evident.  I noticed a couple of folk clad as characters from the film’s fictional African setting of Wakanda, including an effective-looking Okoye, the warrior lady played in the film by Danai Gurira.  And Marvel’s big rival DC Comics had influenced more than a few Sri Lankan cosplayers in 2018 too.  Here’s someone having their picture taken with DC Comics’ nautical superhero Aquaman and his lady pal – what’s her name?  Aqua-Girlfriend?  No, I believe it’s actually Mera, ‘daughter of the king of the Atlantean tribe of Xebel’, who’ll be played by Amber Heard in the new Aquaman movie to be released at the end of this year.

 

 

All right, not all the cosplayers could quite capture the exact look of their characters.  But still, they should be applauded for the work that’s gone into assembling the necessary bits and pieces for their costumes – not always an easy feat when you’re on a budget and you live on the slightly out-of-the-way island nation of Sri Lanka.  It’s fascinating to see their ingenuity – how, for instance, a pair of sawn-off wellie-boots and a lick of paint were used to create footwear for an Elven warrior from the Kingdom of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings.

 

For me, this year’s cosplay winner was the bloke in the following photograph.  As I laid eyes on him, I found myself singing to myself, “If there’s something strange… In your neighbourhood…  Who ya gonna call…?  Ghostbusters!”  Because he was dressed in an outfit worn by Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, complete with a fabulously intricate Ghostbusters backpack.  I’ve also posted a diagram of the original backpack from the original film, so you can compare them.

 

From pinterest

 

You’ll notice in the same photo a sweet little girl who seemed to be having the time of her life while she dashed around waving a wand and wearing a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts scarf and gown.

 

Then I saw this fearsome character.  Who was he?  Was he one of the many scary and grotesque villains who’ve menaced Batman in Gotham City during the last eight decades?  But then I realised he was ambling towards one of the snacks and refreshments tents erected at the head of the avenue and I understood who he really was: Pringles-man.

 

 

While I wandered around Lanka Comic Con, two things occurred to me.  Firstly, I loved the idea that Sri Lankan kids wanted to dress up as characters who’d originated in a wide spectrum of cultures – from Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ pioneering attempt to create a superhero who’d appeal to an African-American readership, to a plethora of characters rooted in the manga and anime cultures of Japan.  It’s cultural exploration, the very opposite of cultural appropriation.  And it nicely illustrates how far science fiction, fantasy and comic books have travelled since the days when they were seen as the preserve of nerdy middle-class white kids – white boys – in the USA and Britain.

 

But at the same time, I’d like to think that in years to come, as Sri Lankan writers and artists get more opportunities and recognition, there’ll be a big roster of Sri Lankan characters for them to impersonate too.

 

Secondly, I couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous.  These geeky kids today don’t know how lucky they are.  When I was a kid and into geeky stuff, reading geeky Marvel and DC comics, reading geeky fantasy paperbacks by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard and watching geeky TV shows like Doctor Who (1963-present), the original Star Trek series (1966-69) and Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970), I had to keep extremely quiet about my geeky enthusiasms for fear I’d be ridiculed or even roughed up by the normal, sensible kids around me.  And even when I was older and at college, I felt too embarrassed to advertise my geeky interests in front of cool college-associates who claimed to be into Albert Camus and The Smiths.  (I still remember my horror when a mischievous younger sibling blurted out in front of a couple of my college friends how, when I’d been a wee boy, I’d persuaded my granny to knit me a super-long Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.)  But youngsters nowadays don’t have to be afraid.  It’s quite acceptable for them to gather together and dress up as their (super)heroes in public.  They can wear their geekiness proudly.

 

Alas, it’s too late for me now.  I’m way too old to be part of this cosplay scene.  Pretty much the only character I could cosplay convincingly at my age would be Captain Teague from Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End (2007) – who was played by Keith Richards.

 

© Walt Disney Pictures / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Martin’s museum

 

 

The novelist, poet, short-story writer, playwright, literary critic, biographer, travel writer, science writer, philosopher, religious scholar and all-round Renaissance man Martin Wickramasinghe was born in 1890 in the village of Koggala on Sri Lanka’s south coast.  By the time of his death in 1976 he’d authored some 85 books.  His Wikipedia entry grandly but uninformatively describes him as ‘the father of modern Sinhala literature’.  This profile in Sri Lanka’s Daily News gives more detail about what to expect from his writing, calling him ‘a liberal intellectual who consistently attacked dogmatism, obscurantism, oppression and elitism from any source, religious, political or social.’

 

As far as I know, not many of his books were written in or translated into English – both Wikipedia and the website dedicated to him list 11 such titles – which makes it difficult for someone like myself, illiterate in Sinhala, to immerse myself in his work.  I have, however, read two of the translations.

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

His Selected Short Stories (2007) reveal a man who’s unhappily aware of the social divisions in Sri Lankan society and the hardships and indignities that poverty heaps upon those at the bottom of it.  For example, Diversion is a damning account of how some wealthy, Anglicised Sri Lankans amuse themselves whilst waiting for the passengers to disembark from a liner at Colombo harbour.  They start throwing coins over the jetty’s edge, so that they can enjoy the spectacle of the poor local street children diving into the water in a race to retrieve them.  This has tragic consequences for one child: “The little urchin was nowhere to be seen,” recounts the narrator.  “I had myself forgotten him in the excitement surrounding the divers.”

 

Meanwhile, Bondage is the story of a hard-working but ailing carter and his beloved, similarly hard-working and similarly ailing cart-bull, which has the reader wondering which of the two is going to die first.  The Torn Coat features a just-married man dreading having to confess to his wife that the fancy outfit he wore at their wedding was actually borrowed from a richer family in their village.  And Woman compares the situations of two female friends.  One has tried to be virtuous, but thanks to a treacherous husband struggles to make end meet and is prematurely aged.  The other has lived shamelessly and now, as a rich man’s mistress, enjoys wealth and comfort and remains youthful.  “We have to accept that we pay for sins carried over from the past,” the poor decent one tells the rich immoral one, despite the evidence suggesting this isn’t true.  Other stories in the collection explore other themes, but these ones about economic hardship I remember best.

 

I’ve also read Lay Bare the Roots (translated in 1958), Wickramasinghe’s account of his childhood in Koggala.  It lovingly records the characters, stories, flora and fauna, arts and crafts, pageantry, customs and religious rites of a time and place that seem very distant now – especially as that part of Sri Lanka is best-known today for its tourist beaches and hotels.

 

It’s interesting that Wickramasinghe defends the hedonistic, earthy elements that once pervaded the local Buddhist festivals and processions – carnival-style entertainments and stalls, for instance, and folkloric ‘devil dancing’ by non-religious mummers – against the complaints of more earnest Buddhists.  He notes regretfully: “Men’s desire for amusement must be satisfied as well as their religious piety.  The religious festivals held at our village temple once catered for both these needs; but due to a few clamorous and educated busy-bodies they have now turned into dull gatherings for the purpose of austere worship and contemplation which only appeal to hermits.”

 

© Sarasa Publishers

 

Koggala’s most famous son has left the village, which is actually more of a town these days, with an important physical (and no doubt money-spinning) legacy.  Contained there in the writer’s former home is the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum.  It displays countless historical and cultural items that he collected over a period of 70 years.  These include religious artefacts like temple lamps, monks’ fans, alms bowls, Buddhist paintings and stone, brass, marble and wooden Buddha statues; old agricultural and fishing implements, such as a lasso for catching buffalo, a fishing-net weaving machine and wooden rattles and stone-firing bows used ‘for scaring away birds’; artistic items like masks, puppets and musical instruments; tools for preparing traditional medicines; pottery; jewellery; weapons; and articles from the traditional textile, leather, carpentry and cane and reed industries.  There’s also a Sri Lankan costume gallery, an exhibition hall full of antique furniture and a shed containing ‘traditional vehicles’, which range from handcarts and ‘temple tricycles’ to tuna-fishing boats and fishing-net barges.

 

A few months ago while we were enjoying a holiday on the south coast, my partner and I visited the museum.  I decided the following things were my favourites in the collection: among the masks, some satirical ones that caricatured red-faced and obviously sunburnt and sweating ‘British officers’; among the puppets, a life-sized marionette show; and a selection of traditional Sri Lankan board games including wadu getage, ‘a carpenter’s puzzle’ that could be likened to a very old Rubic’s cube, magul parakhuwa, which consisted of 11 pieces of wood contained within a square and which challenged you manoeuvre the largest piece out through a side-opening by sliding aside but not lifting out the smaller pieces, and magul getaya, known as ‘the wedding knot mystery’, which was apparently used at wedding parties by the bride’s parents to test their new son-in-law’s brainpower.

 

A sign just past the museum entrance warned visitors to beware of unofficial and duplicitous guides.  Accordingly, when I was in the middle of museum and a small, rather elderly man approached me and attempted to strike up a conversation, I initially tried to shake him off.  It was embarrassing when a little later my better half did start talking to him and we discovered that he was really the institution’s curator.  He’d seen me taking my time looking at the exhibits and writing comments in a notebook and he’d wanted to explain things to me in more detail.  (We must have seemed unique to him because, alas, the local visitors didn’t hang around.  They whooshed through the museum.  For a while I even found myself being propelled along in a fast-moving line of chattering Sri Lankan grannies – whom you might’ve expected to proceed more slowly, given that they were probably old enough to remember a few of those exhibits actually being used.)

 

So, should you ever visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Art Museum, don’t be alarmed if a little old man comes up to you and starts talking.  He’s not some money-grubbing fake guide, but the very informative proprietor of the place.

 

Also, don’t forget that, on your way out, there’s a little shop next to the exit where you can stop and purchase a couple of books by the museum’s distinguished founder.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 12

 

 

This post is about collocations, for which the Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: “a word or phrase that is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning.”  Collocations can involve verbs and nouns, as in ‘do your homework’; or adjectives and nouns, as in ‘heated argument’, or verbs and adverbs, as in ‘rain heavily’.

 

If, like me, you’ve spent part of your working life teaching the English language to non-native speakers of it, you’ll appreciate the difficulty students often have getting their heads around collocations in English.  I seem to have spent hours explaining to people that you don’t ‘write your homework’ but ‘do’ it; that calling an angry exchange a ‘hot argument’ just doesn’t sound right; and that you can’t describe extreme precipitation as ‘raining painfully’.  Note that with all these mistakes, I fully understood the meaning the speaker was trying to convey.  (The last mistake cropped up when I was working in a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where, yes, it seemed to rain painfully every day.)

 

The problem is, we simply don’t put those particular words together to express those particular things.  It may well be that the reasons for certain collocations being right and other collocations being wrong are psychological, on the part of the listener, as much as they are linguistic, on the part of the language itself.  Also, it didn’t surprise me when I heard a language researcher claim one time that collocations are the biggest causes of mistakes in speaking and writing by high-level learners of English.

 

In literature, of course, the way in which a writer uses collocations can contribute greatly to his or her style.  Shunting together words that don’t normally collocate can add an inventive flourish to the prose.  However, if the results can be embarrassing if a writer overdoes it and the attempted collocation falls flat.  I still haven’t forgotten a sentence in an Anthony Burgess novel where a character ‘tramples’ a page with his ‘signature’ – ouch!  And I’ve read a review of Martin Amis’ 2012 novel Lionel Asbo – State of England, in which Amis is taken to task for the clumsiness of his writing – much of which is down to him trying to collocate words that have no business being collocated: for example, ‘Dawn sizzled…’, ‘unfallen eyes’ and ‘a heavy silence began to fuse and climb…’

 

Anyway, this is a prelude to saying that I recently noticed a mural painted on a wall outside a school on Colombo’s Duplication Road that makes heavy use of English collocations.  It pairs off various English verbs and adverbs so that the school-pupils receive a list of instructions about how to behave properly.  Some of the collocated verbs and adverbs work for me and some don’t.  I wonder if this is because the creator of the mural had mistaken ideas about what words collocate appropriately in English or if he or she simply stuck them together without knowing at all.  Or is it because these collocations have become acceptable in Sri Lankan English while it’s evolved apart from ‘standard’ English (whatever that is) over the years?  Or are they the result of literal translations from the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil?

 

By the way, I’m not trying to take a pop at Sri Lankan English here for being incorrect.  The dialect of English where I come from originally, Northern Ireland, has often been dismissed as being ungrammatical or uneducated or just plain incomprehensible, but I would absolutely defend people’s right to speak English that way.  And it contains some collocations of its own that would probably earn an arrest-warrant from the Standard-English Grammar Police: “It’s fierce hot,” “She’s a big age,” “The weather’s powerful today,” and so on.

 

 

So let’s see.  Which of the mural’s collocations work?  ‘Dress smartly’?  Obviously.  ‘Save regularly’?  Yes.  ‘Eat sensibly’?  I suppose so.  ‘Act fearlessly’?  Well, that’s a bit dramatic and it would be exhausting to act fearlessly all the time, but I guess it’s acceptable.  ‘Sleep sufficiently’?  Hmmm…  ‘Plan orderly’?  No, sorry.

 

Some of these collocations sound downright odd, yet I can think of certain people to whom they would make perfect sense.  ‘Spend intelligently’ – did you hear that, Mr. Johnny Depp, the man who last year was reputed to be blowing two million dollars a month on wine, staff, security, a private jet and 14 residences?  ‘Think truthfully’, meanwhile, would be excellent advice for Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, David Davis and the other members of Britain’s Brexiting Conservative government, who are currently possessed by self-delusion on an epic scale about Britain’s prospects after it leaves the European Union.

 

And ‘walk humbly’?  Well, I’m not quite sure how you would physically do that.  But I would advise this man to at least give it a try.

 

© Disney Enterprises Inc

© Stefan Rousseau / From the Times

From CBN News

 

Kataluwa Temple

 

 

A few months ago my partner and I spent four days at the beach resort of Unawatuna on the south coast of Sri Lanka.  Not being beach bums, or beach bunnies, or whatever the term is nowadays, we eschewed lounging on the sand and instead passed the time shuttling along that part of the coast doing some sightseeing.  One attraction we checked out was Kataluwa Temple, which is east of Unawatuna and overlooks a channel linking Koggala Lake with the sea.  We were keen to see this temple because, according to Lonely Planet, it has its origins in the 13th century, boasts ‘some recently restored murals’ and generally feels so quiet and out-of-the-way that it’s ‘like the temple that time forgot’.

 

It proved to be the temple that our tuk-tuk driver – who’d been driving us around for the previous day or two and was knowledgeable about the area’s other sights – seemed unaware of.  However, we’d done our homework with Google Maps and were able to direct him there.  After we’d rattled in through its gates, Kataluwa Temple certainly matched Lonely Planet’s description of it because there were no other visitors present – neither tourists having a look around nor locals saying prayers and leaving offerings.  And actually, the place didn’t seem that remarkable.  It was just a pleasant sand-and-grass-covered compound with a few buildings, statues, bells and palms trees, indistinguishable from hundreds of other quiet country temples scattered across Sri Lanka.

 

 

But then our tuk-tuk driver got talking to a temple handyman and he directed us through a stone gateway at the back of the compound.  This led into an additional part of the temple grounds, where there was an octagonal building of some antiquity and a house that accommodated the temple’s complement of Buddhist monks.  After we’d inquired at the house, a young monk came out, unlocked the other building and showed us inside – myself, my partner and the tuk-tuk driver, who was no doubt making notes at this point and planning to add Kataluwa Temple to his repertoire of south-coast attractions to take foreign tourists to.

 

The temple building’s interior was gorgeous – for it contained the restored murals that Lonely Planet had talked of.  Its walls were packed with colourful religious illustrations.  Images paraded along horizontal rows from the floor to the ceiling, as if the walls had been methodically wallpapered with pages from a giant comic-book or graphic novel.  Depicted there were gods, demons, kings, queens, priests, monks, warriors, merchants commoners, servants, elephants, horses, birds, snakes, carriages, thrones, doors…  Along the bottom were even some pictures of demons tormenting sinners in hell, though unfortunately these remained rather faded and spotty.

 

 

After that, we entered the monks’ house to receive a Buddhist blessing, say our thank-yous and make a donation towards the temple’s upkeep.  When the young monk asked me where I was from and I told him I was originally from Ireland, I was pleasantly surprised by his delighted reaction.  Only later did I learn that the Dutch government has helped to fund the restoration of the murals in this temple – and probably he’d misheard me and thought I was from ‘Holland’.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 11

 

A few weeks ago, I was wandering along the venerable street-side walkway on York Street in downtown Colombo, savouring its old-worldly atmosphere – old-worldly atmospheres are becoming something of a rarity in ever-changing, ever-modernising Colombo – and snapping pictures of the antiquated shop signs that hang there: Millers Ltd (Groceries, Wines, Tobaccos and Fancy Goods), Cargills Ltd (Dispensing Drugs, Toilet Requisites, Perfumery and Optical Goods) and, um, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

 

 

Then I noticed this shop frontage.  Its window was murky with reflected light.  But did I see a strange figure in there, standing just behind the glass?

 

 

I approached the window and discovered a massive ape-like creature glowering out and, indeed, glowering down at me.  A yeti.  Yes, here was an abominable snowman, not in its normal abode of the Himalayan Mountains but in a shop on York Street in central Colombo.

 

 

Well, obviously, it wasn’t a real yeti but a mock-up of one presumably made of fibreglass.  The thing had been created as an eye-catching advertising gimmick for a product called Yeti Isotonic Energy, a rehydrating sports drink that the Internet tells me has been “developed in collaboration by Austrian and Sri Lankan scientists.”  Bottles of it were on display elsewhere in the shop.

 

Like its North American counterpart Big Foot, the yeti is a cryptid, i.e. an animal whose evidence has not been scientifically proven.  It might exist, and some people claim it exists, but that’s all we can say.  I had an overactive imagination when I was a kid and, predictably, I loved the idea that fantastical beasties such as the yeti and Big Foot might be skulking undetected in the world’s less charted regions.

 

So how disappointed I was when, in 1980, British television aired a show about unexplained phenomena called Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and I excitedly tuned in one evening to an episode of it devoted to cryptid apes – only to hear its host, the science-fiction writer (and coincidently a long-term resident of Sri Lanka) Arthur C. Clarke, pour cold water over the existence of such creatures.  For instance, Clarke was unmoved by the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film footage allegedly showing Big Foot because he and Stanley Kubrick had shown in their 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that it was possible to film very realistic-looking ape scenes using human actors in make-up and hairy costumes.  At the end of the episode he opined that if that he had a hundred pounds to bet, he’d forty pounds on the yeti existing, ten pounds on Big Foot existing and “keep the other fifty pounds for myself.”

 

While the yeti and Big Foot are by far the most famous examples, there have been reports of cryptid apes, anthropoids and Neanderthal-like beings all over the world.  These include the Skunk Ape of the Florida Everglades; the Almas of central Asia; the Australian Yowie; the Chinese Yeren; and the Japanese Hibagon, said to live around Mount Hiba near Hiroshima.  Even Scotland has one, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui (Am Fear Liath Mòr in Gaelic), a huge, hairy creature that’s supposed to stalk and loom up terrifyingly in the mist behind lone hikers and climbers on Scotland’s second-highest peak, Ben Macdui in the Cairngorm Mountains.  Nice though the idea of ape creatures hiding out in the Cairngorms is, I’m inclined to attribute the sightings of the Big Grey Man to the sun / cloud-generated optical effect known as the Brocken Spectre.  (Yes, I’m now a total, killjoy sceptic about such things.  Blame Arthur C. Clarke.)

 

My curiosity piqued, I did some research to find out if Sri Lanka can claim to have any cryptid apes of its own.  And it can, apparently.  The Nittaewo were said to be a species of bipedal, tailless primates dwelling in the nation’s forests, with talon-like fingers and a strange language that resembled the twittering of birds.  According to the traditions of the Vedda people – who are believed to be Sri Lanka’s oldest human inhabitants – the Vedda fought against and finally destroyed the Nittaewo in the 18th century.  All the same, there have been alleged sightings of the Nittaewo since then, indeed, as late as 1984.

 

Still, if you go down to the Sri Lankan woods today and hear strange rustlings and twittering sounds coming through the undergrowth towards you, you needn’t be too alarmed.  The Nittaewo were said to be three feet tall at most, so if they did exist they would probably have resembled Hobbits – and not their giant-sized Himalayan cousin in the shop window on York Street.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 10

 

 

I was whizzing back to my Colombo apartment in a tuk-tuk one evening recently when I happened to look out at the side of the street and see, hovering a foot above the pavement, the outlines of several small children.

 

“Eek!” I exclaimed.  “Sri Lankan ghost children!”  (My excitability may have been due to the fact that I’d just been in a local hostelry partaking of a couple of bottles of Sri Lanka’s finest beverage, Lion Lager.)

 

When I traversed the same street the following day, I discovered that the spooky levitating children were still there, but they weren’t actually ghosts.  In reality, they were the foot soldiers of a new traffic safety campaign: life-sized photographic silhouettes, fixed on poles and facing the oncoming traffic, each bearing a sign with a safety slogan written in English or Sinhala.  These slogans ranged from general ones like “Please drive safely” to more specific ones like “Please don’t drive while you’re on the phone” and “Please don’t drink and drive”; and some sounded personal, like “Daddy, please think of me before you drive so fast” and “Aunties and uncles, please follow the traffic signs.”

 

(Incidentally, in the local variety of English, calling someone an ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re their niece or nephew.  According to my Dictionary of Sri Lankan English by Michael Meyler, ‘auntie’ can be “a term of respect / affection used by a child to a woman or by a young woman to an older woman, even if they are not related.”  The equivalent, with boys and younger and older men, applies to ‘uncle’.)

 

 

I’ve written humorously about these spooky traffic-safety kids, but there’s no denying that they’re being used to combat a serious social issue.  Sri Lankan roads are not particularly safe.  A World Health Organisation report in 2015, using data from 2013, put the annual traffic-accident death-toll in Sri Lanka per 100,000 people at 17.4 (compared with 16.6 for India and 2.9 for the UK).  In 2015 it was calculated that one Sri Lankan was dying in a traffic accident every three-and-a-half hours; while the total number of traffic fatalities in 2016 came to 3,117.  Among the reasons given for the carnage are the usual suspects: lack of adequate driver-training, immaturity, speeding, alcohol and tiredness.  (As someone who’s had some scary late-night taxi rides with drivers who’ve looked worryingly sleepy, I can testify to that last one being a problem.)

 

Among the other figures for 2016, there were 10,754 recorded accidents involving motorcycles, which doesn’t surprise me – motorbikes are ubiquitous here, but drivers of larger vehicles rarely seem to give them much consideration.  It also doesn’t surprise me that 2016 saw 7,061 accidents with tuk-tuks, given the devil-may-care, at times verging on Evel Knievel-esque, driving style favoured by many three-wheeler drivers.

 

I have to say, though, that for me the biggest villains on Sri Lanka’s streets and roads are the bus drivers, who often behave like they’re at the wheel of an armoured battle-truck in some Mad-Max-style post-apocalypse dystopia.  They seem to believe they have god-like status when they overtake – anything coming in the opposite direction had better get the hell out of the way.  (And when you’re confronted with a 15-ton bus hurtling towards you, you do.)

 

A few months back, I was having a beer one night in a pub in Jaffna when I got into a conversation with a bloke who was busy quaffing a bottle of arrack.  He spent a long time lamenting about the dangerous driving taking place on the nation’s roads and the number of road accidents resulting from it.  And he had no doubt about what the root of the problem was: “Many young guys drinking alcohol.  Then getting into their cars.”  Finally, he finished his bottle of arrack, paid the bill and lifted from behind the table something I hadn’t noticed before – a motorcycle helmet.  With that, he slouched off into the night.

 

Spooky traffic-safety kids, you have your work cut out.

 

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 4: hot butter cuttlefish

 

From yamu.lk

 

Hot butter cuttlefish is surely the King of Snacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city.  Most citizens regard it as the as the chewiest and spiciest thing on their local menus.  As Colombo is a coastal city, it’s appropriate that the dish is a seafood one.

 

It’s a wonderful concoction involving strips of cuttlefish (obviously) that have been coated in egg-white, cornflour, salt and turmeric powder and then deep-fried in oil; a sauce of chili powder, butter, garlic and sugar; and various accoutrements including sliced capsicum, chives, spring onions and chilis.

 

According to an investigation by Colombo’s prominent food / drink / events website www.yamu.lk, the best hot butter cuttlefish in the city is served up at the Barracuda Restaurant, a beachside venue in the Dehiwala district specialising in Chinese and Thai cuisine.  Mind you, this survey was conducted in 2014, and as times change and (importantly) chef s change too, Barracuda may not be top of the hot-butter-cuttlefish league today.  (I should say I’ve eaten and drunk in Barracuda many times but for some reason I’ve never sampled the dish there.)

 

I’m biased, but personally I’d suggest an unpretentious Colombo pub as the best place to procure hot butter cuttlefish – even though you usually eat it in a dim, enclosed environment full of the smell of beer, spirits and cigarettes and the sea seems very far away.  Indeed, this dish and beer are a marriage made in heaven.  Nothing tastes better when you’ve drunk a couple of pints and suffered an attack of the munchies.  I’m partial to what’s served in the public bar of the Atlantica Hotel on Galle Road.  Overall, though, I’d probably nominate the Randoli Sports Club on Kirula Road as Colombo’s very best purveyor of the dish.

 

One last thing.  In my view, the accoutrements – the onions and chilis – should be cooked for only the briefest of times, so that when they arrive on the plate with the deep-fried cuttlefish they’re almost raw and able to sting your tongue and moisten your eyes when you bite into them.  This gives an additional, delicious edge to the dish’s taste.  But it means that the greatest hot butter cuttlefish isn’t for people with wimpy taste-buds.

 

Welliweediya Cemetery in Negombo

 

 

Wellaweediya Cemetery on Sea Road in the coastal town of Negombo is the most atmospheric graveyard I’ve come across so far in Sri Lanka.  Its aura of spooky otherworldliness is despite it being only walking distance from one of the biggest tourist drags on Sri Lanka’s western shore.

 

Mind you, the weather conditions on the afternoon I visited the cemetery probably helped the mood.  The sky was melancholically dark.  Nervy gusts of wind kept whipping up and dying again, each one punting leaves, litter and wisps of sand and dust a few yards further along the ground.  It seemed just a matter of time before the clouds were rent asunder and thunder and lightning started raging over the seafront.  This gave the place a sense of tropical desolation – like it wasn’t located in a Sri Lankan beach resort at all, but on a Caribbean island in some voodoo or zombie horror story.

 

You couldn’t have asked for a more Gothic way of entering the cemetery – through corroded gates that were topped with evil-looking barbs and flanked by a pair of forlorn stone angels whose wings had been largely broken off.

 

 

Inside, one thing that unsettled me was how the ground was mostly composed of sand.  I usually associate cemeteries with soil – firm soil, solid enough to hold things in the ground.  This sand looked anything but solid.  It was heaped into long V-shaped mounds before each cross or headstone, which rather morbidly mapped out the dimensions of the coffins and bodies a little way underneath.

 

 

Across the sand was strewn a lot of debris – scraps of paper, pieces of string, lengths of ribbon and shreds of greenery, which presumably were remnants of disintegrated wreaths and other grave-decorations.  But more recent tributes to the deceased remained intact.  There were arrangements of ferns and fronds, often wilting and resembling sprawling green crowns, and orchid-like flowers, whose colours the elements had bleached to a faded pink.

 

 

The graves were marked mostly by crosses.  Some were made of wood but coated in a thick, treacly black paint.  A few were covered in small, pale-coloured tiles.  Standing at the end of an occasional grave-mound was a miniature shrine, a glass-fronted case containing a religious figure – the glass commonly misted and sickly-looking with condensation.

 

 

One disturbing sight was a grave where the mound of sand had been dug into.  A large hole in the mound’s side showed that something had been burrowing into it.  Unless, that is, the hole had been made by the grave’s occupant burrowing out.

 

 

Finally, while I was there, Wellaweediya Cemetery was infested with crows.  They were happily using the crosses and gravestones as perches, climbing frames and stepping stones.  And needless to say, their loud non-stop cawing cranked the graveyard’s atmosphere several notches higher on the ‘creepy’ scale.