High on Kandy



Rising above the historical city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka is a hill that’s home to the Udawattakele Sanctuary.  This was once a reserve established by Sri Lanka’s old colonial rulers, the British.  Nowadays, it’s a couple of square kilometres of forested parkland that allow walkers and nature-lovers to escape the noise and bustle of the city below.  The sanctuary’s two main pathways still hark back to the days of British rule, one being called Lady Horton’s Drive and the other called Lady Gordon’s Road – both ladies were wives of long-ago British governors.


To get access to the sanctuary, you need to head up the Kandy-Jaffna Highway on the north side of Kandy Lake and to the west of the Temple of the Tooth complex.  After passing the post office there, you turn left onto Sri Dalada Thapowana Vihara Road and climb that as far as Thapowanaya Temple, where there’s an entrance and a track leading to a murky-looking pond.  By the pond’s edge, the lower of the main pathways, Lady Horton’s Drive, sprouts off to the left.



On foot, making your way up to the entrance is something of a hike.  But the sense of seclusion, of being removed from the city, which comes when you pass through into the forest makes the effort feel worthwhile.  Mind you, for me, that feeling was short-lived.  As soon as I started up the steep and remote-seeming Lady Horton’s Drive, I was startled to hear the buzz of an engine ahead of me.  Then a Sri Lankan three-wheeler appeared above and came rattling down towards me, swaying precariously from side to side as it navigated the path’s many bumps.  I knew those little vehicles were ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, but I hadn’t expected to see one up here.



However, after that, I saw no more vehicles and very few other human beings and I spent my time tramping along the sanctuary’s sandy, leaf-strewn pathways in solitude.  Though not in silence.  Occasionally, from the forest around me, I heard crackling and rustling noises that suggested old rotten twigs, pieces of branch and clumps of leaves breaking off and falling slowly and softly through the canopy to the ground.  A less spooky sound – and a reminder that I still wasn’t far from civilisation – was the sporadic crack of a firework from the city below, where people were celebrating the advent of the Buddhist New Year.


Also, at times, the cicadas were noisy.  There was one spot, the junction of Lady Horton’s Drive and Lady Gordon’s Road, where their sound was piercingly shrill.  It suggested the screech of an old bus applying its worn-out brakes, but amplified a hundred times.



Green, dense and still damp from the previous day’s rain, the forest looked gorgeous.  Though it looked slightly sinister too, thanks to a profusion of weird, corkscrewing woody vines.  Frequently, these stretched between the trees on either side of the path and enclosed them in a giant, gnarly truss.


There was a brief downpour near the end of my walk.  This didn’t bother me, but I was apprehensive because I’d read in a guidebook that following rain in the sanctuary leeches would emerge in Biblical-plague numbers.  Thus, while I made my way back down to the pond, I stopped to inspect myself every other minute in case leeches had suddenly attached themselves to me.  I didn’t find anything, though, and I began to suspect the guidebook writer had been exaggerating.


As soon as I returned to the pond, I experienced a phenomenon that I’ve come to think of as a ‘monkey army’.  First, a couple of adult monkeys skulked along silently but purposely, like advance scouts.  Then a whole clan appeared – more adults, some mothers with monkey-babies, kids, monkey-toddlers.  They seemed to emerge out of nowhere, surreptitiously lowering themselves from branches and easing themselves out of the foliage, and suddenly a whole nomadic, simian tribe was on the move around me.  A minute later, however, they’d all melted back into the landscape and were out of sight again.  I have to say that seeing a monkey army in motion in a Sri Lankan forest is less freaky than having one pass you by on a street in a busy Indian city, which had happened to me in Delhi the previous year.



Once the monkeys were gone, still near the pond, I bumped into a group of people whom I knew from Colombo and who were having a few days’ break in Kandy too.  While I was talking to one of them, she stopped in mid-sentence, pointed down and said, “I think there’s a big black beetle sitting on your ankle.”  I bent down and discovered that it was actually a leech – a plump one that’d attached itself to the front of my sock, just above the tongue of my shoe.  Worse, a second, equally-big leech was fastened in a similar position to the other sock on my other foot.  Presumably, the vampiric beasties had got onto me while I was distracted by the spectacle of the monkey army.


Not heeding the old warning that if you pull off a leech you risk breaking it and leaving its head and feeding apparatus embedded in your flesh, I prised away the pair of them.  And immediately I saw two red patches spread through the fabric of the socks where those leeches had been clinging.  They’d already made contact with my skin and started drinking, and now those drinking-spots were bleeding.


The punctures left by the leeches bled for hours afterwards and I ended up taping swabs of cotton wool over them to try to staunch them.  And even two weeks later, I could still see the small, scabbed points where the things had had their hooks in me.


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 9: Bambalapitiya Station



Colombo is being redeveloped at a frenzied rate these days.  Multi-storey hotels and apartment blocks seem to shoot up out of the ground with the suddenness and speed of mushrooms.  So many cranes loom over the downtown area that the horizon there resembles a pincushion.  And a grand, if not grandiose, reclamation project is forcing the sea back from the Fort district, banishing it behind giant dunes of sand and boulders.


With all this happening, it’s a surprise when you see the under-developed state of the city’s railway system, the antiquated and fusty railway stations in particular.


A typical example is Bambalapitiya Station, not far from where I live.  It’s one of three stations standing on Marine Drive, the city’s main coastal road.  A pair of railway lines run along a strip between the road and the sea’s edge, one carrying southbound trains heading in the direction of Galle, a few hours away down the coast, and the other carrying northbound trains for central Colombo.  Bambalapitya Station is roughly at the midpoint of Marine Drive.  There, the railway lines bulge apart and create between them a narrow, faintly elliptical space which the station building and platforms straggle along.  Past where the platforms stop, the two tapering ends of the space are covered in sand, rocks, rubble, litter, grass and weeds.



At peak travelling hours, Marine Drive is teeming with vehicles and to get people safely across the road to the station there’s a pedestrian bridge covered with corrugated-iron roofing of various unappealing shades of grey and brown.  The stairs at the end of the bridge descend into the station building itself, long and low and with walls that are a faded amber colour.  Corrugated-iron ‘awnings’ stick out on either side, over the middle parts of the platforms.  Their ends, though, are exposed to all weathers.


Plenty of people enter the station without using the bridge.  Its main part is separated from Marine Drive by a low wall and fence, but many folk stream off the road, around the wall and fence and onto the ends of the waste ground.  From there they clamber up onto the platforms; or more hazardously, they clamber up into the end-carriages of the trains, which when they’ve stopped usually protrude past the platforms.  The latter course-of-action can be even more of a struggle at peak hours when the carriage doors are already garlanded with the bodies of clinging, hanging-out passengers.



There’s a second, bigger wall standing behind the outer railway track, presumably to shield the tracks, trains, platforms, buildings and travellers from the spray and occasionally the waves of the sea just a few yards further away.   The wall is a mishmash of sections, rising to different heights and featuring different textures of brickwork and plasterwork.  It’s also become a canvas for Colombo graffiti-artists who’ve daubed it with hip-hoppy scrawls.



The most striking, and saddest, feature of Bambalapitiya Station is found behind that sea-wall.  Against its rear side, along the narrow rocky strip between it and where the ground drops to the sea, some poor Sri Lankan people have erected a line of huts and shacks.  Their walls have been patched together with wooden panels and planks and their roofs consist of tarpaulin and corrugated iron weighted down with rocks and discarded railway sleepers.  The boulders outside their doors are strewn with things that’ve no doubt been salvaged and scavenged: plastic chairs, plastic water containers, a bathtub, lengths of piping, shapeless chunks of scrap metal.  The hut at the northern end appears to function as a rudimentary shop / tearoom for there’s a hatchway in its sidewall with a makeshift table and stools arranged in front of it.



In 2011, the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper published a feature about this ramshackle settlement.  It makes depressing and upsetting reading.  Its description of how the huts regularly get flooded with seawater correspond to what I’ve seen, from a distance, on stormy days when the waves climb the rocks and strike the huts with a violence that makes you fear they’ll be swept away.  At the time, local politicians stood accused of ignoring the plight of Bambalapitya Station’s backdoor residents; and from the look of things, they’ve done little or nothing to help them since then.




Well, there’s one thing that’s apparently changed since that newspaper feature six years ago.  At least some of the huts seem to have power now.  The evidence for this is the couple of poles sticking up above the sea-wall with TV aerials fastened to their tops.



Just after the final hut at the wall’s southern end, a blue-painted Christian shrine has been set up.  A glass-fronted box on its summit contains figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  It makes an atmospheric sight after six o’clock in the evening, while the silvery-gold sun dips towards the sea and a few long skinny clouds along the sky glow so redly that they look like bloody scratch-marks.



I should say that I’ve never ventured behind the railway’s station’s back wall and stuck my camera in anyone’s face.  I only wish other visitors to Colombo would be respectful too of the privacy of the people there.  On one occasion, I saw a big tour bus parked on Marine Drive beside the station and, on the far side of the railway tracks, some Chinese tourists crowded at the end of the shanty town and snapping pictures of it – treating it as a ‘poverty porn’ stop on their travel itinerary.


As for the roadside wall at the front of Bambilapitiya Station – or half-a-wall because part of it has disappeared and, as I’ve said, been replaced by a fence – somebody tried at some time to brighten it by painting a series of murals along it.  However, these last for only a few yards.  Their images – Buddha, stupas, rivers, forests, lotus flowers, demons, deer, elephants, fish, turtles, elephants, birds and butterflies – are pleasingly colourful, simple and child-like.



A mixture of rickety charm and some truly grim poverty, Bambalapitiya Station feels increasingly out of place in its neighbourhood.  It stands opposite the junction of Marine Drive and Station Road – a minute’s walk up the latter street is the trendy and popular Majestic City shopping centre.  And the opposite side of Marine Drive itself is currently in the throes of redevelopment.  One building, for instance, has been gutted and is being transformed into a new, high-falutin’ Indian restaurant with the amusing name of Planet Bollywood.



I suspect that before much longer some big, possibly Chinese-led consortium will flatten the old station and others like it and then raise new versions of them, fashioned in concrete, glass and steel.  Perhaps someone is on the case already.


Since writing this post I’ve noticed that the station’s front wall and the bottom half of its back wall have recently been given a lick of dark-red paint – the murals at the front have been spared, thankfully.  So clearly somebody in the Sri Lankan railway authorities is of the opinion that the place needs ‘doing up’.


Kandy’s Royal Botanical Gardens



I recently spent New Year with my family in Scotland, the memory of which makes me shudder.  I’m not shuddering about being with my family, of course, but shuddering at the physical discomfort that New Year in Scotland inevitably entails – pummelling wind, unrelenting rain, numbing cold and generally all the greyness, dreichness and shiteness that the Scottish mid-winter can muster.


How different it seems from another sort of New Year I’ve experienced lately – Buddhist New Year in Sri Lanka, where I’ve been living since 2014.  This takes place over three days starting with the first full-moon-day in April.  And in Sri Lanka, April is a month when the daytime temperature is in the thirties and the air feels so toastingly hot that you want to shower after spending two minutes out on your balcony.


One Buddhist New Year, my partner and I found ourselves in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy.  On the first day of the holiday we wondered what we could do with ourselves because we assumed everything would be shut.  Then, after making enquiries, we learned that Kandy’s famous Royal Botanical Gardens, just beyond the edge of town, were open that day.



Stupidly, I assumed that these ‘botanical gardens’ would be like the ones you find in the United Kingdom, i.e. with their tropical plants sealed off from the brutal British elements behind thick glass walls and beneath thick glass roofs; growing safely in an artificially-created tropical climate.  But when we arrived at the gates of Kandy’s botanical gardens, the truth dawned on me.  The gardens here don’t need to be kept indoors in an artificial tropical climate.  This is Sri Lanka.  It has a tropical climate.  D’uh!


Thus, these botanical gardens are proper gardens, outdoors.


As we wandered about the gardens, certain features caught our attention.  Passing through the bamboo thickets was a surprisingly aesthetic experience – as it penetrated between the bars of their walls, the sun made hypnotic patterns of long straight shadows.  Unfortunately, though, the effect was vitiated somewhat by the amount of graffiti that’d been carved onto the bamboo shafts.



Other highlights included a tree called mora excelsa, a hulking brute of a thing with amazing roots.  Tall and narrow as they spread out below the trunk, the roots didn’t just divide the surrounding ground into segments but formed high walls between them.  Syrgus romanzoffiana, which originated in South America, was a tall, super-straight tree with a trunk like a pole.  And coryphe umbraculifera, found in Sri Lanka and India, stood at heights of up to 80 feet and was supposedly the biggest of the world’s palm trees.  My notebook entries that day also mention ‘spiky, pineapple-y and vaguely triffid-esque things’ and ‘weird sinister growths with yellow-white buds, light-brown flowers and round coconut-like fruit, whose tangled tendrils enclose the trunks of trees.’



Somewhere during our circuit of the grounds, we saw tall, slim and weirdly-curved coniferous trees, forming wavy patterns in the distance.  One had a curious, cloven comb at its top.



At one point too, we encountered a broad meadow, a couple of feet above which battalions of butterflies were fluttering madly.  I tried to photograph the scene but, alas, these butterflies proved as ephemeral and elusive as vampires or J.D. Salinger – their images just refused to be captured on film.



It was a delightful place to explore.  However, after tramping around the gardens for a few hours in the gruelling heat, we both got mightily thirsty and hungry – and we were less than pleased to discover that the one part of the place that was closed because of the holiday was its shop, café and restaurant facilities.  Thank God we thought to bring umbrellas with us as protection against the sun.  But at least a New Year associated with extreme heat, dehydration and sunstroke made a change from one associated with hypothermia.



Meanwhile, I hope you all had a Happy New Year, no matter what climate it was spent in.


Christmas in Colombo



For a country where just seven percent of the population professes to be Christian, Sri Lanka sure seems to love Christmas.  That’s the conclusion I draw after tramping about Colombo for the past couple of weeks and snapping pictures of the many festive-themed adornments to the city-streets.


For example, here’s a Nativity scene that’s been created on a little platform just inside the front wall of St Peter’s College on Galle Road.  Brightly-coloured figures kneel, bow and pay homage amid the straw: red-robed Magi, blue-and-red-winged angels, the usual little sheep that look like they’ve strayed from a toy farm set.  A narrow strip of wood runs from the wall to the platform, looking a bit like a drawbridge that Mary and Joseph can pull up when they get tired of the visitors.



Further down Galle Road, silhouettes of Father Christmas and his reindeer decorate an arch in front of the entrance to the Majestic City shopping complex.  I have to say that Santa here looks particularly horrible.  He’s a brown, shapeless and worryingly faecal-looking blob with a red Santa-hat on top.  They say that you can’t polish a turd, but evidently you can stick a red hat on one and call it ‘Santa’.



Meanwhile, there’s more Santa-related shenanigans down on Marine Drive, where I spotted this life-sized image of him hanging outside a balcony several floors up an apartment building.  The building itself looks pretty grotty with rusty-brown stains creeping down the masonry below the satellite TV dishes and air-conditioning extractor fans, and I can’t help wondering if Santa is desperate to climb into the place or climb out of it.



Further down Galle Road at the entrance of another shopping centre, Crescot City, these Christmas ice-palace fortifications have been erected.  They’ve become selfie-central for Colombo’s well-heeled young shoppers.  When I was there the outside temperature was about 30 degrees Celsius, so it was no surprise that the clumps of snow on the palace’s stonework seemed to be melting.  Or that the heavily-clad elf at the top seemed to be flailing with heat exhaustion.



Next door to Crescot City is the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.  Entering its lobby, the song Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs immediately started playing in my head because pink is the colour scheme the hotel management have adopted for their Christmas-tree and holly-wreath decorations this year.  Downstairs, a floor has been given over to a Christmas Market.  During my visit the market’s fish-stall seemed to be selling only long, thick, roasted, smoked and silent-screaming eels.  Out of festive delicacy, I will avoid traumatising you by showing pictures of their dead, gaping faces.



Finally, I have to say my favourite Christmas sight in Colombo is this cheap, humble but charming Christmas tree standing outside the Vespa Sports Club, one of the ‘man-pubs’ in the city that I frequent.  Sitting drinking beer next to a tatty Christmas tree on a ramshackle veranda in the tropics – for me, that’s what the Spirit of Christmas is all about.



Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 8



For the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, an invasion has been taking place.  I think of it as the Invasion of the Pink Pavements.


This has not been a quiet, surreptitious, barely noticeable invasion as in Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, which was filmed four times beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956.  No, it’s been a full-on, noisy, destructive invasion, like the one conducted by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, filmed most recently by Steven Spielberg in 2005.  For a long time I watched it rage in the busy coastal neighbourhoods south of central Colombo, in Kollupitya, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta, along two of the main traffic arteries there, Galle Road and Duplication Road.  New pavements were being installed at the sides of those roads, but what’d been there before seemed to put up a hell of a fight against them.  As I wrote in my notebook in the autumn of 2014:


“The objective seems to be, eventually, to replace all the old pavements with new, smart, corporate ones consisting of neat, level surfaces with small, pink bricks organised in geometrical patterns.  And in places, segments of new pavement have appeared; but they’re like small islands of sanity amid the chaos and carnage of yawning holes and trenches, former holes and trenches that’ve been unevenly filled in, hillocks of excavated earth, trucks, JCBs, noise, dust, guys working with shovels, guys idling and leaning on shovels, warning signs, barriers, barricades, milling pedestrians, awkwardly-manoeuvring three-wheelers and confused street-dogs.”


And yet, somehow, suddenly, the work ended and the new pavements were complete.  As I said, they’re composed of small pink bricks, though with occasional zigzags of grey brick woven into them.  They also have yellow seams of grooved or studded tactile paving running through them, to help the visually impaired.


I wonder if the unexpectedly quick and efficient manner with which the job was finished had something to do with the presidential election held in Sri Lanka in January 2015.  I’ve been in enough places to know that, with an election pending, public construction projects that’ve messily meandered on for years suddenly buck up and get completed in a rush.


However, the third main artery in this area of Colombo had been largely untouched by the pink pavements.  Marine Drive runs parallel with Galle Road and Duplication Road and, as its name suggests, follows the coast of the Laccadive Sea.  It’s not quite on the shoreline, as there’s a coastal railway track between them.  Until recently, a pavement existed on the northern stretch of Marine Drive between Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya Stations; but for the whole way down from Bambalapitya Station to the drive’s end at the southern edge of Wellawatta, pedestrians had to trudge along a dusty, earthen roadside.



However, Marine Drive, which goes past the bottom of my street, experienced a transformation this summer.  I returned from a holiday and hey presto!  I discovered that a new pink pavement had planted itself on the drive’s hitherto-bare seaward side.


I suppose this was unsurprising.  The past few years have seen the once-shabby drive get a dose of gentrification and it’s had fancy new arrivals like the OZO Hotel and the neighbouring NDB Bank building.  No doubt some better-heeled Colombo-ites are walking on it these days and they don’t appreciate getting dirt on their shoes, having their elbows brushed by too-close-to-the-side traffic and having to avoid smelly, open roadside drains.



The new pavement also allows you to properly pause, look out from the shore and admire the sea.  Previously, if you didn’t want vehicles honking at your back, you had to clamber into the middle of the railway tracks to do this.



You can also stop and study the interesting new safety signs that the Sri Lankan railway authorities have erected alongside the train-tracks.  Check out the poor guy in the picture in this sign’s top right-hand corner – actually, it looks like it was designed by the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, the subject of this blog two entries ago.



But this doesn’t mean that pedestrians can navigate all of Marine Drive by pavement now.  A kilometre’s gap still exists immediately south of Bambalapitya Station.  Though the new length of pavement runs up through Wellawatta and part of Bambalapitya, it suddenly stops dead in front of the Westeern Hotel.  There it gives way to a muddle of excavation work.



Coincidentally, the pavement’s current end-point, the Westeern Hotel, is home to Harry’s Bar, which is one of my favourite spit-and-sawdust pubs in Colombo.  So for now it feels like the city authorities have installed a pathway for me personally, so that I can walk with ease to the door of a treasured drinking hole and back.



The Cricket Club gets bowled out



As I get older and become more of a creature of habit, one thing I increasingly dislike is change.  So the other evening in Colombo I got a shock.  I finished work and made my way to the Cricket Club, a well-known eating and drinking establishment close to my workplace, to unwind with a beer.  This is something I do regularly.


I walked along the street beside the Cricket Club and turned around a corner to where its entrance was… and discovered that its big green gates were fastened shut across the entrance.  Then, peering over the top of its perimeter wall, I saw that the charming old colonial-type bungalow that contains the Cricket Club was in darkness.


It was closed.  And a newly hung-up banner told me that the Cricket Club, in this neighbourhood at least, was closed for good.


Change had come.  “Eeeek!” I went.


I’ll be honest.  The Cricket Club wasn’t my all-time favourite place in Colombo to hang out in and have a meal or drink.  I sometimes found the food a bit stodgy.  It could get uncomfortably busy with crowds of holiday makers who were shuttled there on tour-coaches.  I didn’t think the bar area was particularly cosy or atmospheric, although it was definitely an improvement on the phoney, sanitised faux-old-style-British pubs that you get in the city’s upmarket hotels like the Cinnamon Grand.  And the music played there was very often ghastly.  I’m sorry, Cricket Club, but if I want to chill out with a beer and a bite to eat, the very last thing I want to hear is a loud Hi NRG version of The Final Countdown by Europe.



And the place’s big gimmick left me cold.  Yes, the Cricket Club was a place dedicated to the sport of cricket.  The walls were covered with cricketing memorabilia – with pictures of players, teams and matches, with bats, balls and stumps, with sweaters, banners and flags.  And the dishes on the menu were named after famous cricket players.  Thus, you could order Imran Khan pumpkin soup, Graham Gooch fish and chips, Mike Gatting garlic prawns, a Viv Richards veggie bake, an Allan Lamb stir-fry, a Dickie Bird burger and inevitably a ‘David Shepherd’ pie.  Now this is great if you’re a fan of cricket.  Unfortunately, I’m somebody who considers cricket to be the most tedious sport ever devised by humankind.  It doesn’t surprise me that only about ten countries on the planet are deluded enough to play it.  (Though admittedly one of those ten, India, does contain 17% of the world’s population.)


But the Cricket Club had its positive features too.  For one thing, the waiting staff seemed a welcoming and decent bunch of blokes.  And there was one part of it that I found heavenly – its veranda.


Ah, how I loved that veranda!  I’d struggle onto it following a hectic and wearying day’s work and sit at one of its tables, and order a beer, and spend my time under a creaking ceiling fan watching the light outside affect a series of ever-darkening shades as evening gave way to night.  Cats would prowl and crows would hop across the open area in front of the veranda.  And at a certain point a big gecko would appear on the wall next to me and entertain me for hours as he scurried to and fro searching for bugs to pounce on.  After a few evenings I’d christened him – not very originally – ‘Gordon’.


Me, a beer and Gordon the Gecko on the Cricket Club veranda.  How could I possibly spend a more blissful evening?


Incidentally, that area before the veranda included the Cricket Club’s most photographed feature.  This was a tall white signpost with a curious-looking figure on top, half-cricketer and half-Old Father Time.  It also had eight or so signs pointing off in different directions, towards different famous cricket-grounds in different cricket-playing countries, and it displayed the distances from Colombo to each one.  It was 15,829 km to Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, 10,910 km to Basin Reserve in New Zealand and so on.



With hindsight, I suppose it was no surprise that the Cricket Club, housed in that old bungalow, was living on borrowed time.  The structure was showing its age and maintaining it must have been a drain on resources.  Back in May, when unusually violent rain pounded Sri Lanka, its roof couldn’t cope.  At the time I went there for a meal with my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I soon discovered that water was dribbling through the ceiling in the main men’s toilet.  Later, as we were finishing our meal in the place’s lobby area, the lobby-roof started leaking too.  By bad luck, Mrs Blood and Porridge was sitting directly under the leak and huge cold drops of water came smacking down onto the crown of her head.


It seems sadly inevitable that rumours are already circulating about the site where the Cricket Club operated – old bungalow and all – being cleared to make way for a new, costly apartment block.  Several of these have sprouted up in the district in recent years.  Indeed, at the other end of the street, an architecturally handsome outlet of the boutique / gift-shop Paradise Road was levelled a short time ago, presumably to allow the construction of yet another apartment block.


However, the Cricket Club itself isn’t dead – for the banner above the gates announces that in the near future it will be reopening at a new address on Flower Road.  I’ve heard that its staff are busy transferring everything (including, no doubt, all the cricketing memorabilia) to Flower Road at this very moment.  It’s probably too much to hope for, but it would be nice if they could dismantle the veranda and then reassemble it, brick-by-brick and plank-by-plank, at the new premises.  Oh, and they’d better bring Gordon the Gecko with them.


Oh, and guys – while you’re at it, get some f***ing decent music in.  Please!



The British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy



The British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, provided accommodation for deceased members of the local colonial community for half-a-century.  Occupying a strip near the bottom of a wooded slope a few hundred metres east of Kandy’s famous Temple of the Tooth, it functioned as a burial ground from 1822 to the mid-1870s, after which the only interments allowed were for relatives of people already buried there.


Leaflets about the cemetery are available at the entrance.  It’s a good idea to take one as it’ll often give more information about the place’s residents than what’s inscribed on their headstones – if those inscriptions are readable at all.



The best-known person buried there is probably Sir John D’Oyly, whose remains lie beneath a grooved, cacti-like stone column.  As the leaflet explains, he “represented the British Government at the 1815 Convention whereat the Kingdom of Kandy was annexed to the British Crown.”  The British got their way after D’Oyly acted as an intermediary between them and various Kandyan chiefs who were disillusioned with and plotting against the then king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha – his downfall in 1815 marked the end of 2300 years of Sinhalese monarchy in Sri Lanka.  Officially, he was replaced as monarch by King George III.


Sri Vikrama Rajasinha is remembered as a tyrant, though it’s debatable if the Sri Lankans got much improvement with George III, who’d helped lose Britain’s American colonies and who by then was barking mad (possibly because of the blood disease porphyria).



D’Oyly became fluent in Sinhala and, following the British takeover, remained in Kandy until his death in 1824.  He evidently ‘went native’, with one British acquaintance observing that he lived there in the manner of ‘a Sinhalese hermit’.


Some years earlier, while he had governmental responsibilities in the southern district of Matara, D’Oyly had also befriended the Sri Lankan poetess Gajaman Nona.  After the death of Nona’s husband had left her and her family destitute, he granted them a piece of land to live on.  The leaflet notes that the grateful poetess wrote a ‘set of verses’ in his honour.  D’Oyly’s Wikipedia entry is more gossipy: “His earlier association with a woman poet, Gajaman Nona, in Matara led to some speculation.”


Elsewhere, it’s morbidly interesting to find out how some of the cemetery’s residents met their ends.  Many succumbed to things that were commonplace during the imperial project, when British people were shipped overseas to climes where they were unprepared for the temperature, weather, flora and fauna.  Thus, we get A. McGill who “died of sunstroke”: James Urquhart who, aged 32, “died of cholera”; and poor Lewis Herbert Kilby, “late of 132 Fenchurch Street, London”, whose headstone baldly states that he “died in Kandy on 8 October 1859 of acute diarrhoea.”   Meanwhile, there’s a certain nobility about the demise of Captain James McGlashan: “Without taking a precaution he walked from Trincomalee, drenched with rain, wading, sitting and even sleeping in saturated clothing: not surprisingly he was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with manly fortitude.”



Some of the manners of departure are rather bizarre.  David Findlay died when a Kandy building called Mullegodde House “collapsed on him.”  Then there’s John Spottiswood Robertson, whose death was apparently “the seventh and last recorded death of a European in Ceylon killed by wild elephants.”  Meanwhile, William Watson Mackwood’s expiry is, on his tombstone, attributed merely to an ‘accident’.  The cemetery leaflet, however, gives stranger and more gruesome details: “Alighting from his horse, he was transfixed by a stake placed to mark out the ground.”


The cemetery’s inhabitants originated in all parts of the British Isles.  It has a tiny Irish quarter, containing the remains of Henry Williams Desterre of Limerick and Joseph O’Brien of King’s Court, County Cavan.  And the Scots are well represented.  George Baxter Wilson of Aberdeenshire died from ‘intermittent fever’, while there’s a moving tribute to James McPherson of Kingussie: “This stone is erected by Highlanders who desire thus to record the piety, integrity and sterling worth of a countryman whose loss they deeply deplore.”



The British Garrison Cemetery is well maintained.  Indeed, it’s a model of neatness and order compared to the dilapidated and overgrown South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, about which I blogged some time ago.




While my partner and I were visiting the place, two workmen – an old bloke and a young lad – were toiling there.  The lad demonstrated phenomenal powers of memory by reciting to us the information (barely legible or not-at-all legible on the headstones) about various people in various graves.  No doubt he’d developed this talent as a way of earning tips from visiting tourists and supplementing his meagre salary, which was 400 Sri Lankan rupees (two pounds) a day.  So after he’d escorted us around several graves, we tipped him.  Incidentally, one person who came to the British Garrison Cemetery a while back was Prince Charles, who saw fit to donate 5000 pounds to its upkeep.  I thought that tip was a rather shite one coming from a man who’s reputedly worth 158 million pounds.




The cemetery has a scenic location.  One side, lined by a wire-mesh fence, looks across to the hills on the far shore of Bogambara Lake.  The other side is bounded by a stone wall, built against a cutting in the hillside, with small square holes in it at regular heights and intervals to let rainwater drain from above.  Above the wall is the green of the woods.  While we were there, an occasional white scrap would bob along in the breeze and turn out to be a butterfly; and there were occasional, magical moments when the breeze would shake the surrounding treetops and leaves would fall across the headstones and sarcophagi like green confetti.



Meanwhile a Buddhist stupa is visible on the slope above the eastern end of the cemetery.  It seems to act as a reminder to the cemetery’s inhabitants about whose country they’re lying in.  (The British were hardly mindful of local religious sensibilities, building Kandy’s St Paul’s Anglican Church right next to the sacred precincts of the Temple of the Tooth.)  They should be grateful that the descendants of their imperial subjects are willing to keep their final resting place in such good condition.



Lion down


For four days in mid-May, Sri Lanka was drubbed by some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen.  The downpour led to floods that claimed lives and destroyed property in Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Thabbowa, Chilaw, Kalutara, Kegalle, Matara, Nuwara Eliya and Ratnapura, and to landslides that flattened houses and villages in Hattota, Ilukkwatta, Samsarakanda and Kalupahana Estate.  Fishermen had to be rescued from stormy waters off Negombo and at least one death-by-lightning was reported in Anuradhapura.  Power grids went down, roads got blocked, schools were closed, airplanes were grounded and thousands of people were evacuated from their flood-endangered homes.  A week after the storm’s cessation, the death toll was put at just over a hundred, but with a similar number of people still missing.


My work sent me on a trip to northern Sri Lanka, to Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya, during the last two days of the deluge.  By this time the landscape around the road between Jaffna and Kilinochchi resembled a bayou.  Expanses of silvery water stretched away on either side, cut into panels by the crisscrossing lines of grassy dykes that still poked above the water’s surface.  Trees stood marooned in the waterlogged fields.  Occasional farmer’s shacks seemed to sit on the water like floating houseboats.  The electrical poles and pylons running along the swamped roadsides, with their networks of wires and cables, made me think of partly-sunk ships, hulls below the waterline, masts and riggings still above it.


The driver assured me that a few days earlier the countryside here had been ‘like a desert’ and in the dried-out fields livestock had even started to die from thirst and heatstroke.  Now vehicles using the road had to scoot around wandering herds of cattle and goats because the floods had forced the animals off their pastures.  I assume one reason why the flooding was so severe was because the previous hot weather had hardened the ground and the rainwater was less able to percolate down through it.



After the death, destruction and misery that the May storm caused, it seems petty and frivolous to write about the impact it’s had on Sri Lanka’s beer industry.  But the risk of appearing petty and frivolous has never stopped me before.  So here goes.


Yes, May’s torrential rainfall has also deprived Sri Lanka of Lion lager, its leading brand of beer.  Founded as the Ceylon Brewery by Sir Samuel Baker in 1849, and renamed the Lion Brewery in the 1990s, the company reportedly has an 82% share of the Sri Lankan beer market.  Its dominance is mainly due to its lager, although Lion also produces a stout and a ‘strong’ pale ale (both of which are an eye-watering 8.8% proof).


I drink lager primarily because I live in a hot country and I regularly crave something light and liquid to quench my seemingly never-ending thirst.  But generally I find lager fairly bland and flavourless.  That said, I think Lion lager compares well with its counterparts in southern and eastern Asia – Thailand’s Singha, Myanmar’s Dagon, Laos’ Beerlao, Cambodia’s Angkor, India’s Kingfisher, Singapore’s Tiger and China’s Tsingtao.


Anyway, I was drinking in one of my regular Colombo hostelries in late May when the manager, noticing the pitcher of draft Lion on my table, gave me some ominous news.  “They say there’s only a hundred kegs of Lion left in the whole country.”


“What?” I demanded.


It transpired that the mid-May rain had caused a flood in the Kelani River in Gampaha District, north of Colombo, which in turn caused serious damage at Lion’s factory in Biyagama.  In fact, all production at it had been halted.  I found myself doing some mental calculations.  I’d heard somewhere that a standard half-barrel-sized keg contains about 124 pints.  That meant there were only 12,400 pints of the stuff left.  Which wouldn’t last long among a population of 20.3 million Sri Lankans.


Sure enough, by June, Sri Lanka’s reserves of draft Lion had petered out, but it was still available in canned and bottled form.  However, when I recently returned to the country following a three-week holiday in Europe, I discovered that the cans and bottles of Lion had disappeared too.  In the bars they were apologetically serving bottled Carlsberg.  The section of my local off-licence that’d been devoted to Lion had become a wasteland of empty shelves and fridges.  In fact, the only non-spirit / non-wine beverages they still had on sale were some bottles of watery-looking South African cider; and some cans of non-Lion lager such as Baron’s Strong Brew and Bison XXXTRA Strong, which, as their names suggest, are turbo-charged stuff apparently made with problem drinkers in mind.


Lion is one of the country’s most ubiquitous and recognisable brands.  It’s displayed proudly in the country’s bars.  Indeed, big wall-murals depicting the handsome, maned King of the Jungle after which the beer is named add a touch of class, of grandeur even, to the otherwise-shabby spit-and-sawdust ‘man’ pubs where until a short time ago you could drink it freely and cheaply.


But for now, alas, the regal beast has lost its claws.


From michelnugawela.com


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 7



One depressing thing about living in Colombo during the past year-and-a-half is seeing the city’s traffic get progressively worse.  Galle Road, at one end of my street, has always been congested.  Unfortunately, at the street’s other end, Marine Drive – which as its name suggests runs alongside the Indian Ocean – has become busier and busier and now, around rush hour, it’s a nightmare to travel along.


In the past it was common for traffic to move between Galle Road and Marine Drive by scooting in and out of my little street and seventy-odd others – collectively known as ‘the lanes’ because some of them are simply called 8th Lane, 13th Lane, 17th Lane, etc. – that link the two thoroughfares like rungs connecting the two shafts of a ladder.  However, to help prevent the lanes from becoming congested too, a lot of them have recently had one-way-systems imposed on them.  You can enter them from Galle Road, or from Marine Drive, but you can’t enter them from both.  For instance, my street is now accessible only from Galle Road.  Turn into it from Marine Drive and you’re breaking the law.


Drivers were initially blasé about the new rules, but it soon became clear that the police meant business enforcing them.  I’ve been in both a taxi and an auto-rickshaw which got stopped by the cops, and whose driver got a bollocking, because they’d picked me up whilst going the wrong way along my street and had illegally emerged from it onto Galle Road.


To make sure that drivers got the message about the new one-way rules in the lanes, this curiously worded sign appeared at the entrances of some of them a few months ago.  Below a message written in Sinhala, the sign declares in English: LANE DISCIPLINE.  And below that is an ominous reminder / warning: LAW IS ACTIVE.



Actually, it sounds like the lyrical accompaniment you’d find on a tune by some late 1970s / early 1980s German industrial band.  A robotic voice intoning over a harsh drone of noise, “Lane discipline…” and a moment later a cacophony of equally robotic voices croaking the refrain, “Law is active!”


“Lane discipline…  Law is active!  Lane discipline…  Law is active!  Lane discipline…  Law is active!”  Yes, that’s got a non-groovy, non-melodic and definitely Orwellian ring to it.  I’m sure Einstὔrzende Neubauten would approve.


Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 6 (plus a Scottish preamble)


It’s said that all bullies are cowards at heart.  Similarly, I suspect that if you took a serial boaster and bragger and subjected him or her to psycho-analysis, you’d soon discover a host of neuroses, insecurities and inferiority complexes.  I’m afraid this is true about the country I’ve called home for much of my life, Scotland.


You don’t need to live in Scotland for long before you realise that the national character is seriously beset by hang-ups.  Lurking just below the surface is a terrible conviction that Scotland is, well, rubbish.  Rubbish compared with the rest of the world in general and with England in particular.  Rubbish in terms of culture, economy, education, health and – especially – sport.  This lack of self-confidence, so crippling to the national psyche, is well-documented enough for it to have received its own name: the Scottish Cringe.


Many would argue that the cringe manifested itself spectacularly a year ago on September 18th, 2014, when by a ten-percent margin the Scottish electorate voted against Scotland becoming an independent country again.  All right, a lot of Scots voted against independence because they’d considered things rationally and concluded that it was against Scotland’s political, economic and cultural interests.  But there must have been a sizeable number of ‘no’ voters who voted the way they did because they believed that their country was just too crap to be independent.  Too poor, too wee and too stupid.


And yet, going to the other extreme, I’ve found that one unappealing feature of Scotland is the propensity of certain Scots, under certain circumstances, to start bragging about how great their homeland is.  If you’re familiar with Scotland, you’ll know the score.  You go into a pub and without warning you get cornered by some drunken blowhard who spends the next half-hour raving about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Rabbie Burns, Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Scottie-from-Star Trek, golf, whisky, the hills, the glens, etc., etc.  Several years ago, while I was trying to have a quiet pint in the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, I got stuck in the company of one such havering idiot.  When he wasn’t babbling about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, etc., and punctuating his discourse with occasional cries of “Freedom!”, he assured me that the Scots were the friendliest people in the world.  Everyone loved them, and they loved everyone else, because if there’s one thing the Scots aren’t, it’s racist.  “No,” he added, “like them racist English bastards.”  After he’d finally shut up, and finally f***ed off out of the pub, the barmaid leaned over the counter and said apologetically, “Och, never mind him.  He’s had a rough time lately.  His wife has just divorced him.”


At the end of such a pro-Scottish bragging session, it’s customary for the braggart to conclude tearfully with an old adage: “Aye, wha’s like us?  Damned few – an’ they’re a’ deid!”  (For those of you unable to cope with anything not worded in precise Standard English, I shall translate: “Yes, who’s like us?  Very few – and they’re all dead!”)


One thing that looms large in any boasting session about Scotland is the claim that the place is so wonderful because of the natives’ inventiveness.  Human civilisation could never have advanced without Scotland because, basically, Scottish people have invented or discovered everything necessary for it to advance.  You name it, some Scottish genius cobbled it together originally in his garden shed.  Tarmac, thanks to which mankind can now drive along the road without being bumped to death?  That was John Louden Macadam.  The mackintosh raincoat, which prevents mankind from getting wet when it rains and dying of hypothermia?  That was Charles Macintosh (without a ‘k’).  The adhesive postage stamp?  James Chalmers.  Criminal fingerprinting?  Henry Faulds.  The ATM?  James Goodfellow.  The kaleidoscope?  Sir David Brewster.  God, can you imagine the horror of living in a barbaric primitive world where an enterprising Scotsman hadn’t invented the kaleidoscope?!


I was reminded of this Scots-invented-everything malarkey a few weeks ago in Colombo, of all places, while I was walking along my neighbourhood stretch of Galle Road.  I came across this large billboard, erected next to the bridge that crosses the Kirillapone Canal.



It’s a joint advertisement for Scotland’s Napier University and Sri Lankan educational specialists BMS, who between them are offering flexible / distance degree-courses to local students.  For this particular advert, Napier University decided to play up the Scottish connection and so it shows the faces of five great Scottish geniuses who’ve invented or discovered something massively important: John Napier (inventor of the calculator); Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin); James Watt (the steam engine); Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone); and John Logie Baird (television).  Undertake a Scottish / Napier University-affiliated degree course, the advertisement tells its target audience, and you too could invent something momentous and make pots of money from the patent.


Now I don’t want to dispute the fact that, for the size of its population, Scotland has produced a remarkable number of inventors and discoverers.  Although I think that with this advert Napier University has exposed itself, slightly, to the risk of prosecution for violating the Trades Description Act.


For one thing, it’s disingenuous to say that John Napier, who died in 1617, invented the calculator – the pocket version of which I don’t remember seeing prior to 1976.  Napier, a mathematician, physicist, astronomer and (as was common for men of learning in his day) reputed occultist, did devise a manually-operated calculating device that was nicknamed ‘Napier’s bones’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napier%27s_bones).  But if that qualifies as a calculator, then shouldn’t the calculator’s invention be attributed to whichever ancient Babylonian thought up the abacus?  It might have been more honest for the advert to say that John Napier discovered logarithms and popularised the use of the decimal point, but probably logarithms and decimal points look less sexy on a billboard.


Meanwhile, Alexander Graham Bell chose in later life to become an American citizen, so arguably the telephone is an American rather than a Scottish invention.  Besides, there’s controversy over whether or not Bell really invented it.  Some evidence suggests that the true telephone-inventor might have been Elisha Gray, an American, or Antonio Meucci, an Italian.


But what irks me about this advert is not so much its accuracy or inaccuracy.  It’s that grandstanding line about “Scotland’s proven track record of producing great thinkers.”  I find it an uncomfortable reminder of Scotland’s neurotic boastfulness – boastfulness which hides a paralysing lack of confidence, which surfaced very clearly during the referendum last September.


Aye, wha’s like us?  Quite a lot of folk, actually.  And most of them live in independent countries.