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.