Knuckling down, part 1

 

 

A while back, I found myself with a spare week on my hands and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to do some hiking in Sri Lanka – or as they call it in this part of the world, ‘trekking’.  I decided to get out of Colombo for a few days and explore part of the island’s famous Hill Country on foot.  I’d always wanted to do this during the five years I’d lived in Sri Lanka but, somehow, had never got around to it.

 

Having trekked before in Thailand and Laos, I was surprised at how rarely it was offered as something for tourists to do in Sri Lanka.  Most activities advertised here involved making safari-like tours of the country’s wildlife reserves or were sea-based things like surfing, snorkelling and whale-watching.  But I found online half-a-dozen locally based holiday companies who offered trekking among their activities and fired off emails to them specifying what I wanted to do, where, for how long and for how much.  I have to say I got some propositions back that bore no resemblance to what I’d requested.  One company, obviously cutting and pasting information from an international brochure, offered me a four-day trip around central Sri Lanka’s tourist hotspots, staying in top-class hotels, with most of the travelling in between done by train or car and with barely a mention of hiking, all to the tune of 1,300 US dollars.

 

However, one company, Sri Lanka Trekking, suggested a four-day package in the Knuckles Mountains east of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, for 70 dollars a day.  This covered transport, accommodation, food and my own private trekking guide.  It was exactly what I’d been looking for and I accepted and headed for Kandy.

 

Unfortunately, my week’s break took place during Sri Lanka’s rainy season, and it was early on a damp and grey Kandy morning that I was picked up outside my hotel by my guide from Sri Lanka Trekking.   He was a young guy called Asela with a tall, lanky build and long hair tucked up in a topknot.  He wore a fair amount of bling and a pair of flip-flops, which didn’t look very hiker-ly, although during the next four days he seemed to have zero problems traversing the often-awkward terrain.

 

 

We spent the next couple of hours in a yellow tuk-tuk with a Bob-Marley-themed interior (and a driver who looked slightly Rastafarian as well) heading eastwards towards the mountains, making a few stops on the way to pick up provisions like packed lunches and bottles of water.  Eventually, Asela and I were dropped off at a grassy track and began walking.  Ahead of us was a 12-mile trek to the spot where we’d camp for the night.  Initially, the weather was wet and blowy, but after a half-hour, things calmed and the sun appeared.  I entertained hopes that the rest of the day would stay pleasant.  Futile hopes, as it turned out.

 

The trek’s first leg took us below the curved, rocky crest of a mountain where, Asela told me, a bushfire had broken out a month earlier.  The cliff-face was now a smoky-grey colour while underneath a belt of trees retained their green treetops but had trunks that resembled burnt matchsticks.  The ground beneath them was a scorched red-brown.  We learned later that the conflagration had been caused by a small fire getting out of hand.  It’d been lit by some people trying to smoke out a colony of bees so that they could take the bees’ honey.

 

 

Asela also told me that this area was currently roamed by three elephants who a while ago had accidentally ‘migrated’ from a nearby, official ‘elephant zone’.  Nobody quite knew where the elephants were and they were said to emerge from the surrounding forest only at night.  He showed me evidence of their presence – a wrecked jackfruit tree, whose fruit elephants are partial to, at the side of the track; and a big, flat, pale patch of old elephant poop on the ground.  In addition, the farmsteads bordering the track had strands of barbed wire slung along their perimeters.  Dangling at intervals from the wire were clusters of empty cans that, if the elephants brushed against them, would clang noisily and hopefully scare the giant trespassers away.  The cans included some that’d contained 8.8% proof Lion Strong Beer, possibly powerful enough to stun an elephant.

 

Near lunchtime, the weather changed again and grey, clammy rain descended.  We made our way down a slope with semi-circular terraces of rice paddies carved onto it.  The tracts of water, seams of mud between them and sprouting green rice-shoots made the hillside look like an old mirror that’d been smashed and then stuck together again – the water like the slivers of glass, the mud like the lines of glue and the rice-shoots like specks of mould on the glass.

 

 

The weather became increasingly cantankerous.  We struggled along muddy tracks and up and down treacherous steps, and even tightrope-walked for a while along one of the concrete ridges lining a deep manmade drain, until we finally found a place to eat lunch.  This was a tiny farmer’s hut that was no more than a wooden-slatted roof held up by a few posts.  The wind blew through it but nonetheless it felt cosy and welcoming after what we’d been exposed to outside.

 

 

Similarly, lunch was just a pack of fried rice and chicken but, after the past few hours’ exertions, it tasted delicious.

 

Afterwards, we emerged onto a stretch of winding concrete-surfaced road.  Asela got talking to a girl of 12 or 13 years who was walking a few yards ahead of us and discovered that she knew a short-cut that would save us having to follow a long, monotonous loop in the road ahead.  She led us up a rough, steep path to the side, which was basically a course of mud and wet, slippery, vaguely step-like rocks.  Armed with an umbrella, the girl pranced in front of us as agilely and daintily as a gazelle.  We reached the top of a hill where she lived with her parents in a square, bunker-like farmhouse and were passing the side of the house, about to descend the slope on the other side, when suddenly the rain and wind swelled and became a furious tempest.  The girl’s father kindly allowed us to shelter under the porch outside his front door for the tempest’s duration.

 

 

Indeed, the father joined us under the porch and spent the next 20 minutes blethering with Asela, while I stared out dumbfoundedly at the storm.  Nearby palm trees seemed almost to bend 90 degrees in the middle.  The ground in front rapidly became a lake – a green garden-lizard started off sheltering below a bush, then had to shin up the bush to avoid being washed away.  A few times the man eyed me bemusedly – by now I looked like I’d just been fished out of a river – no doubt marvelling that foreigners were willing to pay money to be subjected to this.

 

Finally, the storm abated and the girl offered to lead us the rest of the way along the short-cut, which involved traversing more mud and rocks.  Again, she pranced effortlessly ahead with her umbrella.  We reached the concreted road and after that it was simply a matter of going up, up, up – till we arrived at the place where we’d spend the night.  This was an establishment known as ‘the sky-camp’ and consisted of two terraces of concrete huts with green, V-shaped aluminium roofs, along with a communal dining area, a kitchen, a storeroom and a block with toilets and a shower-room.

 

 

Actually, each hut contained a tent – so that you stayed inside a tent that was inside a hut.  The huts were open at one end, positioned away from the direction that the wind usually came from, which was also where the tents’ entrance flaps were located.  (Asela explained that if the tents had stood alone, they’d soon have been blown away.)  The tents’ guy-lines were attached to the huts’ interiors and, with some fiddling and adjusting, could be converted into washing lines for hanging wet clothes.

 

 

Mindful that it was the rainy season, I’d made sure when I’d packed my rucksack that everything inside it was enclosed in plastic bags.  When I got into the tent I’d been allocated, and unpacked, I discovered that one bag had been ‘compromised’ by the wet.  Unfortunately, it was the bag holding my money.  I had about forty notes of 20, 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 rupees in it that were now soaking and almost completely stuck to each other.  My solution was to carefully peel the notes apart; spread half of them across the bedding inside the tent; lie down on top of them, fully clothed; nap for half-an-hour; and let my body heat dry them out.  Then I did the same with the other half of the notes.  It worked, sort of.  My money looked almost as good as new.

 

It’d been a day of extremes – moments when I’d felt extremely wet and tired, but other moments when I’d felt extremely happy.  There were times when I wondered, “Why am I doing this to myself?”: whilst scrambling up steep, endless-seeming tracks that slithered with mud and oozed with rainwater; or straining my venerable joints as I struggled up or jolted down flights of steps that were basically haphazard arrangements of rocks.  And I hated it when the rain got inside my windcheater, and in particular got inside the windcheater’s sleeves – freezing water would pour down from my elbows to wrists whenever I let my arms hang at my sides.

 

But what was good?  Well, after spending so long in the city, it felt great to be out amid nature.  When I look at the notes I wrote in my journal that day, I’m pleasantly reminded of all the animals we sighted: ‘a big snail with a pointed, shiny, red-purple shell’; ‘a golden-headed fowl, off to the side of the path among some bushes’; ‘butterflies swooping majestically about a pool’; ‘a furtive freshwater crab extending its claws from under the edge of a rock’; ‘a green tree-snake’; ‘a water buffalo, tethered halfway up a slope of terraced paddies’; ‘a bright blue kingfisher taking off from a tree’; ‘a couple of strange, black-winged storks’; and ‘a male peacock dragging his glossy plumage across the bottom of a slope’.

 

 

Also, by the time I reached the sky-camp, the weather had cleared and I was allowed a glorious view of the countryside through which and up which I’d just trekked.  The camp was high on a mountainside and overlooked a mostly forested valley, whose far side rose and twisted up to brownish-green peaks.  I felt so elated that my first action was to stand in front of this view and do something that I very, very rarely do, which was take a selfie.

 

However, drenched in sweat and plastered with Knuckles Mountains dirt and muck, I looked ghastly in the selfie, so I’ll spare you the horror and not post it here in this blog-entry.  Enjoy this shot of a nice water buffalo instead.

 

 

To be continued…

 

Kandy’s World Buddhist Museum

 

 

Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-biggest city, is home to the revered and much-visited Temple of the Tooth – a part of the city’s historic palace complex housing the holy relic of Buddha’s left canine, found among the ashes of his funeral pyre in 543 BC.  No doubt because of the religious significance of the temple, Kandy’s World Buddhist Museum is located just behind it.  You aren’t allowed to use a camera inside the museum, which is why the only photo for this post is a representative but predictable one of a statue of Buddha outside its entrance, shown above.

 

I like how the museum does what it says on the tin.  It really explores the world of Buddhism and its exhibits, pictures, models and information-panels are organised geographically, that is, according to the fifteen or so countries that the museum regards as the core Buddhist ones.  This helps show the difference between the two main strands of the religion: the Theravada Buddhism mostly practised in southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) and the bottommost tip of south Asia (Sri Lanka); and the Mahayana Buddhism practised mostly in central and east Asia (Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea and Nepal) and a sliver of southeast Asia (Vietnam).  Each country’s government donated items to the museum and had a say in how its Buddhist culture is represented there.  This might explain why I didn’t see as much as I expected about Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet being classified as part of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese government probably not wanting to promote the region’s uniqueness.

 

Some of the other countries featured aren’t ones you’d immediately associate with Buddhism.  These include India – although to be fair, that paltry-sounding 0.8 % of the Indian population who are Buddhists amounts to 7.95 million people.  And of course, Buddhism did originate there, inspiring the museum to make the claim that “Buddhism is the greatest gift of India to the outside world.”  One striking exhibit in the Indian section is an effigy of Buddha in ‘the hard penance’, fasting to the point where he’s practically skeletal.  His face is wizened, his rib-cage is shockingly prominent and his midriff seems to disappear up inside his ribs.  Additional fasting Buddhas are displayed in a section about another country not normally linked with Buddhism, Pakistan.

 

There’s also a small part of the museum devoted to Afghanistan.  It mentions the ill-fated Buddhas of Bamiyan in the country’s north-central area: “giant Buddha figures carved at either end of the mile-long sandstone cliff” that “stood at the heights of 120 feet and 175 feet.”  The giant statues were notoriously blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban, who were still Afghanistan’s official government at the time.  The museum makes no bones about how it regards the Taliban and their treatment of the statues: “these were destroyed fairly recently due to terrorist activities.”

 

There’s obviously much to see regarding the countries that are known as Buddhist ones.  The Vietnamese section, for instance, contains a startling image of an Avalokiteshvara Buddha bearing a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.  The artefacts from Bhutan include a huge, wonderfully ornate and coloured cabinet with five doors and many internal compartments stocked with Buddhist paraphernalia.  Myanmar has provided some big temple gongs and bells hanging within frames that are decorated, down the sides, with impressively-scaly dragons.

 

One country not represented there is Russia, which is a pity.  I’d have liked some information about the Russian republic of Kalmykia, by the Caspian Sea, which has the distinction of being the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the most practised religion.

 

Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty in the museum about Sri Lanka.  Its section includes an interesting display about the creation of the International Buddhist Flag, which you see flying and emblazoned all over the island.  The flag’s vertical stripes of blue, yellow, red, white and orange symbolise world peace, while its horizontal stripes of similar colours symbolise ethnic harmony.  In 1889 the newly-devised flag was unveiled to the Japanese Emperor, although it wasn’t until 1952 that it was approved by the World Buddhist Congress.  It’d been designed in 1883 by “a committee of erudite Buddhists,” including “Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of American descent and a rank officer of the American Army and a founder of the famous Theosophical Society”.  Dubbed ‘the White Buddhist of Ceylon’, Olcott played an important role in reviving Buddhism in Sri Lanka and he’s still remembered and admired there today – indeed, the road that goes past the Fort Railway Station in Colombo is called Olcott Mawatha and there’s a commanding statue of the bushy-bearded American colonel standing outside the station building.

 

From fotolia.com

 

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.

 

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.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?tag=south-park-street-cemetery

 

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.

 

http://www.therichest.com/celebnetworth/politician/royal/prince-charles-net-worth/

 

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.