Knuckling down, part 4

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

From leftovercurrency.com

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

© Dettol®

 

Knuckling down, part 3

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

To be continued…

 

Knuckling down, part 2

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

“No,” he said.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

To be continued…

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…

 

The Rock

 

 

In a recent blogpost I namechecked the Rock, aka wrestler-turned-movie-star Dwayne Johnson.  Well, here’s a post about an altogether bigger, mightier and more spectacular rock.  I’m talking about Sigiriya Rock, an imposing lump of solidified volcanic magma that rises 200 metres above the plains of north-central Sri Lanka.

 

As a natural feature Sigiriya Rock would be impressive enough.  However, what’s made it one of the greatest tourist attractions on the island are the remarkable man-made embellishments added to it in the 5th century AD.  This was when King Kashyapa I turned the rock into both an impregnable fortress and a luxurious palace, putting on top of it structures and gardens that were supposedly inspired by the fabled city of Alaka, opulent home of Kubera, god of wealth in Hindu mythology.  Kashyapa had a decade-and-a-half to enjoy the security and comfort of this rock-top residence.  He reigned from 473 to 495 AD and it took the first seven years of his kingship to build it.

 

Meanwhile, Kashyapa’s family background had been dysfunctional, to say the least.  He slew his own father, King Dhatusena of Anuradhapura, and declared war on his brother, the future King Moggallana, who fled to India.  Later, Moggallana launched an invasion of Sri Lanka, although his forces never got to test the effectiveness of Kashyapa’s stronghold at Sigiriya.  Instead, Kashyapa chose to venture down from the rock and take on his brother in battle on the plains.  This decision ended badly for Kashyapa, who was defeated and ended up killing himself rather than be captured.  His brother and usurper restored Anuradhapura as the capital and for some eight or nine centuries thereafter Sigiriya was home to a Buddhist monastery complex.

 

As a science fiction nerd, I’d known of Sigiriya Rock for a long time before moving to Sri Lanka because it’d been an inspiration for the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) by Arthur C. Clarke, himself a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.  The novel is about the construction in the 22nd century of a ‘space elevator’, leaving the earth from a terminal on the island of Taprobane – which is a lightly-disguised version of Sri Lanka, though for practical reasons it’s repositioned so that it sits on the equator – and connecting with a space station some 22,300 miles up in orbit.  The novel is peppered with flashbacks to the reign of the visionary but demented King Kalidasa, who’s building an extraordinary palace atop a huge rock called Yakkagala.  Kalidasa and Yakkagala are obviously fictional counterparts of Kashyapa and Sigiriya and they provide an ironic parallel with the epic story of the space elevator’s creation many centuries later.

 

© Victor Gollancz

 

Anyway, recently, my better half and I realised we’d been living in Sri Lanka for four-and-a-half years and still hadn’t visited Sigiriya Rock, so it was surely time we did.  At the suggestion of the owner of the hotel we were staying in, at the nearby town of Habarana, we set out in a tuk-tuk at the crack of dawn – good advice, as it turned out.  En route, we passed through the local wildlife sanctuary, which is famous for its elephants, although the only evidence of them we saw was a mess of pulverised vegetation strewn across the road that, our driver assured us, had been caused by their passing; and later on the same road, some hefty deposits of elephant dung.

 

Finally, we were dropped off at the edge of the Sigiriya complex.  We walked a little and entered a building housing the ticket counters and a museum, where already queues were forming even though it was barely seven o’clock.  Tickets purchased, we crossed an area of gardens at the bottom of the rock.  Our plan was to ascend the rock before it became congested with tourists and then explore the gardens after we’d come down.

 

Rising above belts of trees at the gardens’ far end, the rock was a huge, long slab, slightly crenelated and fissured, its dark-grey surface streaked and grooved with vertical lines of brown.  The sun scoured over the centre-point of its flat summit, which meant that in our early-morning photographs a large part of the upper rock was obscured by a circular haze of light.  Meanwhile, its massive shadow divided the gardens into two parts, a sunlit area of radiant green outside the shadow and a dull, twilit area inside it.

 

We climbed the first steps, our surroundings pleasantly wooded and grassy as they sloped upwards to meet the side of Sigiriya Rock proper: a landscape of stone walls, iron railings, terraces, trees, boulders and occasional monkeys.  At one point, the steps threaded through a queasily small triangle of space between two huge, propped-together rocks.  We also saw the first sign warning us about the presence of stinging insects.  In Sinhala, Tamil and English, the sign intoned: BE SILENT – WASPS.

 

 

Then we encountered the rock itself and the steps gave way to a horizontal, wooden walkway that veered to the left.  The walkway ended at more steps ascending to a small enclosed kiosk where you handed over part of your ticket to see the most famous feature on the rock’s side (as opposed to on its summit).  These are the Sigiriya Rock frescoes, paintings of female figures that once were supposed to number some 500 and covered its western face, making it a gigantic gallery.  But just a handful of them survive, in fragmented form.  We climbed a narrow, mesh-enclosed staircase that spirals up the rockface like a turning drill-bit and emerged into the surviving section of gallery, where I counted 17 figures.  Painted onto the sand-coloured canvas of the rock, they fade in and out of view like ghosts flitting in and out of the ether.  But the parts of them that remain visible, golden-skinned and clad in colourful costumes and jewellery, are still iconic.

 

You aren’t allowed to take photographs on the gallery, so instead here’s a modern and rather saucy Sigiriya Rock fresco-themed painting from the wall of our hotel room.

 

 

After descending from the gallery and returning to the main walkway, we passed an area of rock known as ‘the Mirror Wall’ because of its smoothness and shininess.  According to Wikipedia, it’s thus named because back in the day it was “so highly polished that the king could see himself while he walked alongside it.”  It hardly has that quality now but, humped over the walkway, its surface veined, gleaming and strangely soft-looking, this part of the rock seems almost organic.

 

Around a corner and past more walkways, stairs, railings and scaffolding, we emerged onto a plateau halfway up the rock’s northern side called the Lion’s Paws Terrace.  Located here is the bottom of the final series of steps and stairs leading to the summit.  This is flanked by a pair of giant, talon-ed, three-fingered paws – hence the plateau’s name – protruding out of a mound of ancient brown brickwork.  These might once have been attached to a sphinx-like statue with a lion’s shoulders and head but now just the oddly disembodied paws remain.

 

The terrace contained many visitors taking a breather before tackling the final part of the ascent – or in a few cases staying put, because they’d decided that the final ascent was beyond them and this was as high as they were going.  There was another sign about stinging insects, this one saying: WASP ATTACK AREA – BE SILENT.  However, it was offset by a gentler sign giving information about the local bee population: “Bambaras or the Giant Honeybees migrate here; build a social nest on the rock or in a nearby trees (sic), and perform their valuable pollination service when plants in flower require there (sic) service.”

 

We went up the stairs between the Lion’s Paws.  After we’d passed the top of the ruined brickwork, we had to transfer to a series of rickety-looking metal staircases, veering off in one direction for a minute, then veering off in another, and then in another.  In fact, the staircases resembled a crazily positioned fire escape on a very high building.

 

At one point, a lady announced to the other members of her party in front of us, “No, I can’t do this’ and turned and headed down again.  However, what we found daunting about this final part of the ascent wasn’t so much the height, which admittedly was dizzying, but our own tiredness.  By then we’d already traversed a lot of steps and stairs.

 

 

And after all that…  The summit of the rock looked surprisingly civilised when we finally arrived.  It was a patchwork of tracts of grass and tracts of sandy-coloured paving stones, the patches delineated by low remnants of stone walls; terraces whose sides were contained within braces of smoothed, eroded brown bricks; yet more staircases navigating the various levels that’d been carved into the summit; smallish trees; and in one place what looked like an ancient, square swimming pool, now full of brownish water, although I assume it was actually a reservoir that’d given the palace its water supply.  When we descended towards the pool, we saw a couple of dogs mooching there, prompting the inevitable thought: reservoir dogs!

 

In fact, the maze of terraces, flights of steps, walls and flag-stoned pathways made me think of a structure in an M.C. Escher picture, though a less surreal and baffling one.

 

Predictably, the views were beautiful.  It was like being at the centre of a vast bowl – distant mountains forming the bowl’s sides, an expanse of treetops and occasional lakes and rivers forming the bowl’s verdant and glinting base.  Standing on the eastern side of the rock, you got to look across a gorgeous silvery-blue lake that was rimmed and flecked with green, although it was impossible to tell from this distance if the green was caused by lilies, reeds, algae or waterweed.

 

 

Some edges of the summit looked over a sheer drop.  These were screened off by not-terribly-sturdy-looking metal railings.  Not the kindest of employers, King Kashyapa was said to have positioned sentries right on the brink of these precipices, reasoning that their fear of falling asleep and toppling to their dooms would give them the impetus to stay awake, alert and watchful.

 

When we ventured down again, we had to struggle through increasing numbers of visitors who were now trying to make their way upwards.  A few of these visitors deserves fates similar to what Kashyapa’s sleepier sentries would have suffered.  One vain and stupid woman caused a serious traffic jam at the bottom steps between the Lion’s Paws because she insisted on posing at length while a friend took pictures of her.  Further down, another ignorant woman caused a blockage while she attempted to photograph herself in the middle of a narrow section of steps with a camera-phone and an unfeasibly long selfie-stick.

 

And when we arrived down in the gardens again, many people were advancing up the central paths towards the rock-steps.  Some of the female tourists belonged to Chinese tour parties, were clad in Laura Ashley-style floral-patterned dresses and floppy sunhats, and looked like they’d dressed for a shopping expedition rather than an ascent up a huge brute of a volcanic rock.

 

So we were glad we’d heeded our hotel manager’s advice.  Certainly, go to Sigiriya Rock because it’s a brilliant experience.  But go early.

 

 

Under the shadow

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As you will no doubt know from the news, the past few days have been tragic ones for Sri Lanka, the country that’s been my home for the past five years.  On the morning of April 21st, Easter Sunday, a series of suicide bombings caused carnage at St Anthony’s Shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury Hotels in Colombo, at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo and at the Zion Church in Batticaloa.  Six days later, the death toll stands at 253.  It’s no comfort to the victims and their loved ones, of course, but two days ago the authorities scaled down this number – earlier, they’d stated that 359 people had been killed.  Meanwhile, according to figures from UNICEF, at least 45 of the dead were children.

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My partner and I were lucky enough to be, at the time, in a district of Colombo spared by the bombers.  However, a friend and his wife were caught up in explosions at one of the hotels.  He’s currently in an intensive unit, his condition serious but stable.  His wife suffered injuries too.  Both are coping as well as can be expected considering the horrific ordeal they went through.

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And only yesterday, we learned that a staff-member at our apartment building, an unfailingly friendly and cheerful man, had also been injured during the bombings.  It’s customary at this time of year to give gifts of money to the staff as Buddhist New Year presents, but he told us he felt uncomfortable about this because he’s not a Buddhist but a Roman Catholic.  So we got into the habit of giving him a gift for Easter instead.  Last Saturday we gave him his Easter 2019 gift, never dreaming that one day later he’d be hurt in a terrorist atrocity. 

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Although it’s just a decade since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, which according to Wikipedia cost the lives of over 100,000 civilians and 50,000 combatants, Colombo for the time that I’ve lived here has struck me as a relaxed and hopeful place.  The downtown area has been a site of burgeoning development, with tower-blocks and new luxury hotels sprouting up seemingly overnight.  There was a palpable sense of pride when Lonely Planet recently judged Sri Lanka to be the world’s number one tourist destination.  And people have generally gone about their business with smiles on their faces. 

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This happy, optimistic Sri Lanka, with its dark recent history consigned to the past, seems a very different place from the one I’ve experienced in Colombo over the past week.  The streets have been eerily quiet. Armed soldiers stand guard outside important buildings and at block-corners along the thoroughfares.  People look subdued and fearful.  Rumours and counter-rumours circulate with an intensity that sometimes makes you wonder if you should even venture beyond your front door.  From older Sri Lankans I have heard words to the despairing effect of: “I really thought this sort of thing was finished with…”  Younger ones have seemed dazed, wondering what sort of country – and lives – they and their children have to look forward to.

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In other words, a shadow has fallen over the place.

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It’s a shadow that I’m not unfamiliar with.  I spent my childhood and boyhood in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, when the Troubles were at their very worst.  The bloodiest years were 1972 (with 480 people killed), 1976 (297 killed) and 1974 (294 killed).  If those numbers sound insignificant compared to the numbers of fatalities in other conflicts before and since, they certainly didn’t feel insignificant to us, not in a province that was only a fraction larger than Yorkshire and had just a million-and-a-half inhabitants.

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Describing what life was like for me back then isn’t easy.  I tried explaining it to another friend a few evenings ago and my words sounded contradictory even as they came out of my mouth.  On one hand, I had a great childhood.  I have many happy memories of playing outside, having pretend adventures and really exercising my imagination.  I was lucky in that regard. My family lived on a farm where the farmstead was built against the bottom of a hill and spread over three levels, with copious passageways and spaces to explore and re-explore between the backs of the buildings and the sides of the terraced hillside behind them. You could even step from one level of the farmstead onto the roofs of the farm-buildings standing on the level below it, which was exciting for a budding Spiderman-fan like me but understandably worrying for my mother.  In addition, a river flowed past the front of our farmhouse and an area of forestry plantation stood just beyond its far bank, and – best of all – my grandparents lived up the road in a former railway station, the grounds of which still contained platforms, signal boxes and railway sheds.  You couldn’t live amid all this and not have fun.

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On the other hand, and even as a kid, I knew clearly that the Troubles were happening, mostly in distant-sounding places like Belfast and Armagh, but also occasionally close enough to impinge on my own experiences.  And there weren’t just moments when the Troubles did, objectively, intrude, like the night when I was woken up in my bed by the noise of a bomb going off, or the day that I was taken to the funeral of a youth who’d been shot dead by the IRA – I spent the funeral marveling at the heavy security presence, with helicopters circling and army marksmen lurking on the roofs of the surrounding buildings.  I also have very personal memories, particular to me only, which sprang from my awareness that there were close members of my family who qualified as targets for the terrorists. 

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One such experience occurred when my family went to visit the annual agricultural show held in Enniskillen.  I went back to where our car was parked slightly earlier than the rest of the family and discovered a bulky package in a brown-paper bag sitting on its bonnet.  Automatically, I reached out to lift the thing and a woman standing nearby suddenly shrieked, “Don’t touch it!  It might be a bomb!”  (We’d given my grandfather a lift to Enniskillen so that he could do some shopping, and the bag actually contained his groceries, which he not-very-wisely had left on top of the car before going in to look at the agricultural show himself.)  Also engraved on my memory is an evening when I and at least one of my siblings had been left in the custody of our grandmother.  Our father was supposed to come at a particular time to collect us – but he didn’t show up.  As the evening wore on and it became dark, the atmosphere in the house grew increasingly tense, with our grandmother fretting and then panicking.  She telephoned all the places where she thought our father might be, but everyone she called said they hadn’t seen him and had no idea of his whereabouts.  He arrived in the end, but by this time the poor old woman was out of her wits with worry and we, as kids, were petrified – as much by her behavior as by the awful possibility of what might have happened outside.

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It was like a shadow – not one that was always cast over you, but one that never seemed that far away either.  You could forget about it and have the normal, happy, carefree life that kids are supposed to have, but you could never forget about it for long.

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And I feel sorry for the people of Sri Lanka who’ve just had this baleful shadow fall over them – in the case of many of the younger people, for the first time.

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Still, what can decent people do?  I honestly believe the answer is just to bash on with things – doing the activities you find rewarding, hanging out with the people whose company you get pleasure from, visiting the places you find interesting and welcoming.  And at the same time, you have to not let your behaviour and thinking become reined in by fear.  Because the moment you allow yourself to be cowed by evil bastards and allow their vile actions to dictate what you do and think is the moment you hand them victory.  Which is simply not acceptable.

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The tsunami monument at Peraliya

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It’s difficult to spend more than a few days in Sri Lanka before you start to spot memorials to, notice lingering traces of or hear local people talk about the Boxing Day tsunami that slammed into the island’s eastern and southern coasts in 2004, claimed over 30,000 lives and forced over 1,500,000 Sri Lankans from their homes.

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The statistics of the carnage wreaked by the tsunami in Sri Lanka are so tragically overwhelming that they hide a more particular fact – that because of the tsunami, the country also experienced the world’s worst rail disaster.

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I will let Wikipedia relate the details: “The 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami rail disaster is the largest single rail disaster in world history by death toll…  Train #50 was a regular train operating between the cities of Colombo and Matara…  On Sunday, 26 December 2004, during the Buddhist full moon holiday and the Christmas holiday weekend, it left Colombo’s Fort Station shortly after 6.50 AM with over 1,500 paid passengers and an unknown number of unpaid passengers with travel passes (called Seasons) and government travel passes…

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At 9.30 AM, in the village of Peraliya, near Telwatta, the beach saw the first of the gigantic waves thrown up by the earthquake.  The train came to a halt as water surged around it.  Hundreds of locals, believing the train to be secure on the rails, climbed on top of the cars to avoid being swept away.  Others stood behind the train, hoping it would shield them from the force of the water…

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Ten minutes later, a huge wave picked the train up and smashed it against the trees and houses which lined the track, crushing those seeking shelter behind it.  The eight carriages were so packed with people that the doors could not be opened while they filled with water, drowning almost everyone inside as the water washed over the wreckage several more times.  The passengers on top of the train were thrown clear of the uprooted carriages, and most drowned or were crushed by debris…

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“…the Sri Lankan authorities had no idea where the train was for several hours, until it was spotted by an army helicopter around 4.00 PM.  The local emergency services were destroyed, and it was a long time before help arrived…  Some families descended on the area determined to find their relatives themselves.  According to the Sri Lankan authorities, only about 150 people on the train survived.  The estimated death toll was at least 1,700 people, and probably over 2,000, although only approximately 900 bodies were recovered, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives.  The town of Peraliya was also destroyed, losing hundreds of citizens and all but ten buildings to the waves.  More than 200 of the bodies retrieved were not identified or claimed, and were buried three days later in a Buddhist ceremony near the torn railway line.”

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Today, when you enter Peraliya, travelling north on the coastal road from the popular seaside town of Hikkaduwa, you’ll see a monument to the victims of the disaster called Tsunami Honganji Viharaya on the road’s right-hand, inland side.  It consists of an 18.5-metre-high Buddha statue rising from a little islet in a rectangular pond, constructed on the spot where the devastation occurred a decade-and-a-half ago.  Although the statue was built with donations from Japan, it’s actually a reproduction of the one of Bhamian statues in Afghanistan that were dynamited and destroyed by the Taliban in a bigoted and pig-ignorant display of cultural vandalism in 2001.

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An arched footbridge – you remove your shoes before you cross – takes you over the pond to the islet and statue.  Two stone lions guard the islet-end of the bridge, an altar-table in front of the statue is supported by three small black statues of elephants with upraised trunks, and plaques below the pedestal on which the Buddha stands carry messages from various religious and political dignitaries. People tell me the figure itself, clad in a gown whose folds descend from its shoulder to ankles in a distinctive pattern of tight, parallel grooves, is the same height that the tsunami was at its highest.

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At the entrance to the lane that takes you from the road to the footbridge is a yellow-walled building with the words TEMPLE OFFICE painted on its side.  Inside, you’ll find a gallery of photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.  Some of them record such carnage that they’re extremely hard to look at.  Among the less graphic photographs, one shows the local rail-tracks after they’d been twisted into steel squiggles by the force of the water, while another shows a makeshift sign relaying the latest information from the National Disaster Management Centre.

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A little further along, on the road’s left-hand side next to the sea, there’s a non-religious memorial to the victims: a plaque, a column, and a scene carved onto a wall of grey and rust-orange stone that represents the destruction immediately after the tsunami had struck the train and village.  Its details include piles of bodies, masonry and smashed palm trees, sections of wrenched-up and misshapen rail track, and upended train carriages, some with corpses hanging out of their windows.  It’s startlingly candid in what it shows.  Indeed, it will surprise some Westerners accustomed to such memorials in their own cultures being discretely abstract – not displaying any features of the disasters they commemorate, which might upset traumatised survivors and grieving relatives of the dead.

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Behind the memorial is a strip of coastline consisting of nothing but grass, sand, rocks and palm trees, with an idyllic-looking and deserted beach stretching off to the north.  I asked the tuk-tuk driver who’d brought us if there’d been village-houses here and he said there had: up until 2004, obviously.

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Unsurprisingly, our visit to Peraliya put us in was a sombre mood.  Our sombreness turned to annoyance, however, when we were tuk-tuking back from the second memorial and we passed the Bhamian Buddha statue again.  Traipsing along the road in front of it were two Western female tourists clad in tiny, skimpy spaghetti-hoop tops and cut-off jeans that stopped immediately below their crotches.  In other words, they were baring about 70% of their flesh whilst wandering by a monument erected in honour of some 1700-2000 people who’d died in awful circumstances.  Oh, for God’s sake, I thought.  Show some bloody respect.

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There are two poignant footnotes to the 2004 tragedy at Peraliya.  The locomotive that’d been pulling the carriages, and two of the carriages themselves, were eventually retrieved from the disaster scene, rebuilt and repaired and now, every year on December 26th, they return to Peraliya to take part in a religious ceremony held in remembrance of those who lost their lives.  Secondly, one of the small number of survivors was a train guard called W. Karunatilaka.  His sense of duty was such that following the disaster he continued working on the Colombo-to-Galle train service.  And indeed, according to my research, he was still serving on that coastal route as late as 2015 and 2016.

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The things I do for James Bond

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(c) Eon Productions

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Last month in Colombo, I was looking forward to attending my workplace’s end-of-year party.  Then the invitation for it arrived in my work inbox and my enthusiasm suddenly waned.  The party, the invitation informed me, had a theme.  You had to come in a costume appropriate to the theme and the costume judged to be best would win a prize.  And the theme was: carnival.

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Carnival?

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Now do carnivals connect in any way with me?  No.  Carnivals are the products of Latin American cultures where the climate is always warm and the sun always shines; where the faces always smile and the temperament is always joyous; where the inhabitants know how to dress colourfully and exuberantly; and where one can happily and un-self-consciously dance the night away without imbibing even a smidgeon of wine. 

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I, on the other hand, come from a culture where the weather is always dreich and the sun is always wrapped in smirr and haar; where the faces frequently scowl to the point of resembling well-skelpt arses and the temperament is two parts Knox-ism to three parts Calvinism; where daring to wear a pair of patterned socks can earn you condemnation for being a reckless  attention-seeking exhibitionist; and where, after you’ve sunk about 12 pints of beer, you might countenance getting onto the dance-floor to shake your two left legs for a couple of minutes to something like Dogs of War by the Exploited.  Carnival, I thought in my best Rab C. Nesbitt voice.  Carnival my arse.

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But then, looking around my bedroom, I saw evidence that I did like one type of carnival.  I noticed, for example, the presence of these skull-shaped ceramic salt and pepper shakers on top of my bookshelf.

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Also, there was this ornate skull-shaped candle located on a corner of my desk.

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And there was this painted wooden skeleton hanging on a wall.

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And these two skeletal Mexican senoritas stood grinning on top of my wardrobe.

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All these skeleton-themed items come from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, known in English as Day of the Dead, which sees folk gather together and celebrate in honour of family members and friends who have passed away.  The reason I have so much Dia de los Muertos memorabilia is because my partner’s family live in San Antonio in Texas, about 150 miles north of the Mexican border, and three years ago we went to visit them in mid-October.  Not only were the local shops then full of merchandising for the upcoming Halloween festivities on October 31st, but they contained an equal amount of stuff for the upcoming Dia de los Muertos festivities on November 2nd.  The latter made excellent souvenirs to bring back from Texas. 

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When I thought about it, it also occurred to me that – as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know – I’m a big James Bond fan.  And didn’t the most recent Bond movie, 2015’s Spectre, begin with a long, tense and stylish chase / action sequence using as a backdrop a Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico City?  For part of this sequence, Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is attired in a natty-looking outfit of top hat, skull mask and skeleton-patterned white-on-black suit and is accompanied by a glamorous lady in a summer frock and Venetian mask.  Now why couldn’t my partner and I attend our end-of-year work party dressed like that glamorous duo?

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Therefore, Dia de los Muertos was the carnival that provided us with general inspiration, while Daniel Craig and friend became our models.

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I should mention that in reality Mexico City never hosted a Dia de los Muertos parade until after 2015.  The makers of Spectre simply used dramatic licence and invented the occasion.  However, after the film’s release, the Mexico Tourism Board got so many inquiries about the non-existent parade from potential visitors that they decided to initiate one in their capital city to keep everyone happy (and, no doubt, make a bit of cash too).  Proof that life does imitate art.

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Assembling my Daniel Craig / Dia de los Muertos costume proved to be a trickier task than I’d expected.  I knew I was going to have to do much searching in Colombo to locate a top hat, but it was as difficult to find a skull mask.  I traipsed around several fancy-dress and party shops and got the same answer: “Oh, we had lots of skull masks two months ago, at  Halloween, but we don’t have any now!”  Thankfully, we discovered a wonderfully variegated and cluttered little costume store called JoJo’s tucked away in the back streets off Duplication Road where I was able to both rent a top hat and buy a skull mask (and my partner got her Venetian mask too).  The skull mask was actually gunmetal grey and I think it was meant to be the face of a robot skeleton – like the scary, stomping exoskeletons in the Terminator movies – and back at home I had to spray-paint it white.

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But the biggest problem was creating the skeleton-patterned suit.  I bought rolls of double-sided adhesive tape in a stationer’s and I cut the ‘bones’ out of strips of laminated white paper.  When I started to place the bones on the black jacket, the tape did initially make them stick to the fabric – until the moment when I tried to put the jacket on.  At the slightest movement of the fabric, the bones promptly fell off again.  I had to resort to laboriously sewing the bones on with white thread.  (The jacket was an ultra-cheap number I’d originally bought in Primark for twenty pounds, so I wasn’t concerned about disfiguring it.)  This took a lot of time and I only got the jacket finished minutes before the party was scheduled to start.  I hadn’t time to sew the leg bones onto my black trousers, so, reluctantly, I relied on the double-sided adhesive tape to fasten those.

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Incidentally, I managed to incorporate one item from my Dia de los Muertos memorabilia into the costume.  I fashioned a walking stick out of a rod and some kitchen foil and planted the ceramic skull-shaped salt shaker on one end of it as its head.  

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Finally, we were ready and off we headed for the party.  I’d barely got across the venue’s threshold when I began to suffer what are known nowadays as ‘wardrobe malfunctions’.  The adhesive tape continued to be worse than useless and my leg-bones were soon, and repeatedly, dropping off.  In fact, you could track me back and forth through the venue by following the little trail of bones I’d left on the ground behind me.  Trying not to dislodge them, I ended up moving around as slowly and stiffly as possible, and anyone who saw me probably thought I was stricken with severe constipation.

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Still, my Sri Lankan colleagues seemed impressed and kept inviting me to pose for photos with them.  I suspect, though, that they didn’t know about Dia de los Muertos or Spectre and merely thought I’d dressed up as a skeleton with a top hat because I was extremely weird.

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At the end of the evening, when the party organisers were finishing proceedings with a thank-you speech, they announced that the prize for best costume was being awarded to… me.  (Thankfully, the speaker referred to James Bond and Spectre at this point, making it clear to the assembled crowd that there was a method to my skeletal madness.) 

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And the prize was… a Miniso citrus juicer.  It now occupies a proud corner of our kitchen and, because it came as the result of a 007-inspired costume, I think of it as ‘the James Bond juicer’.  Alas, it doesn’t have a secret button on it that you press to make it turn into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft.

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Little England

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No, I’m not beginning 2019 with another online diatribe about Brexit Britain.  ‘Little England’ is the nickname – an unfortunate nickname considering the backward-looking parochialism and xenophobia that drove millions of real Little Englanders to vote in 2016 to prise the UK out of the European Union – that Sri Lankans often give to the town of Nuwara Eliya. 

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Located at an altitude of 1870 metres, it’s the highest and, climatically, coolest town in the country.  Nuwara Eliya was founded in 1846 and quickly became a retreat for members of the British colonial establishment eager to escape the heat and humidity of the lower-lying parts of the island.  And with them, they brought British architecture, British pastimes and sports, and British clubs and associations. 

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(I became aware of the coolness of the temperature while I was approaching Nuwara Eliya on a steadily-climbing road.  Looking out of the window of my vehicle, I suddenly saw a very strange and disconcerting sight indeed – Sri Lankan people wearing coats, scarves and woollen hats.)

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Last month, my work brought me to Nuwara Eliya for a couple of days and I had a chance to explore it.  I didn’t do any touristy things like venturing out into the surrounding hill country to, for example, experience the nearby Horton Plains or visit the several famous waterfalls or tour one of the local tea plantations.  This was because at some point in the future my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, and I would like to spend a proper holiday in the district and it made sense to leave the big tourist attractions until then.  Instead, I simply wandered about the town, took some photographs and mooched in a few pubs.  Here are my impressions.

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Firstly, you needn’t expect to find a picture-postcard English village that’s been magically transplanted into the highlands of Sri Lanka.  Nuwara Eliya’s centre contains the usual guddle of modern, garishly-coloured buildings – hastily erected and now looking slightly the worse for wear – that are a feature of most towns in this country.  And even in the less-recently developed parts away from the town centre, there are indications that the era when the British used to hang out here en masse are long gone.  Witness the picturesque Lake Gregory at Nuwara Eliya’s southern end.  Anchored by the lakeside is a long, narrow, double-decker boat that serves as a floating restaurant called the Hua Yuan, obviously aimed at foreign visitors of a different nationality.

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Come to think of it, the only Briton I encountered during my time in Nuwara Eliya was an old English fellow who’d travelled to the country for the recent England-Sri Lanka test series.  The moment the final cricket had been played, and unable to withstand the sweltering climate of lowland Sri Lanka any longer, he’d hopped into a taxi and had the driver make a beeline for here.

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That said, there are plenty of reminders of the presence and patronage of the old colonial regime.  A little way short of the town centre is the imperiously and imperially-titled Victoria Park – which has in an adjoining corner a square-sided, grey-stone pillar that acts as a war memorial.  Like most war memorials in Britain, this one’s World War I plaque is a lot longer than the World War II plaque.  The former commemorates 17 members of ‘the glorious dead’, while the latter sports just three names.

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Across the road from Victoria Park is a genteel golf course with a hotel at its end containing a mock-English pub called – what else? – the 19th Hole.  The Nuwara Eliya Golf Club isn’t the only organisation with a slightly-snooty-sounding name you see on signs here, for the town is also home to the likes of the Hill Club (‘established in 1876’) and the Royal Turf Club.

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And some of the British architecture lingers on.  Nuwara Eliya’s main post office is housed in a red-brick building with multiple layers and levels of roofing and its own little clock tower, which looks like it was moved to Sri Lanka brick by brick and slate by slate from Trumpton.  Meanwhile, the local branch of the Hatton National Bank is contained in a stately-looking structure with arched windows.  Scattered elsewhere are a number of other mansion-like buildings, often with Tudor-style patterning on their facades and their windows crammed with small, square panes.    

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In fact, the days when stereotypically British architecture would spring up in Nuwara Eliya may not yet be over.  For during my wanderings I saw this billboard advertising a new estate – “Make Nuwara Eliya your second home!” – consisting of detached dwelling-houses with mock-Tudor designs.  The scheme is called Little England Cottages, though there’s nothing remotely cottage-like in the scale of the residences involved.

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Another Christmas in Colombo

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that everyone loves Christmas: not only people in Christian countries, but also people in Buddhist, Muslim and downright atheistic ones too.

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In Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Santa Claus was lurking outside the store-entrances in the run-up to December 25th, even though as a mainly Orthodox-Christian country they weren’t supposed to be celebrating the birth of Christ until two weeks later.  In Japan, the Christmas trees, decorations, presents, carols and so on provided a pretty backdrop to the end-of-year bonenkai parties.  In Tunisia, I saw Tunisians gamely sporting Santa hats while they did business in the alleyways of Tunis’s Medina.  Even in North Korea, at a time when the only religion you were officially allowed to practice was one where you worshipped the abilities and achievements of Kim Jong Il, my local supermarket insisted on having a rather scruffy-looking Christmas tree out in its foyer – not just over the festive season, but for the full twelve months of the year.

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So it’s no surprise that Sri Lankans are big Christmas-philes too, even if their country is predominantly Buddhist.  As late as yesterday, Christmas Eve, a market selling Nativity scenes and Christmas trees was doing a busy trade on the Dehiwala stretch of Galle Road.  Meanwhile, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, the prestigious and leafy boulevard lined with fancy shopping arcades and imposing ministry and embassy buildings, is currently home to a gorgeous nocturnal display of Christmas lights.  And my local branch of Keells, the Sri Lankan supermarket company, had a sign up yesterday announcing that its booze section would be closed on Christmas Day.  That’s really entering the spirit of Christmas.

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Here, though, is a selection of my favourite images from this current Christmas in Colombo.  Firstly, I liked the above giant toy soldiers standing guard at the entrance to Hafele’s on Duplication Road.  A change from the usual tacky Santas and glitzy Christmas trees, they give the shop’s façade a nicely wintry, Germanic flavour – even if the temperature was in the 30s and the air was swelteringly humid when I took the photo.

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For Christmas trees, hats off to my local picture-house, the Savoy Cinema, for erecting this cinematically-themed tree outside its doors.  Its trunk is a big curling strip of celluloid and, instead of baubles, the tree is decorated with film-reels.  It would have been nice to report that the Savoy had gone even further into the spirit of the season and was showing a selection of classic Christmas movies like Gremlins (1984), Die Hard (1988), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Bad Santa (2003) today.  But no, it’s showing Aquaman (2018) and Mary bloody Poppins Returns (2018).

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Running the Savoy a close second in the ‘inventive Christmas tree’ stakes is this one at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, which has been made entirely out of empty wine bottles.  It’s an appropriately sobering reminder that the worst aspect of Christmas is not the pressure to buy expensive presents or the arguments with relatives, but the hangover on Boxing Day.

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There are a lot of Nativity scenes dotted around Colombo this Christmas – and almost all of them seem to be equipped with an unfeasibly large Baby Jesus.  I mean, just look at him.  He’s enormous!  He really looks like he popped out wholly grown, complete with a full head of hair. Indeed, in the second picture below, he looks as big as the ox – and looks like he could probably eat an ox too.

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And finally, although it’s less fancy and extensive than some of the items pictured above, here is my favourite piece of Christmas in Colombo this year – the tree on the veranda of my number-one ‘man-pub’, the Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  In the rapidly developing lanes between Galle Road and Marine Drive, with old-style houses vanishing at a rate of knots and new, concrete apartment blocks popping up like mushrooms, the Vespa really does feel like a hold-out.  It’s one of the last surviving remnants of a bygone era.  Let’s hope it remains intact during 2019 too.

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In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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