A Brexit Farewell Tour

 

Madeira
Madeira
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Alcazar, Seville

As part of our extended stay away from Jungle Tide and Sri Lanka – something we don’t plan to repeat, it’s been way too long – we did a kind of Brexit farewell tour to some of Europe. In two parts – the northern leg in the long summer days and the southern leg in the dying embers of autumn. Including an off-piste week in Tangier as neither of us had previously set foot in Africa (if you ignore a day in Casablanca as a fifteen year old on an educational cruise in 1964). A few impressions, then.

The natives were friendly. Without exception shocked and dismayed by the Brexit vote, their sympathy for us remainers was touching. While xenophobia is not a British monopoly, no-one on the mainland seems to link it to EU membership like so many Brits do. And the Swedes were even forgiving about the football result – as an earlier blog recounts, we were there when the deed was done. Only in Lisbon did we encounter anything like negativity, and that was sullen bad manners more than outright hostility. And not, we think, directed at us because we were British but at tourists generally. Lisbonians (is that the term?) feel a bit over-run by tourists, and not without reason. By contrast their Madeiran counterparts bent over backwards to be friendly, tourism having been the lifeblood of their island for many decades.

Which brings me to my continuing theme of language and communications. I can get by in French and stumble about in Spanish but that’s it. I’m not proud of it, but there’s little motivation when the rest of the world speaks (broken) English. Danish guests at Jungle Tide even mock their own language and seem to prefer to speak English or German. I admit to having had fearful feelings in Portugal, wondering whether to try my few words of Portuguese at the risk of falling into Spanish – would that be considered gratuitously offensive? Every tourist brochure, most signage and of course every menu appears with an English translation, often incomprehensible and sometimes hilarious. Here’s a list of items found on a single menu, in a café in the fabulous Triana market in Seville:

Iberian Lizard

Grilled Meagre with Garlic

Iberian Chaps

Old Cheese

Iberian Prey

Clams to Seafaring Style

Urtafish to Rota Style

Grilled Sepia

Chicken Hell

Triana market was but one of many delightful surprises we encountered. Yes, we did the big things and some of them more than lived up to their billing. Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens at sunset, Amsterdam’s Reichsmuseum, Gaudi’s Garda Familia in Barcelona, the Alcazar in Seville, the palaces and castles of Sintra near Lisbon, the Kasbah in Tangier and the cable car ride in Funchal. Copenhagen’s “Little Mermaid” also lived up to its billing as the world’s least interesting tourist attraction, by the way. But it’s always the lesser-known gems that get my juices flowing. Sometimes just because they’re special places which ought to be better known – the underground cisterns in Frederiksburg Park in Copenhagen with an astounding art installation; the Caves of Hercules near Tangier (the best free attraction I’ve ever come across). Sometimes because they’re serendipitous, spur-of-the-moment happenings – a crazy tuk-tuk tour in Lisbon with a very entertaining driver which happened because the ride on the famous Line 28 tram was off due to a road accident; an impromptu pre-Christmas night-time procession right outside our apartment in Seville involving a sizeable brass band and an elaborately carved, painted and lit piece of statuary depicting the nativity (sort of). Sometimes because they’re just wacky experiences – the Madeira Theme Park which actually does have a theme, the  theme being the history of the island, told in an off-beat, childish but very fetching way; a canal cruise in Amsterdam where the captain introduced proceedings thus: “We won’t be telling you much about what you’ll see, but all the alcohol on board is included in your ticket price so as soon as we leave the quayside you need to get stuck in!”

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Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Lisbon
Lisbon

 

 

 

 

 

Hallowe’en in Madeira was odd. We had our grandchildren aged five and eight with us so something had to be done. Madeira is not a place where Hallowe’en is celebrated. I did spot one diminutive cloaked figure flitting around a corner in Funchal in the afternoon just before we discovered the only shop in the city stocking any Hallowe’en-related merchandise and duly bought half of it. Although none of the supermarkets or veg shops sell pumpkins, even to eat, we still managed a fun evening before getting the kids to bed. Then there was a knock on the door and a couple of teenagers, not dressed up in any way, offered “trick or treat”. They’d obviously seen the Brits coming, I doubt if they knocked on any of the neighbours’ doors. Late at night, from somewhere nearby, came the haunting sound of a bassoon slowly playing Oranges and Lemons: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” We never heard the instrument played again in our two weeks’ stay.

 

All the places we stayed were house-swaps (see the previous entry). They included a remote old farmhouse in southern Sweden, an apartment normally used to house travelling players as part of an Amsterdam theatre, tiny apartments in historic quarters of Lisbon and Seville and a breathtakingly lovely old medina house right outside the Kasbah walls in Tangier. But topping all these was the place where we stayed in Madeira. We flew in after dark and the taxi took fifteen minutes to convey us to the house up steep and winding roads. So it was something of a surprise to wake the next morning and find ourselves looking down on the runway, with incoming planes below us. Beyond that the Atlantic dotted with rocky islets. And in the other direction a view of Nuwara Eliya, in Sri Lanka’s hill country. Well, it could have been – white and pale-coloured houses dotted across a mountainside terraced with neat rows of vegetables and small banana plantations. Madeira has been the only place we’ve eaten bananas since we left Sri Lanka at the beginning of July. Since they’re grown locally they’re properly ripe and tasty, unlike the pallid imported fruits in the UK and mainland Europe.

 

One of the pleasures of travel is experiencing public transport in all its varied and glorious forms. I jest. But have to say that the stereotypes seem to apply. In Scandinavia buses and trains run on time almost to the second; further south they are less reliably timetabled though in the cities mercifully frequent (in Madeira we had the use of a car though you don’t see much as most of the main road system is underground). Only in Barcelona did we encounter problems; a prolonged and torrential rainstorm managed to flood their metro system and when, soaked and desperate, we finally managed to find a cab the vehicle hit a kerb in a flood and the driver refused to take us further. We were saved by a waitress in a nearby bar who made it her personal mission to find us transport to our apartment. In Tangier public transport takes the form of innumerable battered blue taxis with ripped upholstery and staggeringly cheap to hire.

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Kasbah, Tangier

In a forty eight hour period at the end of our stay in Lisbon we managed to sample travel by boat, plane, taxi, bus, train, metro, traditional tram and modern tram. Only a horse ride was missing. We’ve crossed the Straits of Gibraltar on a ferry. We’ve been through more airports than I care to remember, with mixed but usually unpleasant experiences. And airport regulations continue to baffle me. Why is it essential security procedure in one airport to remove one’s laptop from its case before putting it through a scanner while in another airport it is absolutely forbidden to do so? Ditto for footwear. But one questions such absurdities at one’s peril, so I meekly comply with whatever foolishness I’m confronted with, being the kind of guy who feels browbeaten by satnavs.

 

Then we returned to Britain and the chaos of buses and trains, lack of information and staff surliness that characterises our neglected public transport system. Not to mention twilight at 3pm, grey skies, grey clothes, grey faces. Why mainland Europe ever wanted us as members could be the real question.

 

 

Snippets

 

A friend in Sri Lanka keeps me thinking of home with two new pieces of tuk-tuk wisdom for the burgeoning collection:

I BELIEVE IN ANGLES (I thought that was the title of Euclid’s autobiography)

WIN WITHOUT BASTING (A hint for cooking the Christmas turkey?)

And my proofreader daughter chips in with a couple of grammatical gems:

The reason why we have the apostrophe: it’s the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.

The reason we use upper case letters: it’s the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

GIT Exam

 

Finally, an image spotted in Sri Lanka some while ago which I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use. Now seems as good a time as any.

Merry Christmas.

 

Swapsies

Sally and I have been swapping homes since 2011. What started as an occasional foray to get a cheap holiday has become a way of life since we moved from the UK to Sri Lanka in 2015. Our only property is Jungle Tide, our guest house near Kandy, so coming back to the UK every year to see family and friends and reacquaint ourselves with the delights of raspberries, asparagus, pies and good ale has to be done on house swaps. Hotels would be way out of our budget and if we spent all our time with family and friends, mutual madness would ensue. Over the years we must have done more than fifty house swaps including a marathon eighteen in 2018 alone when we spent half the year in the UK and Europe. House swapping appeals to our love of the exchange economy generally but also to our love of travel and natural curiosity about other people’s lives.

All the hard work is done by Sally. Organising a seamless series of house swaps is breathtakingly difficult and spreadsheets proliferate. We are on six different house exchange sites and simply remembering which site a particular potential swap belongs to is a challenge. All have different systems and rules; in some cases, one only knows the first name of the potential swapper and their identity is not revealed until the deal is done. Confusing if you’re dealing with two Chris’s, one male and one female, at the same time. Some sites seem happy to let you exchange e-mail addresses, others want all communications to remain on the site which can make things difficult. It’s far easier to find things in an e-mail trail than hidden in the complexities of websites’ messaging systems.

There are three distinct types of swaps: people exchanging their primary or only home, people swapping a second home, and people swapping holiday lets in low season (which is essentially what we do with Jungle Tide). Each has its pros and cons. Swapping with someone’s primary home usually means a great, well-equipped and stocked kitchen, interesting books to read, art to look at and a comfortable, homely feel. Often a delightful garden, whether a tiny urban oasis or a country sprawl with a paddock and orchard. But finding enough space to store your clothes or the food you’ve brought – both are essential when you’re swapping as a temporary way of life rather than for a week’s holiday – is often impossible. And some people’s homes – if they’re a lot better off than us and have no children at home – may be stuffed with antiques, priceless artworks, delicate furnishings, fabrics and floor coverings which I find frankly intimidating, being terrified of breakages and stains. In such houses I rarely move from the kitchen (usually a washable kind of place) until it’s time to go to bed.

Out of season holiday lets and second homes tend to have minimal kitchen facilities. OK for survival but frustrating for keen cooks like us (we’ve taken to bringing with us small but indispensable pieces of kitchen kit). But they do have oodles of wardrobe, drawer and cupboard space, especially the holiday lets. On the down side they can feel soulless and uninspiring. There are few or no books, maybe a handful of DVDs I probably don’t want to watch, and a garden (if one exists) “laid to lawn” as the estate agents put it i.e. dreary. But these are generalisations and we’ve had exceptions.

The first challenge may be finding the place, parking and gaining access. We own a car in the UK and especially in city swaps we’ve learned to check carefully beforehand about parking. Swaps where there is a residents’ parking scheme which doesn’t include unlimited free all-day visitor parking permits are pretty much no-nos for us. Getting up every day before 8am and shifting the car almost a mile to the nearest unrestricted parking street then walking back to the house is a poor way to start one’s day. Having got to somewhere close enough to haul the bags and boxes into the property there is the small matter of gaining access to the house. The variety of methods is remarkable and seems to bear no relation to the value of the property or its contents. We’ve been in very swish places full of priceless stuff where the instruction was that the key was under a flowerpot by the front door, and others where the instructions for getting in and disarming the alarm system ran to a full page of A4. On one occasion the door key was open to view in the shopping basket of the owner’s bicycle, parked in a shared courtyard. This wasn’t in some idyllic village but in inner London. Finally you’re in, and after unloading the car first stop is the kitchen. Partly to get perishable food into the fridge, partly for an initial assessment of its cookability, but mainly to see what the owners have left. House swappers are generous people and almost always leave as a minimum a bottle of wine, milk, bread, eggs, butter, tea and coffee. But very often that’s two bottles of wine, plus a big bunch of flowers, biscuits, cake, local delicacies, cheese and an invitation in a tasteful welcome card that fridge and cupboard raiding is absolutely fine. “And do help yourselves to anything in the garden”. I need no second bidding.

Then there is the house manual. I love reading the house manuals and musing about why people’s minds work in such different ways. Some are thematic (equipment; laundry and cleaning; shopping etc); some do it room by room; some are simply alphabetical which I find especially confusing as adjacent entries are unrelated (… “recycling”, “remote controls” …); others appear to be entirely random stream-of-consciousness creations, often involving scrawled marginal additions. They’re my favourites. They remind me of my mother… Almost all house manuals are written in a friendly way; I’ve only come across a handful which have a forbidding list of Dos and Don’ts. House swappers are almost by definition warm and trusting folk.

The manual is usually accompanied by a folder or box of useful information on local places of interest and often by a folder of manufacturer’s operating instructions for household appliances. Standardly this is just cookers, washing machines and other basics but we have come across detailed instructions for installing central heating or repairing a smart TV which I kind of feel is beyond the call of a house-swapper’s duty. One house-swap included manuals and parts lists for a “heritage tractor” which baffled me completely especially as there was no obvious sign of a tractor, heritage or otherwise, and nor did I feel we were likely to be in need of one.

While my head is buried in the house manual Sally is prowling around selecting our bedroom. Usually it’s a no-brainer – either the biggest room by far, or the one with the spectacular view, or the only one which has an en-suite. But occasionally I am called in for consultation, especially when we are having grandchildren to stay for some of the time which raises a whole agenda of its own – can they be near their parents? Will they be OK sharing a room? What’s their bathroom like? How prone is their sleeping environment to (a) falling out of bed (b) smashing the hosts’ valuable property?

Then it’s time for a thorough assessment of the kitchen, that place of mystery and delight. The variety of kitchen styles is mind-boggling. Leaving aside the minimalist, functional arrangements to be found in most second homes and holiday lets the really interesting stuff is to be found in rummaging through cupboards and drawers in people’s own primary homes. “What might this be for, do you suppose?” “I can’t believe they keep the rolling pin in here!” “They’re obviously keen cooks but they don’t seem to possess a potato peeler”. And so on. Through house swapping I’ve reacquainted myself with Aga-only cooking, a childhood skill which had been lost to me for decades, and faced up to my fear of the induction hob, though I still don’t understand why anyone thinks they’re worth the money and trouble. Dishwashers are straightforward but I’d never encountered an Insinkerator before my house-swapping days. They’re excellent for scaring small children. Then there’s the ingredients cupboards. Some are organised with relentless and impressive logic, others seemingly random with tins, jars, spices, sugars, flours drinks and condiments just rammed in any old how. It takes us about a week to get the hang of someone else’s kitchen. If it’s a one week swap you’ve just got it when it’s time to move on. Then in the next place: “I could have sworn the cling film was in that drawer” “No, darling, that was the last house”.

And so to bed. We’ve rarely been disappointed in our bed but sometimes it’s necessary to peel away a rind of decorative and useless cushions and printed covers before you can get into it. I never know where one is supposed to put them so they end up rolling around the floor. As we almost always have a choice of rooms it’s not hard to find one that meets our basic requirements: you can get out on either side of the bed in the middle of the night; each side has a bedside table with its own reading light… er, that’s about it. But few of our friends and relatives can offer this in their spare room. Wardrobes and drawer space, though, that’s a different matter. We bring our own bag full of hangers as there are rarely enough spare ones, but there’s only so much you can cram into a small space. We’ve had wardrobes of impressive antiquity and probably great value but which were built (I surmise) before the coat hanger was invented and are not wide or deep enough to take one. Or don’t have rails at all, just hooks. I should repeat here that we’re unusual in relying on house swaps for months at a time so we tend to carry more clothing than if we were on a week’s holiday, and it’s really unfair of me to suggest that we ought to be given more hanging and drawer space than we often get.

Bathrooms, en-suite or not, come in many styles and sizes. Some houses have only showers, no bath, which always comes as a disappointment. But so long as the showers are big enough for two old fatties to get in and out of and have a good slosh around in (separately of course!) that’s OK. And that’s usually been the case, but sadly not always. There have been showers one has to insinuate oneself into like an octopus on a reef and wash oneself tentacle by tentacle. And it’s not only our bodies that need washing, it’s also our clothes. Though it is rare to find a problematic washing machine or tumble dryer the same cannot be said of ironing arrangements. I love ironing. As Bob Marley put it, I iron like a lion from Zion.  But occasionally one comes across an ironing board with a stubborn personality or an iron with an unbalanced one, or one of those huge jobs sat on its own water tank. I had the usual boyhood ambitions to drive a steam train but not indoors.

I’m not a technophobe but neither am I technically adept and TV remotes in particular bewilder me. I once saw a comedy sketch where a young man explained to his girlfriend that they had to go to dinner at his parents’ on Wednesday “to show them how to operate their TV remote – again”. One of those Ouch! moments.  In my ideal world all channels would have the same number irrespective of the operating system and a single remote would switch on the TV, select channels, access online services, adjust volume and so on. It’s not too much to ask, is it? I mean, it doesn’t have to draw the curtains, dim the room lighting or switch on the kettle as well. I am slowly learning but mistakes continue to be made. Recently I had to resort to a phone call with the owner, who was on his yacht off the Greek coast at the time (it’s OK for some!) to ask how to operate his TV remote. The same guy later had to sort us out when we left the house for the last time, posted the keys through the letter box and then realised we’d left our phone on charge in the kitchen. He was amazingly friendly and polite in the circumstances.

But even the complexities of different TV remotes pale into insignificance alongside the bewildering range of local recycling arrangements. I’m a keen recycler and composter and am always delighted to find a house with a garden big enough to sustain a compost bin or two. But getting my head around what to do with which kinds of plastic, whether thin card is treated with thick card or with paper, what bins get collected when, whether tins and glass go into mixed recyclables or must be put out separately and so on – these are significant challenges. Surely by now the days of local experimentation in recycling arrangements should be over and councils might have reached a consensus over what is most cost-effective and best for the environment. But it seems not.

Finally, there are the pets. Low-maintenance ones: people with dogs tend to engage pet-sitters or put their dogs in kennels when they’re away. Cats are the most common. They usually have cat flaps and come and go by themselves. They’re not generally fussy creatures and food plus the occasional cuddle tends to suffice. Except once, where the house manual included some very specific cat husbandry instructions. One of the three cats would not drink out of a bowl but only from a two-inch residue of clean water left in the bath. The others had to have their water and food served in specific glass bowls. And whenever we left the house we had to leave the radio on and tuned to Classic FM otherwise the cats would become stressed. We’ve also looked after hens and, on one occasion, rabbits intent on recreating The Great Escape and tunnelling out of their hutch in naïve ignorance of the airborne terrors awaiting them. But the oddest pet we’ve had to look after was a tortoise. “A tortoise? Sure, no problem, what could be easier?” The owner’s daughter met us at the airport and on the way to her mum’s house explained that the tortoise required feeding with specific food (all provided) at specific times but it was free range and had a tendency to hide in the shrubberies and herbaceous borders of the lovely but large garden so it needed to be hunted down at feeding times. She added that the tortoise (an adult) had been given to her mother as a christening present. Given that the lady concerned was in her eighties this made the tortoise almost certainly a centenarian. We were terrified all week that the old fellow would die on our watch – mercifully it survived.

We don’t get to meet all of the people we swap with, though perhaps we meet more than most swappers. Because our house is in Sri Lanka we offer swappers the choice of whether to have us around (to help out with transport arrangements and generally advise) or to have the place to themselves along with our Sri Lankan staff. Most choose the first option and this way we’ve met lots of interesting people and made several lasting friendships. When we talk about house swapping to other people they invariably raise questions about theft and damage. Neither theft nor deliberate damage ever occurs – even our hard-pressed police would have no problem in solving those kinds of crime. Accidental damage does of course happen but only once have we encountered an owner who was anything other than reasonable and understanding about a minor breakage or stain. House swappers are great people, and house swapping is a great way to live. For some of the time, anyway.

Engerland

As chance would have it we were in Sweden at the time of the quarter final game (still are, in fact). Fortunately in a house swap so we had the place to ourselves and I only had to remember not to cheer so loudly the neighbours would notice. All in the past now, of course. After the game Sally turned to me and said “So who do you most want us to avoid in the semis then?” Pausing only to recollect myself from the shock of hearing her express even the slightest interest in and knowledge of the beautiful game I answered “Croatia”. But that’s enough of football for now. Though I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Swedes, both their football team who played a clean and positive game in these cynical times and the population at large who continued to be friendly and helpful to two bewildered English tourists even after their defeat.

Having whisked ourselves off to Sweden a couple of days after we landed in England all I’ve seen of the mother country so far has been Margate. Ah, Margate! Famous for all the wrong things, from Mods and Rockers rioting on the sands all the way through the decades to UKIP. Though there is the Turner Gallery. And that’s what’s fascinating about Margate, the contradictions and contrasts. Dreamland and the Turner. The delightful Old Town and the run-down neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to it. Cheerful shop assistants and bank clerks for whom nothing is too much trouble and drunks carrying on domestic disputes on the streets. The High Street sums the place up, as High Streets should I suppose. One third empty shops (the usual suspects have all upped sticks and moved to Westwood Cross out of town), one third posh, arty boutiques, one third vape shops. Going up or coming down in the world? The jury’s out on Margate but at least some people are trying to make a go of the place. Good luck to them. In passing I wonder how it is that more people seem to vape than ever smoked tobacco.

Off to Copenhagen tomorrow. Another house swap. Not owning anywhere in England and being way too poor to live in hotels we fund our visits from Sri Lanka through house exchanges, a record eighteen of them on this marathon six month trip. We’re keen on the exchange economy. Not just swapping homes but giving volunteers board and lodging in return for their labour at Jungle Tide; lending and borrowing direct from friends and family cutting out the bankers, that kind of thing. We’ve been house-swappers for six or seven years now with lots of very positive experiences and making new friends, and only a few isolated (and not serious) negatives. And it’s fun to nose around other people’s places with permission and in their absence, checking out their reading habits and music and film collections (most are oldies like us who still have shelves of books, CDs and DVDs). And their kitchens. Do they have the right kind of potato peeler (Lancashire since you ask, though I’m an adopted Yorkshireman), a proper cheese grater, a decent collection of knives for all purposes? Are the wine glasses pathetically small or stupidly big, or just right? Do they have very scary electrical equipment or stuff I feel I can use without a training course? Are all the surfaces I’m likely to spill stuff on washable? Have they explained the local recycling arrangements? It’s hard to credit how these can differ from one locality to another even in the same country and we do hate waste. I recall with pain the first time I encountered an induction hob; as a challenge it compared closely to my first attempts at using a mouse or internet banking. TV remotes can also be a bit of a number to master. And when we don’t have a car, fathoming the regulations governing local public transport is another big problem. But after a week I’ve usually mastered all of the above and more. Then it’s time to move on to the next place with its own unique and new set of missions that must be accomplished.

After Copenhagen it’s Amsterdam then finally to our old stamping grounds of West Yorkshire from where I plan to send out the next instalment.

 

Nuts in May

The last couple of weeks has been a slalom of social activity in the expat world around Kandy. It’s been a decent final fling as I take leave of life in my sixties and head into the uncharted waters of an eighth decade. “Life is sort, enjo is soon” as yet another gnomic Kandy tuk-tuk informed me the other day. I think that means enjoy it while you can, though as ever it’s hard to discern the true meaning of tuk-tuk philosophy.

The BBC informed us that over two billion people watched the nuptials of Harry and Meghan and I was among them, though I find the figure inconceivably high and a terrible indictment of how little people have to do with their time. Even allowing for the fact that the hairy one married a yank which probably quadrupled his worldwide audience. Back in Yorkshire I would probably have either spent the day in my allotment or attended some republican anti-party. Radical Hebden Bridge probably had dozens of such events to choose from. But for some unaccountable reason I trekked two hours to a riverside hotel in Pinnawela thence to our friends George and Yvonne’s house where two TV screens had been set up for the assembled masses – actually about ten of us. But as our extended visit to the sceptred isle approaches the occasion did cause some reflection. Sitting by a river swollen by pre-monsoon rains, glass in hand, watching elephants bathe in the distance and thinking this an absolutely normal scene made me realise how lucky I am. Then the TV footage of Windsor on a sunny spring day reminded me of the price paid for living abroad. Finally, the whole lot came together in a perfect Sri Langlican collage – British greenery, pomp and ceremony with a background of trees dripping with mangoes and tropical birdsong – and then a power outage.

A couple of days later, a farewell do for some friends returning to the UK after a stint at Peradeniya University. This took place in a rundown restaurant splendidly located by the Mahaweli Ganga, at a point where the river runs nearly half a mile wide and is usually shallow enough to wade across. But at the moment it’s a churning mass of brown and white water separating midstream islands strewn with water-borne debris of all kinds. I had planned to celebrate my 70th with a trip to Kitulgala to try out the white water rafting, figuring that the water would be suitably exciting in the monsoon. Until I visited their website to be informed that the best time to go is in the dry season. In the wet the risk assessment ranges from whiplash (best case) to death (worst case) so the rapids were rapidly abandoned.

Instead it was off for a pre-birthday jaunt north of Kandy. First stop was Gammaduwa Bungalow. A mutual friend in Hebden Bridge had put us in touch with Dave and Seng-Li who are renovating a planter’s bungalow there. She thought – rightly – that we would get on. The pin on the map suggested it was close to the main Kandy-Jaffna road just north of Matale and nicely en route to our other friends, Simon and Pauline, who’d invited us to stay with them in their hotel near Dambulla. The pin on the map was wrong. The trip took nearly four hours and Dave confirmed our suspicion that even though a tiny road was shown on the map connecting their place and Simon’s it would not be driveable. So we only had time for a quick coffee and a tour of their mini tea factory in the garage. Real miniature versions of the machinery you see in the tea factory tours, utterly cute and producing a range of artisanal teas. Disappointing that there were no miniature people working there. And they’re doing a fantastic job with the bungalow which, like so many Sri Lankan investment projects, has been a bit of a bottomless money pit. But it’s getting close to completion and any folk intrepid enough to make the journey out to their very remote and scenic location will enjoy a very special holiday. We look forward to getting to know Dave and Seng-Li better and maybe doing some collaborative work with them.

The Flamboyant Hotel, Simon and Pauline’s place, is maybe ten kilometres from Gammaduwa as the crow flies but five times that as the car drives, initially on folksy roads requiring confrontations with village buses before joining the main highway in Matale. Named after the flamboyant trees which dot their extensive gardens it’s a bit further up-market than Jungle Tide and it was a treat to stay in one of their enormous and well-appointed chalets for the night. Before that we were literally gathering nuts in May. They have fifty cashew trees all busily dropping their produce. If you wonder why cashews are expensive here’s the reason. Each nut grows singly as an appendage to the “fruit” (really a swollen stem and not pleasant to eat unless you’re a monkey) and needs to be separated and dried before being shelled. Strange fruit indeed and the first time I’d set eyes on them growing.

The gardens at Flamboyant are even more full of birds than ours, being situated on the join between the wet and dry zones and at medium altitude so pretty much every species you get in Sri Lanka lives or visits there, aside from seabirds and those that live up in the high mountains. And full of trees – Simon and Pauline are tree experts, compared to me at least, and have filled their gardens with a staggering variety of native and non-native species. After nut-gathering and putting the world to rights, and a good night’s sleep, they took us to two places which are off the tourist trail but so much more rewarding to visit than most of the popular (read crowded, expensive and tacky) destinations. The first was Menikdena, a glorious ruined monastery complex dating from around the 10th century. The stone pillars were coated in the most astoundingly coloured lichens I’ve ever seen. Menikdena is set in woodland by a lake with water birds and mugger crocs. There is no admission charge and not even a donations box. A guy working there who spoke no English was the only other human on the site. I would have loved to have made a donation but handing cash to a local employee would not have worked – to be fair, he wasn’t asking for any.

Donations and fundraising raised their head again at our next port of call, the Sam Popham Arboretum. Sam Popham was a British planter – still alive, in his nineties, living in the UK – who developed an interest in preserving the native tree species which were being cleared for plantations. He founded the arboretum and lived in a small house, little more than a hut, on the site. The hut is no more and has been replaced by what was intended to be a replica but as Simon pointed out the only reflection of the original building is its tiny windows. It is currently unused. But there are three other buildings on site – a small and basic chalet which is available for rent, and the main reception building and office, a boat-shaped construction designed by the great Geoffrey Bawa who took an interest in the arboretum. The third building is Popham’s beer tower with a rickety internal staircase leading to a platform on which Sam enjoyed his beers. History does not record why he thought beer is better at high altitude. The tower is now home to a colony of false vampire bats. At the reception building we were met by the guy who more or less single-handedly and for next to no pay runs the place, a delightful chap called Jayantha Amerasinghe who showed us around. To say the place is run on a shoestring would cheapen the value of shoestrings. But the office politics of the various organisations with a stake in the arboretum has prevented any serious fundraising let alone business planning which the place sorely needs. That’s Sri Lanka for you, unfortunately. Simon and Pauline have formed the Friends of the Popham Arboretum as an independent body which can raise funds and spend them properly. We’re going to try and do our bit at Jungle Tide to support them.

The arboretum supports a population of slender lorises and we’ll be back on another occasion to do a night walk and hopefully see some. A magazine article on the arboretum I read at Flamboyant invited readers to “go on a night safari to see the lorries”. But we had another final appointment on my pre-birthday treat – a stay at one of Geoffrey Bawa’s grander designs, the Kandalama. This immense hotel was built in the eighties as a demonstration of how even a very large building could blend into its environment – in this case rocks, trees and a tank (ancient man-made lake). Much imitated since but a landmark building of tropical architecture. Three swimming pools including an infinity pool facing the tank proved enough to satisfy even Sally. I was more interested in the architecture and just roamed around inside and out while she communed with nature all alone in the pool (it’s the off season and the place was pretty empty). Expensive and way out of our normal budget but this was a special occasion.

This final fling of my sixties ended in some ways as it began, with a fluttering of union flags. The rooftop bar of the Ozo in Kandy was decked out for an evening of gin-tasting and the promotion of a humorous travel book by Paul Topping, self-styled “Whinging Pome”. We swapped signed copies of our books and I felt the fleeting buzz of living in a literary world. The gins were a revelation. Supplied by the Colombo Gin Club if you please. We have nothing remotely like that in Kandy, we make our own entertainment up here. Jungle Tide gets complimentary copies of the monthly “Time Out Sri Lanka” which is really just a listing of upcoming things in Colombo, not a lot of use to us. There’s plenty of theatre, dance, cinema and music to choose from and some sporting events but Sri Lankans are increasingly football-obsessed and no-one plays it so the entry for soccer is just a list of EPL fixtures including the tempting prospect of one shown as “Tottenham v Hotspur”.

As hinted in the opening, we’re off to the UK at the end of June for a six month stay. I thought that would mean an enforced end to the blog, or at least a long pause, until I realised that it’s not just Sri Lanka which is unnerving and ridiculous, so is Britain. Watch this space.

Not the Royal Wedding

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We didn’t get an invite to Harry and Meghan’s bash but we did get to our first Sri Lankan wedding last Saturday. Our housekeeper Rani’s sister, Gowri, was getting hitched and Rani was very keen that we attend. So on with the best tropical suit, only to discover that in the years since it was last used (a) my waistline had grown so the trousers were very squeezy (b) a mysterious stain had appeared on one sleeve of the jacket, requiring the attention of the dry cleaners. Undaunted, holding jacket over arm and doing breathing exercises, I headed off.

We’d been invited to both the church service and the reception (the family are all Tamil Christians) but our suspicions that the service would be conducted in Tamil proved correct so we told Rani and her husband Martin there was little point in going to the church. “No”, insisted Martin, “If you are there the pastor will do the service in English”. “But then almost no-one else will understand it” we replied. “Ah, there will be a person to translate into Tamil.” Not wanting to be put in the position of making life difficult for the vast majority of non-English speakers who would be there we politely but firmly declined the church bit of it. Though a bit of me would have liked to have gone, just to see what a Tamil Christian service was like. I’ve recently traced a distant relative who was a Methodist missionary in Ceylon from 1936 to 1970 and read something she published which unwittingly explained how the missionary movement simply took on local customs and traditions and convinced the people that these were in fact Christian religious practices. As of course the early European church did with pagan rites such as the winter solstice.

Being British we arrived at the hotel – a gloomy and cavernous pile temporarily transformed with drapes, lighting and flowers but where as always the toilets indicated the underlying reality of the building – ten minutes early for the reception. We assumed we’d wait somewhere until the party arrived from the church up the road but we were ushered into the reception room as if we were the focus of attention. We spent a short while observing various technicians doing their stuff with music and lights before the newlyweds entered via the staircase with a vast retinue and the reception began.

In a standard UK wedding reception there is alcohol followed by interminable speechifying followed by food then more alcohol and dancing. A Sri Lankan wedding reception, based on this sample of one, dispenses with all but the third element in that list. No booze. No speeches. No dancing. But there was plenty of food. Eating aside, the reception consisted of putting the happy couple through an ordeal by camera. Official and unofficial photographers armed to the teeth with anything from simple mobile phones to kickass lenses forced the couple to pose for what seemed like hours, sweating and grinning under the lights, as every conceivable combination of guests took their moment in the spotlight with them. Given that a week or so beforehand they had had to undergo the “pre-wedding shoot” in some local beauty spot to provide mementos to hand out to the wedding guests and that a couple of days later they would be subjected to more photographic oppression when they had their “homecoming” one really understood the level of commitment it must take to get married in this country. At least in between they would have a couple of days’ honeymoon, but I seriously would not be surprised if there was a photographer on hand in the bridal bed to record the first night of bliss.

 

 

Three wheels good

Time for more tuk-tuk wisdom. All the following have been added to my collection since the start of the year, mostly in Kandy. Is there no end to their inventiveness? And does anyone out there have any idea what they might mean? My favoured explanation is that many three-wheeler drivers are members of a secret society bent on world domination and use their vehicles to pass coded messages to one another.

ONLY DO WHAT GOUR HEAUT TELLS YOU. Gour Heaut is presumably the Supreme Leader of the cult.

DON’T PLAY WITH ME. YOUR DEATH WILL CONFIRM.

YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON YOUR HAND. Not your heart or your brain, then? However…

A BIRD IN THE HEAD IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH. One might ponder the various alternative meanings of ‘bird’, ‘head’ and ‘bush’ here.

DON’T BE A TWAT ALL YOUR LIFE (driven by a white woman)

SHOW YOU MY ANGLE. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours. But who has the right angle?

THE WORLD HAS NOT CHANGED. THERE IS JUST LESS IN IT. In other words, it has changed.

GOD RIGHT HIM THAT KEEPS SILENCE. A handy one to use when under interrogation following capture.

LOVE IS NOT SURE. BOOT IS FULL SURE. Could you run that one past me again, please?

As ever, thank you for your kind attention.

Jerry

 

 

 

Superstition

The central character in Ashok Ferrey’s The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons leads a difficult dual life between England/the west and his ancestral Kandyan home. The former dominated by rationalist materialism, the latter by superstition. I can’t claim to be quite so conflicted but I do empathise to some extent. I sometimes wonder what drove me to call home a land where rational thinking takes a poor second place to belief in the supernatural. Where planning is always trumped by fatalism. Sally tells me I’m not an atheist but an agnostic, since I cannot prove there is no god, and she has a point. But in seven decades on this planet I have yet to see a shred of evidence that there is a supernatural being (or beings) which gives a flying fart about either me in particular or humankind in general. Plenty of things I’m unable to explain, for sure – and many of them science remains unable to explain. But even if science never makes it that far, there is no reason to worship something just because it’s awesome and unexplained. There is no such thing as divine intervention or a divine agenda, of that I am certain.

All of which places strict limitations on how close I can get to almost all Sri Lankans (and, of course, a whole lot of religious folk from my own culture, however much I may like and admire them). As readers of Broke’n’English may recall, when we started building Jungle Tide we were mystified to get a rare e-mail from our architect, a British-educated, western-dressed middle-aged man, informing us that he had made an overnight journey from Colombo to the house site to lay our foundation stone at something like 4am as this had been determined to be the auspicious time. Given the subsequent problems we’ve had with the place, I hate to think what might have happened had the stone been laid at an inauspicious time, but let that pass.

Determining the right time for things to happen is an obsession here, and at no time is this a greater obsession than at Tamil and Sinhala New Year which is now upon us. (The Tamils and the Sinhalese do not agree on much but at least they agree when New Year is, which I suppose is comforting). Two years ago we and some friends were staying at a hotel near Anuradhapura at New Year and were invited to participate in the festivities, involving much lighting of lamps and consumption of festive foods. In the background a TV was showing the usual countdown to the crucial moment, familiar to us on 31st December, except here three or four countdowns were going on simultaneously. Countdowns to the auspicious moments to light candles, to serve kiribath (milk rice), and a couple of other activities I never managed to fathom. I found myself musing on who has the right to determine these auspicious moments. The Buddhist high priesthood? But Tamils are mainly Hindu and operate to the same timetables as far as I could tell. And in any case, if the history of any world religion is anything to go by, deep schisms would surely erupt as rival factions interpreted the relevant signs to suit their own purposes and came up with different auspicious times. The government? Maybe elections are fought over whether the UNP or the SLFP is best at telling the time.

Horoscopes are consulted not just to tell the time but to check whether a person is the right one to marry. And unlike any horoscope I’ve ever read in the British popular press, or indeed unlike any tarot reading I’ve come across, the findings always seem to be clear and indisputable. The daughter of a guy who used to be one of our drivers was in a relationship with an Australian who the family regarded as quite a catch – but on checking out the horoscopes he was reluctantly but firmly rejected as being unsuitable.

Yakas (demons) are everywhere in this land, and measures need to be taken to protect against them. They particularly go for half-built houses and, given the local propensity to build places as high as the available money will stretch, then stop until more is raised, the yakas have a lot to go at. The solution – to hang dummies from poles atop the half-completed buildings so that travelling around Sri Lanka is a bit like being in an endless version of those village scarecrow festivals which have lately become so popular in England. Some of the dummies are crude and simple but others are dressed in jacket and tie, perhaps an indication that western culture is more effective at curtailing the activities of demons.

Before reading Ashok Ferrey’s book I’d been unaware of the mobility of yakas. They don’t just hang around and haunt a particular place as our more staid British ghosts do but travel relentlessly about the countryside, making them much harder to counteract. In a (literally) lightbulb moment I realised that this probably explains why Sri Lankan drivers keep their right indicator lights permanently on. It keeps the yakas of the road at bay.

Superstition is strongest in the villages and among older people, but it’s far from dying out. My friend Jim told me recently of a village funeral attended by one of his staff. Prior to the funeral the local priest had undertaken a search of the grounds of the deceased to seek clues as to the cause of death (yes, they do also have doctors and death certificates out here, but belt and braces applies to matters of such moment). Some rusted metal items were dug out and declared proof that someone had intended evil to befall the deceased. Moreover, continued the priest, the findings were also proof that vengeance would be wreaked on the evil-doer within nineteen days. Two weeks later Jim’s man’s grandfather died and he took this as the priest’s prediction coming true. Quite why anyone would come to this conclusion among all the many other possible (and more probable) reasons for granddad’s death is utterly beyond my comprehension.

Among the hosts of yakas a few top the Mount Olympus of yakadom, as it were. The Devil Bird (Ulama) brings doom to all who hear its terrible wailing deep in the forest (it’s probably just an eagle owl but let’s not spoil a good myth). A Kinduri is a kind of radical feminist yaka in the form of a pregnant woman who deals death to randomly selected men. The Riri Yaka is a four-armed, monkey-faced little chap who rides a pig and carries with him, among other things, a rooster and a parrot. Probably a Norwegian Blue. He certainly seems to belong more to the leftfield humour of Monty Python than to any religious belief system.

Yakas with at least some claim to authenticity, though, are the Nittaewo. There is some anecdotal historical evidence of the existence of a tribe of small human-like creatures in Sri Lanka until comparatively recent times – maybe survivors of either Homo Erectus or Australopithecus. The Veddha – the aboriginal human inhabitants of Sri Lanka – claim to have wiped out the Nittaewo in the 18th century. But rumours persist of more recent sightings, including a gruesome tale of a Government official being attacked and dismembered by one in a tea estate not far from here. On the other hand, all kinds of humans have good reason to dismember Government officials…

Which bring me to the other more authentic yakas – the Grease Yakas. I first came across these characters in a bewildering press report a year or so ago. The headline: “Grease Yaka resurfaces in Bataramulla following Cabinet re-shuffle” has got to rank as one of the best non-sequiturs of all time. Grease yakas are naked men who grease themselves up and roam the streets at night, sometimes assaulting women. Why they do this I have yet to see explained. And I have absolutely no idea why a Cabinet re-shuffle should engender this response. In a just world they would all be wiped out by Kinduris.

And so, finally, to matters medical rather than fatal. I don’t have a strong take on ayurvedic versus western medicine – my guess is that both are effective in different ways and sensible folk should make use of both rather than arguing for the dominance of one over the other. But I part company with those locals who believe that illnesses are caused by a band of eighteen demons responsible for everything from deafness to insanity by way of flatulence. The other side of the coin is the twaddle dealt out to tourists by the proprietors of the rash of “Spice Gardens” who insist that their herbal remedies can cure everything from baldness to diabetes. If this were true then Sri Lankans would enjoy wondrously long life expectancy, which they manifestly do not. But that, I guess, is because of all those malevolent demons. Against superstition and religion we rationalists just can’t win. Better get this posted, Friday 13th is coming up!

(Thanks to Jim Aitken for suggesting the topic and providing some of the material. Sorry if I’ve misconstrued any of it!)