Happy New Year

Mid-April is New Year in Sri Lanka. They do like to be different. Both the Tamils and the Sinhalese share the celebrations, the ritualistic nature of which I struggle to get my head around. Something to do with the sun, moon, planets and horoscopes and with precise auspicious and inauspicious times. The practical effect is that the country more or less shuts down for a week, and a powerful lot of firecrackers are set off. It’s a very good time to leave the country, as I remind myself every year and promptly forget the next year.

As far as I am aware (which is not very far) Sri Lankans don’t allocate either numbers to their years (as in the west and Islam) or a cycle of names (as in China). I’ve never heard anyone refer to their birth year as anything other than the standard calendar. Though they are absolute slaves to their horoscopes as I’ve noted elsewhere. Romantic love counts as nothing if it is trumped by an inauspicious combination of star signs, and people delay moving house for a month in order to wait for the auspicious moment, whatever the practical and financial consequences.

I thought I would record in full for your amusement the schedule printed in last Sunday’s Sunday Observer – a reputable, almost dowdy organ which nonetheless appears to take all the mumbo-jumbo entirely seriously. Under a drawing of a sun with a grim-looking face is this column:

AUSPICIOUS TIMES

The inauspicious period

From 7.45am to 8.33pm today. All work should cease before 7.45am, and one should engage in religious activities.

Cooking meals

At 2.42pm light the hearth clad in yellow and red (bronze) facing the East. [It does not specify whether it is the hearth or the people that should be clad in yellow and red and face east]

Commencing work, transactions and partaking of meals

Today, April 14th at 3.54pm clad in yellow and red (bronze) facing the East.

Anointing with oil

April 17th at 7.40am, clad in green facing the East. [Does the type of oil matter? Brent crude? Three-in-one? Extra virgin?]

Leaving for work

April 18th at 4.52am, clad in green facing the East.

The more alert among you will have noticed that this schedule might prove problematic. Having no-one doing work of any kind from 7.45am to 8.33pm, albeit on a Sunday, might just bring the country’s infrastructure to its knees. Any food eaten must be cooked just so between 2.42pm and 3.54pm or there could be consequences in terms of food poisoning or just really tough chicken thighs and burnt vegetables. And woe betide those folk who live to the east of their workplace as they have to travel to work facing backwards. Bad enough if one walks but potentially disastrous if one drives. And if the posture is required to continue once one reaches one’s place of work – well, I think I might avoid taking a westbound bus on the 18th. Though I do intend to be up early to watch our staff turn up at sparrow’s fart clothed all in green-oh.

 

More from the wacky world of tuk-tuks

The Kandy Tuk-Tuk Philosophers’ Club seems to have been turning its attention to matters of fatherhood recently. These three were spotted during the same week:

IF YOU ARE DEAD I AM DAD

NO RACE DAD CASE

IF YOUR BAD I AM IN YOUR DAD

Plus a contender for the “Spot the Missing Words Round” of some quiz or other:

I CAN’T THINKING YOUR KISS

And a couple of signs on buildings in the city. One institution scarily advertises its function as “Predatory Mite Breeding Centre”. I think the authorities should take note and close it down forthwith. And another building boasts a plaque commemorating “Centenary of Excise Department 1913 – 2012” – I assume they deducted 1% for duties.

 

A trip to Kotmale

Sunken Buddhist temple, Kotmale -1

Until the other day Kotmale was mostly known to me as a brand of dairy products. Sure, I knew it was a place, and roughly where – off the Kandy to Nuwara Eliya road on the right. And that it had a dam and an impressive reservoir behind it (two, as it turns out, but I hadn’t known that). I’d never guessed what a fascinating place it is, for connoisseurs of off-the-beaten-track Sri Lanka which is a large part of what Jungle Tide is about.

It started with a conversation with our insurance agent Chandima who, like many professional Sri Lankans, leads a double life – suited and booted for the day job but with a completely unrelated sideline or two. He rocked up unannounced one afternoon with his cousin Kelum in a battered jeep, announcing that this cousin offers guests safari tours and Kandy city tours. There being no safari parks within a day’s ride of here, and Kandy city tours being ten a penny (and I’d personally choose either a tuk-tuk for fun or a nice comfortable car but not an ancient jeep with lousy sight lines) this wasn’t a promising start. But as he elaborated his sales pitch a couple of ideas piqued the imagination. One was an overnight camping visit to the Veddha village and reservation near Mahiyangama which sounded as though it might involve a more culturally sensitive and appropriate encounter with the Veddha people than the frankly embarrassing one we underwent three years ago. Though we’re not yet convinced.

The other was a range of day and half-day trips to see the various sights of the Kotmale area, about two hours’ drive from Jungle Tide – not far by Sri Lankan standards. The full monty day trip included hiking, mountain climbing and waterfall scrambling which we’re a bit too decrepit for, though we’d love some younger guests to test it out for us sometime. But we decided to try out the half day trip as we were especially keen to see a couple of ruined temples which emerge from the reservoir in the dry season – the last remnants of a large village which was evacuated when the dams were built in the early 1980s. If you’re from Sheffield, think Ladybower (if you’re not, ignore that last bit). The rains having just begun, this was almost the final opportunity before next February to see the temples.

On the way we were treated to a walk down to a riverside ‘bathing place’ where half a village seemed to be engaged in laundry activity, then on to see and photograph the ‘Foolish Bridge’, so called because it was assembled off site and then erected upside down by mistake, the guard rails suspended towards the river. The railway line it was supposed to carry was never built and though I’d like to think the bridge has been preserved as an allegorical monument to the folly of humankind I suspect the real reason it’s still there is that no-one could be bothered to take it down, and now it’s become a minor tourist attraction.

Foolish Bridge

Further upstream there is a very scary-looking suspended rope footbridge which we gave a miss to, then the main dam. Visitors are allowed to walk on the dam and take photos but it’s still guarded like a military installation and the ticket office is a 1km there-and-back walk from the dam itself, for reasons that only a Sri Lankan could understand. Our driver went off to get our tickets, though, and through the army checkpoint we passed and on to the very impressive dam, passing a series of notices forbidding various activities on or near the dam and, as a final catch-all clause, one simply saying ‘Behave Yourself’.

Kotmale Dam

The temples are reached by a longish but easy path from the road a couple of kilometres upstream, passing en route an abandoned factory in the jungle which we were assured used to manufacture false eyelashes. There are two temples, side by side – one Hindu, one Buddhist. Little remains of the Hindu temple. Whether because there was less to start with or because it has suffered worse from watering and weathering I couldn’t say. But the Buddhist temple, unremarkable from its rear wall, was astonishing from the front. One of the most haunting places I’ve been to. Chandima, who’d come along with his cousin for the ride, told me that no attempt is being made to preserve either ruin and they are both gradually disappearing. Whether this is an act of deliberate policy or simply negligence I don’t know, but a part of me quite likes the idea of not preserving everything, letting some things just go their own way as the elements do their work.

Sunken Buddhist temple, Kotmale -2

We left to the accompaniment of thunderclaps and reached the jeep as the first drops of rain began to fall. Soon the temples will be beneath the water again for another nine months. And to round the day off we impressed Chandima and Kelum by showing them a route back to Jungle Tide which was not only far more scenic but shaved twenty minutes off the journey time. When you know back routes that drivers are unaware of you begin to feel like you’re a proper local.

Kotmale Reservoir

Culture in Kandy

To say – as I and many expat and Sri Lankan friends often do – that Kandy is a cultural desert is not exactly fair. It is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage City though it seems to have managed to hang on to that status a few years back only by its fingernails and through the inertia of UNESCO. WHC status is supposed to reflect, inter alia, various environmental and governance criteria for which my home town manifestly fails to reach the mark, but as ever it is politics which rules at the end of the day. ‘Nuff said – or I would need to go off on a lengthy and probably unwise diversion.

There is plenty of culture of the religious, heritage kind in Kandy. What it lacks – and what this piece is about – is any modern secular culture whether Sri Lankan, western, or even indeed Korean. Kandy shuts down around 7pm once the flocks of mynahs in the city’s trees have stopped their chattering and gone to roost. Not that there’s much going on in the daytime either.

From time to time people have a go at offering something. Just recently there was a weekend ‘night market’ for three nights – but what was on offer was essentially the same as one could get in any of the daytime stores. No outlets for craft- or food-based social enterprises, no accompanying street entertainers, nothing special. A while back there was a ‘book fair’ in the shopping mall with pre-publicity implying that some flesh and blood writers might even make an appearance. But no – it was just a glorified bookstall run by the usual bookshops. None of the few cinemas show anything not in Sinhala or Tamil or possibly another South Asian language; in a city whose road and other signs are mostly in English it seems odd, to say the least, that none of the entertainment is.

What of the visual arts? There used to be a small but quite well-formed art gallery up a couple of flights of scarily steep stairs near the Temple of the Tooth but it closed down. I never saw another customer or browser in there on any of my visits. No-one knew about it, you see. There is now The Atelier, a newish, poshish hotel out on the Peradeniya Road, a long way from the city centre, which has an art gallery and supports local visual artists as well as putting on occasional cultural events. I wish it luck, but fear it will go the way of every other half-realised and stand-alone good idea in the arts in Kandy. The Events page on their website only shows events which have already happened – not an encouraging start.

Performing arts? Leaving aside the tourist-oriented dance and drumming shows there’s really nothing on offer. Well, there is some western classical chamber music from time to time, and choral societies whose repertoire is largely Christian. But little or nothing professional, certainly nothing large-scale and certainly nothing musical dating from any time after the last world war. No modern theatre or dance, of course. Poetry slams? Come on!

Well, maybe architecture then? Kandy has many architectural gems, though few of them are modern. And given the city’s emphasis on heritage, why is there no attempt to capitalise on its architectural heritage? Geoffrey Bawa doesn’t seem to me to have made the impression on the country’s ‘cultural capital’ that he did elsewhere in the island, though I have no idea why and I may be completely wrong about that. The new buildings that have sprung up in and around Kandy in recent years seem for the most part uninspiring whether they are large- or small-scale.

………………………………………………

Kandy is not without intelligent, creative people. So why does the city sell itself so short culturally? Let’s dispose of the obvious reason first. Kandy prides itself on its status as Sri Lanka’s ‘cultural capital’ but this is a vision of culture set in aspic. A culture that is essentially Sinhalese, Buddhist and introspective rather than inclusive, progressive, outward-facing and risk-taking. Preserving heritage is fine, but not when it is taken to mean preventing everything else. And, sad to say, that is what the Buddhist establishment does.  It is a retrogressive, controlling force in the city, restricting its economic development and the pleasure of its residents and visitors in the name of a religion which is supposed to be about personal enlightenment, not telling non-Buddhists what they can and cannot do in their lives. Kandy is our town, too. And I fear that at some point, if the legitimate economic and cultural aspirations of Kandy are to be realised, this reality will have to be named and confronted.  Any volunteers? Actually, it could be easier than we suspect. It’s a matter, like all negotiations, of finding common ground rather than win-lose. If the secular side can convince the Buddhist establishment that it has nothing to fear by loosening the restrictions – and it hasn‘t; no-one is proposing letting loose a stream of drunken yobs on the sacred precincts of the temple – then the ground could be laid for a constructive dialogue about the future of Kandy as both a Buddhist centre and a city respected and liked for its other, secular attractions.

However, I think there is more to it than that. Kandy’s cultural failure has other roots, too. One is the national assumption that to do or get anything interesting one must go to Colombo. As I’ve found on numerous occasions this maxim applies equally to obtaining fire extinguishers or eating really good food as it does to seeing films or theatre. The British Council – bless its collective cotton socks – promotes all kinds of cultural things in Colombo and bugger all elsewhere unless it’s related to the post-war reconciliation agenda up in Jaffna, perhaps. ‘Time Out Sri Lanka’ really should be retitled ‘Time Out Colombo’ if there were such a thing as a Trades Descriptions Act in this country. I used to think England was unhealthily London-centric – still do, in fact – but that pales when compared to the cultural stranglehold Colombo exerts over the rest of the island, including Kandy.

But excluding Galle. Galle is different. Galle has great restaurants, interesting if pricey places to stay, a range of shops that westerners and educated Sri Lankans feel at home in, the only Barefoot outside Colombo, and of course the Literature Festival. Built largely on the tourist and expat dollar, so to speak. So why not Kandy? We are also mobbed with tourists and have a fairly sizeable resident expat community. And unlike Galle we also have a top class university just down the road in Peradeniya, which does put on some cutting edge stuff from time to time, but presumably for its own good reasons does this on its isolated campus, not in the city. The Galle I first visited over twenty years ago was a very different place. Utterly magical, but boy was it down at heel! Since then people with vision and money have invested in it – helped, I know, by the Dutch government – in a way that has not even begun to happen in Kandy, with the possible exception of the Kandy City Centre shopping mall, of which a little more later. If you want to know what Galle Fort used to be like take a walk around Matara’s old town, just down the coast. If I were wealthy that’s one of the places in Sri Lanka where I would invest my riches, another being Mannar. And Kandy – if the Buddhist stranglehold can be relaxed. But I digress. My point is that Rome and Galle were not built in a day, and Kandy needs people with similar vision, tenacity and – naturally – wealth if it is to climb out of its present soporific pit and assume the cultural status it has the potential for. I’ll sketch in who these people might be later.

Champions, ‘angels’, sponsors and benefactors are only part of the equation, though. If Kandy is to come close to achieving its potential it needs two other variables to develop. One is a sympathetic and encouraging municipality brave enough to take tough planning and other decisions to provide the necessary infrastructure. Transport, parking, pollution control, pedestrian-friendly environments – that sort of thing. I don’t propose to say more on that subject. It’s essentially down to politics and I’m an expat, not a Sri Lankan citizen, and others need to take up the cudgels if they want to. Though as an aside I’d note that publication and open discussion of the Kandy Development Plan might be a good starter.

The other is what we oldies used to call a grassroots movement. Almost all successful and sustainable cultural initiatives stem from small beginnings and a set of determined and often cashless people who just refuse to give in or to be downcast for long when their latest funding application fails. Big creative ideas imposed from above almost never last the distance. My favourite UK example is the failed Sheffield Popular Music Centre; a northern city in need of investment and with an heroic recent history of star singers and bands was deemed to be fertile ground for throwing in a centre for the celebration and performance of popular music, housed in a costly and futuristic building. But audience numbers were passing disappointing. The good people of Sheffield didn’t have any sense of ownership of this great gift foisted on them, and after a few years the centre closed its doors for good. That’s exactly the kind of ‘help’ we don’t need in Kandy – future governments and potential benefactors please take note. What we do need is for some of the people who are doing their own small things already, plus others who can be inspired and cajoled to join them, to collaborate perhaps under some kind of banner to showcase what the city might be able to achieve with the right kind of support.

Kandy’s cultural future needs to be home grown. Here’s one reason why. A few years ago, just after my wife Sally and I had moved from the UK to live here we found that the Galle Literary Festival was planning two smaller satellite festivals that year, one in Jaffna and one in Kandy. This was in November – we were just off the ship, as it were – and the event was scheduled for January with a toothsome line-up of literary figures and events. We enthusiastically e-mailed around the handful of people in the area we knew at the time, to discover that not one of them was aware of it. Even so, time was getting short when the box office opened in the Olde Empire in December and we hot-footed our way down there in trepidation that all the good acts would already be sold out. But this was not the Perahera. Or even the train to Ella. Aside from the volunteer staff there was one other person there buying tickets. Among other things we got to lunch with Sebastian Faulks along with a handful of other souls for less than a tenner each (that’s two thousand rupees at the then prevailing exchange rate, by the way). Possibly the best bargain of my entire life. To say that attendances at the Kandy events were disappointing would be a wild understatement.

Gratified by what Galle had done for our new local city we thought we should offer some help for the following year. Sally has a long professional arts management career behind her (I’m just an amateur enthusiast) and we both volunteered our services in marketing the next Kandy mini-fest as well as recruiting local volunteers for box office and stewarding and other work and maybe trying to find some local sponsorship. But the Gallic powers were unmoved. Their conclusion was that Kandy folk were not sufficiently interested in literature to make it worthwhile repeating the exercise. On one level they were wrong. As any arts centre manager (Sally) or community worker (me) knows, if people don’t come to your show or meeting it’s either because you’ve pitched it wrongly or have failed to inform them at all. Not because they are apathetic. But in another sense they were right. Galle needs to stick to its knitting. Kandy needs to find its own home-grown cultural solution, not piggy-back on someone else’s achievements.

But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do with some outside help. At this stage of the game it might be what in dear old Instagram I believe they call an ‘influencer’ putting some weight – intellectual and/or financial – into Kandy and declaring publicly their faith that the city has a cultural future which extends beyond the Temple of the Tooth, the annual Perahera and the Museum of World Buddhism. How about diverting some of the British Council’s cultural (as opposed to educational) resources from Colombo into Kandy? How about Time Out taking some time out to see what happens in the rest of the island and running some copy on it? Barefoot – how about a Kandy store? Locally, big hotels like Ozo and the Cinnamon Citadel could be brave and reach out beyond their usual food-and-drink-related soirees into things that were a little more challenging and risky (I wouldn’t expect their dowager relatives like the Queen’s and the Suisse to embrace this new agenda, but one can always live in hope).

And then there’s KCC – Kandy City Centre shopping mall. Long ago I used to work on British social housing estates where they built all the houses, stuck in a few expensive shops and a primary school but never quite got around to the play areas, the community centres and the parks that make a community work. Then they wondered why the place became a slum – and of course blamed the people who lived there. KCC is a bit similar. A couple of years ago, when the top floor (now a food court and fun palace) still lay largely empty there was an exhibition up there setting out the plans for the next few phases. Next up was the multi-storey car park, now complete. That’s the easy bit. After that there was/is to be a theatre/cinema/performing arts venue, a new public transport hub to replace the chaos of the Clock Tower and Goods Stand bus stations, and – joy of joys – a cable car up to the Hanthana  mountains where I live. Get the shopping back home in double-quick time! Needless to say, none of this will ever be built and we will be left with the usual temples to mammon and the motor car. But – the fanciful cable car excepted – it is these unbuilt bits that make a city special and liveable. And it is culture – vibrant, edgy, inclusive culture – above all that regenerates urban environments whatever the planners and politicians will tell you. Let’s make a start, Kandy.

 

Ministry of Silly Works

Top Sri Lankan politicians of all stripes spend an enormous amount of time and energy reorganising ministries and appointing an ever-increasing body of ministers, despite election promises to clamp down on inefficiency and corruption. Far be it from me to suggest why this may be so, let alone to suggest analogies with deckchairs and the Titanic, but it is certainly part of my mission to point out the amusing consequences of these endless reorganisations. So at the last check – in December so it’s probably all changed again by now – we had the following bizarre combinations of ministerial responsibility to mull over:

  • Tourism Development, Christian Affairs and Wildlife
  • City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education
  • Postal Services and Muslim Affairs
  • Telecommunications, Digital Infrastructure, Foreign Employment and Sports

Oh, and the Ministry of Plantations is a separate body from  the Ministry of Agriculture.

A bitter taste of India

I’ve never been to India, though that’s an omission I plan to put right next year. With any luck, the experience will be a big improvement on an Air India flight with a transfer in Delhi which is how we returned to Sri Lanka earlier this month.

Air India use the pack-‘em-in Dreamliners on the Heathrow to Delhi route which was not a good start. It got worse. The cabin crew were the most surly lot you could imagine. The airline had cocked up our seats and despite our having written proof of the seat numbers we’d paid for they put us in separate seats miles apart and the crew refused to take any responsibility for resolving the problem. “I don’t know anything about this” seemed to be their excuse for inaction. Only when Sally threatened a bout of projectile vomiting due to her fear of flying if she couldn’t sit next to me[1] did another passenger kindly (or possibly in terror) offer to give up his aisle seat so we could sit together.

When we struggled off at Delhi the cabin crew turned their backs on the passengers and talked to one another. I know all this “Have a nice day” stuff is just tosh but believe me, you miss it when no-one says a word to you as your cramped limbs fight their way onto the air bridge. On-board entertainment was, let’s say, basic. None of our favourite games which pass the time nicely (Tetris for Sally, Backgammon and 2048 for me) though there was a quiz. I selected “general knowledge” and faced ten quite hard questions. I think I got about six right, generating some kind of “surely you can do better than that!” message from the machine. So I had another go, expecting a new set of questions, but no – it was the same ones over again. Since my short-term memory for the time being remains in working order I got the lot right and a message popped up suggesting I was some kind of genius and “how about trying for world peace?”. Needless to say there was not a film on offer which I had the slightest interest in seeing – though to be fair I find that on most airlines. So I thought I might listen to some music and selected the “music menu” which consisted of a single category: “Indian”. Could have been straight out of Goodness, Gracious Me. Fortunately I had a good old-fashioned book with me. And credit where it’s due, the second short leg to Colombo was on an ancient but much less cramped Airbus with a merry cabin crew who did something to rescue the reputation of their airline.

But the real horrors were reserved for Delhi airport. The famed smog had gripped the city so nothing was visible other than a few blurry shapes until we were more or less on the tarmac. We had over an hour before our connecting flight to Colombo which ought to have been plenty. We hadn’t reckoned with Indian so-called “security”. As we entered the terminal an officious young woman ordered all transit passengers to congregate near her. When she was finally sure we were all present she said “follow me!” and marched off at a rate of knots along corridors and travelators for what must have been about a kilometre without once looking back to see if her charges were keeping up. We two oldies barely managed it and quite a few of the less physically able were left well behind and for all I know are still wandering the corridors of Delhi airport looking for a way out.

Then we were faced by a queue to have our hand luggage checked. Now I would submit that security at Heathrow is pretty well A* and we hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to arm ourselves or obtain illegal substances since then. But that’s not good enough for the Indians. And yes, I know this kind of stupidity affects a lot of airports besides Delhi but in most of those they have some kind of system for moving people through quickly. Not in Delhi. Crowds pressed in on the roller belts which fed into scanners looking like props from an early episode of Doctor Who, staffed by guys who seemed to want a good look at every item inside everyone’s bag. No-one in any kind of authority paid any attention to the increasingly stressed complaints of passengers about their connecting flights though one of the porters did keep reassuring us that we would make it to our Colombo plane. But with all due respect to porters, they’re not likely to be the best informed of airport staff. We did make it but they had to hold the flight up for 40 minutes.

So Air India has joined Ryanair on my select list of airlines with which I’ll never fly again no matter what the price. And Delhi has joined Changi[2] (Singapore) and Seville on my select list of airports to avoid if at all possible. Shame about Seville – the nastiness and officiousness of the airport staff left a bad final impression after what had been an utterly splendid week up till then. Back on home turf in Colombo we had to return to the back of the immigration queue to complete our disembarkation forms despite having been assured by the Air India cabin crew that this would not be necessary as we had resident visas. But that was nobbut a minor inconvenience; we were back home and boy, did it feel good!

[1] An exaggeration, of course, but she does know how to get results.

[2] Because transit passengers are ordered to empty the water bottles they bought airside at their previous airport and the water fountains in the departure lounges are dry. So much for “Stay hydrated in the air” as the usual health advice given to long-haul passengers.

A Brexit Farewell Tour

 

Madeira
Madeira
dav
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!”

dig
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.