Clove hitches

The worst deal in history involving cloves was undoubtedly when the Dutch exchanged a small settlement called New Amsterdam on the eastern seaboard of America for the British-owned island of Surinam, in order to access its spices, especially cloves. But we may have just experienced the second worst.


The weigh-in
The weigh-in

Picker in treeSpot the picker


We have four large clove trees. They last produced three years ago, they’re a bit temperamental like that, but decided to have another go this year. For those who don’t know, cloves are dried flower buds and you don’t need a degree in horticulture to know that this means there’s a short window of opportunity for picking them. Climbing trees is beyond us and our staff so it was a matter of finding some local lads, and quickly. The first candidates insisted on an hourly rate, irrespective of the amount of cloves picked. I wasn’t having that. I wasn’t born yesterday. Payment by weight or nothing. They decided on the second option and went away. Next day we found three more likely lads who were willing to be paid by the kilo. After some negotiation on price we agreed terms and up the trees they went, all the while watched by Martin sitting comfortably in a nearby chair. Keeping an eye on other people working is one of Martin’s two favourite jobs, the other being driving us to and from Kandy at breakneck speeds, with much jumping on the brakes. He was making sure that they weren’t sneakily throwing large parts of our crop over the boundary fence to their waiting pals. What he wasn’t doing, as he sat listening to his radio, was looking into the sacks to see they were actually full of cloves and not lumps of tree. The three lads duly turned up at our front door with heavy sacks and Martin in tow, armed with a weighing hook borrowed from the chicken farmer next door. The sacks weighed in at some impressive figure and I drew a sharp breath as we shelled out more than twice what I’d expected to pay, and off they went.

We still hadn’t checked the bags, and when we did we found that most of the weight consisted not of cloves but of leaves and twigs. Then I helped carry the sacks out to the back verandah for the cleaning process to begin, and it occurred to me that either I’d grown a lot stronger in the past few hours or the sacks didn’t weigh as much as we’d paid for. So out came the bathroom scales, whose main use hitherto has been checking the extent to which we’ve exceeded our hold baggage allowance on planes. Since you can’t read the scale with a sack of cloves (or a suitcase) on it, the method is to weigh (a) you holding said sack or suitcase (b) you on your own. Then subtract (b) from (a). Simples! And at this point we discovered that the chicken farmer’s scales were inaccurate, and not just by a bit but were registering nearly twice the actual weight. Double whammy. And we would advise the general public against purchases from our neighbour – needless to say, Trading Standards is a concept unknown in Sri Lanka.

cleaning on the veranda - Sally, Rani and Jake
Clean-up campaign  

The initial cleaning process took four of us two days. After the twigs and leaves have been removed the individual cloves have to be separated (they come in bunches). Only at this point can the drying begin. Our one stroke of luck was unbroken sunshine for the four more days it took to dry them out on the lawn. And of course the drying process shrinks the weight even further. Here are some cloves drying next to a clothes drier For goodness’ sake, please give over with these bloody puns!Cloves drying and clothes drier

Martin, ever the optimist like all Sri Lankans, says that if we hang on to the crop until June rather than selling it now, we’ll get over a thousand rupees a kilo. Which, according to my reckoning, will come to a little less than we paid the charlatans who picked it, not to mention the immense amount of time taken by us and our staff to get the goods into saleable condition. Or maybe I should just invest in clove futures. No, I wasn’t born yesterday, but probably the day before.

Postscript: Coronavirus-related panic buying in Sri Lanka. Panic buying is a cross-cultural phenomenon, stupid idiots not being associated with any one culture. But it can take different forms. In Sri Lanka the items of choice include turmeric and coriander seeds, both of which the locals seem convinced can cure COVID-19. Saves a lot on developing expensive vaccines. doesn’t it? And it occurs to me that if I can convince enough people that cloves also cure the dreaded disease we could turn our misfortune into a goldmine. Sadly, I do retain some principles of decency, though.


Fascinating Ada

For some reason there is no English language TV channel in Sri Lanka despite English being commonly spoken and indeed the first language of some Sri Lankans. English language newspapers and magazines aplenty but nothing on TV. The best they can manage is a half hour English language news bulletin on the Sinhala news channel Ada Derana – where many of the adverts, incidentally, are in English. It’s on at 9pm and we tuned in the other night to catch a bit more detail and a Sri Lankan as opposed to BBC etc. perspective on what’s happening in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday atrocities.

The bulletin is proudly sponsored by the manufacturers of a toilet cleaner which might have given us sufficient pause for thought. But there was no time for contemplation as a young female newsreader launched into a breathless, staccato account of what the police and military had been up to all day. By the end of this ten minute tour de force we were also left panting. So much going on, so little time to tell it. Her producer must have had her injected with something which metaphorically turned the key to breaking point and set her off in her valiant attempt to keep up with an autocue set in triple time. Like one of those drumming rabbits that advertise a certain brand of battery.

The military and police had certainly been busy uncovering all kinds of things around the island. “Meanwhile, in Wattegama…”   yakyakyak “Meanwhile, in Batticaloa… “ yakyakyak “Meanwhile, in Kurunagela…” yakyakyak “Meanwhile in Matara…” yakyakyak  … and so on. Many exciting finds were reported and a few of them may even have related to terrorism. Rather more seemed to be crudely improvised petrol bombs and caches of knives probably put together by idiots seeking revenge on local Muslim communities but not terrorism as such. Some were buried and from the fleeting glimpses one had of them could well have been leftovers from the civil war that ended a decade ago. There were 12-bore rifles and ammo possibly belonging to farmers and hunters who didn’t have gun licences. My favourite was a bunch of spent cartridges dug out of a drain, presented with breathless excitement as yet another example of our security forces confounding terrorism. There were also finds of “clothing resembling army uniforms” i.e. the kind of faux fatigues easily available in many shops. But the impression one was left with was that army bases had been looted, or maybe that there were army insiders working with the terrorists.

Now I’m treading a careful line here. I am not belittling the possible importance of some of these finds, nor am I criticising for a moment the work of the security forces. My target is the ridiculous public presentation of their work, not the work itself. Ada Derana’s English news, wittingly or otherwise, contributes to a climate of fear and panic – as I imagine do its Sinhalese and Tamil counterparts – and studiously avoids any attempt to analyse or even contextualise its content. The remainder of the programme, although conducted at a more normal pace, consisted of statements by politicians, senior military and police commanders and the like. Sometimes informative but they were not questioned, just left to say their piece to camera before moving on to the next guy (all guys, needless to say). These statements were very crudely edited with obvious flashes and inserted words to create a short but followable narrative from what must have been much longer statements. The editing might have simply removed guff and verbiage; or it might have removed points that the channel or the authorities didn’t want to see made; or (for serious conspiracy theorists this one) could even have twisted the meaning of the statement to the opposite of what was meant. One simply cannot tell, but the technicals would probably not have passed muster in an average first year undergraduate film school class.

Ada Derana did not say that all or most of these findings were in mosques, but nor did it say that they weren’t. Result – an intelligent Sri Lankan we know concluded that the whole lot must have belonged to Muslims. I have no idea whether that is likely to be true since no-one tells us (my instinct is that it isn’t) but “news” presented like this, devoid of context, analysis or interrogation, actually serves to stir up rather than reduce inter-communal hatreds. On the ground, it feels very different. In Kandy – the only city I can talk about from first-hand knowledge – there is a high and very visible level of security, but all conducted with a commendable lightness of touch. It feels really safe, just as it always did in the war. But you would not reach that conclusion from either the Sri Lankan or world news media reportage.

The male presenter had disconcerting eyes and his left hand was on the desk performing a continuous squeezing motion. He might have been softening up some blu-tack for later use but I suspect he had a rubber bulb connected to a tube running below the desk through which he kept his female colleague pumped with a cocktail of amphetamines so she could keep up her Mach-2 delivery.

Anyone feel like starting up a proper English language TV station in Sri Lanka? There’s a huge market opportunity.

Mystery shopping

“O tidings of comfort and joy!” a friend texted shortly before Christmas. “Cottage Ham has reappeared in Keells supermarket”. ‘Cottage Ham’ is what Keells call their sliced ham, a pale imitation of what one can buy in any UK supermarket but manna to us expats. So off we all trotted to buy out the stocks and cause a further shortage. Cooked ham is but one example of a range of goods that mysteriously appear and disappear from the shelves of Sri Lanka’s three main supermarket chains: Arpico. Keells and Cargills/Food City, and the expat community regards it as a sacred duty to monitor their comings and goings, and to buy in bulk whenever these treasures put in an appearance.

Now I don’t know whether the ham is imported (which might explain the periodic shortages) but I do know that many of the other things that regularly do disappearing acts are locally produced. Since there is no discernible seasonal pattern to their presence and absence I am at a complete loss to explain why it is only sometimes possible to buy rhubarb (grown up in the mountains of Nuwara Eliya and thin gruel compared to its Yorkshire cousins but still very welcome); button mushrooms (grown in nearby Kurunegula and hardly seasonal); and most bizarrely of all, supermarkets frequently run out of coconuts for which Sri Lanka is justly famous and produces in biblical quantities. On one occasion following a prolonged button mushroom drought, we encountered a friend in Keells with a trolley loaded with button mushrooms. “Whoopee! They’re back!” we exclaimed but she, shamefacedly, admitted to having bought up the entire shelf, before passing two packs on to us to assuage her guilt. Local butter, produced in the hills of Kotmale and Ambewela, is sometimes available and equally often vanishes from the shelves for weeks at a time. Why? Does something happen to the cows? The imported New Zealand alternatives cost fully twice as much. Why are orange and mango cordials always available but our favourite, passion fruit, from the same range, only occasionally pops up? We shall probably never know.

But the deepest mystery of all concerns cling film. Sri Lanka is plastic-obsessed. The supermarkets all display signs asking customers to refrain from single-use plastic bags while their staff put everything into single-use plastic bags, staring in slack-jawed amazement if you ask that they desist. “But sir, the bags are free”. ”Yes, that’s precisely the problem”. Arpico is especially the home of all things plastic. It wouldn’t surprise me if their buildings are constructed from some form of plastic. There are shelves of plastic bags of all kinds, as well as aluminium foil, and an inevitably empty section labelled “cling film”. Meanwhile the staff in the fruit and veg area are busy in pairs wrestling with industrial sized cling film dispensers to wrap around anything larger than a peanut. But can you buy a domestic sized roll of the stuff? Only very rarely. And will they sell you the industrial sized rolls? Nope. We’ve taken to asking UK guests to bring out Tesco’s finest in their suitcases so we have some way of keeping leftovers fresh in the fridge.

In Jungle Tide we bake our own bread, so maintaining a supply of dried yeast is crucial. We usually have plenty in stock but in November a national yeast shortage struck and this went on until we’d completely run out by mid-December. Sally does not take such things lying down. She asked a staff member in Keells why there was no yeast. “All finish, Madam” was the predictable and uninformative reply, accompanied by the usual Sri Lankan grin and wobble of the head. “When is more coming?” “I do not know, Madam” (grin, wobble). “Then can I ask the manager?” “Sorry, manager not here” (grin, wobble). “Then who is the next senior person I can talk to?” “Ah, Madam, that is me”. “So can you tell me why there is no yeast?” “Yes, Madam, it is management decision.” (grin, wobble). “Why?” “I cannot tell.” So we left two full trolleys near the checkouts and stormed out in high dudgeon (expats tend to do these pointless things despite knowing better). The yeast returned after Christmas, and rumour had it that there was some kind of temporary national ban imposed to prevent the locals from brewing up too much festive hooch. But one never knows which rumours to believe in Sri Lanka. We managed to get some UK guests to bring out an emergency supply.

The mysteries continue to pile up. UK guests often offer to bring out Marmite, assuming we can’t get it here. But the shops are full of the stuff. However, Bovril is unknown. You can get Lea and Perrins easily, if expensively, but not English mustard (they have some horrific creamy concoction masquerading as it). Squeezy bottles of lime juice are easily available, but not lemon juice. Some common proprietary medicines are easy to find, others don’t exist. Thank goodness we run a guest house with plenty of European people passing through our doors, bringing us good cheer. I’m off for a ham and mustard sandwich. Happy New Year.


Did you mean Brixham?

This year’s UK peregrinations have so far brought us to Brixham, staying in a house swap which lacks a potato peeler, ironing board, bathroom bin and, most surprising of all, wi-fi but these deficiencies are more than compensated for by the ever-changing view over the busy harbour. Before reaching here, as one does, we were researching stuff to do, and being reminded en route of the vagaries of a certain well-known search engine. Because Brixham includes the letters B,R,I and X we’d expected the usual confusion with Brixton but no – our internet searching habits caused a different message to pop up:

Did you mean Brexit?

Just goes to show what political anoraks we must be. This gave me cause for reflection on Brixham and Brexit. Now I do not know how the good citizens of Brixham voted in the referendum, though I have dark suspicions, but however they did there is no doubt that Brixham and Brexit have a lot of connections. Brixham is the port from which our gallant prawn fishermen head out to annoy the French. It is the port where William of Orange landed in 1688, an event which initially might be seen as cementing the relationship of these islands with mainland Europe but which led, if one traces a tortuous historical route, to the DUP. Incidentally, according to a harbourside pub, King Billy was offered a pint of bitter when he landed – not, as one might have expected, orange juice. Or better still, gin and orange. The most prominent building on the quayside is a restaurant called Rockfish, which I surmise is named after Rockfish Rogan, erstwhile hero of boys’ comics and scourge of the Hun. In the harbour lies a full scale replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship Golden Hind, dwarfed by several of the trawlers, to my surprise, but still a potent reminder of what we can do to the Spaniards when they get uppity. And where did the BBC’s Panorama visit recently to illustrate the issues around a no-deal Brexit? That’s right. We went on a mackerel fishing trip the other day and caught nowt. The skipper didn’t blame the mainland Europeans for our failure, however, but a megapod of bottle-nosed dolphin who have hoovered up all the fish in Torbay for the time being. Still, once we’re out of the EU we will have the right to ban bottle-nosed dolphin from our inshore waters. Won’t we?

Brixham has thrown up a few more surprises. They really seem to like marching bands here. Oompahs rise from unseen quayside locations every evening. And we seem to have landed in the middle of some kind of Beard Festival.

Did you mean Beer Festival?

No, you heard it right. The number and variety of ridiculous forms of facial hair all gathered in one small town can’t just be normal daily life, can it? And to my regret we arrived just too late to witness the annual trawler race, which must be quite a spectacle.

Farewell to Brixham tomorrow. Farewell to Brexit might take a while longer but at least our travels are taking us in the right direction, up eventually to remain-voting Scotland. And while the cavortings and lies of our two would-be prime ministers and the boorish behaviour of Brexit Party MEPs is just par for the course, I did feel vindicated at my decision – based on little more than a toss of a coin – to vote Green rather than Lib Dem in the EU elections when the Lib Dem contingent turned up at the European Parliament wearing the infantile slogan “Bollocks to Brexit” on their yellow T-shirts.

Did you mean pollacks to Brixham?


The Frightening Claptrap Office…

… should be what FCO stands for. By ‘eck I’m proper vexed by what they and their equally spineless counterparts in the US, Canada and Australia are setting out by way of advice to travellers following the horrific attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. If you want to advance the cause of global terrorism under the guise of protecting your own citizens, what they are doing is a great way to go about it. People choosing to abort their Sri Lankan holidays in favour of another destination are exchanging a very small risk for a slightly larger (but still very small) one as the next terrorist target could be anywhere – but will probably not be a repeat performance in Sri Lanka. But governments are not particularly bright and we can only hope their citizens have and are prepared to use their mental and critical faculties when assessing FCO and other government “travel advice”.

Rather than go on about the advice specifically related to terrorist atrocities I thought I’d take a look at what else the dear old FCO has to say by way of advice to potential travellers to Sri Lanka. Advice which I assume has been on their site for quite a while and certainly predates the Easter Sunday bombings. So here are a few selected verbatim quotes from the FCO Sri Lanka travel advice, with my own comments added in italics.

  • “Organised and armed gangs … responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence … have been known to operate in tourist areas.”

Presumably there have been instances of such gangs operating in areas where tourists also visit (which is most of the island). But a Google search found no examples of any tourist having been attacked, kidnapped etc. by any “armed gang” in Sri Lanka. Ever. Context is everything. What on earth is the justification for putting out this piece of scaremongering without at least prefacing it by stating the truth that while there is a tiny possibility of this happening, so far it hasn’t happened to any foreign tourist?

  • “Operations to clear mines continue, particularly in the heavily mined area towards Elephant Pass.”

I assume this is factually correct but a Google search for “danger to tourists from landmines in Sri Lanka” brought up no results other than the above FCO advice. Once again, what justifies this decontextualized scaremongering?

  • “Feral dogs are common and sometimes carry rabies.”

The most recent report I found under a search for “confirmed cases of rabies in Sri Lanka” [NewsFirst.lk dated 21/9/18] reported that indeed 23 people had died from rabies in the previous year and 13 to date in 2018. None were foreign tourists. It also reported that there are over two million dogs in Sri Lanka. That suggests a probability that you’d need to suffer tens of thousands of dog bites to reach an odds-on chance of dying from rabies here. How does that figure compare with, say, UK road death statistics? I don’t know but it would provide useful context, wouldn’t it?

  • “Medical facilities are not always of a standard expected in the UK, particularly outside Colombo. Treatment in private hospitals can be expensive.”

OK let’s deconstruct this piece of advice. I can speak here from direct and indirect experience, presumably unlike the FCO official who wrote it. Sure, the facilities (i.e. the clinical environment) usually fall short of UK standards. However the FCO might have mentioned that the standards of medical care, treatment and surgery are at least as good as those you will find in the NHS. Expensive? Compared to what exactly? A guest of ours was unfortunate enough to contract a rare disease while on holiday in Sri Lanka a few years ago. Not only was he treated and cured in Sri Lanka, his GP back in Britain was astounded that the Sri Lankan doctor had been able to diagnose his condition correctly. We asked his wife whether their travel insurance had paid the costs. “We didn’t bother to claim”, she said. “The total amount was only a bit above our excess.”

  • “All regions of Sri Lanka experience outbreaks of the mosquito-borne dengue fever”.

As do all tropical regions. This is not a Sri Lanka problem and this ought to be made clear in the advice. The advice might also more helpfully add that the risks are higher in Colombo and on the coast and greatly reduced if you holiday in the hills. And that the dengue mosquito flies by day, so if you are bitten at night it might not be fun but you won’t contract dengue.

  • “There are ATMs in major towns and cities but not all of them accept international cards.”

Indeed – and there are ATMs in almost all small towns as well. You can have a great holiday in Sri Lanka avoiding major cities and still easily access your cash but few would conclude that from the above “advice”. And besides, it would be helpful to list the banks whose ATMs do accept foreign cards, wouldn’t it? [Commercial, Hatton, Sampath, HSBC for starters]. Or is the entire purpose of FCO “advice” to discourage rather than encourage foreign travel? Does that explain the depressing and relentless negativity of it all?


In solidarity with all the people of Sri Lanka, who depend on tourism. Please keep coming!

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:


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:




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


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.