The last couple of weeks has been a slalom of social activity in the expat world around Kandy. It’s been a decent final fling as I take leave of life in my sixties and head into the uncharted waters of an eighth decade. “Life is sort, enjo is soon” as yet another gnomic Kandy tuk-tuk informed me the other day. I think that means enjoy it while you can, though as ever it’s hard to discern the true meaning of tuk-tuk philosophy.
The BBC informed us that over two billion people watched the nuptials of Harry and Meghan and I was among them, though I find the figure inconceivably high and a terrible indictment of how little people have to do with their time. Even allowing for the fact that the hairy one married a yank which probably quadrupled his worldwide audience. Back in Yorkshire I would probably have either spent the day in my allotment or attended some republican anti-party. Radical Hebden Bridge probably had dozens of such events to choose from. But for some unaccountable reason I trekked two hours to a riverside hotel in Pinnawela thence to our friends George and Yvonne’s house where two TV screens had been set up for the assembled masses – actually about ten of us. But as our extended visit to the sceptred isle approaches the occasion did cause some reflection. Sitting by a river swollen by pre-monsoon rains, glass in hand, watching elephants bathe in the distance and thinking this an absolutely normal scene made me realise how lucky I am. Then the TV footage of Windsor on a sunny spring day reminded me of the price paid for living abroad. Finally, the whole lot came together in a perfect Sri Langlican collage – British greenery, pomp and ceremony with a background of trees dripping with mangoes and tropical birdsong – and then a power outage.
A couple of days later, a farewell do for some friends returning to the UK after a stint at Peradeniya University. This took place in a rundown restaurant splendidly located by the Mahaweli Ganga, at a point where the river runs nearly half a mile wide and is usually shallow enough to wade across. But at the moment it’s a churning mass of brown and white water separating midstream islands strewn with water-borne debris of all kinds. I had planned to celebrate my 70th with a trip to Kitulgala to try out the white water rafting, figuring that the water would be suitably exciting in the monsoon. Until I visited their website to be informed that the best time to go is in the dry season. In the wet the risk assessment ranges from whiplash (best case) to death (worst case) so the rapids were rapidly abandoned.
Instead it was off for a pre-birthday jaunt north of Kandy. First stop was Gammaduwa Bungalow. A mutual friend in Hebden Bridge had put us in touch with Dave and Seng-Li who are renovating a planter’s bungalow there. She thought – rightly – that we would get on. The pin on the map suggested it was close to the main Kandy-Jaffna road just north of Matale and nicely en route to our other friends, Simon and Pauline, who’d invited us to stay with them in their hotel near Dambulla. The pin on the map was wrong. The trip took nearly four hours and Dave confirmed our suspicion that even though a tiny road was shown on the map connecting their place and Simon’s it would not be driveable. So we only had time for a quick coffee and a tour of their mini tea factory in the garage. Real miniature versions of the machinery you see in the tea factory tours, utterly cute and producing a range of artisanal teas. Disappointing that there were no miniature people working there. And they’re doing a fantastic job with the bungalow which, like so many Sri Lankan investment projects, has been a bit of a bottomless money pit. But it’s getting close to completion and any folk intrepid enough to make the journey out to their very remote and scenic location will enjoy a very special holiday. We look forward to getting to know Dave and Seng-Li better and maybe doing some collaborative work with them.
The Flamboyant Hotel, Simon and Pauline’s place, is maybe ten kilometres from Gammaduwa as the crow flies but five times that as the car drives, initially on folksy roads requiring confrontations with village buses before joining the main highway in Matale. Named after the flamboyant trees which dot their extensive gardens it’s a bit further up-market than Jungle Tide and it was a treat to stay in one of their enormous and well-appointed chalets for the night. Before that we were literally gathering nuts in May. They have fifty cashew trees all busily dropping their produce. If you wonder why cashews are expensive here’s the reason. Each nut grows singly as an appendage to the “fruit” (really a swollen stem and not pleasant to eat unless you’re a monkey) and needs to be separated and dried before being shelled. Strange fruit indeed and the first time I’d set eyes on them growing.
The gardens at Flamboyant are even more full of birds than ours, being situated on the join between the wet and dry zones and at medium altitude so pretty much every species you get in Sri Lanka lives or visits there, aside from seabirds and those that live up in the high mountains. And full of trees – Simon and Pauline are tree experts, compared to me at least, and have filled their gardens with a staggering variety of native and non-native species. After nut-gathering and putting the world to rights, and a good night’s sleep, they took us to two places which are off the tourist trail but so much more rewarding to visit than most of the popular (read crowded, expensive and tacky) destinations. The first was Menikdena, a glorious ruined monastery complex dating from around the 10th century. The stone pillars were coated in the most astoundingly coloured lichens I’ve ever seen. Menikdena is set in woodland by a lake with water birds and mugger crocs. There is no admission charge and not even a donations box. A guy working there who spoke no English was the only other human on the site. I would have loved to have made a donation but handing cash to a local employee would not have worked – to be fair, he wasn’t asking for any.
Donations and fundraising raised their head again at our next port of call, the Sam Popham Arboretum. Sam Popham was a British planter – still alive, in his nineties, living in the UK – who developed an interest in preserving the native tree species which were being cleared for plantations. He founded the arboretum and lived in a small house, little more than a hut, on the site. The hut is no more and has been replaced by what was intended to be a replica but as Simon pointed out the only reflection of the original building is its tiny windows. It is currently unused. But there are three other buildings on site – a small and basic chalet which is available for rent, and the main reception building and office, a boat-shaped construction designed by the great Geoffrey Bawa who took an interest in the arboretum. The third building is Popham’s beer tower with a rickety internal staircase leading to a platform on which Sam enjoyed his beers. History does not record why he thought beer is better at high altitude. The tower is now home to a colony of false vampire bats. At the reception building we were met by the guy who more or less single-handedly and for next to no pay runs the place, a delightful chap called Jayantha Amerasinghe who showed us around. To say the place is run on a shoestring would cheapen the value of shoestrings. But the office politics of the various organisations with a stake in the arboretum has prevented any serious fundraising let alone business planning which the place sorely needs. That’s Sri Lanka for you, unfortunately. Simon and Pauline have formed the Friends of the Popham Arboretum as an independent body which can raise funds and spend them properly. We’re going to try and do our bit at Jungle Tide to support them.
The arboretum supports a population of slender lorises and we’ll be back on another occasion to do a night walk and hopefully see some. A magazine article on the arboretum I read at Flamboyant invited readers to “go on a night safari to see the lorries”. But we had another final appointment on my pre-birthday treat – a stay at one of Geoffrey Bawa’s grander designs, the Kandalama. This immense hotel was built in the eighties as a demonstration of how even a very large building could blend into its environment – in this case rocks, trees and a tank (ancient man-made lake). Much imitated since but a landmark building of tropical architecture. Three swimming pools including an infinity pool facing the tank proved enough to satisfy even Sally. I was more interested in the architecture and just roamed around inside and out while she communed with nature all alone in the pool (it’s the off season and the place was pretty empty). Expensive and way out of our normal budget but this was a special occasion.
This final fling of my sixties ended in some ways as it began, with a fluttering of union flags. The rooftop bar of the Ozo in Kandy was decked out for an evening of gin-tasting and the promotion of a humorous travel book by Paul Topping, self-styled “Whinging Pome”. We swapped signed copies of our books and I felt the fleeting buzz of living in a literary world. The gins were a revelation. Supplied by the Colombo Gin Club if you please. We have nothing remotely like that in Kandy, we make our own entertainment up here. Jungle Tide gets complimentary copies of the monthly “Time Out Sri Lanka” which is really just a listing of upcoming things in Colombo, not a lot of use to us. There’s plenty of theatre, dance, cinema and music to choose from and some sporting events but Sri Lankans are increasingly football-obsessed and no-one plays it so the entry for soccer is just a list of EPL fixtures including the tempting prospect of one shown as “Tottenham v Hotspur”.
As hinted in the opening, we’re off to the UK at the end of June for a six month stay. I thought that would mean an enforced end to the blog, or at least a long pause, until I realised that it’s not just Sri Lanka which is unnerving and ridiculous, so is Britain. Watch this space.