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Entries about ruins

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum

overcast

There was something about Rome that sapped my energy, my lust for life. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Perhaps it was the beggars, scam artists and pickpockets that infest every tourist attraction. Perhaps it was the terrible public transport – by far the worst I have seen in Europe – that made getting around the city a blasted chore. Perhaps it was the insane traffic with kamikaze drivers of farty little Fiats pretending they were playing Super Mario Kart. Perhaps it was the grime, the disorder, the rip-off restaurants, the rudeness and aggression of many of the people. Perhaps it was all of these things combined.

Whatever the cause, I was sick of it. So the grey morning of Thursday, 14 November 2019 was yet another day when I took my sweet time getting ready to emerge from the Empire Suites, my last full day in Europe before the pandemic.

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

As I left the apartment building on Viale Giulio Cesare I noticed three little brass plaques embedded in the footpath. I bent over and took a closer look. On the plaques were inscriptions in Italian – basic biographical details of the lives of three people who used to live in the building. Giulio Mortera was born in 1870 and was murdered in 1943 in Auschwitz a week after being arrested in Rome. His daughter Jole, born in 1904, was also deported to Auschwitz and was killed at an unknown time and place. His wife Virginia, born in 1866, was arrested and murdered on the same days as her husband.

We all know of the horrors of the Holocaust in the abstract, but to see these unassuming little plaques telling me that I am staying in the same building as where Holocaust victims lived was a profoundly moving experience. The very stairs I had just descended were also used by SS officers to drag innocent people to their slaughter. To be honest, I had no idea that the tentacles of the Holocaust reached this far south – I knew that Northern Italy became a Nazi puppet state after the coup that deposed Mussolini’s Fascist regime, but I didn’t know that this puppet state, the so-called Italian Social Republic, went as far south as Rome.

There are plaques like these in pavements all over Europe. They are called Stolpersteine, German for “stumbling stones” – there is a project to install a Stolperstein outside the homes of every Holocaust victim.

I caught a very crowded metro train to the Colosseum. As I tried to alight from the train at Colosseo station I had to fight against a scrum of boarding passengers who refused to let people get off first. “Let people get off the train first, you f#$%ing morons!” I admonished. I was forced to lunge between two people just to exit the carriage and for my troubles some jerk pushed my back with such force that I almost fell onto the platform. God damn it, Italy.

I waited in an eternal queue to buy my ticket to enter the Colosseum and then climbed the stairs to the upper galleries of the stadium. I would like to say that the Colosseum took my breath. It didn’t. I had seen it in so many photographs and television programmes that I felt no sense of wonder. The Colosseum is also much smaller than I expected. I thought you would be able to host a football match in it, but it’s probably only large enough for a beach volleyball game – the oval playing area is eighty metres long and forty-six metres wide. (For comparison, the Sydney Cricket Ground is a hundred and eighty-six metres long and a hundred and forty-five metres wide.) Then there was the fact that everyone else took their sweet time taking the same photos over and over again and not being quick about it, thereby blocking me from trying to get around the place.

The Hypogeum of the Colosseum

The Hypogeum of the Colosseum

Most of the field surface has been removed revealing the hypogeum, the intricate system of corridors, dressing rooms, service areas, trapdoors and the like through which the gladiators, animals, performers and condemned criminals were transported up to the surface. To be honest, I found this the only interesting thing about the Colosseum.

The Colosseum is right outside the Forum, the civic heart of Ancient Rome. Between the Colosseum and the Forum are two triumphal arches, the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus, the latter being the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Arch of Titus is on the Via Sacra, the ceremonial axis of the Forum and essentially Ancient Rome’s main street. The Via Sacra still leads to the visitor’s entrance to the Forum.

The Via Sacra also contains the greatest concentration of scoundrels in all of Italy. I was accosted three times by these miscreants on the short walk from the Colosseum to the Forum. They are utterly merciless. Florence was teeming with these con artists too but at least there they had the good sense to take a firm yet polite “no, thanks” for an answer. Their counterparts in Rome were not so diffident.

Their schtick is the same as the ones who hang around the Trevi Fountain. They will step into your path with astounding dexterity and make it impossible for you to step around them. They will draw attention to your shoes. “Hi man, your shoes are black, just like Africa. I am from Africa. Where are you from?” And I suspect that while your gaze is directed at your shoes, they or an accomplice will rifle your pockets or backpack and rob you blind.

I was having none of it. I managed to extricate myself from the first two with some difficulty but the third boxed me in against a retaining wall along the side of the Via Sacra.

“Just leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you,” I said.

“Why? Why don’t you like talking to the black man? Are you racist? You’re racist!”

“For f#$%’s sake, just let me pass!”

He then shouted to all the passers-by. “Look everyone, here’s a racist! He doesn’t like talking to the black man! Look everyone, a RACIST!”

“I’m not a f#$%ing racist, I just have the right to walk around this city without you miserable mangy mongrels blocking me wherever I go!” I shouted back.

“RACIST! This man’s a RACIST!”

He then let me walk away and he didn’t disturb me any longer. A Scottish family visiting Rome were passing, heard the exchange, saw that I was a little shaken and asked if I was OK. They let me walk with them the rest of the way to the ticket office.

When I reached the ticket office I saw a little corner in the retaining wall, stood there off to the side of the streaming crowds and discreetly looked back. I saw what they were trying to do. These rascals would only ever approach single travellers, occasionally couples. I saw one of these pieces of trash try to manoeuvre his hands towards a possible victim’s watch but never quite getting there. Then one of these contemptible criminals saw that I was looking at him. He flipped me the bird and gave me a look that let me know in no uncertain terms that I would most likely end up at the bottom of the Tiber river if I kept watching him.

The emperor's personal stadium at Domitian's Palace

The emperor's personal stadium at Domitian's Palace

Discretion was the better part of valour so I bought a ticket and entered the Forum. First I explored Palatine Hill. This is one of the original Seven Hills of Rome. It was the site of the emperor’s residence and is the place from which the English word “palace” is derived. Most of Palatine Hill is taken up by the ruins of Domitian’s Palace. This palace had its own stadium for the sole pleasure of the emperor. Though most of the roofs had gone, many of the walls and much of the brilliant white marble floors still remained.

Next to the Palatine Hill in a valley is the Circus Maximus where chariot races were held. The outline of the racecourse is still visible but it is now surrounded on all sides by busy roads.

Next to the palace on Palatine Hill is the Farnese Gardens, one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe and founded in the Renaissance by a cardinal. The gardens contain a belvedere from which a view can be obtained over the Forum and the Colosseum in the valley below.

View of Forum and Basilica of Maxentius from Farnese Gardens

View of Forum and Basilica of Maxentius from Farnese Gardens

I then descended from the gardens down to the Forum. The Forum is strange. It is a stunning collection of ruins in various stages of dilapidation, from “still almost intact” to “an unidentifiable jumble of rocks”. The strange thing though is that it is surrounded on all sides by a very much intact city.

Here’s an analogy. The city of Sydney was founded in 1788 when the British arrived on the First Fleet; they established the colony on the shores of Sydney Cove around what is now Circular Quay – this area from the very beginning was the city centre and it still is; the area around Circular Quay probably has Australia’s greatest concentration of skyscrapers.

Now imagine that for whatever reason, some time in the nineteenth century, the area around Circular Quay had been abandoned. Meanwhile, the rest of the city was still active and Sydney grows up and expands around the abandoned area, but Circular Quay was left to fall into ruins. This is sort of what happened to the Forum.

In most European cities of ancient pedigree, the classical heart is still the city centre; whatever ancient buildings still exist are part of the urban fabric and sit alongside newer buildings. In Rome, however, the Forum seems detached from the life of the city, an archaeological park for the amusement of tourists, almost like a zoo but with columns and pediments instead of giraffes and elephants.

It makes sense when you learn more about the history of Rome. After the Western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century AD, Rome declined. And I mean, declined. The city lost most of its population, about seventy-five percent. The people who remained in the city clustered around the bend inside the Tiber river to the west of the Forum; this area became the new heart of Rome. Not only was the Forum abandoned, but over the centuries the Catholic Church thought it would be a smashing idea to pillage the Forum of stone with which to build their magnificent cathedrals and basilicas elsewhere.

Temple of Castor and Pollux at the Roman Forum

Temple of Castor and Pollux at the Roman Forum

Hence the modern visitor to the Forum can see the eerie sight of a tympanum teetering on crumbling columns at the Temple of Castor and Pollux; the Basilica of Maxentius, an enormous basilica with half of the building missing revealing huge vaults enclosing the interior that bring to mind an empty egg carton cut lengthwise and turned upside down; and more jumbles of stones, foundations, crypts, steps and walls than you could possibly remember.

The Roman Forum was interesting enough but I had to keep exploring. I was accosted by two more ruffians asking about my shoes along Via dei Fori Imperiali. Thankfully this street is wide and windswept; it was easier to get away from them than in the narrow confines of the Via Sacra. When I got to Piazza Venezia I saw a building with a sign – “CARABINIERI”. A police station!

I went in, not to report a crime, just that I was curious about what these scam artists are up to. Surely they aren’t pickpockets. I don’t know much about picking people’s pockets, but these people were too loud and too aggressive – wouldn’t pickpockets prefer not to draw attention to themselves? They weren’t trying to sell me anything, they didn’t seem to have any wares with them. So what were they up to?

My extensive travels in over two dozen countries have led me to formulate Urban Reverie’s Theorem of Law Enforcement. It’s a simple rule: “the more corrupt, dysfunctional, authoritarian, ineffective, violent, incompetent or lazy a police force is, the smarter their uniform will be.” It is an ironclad law, totally beyond refutation. Take the Netherlands for instance, probably the most liberal, safest, least corrupt, best governed country on earth. Their police wear these horrible slobby tracksuit jackets with fluorescent stripes on them that make them look like roadworkers. Or how about Sweden? Their police wear these dorky little brimless hats that make them look like McDonald’s employees.

On the other hand, the uniforms of the Carabinieri are very, very, very smart.

I entered the beautiful yet dim police station. It really was a work of art. I walked across the tiled floor to the timber counter with its brass bars. Behind the counter were three Carabinieri officers. They looked splendid in their crisp black uniforms with epaulettes and white sashes and red stripes down the seams of the trousers.

The three officers – two men and one woman, if I remember rightly – were gossiping among themselves languidly. I think “languid” is the right word. If they had had any less energy they would have been comatose and I would have had to call 112 for an ambulance.

After a small eternity one deigned to finally notice my presence. I explained in my very broken Italian – none of them could speak a word of English – that I wasn’t there to report a crime, I just wanted to know what these men hanging around tourist attractions were trying to do.

Nero?” one of them asked.

Si. Nero,” I nodded.

Another of them yawned. “Si. Tutti nero.,” he said mid-yawn.

They tried to explain in Italian what they were doing but I couldn’t understand, so one of them turned Marcel Marceau and tried to explain by mime – something to do with watches; he kept stroking his fingers around his wrist with a circle.

So they were watch thieves! That explained it.

“But what are you doing about it? There are criminals out there right now almost within sight of this building trying to rob tourists left, right and centre! So why are each of you just sitting here doing nothing but yawning and gossiping? There is crime to fight out there! So get to work, you lazy bludgers! What the f#$k are the taxpayers of Italy paying you to do?” I wish I had said. But I didn’t. Mainly because my Italian isn’t good enough. The Carabinieri officers seemed to really resent my presence and the fact that I had interrupted their somnolent chatting, so I left.

Vittoriano

Vittoriano

Across the Piazza Venezia is a monument of stupendous proportions, the Vittoriano. It looks ancient but it was only completed in 1935 in honour of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The Vittoriano is an orgy of ornamentation, a massive faux-Classical wedding cake of columns and quadrigae, a marble pile sitting on top of a hill of immense stairs. It almost hurts to look at the Vittoriano, not because it is necessarily ugly but because of its scale and the elaborate, ostentatious decorations covering every available square inch.

The sun was getting very low in the sky and I hadn’t had lunch yet. I came across a restaurant on either Via del Plebiscito or Corso Vittore Emanuele II. There was an English menu on the wall outside. I knew it wasn’t going to be great but I didn’t care, I was hungry. I think I ordered a lasagna with salad.

It was one of the vilest meals I ever ate, the customer service was blatantly rude and disgusting, my food took forever to arrive, and of course there was a massive hidden service charge added to my bill. I grudgingly paid and as I left, I finally figured it out – when in Italy, never, ever, ever eat at a restaurant that has an English menu. If you ever come across a restaurant in Italy that has any sort of English menu or signage, run and do not look back lest ye turn into a pillar of salt. Even if you can’t read a single word of Italian, don’t even think of going into such a restaurant. Don’t! I regret that it took me until my final day in Italy for me to finally learn this law.

Pantheon

Pantheon

A short distance north is the Pantheon. Visiting the Pantheon was a sure-fire antidote to the bitter taste in my mouth from that so-called “restaurant”. The Pantheon was originally a pre-Christian temple to all the Ancient Roman gods – “pan” being Ancient Greek for “all” and “theos” meaning “god” – but as was their wont, the Roman Catholic Church decided to adapt existing Ancient Roman religion to their faith. Stealing Christmas and Easter and the worship of virgins from the Ancient Roman religion wasn’t enough, they had to take their buildings too.

And what a building. The dome is so vast it is impossible to capture in a single photograph from the inside. In the centre of the dome is an opening to the sky; there is a drain on the floor beneath the opening to remove any rain that might enter the church. The Pantheon is also the final resting place of several members of the former Italian royal family; monarchists have placed wreaths at some of the sarcophagi which are placed at intervals around the edge of the vast circular interior.

I took a leisurely evening stroll through the centre of Rome. There was the Torre Argentina – nothing to do with the South American country; it’s a city square that has a concentration of ancient ruins in a sunken garden surrounded by streets on all sides. There was the Column of Marcus Aurelius with its frieze spiralling up the column. There was Palazzo Chigi, the rather plain residence of the Prime Minister. There was Piazza Navona, a very long square buzzing with life featuring the beautiful Fountain of Moro.

Tiber River at St Peter's Basilica at night

Tiber River at St Peter's Basilica at night

I reached the Tiber river. I did not see it foaming with much blood. Enoch Powell was lying. It’s not the biggest river I have seen nor the most beautiful per se. It does have, however, some amazing views around it. There is the Castel Sant’Angelo, a riverside fortress, and looking downstream an appealing vista presents itself – a long view up the wide boulevard of Via della Conciliazione to the softly illuminated bulk of St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The river is crossed at regular intervals by stone bridges with attractive arches all artistically lit.

It wasn’t far back to my hotel room in Prati so I walked. All the better to avoid having to travel on Rome’s deficient public transport system. I stopped off at a restaurant down the street from my room which specialised in Neapolitan cuisine. Rome, being the national capital, attracts residents from all over Italy to work in the public service or in the many Catholic Church institutions or to study at its universities, so all of Italy’s regional cuisines are amply represented in the Eternal City.

Paccheri with three meat sauce in a Neapolitan restaurant in Rome

Paccheri with three meat sauce in a Neapolitan restaurant in Rome

The restaurant in the basement of an apartment building was great. It was packed. I didn’t have a reservation but they let me in. A band played some jaunty tarantella, the traditional folk dance music of Naples. I started off with antipasto – flower of pumpkin, mozzarella and anchovy puff – like a samosa, but Italian. The main course was paccheri – smooth tubular pasta about the same diameter as a radiator hose – smothered in a rich three-meat tomato sauce. For dessert I had pastiera Napoletana, a dense tart made of ricotta and dried fruit dusted with icing sugar.

It was certainly a change from the rip-off merchant who dared to sell me a stale microwaved lasagna and limp, rancid salad a few hours earlier. The feast was also a most fitting farewell to Italy. Italy has many problems – corruption, ineffective government, petty crime and dishonesty, regional inequality – but my word, the food, the wine, the beauty, the art, the history and its people’s love of life and laughter must go some way to make up for it, surely.

Bravo, Italia, bravo.

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

Eastern end of Circus Maximus

Eastern end of Circus Maximus

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra

Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra

Column of Marcus Aurelius

Column of Marcus Aurelius

Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant'Angelo

Remains of temple at the Roman Forum

Remains of temple at the Roman Forum

Flower of pumpkin, mozzarella and anchovy puffs

Flower of pumpkin, mozzarella and anchovy puffs

Pasteria Napoletana

Pasteria Napoletana

Posted by urbanreverie 15:16 Archived in Italy Tagged architecture ruins police italy cuisine rome pantheon colosseum forum crime Comments (0)

Lord Of The Trains

sunny

It surely must be possible to overdose on trains. But no matter how hard I try, I can't do it.

I became a train enthusiast when I was very young, perhaps a toddler, I don't ever remember being not obsessed with them. Until I was five years old I lived near a railway line in the Sydney suburb of Chester Hill, I could see and hear the Red Rattlers clattering past from my street. We were only ever a one-car family so my mother and I used public transport quite extensively for shopping in the city or visiting family or just a nice day out to Taronga Park Zoo or a picnic by the water at Bundeena.

When I was twelve I began high school and the easiest way to go to and from school was my train. I was a big boy now, I got to ride the trains all by myself! Red Rattlers, S sets, C sets, Tangaras.

Even though I am now middle-aged, trains never cease to fill me with wide-eyed childlike wonder. Even if I am just riding two stations on the City Circle, my heart leaps as the train pulls into the platform. "Look everyone, I'm on a train! Aren't I just so cool!"

So it stands to reason that when I travel, I spend far too much time exploring public transport systems and riding as many different types of trams and trains that I can. Yes, I do have other interests. I will get around to exploring those eventually!

So my day began with a supermarket breakfast - an apple, two pastries and a small carton of kefir for only three hundred forints - and a trolley bus ride to Kossuth Lajos tér. The street I am staying on has electrically powered trolley buses trundling past every couple of minutes. I love trolley buses, I have ridden on one before in Bratislava. They are so smooth and accelerate and brake so quickly and they are so quiet! Too quiet. I almost saw someone get killed because they stepped onto the road and couldn't hear the approaching bus.

I got off at Kossuth Lajos tér on which Hungary's magnificent Parliament is located and then went back to Deák Ferenc tér on the M2 metro. I needed to go to the BKK transport agency's information centre because I lost the public transport map I got at the airport. Off to the side of the information centre I noticed glass doors lewding to the underground railway museum. It's a small museum that can be seen within ten minutes, just three old carriages from the toy-like M1 line (including two original cars from the line's 1896 opening), as well as historical displays about the design and construction of the metro system. The weirdest thing about the museum is that it charged two separate fees - one for admission (350 Ft.) and one for permission to take photos and videos (500 Ft.)

From Deák Ferenc tér I took the M2 line west under the Danube to Széll Kálmán tér, an amazing transport interchange. Széll Kálmán tér is a triangular plaza with tram stops on each side of the triangle; there is always a tram coming or going on at least one side and often on all three sides. In the middle of the triangle is a concrete building containing the metro entrance.

I changed to a tram which I rode a couple of stops to Városmajor, and walked across to the Budapest Cog Wheel Railway. Cog wheel railways (or rack railways) are fairly common around the world, even Australia has two. They are mostly used for specialised applications in remote mountainous areas like skiing or forestry or mining. However, the Budapest Cog Wheel Railway is unusual in that it is part of the city's public transport stsem; normal fares apply and trains run every twenty minutes, frequency being limited by the lengthy single-track sections.

I boarded the cute little two-car train. The Cog Wheel Railway has three rails, two ordinary rails for the wheels and a toothed track in the middle for a cog wheel to run on. The toothed track and cog gives the train the ability to climb steep gradients without slipping. After a short wait, the train - or tram route 60 as it is officially known - ground up the hill. It was a noisy, rough ride, like being in one of those old manual coffee grinders.

The train went up into the cool, forested hills of Buda, throuh posh suburbs with nice houses behind high walls, then terminated halfway at Erdei iskola. Half the line is closed for reconstruction so passengers had to get off the train and walk about half a kilometre up one of the steepest streets I have ever seen to the bus stop for replacement buses to continue their journey.

After taking two buses I reached the weirdest railway of them all. Did you think the Doha Metro was weird? Did you think the Budapest Cog Wheel Railway was weird? Oh boy, strap yourselves in folks, because I am about to present to you the Children's Railway of Budapest.

I don't mean a railway for the amusement of children, they are common worldwide in city parks, amusement parks, shopping centres and the like. I mean a railway staffed and operated by children aged ten to fourteen.

I must admit I was a little nervous. I sort of imagined the Children's Railway to be a little bit Lord Of The Flies. And when I went to buy my ticket, the girl was as clumsy and hesitant with my change as you would expect a twelve-year-old to be. That didn't exactly fill me with confidence.

I needn't have worried. At each station there is an adult supervisor and the driver is also an adult. Children's railways were a communist thing, they were quite common in the Eastern bloc. They were mostly built in the mid-twentieth century (Budapest's opened in 1948) to train young people in all aspects of railway operation and also to teach them valuable life skills about teamwork, working safely, following established procedures and the like.

The little two-car diesel-hauled train on 760 millimetre gauge track arrived, the locomotive changed ends, a child checked my ticket, another child waved a round paddle with a green disc on it and then waved a yellow flag and did this military salute as the train went past. There were two cars - an open-sided one and one with walls and windows. It was a glorious autumn day so everyone sat in the open car.

The train doesn't go very fast, it takes an hour to go eleven kilometres, which is perfectly fine. It's a very twisty railway in mountainous forest country. In Australia trees are all evergreen so we don't have brilliant autumn colours in our bush. The Australian bush looks the same all year round. I have only ever visited Europe in spring before, and European forests in autumn colours are just too marvellous for words. One tree will be gold, another red, another brown, another tenaciously holding onto its summer green until it inevitably has to switch to a winter wardrobe.

There were little stations along the way with children raising and lowering paddles and waving flags and doing that strange military salute with hands raised up to foreheads. I am not sure if this salute is some sort of safeworking signal or if it is a sign of respect to the passengers going past. People got on and off at some of these intermediate stations; many stations are located at trailheads for bushwalking tracks through the Buda Hills.

The train went through a long tunnel and then we arrived at the lower terminus of the Children's Railway at Hűvösvölgy, a busy tram terminus in a suburban valley. My word, how jealous I am of those children. Why couldn't we have something like that growing up in Western Sydney in the 1990s? Not fair!

I took the tram back to Széll Kálmán tér and the M2 train to Kossuth Lajos tér. I wanted to go on a tour of Parliament but no such joy, all tours were sold out and I was told to book online in advance. The square outside Parliament is a great enough sight with a collection of rather impressive statues of notable Hungarian historic figures, then I made a change of plans.

I crosesd the Danube again on the M2 to Batthyány tér and changed to an HÉV train. The HÉV is a system of suburban commuter lines that connect outsr suburbs to the metro or tram system. I entered the HÉV station and found the real Eastern Europe! The dark green HÉV train was boxy, chunky, noisy and had all the ride quality of a paint mixer.

Thankfully it was only a short ride to my next tourist attraction, Aquincum. Aquincum was a Roman settlement built on the right bank of the Danube in what is now Budapest's northern suburbs. It was an important town, serving as the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia for a while, and reached its apex in the third century. However, Aquincum was on the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire and vulnerable to attacks by waves of Celts, Huns and other barbarians. Aquincum was destroyed in the fourth century and laid buried for centuries.

Aquincum has now been painstakingly unearthed and is a remarkably well-preserved grid of the remains of stone walls. None of the buildings remain whole; merely the lowest three feet of the walls as well as the floors and street pavers.

I spent an hour wandering around Aquincum. I tried to feel awed by the history of the place, to feel reverent and inspired, but I couldn't. Perhaps I am a philistine. But to me, the ruins looked like a jumble of rock walls. There was a court house, a forum, a temple, a public bath house, a meat market - but they all looked much the same.

Not helping things is that Aquincum is right next to a busy six-lane highway and the HÉV railway, and on the other side of the highway and railway were a row of butt-ugly communist apartment blocks and an enormous smokestack. It's a bit hard to imagine the clop-clop-clop of marching centurions two thousand years ago in such a noisy modern environment.

There was another railway station nearby on another line, part of the national railway network, and so I caught a very sleek and new Stadler FLIRT train from there to Nyugati ("Western") station, one of Budapest's three main railway terminals. Nyugati has an impressive roof with an enormous glass panel fronting onto the street.

A quick dinner at a wok bar, a short tram trip to Oktogon and another ride on a toy train on the M1 brought me to Széchenyi baths in City Park. 5,200 forints gets you entry and locker hire after 7pm. I changed into my swimmers and thongs, put my clothes in the locker, had a shower to rinse off my body before going into the baths, and then plunged into the steaming 38 °C pool.

There are three pools in the impressive Baroque revival Széchenyi baths complex - the 38 °C thermal pool, a slightly cooler (34 °C, I think) adventure pool with a jacuzzi, a whirlpool, massage jets and underwater coloured disco lights, and an ordinary swimming pool with lanes where you can do laps which I couldn't use because there's a rule that you need to wear a swimming cap (has anybody ever heard of such a ridiculous rule?) The waters are very soothing but I was disappointed that the place wasn't as social as hot springs I have been to in Taiwan and Iceland where all the guests become one big happy family and everyone is overcome with a feeling of childlike innocence and contentment. Still, I spent two hours in the baths and really didn't want to leave, the water was just so warm and relaxing, but the ten o'clock closing time was rapidly approaching.

I grabbed a langos from a nearby kiosk. Langos is a Hungarian specialty consisting of a large pizza-like disc of deep fried dough covered in various toppings; mine had cheese and garlic sauce. It was very yummy though decidedly would never receive the Heart Foundation tick.

On the edge of City Park is Heroes Square, a beautifully illuminated semi-circular colonnade with a statuary of famous Hungarian kings surrounding a tall column topped with Archangel Gabriel holding St Stephen's Crown, still the national symbol of Hungary despite being a republic for the best part of a century. Surounding the base of the column are statues of seven men on horseback, the Seven Chieftains of the Hungarian tribes who settled in the Carpathian basin in 896 AD led by Arpad, the founder of the Hungarian nation. In front of the column is a simple cenopath covered in wreaths; this sarcophagus is the national war memorial.

A short ride on the M1 back down Andrassy Avenue took me back to my room - or rather, the hipster pub across the street from my room. It is early days but my impression so far is that Hungarians aren't the warmest and friendliest people I have encountered. That sort of changes after a few drinks though. I had a good conversation with the bar owner, about his love of Australian music and Triple J radio, about the pub he founded with a tattoo parlour inside - certainly an interesting combination! I wonder how many people have become intoxicated in there and woke up the next morning wondering why they have the Hilltop Hoods tattooed on their thigh?

Budapest Underground Railway Museum

Budapest Underground Railway Museum

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Platform dispatcher on Children’s Railway

Platform dispatcher on Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

HÉV train at Batthyány tér

HÉV train at Batthyány tér

Roman ruins at Aquincum

Roman ruins at Aquincum

Széchenyi Baths

Széchenyi Baths

Heroes Square

Heroes Square

Posted by urbanreverie 12:44 Archived in Hungary Tagged children budapest ruins squares roman baths railways Comments (0)

Stupa is as stupa does


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Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 17 February 2019

I am a somewhat slovenly and half-hearted collector of coins and banknotes. My collection consists of what is known in the hobby as a "job lot" - a random collection of cheap poorer-quality specimens, usually acquired by pure chance, with little attempt to collect a certain denomination or certain country or certain date in any systematic manner.

When I was a teenager somebody gave me some older Sri Lankan banknotes, I think they were issued in the 1970s. One of them featured a gleaming white stupa - "dagaba" in Sri Lanka - in a town called Anuradhapura. I was intrigued by this place - not only because of the giant spiked helmet, but because of how unpronounceable the name is. (For those watching at home: it's something like unna-RAH-duh-poo-ruh.)

It was time to finally visit this place. Landana, the tuk-tuk driver who took me to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa the day before, came around at half past eight to pick me up. I told him yesterday that I was going to Anuradhapura and I asked if he could deliver my clean laundry (which I had dropped off at a commercial laundry that morning) and then take me to the bus station. He made me an offer I could not refuse - three thousand rupees all the way to Anuradhapura.

I told him that I would think about it but truth be told, I didn't have to think very long. Maybe fifteen seconds. The bus would have cost around a hundred rupees. Cheap, sure, but have you ever been on a Sri Lankan bus? I am only one hundred and seventy centimetres tall but even that is too lanky for Sri Lankan bus seats. My knees are always jammed right up against the seat in front of me and my feet are curled under the seat right up to the legs of the person sitting behind me. Nearly every bus plays loud Sri Lankan pop music that sounds like live pigs being castrated with rusty circular saws without anaesthetic. Most buses have 3+2 seating, the aisles are so narrow that my thighs are squeezed between every pair of grab handles on either side of the aisle, and the seats themselves are so tiny that if I share a triple seat with two others I am squashed into mushy pulp. Sri Lankan buses are poorly ventilated, often the windows are stuck closed, and I have yet to mention the drivers. I keep calling them psychopathic maniacs but I think that is being too lenient. A better description would be demons that have somehow escaped the portals of hell and have been sent to Earth as a divinely inspired reminder of what awaits you if you sin too much in this mortal life. Sri Lankan bus travel is dangerous, uncomfortable and absolutely terrifying.

Sri Lankan tuk-tuks are also terrifying, but they are like a ride in a battery-powered golf cart going twenty kilometres an hour in the grounds of a retirement village in Queensland compared to the buses. There is adequate ventilation, great views and decent photo opportunities, no annoying "music", and they don't have to stop every kilometre to let people on and off. So it is no wonder that I gleefully accepted Landana's offer. Twenty-four Australian dollars is nothing. It wouldn't even get me six kilometres in an Uber car in Sydney. Landana was offering me the same price for seventy-two kilometres. Also I have been so very good with my money, I had been sticking to my rough budget, and I have been such a good boy. Deal!

So Landana arrived with my laundry, I got changed into clean clothes, I settled my bill with Kumar and said goodbye to him and his wife and girls, and jumped into Landana's eight month-old Bajaj RE and headed north on the A9 highway towards Anuradhapura.

The A9 between Dambulla and Anuradhapura is the best road I have seen in Sri Lanka excepting the E03 expressway between Bandaranaike International Airport and Colombo. Unusually for Sri Lankan highways, it had a consistently wide shoulder, at least one and a half metres wide, even over culverts and bridges. The lane was at least four, possibly five, metres wide. The standard width of traffic lanes on Australian highways is three and a half metres. The highway was so wide that, assuming that slow traffic went onto the shoulder, there was more than enough room for one car to overtake another car, or a bus to overtake a tuk-tuk, without the overtaking vehicle encroaching upon the lane in the opposing direction. The surface was soo smooth too with such bright white lines. I was impressed.

Heading north from Dambulla you enter the North Central Province, the agricultural heartland of Sri Lanka, with its innumerable irrigation tanks covered in mats of lotus pads and blossoms, its rice paddies with scarecrows - not the scarecrows of children's books, merely plastic garbage bags fluttering in the breeze tied to timber stakes, the highway fringed with palm trees and small villages and banana trees and small market stalls selling whatever the smallholders can grow in their curtilages. The hills and rocky outcrops became less frequent until the tuk-tuk roared at 55 km/h through a landscape as flat as the Netherlands.

After about ninety minutes I arrived at the Senowin Holiday Resort guest house. I said my heartfelt goodbye to Landana and an equallt heartfelt hello to the owner of the guest house, Purmina.

Purmina ushered me in to the house, a large two-storey family home with the top storey converted to guest accommodation, and she offered me tea. She also offered to organise bicycle hire to explore the Sacred City of Anuradhapura which I accepted. While we were waiting for the bicycle she offered me tea and we sat and had a good chat.

Purmina is an interesting lady, a little younger than me, with impeccable English. She has a university degree in textile science and before she started a family she worked as an import-export agent in Sri Lanka's garment industry. She asked me what I thought about Sri Lanka. Rather than my usual "yes, yes, Sri Lanka is great," I decided now was the time that honesty was the best policy.

"I absolutely love Sri Lanka and I absolutely hate Sri Lanka at the same time," I said.

She didn't flinch. "That's great. What do you love about Sri Lanka?"

I comtinued with my honesty. "There is absolutely incredible natural beauty everywhere. The food is totally amazing, especially the fruit and vegetables, they are just divine! And the people are so warm and friendly and hospitable. I love the place."

"That's great," Purmina said. "Now what do you hate about Sri Lanka?"

"Well ..." I got nervous. Would I cause offence? Purmina with her education and fluency in English was the first Sri Lankan I felt I could open up to. I persevered. "There are a few things. I am Australian. In Australia, when someone asks you a question, and you don't know the answer, you say 'I don't know, sorry'. If someone asks you a yes-or-no question, and the answer is 'no', you say 'no'. But here, when I ask a question - like, directions to a bus stop or if some place is still open - people won't say 'no', they will never admit that they don't know the answer, they will make up some nonsense that they think I want to hear. You ask ten Sri Lankans the same question and you get ten different answers. It is absolutely infuriating!"

Purmina wasn't offended, or if she was, she didn't show it. "Yes, I totally understand where you are coming from. But in Sri Lankan culture, you can never say 'no'. If you say 'no', that is very disobedient. Sri Lankans are very honest people, but yes, we try to keep everyone happy and show everyone respect. They are not trying to mislead you or lie to you, they mean very well, but they are trying their best to give you an honest answer and keep you happy. Your culture is very different to ours but you are in a different country now."

I almost burst into tears of joy. I explained what had happened at Bandarawela station a week ago, where my train was delayed and the station staff kept saying the train would "definitely be moving in fifteen minutes" for hours on end, until the train started moving again after a six and a half hour delay.

"Yes, that's a common problem on Sri Lankan railways. They really have no idea. They are just trying to keep all the foreign visitors happy. The railways are terrible. They were given to us by the British but they haven't been improved at all ever since independence. They make people so ashamed to be Sri Lankan!"

I told her not to be ashamed. It's not the fault of the average Sri Lankan that the railways are stuck in the nineteenth century.

It is easy, so very easy, even for people who consider themselves intelligent and tolerant, to visit or move to a foreign country, be confronted by profound cultural differences, and ascribe those cultural differences to some moral failing of the citizenry. "Oh, those Ruritanians are a bunch of shifty lying buggers!" "You gotta watch out for them Lower Slobovians, they'll cheat you out of your life savings without turning a hair!" What cruel, needless misunderstandings, what bloody wars, what terrible genocides, what countless atrocities have happened throughout the history of the human race simply because people from one culture haven't taken the time and effort to sit down with people from another culture and tried to understand how the other culture works?

The bicycle man arrived with my hire bike for five hundred rupees added to my hotel bill. Purmina promised that she would organise a good bike. I do not doubt her intentions. It was a good bike by Sri Lankan standards. The brakes actually worked. Somewhat. The brakes would slow me down but not enough to come to a stop. To stop I needed to scrape the soles of my sandals on the road. The wheels weren't wobbly, rust hadn't completely consumed the frame and spokes, and I could maintain a speed of about ten kilometres an hour on flat ground. That makes it a good bike.

After my near-death on a bicycle in Tissamaharama caused by brakes that were not operational at all, I was nervous about getting on a bike in Sri Lanka again. But Anuradhapura is huge. The attractions are spread over several square kilometres. You cannot walk around Anuradhapura. I could have hired a tuk-tuk but I wanted to go at my own pace, and I was getting sick of tuk-tuks having spent a whole day yesterday in one and ninety minutes this morning.

I applied more sunscreen and pushed off at eleven o'clock. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura is a couple of kilometres west of the modern town. I needn't have worried about the traffic. Bicycles are probably the most popular way to see Anuradhapura and the roads were full of other foreign travellers on equally crappy bicycles. My bicycle wasn't squealing like a wounded fox with every turn of the pedal cranks and the wheels weren't wobbling like they were shaped like eggs so mine was obviously better.

Because Anuradhapura was so huge, there are three ticket offices scattered around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is my fifth World Heritage Site in four consecutive days, and my seventh in Sri Lanka. (There are eight World Heritage Sites here, the only one I didn't visit was the Sinharaja rainforest. For some reason, none of the huge numbers of travellers I have met have gone to Sinharaja. I kind of regret not seeing it.)

I tried finding one of the ticket offices. I came across two young German women who were just as lost as me, they pointed me in the wrong direction. It was only after looking at my Lonely Planet and Google Maps on my phone that I finally found an office. I paid my Rs. 4,525 entry fee, got my large cardboard ticket with perforated tabs that could be torn off for each area, and went off to find my first attraction, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree.

I would be lost without my Lonely Planet. I am equally as lost with my Lonely Planet. The quality of the maps in Lonely Planet travel guides is absurdly risible. Whole streets, even major arterials, disappear into the ether on Lonely Planet maps. A street that you think is only two blocks away is actually nine blocks distant. Street name labels are placed on the wrong streets, attractions are shown hundreds of metres away from their true locations, and many are the times when I have navigated to the exact location of a feature of interest shown in a Lonely Planet map only to find myself staring at a stormwater drain or a sporting goods warehouse or a hardware shop car park. I don't expect maps in travel guidebooks like Lonely Planet to be at the same level of quality as, say, Ordnance Survey topographic maps from Britain, but a bit more care and attention to detail would not go astray.

Not helping matters was the terrible signage in Anuradhapura. Signs to attractions at major intersections were either completely absent or only in Sinhala. I pick up new languages quite quickly, I have learned the Sinhala alphabet so I can pronounce Sinhala words without knowing what they mean, but I still couldn't read most od the signs. Occasionally I would stop at an intersection and pronounce each Sinhala character syllable by syllable. Sri ... Ma ... ha ... Bo ... Yes! The Sri Maha Bodhi tree! Got it!" Only to miss a turn off the road because it wasn't signed at all.

I finally reached my first major attraction of the day at midday, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree. This is one of the oldest known trees in the world, planted from a cutting brought from India 2,200 years ago. It is a bo tree, an attractive fig-like tree with broad, venous shield-shaped leaves, that through longevity had branched out into several mutually supporting trunks. Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a bo tree, and this tree being the oldest bo tree in Sri Lanka, it is the object or veneration. A polite young Sinhalese man who was there to pray told me he was grateful that he had passed his university exams and was making offerings, coins wrapped in a handkerchief tied to a railing surrounding the tree, out of gratitude and asking for blessings for exams to come.

Next to the Sri Maha Bodhi tree was a large rectangle of hundreds of closely spaced columns, the remains of the Brazen Palace. Anuradhapua was the royal capital of the Anuradhapua Kingdom which flourished for over a millennium from roughly the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in around 300 BC to the fall of Anuradhapura after the Indian Chola empire invaded in around 1000 AD. The Brazen Palace was one of many royal residences.

A short, though still appallingly signed, distance to the northeast was the Jetavanaramaya complex, dominated by a large brick dagaba (stupa) and a dizzying complex of ruins - walls, gates, water tanks. About ten minutes to the northwest is the Citadel, the inner sanctum of royal power. Not much remains of this, the citadel was razdd long ago and much of it is now small farms and shops and houses. The remains of the royal palace can be seen, and on the other side of the road are two symmetrical guard houses that once protected the main entrance to the palace. A short distance north are the ruins of the Mahapali alms hall. A very long deep trough where citizens donated rice and other goods to the Buddhist monks was still clearly visible two thousand years later, as was the alms house's s very deep water well shaped like an inverted pyramid. Next door were the remains of the Sacred Tooth temple. The most remarkable thing was that a whole bunch of primary school-age boys who live in the neighbourhood were playing a stick-and-ball game called elle among all the ruins. Why not? This was their neighbourhood, after all, and their ancestors have lived in this area for thousands of years.

Next to the Sacred Tooth temple was an active archaeological dig, protected from the elements by a large galvanised steel shelter on which monkeys were playing. Brick foundations and cellars of some building were clearly visible in the giant soggy pit. New ruins get found in Anuradhapura all the time. For centuries this place was lost to the forest. It is only since British archaeologists rediscovered the ruins in the tangled greenery in the nineteenth century that conservation efforts started and the monuments restored to their proper glory.

Another painful ride - the bike only had one gear, not low enough to climb even the tiniest inclines without getting off and pushing but not high enough to go any faster than about fifteen kilometres an hour - brought me to the Abhayagiri Monastery in the far northwest of the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. But not before my bike broke down. The chain got thrown off the gears. I turned the bike upside down and got to work. But the chain was encased within a metal guard, I rarely see this on Australian bikes but it is common in the Netherlands. I couldn't figure out how to remove the cover. There didn't appear to be any sort of clip or pin I could remove. I stuck my finger in the small hole around the bottom bracket and tried to feel where the chain was. My finger became smeared with a very thick layer of soot and grime. This bike had never been cleaned or serviced in its life. I was about to scream "damn this blasted country where nothing ever works!" when a tuk-tuk driver went passed. He got out, expertly removed the chain case (there was a small section at the back that could be removed with some force), put the chain back on, refused to shake my hand because his hands were now filthy, and went on his merry way. What did I say about how when this country sends you to despair, someone comes along and makes everything right once again? How many times have I found myself stranded on an Australian road due to a flat bicycle tyre or a bus that has been cancelled or a flat battery in my car? And how many people have stopped to help? Hint: it's not a very high number. In Australia, and the West generally, you're on your own. In Sri Lanka they haven't totally lost that spirit of helping a stranger in difficulty.

Thanks to this anonymous stranger ai reached the Abhayagiri Monastery. On the way there were some more sights - the fourth century AD Samadhi Buddha statue, the Twin Ponds where monks would bathe. The Abhayagiri Monastery was a massive complex of several residential compounds for monks - their living quarters, their classrooms, their refectory halls, their administrative offices, their water tanks. I cannot describe the scale of this. The centrepiece is yet another giant brick dagaba. There is the Elephant Pond, a very large tank used to supply the monastery with its water needs. Walking around Abhayagiri it was all too easy to imagine the days when the streets were full of rows of chanting monks walking from the refectory to their theology classes, or from their dormitories to the dagaba to pray and chant in unison for the Anuradhapura kingdom to be blessed.

The sun was getting low in the sky. There was no way I was going to see all of Anuradhapura. It really needs two full days to appreciate, from dawn to dusk, such is the gigantic scale of the place. This wasn't like Polonnaruwa, a compact little town that could be seen on foot in a few hours. This was a true metropolis with hundreds of thousands of people. Not just royalty, not just monks, not just bureaucrats, but the many people who were required to service their needs - the plumbers, the cobblers, the tailors, the merchants, the bricklayers, the barbers, the carpenters, and all their wives and children and elders.

I checked out two more dagabas, the Thuparamaya Dagaba, a small white stupa, and the stunning Ruwawelisaya Dagaba. This snow-white dagaba was built on a scale greater than mere human beings. It took me fifteen minutes to dawdle around it on hot pavers (all visitors are required to remove hats and shoes before approaching1any dagaba or statue of Buddha. Make sure your dresses and shorts cover your knees).

These ruins are not just mere museum pieces for the benefit of travellers. They are active places of worship. A very large prayer meeting was being held in the forecourt of the Ruwawelisaya Dagaba, a saffrom-robed Buddhist monk leading a large assembly of white-clothed parishioners in a soothing, monotonous prayer chant.

It was after five o'clock and my bike had no lights or reflectors. The roads in Anuradhapura have no street lights. It was time for me to leave though there was a whole section in the far south of the Sacred City I didn't even touch. I quickly checked out the Basawkkulama Tank, a nearby irrigation dam where a brilliant sunset was starting, and headed east back into the modern town as quickly as possible. I rode past little farms and cottages where children in shady frontyards waved hello. I waved back. Because I am the coolest boy in the world, because I spent a day cycling through ancient monasteries and shrines and palaces, and there is nothing in the world quite so cool as a boy or a girl on a bike exploring the world, this amazing planet which has been granted to all living beinga for all of us to share in peace and harmony if we could all learn how to, and the best way to learn is to get on your bike and start exploring.

I arrived back at the Senowin Holiday Resort - a rather grand name for a modest guest house. I mean, with a name like that there should be swimming pools and banana daiquiris and deckchairs. I am not complaining, it is a very nice place with a very nice owner who introduced me to her very nice extended family. But it is not a "resort" in the word's natural and ordinary meaning.

The two young German women who had innocently given me the wrong directions earlier soon arrived, they were by coincidence staying here as well. They were dripping head to toe in sweat, just like me when I arrived back at the house; the first thing I did was have a shower. Wherever you go in Sri Lanka, every white person will be drenched in sweat, their clothes clinging to every part of their bodies, even if they aren't doing much, like just sitting at a hotel having a drink. The locals, even if they are climbing mountains or riding bicycles, will be dry as a bone. Do Sri Lankans not have sweat glands? I am certain, without seeing the scientific evidence, that people from ethnic groups originating in higher latitudes cannot genetically handle tropical climates.

We chatted for a while, shared some tips on what to see - I was finishing my holiday going anticlockwise and they were just starting their holiday going clockwise. The ladies gave me a restaurant tip, and one of them escorted me part of the way while she was going to an ATM to try to retrieve a swallowed bank card.

I went to the restaurant on modern Anuradhapura's main street. I sat down and ordered my meal, cheese kotthu (stir-fried strips of roti flatbread mixed with vegetables and spices) with fresh lemon and pineapple juice. My order took forever to arrive. I was very thirsty, almost dehydrated, after cycling in the heat and humidity all day. I had run out of bottled water. On each table was a stainless steel jug of water with several clean glasses.

Without really thinking about it, I made the assumption - which at the time seemed very reasonable but was actually very stupid - that no restaurateur would be so evil as to knowingly serve their patrons water that would make them sick. Surely killing your customere is bad for business? So I poured a full glass of water into one of the glasses and drank it in one big gulp.

I instantly knew I made the wrong decision. The water looked clean, it smelled clean, but it tasted muddy and stagnant, like water from a fish tank. It definitely was not bottled water.

I hoped it wouldn't turn out wrong. There was no immediate reaction. My order of cheese kotthu and the juice arrived and, starving, I devoured them. It was towards the end of my meal that it started. Massive stomach cramps with a fever-like sweat over my whole body. I paid my bill and walked as quickly as possible back to my room.

The Sri Lankan Police had set up a traffic checkpoint on the A12, Anuradhapura's main street. I walked past the checkpoint and a three-stripe officer, presumably a sergeant, motioned me to stop.

"Hello, sir. What's your name?"

"Urban Reverie."

"And where are you from?"

"Australia." I hoped to hell that he wasn't going to ask me for my passport, it was in my room.

"When did you arrive in Sri Lanka?"

"January the thirtieth."

"Mark Taylor is a good player, isn't he? He's my favourite cricketer."

So the policeman just wanted to chat with a foreign stranger. What a relief. "Yeah, Tubby Taylor, that's going back about twenty years or so," I said, feigning an interest in cricket, a sport that I, along with a large number of Australians, usually find about as interesting as watching grass grow. I was very sick, sweating all over, and anxious just to get back to my guest house.

"Yes. And Steve Smith. When is he coming back?"

It was probably not wise to tell the copper that I am not a board member of Cricket Australia and therefore have little knowledge of such matters. "Yeah, dunno, I heard he copped a twelve-month suspension after the sandpaper business in South Africa, I think that was in March last year, so maybe next month?" I swear that cricket is an elaborate practical joke the Australian people play upon themselves. We have to pretend to be interested in cricket, to do otherwise is to expose yourself to accusations of being un-Australian, but in reality most of us dislike the sport and it's really only the sad old obsessive-compulsives who remember every single batsman's score in the Third Test between Australia and India in 1985 who give a crap about cricket.

"Yes. Do you like Ricky Ponting?"

"Yes. Of course I do! He was a very good captain of the Australian team." All I know about Ricky Ponting is that he was the captain in the 2000s. Apart from that, I know nothing.

"Very well. What is crime like in Australia? Is it worse than here?"

This was worse than an actual real-life formal interrogation. At least in an interrogation I would have an idea about the issue I was being asked about. The copper was standing very close to me and his eyes constantly alternated between roaming over my entire body and staring directly into my eyes. "Well, I don't know much about crime in Sri Lanka. There is definitely more traffic crime in Sri Lanka, motorists in Australia are much more law-abiding and safer on the roads. But I think Sri Lankans are much more respectful to each other and to property. I have never seen graffiti on walls or on bridges here. In Australia, there is graffiti everywhere. Australia has a huge problem with drugs, also Australians get drunk very often and cause trouble. I rarely see drunks here or people affected by drugs."

The eyes continued to search into the very interior of my soul. "Very well. So, there are many Sri Lankans who try to go to Australia, illegally. Not legally, but illegally, why is that?"

Sigh. Now I was expected to give a concise answer to this question about the hornet's nest that is Australian asylum seeker politics. "Well, Australia is a very wealthy country. The minimum wage is about two thousand and two hundred rupees per hour. That's about the minimum wage for two days in Sri Lanka. Australia has much better health care, better education, better social security, more job opportunities, because Australia is so wealthy. So that entices a lot of people to try to come to Australia." All this is undoubtedly true; Australia's economic success and relatively generous social benefits do make it an attractive destination for asylum seekers. I could have also mentioned that nearly all of the asylum seekers are Tamils from the north of Sri Lanka, the tourism boom that has done so much to invigorate Sri Lanka's economy has yet to reach the Tamil north, the region has yet to fully recover from a desperate three-decade civil war, during that war the military seized a lot of land and has yet to repatriate much of it to its former owners leaving many Tamils landless and jobless, and the Tamils, despite efforts from the government to include them in the new post-war Sri Lanka, still face discrimination and inequality. But it would have been unwise to press these points with a Nosey Parker police officer

The copper seemed to be unable to think of another question. "Am I free to go now? I am terribly sorry but I need to go back to my hotel room."

"Yes. You can go now. Thank you, sir. Enjoy your stay in Sri Lanka!" He shook my hand and I walked as fast as possible to a supermarket to buy two bottles of water.

I was in agony by the time I got back to my room. It was going to be a quiet night for me, no listening to music or writing my blog. I stripped off, turned the ceiling fan on full blast, unfurled the mosquito net, climbed under the net into the sheetless bed with nothing but my phone and my bottle of water, constantly sipped from the bottle to keep myself hydrated, and writhed in agony, clutching my stomach, hoping that sleep would arrive soon and that the ceiling fan would relieve my febrile, delirious sweating fits.

Very wide A9 highway

Very wide A9 highway

Dodgy bicycle

Dodgy bicycle

Elephant Pond at Anuradhapura

Elephant Pond at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura

Twin Ponds at Anuradhapura

Samadhi Buddha statue

Samadhi Buddha statue

Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Brazen Palace at Anuradhapura

Brazen Palace at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Tank at Anuradhapura

Tank at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Dagaba at Anuradhapura

Archaeological dig at Anuradhapura Citadel

Archaeological dig at Anuradhapura Citadel

Trough used for storing donations at monk’s alms house

Trough used for storing donations at monk’s alms house

Posted by urbanreverie 23:24 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged water ruins bicycles sri_lanka anuradhapura Comments (0)

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Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Saturday, 16 February 2019

Kumar, the owner of the Vihangi Guesthouse in Dambulla, had arranged a tuk-tuk and driver for the day for five thousand rupees, and the tuk-tuk arrived at eight in the morning for a long and exhausting day checking out not just one but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The tuk-tuk driver is a gentleman named Landana, a quiet yet friendly middle-aged man who stopped at places along the way to point out interesting sights. I felt at ease with him. There seems to be a world of difference between the greasy, untrustworthy touts who hang around bus stations and ATMs intrusively seeking my business, and the mild-mannered, professional drivers that are arranged for me by the guest houses I stay at.

The first site on our agenda was Sigiriya, about twenty kilometres northeast of Dambulla. Sigiriya is one of the more unusual places I have visited. It is a massive rock monolith with vertical sides that sticks two hundred metres above the northern Sri Lankan plain and on top of this unusual geological feature are the remains of a temple-palace complex.

I paid the foreigner's admission fee of a bit over five thousand rupees and entered the complex. First you cross two square moats, and then you walk through a symmetrical array of tanks, gardens, terraces, ramparts and walls all laid out on a perfect grid. After a few hundred metres you proceed through the Boulder Arch and up the first of many, many stairways.

At first the stairs are solid and made of stone. Soon you reach the sheer cliff face of Sigirya. The stairway becomes a tight spiral staircase inside a steel cage bolted to the side of the cliff. Terrifying enough but it is only a foretaste of what is to come.

At the top of the spiral staircase you reach the rock paintings. Ancient murals are still to be seen inside a small rock overhang on the side of Sigiriya. Here the walkway becomes a checkerplate steel platform cantlivered to the side of the cliff. With every person treading on the platform, it bounced up and down. I would like to say that I enjoyed the murals but I was too busy trying to suppress a panic attack.

After a bit more climbing you reach a large flat rock platform, the Lion's Paws. Here there is a Red Cross first aid station, drinking water, and some trees you can sit under while you catch your breath. There is still a little way to go. The top of the Sigiriya monolith towers over you, and you access the top by walking between two giant stone lion's paws and up more staircases.

These staircases aren't like the others. They are so steep they are more like ladders. The railings are so low, they are at about thigh height. Unlike the lower staircases were ascending and descending visitors are separated, on the final staircases at the top people going up and down push past each other. The stairs are made out of checkerplate steel treads with no risers between the treads. And there is no solid ground under the stairs; each step is cantilevered off the side of the cliff face. The whole assembly of stairs bounce like crazy with all the passing foot traffic and when you look down you can see the ground far beneath you between the steps.

I don't have an especial fear of heights; certainly none worse than the average human being. But I did on Sigiriya. All the signs warning about wasp's nests didn't help things. And while climbing these final stairs I had a panic attack. There were crowds behind me, crowds ahead of me, crowds pushing past on their way down. And I just had to break down into a hyperventilating wreck.

Suddenly I felt a man's hands gently pushing me from behind and a soothing Sri Lankan voice telling me it was all going to be OK. He told me he would take care of me and stop me from falling. He admonished me to not look down, just look at the steps one-by-one as they passed.

I didn't dare turn around to see him. I just concentrated on climbing up step by step and getting my panic under control. Eventually I reached the top. My guardian angel introduced himself and it is to my eternal shame that I forget his name. He was a guide, unofficial and unlicenced of course, and he asked me if he could be my guide for two thousand rupees. Deal.

He pointed out all the sights on top of this truly remarkable place. Over two thousand years ago the top of this rocky outcrop two hundred metres above the surrounding plains was an immense temple-palace-fort-monastery complex most likely dating to the era before Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka. There were deep water tanks, a large flat expanse of grass that was a dance hall, the throne of the temple's king, remains of walls and stairways and gates. It was lovely and it obviously took a lot of work to build. It was also very hard work to get to. I hope the monks and courtiers and nobles who lived here gave huge tips to the Domino's Pizza delivery man.

It was soon time to descend back to the Lion's Paws. My guardian angel-slash-tour guide warned me that going down was much worse. He was right. I must have turned the colour of alabaster such was my terror. But I was going to be OK because my very own angel was holding my hand and steadying me every step of the way.

I reached the Lion's Paw and the angel-guide led me to the Red Cross station where there was free drinking water and a shady place to sit outside. I sat for a while and drank many litres of water and recuperated. This is the really stupid thing about living with anxiety and depression - you never, ever know when it is going to hit and the stupidest, most unexpected things set them off. I never knew I had a fear of heights but Sigiriya kortified me.

My angel-guide showed me down the rest of the way. He pointed out the queen's throne about half way down, a sheltered rovk overhang where her throne was carved into the stone and beside each of her feet was a large dimple in the stone where water and flowers were placed to keep the throne smelling nice. There was another area where the temple-king and his advisors met, and the Cobra Hood Rock, a natural rock feature that is exactly what it says on the tin. There are fragments of frescoes visible inside the cobra's hood.

We reached the bottom. I paid the angel-guide our agreed two thousand rupees but he asked for even more. Maybe he's not so angelic after all. I didn't have much small change so I think I gave him theonly another one hundred. He looked a little aggrieved. Maybe his modus operandi is that he carefully watches everyone who goes through the Lion's Paws, uses some sixth sense that enables him to predict who will break out into panic on those diabolical stairs, and follows them and pretends to be their guardian angel so they will be so grateful they will shower him with money. Perhaps I should have done likewise but I believe a deal is a deal. We agree on two thousand, that means I pay two thousand plus any gratuity I may decide upon, even if you are the Archangel Gabriel.

I met Landana among all the tacky souvenir stalls at the bottom and returned to his tuk-tuk. We took off slong some narrow yet well-built jungle road. Along one side was a tall electric fence. Landana explained that this was the boundary of the Minneriya National Park, famous for its very large numbers of elephants, and that the fence was to keep the pachyderms inside and prevent them from causing chaos to surrounding communities. When we rejoined the highway we stopped on the banks of Minneriya Lake, a very large irrigation tank that is famous for The Gathering, when over a hundred elephants gather on the shore to drink from the dam. But this only happens had certain times of the day and no large grey beasts were to be seen.

After I had a rice and curry buffet lunch at a thatched-roof open-air restaurant on the shore of another lake, I bought a ticket to Polonnaruwa National Park. Polonnaruwa was the royal capital during the Polonnaruwa period after the fall of the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the tenth century AD until the thirteenth century AD. The ruins of Polonnaruwa are remarkwbly well preserved.

I spent the afternoon bouncing from ruin to ruin in a state of amazement and awe. I will say this about the Sri Lankan government - despite its general incompetence and inefficiency and meaningless red tape and blatant over-staffing, they do a very good job of running national parks, both natural sites and cultural sites. The grounds are as well managed and maintained as anything in Australia, the rules protecting the parks are strictly enforced to the point of searching every bag and ruthlessly confiscating any plastic, there is plenty of informative and clear interpretive signage at every feature of interest.

The main feature of Polonnaruwa is the Quadrangle, the undisputed seat of royal power. Here there are the remains of a large Buddha statue that was formerly encased in a grand pavilion, a former temple of the Sacred Tooth (Buddha's tooth bounced from capital to capital across the island as the fortunes of the various kingdoms waxed and waned), palace halls and sundry other ruins. There are remains of water tanks, dagabas (the large bell-shaped shrines that are commonly known as "stupas" in English), council chambers, and a large rock with not one but four Buddha carvings in a row.

I was in awe. This place was far more advanced and civilised than Northern Europe a thousand years ago. Here in South Asia there were cohesive, relatively expansive nation-states with intricate professional bureaucracies, large standing militaries, codified laws, vast irrigation networks, sanitation systems and massive institutes of higher education.

My British ancestors a thousand years ago, as well as people from similar northern European cultures, lived in poverty in peasant hovels during the stupor of the Dark Ages. Northern Europe was a rabble of tiny, constantly warring principalities and dukedoms and petty kingdoms, there were no universities, not much infrastructure apart from mere donkey tracks and the occasional water mill, the bureaucracy consisted of an ever-changing coterie of whichever brown-nosing courtiers were in favour with the sovereign at the time, sanitation consisted of latrines that were emptied direct into rivers for the next village downstream to drink, water supply consisted of cholera-infested wells and weirs, the law was not so much a codified body of statutes but whatever string of brain-farts some capricious chieftain had uttered that morning, militaries were ad-hoc affairs consisting of small formations that shifted allegiances at the drop of a hat.

Where did it all go so wrong for South Asia and the East in general? And where did it go so right for Europe, and Britain and Northern Europe in particular? This civilisation at Polonnaruwa and its successor kingdoms became ossified, and only three centuries after the fall of the Polonnaruwa kingdom the Portuguese colonised the coastal parts of Ceylon to ruthlessly exploit the local labour force and natural resources, then the Dutch kicked them out and expanded the colonised areas and continued their exploitation, and then the British kicked them out and expanded their rule over the entire island for 133 years and kept on with the exploitation, throwing in some divide-and-conquer tactics for good measure that played the Sinhalese and Tamils off against each other, a tactic that contributed to the eruption of a three-decade civil war after independence.

I'm not a historian. I'll leave it to others to list the causes to which the success of Western civilisation over the past five hundred years or so can be ascribed. I will say, however, that Polonnaruwa gives the lie to this silly notion that civilisations are permanent, that one civilisation is destined to be superior to others for eternity due to some permanent innate quality, and that the areas of the world that are now poor shall always remain so, and that the areas that are now rich shall likewise always remain so. Walking around Polonnaruwa, the famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s kept ringing through my head:

'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains.

Shelley’s words don't just apply to fallen ancient civilisations. They apply to our own as well.

It was time to leave Polonnaruwa, I was exhausted even though there were still a few ruins I hadn't checked out. On the drive back to Dambulla in the late afternoon I had a good chat with Landana. I asked him about tuk-tuks and how much they cost and what it is like to be a tuk-tuk driver. He told me that a brand-new tuk-tuk, such as the Bajaj RE he was driving (by far the most popular model), costs eight lakh rupees - about six thousand Australian dollars.

Of course, few Sri Lankans have eight hundred thousand rupees stashed away in a biscuit tin at the bottom of the wardrobe. But it's OK, you can buy a Bajaj RE on hire-purchase. It only costs you Rs. 13,200 a month for five years, after which the tuk-tuk is finally yours. But of course tuk-tuks aren't the most robust and durable of motor vehicles so after five years of intensive use you need to lease another one and the cycle continues.

I have been in Sri Lanka long enough to know that a typical short taxi ride in a town costs a local about Rs. 50 or Rs. 100 (foreign visitors can expect to be quoted much more which they usually willingly pay). But there are far more tuk-tuks on the streets than there is demand for them. There doesn't appear to be a system of taxi plates that owners have to bid for at a government auction, the tuk-tuks all just carry ordinary vehicle plates. The barrier to entry for new drivers is very low, they just have to sign a hire-purchase agreement promising to pay the lease agreement every month. So men - it's only men - who find themselves out of work or bankrupted out of their farm lease a tuk-tuk and start driving a taxi.

Hence why whenever you leave a bus or railway station there are mobs of desperate tuk-tuk touts begging for your services. Most tuk-tuk drivers spend a huge portion of their days not in revenue service. It must take a large portion of the days of a month to do enough taxi trips to earn the Rs. 13,200 needed to pay the lease off, not to mention earn enough to pay for registration, fuel, insurance and maintenance. And only after those costs are met can drivers think of putting food on the family dinner table. No wonder so many tuk-tuk drivers are so pushy and intrusive and a few of them sometimes resort to underhanded tactics and lying and scamming tourists to get business. These are desperate men in desperate situations mostly just trying to give their families a decent life.

On the A9 between Habarana and Dambulla, Landana stopped the tuk-tuk on the hard shoulder and pointed off to the right. About a hundred metres away there was an elephant, munching away on shrubs, flopping its ears around. A whole lot of other vehicles had stopped too to admire the beast, both foreign travellers and locals. This wasn't a national park, just scrubland amongst all the farms and villages. What a magnificent noble animal.

Landana dropped me off back at the guest house shortly before six. The guest house owner called a tuk-tuk to take me to a nearby restaurant for another rice and curry buffet. Not only was I too exhausted to walk but the neighbourhood is teeming with vicious dogs that become even more aggressive at night. I can't ever get tired of rice and curry. Every rice and curry is its own unique symphony, no two are the same. Even at the same restaurant the kaleidoscope changes from day to day, sometimes massively, sometimes subtly. Just like Sri Lanka itself, rice and curry never ceases to surprise, to challenge, to inspire, to educate.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Boulder Arch at Sigiriya

Boulder Arch at Sigiriya

Sigiriya spiral staircase

Sigiriya spiral staircase

Lion’s Paws stairway

Lion’s Paws stairway

Ruins at top of Sigiriya

Ruins at top of Sigiriya

Queen’s throne at Sigiriya

Queen’s throne at Sigiriya

Minneriya Lake

Minneriya Lake

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Stone Book at Polonnaruwa

Stone Book at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa

Moonstone (used for cleaning feet before entering sacred sites) at Polonnaruwa

Moonstone (used for cleaning feet before entering sacred sites) at Polonnaruwa

Buddha carvings st Polonnaruwa

Buddha carvings st Polonnaruwa

Elephant near Dambulla over man’s right shoulder

Elephant near Dambulla over man’s right shoulder

Posted by urbanreverie 23:21 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged ruins elephants sri_lanka polonnaruwa dambulla sigiriya tuk-tuks Comments (0)

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