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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.



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



Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at Polonnaruwa



Stone Book at Polonnaruwa

Stone Book at Polonnaruwa



Dagaba at Polonnaruwa

Dagaba at 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)

Tea and sympathy

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Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Monday, 11 February 2019

When I was five years old my aunt gave me a battered old hardcover school atlas, presumably one that she had used at school circa 1970. It immediately became my most jealously treasured possession. I devoured the information in that atlas. I learned the names of all the world's capital cities, I taught myself how to draw every nation's flag from memory, I could recite by heart which languages were spoken in each country. I knew that one day I would see these places.

I grew up on a low-income public housing estate in southwestern Sydney. My family was better off than most of our neighbours - at least one of my parents was always in work, usually both of them had jobs - but money was always tight. Interstate travel was usually out of the question, let alone international travel. Holidays consisted of a week spent in a grotty caravan in Forster-Tuncurry or nothing. I am not complaining - those holidays form bright spots of light in what was sometimes a bleak childhood - but even as a child I knew that travel must consist of more than eating fish and chips from paper wrappers on picnic tables under scrawny Norfolk Island pines next to a fishing harbour while being mobbed by greedy seagulls.

It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I was prosperous enough to travel overseas. Australia is very far from the rest of the world, international air fares tend to be very expensive compared to other parts of the planet, it takes a long time in the air to get anywhere from Australia and even though air fares are becoming more affordable a very large proportion of Australians still don't have a passport and have never been overseas. I have many friends and relatives who have never been outside Australia or have only travelled overseas once.

I was thirty-two when I landed at Changi Airport in Singapore one morning after an excruciating red-eye flight from Brisbane via Brunei. I had gotten maybe half an hour's sleep and my mind was racing. I presented my passport to the silent poker-faced immigration officer, she scanned it, stamped it and handed it back to me. I was free to proceed. I spent the next two hours stumbling around Changi's impressive terminals in a confused daze. I was finally overseas! I finally did it! Wow! I'm overseas! I can't believe that I am actually overseas! Am I really overseas? Is this a dream? No! I am actually overseas!

Perhaps it is because I do not take international travel for granted, because I am grateful to have the opportunity to go overseas, because I am aware that there are so many people back home who have never had that opportunity, because I had yearned for so long to explore this world but couldn't, that I feel this urge, this irresistible duty, to share what I do, what I see, what I hear, what I taste and what I learn with people who read this blog. Perhaps it is narcissism. Perhaps it is altruism. Perhaps it is some combination of the two. In any case, I do hope it is entertaining and I thank the hundreds of people who have read this blog for coming along for the ride. I am honoured.

Speaking of rides, the day began leisurely until my vehicle for the day arrived in the late morning. My guest house had arranged my own personal tuk-tuk for the day for three thousand rupees. The little black tuk-tuk, obviously much better maintained and loved than your typical dusty taxi tuk-tuk, was driven by Susantha, a mild-mannered, softly-spoken middle-aged man who instantly made me feel at ease. This old cobber was no greasy little scam artist.

The tour took in two tea factories and three waterfalls strung out along the A5 highway from Nuwara Eliya in the direction of Kandy. Susantha wasn't like any other tuk-tuk driver I have seen. He drove safely, courteously and mostly obeyed the law. Until now I had assumed that it was a prerequisite to obtaining a Sri Lankan driver's licence that one must drive like a psychopathic methamphetamine addict.

About ten kilometres out of town along the twisty highway was our first destination, the Damro Tea Factory. This was a busy place nestled in a ravine surrounded by terraced tea plantations with a congested car park out the front full of tour coaches and tuk-tuks. Above it all was a big sign, "DAMRO TEA", in big white letters on the hillside like the Hollywood sign. I went on a quick twenty-minute group tour of the factory where a knowledgeable guide taught us how tea was made.

Tea production is not an especially complicated process. First, the freshly picked tea leaves are laid out on long wire racks and under the racks are high-powered fans that force air through the leaves to dry them. Twelve to eighteen hours later, the leaves are crushed and rolled in a large machine with a rotating blade to chop them into smaller, flatter pieces. Then the crushed leaves are spread out thinly on large stainless steel tables for three hours to ferment. "Fermentation" is strictly not the correct word, there is no yeast or bacterium involved. "Oxidisation" is the correct word; being exposed to air oxidises the compounds in the leaves, develops their flavour and turns the leaves black. (Green tea popular in East Asia does not go through this oxidisation process; the dried and crushed leaves are immediately sealed in air-tight containers.)

The tea leaves are then fired for twenty-one minutes at ninety degrees Celsius to stop the oxidisation process and to completely remove all moisture from the leaves. Next, the tea leaves are graded. The product from the ovens consists of a heterogeneous mix of different leaf types and particle sizes and fragments of stems which are worthless. The dried leaves are then sifted through a series of electrostatic rollers that attract the lighter, smaller particles. The larger whole leaves are of higher quality and attract a premium price on world markets. The smallest particles, called "fannings" or "dust", are the strongest, most bitter tea grade and are often used in cheaper tea bags.

After this tour we were shown the gift shop where we all bought souvenirs. For some reason there were a lot of visitors from Britain and the former British Dominions. I am shocked.

A short distance further down the highway was another tea facility, Blue Field Tea Factory. I went on another guided tour. I was the only visitor on that tour and I got to ask a lot of questions from the guide, Farhasan, about the details of the procedures that I wasn't able to ask on the more popular tour at Damro. While being led through the factory I saw me first tea plantation workers, two Tamil women in saris loading oxidised tea into the drying oven.

Tea production in Sri Lanka has an imteresting history. The Hill Country was originally virgin rainforest inhabited mostly by hunter-gatherer tribes called the Veddha. After the British conquered the interior in 1815, the colonists found that the cool highland climate was perfect for growing tea, that substance George Orwell called the Englishman's opium. So the British cleared thousands of acres of hilly rainforest to plant tea bushes.

There was only one problem - nobody wanted to work on them. The Sinhalese had their ancestral villages, their inherited plots of land, their fishing boats that allowed them to reap the infinite bounty of the sea. Why would they give that up just to work for British capitalist pigs on some remote tea farm for a pittance?

So the British did what they often did - import people from elsewhere in the British Empire. In this case, they brought in thousands of starving, landless Tamil peasants from the Indian mainland to do the dirty work.

The Tamils are still there picking tea. They are distinct from the Tamils who live in the north and east of Sri Lanka who have been on the island for many centuries. It is no exaggeration to say that the Plantation Tamils, as they are called, are among the most oppressed peoples in Asia. One of the first things newly independent Ceylon did in 1950 was to strip these poor souls of their Ceylonese citizenship. The government in Colombo claimed they were Indian. India didn't want them back or to grant them citizenship - why would they, generations of Plantation Tamils had lived in Sri Lanka for a century and now had few ties to India - effectively rendering the tea workers stateless.

Many NGOs and charities are working hard to improve the lot of these exploited tea workers. Still, the conditions of these workers are absurd. They live on the plantations in long, ramshackle, rusty shacks called "lines". The lines are divided into a series of segments, each segment being home to one family. The typical pay of a tea picker is eight hundreed rupees a day - about six Australian dollars. To put this in perspective, at Cargill's white rice is Rs. 79 a kilogram, bananas are Rs. 75 a kilogram, potatoes are Rs. 170 a kilogram, a small frozen chicken is Rs. 500, a twin pack of bar soap is Rs. 99, a 1.5 litre bottle of safe drinking water is Rs. 70 and apples are a whopping Rs. 500 a kilogram. The plantation workers might not have to pay for their on-site accommodation, but it is clear that eight hundred rupees does not go very far.

To earn this majestic amount of eight hundred rupees, the pickers have to pluck twenty kilograms of tea a day. I don't know if you've ever seen a fresh tea leaf but they are feather-light. Only the small, young, tender leaves are picked. It must take all day to reach that quota. It takes five kilograms of fresh leaves to make one kilogram of final product. I calculated in my head - twenty kilograms of fresh leaves make four kilograms of final product, eight hundred rupees divided by four is two hundred rupees per kilogram of final product - about A$1.60 per kilogram, a tiny fraction of what tea costs in Western supermarkets. Keep that in mind when you next make a nice cup of tea.

I had an excellent rice and curry buffet lunch at the Blue Field factory, bought some more tea souvenirs, and got back in the tuk-tuk with the ever-patient Susantha. The A5 highway descends from the Hill Country plateau to the central plains around Kandy, we had descended by about nine hundred metres from Nuwara Eliya before we arrived at the next stop, Puna Ella Falls. The Hill Country plateau is fringed with waterfalls on all sides of the plateau where streams plunge off the highlands onto the surrounding plains, and Puna Ella is one of the smaller waterfalls that can be seen from the highway at a distance.

A short distance down the hill was the next waterfall, Ramboda Falls. This is actually a complex of two waterfalls, Upper Ramboda Falls and Lower Ramboda Falls, one above the highway bridge and one below. The upper falls are magnificent enough but Susantha led me to the lower falls.

It was a bit of a hike. First you have to walk down from the highway along a very steep switchbacked driveway to the Ramboda Falls Hotel. You then have to walk down three storeys of stairs, then exit the hotel, and walk down the steepest, narrowest staircase I have ever seen.

It was worth it. In some respects, the Lower Ramboda Falls are more awe-inspiring than the Ravana Falls at Ella. The Ravana Falls are much higher but quite narrow. The Lower Ramboda Falls are wider and more powerful.

Then we had to climb back up. My goodness, those stairs! They were more like ladders. They were so narrow that whenever people came from opposite directions one person had to risk breaking their neck to let the other through. After an arduous climb, we got to the hotel. There is an elevator but it is for guests only. Everyone else has to buy a ticket. Susantha and I climbed the three stories but right outside the exit at the top of the hotel, there was a rude, loud, French-speaking woman smoking an extremely strong cigarette that smelled like burning tyres.

I had an asthma attack, the first of my trip. Susantha looked curious as I administered by Ventolin puffer to my aching lungs, I don't think he had seen an asthma puffer before. He promised me that we would take the driveway up to the highway where the tuk-tuk was parked nice and slow, he even offered to carry my daypack for me. What a legend.

The next feature of the tour was the Ramboda Tunnel, a piece of infrastructure that enabled the Hill Country to be connected to Kandy by a direct road. Sri Lankans are so proud of this tunnel that it appears on the front of the one thousand rupee note.

We stopped at a lookout perched above a souvenir shop a bit further on, from here all three waterfalls were visible, as well as a lovely prospect over the Kotmale Reservoir towards the mountains near Kandy.

It was time to return to Nuwara Eliya. Scattered in the hills through all the terraced tea bushes are small vegetable farms worked by impoverished smallholders. They stand on the side of the A5 holding their produce in their hands offering them to passing vehicles. I asked Susantha to stop at one and bought a punnet of strawberries from one old lady for three hundred rupees. They were the reddest, sweetest, juiciest strawberries I have ever eaten. What is it about Sri Lanka and its divinely inspired fruit and vegetables? This is how fresh produce should be everywhere.

Soon we were back in Nuwara Eliya and it was time to say goodbye to Susantha and his marvellously well-polished black tuk-tuk. Visiting Sri Lanka is a study in contradictions. One minute its people's inability to give accurate advice about anything, the feckless inefficiency, the chaotic lack of planning, the scamming tuk-tuk drivers and the fact that nothing quite works almost sends you into a nervous breakdown. The next minute, the genuine warmth of its people, the gentle soft-spokenness, the friendly smiles and the incredible politeness restore your faith in the country. Sri Lanka never ceases to surprise and to amaze and to challenge and to inspire.

Susantha dropped me off at Victoria Park. One of the good things about the British Empire is that wherever the British colonists went, they built magnificent parks modelled on those back in Britain. Of course this doesn't justify the theft of whole continents from innocent indigenous peoples, the exploitation of farm and mine and plantation workers for the benefit of British capitalist interests, the divide-and-conquer philosophy that to this day seems ethnic groups in former possessions of the Empire at each other's throats, or the countless bloody wars to maintain Britain's grip on one-quarter of the world's land area. But the parks the British built are at least something in their favour.

I paid the three hundred rupee admission fee to Victoria Park and was shocked. This was not Sri Lanka! If it wasn't for the ceaseless honking of horns from all the buses and tuk-tuks on the surrounding streets, I would have thought I was in Bowral or Orange back in New South Wales.

Rustic paths weaved across emerald green lawns, a rose garden was laid out in a series of geometrically perfect concentric circles, ducks danced on lily pads on green ponds, and mock-Tudor cottages and glasshouses dotted the landscape. There are parks just like this all over Australia, especially in highland towns with cooler climates in New South Wales. There was a large children's playground with a miniature railway just like some parks back home. What made it feel even more Australian were all the Australian trees - Norfolk Island pines, bunya pines, hoop pines, she-oaks and most importantly, eucalypts, the most common type of tree all over Australia.

There are so many eucalypts, which Australians colloquially call "gum trees", not just in Nuwara Eliya but all the surrounding countryside. I pointed them out to Susantha, huge stands of tall gums on the ridges above the tea plantation slopes. He never knew that those trees were Australian, he told me that they were grown to make paper and people called them "paper trees".

It was starting to get dark so I decided to explore a nearby neighboirhood full of nineteenth-century mock-Tudor hotels built by the British when Nuwara Eliya was the colonists' favourite place to get away from the horrible tropical climate of the lowlands. There are a series of these hotels, one larger than the next, until one reaches the famous Grand Hotel, an imposing peach-coloured edifice with half-timbered walls and bay windows.

I decided to see the inside and stop for a drink. I went up to the front portico and the doorman told me that yes, sir, there is a public lounge bar inside, if sir would be pleased to follow me? I'm a working-class boy. Being treated like some business tycoon doesn't sit well with me. Just speak to me like a normal human being.

We went through chambers full of timber panels and chandeliers, past a grand piano, past an expensife jewellery store, and the doorman showed me through to the public bar, a cosy little chamber of dark heavy timbers and soft, comfortable armchairs.

Most of the patrons in the bar, about eighty percent, were older, gammon-faced, bossy, upper-class English Home Counties twits of the sort who voted for Brexit and write indignant letters to the editor of the Daily Mail signed "Disgusted of Royal Tunbridge Wells". The other twenty percent were their equally arrogant and entitled Australian counterparts, the kind of people who I cross the street to avoid back home. Needless to say, I did not introduce myself to my fellow Australians.

I was astounded by just how rudely and contemptuously they treated the hotel staff. I guess they were under the mistaken impression that the British Empire still exist and the locals are still their lackeys. It was disgusting. I don't care what colour the hotel employees are, I don't care how wealthy you are, you say your pleases amd thank-yous like everybody else.

I ordered a drink, a mint gin, a bright green Incredible Hulk-like concotion of gin, lime juice, mint syrup and soda water. It was very nice. It was also very expensive, sixteen hundred rupees. As I sipped my drink and ate the complimentary soybean snacks I was overcome with self-disgust. Here I am, sitting in a posh hotel surrounded by bourgeois pigs, sipping a drink that would cost a tea picker two day's wages. How on earth is this fair? I'm a socialist, and a proud and active member of my trade union, for crying out loud!

I would like to think that I work moderately hard. I endure the well-paid sedentary drudgery of an often mind-numbingly soporific job in the Public Service. When I am not bogged down in trivial administrative minutiae, it is often a very stressful job. I am in a position with some responsibility, there are many competing demands on my attention, and I am required to train and supervise people who could most leniently be described as "bloody difficult".

But I don't have to work from dawn to dusk, my back bent over double, a hessian sack slowly getting heavier on my shoulder, performing the intellectually stimulating job of looking at a tea bush and trying to figure out which leaves will keep the foreman happy, picking, picking, picking until my fingernails bleed, just so posh twits in Britain and elsewhere can sip on their Earl Grey in centrally-heated conservatories in Berkshire and feel oh-so-sophisticated while I get paid a wage that is enough to buy a small frozen chicken, two kilograms of rice and two kilograms of bananas for my family. Stuff it. This world is not fair and it bloody well should be.

Posted by urbanreverie 17:19 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged waterfalls tea sri_lanka tuk-tuks nuwara_eliya tamils Comments (0)

The lotus position

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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Saturday, 2 February 2019

The day began surprisingly with no evidence of a hangover. This is a good sign. Lion is a crisp, pure, refreshing drop, truly the nectar of the gods, and I won't have a bad word said about it.

I had brunch at Britannia Fried Chicken - a giant mound of egg fried rice - and found another tuk-tuk that took me to Bambalapitiya, the next suburb south of Kollupitiya along the coast. My destination was the Geoffrey Bawa House, a house designed by Sri Lanka's most famous modern architect as his residence in 1960.

The tuk-tuk dropped me off in a cul-de-sac in a wealthy neighbourhood full of mansions surrlunded by luxuriant gardens shielded from the outside world by tall whitewashed walls. A resident who was walking down the street saw a white tourist looking perplexed outside some random house and waved down the tuk-tuk driver and waved for me to come. The resident explained that the driver had delivered me to the wrong street! These bloody tuk-tuk drivers are absolutely bloody hopeless!

I got back into the tuk-tuk and this time he took me to the right cul-de-sac. I went up to the Geoffrey Bawa House, a striking white house full of sharp angles and protruding decks. It also looked very closed. I checked my Lonely Planet - yes, there are definitely tours at 10am, noon, 2pm and 3:30pm Monday to Saturday and it was now 11:50am. I searched for a doorbell, I found one in a recess. There was a sign beneath it saying that there were tours at 10am, 2pm and 3:30pm Monday to Saturday.

Damn! It was at that moment that the electric garage door opened. A polite elderly man emerged, he had seen me scratching my head on the CCTV camera. He explained that the Lonely Planet was wrong, I was more than welcome to come back at 2pm, he was so sorry, but in the meantime I might care to explore another of Bawa's works nearby? The nice old man gave me directions to the Paradise Road Gallery a few streets away.

I thanked him and took his advice. The Paradise Road Gallery is a modest, neat little building with archways and cool, shaded courtyards with fishponds and bark roof tiles. The gallery specialises in some seriously good graphic art, typically ink on board, with price tags to match - expect to pay around Rs. 100,000 for a typical work.

Out the back in a shaded yard was a restaurant, bar and café. It was well patronised, exclusively by wealthy Western tourists. I ordered something called a "chocolate nemesis", a warm chocolate pudding covered in whipped cream and drizzled with peach coulis, accompanied with a most welcome iced coffee. It was quite lovely and a nice place to escape the heat but at Rs. 1,951 was probably just as expensive as what I would pay for something similar in Sydney.

I then went suddenly from posh to pleb. I made my way to Galle Road and caught the 101 bus to Fort Station for Rs. 40. If I could only say one thing about that bus trip, it would be this - the driver should be in jail for a very, very long time. For the forty-minute journey he tailgated other motorists, barreled towards red lights only to slam on the brakes at the very last second, blasted his horn at the slightest provocation, and swerved from one side of the road to the other without so much as a single blink of the indicator.

"This f×÷#in' maniac is gonna get the whole f×#$in' lot of us killed," I exclaimed more times than I care to count. The other passengers didn't even blink. The defence mechanism of derealisation that made my tuk-tuk journeys more bearable failed to kick in on this bus ride. The conductor made his way up and down the bus without even holding on, stopping his fare collection frequently to lean out of the open doors to shout something that sounded like "olla olla olla olla olla olla olla olla olla!" at people on the footpath.

It was with considerable relief that I alighted at Fort Station. I am leaving Colombo tomorrow and I wanted to book a reserved seat to my next destination. This is how you are supposed to buy tickets at Fort. There are large signs at the entrance telling you which counter to go to to buy a ticket for a particular line or a particular group of destinations. You find the counter which matches your intended destination, wait in line forever even if the counter is attended (which it usually isn't), and when you are finally served you will be told be some rude, surly bastard that this is the wrong counter and would you please go to some other counter in some distant nook of the station if you wouldn't mind?

Which is precisely what happened to me. I was told to go to this counter for intercity reservations - actually, an airless, cramped, stuffy room with several counters, one for the northern lines, one for the eastern lines, and so forth.

There were lengthy queues for each counter but there wasn't enough space to keep the queues separate so all the queues kind of spiralled around each other. There was a pillar in the middle of the room which didn't help things. I thought I had found the queue for my intended line, but it actually went to a different counter. I waited forever in another queue only to be told that the only train to my destination with reserved seating departs at 6:55am and that for all other trains I could only buy tickets on the day of travel.

Disappointed but not surprised - I am slowly getting used to Sri Lanka and its ruthless inefficiency - I left Fort Station and crossed the road into Pettah. Pettah is one of the oldest suburbs of Colombo and is basically one huge street market. It is also one of the most multi-ethnic suburbs of Colombo being home to vibrant Tamil, Hindu, Moor, Malay and Christian communities.

I stumbled through the narrow, pulsating streets. Market stalls spilled out onto the streets. Emaciated, impoverished labourers, many of them quite elderly, would carry four twenty-kilogram sacks of grain on their shoulders or push handcarts with at least a tonne of merchandise thereon. I was in awe. These labourers had ribcages sticking out of their naked chests and thighs with the circumference of cricket stumps. I do not know how they possess the strength to perform such Herculean tasks.

In the end I couldn't wait to leave Pettah, though it kept drawing me in to its spiderweb of alleys and stalls and pyramids of fruit and vegetables. If you are in the market for genuine imitation Levi's or licenced knock-off Dora the Explorer schoolbags, boy, do I have a deal for you!

Pettah isn't just markets though. It is also an intensely religious place. There is a street with a row of three Hindu temples like giant rainbow croquembouches set on the table at a Parisian dinner party. There are sparkling mosques, a Jesus grotto, and the Wolvendaal Dutch Reformed Church with its curved gables that wouldn't look out of place in some market town in Holland. I finished my tour of Pettah by walking the full length of the covered Federation of Self Employees Market with its staggering variety of fruits and vegetables, most of which I never knew existed and couldn't name for the life of me.

I grabbed another tuk-tuk to see the Lotus Tower. Most Colombo tuk-tuks have meters, but a large proportion still don't. For these tuk-tuks you need your bargaining skills. I am an Australian and I have never bargained in my life. In my culture bargaining is often seen as crass and demeaning. The price you see is the price you pay.

The tuk-tuk driver wanted Rs. 500. Ha! I know how far away it is, I knew it wouldn't be more than Rs. 150. I offered Rs. 200 and he refused it. In the end a metered tuk-tuk appeared and it only cost me about Rs. 130.

The Lotus Tower is the newest addition to Colombo's skyline. In many respects it is your typical communications tower like Berlin's Fernsehturm or Sydney Tower, but it is unique for having a turret styled as a lotus blossom that has yet toopen with bright purple petals and dark green bracts. The petals are also illumknated in bright purple lights at night too.

I got out of the tuk-tuk and took some photographs of the Lotus Tower soaring some three hundred metres above me. There were plenty of other tourists doing likewise. However, none of us could go up to the observation deck. The Lotus Tower isn't due to open until March 2019. I was shattered. I love towers and I love collecting tower models, but I do have a very strict rule - I only collect models for towers I have climbed. Waaaaah!

Another tuk-tuk with yet another episode of derealisation took me to Galle Face Green, "Colombo's front yard". Galle Face Green is a vast treeless expanse of dirt and dead brown grass along the coast south of Fort. There were dozens of army trucks and mobile missile launchers and tanks in preparation for the National Day celebrations on Monday. The Green is a fairly dismal place watched over by an impossibly tall flagpole flying the national flag but it is a popular place to stroll or play frisbee or fly kites or watch the sunset. I did precisely the last of these things. Watching an ocean sunset is something people who live on Australia's east coast rarely do, for obvious reasons, and indeed I had not seen an ocean sunset since 1992 when I visited Western Australia in my teens. It truly was a magical sight, watching the sun get redder and dimmer as it descended towards the horizon before finally being extinguished. I said my own private farewell to the day and my own private farewell to Colombo, a city that for all its faults has worked its enchanting magic on me.

Posted by urbanreverie 22:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged buses sri_lanka colombo tuk-tuks pettah bambalapitiya Comments (0)

How I learned to stop worrying and love the tuk-tuk

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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Friday, 1 February 2019

On previous overseas holidays, I have rushed around from place to place like a madman. On this holiday I intend to slow the pace a few notches on my locomotive throttle. So I spent much of the morning in my hotel room updating my blog and searching for accommodation a few destinations hence.

Whenever I travel I pack a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.3 that I bought in 2014 before my trip to Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea. To call this tablet a buggy, glitchy, crashy, laggy unadulterated piece of crap would be a charitable statement. Programs crash constantly, both web browsers freeze, the tablet refuses to charge when I plug it into the wall or my power brick, whenever I switch between apps it forgets everything I did in the first app so browser fields are cleared or unsaved edits are deleted, and the only reason why I bought this Samsung tablet was because it has an SD card slot that makes it easier to upload photos. But now that my camera screen is busted and I am just using my iPhone to take photos and videos, I don't even need the SD card slot anymore.

I had fallen behind on my blog and I was tired after yesterday's massive public transport adventure so I decided just to chill out and update my blog and book some hotels. But the Samsung Galaxy Tab refused to cooperate. I do believe the whole of Kollupitiya may have heard me scream sundry obscenities at the blasted thing. This stupid piece of dog poo is so bad that I am considering just using a pen and a notebook to record my adventures which I will type up when I get home.

In the end I gave up and went to search for brunch. As much as I love spice, I am still a Westerner and therefore my gastro-intestinal tract does need a break from time to time. There is a Burger King close at hand on the other side of Galle Road, a roaring, shadeless four-lane one-way traffic sewer where the stream of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks is ceaseless. Galle Road has even less charm than Parramatta Road in Sydney, and that is saying something.

I eventually managed to cross the road by finding a clump of people also desiring to participate in the simple act of getting to the other side, and I crossed with them at a time when the traffic was thinner and consisted mostly of tuk-tuks that can go around everyone. I went into the Burger King and ordered my Whopper with cheese value meal with Pepsi for the drink.

"I'm sorry, we don't have Pepsi, only 7-Up and Mirinda," the girl at the counter said.

"But I see Pepsi on the post-mix machine there."

"Sorry, but we don't have it. Only 7-Up and Mirinda."

"OK then, I'll just have a Mirinda then."

"OK." And just as she was dispensing my cup of Mirinda, the customer at the cash register next to me ordered a Pepsi, and his server went to the post-mix machine and poured forth a gushing brown stream of delicious, caffeinated Pepsi into the other customer's cup. This kind of thing happens a lot in Sri Lanka. It feels as though nobody in this country is capable of giving a direct, honest answer or accurate advice about anything. Nothing, NOTHING, makes sense here.

After eating my brunch without the caffeine hit I so desperately needed, I took the plunge and did something I had promised myself I wouldn't do. I hailed a tuk-tuk. These things are basically motorbikes with two rear wheels and a boxy shell-like cover covering the driver and the passenger who sits on the rear seat. There are no seat belts and there are no railings to keep you inside the shell in the event of an accident. The tuk-tuk drivers are also absolutely fearless and reckless. These buzzing little fart machines swarm everywhere like mosquitoes with wheels, and any white person who walks along a road will soon encounter a tuk-tuk stopping every thirty seconds with the driver beckoning you to get on board.

The reason why I chose to take a tuk-tuk was because I was going to the National Museum, about half an hour's walk away. I am not averse to walking, but Colombo is hot and very, very humid. It isn't much worse than Sydney this time of year, if anything it is a litle bit more bearable here because the sunlight isn't so oppressively harsh, but it is still unplessant and sweaty to walk around in Colombo even in flat terrain. Also, finding maps and timetables for the bus system is impossible and I have no idea which buses will get me to the museum. So I hailed a tuk-tuk.

Oh my goodness, what a scary adventure. The tuk-tuk driver darted down the narrow interstices between moving buses, weaved at speed through throngs of pedestrians crossing the road both ways, and a thousand other things that in Australia would see his driver's license suspended for decades. I found that the world took on an ethereal dream-like quality, like I was watching a movie or imagining something that another person was talking to me about. Psychiatrists have a word for this experience - "derealisation", and it is apparently a common defence mechanism the brain produces when in traumatic life-threatening situations.

The tuk-tuk cost about Rs. 60 - about fifty Australian cents - and I disembarked only to find that the tuk-tuk driver had delivered me to the street behind the museum, not in front of it. It was still a good half a kilometre via a circuitous detour to get to the front of the National Museum.

At least there was plenty to look at. All along the road running behind the museum, Green Path, dozens of local artists had set up stalls selling their paintings. Some of it was talented stuff and I would have bought one or two of the paintings if it weren't for the practical troubles of how to get them home to Australia.

The National Museum is an imposing alabaster-white palace in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo's most elite suburb full of spacious parks and embassies and important cultural institutions. I paid my Rs. 1,000 admittance and went into the cool, dark exhibition halls. The National Museum is concerned chiefly with Sri Lankan archaeology and the halls are full of statues, figurines, bas-reliefs, agricultural implements and shards of broken earthenware accompanied by dense, dry, earnest interpretative texts intelligible only to those few people who have written PhD theses in Oriental Studies. I found the texts incomprehensible being so unfortunate as to only have an Honours degree in surveying and mapping so I got rather bored.

There were some highlights though. Pride of place is taken by the Royal Throne of the Kingdom of Kandy, Sri Lanka's last indigenous kingdom. The Portuguese had only colonised the coastal areas, and when the Dutch kicked the Portuguese out they didn't expand too much into the interior, leaving the Kingdom of Kandy in the hilly inland regions largely intact. It was only after the Dutch were kicked out by the British during the Napoleonic Wars in 1796 that the Kingdom of Kandy was finally conquered by the Redcoats in 1815, subjugating the whole of Sri Lanka to European colonial rule for the first time.

The golden throne along with the Kandian crown and royal sceptre is reverently displayed in a glass cube. The throne was donated to the Kingdom of Kandy in the seventeenth century by the Dutch United East Indian Company in a spectacular act of diplomatic brown-nosing. It is still a wonderful sight.

I also enjoyed the working models of the irrigation systems developed by the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the first millennium AD. The Sri Lankans were world pioneers in irrigation, even today the countryside is dotted with dams called "tanks" built in the Anuradhapura period. Palaces, temples, cohesive bureaucracies, giant irrigation networks spanning the entire island - the Sri Lankans had an advanced civilisation at a time when my Britannic ancestors were presumably chewing on wooly mammoth bones in a freezing cave while communicating with each other using monosyllabic grunts.

After two hours at the National Museum I ambled past the modern Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa zThestre, an imposing entertainment venue shaped like a scalloped flying saucer, and then through Viharamahadevi Park, a large dusty park with patches of welcome shade under sprawling fig trees. There is a golden Buddha statue in the park opposite Colombo City Hall, a large white domed palace built in 1927 that could easily be relocsted tl Washington D.C. and not look out of place.

Another tuk-tuk ride with another episode of derealisation brought me to Fort, the historic commercial centre of Colombo that dates to the Portuguese era. There are many stately Edwardian buildings dating from the British era in the early twentieth century; department stores, shipping offices and the faded grandeur of the Grand Oriental Hotel. This place must have been amazing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Ceylon, with its commanding position off the southern tip of India, was the linchpin of the British Empire. All shipping routes and submarine telegraph cables connecting Britain with its Pacific and Far Eastern possessions passed through Colombo. Generations of immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia passed through Colombo.

The southern portion of Fort has less historic buildings and more modern architecture such as the striking Bank of Ceylon tower, a soaring white cylinder. I headed west to the Galle Buck Lighthouse which at a distance looks like an ancient stone beacon but in reality is a cement aggregate tower built in 1950. I climbed the small knoll up to the base of the lighthouse which is soon going to be pretty useless as it is now stranded inland by a gargantuan land reclamation project currently underway. When it is finished, Colombo will be extended several kilometres seaward.

All that walking made me a little exhausted and sweaty. I went to the Dutch Hospital, built as a healthcare facility for Dutch colonists in the seventeenth century but now a restaurant and entertainment complex oriented towards tourists. Its courtyards and colonnades were full of Western tourists enjoying themselves and I joined them. I grabbed a pizza and a few Lion beers at a sports bar with satisfyingly frigid air conditioning. The icy air was delivered through small vents in the floor that looked like bath drains. I pulled up a seat at the bar, strategically placed the seat adjacent to one of the vents so that the cold blast went right up my shirt, and enjoed a few restorative brews while watching Qatar cream Japan in the Asian Cup football final. Beer snobs might look down on pale light lagers - I should know, I am a beer snob much to the disgust of my late father - but let me tell you that such lagers like Lion are made hand-in-glove for countries with humid tropical climates and spicy food.

A few hours later and I tumbled out into the stifling evening air and into the warm embrace of a waiting tuk-tuk.

Posted by urbanreverie 08:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged parks architecture beer fort museum sri_lanka colombo tuk-tuks Comments (0)

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