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Galle, Sri Lanka
Monday, 4 February 2019

February 4 is Sri Lanka's National Day, also known as Independence Day. It commemorates the anniversary of Ceylon, as the country was then known, becoming a self-governing Dominion within the British Commonwealth with the same status as Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in 1948. (It wouldn't be until 1972 when Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka with its own President.)

National Day is celebrated with a massive military display and flag ceremony on Galle Face Green in Colombo every year, but there are smaller celebrations in every city. In Galle, there was a parade in the streets around the Galle International Cricket Stadium just north of the Fort. A rather relaxed and indifferent-looking procession of military cadets, marching bands, school students in uniform and women in colourful traditional dress marched on the streets around the stadium as local VIPs looked on from the shade of marquees on the road shoulder opposite the central bus station. There weren't too many spectators. I asked a few Sri Lankans during the day how they celebrated National Day and they told me it was just a day off work for them.

In other words, it is like what Australia Day used to be before the bicentennial celebrations of European colonisation in 1988. I have now witnessed the celebrations of national days in four countries - Australia, Brunei, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka - and none of the last three are anywhere near as unpleasant as what Australia Day has become. Of course not everyone who participates in Australia Day celebrations is a drunken racist sunburnt bogan with a brain cell count smaller than their shoe size who openly revels in the fact that January 26 is a day of calamity for Australia's first peoples and thinks the day is a great opportunity to harass foreigners with impunity. But it certainly helps if you are such a person. As for me, the only good thing about January 26 is the fact that the Sydney Bus Museum runs their vintage buses around the city centre for the general public to ride on. Otherwise I cannot wait until the date of Australia Day is inevitably changed. The sight of xenophobic alcoholic thugs' empty skulls exploding in apoplexy shall be too marvellous for words.

After I checked out the modest National Day celebrations, I went on a self-guided walking tour around the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Galle Fort. Some travel puritans look down on Lonely Planet and travel guidebooks in general but I would be utterly lost without my Planet. My Sri Lanka Planet is already showing signs of wear and tear. I shall be pleasantly surprised if it survives my three week holiday without disintegrating.

There is an excellent map on page 113 with a self-guided walking tour that mostly followed the Fort's ramparts in a clockwise direction. I started at the Old Gate, a narrow opening in the walls near the northeastern corner. This gate has the British coat of arms with the lion and the unicorn above the outer portal while the Dutch United East Indian Company's coat of arms graced the inner portal.

The fort is shaped like many European forts of the era, essentially a large pentagon with bastions on salients at each corner. The bastion at the northeastern corner, Zwart Bastion ('zwart' being Dutch for 'black'), is the oldest portion of the wall and was most likely built by the Portuguese in the late sixteenth century.

I had trouble finding the Zwart Bastion. The only way up there seemed to be through the grounds of a police station. Surely that couldn't be right? I certainly didn't want to risk being charged with trespassing on government property. I then saw an elderly white couple coming down the driveway. I asked the man if this was the way to the bastion. He confirmed that it was in a slow, broad Australian accent that sounded Queensland or perhaps an inland rural area. I said something like, "thanks, mate. Wow, another Australian." He was the first Australian I have met in Sri Lanka so I thought he might respond positively. He just grunted and walked away.

I walked up the steep police station driveway, a policeman in the sentry box waved me through and said "number eleven, that way" as he pointed to a path that led behind the station building. There must have been very many people with the same Lonely Planet map asking where number eleven was over the years.

I checked out the bastion with its crenellations and embayments and continued on past the long white arcades of the Dutch Hospital to Lighthouse Beach. This small, sheltered, child-friendly beach was much more popular with the locals than the tourists and was full of young families enjoying the public holiday in the sun and water. It did look very inviting and I promised myself I would return later.

The beach is overlooked by a tall white lighthouse built in 1938. The lighthouse is at the southeastern corner of the Galle Fort and here I turned west. The ramparts descended straight down to the sea. It was a hot, sultry, sunny day and I felt like diving off the ramparts and right into the crystal-clear turquoise sea.

The next corner at the southern tip of the Fort is Flag Rock. The Dutch took this natural feature and built a bastion on top of it. A flag was flown from here to warn passing ships of the dangerous shoals and skerries just off the coast. There were also scam artists trying to charge people for the right to jump off Flag Rock into the water below. Why anybody would want to participate in such a dangerous activity, much less pay for it, I do not know.

The next bastion was the Triton Bastion, and it was here that I descended off the ramparts and into narrow shady alleys lined with alleys Dutch colonial houses. If the temperature was thirty degrees lower and the houses made of unpainted brick rather than whitewashed stone, you could easily imagine it to be an inner neighbourhood of your typical Dutch city. Another Dutch thing about Galle - it's the only place I have seen in Sri Lanka where cycling is a popular mode of transport for both tourists and locals.

I ascended the ramparts again at Clippenberg Bastion at the western corner of the Fort. North of here, the ramparts are bordered by a rocky, barren valley. Inside the craggy crevice are various doors leading to underground chambers. Until recently, this part of Galle Fort was a Sri Lankan army base. Some derelict, presumably abandoned modern depot buildings border the valley to the northeast.

By this time I was thirsty and exhausted. Galle is renowned for its ghastly humidity in a country that is itself renowned for its ghastly humidity. Several people in Colombo warned me about Galle's torrid climate when I told them of my plans. My theory is that Galle, being located on a peninsula with water on three sides at the far southern tip of Sri Lanka, is the place where moist maritime air masses from the Arabian Sea to the west and the Andaman Sea to the east converge. This would explain the frightful storms I have seen here.

The humidity in Galle is so bad that mere static existence leaves me drenched head to toe. Genetically I am a Briton. My DNA evolved on a cold, rainy, cloudy island off the northwestern coast of Europe at about fifty-two degrees north of the Equator. I think it is fair to say that tropical climates and I are not a perfect match. I must have been a human sprinkler when I arrived at a nearby park kiosk to buy a bottle of soft drink and a doughnut and another litre of iced bottled water.

I found an outdoor table and sat down to drink my 7-Up and recuperate. After I had rehydrated I bit into the doughnut expecting the most tender sweetness. Instead I got a surprising dollop of chilli. Yes, the doughnut had a sambal filling. Other countries put jam or whipped cream or custard into their doughnuts. The Sri Lankans put puréed chilli. I love spicy food, but Sri Lankans really do take it too far.

While I was sitting at the table in the park I watched Sri Lankan families having picnics or playing cricket on a welcome public holiday. There was one family playing cricket with makeshift stumps on a flattish pitch. Every player in the family was bowling the ball with bent arms. Chuckers! Most Australians would remember the famous Sri Lankan cricket player Muttiah Muralitharan and the massive controversy that erupted around twenty years ago about his unorthodox bent-arm delivery style. A procession of videographers and physiologists and forensic scientists and what not were brough out to prove or disprove the fact that Murali was a chucker. In the end, the International Cricket Council ruled in Murali's favour. Based on what I saw in that park, I think it's fair to say that every Sri Lankan has taken the ICC ruling to heart and is bowling as they please.

After the 7-Up and the water had replenished all the cells in my body I made my way to what is probably the largest and most impressive bastion, the Star Bastion at the northwestern corner. There is a great view to be had over the coast to the west of Galle. A short distance to the east is the Clock Tower where the ramparts bulge out to their greatest width. There is a large flat grassy area from where I could watch a cricket game in progress at the Galle International Cricket Stadium, one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world. The stadium is located on the isthmus between the Fort to the south and the New Town to the north and is hemmed in by water to the east and west. The sea breezes that come in off the ocean must make for some interesting play.

I walked down a steep side street to the Main Gate where I first entered Galle Fort yesterday. This was built in 1873 by the British to allow larger, heavier vehicles into the old town. At the northern corner east of the Main Gate is the Sun Bastion. It was while I was on top of this bastion completely exposed to the elements that the heavens opened. Again.

I didn't bring an umbrella from Australia, I wanted to cut down on bulk and weight, but I did have a Macpac rain jacket that collapses into its own zippable pocket. I didn't bother getting it out, it is worse than useless in a humid climate. I wore it during the rain storm the previous night when I went out to get dinner and I ended up even wetter than if I hadn't worn it because it it so stifling and sweaty.

I tried finding shelter in some chambers in the ramparts that might have been prison cells or barracks or casemates. However, the locals had been using these cells as illicit rubbish dumps. The smell in those chambers was indescribably obscene.

I ended up sheltering with six other people in this archway between two open areas. The arch was probably one metre deep and two metres wide. In the end I thought to myself "stuff it, it's only water, it won't kill me" and continued on my way.

I went down Church Street past an open grassy rampart where three cows were grazing, then found myself in the political heart of colonial Galle. In this small nook of the fort along Church Street you can find the Amangalla, formerly the headquarters of the Dutch administration of Galle and later used as a hotel. There are two major churches - the Dutch Reformed Church, and the All Saints Anglican Church that looks like it had just been teleported from Cornwall or Adelaide.

My last stop on the self-guided walking tour was the Dutch governor's residence. Above the door is a triangular tablet with the inscription "ANNO 1683" and a red rooster. The rooster is the symbol of Galle. 'Galo' is the Portuguese word for 'rooster'. Galle? Galo? Geddit?

I went back to my guest house and had another one of their excellent rice-and-curry buffet lunches for Rs. 650. I then retired to my room and cleaned myself up. I was sodden from head to toe and I must have been a distressing sight to anyone who had encountered me on the street.

While I was relaxing in my room on such an exhausting though fulfilling day, another storm broke. The power went out for a long time, the wind buffeted the windows, thunder constantly rumbled, the roof roared from the heavy rain falling on it. This isn't good rain. It's not rain that purifies the air or brings relief from the heat or the kind of rain that brings me joy and comfort as most rain does. This is sticky, soupy rain that makes the heat even more unbearable and makes all my possessions and clothes stick to my body like Araldite. Swimming at Lighthouse Beach in this storm was out of the question. It wasn't until well into the evening that I ventured out for dinner.

The restaurant I picked was on the expensive side, Rs. 2,400 for two courses and a soft drink. Galle being so oriented towards foreign tourists has prices to match. The restaurant, Fortaleza, has free Sri Lankan newspapers for guests. I picked the Daily Mirror, a top-selling English-language daily broadsheet. I tried reading about Sri Lankan politics and failed miserably. Is there anything on earth so confounding, so perplexing as South Asian politics? It is a hodgepodge of acronyms that are far too similar, party splits, party reunifications, more party splits with even more hyphenated suffixes to differentiate the new parties, politicians with impossibly long surnames and up to four initials before the surname, politicians crossing the floor, politicians crossing the floor back to where they were before, and even for a brief period in Sri Lanka in 2018, two competing Prime Ministers both claiming to be in office at the same time. Then there was news of strikes about this, strikes about that, work-to-rule campaigns in protest of some issue the antagonists had long forgotten, accusations of corruption from one side to the other and the very same accusations going the other way. I can read a Dutch or German newspaper in their respective languages and get a better understanding of the current state of things and where the major players stand on the major issues of the day.

The weather had thankfully cooled down a lot so I went for a post-prandial stroll, I decided to check out a few lanes I hadn't explored yet. I came across a troupe of performers, young Sri Lankan men in traditional dress outside a hotel beating drums and twirling torches and doing somersaults and breathing fire for an appreciative audience. Traffic was held up and some tuk-tuks were beeping their horns but the performers were not to be deterred.

It is with some regret that I leave Galle and its magical little fort tomorrow. Staying here was just what I needed. This walled gem is like its own little tropical snow-dome, a world within a world where all the hurt, all the worry, all the frustrations of the world outside can't reach. Within these eternal ramparts I feel safe, I feel relieved, I feel soothed. Galle is a most welcome holiday within a holiday, away from the frenzy, the exploitation, the madness, madness, neverending madness that awaits me outside.

Shells and coral inlaid in Galle Fort walls

Shells and coral inlaid in Galle Fort walls

Galle Fort crenellation

Galle Fort crenellation

Old Gate, Galle Fort

Old Gate, Galle Fort

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort cows

Galle Fort cows

Sri Lanka National Day parade

Sri Lanka National Day parade

Sri Lankan orange coconuts

Sri Lankan orange coconuts

National Day parade

National Day parade

All Saints Anglican Church

All Saints Anglican Church

Main Gate, Galle Fort

Main Gate, Galle Fort

Parawa Street

Parawa Street

Galle Dutch Reformed Church

Galle Dutch Reformed Church

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Sudharmalaya Temple

Sudharmalaya Temple

Star Bastion, Galle Fort

Star Bastion, Galle Fort

Lighthouse Beach

Lighthouse Beach

Galle Lighthouse

Galle Lighthouse

Dutch Hospital

Dutch Hospital

Dutch Governor’s house

Dutch Governor’s house

Posted by urbanreverie 21:33 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged fort weather sri_lanka galle national_day Comments (0)

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