a mark of what little sanity may remain in the human heart, indicates that one must, given half a chance (or even none at all), flee Western Europe in February…
London would just have to do without us. whither away? ponder and dither… finally?
THIS WAS ONE LUCKY CHOICE
amazing… like India forty years ago… the place is undeveloped. no Coca Cola signs, no package tourists, no wall of death traffic on the freeways… peaceful beaches, peaceful people.
the spice isles, the land of forever afternoon… we were amazed. thankyou lord.
flew into the big airport near Colombo… at the beginning you have no idea what you’re getting into, the physical scale of things, distances, prices… what you should pay, how people are gonna be.
you have to practice a certain philosophical detachment at first, it gets better with practice.
what should we pay to get to the nearby beach? where should we stay?
a little faith and it all works out.
the taxi guy’s gotta make a living too, and they’ll never have remotely the scale of opportunity of the westerner, balance this against the anxiety about being played for a fool by some ripoff artist local hustler.
from the airport we head to Negumbo Beach, the closest place, to recover from the flight. we’re not expecting much, which allows for a pleasant surprise: this is quite lovely! in fact, this is just fine! beautiful white sand beach, every shade of blue in the waves and the sky, the local fishermen, a fairly charming selection of travellers (not tourists), friendly people in the hotel… we ended up staying two or three nights, and we had a wonderful time.
we start getting our feet on the ground. what it seems about Lanka is that: the food is somewhat cheaper than the West, accommodation is very very much cheaper: and transport is infinitely cheaper. we spent a couple of nights in Varinias Beach Villa, right on the beach, we each had a huge, beautiful room, huge bathroom, huge bed, two sets of French doors each onto a balcony looking over the waves and the sunset: 5 star for 2500 rupees each per night, or roughly £12.
it took a while, but we got the rule of thumb worked out: whatever the price, say 1000, you drop the last two zeros, you cut that in half, so it’s about £5. we spent the trip roughly figuring things out that way.
not everybody got it quite right: the first day we met a travelling English character, dedicated drinker, who seemed to have misplaced a decimal point, aided in this mistake by using his credit card, and a strong flow of arak, the local coconut brandy. he explained his ticket back to India was a mere £8.50… Mark and i worked out that this must be 85 quid, still a very good deal, but a little more likely for an international flight. charming fellow, a trifle vague on the mathematics… the guesthouse landlord told us in the evening the fellow had sunk four bottles of arrack that day. clearly a dedicated chap. also his livelihood was as a hangliding instructor…(!!!) kind of makes you wonder…
and so forth.
the portable owl art studio is of course the shoulder bag with the A3 format sketch book and the pencil case and colour set… produced whenever we sat down for coffee, fruit salad, rice and veg…
mark decided to go vegetarian, so i followed along with him. i was wary of spices, having had some devastating experiences of South Indian spice (ie fire extinguisher level). however, Sri Lanka seems to have mastered the art of the delicately textured but not burning hot spiced meal. we did indulge in the odd fish barbecue, but it was largely veg and rice, and my goodness, it contributed to the overall impression of paradise.
a short day trip from the hotel took us just down the coast to the fish market. this is the forever established crossroads of a fishing island: what a community, right there on the coast, on the beach, on the waves. blue sky, foaming waves, all manner of characters, fishmongers who clearly had their skills honed to a flowing ballet of flashing knives. it was fascinating. however, mark was saddened by the concept of all those fish formerly swimming fluid and free, and now reduced to filleted segments on the slab. this contributed to his newfound vegetarianism.
the gumbo was good, but time to look abroad. everybody said Kandy, the principal town up in the highlands, was well worth heading for. how to get there? train or bus were available, on whim we asked a local tuktuk driver, could he take us there? not really expecting a positive answer. to our surprise, this did not seem to be an outlandish question at all. we started to grasp that it was not in fact al that far from the coast up into the highlands, indeed, about a half a day’s journey.
(let us remember that the chief owl grew up in canada, a land mass covering over five time zones. distance was distance when uncle robin was a boy…)
a tuktuk is, of course, a three-wheeled open motorscooter, roughly equivalent to a couple of lawn chairs mounted on a sewing machine motor, with a cheerful driver a t the wheel. we had already decided it was the ideal mode of travel last year in cambodia (see owl art studio visits cambodia). so, we decided, yes, we could afford the relatively moderate price, and away we went with our new friend sharon.
we moved along at comfortable cruising pace, taking in the unfolding, truly beautiful scenery, somewhat like a nicely paced video. time to absorb, time to take in the new, stopping for a cold beverage when we like. he took us to, first, a wonderful upmarket hotel breakfast, second, a botanical garden, next, an elephant sanctuary.
dear lord! neither of us had ever been on top of an elephant. you know that an elephant is big, you never know how big until you are sitting on top of the thing: a living house of muscle and bone, striding across the world, truly impressive. the neck was encircled by half a dozen loops of chain: the parallel was exactly that of the chains on my wrist. one hopes the fee paid went towards their upkeep and maintenance.
we later, several times, saw wild elephants in view from the road. actually with a tinge of danger: if spooked, apparently they would attack, and this was a traffic menace somewhat like the moose or deer along the northern Canadian highways. (remind me to tell you my tale of me and the moose in northern British Columbia, back in my wild youth, some time…)
and finally, we make it up to Kandy.
our man of course had a specific hotel in mind for us… the symbiosis between the driver who steers in the traveller to the hotel, and the hotelier who gives some mild kickback therefore. fair enough. the ecological arrangement.
beautiful place up on the hillside looking out over the artificial lake that apparently is the centre of this town. we had a chuckle. the room which we shared this time, seemed to have been decorated by the local chairmakers union: there were seven chairs strategically laid out in this room, apart from the two beds. beautiful chairs, but we only needed two. once again, owl art studio was travelling on the strength of the one and only magic trick: this had seen us all through Cambodia the year before, transcending the language barrier. no matter how often mark got to see it, it was always brand new to the locals, with the standard variation of working; not working; working if they contributed… this broke the ice… although i do confess, i must my goodness some day learn a second magic trick…
the delights of Kandy lasted a couple of days, strolling about, taking it in, as ever meeting some cheerful friendly fellow travellers to swap stories, and highlights and lowlights with.
one funny bit was when we decided to cut through an alley from one high street to another. i swear it took all of three steps into the alley before the archetypal alleyrat hustler appeared out of nowhere, glued himself onto our elbow, and started to offer all manner of carnal and pharmaceutical illegal delights. what a cliché! what, was this guy just hovering there waiting for some gringos to cut through the alley? he followed us, babbling away, til we strolled back out in to the thoroughfare.
in fact, the biggest menace to avoid was the huge flocks of colourful birds overhead and their shower of droppings if you happened to stroll under their roost. you had to give them a wide berth. by the shore of the lake, we noticed a little curio shop window, went over to give it a look, and voilà, like a jack-in-the-box, a charming white-haired gentleman popped out and invited us in. starting without any intention to purchase, we in fact came away with a couple of very charming carvings. one a ganesh done from cow horn mounted on ebony – gansesh is forever a link to brother matt who adopted the elephant god while we were travelling in india thirty years ago. the second, a cheerful crocodile character.
it seemed that the sri lankan method of mercantile negotiation was several notches down from the manic indian fashion where your five pound article started off with an asking price of £100, a charmless tactic that never fails to fail: it exhausts the weary traveller overly quickly – sometimes you just walk away. you cannot be bothered to go through the entire process. here they seemed to stay fairly close to the initial price – this works fine once you have some concept of actual value.
time to move on. finally, we take the train. everyone had advised us, ‘oh, book a seat in the first class observation car – costs a thousand rupees, worth it.’ when we enquired, it turns out this is booked nearly three full weeks ahead. drat. in fact, all we can get is third class. third class? there is such a thing as third class? third class is just fine.
we have window seats: the view is exactly the same as from any other window: that is to say, marvellous. we drink it in. we have snacks and drinks, and every station brings a baba selling us more. the view is rolling varied infinite and other suchlike words (and interestingly i note some fellow travellers locked inside their mobiles – what are they doing? why did they come here? we’re wrapt, locked out the window, and they’re playing videogames or facebooking or something. it seemed odd.
finally we arrive at Haputale. we find a hotel right there, perched on the side of the mountain. once again seems a luxury place for a budget budget.
when we find the balcony outside all the rooms, there is a woman sitting there.
‘hi! where are you from?’
‘hi, i’m from montreal.’
and so we make a new friend: Marie from Montreal. clever robin tries another feeble joke:
‘oh, that’s in Canada. they only speak English there.’
‘close,’ she says, ‘but backwards, it’s the French capital; but good for you for knowing it’s in Canada. where are you from?’
‘les endroits varieux dont a un fois montreal-quebec.’
she started to laugh…
some of the best times of my life have been spent in French Canada.
the rest of our time in Sri Lanka, paths, our comings and goings on the various beaches overlapped, we spent some lovely time together.
i had know for about three years that mark, previously a London-based businessman, had invested in a tea plantation in Sri Lanka… all i knew was that it seemed a long long way away to me. here we were, about to have a first-hand look at the situation, right here in the heart of the tea country.
once here, the whole idea seemed increasingly attractive: the air was bright, clear, non-polluted… the mountainside was beautiful.
in the morning we made our way up to Lipton Point.
Lipton Point is indeed named after the famous tea personality of the late 1800s; this was a prominent beauty spot from the times when the map of the world was coloured in pink… the British empire. and there we were.
Mark arrived to pick us up in a land rover with his cheerful professional driver at the wheel. this was indeed the outback: the roads were rutted to an impressive degree. slowly slowly got us there.
once arrived, what a contrast! it was elegant modern civilisation dropped down into the remote mountains. we were impressed… beautiful house, swimming pool, gardens, it was amazing.
for the first time i could see what he’d been doing and what he’d been working on, what amazing accomplishments he’d managed, particularly given the challenges of achieving all this so far from supply sources.
mark had designed the pool himself… i was much impressed, he did a great job… as a swimteam kid growing up, i have seen a few pools… i had a leisurely float, gazing miles across at the mountains. best view i have ever seen from a pool…
one of the challenges of the place was the wild elephant population, not something he’d get when he was running his business back in london… apparently a tea plantation worker had been trampled to death the months previously, having startled an elephant walking around a corner… good lord above.
we strolled from top to bottom of the estate, admiring everything including the plantation kid population… charm personified, here in this rural outback, a million miles away from any world that i knew… big flashing smiles, carrying the little ones, having some manner of foot race as we arrived, this immediately supplanted by the chance to look at the wandering gringos…
never let it be said that i miss an opportunity: time for the magic trick.
later… i always ponder… what’s going to happen to kids? are they gonna want to get way way out of there? see some rock video of LA, open convertibles, scantily clad bimbettes? figure that’s the real life? flee this backwater? who knows… only the shadow knows…
(“why’s it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got til it’s gone, they paved Paradise, to put up a parking lot” – Joni Mitchell)
talking with Mark later, he said he was hoping to establish a charity for their benefit, particularly in the dental line, i was interested. i had noted very good teeth. he said, “it seems to be either perfect or atrocious.” later on i did notice some life-disfiguring dental malformations.
mark’s establishment of a luxury resort here appears to be a financial lifeline to a remote and neglected rural area… “i tripled their wages… but i can’t afford to forever subsidise the entire rural population; hence, the charitable foundation perhaps…” good for him.
it seems that he bought this relatively small, that is, several hundred acre, tea plantation, from an utterly absent landlord who did nothing to the place. strolling about, i was amazed and impressed by the amount of positive and constructive work, the well-laid-out stone walls, the pruned and healthy bushes, that he had managed to accomplish in a very short time.
and so passed the day.
back up to Haputale, a point of importance to get there before dark due to the roaming wild elephants.
off to Ella, another train journey gazing out the windows.
i snuck a photo of the little girl, blew it up on my iphone, sketched diligently away and managed to attain a reasonable likeness which i presented to them by the end of the journey… they were really pleased… this was always a bit of a goal in my drawing progress, to be able to do something that i wasn’t embarrassed to give away… getting there…
the view holds us, we are slowly coming down from the highest areas now, the perspectives are somewhat more constrained, which has a charm of its own, makes me think of the south of France where everything was reduced to a minor key.
the guest house in Ella was up a slope, stood out particularly for the best-cooked meal we’d thus had. the chef was an artist with the vegetables, the rice and the spices. Mark was so impressed: “i’m going to learn to cook like this!” the cook came out from the kitchen. he was delighted we appreciated his work, beaming away.
first stop, the amazing waterfall.
on from there, we were coming down out of the hills, first rolling then almost flat, we’re at sea level. again we are assimilating the relatively reduced scale of distance in this island. i personally have no idea how long something might take, but it doesn’t seem to take long, even in the rolling lawn chair that is our tuktuk mode of travel.
stopping for a coke and a bowl of rice at a roadside place, we meet a French girl who is on her way back away from the coast, in fact exactly where we are going: Arugam bay. “go to beach hut place,” she says, “ask for Kuna, he knows everything, it’s the second lane on the left when you get there.”
and so, we are established. thus unfolds the traveller’s life. and indeed, it works: we find the place immediately, the gentleman is wonderful, calm, smiling, friendly, and we arrive in Arugam bay.
as it works out, we stay in the hut in their beachside compound; this was the cheapest place we stayed in the whole trip: two levels, three beds, 3000 rupees a night, worked out to about £7 each.
but we spent every waking moment immediately next door at the galaxy lounge.
all i want from life: a big comfortable, peaceful restaurant facing the waves, where i establish my art table and they bring me coffee and fruit salad…
mark established with his iphone, headphones and books.
remarkable, we had perfect wifi internet connection in the place.
dear lord, the modern world…
when you find perfection, enjoy it. we stayed over a week. and it was bliss. me, i did my stretches, and a couple of miles jogging twice a day… a category of its own, jogging on sand: as you push backwards you go backwards, so it was a very slow but doubtless cardiovascular outfall experience. i hurled myself into the breakers several times ajog: it was a powerhouse jacuzzi. big waves. really gave you a tumble.
apart from that, i managed to try to work a little bit on the book.
got lucky, made some new friends in the beach huts: ulysse and his sister lilirose, aged 7 and 5 respectively, travelling out from france with their parents, full of energy and panache, and keen artists.
but with a happily respectful attitude toward their elders…
sometimes in the evening, P and his kitchen had a special barbecue with fresh-caught fish. and everything else to go with it.
we did stroll around the neighbourhood, basically a very small village based on agriculture and the travelling trade (especially surfers in season), enjoying the sites to be seen.
minor key adventures continued: sitting at the drawing table, the big, cheerful, shaven-headed german guy comes up: “hello, good morning, do you know anything about drawing acid blotter art?”
he says, “look what a crow just brought onto my balcony:”
“yes,” he says, “the crow brought this onto my balcony just now, and i saw you drawing, so i wondered if you knew anything about acid art?”
well, strike me pink, i think to myself, the story is never over… the picaresque gypsy past is still there somewhere, just behind the horizon… how cool.
“i was pretty surprised, because i was into this particular batch, twenty years ago, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the accidental discovery of lsd by albert hoffman, in switzerland, in 1943, and clearly some cheerful underground chemist commemorated the anniversary with this batch: good for him!” – another one of the synchronicities of the psychedelic path…
i turn one of my experimental doodles into an illumination of the anecdote.
this led into a happy friendship with the fellow and his friends: all old India hands, longterm travellers and Himalayan residents up there by Manali… his great thing was herbal medicine; able to help mark out with some kind of skin rash he had…
it turned out that the blotter card had been the bookmark for one of the English travellers there at our galaxy restaurant… it had gone missing, and the crow had redelivered it, how bout that? we chuckled and she said, “well, clearly it’s yours now!” – the gracious thing to do.
ah, the mini adventure.
four of us went to explore the nearby national park on one of these safari jeep expeditions.
a big half day outing, with the professional guide in the truck with us, with mark and i and an aussie couple taking a look to see what could be seen.
and time flowed seamlessly on…
there was a quality, hard to quantify, but it somehow specifically evoked the summers of the 60s in southwestern Ontario, a young teenager bicycling around the country roads… a certain ambience, a certain sense of peace… clouds in the sky.
finally, it was time to tear ourselves away from lounging at Aragum bay beach, to go and lounge at Marissa beach.
tuktuk and away!
we decide that, yes, once again, we will travel by motorised easy chair, and once again we get a cheerful, friendly, easygoing, lovely guy to be our chauffeur; who
found us a woodcarving workshop to visit.
it was a family workshop, a family tradition: we decided on a lion to come proudly home with us to owl art studio… the gentleman said it was actually his father’s work, it does have the patina of age. on the spot, he put in the eyes, which impressed us quite a bit: he clearly was a practised hand with woodworking tools.
we did explain that in our own humble way, we were working with wood; we were happy to be able to show our booklets that we were carrying with us. after this, we were treated to the full royal tour of the entire premises, and a pretty complete stocktaking. lovely people.
back on the road again.
funny incident: we stopped at another woodworking place, had a good look at the shop, well-laid out, decided on a ganesh figure (Matt always loved ganesh), then failed to buy it over a difference in the price of a grand total of… 100 rupees, or 50p… the lady wouldn’t meet my price, and i turned and walked away.
i would not have been quite so firm, except she initially had given me the price i was willing to pay, but had then slightly increased it, possibly by accident(?)… the taxi driver spoke to her, but she wouldn’t budge, and we turned and drove away…
and so we arrive at Marissa, and another chapter in our unfolding adventure.
Aragum bay was off season when the big winds came: in a month or so the place would have a big surfing crowd, but for us it had been pretty quiet… excellent… in its way.
Marissa, on the other hand, once we found the hub of the action, was quite the opposite: a huge mile long crescent of beach with guest house and restaurants on one side, waves and sea on the other… and i would call it lovely, peaceful and civilised. a big contrast to Goa when i last saw it: curses be on those damned CocaCola signs about 8 feet high. nobody wants those. not the visitor, not the locals – it’s just that the coca cola people themselves pay the restaurant people to put them up for mercantile reasons: let’s destroy the beauty that brought us all here in the first place.
this has not happened here. hallelujah. i would call this place Goa 30 years ago: undeveloped. and i am delighted to find it: coming home again.
we settled into a beachside guesthouse, the door opening straight onto the beach and the waves with our restaurant tables right there. heaven on earth.
there being more people, that is, a nice cross-section of travellers from all across Europe, we made a lot of new friends and a lot of new young artist friends for owl art studio travelling department. this is always the most fun you can have, as in Cambodia last year or India the year before…
Lilirose and Ulysse, with mama and papa, caught up with us again, exuberant youthful spirits all four of them,
and wild artists…
i met my match at football with little Alexander, aged 2
Sasha from France, aged 4,
and i was knocked off my feet by Amita, whose dad is from Switzerland and mum from South Korea… and she from the planet of cheerful high energy spirits…
and so passed another peaceful, productive week, til slowly time to head back to Negumbo beach near the airport for a peaceful couple of days there before we break the spell, crawl back into western clothes and aeroplane, and head back to the booming west.
of course, once again we travel by tuktuk… following the coast through colourful villages all the way…
this is the only way to travel. up, at least, until we hit the big city, Columbo, which is crowded, noisy, slow, however, interesting in itself… steel your nerves to handle it all and get through to the other side.
getting back to our peaceful hotel we’d left nearly four weeks before was coming home again. we settled in to a couple of beachfront rooms and got back into the rhythm of the beach.
one different thing was hiring a couple of bicycles and exploring the village roads.
we explored the local shops, and surprisingly, perhaps(?) after other Asian shopping experiences, met charming non-aggressive, friendly people who did not drive us away with aggressive sales tactics… meaning that we happily spent some money in their shops.
and, finally, it’s Departure Day. our tuktuk friend Sharon, from our first soujourn in Negumbo, took us to the airport… and, as promised, as a farewell gift I taught him the sum total of my magic repertoire: the disappearing hankie, which had fascinated him from the beginning. he was delighted. i made him a present thereof, with the sole proviso that he had to practice over and over and over again and then start off preferably with an audience of little kids at first.
our legacy to Lanka!
and it’s back to London, where Button was keenly awaiting us,
but was able to enjoy our experience by proxy…