Welcome back once again to yet another post in my series about my 2014 trip to Sri Lanka, the first of several to that wonderful country which was not historically called Serendip for nothing as it is indeed a “happy or beneficial” place to visit as per the dictionary definition of the word serendipity.
I write welcome back but I should not overlook readers who have happened, dare I say it serendipitously, upon this page? If you are such then I bid you welcome and would suggest that if you wish to learn about the whole adventure, or such it was, then you can begin here.
There will be a few days in this post where I did not take many images (especially the dancing which thankfully I videoed) which does not indicate a lack of anything happening but rather that I was just immersing myself in Sri Lankan life. If you want to know how then please read on.
29th March, 2014.
This day was spent doing very little except sitting in my guesthouse, drinking beer and chatting to the owner and chef in his limited English. I took myself back to the Royal Hotel and Bar in the late afternoon and discovered an absolute delight, albeit possibly slightly illegal.
I had arrived shortly before the lifting of the afternoon curfew imposed for religious reasons which I have mentioned before and which effectively closes all establishments serving alcohol during the afternoon. When I went in, and obviously being recognised from a number of previous visits, I was informed that the bar was shut but that if I cared to go upstairs………
On our various visits, Jo and I had always sat in the lovely colonial styled downstairs bar or in the beautiful courtyard to the rear of the premises. In the course of writing these pieces I have obviously scoured the blog and had, were any needed, confirmation of the nonsense and prejudice which attends so much internet content, specifically to do with travel writing.
I find it lamentable that if I search for a particular guesthouse or restautrant that I have to wade through about three pages of results from booking specifically TripAdvisor, to get to their own homepage.
I have thankfully never been married but I imagine that if such misfortune was to befall me then the upstairs dining room in the Royal would be an ideal place for a honeymoon tête-à-tête with your beloved. Just look at it, it is colonial chic of the highest order.
I did not stay too long as Jo had another engagement and I had arranged to eat in my guesthouse that evening, chef having been dispatched to get the necessaries from the local market / store. I simply adore the Sri Lankan (and Asian) concept of buying fresh daily although I know that frozen produce is now almost as good with modern techniques ensuring maximum freshness. Almost as good but not quite.
After my very tasty main, D.G asked me if I would like some ice cream for dessert and although I am not a great sweet eater I agreed and then he threw me completely by asking did I want chilli on my ice cream? What? I have eaten a lot of dishes in a lot of places but this was a new one on me. In all my travels in Asia where chilli is King I had never heard of this before but I like chilli so why not? I kid you not, it is gorgeous.
It was one of those eureka moments (sorry for pinching your term Archimedes) a bit like when someone first suggested to me that putting balsamic vinegar on strawberries was a good idea (it is) or when I heard about the Mexican idea of a a chilli and chocolate sauce for chicken (equally delicious). It just sounds odd and it should not work but it does and it works beautifully. Try it.
30th March, 2014.
I spent this day doing little in daylight hours but having a wonderful evening where Jo and I went to an exhibition of Kandyan dancing in the evening and where something happened that I really have no explanation for. The dancing, music and associated fire-walking in Kandy is supposed to be one of the most traditional and ancient dance forms in the country and there are several institutions that put on exhibitions on the evenings.
We went to the Kandy Lake Club where we were treated to an hour or so of exquisitely costumed dancers, male and female, performing traditional routines to the accompaniment of often frenetic drumming by the equally well turned out drummers.
At one point a male dancer performed a “whirling dervish routine which you can see here and he made me dizzy just watching him. I know nothing of it and I cannot dance in British never mind foreign but I reckon even a classically trained ballet dancer would find that many pirouettes difficult.
As I watched him remember distinctly thinking of a Sufi holy man, a dervish, I had met some time before in Macedonia. Remarkably he was even taller, more hirsute and greyer than me which caused some comment amongst our party that we were were obviously brothers separated at birth! My dervish friend was far too poised to go in for the whirling but the thought sneaked into my mind anyway. Strange how the mind works, well mine anyway.
What is even stranger than the workings of my disordered head, although possibly associated, is that with this wonderful photo-op I did not take one single image and I really have no explanation for this. I did manage a couple of short video clips which you can see here.
After the dancing ended and was rightly applauded to the rafters, we were invited outside for a demonstration of fire-walking. This is a skill that intrigues me, specifically how anyone thought it up in the first place. Who was the first human to say, “There’s a fire, I know it can burn me because I have burnt myself cooking before but I think I shall spread it out and walk over it”?
I know humanity has always done silly things and continues so to do but that is a beauty. However, as a general principle, I always have admiration for anyone who can and will do something that I could or would not do and this is the case here and here.
Again there is no pictorial evidence but I do seem to remember that Jo and I took off to the Royal Hotel and Bar again for a drink or two before retiring to our respective abodes for the night.
31st March, 2014.
This was a day on which again very little happened except for the rather wonderful evening meal which chef knocked up for me and which he was good enough to let me watch him prepare. By this time I was spending as much time in the kitchen as I was in the guest area of the foyer and loving every moment.
Chef had obviously decided that I required Western veggies as you can see, beautifully prepared and married to a distinctly Asian protein offering. It worked well, albeit that it is a concept perhaps not to everyone’s taste but one I utilise often when cooking for myself.
I do not know if it was on this particular day or not but it is as good a place to put my next little anecdote and I should preface this one by telling you that I have agonised over whether to include it or not, lest it be seen as virtue signalling which is a trait I dislike. On balance I have decided to do so as it gives something of an insight into how things are in Sri Lanka, or at least were then.
Mein host D.G. Nalin aka Loku Bada (Big Belly) was a lovely man and I was so glad Jo had put me onto his guesthouse which I was enjoying immensely. Rightly or wrongly I pride myself on being a reasonable judge of character and I had D.G. pinned as being a good bloke that would deal with me in a straight manner. I was certainly right in that. What I had not reckoned on was just how good a bloke he really was.
Over the course of our numerous conversations, not least about “my” menu which was shaping up nicely by now, he mentioned a village some way distant which he was the Mayor of. I suspected there was a slight communication breakdown going on (thanks to Led Zep for the term) but there wasn’t although the term Mayor was not officially sanctioned at any level.
Consider Sri Lankan society which, like so much of Asia, is hugely family based. There is little or nothing in the way of a “welfare state” as we refer to it in the UK and basically if your family or charity do not support you, you will starve. A harsh truth but the truth nonetheless. D.G. was heavily involved in a charity which cared for those who might have otherwise “fallen through the net” and had started up a village which I suspect is unlike any other in Sri Lanka.
The entire population of this settlement in Hanwella which I sadly never had a chance to visit, is composed of elderly people with no family to care for them, orphans, those with physical or mental disabilities (or both), those suffering from HIV+ / AIDS, unmarried Mothers disowned by family and all the other unfortunates who society all too often tends to abandon. The emphasis is, however, very much on the orphans.
I must stress that D.G. was not “putting the arm on me”, to use an East End expression meaning trying to get money out of me. He told me about the place as he was rightfully very proud of it and what they did. He showed me lots of images on his laptop which showed exactly what great work they were doing.
I know it will sound odd after me regaling you with tales of getting nearly washed away in monsoonal rainstorms in Sri Lanka several times but the major problem the village had was a lack of potable water and it all had to be laboriously carried from a distance away. The charity had dug a fairly deep well to allow access to clean, safe water but they did not have the funds to line it and make it usable. I asked how much it would take to line it and he told me.
I had a bit of a think about things but it did not take all that long. I will not mention the figure required for lining the well obviously but it was less than I would spend on a big night out in the West End taking a lady to a show and dinner or whatever. Coincidentally, in rounded off figures, it was just about exactly my fee for playing the Broadstairs Folk Week which I played every year, had played nine months before, and it somehow all fell into place.
I got it in my head that people were good enough to pay me for doing something that I loved doing anyway, I had completely fallen in love with Sri Lanka and it’s people (I still am) and it just seemed obvious. If I tell you that I withdrew the required sum from an ATM without even bothering the bank manager, you will know what an insignificant amount it was. I gave it to D.G. who was embarrassingly grateful and he promised to put it to good use.
After I left Kandy we kept in touch by e-mail and, some months later, he sent me the images you can see above which pleased me more than you can ever imagine. The well was lined and in operation. In the Western world where we merely turn on a tap (faucet) to get perfectly safe drinking water, it is easy to lose sight of what an absolute necessity clean water is and how arduous it can be to obtain it in much of the world.
I did promise you that we would go for a walk in the garden in this post but, as always, I have rattled on far too long and I probably need to break here. In the next post I do promise that there will be horticultural delights aplenty so stay tuned and spread the word.