≡ Menu

We haven’t been back to the UK since we moved here in October 2015 but we’ll be there from June to October this year. We needed a long period to really put our roots down in Sri Lanka and we’ve achieved that, but it now feels like a trip to see familiar faces and places is long overdue. Already our mouths are watering at the prospect of eating and drinking things you can’t get out here. Ale, soft fruits, decent cheese, steak, smoked fish, crumpets. Mmmm! And not being forced to pay stupid prices for goods ranging from wine to couscous. But we’re missing even more the relative efficiency of the UK compared to the frustrations of living in Sri Lanka where no-one seems to have any idea of how to do business and everything takes three times as long to achieve. Or else has to be done immediately – drop all else and see to it. Just being able to plan our days again for four months and to have a reasonable chance that things will happen more or less when you expect, will turn out more or less as you expect, and will cost more or less what you expect will be an unalloyed pleasure.

Yesterday we ventured into Kandy to source materials and hire tools for a small building project at Jungle Tide. We found a large builders’ yard down the old Peradeniya Road which we thought would be just the ticket. But they could only sell us bricks and cement. Their roofing sheets were not what we wanted and they don’t do block paving of any description. They also don’t do tools. They sent us to a place on  the new Peradeniya Road specialising in hard surfacings, and again on the outside it looked just what we were after. Lots of graphics and signs advertising a variety of surfacings. But venturing inside we found they only sell three products, and one of those needs advance ordering and a week before it arrives. Meanwhile, living as we do in the jungle 11km out of Kandy, it costs us around Rs3,000/- a time to get a lorry load of materials transported to our home.  Expensive if you can’t source them all from one place. So then off to our favourite hardware store where they speak good English and stock tools ranging from secateurs to generators and hydraulic pumps, to see what they would charge for hiring out a stone-cutting saw. “Sorry, we do not hire tools”. When asked where we could hire tools we were referred to a place in Pilimathalawa  about ten miles out of Kandy. Luckily I don’t have any hair left to tear out. If someone had the bright idea of opening up a comprehensive B&Q style yard within reach of Kandy they would make an absolute fortune. But good business ideas don’t come easily to most Sri Lankans and huge commercial opportunities go begging.

No doubt four months in wet post-Brexit Britain will cure me of any romantic thoughts and by October I’ll be more than ready to return home to the sunshine, the pol sambols, the soursops and the giant prawns. I just hope I won’t be coming back with unrealistic expectations of builders, accountants, hoteliers or any other Sri Lankan service providers.

{ 0 comments }

Progress with improving the road to Jungle Tide continues, but slowly. Back in June 2016 visitors had to brave 3.5km of rough road to get to us.That is now down to 1.5km. We’re getting there! The scale of the work means that every so often the whole road has to be closed all day and we only get about 24 hours notice, so we do our best to warn guests due to arrive on those days. So far it’s happened only three times in seven months so the chances of disruption are very small. And with any luck all will be complete within the next few months.

Yesterday, though, the road was closed for a different reason. We were heading into Kandy for a lunch party with friends and came across a road block half way down. Some bright spark had decided that it would be a great idea to use the one driveable road from Uduwela into Kandy for a load of rally drivers to do a hill climb time trial event. Only in Sri Lanka would the fun of a bunch of boy racers be considered important enough to prevent several thousand folks from accessing medical facilities, train and bus stations and of course shops and – for those who work on Sundays – employment. We do sometimes despair of living in this island!

We were only inconvenienced  in relation to a social engagement and we got there in the end. And by chance met the person who had been the chief engineer responsible for the recent upgrading of the dramatic ’18 hairpin bends road’ which drops down from the Knuckles Range into Mahiyangama on the eastern plains. The person who originally designed this road in about 1921 was none other than Sally’s grandfather!.

{ 0 comments }

The other day we were returning home in a hired van from a shopping trip to Kandy. Our driver pulled out to overtake a stationary bus which was taking on passengers – he tooted the horn. But the bus just pulled out in front of us as buses tend to (bus drivers think there are no other vehicles on the road). Our driver managed to stop but as the rear of the bus swung out it clipped our van causing minor damage. No-one injured. But naturally our driver wanted to sort things out with the bus driver so he again overtook and pulled up to talk to him. The bus driver got angry and the police turned up. Despite this being a minor incident they arrested both drivers and impounded both vehicles for the rest of the day and most of the next day. We offered to be witnesses in support of our driver but the police told us to go away and wait in the van, which at their insistence was illegally parked. Whereupon another police officer came along and slapped us with a parking ticket despite our explanations. Eventually we were invited into the main Kandy police station which was an eye-opening experience. It felt like being on the set of ‘Life on Mars’ – lots of shouting, officers tapping away on ancient typewriters (not a computer in sight), rusting and twisted metal desks dating from the 1960s by the look of them. The senior officer present managed the trick of being both hard cop and soft cop by turns (presumably they’re short-staffed). We were invited to write witness statements – and encouraged to collude to ensure we were both saying the same thing! Then allowed to go and find a tuk-tuk into which to cram ourselves and our many purchases to struggle back up the mountain to Jungle Tide.

Not a terrible experience I grant you, but taken along with much worse horror stories we’ve heard from friends here it’s more or less decided us that we don’t intend to buy or lease a vehicle and drive ourselves around but will continue to hire.

Yesterday we had an altogether nicer legal experience when we had to go and see a solicitor who a friend had recommended in connection with the lease for Noni’s house. Mr Zair is a very pleasant man whose office is in a tiny, ancient building near the Temple of the Tooth, part of a whole row of legal folks with titles like ‘Notary Public’ and signs drawn back in colonial times by the look of them. Quaint doesn’t begin to describe it, such a contrast to the smart offices of most solicitors in the UK.

{ 0 comments }

I’ve no idea why cloves fetch so much money since they grow in super abundance here. We have just employed a couple of guys to pick most of ours, leaving the ones they couldn’t easily get at, right at the top of the trees. Then three local lads came around asking if we’d pay them to shin up and pick the top ones as they needed to raise some money for a school trip to Polonnaruwa which their parents couldn’t afford. So the deal was done and we now have about 60kg of cloves which will; reduce to half that once dried but will still fetch a decent profit come June. The wages weren’t enough to cover the school trips so a generous guest chipped in with the balance. Here are Martin and Rani drying some of the cloves on the lawn – when we can keep the dogs from using them as a playground.

{ 0 comments }

Every January Galle is home to one of the largest literary festivals outside Europe and North America. This year was special for us as our daughter, the performance poet Jemima Foxtrot, https://jemimafoxtrot.co.uk/   https://www.facebook.com/JemimaFoxtrot/  was among the performers. Colm Toibin was perhaps the most famous literary personage this year and very entertaining he was too (Margaret Drabble was also supposed to have been there but was too ill to attend). Jemima aside, highlights for us were Peter Frankopan’s eye-opening talk on the Silk Routes and their impact on world history, Lesley Hazleton’s talk on her book The First Muslim, a biography of the prophet Mohammed, and Luke Wright’s performance of What I learned from Johnny Bevan which we first saw at the Edinburgh Festival but is even better now – he brought the house down. Jerry also attended a very useful workshop on writing dialogue with Sunjeey Sahota. And John Gimlette, who wrote the best modern book on Sri Lanka by far – Elephant Complex – fully lived up to expectations. Due to clashes with other events we never got to see Kate Tempest or Brigid Keenan, both of whom we gather were excellent. And the symposium on the work of the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa – who Sally knew as a child and the panel for which included Palinda Kanangara, the original architect for Jungle Tide, was sold out within hours of tickets becoming available in December so we couldn’t get to that either. 

Jemima was fully occupied and went down a storm both at her own poetry performances and as a warm-up act for historical novelist Philippa Gregory and sold most of the copies of her book All Damn Day she’d brought with her. She ran several workshops for children and young people including one for a group of war-traumatised older teenagers. And at a late-night performance with her guitarist friend Ramsay (probably the most accomplished guitarist you’ve never heard of) she found herself playing for and being introduced to the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, who’d dropped into the festival and was checking out a few acts. Here are Jemima and Ramsay performing that night, at the beautiful old colonial ‘Sun House’, now a classy hotel owned by the founder of the festival, Geoffrey Dobbs. 

Sadly the organisers felt unable to repeat last year’s experiment of a weekend spin-off mini-festival in Kandy. But we’ll keep plugging away at that one. Our home city does traditional Sri Lankan culture par excellence but is pretty much a desert for anything more modern or international – with a few honourable exceptions. And we’re always on the lookout for people who want to help change that. Meanwhile, thanks to the Galle Festival for a great programme of events in what must be one of the best places to celebrate art, the historic walled old town of Galle. 

 

{ 0 comments }

… and we’re just about resurfacing from it, hence the lateness of this post. This was our second Christmas at Jungle Tide and we were once again blessed with fantastic guests – this time with the bonus of children. Extremely well-behaved, intelligent and sociable children, too! An extended family of New Yorkers originally from Romania together with our daughter Jemima and her boyfriend Ed made for a high-octane Christmas of food and drink, lots of presents, plenty of singing and lively conversations. Here we all are at Christmas dinner. 

Over New Year Jungle Tide was booked out to a large group of Swedish people so as, Jemima and Ed went on a short tour including a memorable New Year’s Eve at the famous Hill Club, in the highest town on the island, Nuwara Eliya. A lavish – though rather expensive – buffet, a band which was significantly better than most Sri Lankan pop bands and a firework display ranking with what we’d become used to in England. Most Sri Lankan firework displays are short, nasty and brutish, consisting mostly of a series of increasingly loud bangs. This was properly colourful and went on a long while. Much longer than the competing ones at the nearby Grand Hotel. 

Since then we’ve been at the Galle Literary Festival where Jemima was performing. More on that in a few days’ time. Cheers for now and here’s to next year’s festivities.

{ 0 comments }

In the tropics it’s hard to get into the Christmas spirit. But we’ve managed it thanks to last night’s extraordinary Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Trinity College chapel in Kandy. Now I’m a devout atheist, but I do like a good sing and since leaving England (and the choir I was in) I haven’t had much of a chance.

The setting itself is magical. The chapel was built in the 1930s and is architecturally unique in that it is set out like a large church but instead of stone walls and flying buttresses the sides are colonnaded with a forest of pillars reflecting ancient Sinhalese temple architecture. It is a building which is entirely in tune with its architectural and cultural environment despite catering to a minority religion. I didn’t take my camera – seemed inappropriate – so no photos but you can search it under Trinity College Kandy if you want to see what the building looks like.

For the service it was packed. White-suited college boys show you to your pews and when everyone is seated the lights are turned off. On a hill above the chapel a queue of candles flickers and slowly moves down and round to enter the building. The choir arrives singing the opening verses of Once in Royal David’s City. Then we all get the chance to open our throats. Seeing a choir composed of brown-skinned boys from eight to eighteen all be-cassocked and hearing them perform not only the standards but Sinhalese and Tamil carols, medieval Irish ones, gospel and a beautiful old French carol en ronde on a tropical evening was very moving even for an old non-believer.

Sally was confirmed in  this church in 1070 and hadn’t been back since (we couldn’t go last year as the date clashed with something) so for her it was doubly moving. Thanks to everyone!

{ 0 comments }

Wilpattu is our favourite of Si Lanka’s many national parks. The name in old Sinhala means an administrative area with many lakes – the lake District, in  other words! We’ve visited twice this year, once with friends in April then again at the end of November. And on this occasion we saw a bear – the first one I’ve seen in the wild so that made me very happy indeed, even if it was dusk and the creature was ambling away from us at some distance. I do have a photo to prove it but it’s not worth reproducing here. Let’s start with a couple of scenes that illustrate the sheer beauty of the place, before we come on to the wildlife.

monikapula-uttu-1-comp

   nelum-villu-1-comp

 sally-at-monikapula-uttu-2-compOn the left is Monikapula Uttu, the centre one is Nelum Villu and on the right is Sally at Monikapula Uttu, a special place for her as their family often stayed in the bungalow there for a week when she was a child. The old bungalow was destroyed by the Tamil Tigers but has recently been replaced with a new one we were quite impressed with.

As well as the lone sloth bear we saw crocodiles, three types of deer including a spotted deer stag fight, a pair of mongooses mating, wild pigs, talagoyas (land monitors) and both types of monkeys. The list of birds is almost endless but the highlight was an adjutant stork standing over five feet tall. Others included three types of bee-eaters, peacocks by the dozen, openbills, painted storks, malabar hornbills, grey-headed fish eagles, serpent eagles, grey heron, golden orioles, the highly exotic paradise flycatcher and jungle fowl. With a feast like that it really doesn’t matte that we saw no elephant or leopard. Here are a few photos…

painted-storks-4-comp

hornbill-in-flight-comp

lesser-adjutant-stork-2-comp

crocodile-comp

We also had our first experience of glamping, jungle-style, at a campsite near the park entrance. I’m usually highly sceptical of anything prefixed with ‘Eco’, especially in Sri Lanka, but the Eco Team campsite was first rate. What’s more they offered us a cheap deal as residents. After an admittedly slightly odd dinner of barbecued meats accompanied by stringhoppers and rotis (though it tasted fine) we and their other guests were taken on a night walk which included close-ups with sleeping birds and snakes in the low trees and bushes around the site. The guide also saw a mouse deer (not much bigger than a domestic cat and the only Sri Lankan deer species I’ve never seen) and a slender loris but we mere mortals were unable to spot them before they shot off.
thantirimale-10-comp

On the way to Wilpattu we called in at an untouristed but highly impressive ancient temple complex, Thanthirimale. We had neither the time nor the footwear to make a proper exploration of the site so we’ll definitely be back, and better prepared next time. It’s well off the beaten track and very extensive. Free to go into (donations welcomed) and if you’re ever in the area don’t miss it!

 

{ 0 comments }

Mannar island is the bit of Sri Lanka that sticks out closest to India. On the map it looks like a peninsula but study closely and you see it’s approached via a long causeway across a shallow sea, with a short bridge at the end. From its furthest tip, Talaimannar, a string of sandbank islands extends across the shallow Palk Strait to India; once the ferry used to run from Talaimannar Pier to India. That’s how Sally’s family finally left Sri Lanka in 1971, in a Mini Moke and an Austin 1300 to begin their epic overland journey to England. The pier is still there along with the old customs shed and the remains of rail tracks. A sign warns that it is an unsafe structure and to enter at your own risk, so we did.  Wouldn’t be allowed in England, which is one of the smaller reasons why we don’t live there any more! It’s good to be allowed to take responsibility for your own safety rather than having nanny state do it for you. Talaimannar summarises one aspect of Mannar – the continuing legacy of the war and the continuing state of tension with India over the disputed fisheries of the Palk Strait. Wrecked boats still lie just offshore and there’s a strong military presence even now. It’s a wild, forgotten and beautiful place. Odiyar, the manager of the Palmyrah where we stayed (and thoroughly recommend) took us out in his 4×4 in an attempt to drive through the shallow waters onto the first of the sandbank islands. We didn’t make it – this being the wet season the waters were too high to get across. But we saw a big flock of grey franklin (partridges) which was a good consolation.                                                                                                wreck-talaimannar-2talaimannar-pier-2

They are building more accommodation on this land and also extending the Palmyrah. Smart investors are discovering Mannar. Unlike Kalpitiya to the south, though, it seems that so far – mercifully – they are people who want to attract small-scale discerning tourism rather than coachloads of trippers looking for cheap deals in identikit multi-storey hotels.

Mannar is also now the only place in Sri Lanka where flocks of flamingoes gather and Odiyar showed us where to find them – out on the salterns (man-made shallow beds where the sun evaporates the sea water leaving the salt behind). There were at least four hundred of them when we visited.  Not as pink as their African cousins – their diet is different – but an impressive sight.       flamingoes-mannar-4

Like Kalpitiya, Mannar is home to countless feral donkeys. Depending on what you read these are descendants of beasts left behind either by the Portuguese colonists or by Arab traders centuries ago. They are everywhere. Driving in Mannar means slowing to a crawl every hundred metres or so while donkeys or goats choose to get up at their own convenience and make their way slowly to the edge of the road. Or sometimes they just lie there in the middle and wait for you to go arounddonkey-flamingoes-mannar-2 them.

Certainly the Arabs are responsible for the baobab trees dotted around Mannar and found nowhere else on  the island. The most famous is the biggest baobab in Asia, in Mannar town. As you can see from the photo the Catholics seem to have claimed it as their own despite its Muslim origins. And that’s another of Mannar’s strangenesses. Again, like Kalpitiya, its population is mainly Christian (almost all Catholic) and Muslim in contrast to the baobab-1Buddhist/Hindu make-up of Sri Lanka as a whole.

Sri Lanka has many impressive Dutch forts. Two I have yet to visit – Jaffna in the north and Matara in the south – but of those I’ve see Mannar is the most fascinating. Originally built by the Portuguese the Dutch flattened their efforts and rebuilt on a much grander scale as elsewhere. Then the Brits took over but had less time for sea forts so neglect and tropical weather took their toll. Finally the suffering old place was taken over by the Tamil Tigers and then further smashed by the Sri Lankan army. A surprising amount remains, none of it signed or interpreted so you have to try to work things out as you go around. Just as spotted deer have taken control of the battlements in Fort Frederick in Trincomalee, the donkeys now patrol Mannar fort.
dutch-fort-8

What was obviously once the chapel contains ancient Dutch monuments and inscriptions. The Dutch government helps pay for the maintenance of some of the other forts in Sri Lanka, notably Galle which is the biggest and best preserved, and one can hope that they can extend their generosity to preserving and interpreting Mannar fort. Meanwhile it’s a bewitching place to explore and lose oneself in an imagined past.

chapel-dutch-fort-1

As I said, smart investors are discovering Mannar. Much needed, provided of course that it’s sustainable and benefits local people. The infrastructure is still pretty poor but the big exception is the railway. Like the line to Jaffna, this was abandoned in the war and has been entirely replaced and re-opened. Though there are only a couple of trains per day and almost everything continues to come by road – and the roads are pretty awful still. Mannar town is a lot like Batticaloa but if anything even poorer. The fish market gives you a flavour of the town – you can almost smell it.

fish-market-1

Out on the mainland, but still in Mannar district, stands the remains of one of the most ambitious buildings ever created by the British – the Doric Bungalow built by a former Governor who wanted somewhere he could watch over the activities of the pearl divers. Mannar was once a world centre for pearls and Bizet’s opera ‘The Pearl Fishers’ was set there – though in a highly romanticised version of reality.  Much of it now lies on the beach below the low cliff on which it is set. Unlike the fort, the Doric Bungalow is splendidly signed and interpreted.doric-bungalow-6

Mannar is not much visited by tourists. That will change. Hopefully so will the grinding poverty of many of its people. But whether that can be done without destroying its sense of mystery remains to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 0 comments }

Yesterday was Sally’s birthday, her second in Sri Lanka. Last year’s was spent in Colombo, somewhat overshadowed by the stresses of getting our shipping container cleared through customs though we did eat out at the splendid (and appropriately expensive) Ministry of Crab.

This year was more local. We discovered that Sally shared her birthday with our friend George, one of the local expat group, so the two of them decided on a joint lunchtime celebration at World of Spice which is the new food court on the top of the Kandy City Centre shopping mall. All very modern and un-Sri Lankan. You are given a swipe card which gets you through the barriers and imprisons you among a series of national cuisine stalls. You browse around, select your food and drinks from as many places as you want, each time they swipe your card. Then when you’re done you take your card to the checkout, they tell you how much you’ve accumulated, you pay up and they let you out again.

George, Sally and friends at World of Spice

George, Sally and friends at World of Spice

There were about twenty of us, mostly expats with some Sri Lankan friends, and it was a very convivial event. Odd that even when you’ve been to a social gathering with no alcohol you still feel afterwards as though you’ve had a glass or two… Anyway, the alcohol deficiency was remedied on our return to Jungle Tide. One of our current volunteers is a dab hand at cocktails so we gave him the run of our supplies of spirits (which isn’t saying much) and he got to work on producing a few creations for all seven of them and us to sample.

Finally, Sally and I sat down to a fillet steak fondue using the last of the top quality meat we’d smuggled back from Australia in April (and one of the last bottles of decent red we’d bought on our Barossa Valley wine tour in March). I’d woken up the previous night, having de-greased and de-spidered the fondue set we’d brought out from England a year ago but not had chance to use, with the realisation that we didn’t have any methylated spirit for the burner and I wasn’t sure whether it was available in Sri Lanka. Internet searches combined with interrogating Martin who knows where to get anything but not what it’s called in English, took us to a paint shop on Colombo Street where they do sell it, but only in 4ltr containers which represented about fifty years’ supply for our fondue set. The reason being that – as in England – the stuff is used by street drinkers – or would be if sold in smaller quantities – and is somewhat cutely called ‘wine spirit’ out here. When I walked into the paint shop my under-the-counter product was waiting for me wrapped in thick brown paper to prevent the indignity of my being seen carrying the stuff around the streets of Kandy. Life continues to be full of little surprises.

{ 0 comments }