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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!

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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.

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 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…

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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.
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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!

 

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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When I lived in England I counted myself a good gardener, certainly as far as veg and fruit were concerned. Things are very different in the tropics. It’s almost a case of forget everything you learned and start anew. I had fantasies of just throwing things into the ground and watching them grow at speed. That’s true of a few things; you put in a stick to support a plant or fix a hole in a fence and within a week it has roots and new leaves. But the things you hope to eat either don’t germinate, or get eaten by unknown insect pests, or grow to a certain size looking perfectly healthy then die suddenly.

With a little help from my friends – notably Sally’s brother James in England and a great volunteer we had here recently called Caitlin who’s a gardener in Cornwall, I’ve been trying to find out what I’m doing wrong. Both independently introduced me to a great website www.tropicalpermaculture.com which has taught me a lot. Two of the more surprising things I’ve learned are (a) plant things further apart, not closer together, than you would in England (b) forget crop rotation and mix different things up in beds together. And some things need polythene cloches, not to keep[ them warm as in England but to keep them dry in the monsoon season – which is now.

When we bought the land we were told it was exceptionally fertile soil – which it turns out is just another case of Sri Lankans telling you what they think you want to hear rather than the truth. The truth is the monoculture of tea (which was what was on  the land when we bought it) is a ruinous practice for other crops; much of our garden’s topsoil is buried under a foot or more of subsoil dating back from site clearing when the house was built; and in any case the local soil is something called’reddish brown latosolic’ which is the poorest soil type in the island and needs huge quantities of manure and compost digging into it to make it grow anything. All of which I’m now doing, and all of which at least makes me feel a little better about my utter failure as a vegetable gardener in Sri Lanka thus far.

The veg plot and our Garden Room

The veg plot and our Garden Room

 

How to catch monkeys (Eco Park)

How to catch monkeys (Eco Park)

The last point I learned on  a recent visit to the National Agricultural Centre in Peradeniya, not far from us. It was an odd experience. The centre, which is open to the public and free of charge, was created some years back as an Eco Park but is still run by the government whose approach is simply to fund everything from the taxpayer rather than have a business plan which might make the place pay for itself. It has huge potential if it were run along business lines – as a non-profit – and I felt desperate to get all my old mates from Groundwork Manchester to come out and take the place over and make it sing. Still, it was very informative although half of it was closed off and despite signs to the contrary no plant sales centre existed.

 

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You like a drop or two of wine and you live in a country where recycling facilities are almost non-existent. What to do? – as the Sri Lankans are fond of saying. Build a bottle wall, that’s what. Our burgeoning pile of bottles, semi-concealed around the back of the house, was beginning to be an embarrassment. Some you can get rid of to locals who use them to carry drinking water – indeed at first it’s a disconcerting experience to see tuk-tuk-drivers apparently swigging gin or Sauvignon Blanc – who would have thought they’d have such sophisticated tastes? – until you realise it’s just water. Hopefully. But that still leaves a whole lot of bottles.

Anyway, we were lucky to have a couple of volunteers experienced in construction work and with the help of the good old internet we and they designed up a bottle wall which will form part of the coming Jungle Tide Barbecue Complex down by the swimming pool. They and other volunteers built it for us, and jolly good it looks too.

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It will carry a serving surface on top with a plastic backboard and lights that will shine through the bottles for evening barbecues once all is completed. Meanwhile we’re making a start on amassing the components of the next bottle wall…

Cheers!

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bougainvillea-oct-16-4In Sri Lanka there’s always too much rain or too little. This year we’ve had a serious drought in March, flooding and fatal landslips in May, and now an even worse drought. The rains should have arrived late September but on and on went October with no sign of them.  Down and down went the water levels in our well. There was still water down there but it lay too deep for our pump to raise up to tank level. So we had to invest in a costly submersible pump which does the job. But water levels continued to drop inexorably. Three feet of water is enough for a family; when you’ve got volunteers and guests as well as us, Martin and Rani it’s not enough. And when there’s a building site outside for Noni’s new house it’s frankly an impossible situation. So we had to suspend building on Noni’s house temporarily as well as the usual restrictions on water usage. The veg garden more or less had to be sacrificed (it will return!).  The only thing enjoying the drought has been the bougainvilleas (pictured) which love dry weather and flower their hearts out.

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Then yesterday it rained. proper rain, bouncing off the lawn, pouring down the chains from the

roof into the drains. And it carried on, much of the night and much of today. Fabulous!

 

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I’m not a dog person. For me, most of our best friends vary from the merely annoying to the positively frightening. But out here dogs are essential to deter would-be invaders of both the four-footed varieties (monkeys, wild pigs and not least other stray dogs) to the two-footed ones intent on stealing anything not bolted down be it a length of cabling or a handful of mangoes. Earlier this year we tried raising three little strays from small puppyhood but none of them made it. So now, through a friend of a friend, Sonia, we’ve acquired two more or less fully grown rescue dogs. Sonia brings up these puppies from an early age, sorts out their veterinary needs, gets them spayed and then gives them away – free – to anyone who’ll provide them with a good home. Pretty selfless behaviour, no? So a week ago Toffee and Suki, both bitches, joined the growing tribe of creatures at Jungle Tide and, somewhat to my surprise, I’ve decided I quite like them both. Must be getting soft. Toffee is big and noisy – and toffee-coloured. Suki is quieter and does a passable imitation of a small cow, though I’ve not yet taught her to moo. Kuta – Martin and Rani’s old dog – has accepted their boisterous behaviour and various privileges with an only slightly grumpy good grace and most of the time they work as a team. Fortunately all of them are good around small children and so far we haven’t had any guests or volunteers more dog-phobic than I am. Here they are …

Suki and Toffee

Suki and Toffee

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A proper start has now been made. The worst holes and bumps have been levelled and a heavy roller has been over the whole road. So while it’s still slow, it’s less bumpy and drivers are n o longer likely to damage their vehicles. At the moment (mid-July 2016) nothing much is happening; no drains have been dug and no tarmac surface has been laid. But it’s certainly a whole lot better than it was!Start of roadworks June 16

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We’re beginning to get the fruits of our labours at Jungle Tide. In the past week we’ve picked our first avocados and our first mangoes, of what looks like a very heavy crop. Home-made mango chutney coming up. And mango sorbet in the freezer. A half-ripe hand of bananas succumbed to the recent storms when the plant blew over but Martin and Rani rescued and ripened the fruits in the kitchen. Coming along nicely are custard apples (heavenly taste!) and mulberries, plus more guavas than anyone could want. We’ve also got a lemon tree fruiting well, though our other citrus are a big disappointment so far. Lots of foliage but they refuse to flower let alone set fruit. Maybe it’s just a matter of being patient. Apparently you shouldn’t prune them. It’s all a long if not too steep learning curve.

Birds and monkeys are our main competitors for fruit. We’re trying to persuade them to agree to a fair shares for all policy, so we’ve put lengths of white mosquito netting around some of the mulberries against the birds, but left them a couple of trees to go at. And we’ve tied plastic carrier bags around all the mangoes we can reach, leaving the ones at the top of the trees for our monkey friends. We’ll shortly have to do the same for the custard apples, but the avocados grow too high to pick – shaking the tree and seeing what comes down (and hoping not to be hit by it) is the answer.

They say time flies like and arrow but fruit flies like a banana, and it’s true. As our bananas ripened on the kitchen table they attracted clouds of drosophila, so tiny they can get through the netting that keeps the house flies off.

 

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