A bit of background
Sally was born and raised in Sri Lanka, a member of the fourth generation of a tea- planting dynasty. The family left in 1971 when she was thirteen and things were
getting a bit hot for Europeans under the ultra-nationalist government of the time. She was not to return until 1998, a couple of years after we were married. At the time, although Jerry fell hopelessly in love with the place, we had no plans to live there.
All that started on our second visit, in 2001, when we began to realise that the usual holiday fantasies one has were in this case a very real option for us. For reasons too tedious to relate here, we owned no property in the UK and didn’t have very good pensions awaiting us on retirement. The prospect of choosing between being warm and having a bottle of wine wasn’t one which we found appealing. In Sri Lanka, we realised, we could live very comfortably on the same amount of money. On our next visit, in 2004, we resolved to buy a house.
In the end we bought land – three acres of it (see picture above). None of the houses we viewed was quite right and the land gave us more options. For a start, we thought, we could sit on it and build our house when we wanted to. That wasn’t to be. Building costs were higher than we’d expected, as was inflation. Then came the tsunami. It seems petty to relate in the context of that dreadful humanitarian disaster but one side-
effect was a phenomenal rise in building costs as materials became scarce in the wake of the huge reconstruction effort. It was now or never.
“Now” and “never” are not words familiar to Sri Lankans. To them, everything is possible and everything takes longer than you could imagine. So – to cut a very long story short – it was only in March 2007 on our fifth visit (we’d also been out in 2006 but achieved little) that we finally signed up with an architect/builder to build a house a little smaller and less opulent than we’d at first been led to believe we could afford
but still a damned good place and – fingers crossed – so far on time and within budget.
Why a guest house? Because the place needed to pay for itself during the time before we would be able to move in, having paid off what we had to borrow to build it.
Because we didn’t want just to retire and do nothing but fancied working for ourselves for a change. Because we love being surrounded by other people, whether family, friends or new faces. Because Jerry, having been brought up in a Somerset guest house, wanted to claim he was in some small way returning to his roots as well.
And why have we called the business “Jungle Tide”? That’s down to a book of the same name from the 1920s by an eccentric Englishman called John Still who in his wanderings chanced upon some of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka, long since reclaimed by the lush jungle. We liked his philosophy and we liked the name.
Jerry has written up all our visits to Sri Lanka in a series of mildly entertaining and vaguely informative journals which we’re happy to e-mail to anyone who would like to read them.
Sri Lanka as a holiday destination
What comes to mind when you think of Sri Lanka? Perhaps: “Tropical paradise, ravaged by civil war and devastated by the tsunami”? All of which is true, in a general sense, but let’s tease a few things out and give you a brief taste of the place. Tropical paradise? Not for nothing was Serendip (from which we get our word “serendipity”) one of the ancient names of the island. A more relaxed place is hard to find and it’s rich in everything from rice to precious stones. But Sri Lanka is much more than your beach-based tropical island destination, though it has some of the best beaches on the planet. In an area roughly the size of Ireland there is lush jungle, dry
scrubland, dramatic mountains and coastal plains. While the coast is hot and very humid, up in the hills it is simply pleasantly warm and in the highest regions you’ll need jumpers and a blanket or two at night. You can be sweltering on a beach in the morning and end up at night in cold mountain air.
Sri Lanka had cities and high culture at a time when Britain was living through the dark ages. The remains of these can still be visited and are truly astonishing whether your interest is religion, architecture or engineering. The culture is predominantly Buddhist but the minority Tamils are mainly Hindu and there are sizeable Muslim and Christian minorities. All get along well together, despite the civil war which we’ll come to. They are always up for a holiday so share each others’ festivals and Hinduism in particular is highly inclusive, collecting and absorbing others’ deities and welcoming those of other faiths into their temples. It’s always risky to generalise about national traits but we’ve found that Sri Lankan people are eager to please, often anglophile (to the point of embarrassment for those of us who have qualms about our colonial past) and have struck what to us seems the right balance halfway between “workaholism” and indolence. The only
drawback is their seeming inability to accept that anything is impossible, which can lead to some frustrating experiences. Oh, and everyone you’ll need to deal with speaks English.
We’ll get into more detail in future bulletins about such things as language and customs, food, climate, festivals, the arts, transport and accommodation as well as the most significant places to visit.
Ravaged by civil war? Yes, but only in part of the island, essentially the
most of the east coast. The north has never been much of a tourist destination and is pretty arid. The east coast does contain some real gems and in all our visits to date it has only once been safe to visit Trincomalee, just one of them and the world’s second largest natural harbour after Sydney. We have yet to visit the other pearls of that coast together, though Sally of course knows them from childhood. But that leaves the whole of the west and south coasts and the magnificent hill country all of which are completely safe – in the sense that anywhere is these days.
If you want our take on the politics and the war please ask us, but for now let’s just explain that the Tamil Tigers have no interest in targeting foreigners or tourists, for the simple reason that they get most of their funds from western sympathisers. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Also, the war is sometimes portrayed in the west as a religious conflict. It’s true that Tamils are almost always Hindus whereas the vast majority of Sinhalese are Buddhist but the conflict is about territory, not religion.
As for more general questions of safety, it’s fair to say that Sri Lanka is probably about the safest developing country you could visit. Children are adored, and tourists carefully looked after. It’s disconcerting, to be sure, if you haven’t travelled in the developing world before. City and town traffic is completely mad and don’t assume a zebra crossing has any meaning. Armed police and military are everywhere – but then you suddenly notice two boy soldiers, AK47s slung across their shoulders, walking hand in hand down the street. And if you look hesitant, someone will come up and help you. Most of the time they’ll expect a few rupees for it and scamming tourists is an art form in the island, but you won’t get robbed or threatened with violence. Devastated by the tsunami? Of course, but the reconstruction has been largely completed and the coastal tourism industry is back on its feet again, as is the fishing industry. Again, that short statement conceals a load of detail which we’d be happy to go into if anyone wants.
What we’ll be offering
Again, there’ll be more detail in future bulletins but it’s partly down to you. Also attached to the e-mail is a short questionnaire to help us get a better feel for the kind of holiday experiences people want. Of course you don’t have to return it but if you do we’ll note this and give you a 10% reduction on accommodation costs on your first holiday with us.
What we’ll be offering once we ourselves live there will be much better (and cost a bit more) than what we expect to be able to provide for the two years from autumn 2008. In this initial period we have yet to decide our options. One possibility is that we won’t run it as a guest house at all but rent it out for two years to a Sri Lankan company as an executive home. But it’s more probable that we will be taking paying guests from next autumn. This may mean employing a local manager – a big risk since we’re not around to supervise – or finding someone we know (or who someone
we know can vouch for) to manage it in the interim. Possibly for the full two years, more probably a series of such people doing six month or more
anyone who might be interested we’d love to hear from them. The deal,
would be that we would take all our costs and anything the business earns
is theirs to keep – plus free serviced accommodation, naturally.
There are three double en-suite guest bedrooms, each with a balcony wide
enough to dine on. In this first two years it will probably be just a case of
providing bed and breakfast, plus an evening meal if required, and contact
details for drivers we trust. We’ll also produce a guide of suggested things to do and information about prices, travel etc.
The house under construction
Once we’re there, we want to offer a range of optional add-ons. Visits and trips, some including overnight accommodation elsewhere in places we’ve personally checked out. The opportunity to leave heavy baggage with us for a few days and go off independently travelling light before returning for a final night. We also want to develop the extensive gardens as a cool place to relax with enough to do to occupy a day, especially for those with kids. Indoor and outdoor games, local walks, colonial-style afternoon tea for example. If the business shows signs of success our top priority is to build a swimming pool. We already have a pond and a stream which runs all year
round and has a dammed area for paddling and cooling down.
A further idea we have is to team up with some reasonably local community eco-project, possibly around renewable energy. We would invite our guests to consider offsetting their air-miles by donating to the project instead of the somewhat discredited tree-planting offset schemes around. Those with little money might instead offer a day’s free labour to the project.
Finally – a bit about the Kandy area
Our house is half an hour’s drive out of Kandy in the centre of the island and about a thousand metres above sea level (Kandy itself is a bit lower down). Kandy is a World Heritage City and everyone we know who’s been there loves the place. It is the Buddhist cultural capital – the Temple of the Tooth is in the heart of town by the (man-made but very old) lake. The temple is supposed to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth which is annually paraded around town nightly during the two weeks of the Perahera culminating in the Esala Perahera which is the world’s largest street
procession, bigger than Rio though perhaps not as exuberant. But it’s still a wild scene involving hundreds of decorated elephants, dancers and fire-jugglers. All this takes place during late July and early August depending on what the moon is up to.
The city is buzzy by day though there’s virtually no night-life (you need to be in Colombo or the more popular coastal resorts for that) and the market is one of our favourite hangouts. There are some good places to eat though we think it could do with more. Walking around the lake is a great stroll, and there’s a nature reserve within walking distance of the town centre. There are many demonstrations of the famous Kandyan dancing and drumming. It has test cricket and also a big rugby stadium plus most of the things you could expect in a city – supermarkets as well as traditional shops and street traders, internet cafes, banks, travel agents and good medical facilities. It’s on the rail network with trains both to Colombo and up into the high hill country and – with changes – many other bits of the island. Buses from the long-distance bus stand will take you more or less anywhere if you’re brave enough.
Nearby are two main tourist destinations. Peradeniya Botanical Gardens is well worth a whole day, being so extensive. The Peenawella Elephant Orphanage is also much visited and there are other nearby locations where you can ride elephants and scrub them down in the river.
Further afield but still do-able in a day trip if you get up early enough are Dambulla rock temples and the astounding Sigiriya rock fortress (see picture). We’ll say more about these and other attractions in
We hope this has whetted your appetite. If you want to e-mail us with any questions we’ll do our best to answer them.
Sally & Jerry