When it’s time to move on from India I head south to Sri Lanka, I figure on giving myself six weeks to see the Island, I land at Colombo airport in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay and unsure of where to go, maybe I should have planned ahead but I thought I’d just see where luck would take me.
Coming out of the airport there are plenty of Tuc tucs and taxis, then a giant of a man, at least six foot five comes up to me, he is middle aged and speaks good English.
Sir are you looking for somewhere to stay? I have good rooms, come with me and see. I weigh him up for a moment or two, I decide he doesn’t look like an axe murderer, we discuss a room rate, the location of his place – 30kms from the capital and the first decent beach along the way. At five a.m. it sounds fine, if the rooms are bad I will just stay for a night and then move on.
We arrive in Negombo a small tourist town half an hour or so later, my new room is a couple of hundred metres from the beach, the Giant does indeed own the guest house which has fifteen rooms. Only one other guest is staying, all the other rooms are vacant. This is because by April Sri Lanka is as hot as hell and the air so saturated that you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into a sauna.
After a sleep I head to the beach, at twelve midday it’s empty, out at sea a couple of fishing boats that remind me of ancient dows plough through the waters with sails billowing and this idea floats around in my head that this scene could have been the same for hundreds of years, that nothing much has changed in all that time.
I swim to cool off and then when I get out of the water I see all the detritus along the tidemark, plastic bottles, flip flops, beer bottles, carrier bags, toothbrushes, lumps of polystyrene foam, beautiful nature scarred by human waste. God how grim the damage we do, the thing is it’s not just this beach, or or just Sri Lanka, I’ve seen this everywhere, India, England, the Med, even up in Himalayas, mountain streams with crystal clear water with that human touch, broken glass and crisp packets and plastic bags. It depresses the hell out of me. I head back to my rooms, by the time I reach the road its sweltering again, the damp of the sea has been fried off me and now perspiration is draining form me, the pavement is so hot that my trainers are sticking to the tarmac underfoot, think walking through treacle…………..
I hear someone whistling, walking behind me on the road was a Sri Lankan man of advancing years pushing a large barrow full of kindling. He had bare feet, how he could walk on that road surface in the heat? His clothes were as close to rags as you can get, on his shoulder sat a little bird, he was whistling to the bird, when he stopped the bird would begin to sing & on they would go, singing in call and response.
I matched him for pace along the road for a while too curious not to find out more & asked him in that way English people do when speaking to a foreigner in foreign climes, very loudly ( as if the volume makes you better understood ) and extra slowly: Your Bird ( I point towards his shoulder )
The old man reveals a pair of splendidly tooth free gums and begins to cackle with laughter.
No not my bird, my best friend he says.
I turn off to the main road, pausing at the junction to watch him and the barrow and his best friend head off into the distance, each singing to the other as they go.
There goes a man with no shoes on his feet, without a pot to piss in and yet he can laugh and smile and sing, how content he seems with so little. Maybe he had found the answer, maybe he was just a crazy loon, I clearly still had a way to go to reach either of those two states, though I felt rather convinced I was heading towards one or the other and either of them would be just fine.
It was time to explore the Island, so I headed down along the east coast stopping at the main southern city of Galle, this was founded by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, then came the Dutch who made a fort of it with high walls along the coast line, the Brits eventually moved in, never a nation to hold back on appropriating other peoples land.
In 2004 the Tsunami hit home with a vengeance, though I’d only really remembered the Tsunami in terms of its effect on the people of Thailand & Indonesia I learnt that more than thirty thousand Sri Lankans lost their lives along the coast here, Galle City was inundated with the enormous tidal wave, the old town though right next to the sea and at low elevation was safe behind the centuries old stone walls, buildings that had stood for four centuries completely unscathed, the newer party of a city of more than half a million people further inland was not so lucky. Just stand in the main bus station area on any given day amongst the hundreds of travellers there from dawn til dusk and you cannot begin to imagine the devastation and carnage that came on a day in December with the Sunami.
Travelling out of the City and along the coast westwards my journey is through the delicious hinterland between seas & land, Sri Lanka is six hundred or so miles south of Goa, but that distance makes all the difference, Goa is lapped by the Arabian Sea, Sri Lanka is the child of the Indian Ocean.
The sea is the deepest blue, the waves that crash on the beaches billow with white foam and the Ocean beyond is immense. If you were to steam directly south from Galle you would cross more than 10,000 kilometres of Ocean before you reach land once again & it would be the Antarctic.
On my travels I stick to the coastal hinterland, between the beaches and the palm trees and the green of the interior. I begin to notice little outcrops of disused or fallen down buildings, grown over with vines and vegetation, then every once in a while a little memorial or gravestone, or a huddle of them each with a name carved in wood or on stone. Mile after mile of tombstone and ruined home sinking back into the soil, time will eventually swallow them altogether until all that remains are footnotes in history books. On a sunny day in July with the birds singing it’s hard to rationalise what once happened here.
My bucket list has plenty of entries that I have yet to search out & Whales are most definitely one.
I’ve always been fascinated by these creatures, maybe it was spending too much time in front of a T.V. watching – David Attenborough, or Jacques Cousteau, or maybe it was a poem called Whale Nation by Heathcote Williams, these creatures of the deep had always been utterly fascinating to me, I had always dreamt of getting to see them out in the real world for myself one day.
At 7a.m I am on a boat crowded with tourists heading out from the Port of Mirissa to go whale spotting, we sail south for the best part of an hour, the land becoming ever smaller behind us until it disappears entirely from view and in its place for as far as the eye can see in every direction is Ocean.
The Captain shouts into a walkie-talkie, he confers with other boats in the area all on cetacean watch, any will do, dolphins or whales – there are more than twenty species to be found here in these waters. Lookouts with binoculars hang precariously from port & bow and when one cries out and points the engines fire up and we speed through the water, we reach another two boats stationary therein the water, passengers crowd on one side, cameras and phones trained on the water and then a breach – two hundred metres away, a colossal creature pokes its head from the water for a moment then dives once again into the depths. Word passes around that this is a Blue Whale, the largest creature that so far has been known to exist at any time on the planet.
These fabulous creatures can grow to almost 100 metres long & weigh nigh on two hundred tonnes, as the big Blue slips into the depths towards a seabed that lies two and a half miles below our boat despite having dozens of passengers all fall utterly silent, the feeling of being no more than ants in the kingdom of a leviathan is over-whelming as everyone peers at the water waiting for signs of the whales return, I notice something in the water, I think its a jellyfish, but then realise its a carrier bag, even here far from land the detritus of man finds its way.
The more I look the more plastic I notice floating in the ocean, the whale surfaces periodically over the next hour and though the spectacle is one of the most moving experiences I can ever remember having witnessed as we chugged back to shore I was most haunted of all by the memory of the ocean awash with plastic.
After the whales I decided to see a little more of the Island and hired a driver and car, both of whom were on first appearances remarkably similar, around the same age, both started each morning slowly, with much spluttering and noise, slowly gathering speed. My driver was a Buddhist who spoke English well, with his help we drew up an itinerary, I had read about a snake farm in the area that harvested snake venom for research and antidote production. That went on the list, then the ruins of an ancient kingdom up in the centre of the Island, then a mountain called Adams peak that was a pilgrimage site so there was plenty to see and do.
The old car and my driver and me head inland, on the way I spot a series of Stupas, (Buddhist shrines ) my driver tells me its a monastery complex, can we go and see I ask, sure he says……
We are greeted at the gate by a very tubby monk, he has his hand held out for money, Donation donation he says before we’ve even entered the gate. There’s something irritating about being asked for money before I’ve even seen anything so I say later, he follows me and keeps repeating donation donation, I match each insistent request with the same response until he grows tired and stops following me.
Sri Lanka is populated in descending order of magnitude by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims & Christians, the political and economic power is held by the Buddhists, the monks here, at least some of them are deeply into politics, and not for the better, I’m rather appalled to learn that they dispense a form of nationalist politics, about as far away from my ideas of what Buddhism is about as I can possibly imagine, the Hindus are a functioning and successful part of the community, the Christians though the smallest group are nevertheless highly successful economically and politically, which leaves the muslims, second or third class citizens, at best marginalised and at worst distrusted and poorly treated.
Each evening we stop off at some guest house or another, my driver fixes us up, the prices are reasonable & there is always a bar for the two of us drink, he likes a whisky or two, I prefer to sample some local fire water or just a few beers.
One night after our customary drinks session I am in my room checking the web for the next days excursion, a rain storm kicks off, an epic one, the night is pitch black, blacker than black, then the lightning begins, forks of it bombard the surface of the nearby lake. I sit out on the verandah under an awning and it’s like being on the inside of a huge plasma globe. The noise when the thunder comes is astounding & I imagine my eardrums shattering with the volume, the rain falls in sheets and the air goes from pitch black to bright white light from one moment to another.
The power goes off and stays that way til morning.
I decide on a morning swim, I had checked the day before with the guest house owner and my driver if the lake is safe for swimming, both say yes. My morning swim is lovely, not a soul to be seen and the water cool and refreshing after the storm.
After breakfast my driver turfs up to collect me and we drive around the lake on towards our next destination. As we head round the lake I notice something close to the water and ask my driver to pull over, we stop. There are crocodiles.
You told me the lake was safe? There are fucking crocodiles in the fucking lake!
Yes says my driver, he talks to me like I an an idiot. But crocodiles on this side, on the other side where you swim mostly not often.
My wildlife adventures continue on apace, visiting Sigriya, ancient ruined capital of a long gone Buddhist Kingdom I came across a load of monkeys and remembering the advice that you should never stare at a monkey I decide to see what happens if you do.
I picked the biggest and ugliest of the band that looks like he thinks he’s in charge and begin to stare at him, he becomes agitated and then bares his teeth at me which were surprisingly fearsome, then he begins to scream, at this point I think maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, but it’s too late, he charges towards me. I panic, rapidly trying to step backwards away from him I go ass over tit and end up flat in the dirt, the £150 folding raybans that are perched on my head go flying and the bastard monkey grabs them and races to the top of the nearest tree – an enormous thing that must be close to two hundred feet high. The monkey stays high up in the canopy and looks down at me, he waves the glasses in his hand like he’s taunting me.
There is no way that I am leaving behind my sunglasses, hell I seem to just lose everything at one point or another, wives, bicycles, friends, you name it I lose it, I am going to make a stand for once and get back my bloody sunglasses, it’s only a matter of time til he gets bored and drops them?
I begin to talk to the monkey, in soothing tones, OK old chap, please can I have my sunnies back, there’s a good monkey. They are no use to you. I continue on in this vain for a while, it has no effect. As time marches on I begin to grow more irritated, the monkey continues to taunt me and my reasonable tone shits to a more insistent Come on, give me my glasses you little shit, come on I’ve waited long enough……………… Still nothing.
I don’t know how long I was standing under that tree but I end up screaming into the canopy, not realising that a group of tourists is walking towards me, ‘You fucking little shit give them back!’ A little boy no more than six years old is standing next to me, mouth agape, a worried mother grabs him and pulls him away from me, I realise I must look like a bit of a nut, shouting at a tree so figure I need to explain, I begin to try to tell the mum so she doesn’t think I’m a crazy, but this only makes things worse and she just drags her child away and the other tourists make a quick detour around me and away as quickly as possible.
Alone once again with the monkey I look up into the canopy once again and beg him to give me my sunglasses back. This seems to do the trick, he tosses them down and I pick them up, covered in saliva and chew marks, re-united at last.
The remainder of my trip in Sri Lanka goes without any major incidents outside of a close call with an elephant that decides to batter a car on the road in front of us, a spider the size of my hand that comes visiting me in my bedroom in the middle of the night and a young Russian lady who I meet on the beach one afternoon who also spends an evening with me, but none of the above left any permanent scars.
By late April the weather is getting to me, perhaps better explained by the following quote I found online:-
Do not account the climate for excursions to the great outdoors. It rains intensely throughout the month of April. Even if the heat is acceptable, the weather is bad.
This quote is a positive spin, the reality is much more uncomfortable, the night I end up having to have three showers just to cool down makes up my mind. The next day I book a flight back to Europe, its time to head towards home.