27 June 2020

Sri Lanka - Paradise Lost #2?



Don't save a prayer for me now 

Save it til the morning after





Sri Lanka’s iconic landmark, The Galle Face Hotel, is situated in the heart of Colombo, along the seafront and facing the famous Galle Face Green. 


This was the hotel where, almost exactly 100 years ago, my maternal grandparents held their wedding reception.....






One of the oldest hotels east of the Suez, The Galle Face Hotel embraces its rich history and legendary traditions, utilizing them to create engaging, immersive experiences that resonate with old and new generations of travelers alike. No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without staying at this majestic hotel, built in 1864 and recently restored back to its former glory.

Well.... in 1988, when I chanced by, it hadn't been restored to any former glory, but it was still a fine place for a peg or two.....






Ceylon was a British crown colony until February 4th 1948.  I travelled to Sri Lanka, as Ceylon had become in 1972, and fumbled my way around, trying to avoid conflict with the Tamil Tigers, who were, at the time, a force to be reckoned with in the North and North East.  A civil war was waged for 26 years until 2009.


In 2018, The Guardian reported that, it is nearly a decade since the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, but for many families the long struggle will never be over. During the conflict, many thousands of people from the minority Tamil community in the north of the country were “disappeared”. Amnesty International estimates that there are at least 60,000 of these “missing” people, perhaps as many as 100,000. Their families do not know if they were killed or imprisoned by the government forces. Many were teenagers or young adults when they were lost.



I travelled in a shroud of ignorance and innocence - neither of them an acceptable excuse, I know. I had been to Kerala, where my mother had been born on a tea plantation, and I had visited Cape Cormorin, and stood at the Vivekananda Rock Memorial looking south, and I wanted to see the fabled island jewel across the oceans......



I made this trip with a colleague.  We had just got back from taking a heterogenous party of pupils to the strange world of London (Rome was our home at the time) and a 'foreign' holiday was needed.





I used Pentax MX SLR cameras at the time, and have rescued some of the slides I took (though without sophisticated digital scanning), so these if these pics seem a little odd, please blame their years, not their creator.....

I also kept a diary, scribbled with superficialities, as we moved around.  Forgive me if I recount certain details.....  Our flight out was delayed from 5.30 to midnight. We were given a voucher for a meal which didn't go down very well.  

In fact it came up again, as I recorded in the diary:  After interminable taxiing I suddenly get cold sweats and sickness... I faint, twice, and have to be carried into business class [you expect me to believe this? Ed] my legs raised by a doctor and his girlfriend.... 


It wasn't a heart attack.  

Probably something I ate.


So, grounded in Colombo we check into the Hotel Taprobane (the Ancient Greek name for the island) and have a cup of tea before wandering down to the Galle Face Hotel for a luxurious Pimms.......

My diary is sketchy at this point, but I note that I lay in bed on Sunday morning reading Evelyn Waugh's Unconditional Surrender before breakfast.  [Travel broadens the mind?  Ed]

We then took a two and a half hour train ride to Galle, where we move into the New Oriental Hotel.  We have a vast corner suite, showers, and Sri Lankan cocktails before a fish curry supper and beer....




The Hotel, now rechristened, Amangalla,  is still there, though, I suspect, much transformed.  Here is what it says of itself on the interweb today:


Colonial grande dame 
In the historic port of Galle, Amangalla lies within the ramparts of Sri Lanka’s 17th-century Galle Fort, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Offering views of the Fort and harbour on one side and the hotel’s lush gardens and swimming pool on the other, the graceful residence presents 30 rooms and suites, the two-storey, free-standing Garden House and the tranquil spa complex, The Spa and Baths. Named after the Sanskrit-derived word for ‘peace’, and galla, the Sinhalese word for the town of Galle, Amangalla reveals the Fort’s daily activities and rich legacy, its narrow streets lined with buildings from the Dutch and British colonial eras. Beyond the old-world bustle of this remarkable citadel lie emerald-green rice paddies, tranquil temples, serene beaches and the exhilarating prospect of whale-spotting from November to March.


I cannot claim to have any connection with Duran Duran.  I believe they may have been popular recording artists of the 1980s, belonging to something called the 'new wave.' 

As with Mrs Thatcher, and Only Fools and Horses, these were treats I missed by living in the Italian third world, a pleasing backwater managed by corrupt politicians and well-meaning mafiosi....

However, it was somehow extraordinary that this band of romantic youths had pitched up here at this very hotel to record videos.  How could they have foreseen that subsequently I would be there too?  The hotel staff were immensely proud of the connection..... (Especially when I told them I had been to Birmingham.....)

My diary records: We walked round old fort, beautiful place, surrounded by shallow coral sea, and pockets of stilt-fishers etc.....




And then into beautiful hotel pool amidst the most glorious tropical garden; hibiscus, frangipane, cannas and everything green (coconuts) and birds here and there (hummingbirds, flycatchers, etc) and also, later, a couple of mongoose [mongeese? Ed]

Lazy.  Read Waugh.  Have sandwiches and gin and limes, and then start Golding's Close Quarters.

You can see the depth of my enquiry into the socio-economic plight of the world around me. With the benefit of hindsight I would also claim to have foreseen the devastation of Galle by the tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004, which completely destroyed the international cricket stadium, among other essential facilities..... (The tsunami killed over 35,000 people in Sr Lanka, and I recall pictures of the devastation at the time. Fortunately, perhaps, the New Oriental was protected by the walls of the Dutch defences....)





It is hard to see what difference I have ever made to the world, but I like to think that wherever I go I pay my dues, and perhaps my contribution to the local coffers was not a negative.....

Then sunset walk round the fort again and sit on terrace drinking Sri Lankan cocktails.....





I offer the following extract from the diary not as a confession of absolute decadence, but somehow as an homage to the New Romanticism I seem to have caught from previous guests in this particular corner of paradise....

Tuesday: breakfast, bank and then taxi to Umawatuna beach where we snorkel, frizzle and lunch on, rather small, lobsters.....  [Times must be hard when you complain about the size of lobsters....! Ed]

In the evening we had arrack cocktails, write postcards, (remember them?) dine on springhopper biriani and chicken curry and have a very interesting chat with the owner's son and his wife.  [So interesting, note, that you neglected to record a word of it..... Ed]

From Galle, we moved on to Matara, and then to the Tangalle Rest House.....  A little swim, a little walk around, and then a couple of gin, lime and sodas in earshot of a German, and a Californian girl and Texas boy having heady discussion of deepest naïveté [You can talk? Ed]..... ("superficially, on the surface, one can get to know Sri Lankans really well, but, I don't know, it seems difficult to get really close to them!" - "I know a lot of people back home, but I can probably number real friends on ONE HAND!")

We seem to wander a little for a day or two, seeing giant Buddhist sculptures, and swimming with barracudas, but then on Saturday:

Up early and breakfast and walk to train..... Scenery very fine, with views down tea gardens and across the hill country, even to the extraordinary triangle of Adam's peak.....



Our aim was Nuwara Eliya (at 1,868 metres above sea level) where we check in to the Alpen Guest House, a fairly grotty establishment in the biggest deadsville in Sri Lanka.  It is a town of 26,000+ and its nick name is "Little England." My diary records (and please forgive me, these are things my earlier self observed and recorded over thirty years ago....) Every fat, greasy, rich bastard in the country is gathering here for a New Year holiday of blaring disco music, the most inflated prices and the most ghastly weather.  It rains, as we take a seat in the Hill Club Reading Room, hushed atmosphere and month old Daily Telegraphs.....

Later we have an awful chicken curry with drain-smelling rice etc and then back to the crazy Alpen for a belt of Arrack, the same news as earlier, and a fairly chilly, mosquito-ridden night.

At least it doesn't rain in the morning, and after breakfast we walk for three hours, completely circumambulating the hill station, finding (eventually) the slightly gothic (black corrugated iron roof, fresh white-washed walls) Anglican Church, the mock brickwork Post Office, the nicely flowering Victoria Park, the grey, Caledonian-style St Andrew's Hotel and the pukka wallies on the golf course.  To complete our tour we drop in to the ridiculous race course to see the 10.15, rather more like the sands at Weston than Ascot, with some riders in silks and others in jeans, some with saddles, others without, and all (even ten-year-old lads) long on the dwarf bloodstock.....




Then back to the Alpen for coffee and sandwiches while we wait for the car, and a total prat Brit turns up, who didn't accept a ride on an elephant because he hadn't brought his insurance. "Funny old world, innit?" he philosophised, while sitting in an old British bungalow with pictures of the village smithy, sheep in snow, and lots of antlers on the walls.....  We are very glad to get away.




It is raining hard when we arrive in Kandy,  the second largest city of Sri Lanka, at 500 metres above sea level, and so we check into the Hotel Suisse, and stay there for supper and sleep.

Monday: Lovely morning, after initial mists.... walk round lake to Railway Station (pelicans in the trees, Temple of the Tooth gleaming in the sun) and buy tickets to Colombo tomorrow, then wandering out, we are approached nicely by a bearded taxi driver.  After brief negotiations we agree a price of 300Rps and set off, in the front of his minibus, for the Elephant Orphanage, some 30 miles away.....

It is an interesting drive, down the road to Colombo, through villages, towns, and superb scenery, and our driver is very informative.  He's been a taxi driver for ten years, has a wife and four kids, is one of twelve children himself, 33 years old and has set up an association of taxi drivers (a sort of union though that is illegal) in Kandy.





The Elephant orphanage is delightful and the elephants are all bathing in the river, swollen and red after the rains.  The two or three mahouts don't bother us and for a while we are there with a dozen or so elephants, playing with the little ones (some just three months old) and it is really lovely.  There are also three little ones back in the camp which haven't been allowed in the river today, and we have our pictures taken with them.....



Afterwards we are taken to a spice garden, where we buy a load of spices, and get the recipe for Sri Lankan curry:

1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp saffron
ten seeds coriander
ten seeds anis
sen seeds cumin
ten seeds dill
ten seeds black pepper
ten red chilli beans
2 cups cool water
25 minutes cook
1 kilo rice
1 drop almond essence

[Or words to that effect....]







Later, as it is not raining, we walk round the lake in Kandy and meet a charming chap who wants us to meet the high priest, and who waits outside while we have a couple of drinks in the seedy, crumbling Queen's Hotel, and then conducts us to the monastery, shows us some Buddhas before taking us to meet the arch monk of Sri Lanka, a 92 year old serenity who sits in a pleasant ante room of the monks' quarters, with a couple of dogs for company and a nice chaise longue.

Through the interpreter we tell him of our journey and he tell us other places we should go, then we are instructed to make a donation (50Rps seems enough though it doesn't seem to over-impress his holiness) and we are ushered away. [Today I wonder whether we really did meet his supreme holiness, or whether this was just some ancient monk on duty to fleece unsuspecting tourists? I must admit to disappointment both at the time and now.  I studied Indian Religion at University under the great Ninian Smart, and philosophically and spiritually have empathy with Buddhism.  But this was not an epiphany....]

Tuesday: Our man calls for us at 8.30 and we go off on a 'Temple Crawl' first to a modest little Buddhist one then a combined Buddhist/Hindu one and then an ancient Hindu one with interesting carvings and a small Buddhist cubicle.  All are in village settings, surrounded by forests and paddy fields, water buffalo ploughing the mud, and working elephants shifting logs.

Then, as a rare honour, our driver takes us to his father's house to have tea and local sweets and to meet some of his family, including one younger brother who worked as a cook on Midway island for three years.  It's a very friendly, quiet house, with lots of people in it.  Father, 72, has twelve children most of whom are married.



On the way back we see a brother-in-law staggering up the road having had too much arrack.  It's 11.30 am on New Year's Day and everybody is happy....


I was really impressed with our driver, and he gave me his address:




[Later on, home again, I recommended him to friends who were aiming to visit, and I wrote to him, promising to return, but the trail ended there.  I do hope his Union activity didn't get him into trouble, and that he is still living a happy family life....]


The train rattles us down the hills to Colombo through the rain and flooded paddy fields.  My friend claims to have seen a snake eating a crocodile's intestines from within, during a torrential downpour in a flooded paddy.  I humour him.  Poor chap's getting on and it's been very trying for him to have the gout.....

It's still raining in Colombo so we get a taxi to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, on the beach to the south....




Wednesday: .... a wonderful day, reading and resting on the private, Paradise beach.  Later we have dry martinis to a superb sunset, with fireworks celebrating the Tamil/Sinhala New Year down the coast and a big electric storm building up black overhead.



On our last morning we get talked to by some oddballs, including a very funny RC priest on a motorbike who insists on us photographing him.  




It is very quiet and apparently has been since '83  and the troubles.  One man we talk to used to be a barman at a good hotel up the beach, but that is closed now, and he is just a waiter in a run down government rest house.  

Late (at 10.15) the taxi takes us to the airport....  Elaborate checking in takes hours, with to-ing and fr0-ing to change money to pay airport tax etc, and boring waiting, but we eventually get off......


And that's where the diary ends, some thirty years ago....

*     *     *     *



“Hungry Like the Wolf” is one of Duran Duran’s biggest hits. The band has said that the video is like an Indiana Jones movie, but he’s looking for a girl for the night. Seventeen seconds into the video, we see Simon Le Bon sitting in an exotic café wearing a hat and glacier glasses. A bottle of liquor sits on the table while he shoos away a vendor with a monkey. The camera angle switches to the front, and he stands up in slow motion flipping the table dramatically, as we’ve seen in so many 80s videos. That scene was shot in the capital city, Colombo, in the Pagoda Tea Room. The Pagoda Tea Room is still open. It’s since been refurbished and now has a bland, white paint scheme with plastic tables and chairs. Still exotic, it’s located at 105 Chatham Street in the old area of Colombo called Fort. The final reunion scene of the video is shot here as well. Next Simon Le Bon walks through a bazaar. This was shot in the old market in the town of Galle. The market has since been redone and is not recognizable from the video. There is a short segment in the video where the band members are in a bar, elegantly dressed, and standing by a staircase. That scene was shot in the Amangalla Hotel in Galle (formerly the New Oriental Hotel). Most of the other scenes in the video are shot in the jungle or on the streets, not places that are easily recognizable or can be found.



“So you’re looking for the thrill, and you know just what it takes and where to go.” ~ Save a Prayer



FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF DURAN DURAN IN SRI LANKA


by Marc Weitz



*     *     *     *

Strut on a line, it's discord and rhyme
I'm on the hunt, I'm after you
Mouth is alive with juices like wine
And I'm hungry like the wolf

Hungry Like the Wolf

Duran Duran


*     *     *     *


Me miserable! which way shall I flie

Infinite wrauth, and infinite despaire?

Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;

And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

Paradise Lost

John Milton



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