Samuel Pepys was a Londoner with a keen eye and scratchy pen. For ten or more years, he confided in his mute friend. It was mundane stuff, no one can live a life perpetually at a hundred miles an hour. Nevertheless, his life was more interesting than most.
The clock had not moved since; it showed 5:17…
I looked out of the car window as my Bulgarian colleague, Vasko, drove from Sofia towards the Macedonian border. We had been invited to demonstrate our company’s capabilities to a potential agent in Skopje.
In October 1994, I was busy across eastern Europe helping our organisation develop its business in the banking sector as the shrouds of communism dissolved and the free market alluringly beckoned. Yet, apart from Sarajevo and Gavrilo Princip, I was not aware of the region’s history nor the disputes which had surfaced as a result of the country’s creation phoenix-like out of the ashes of Yugoslavia two years earlier.
The fall of communism had a dramatic effect on eastern Europe in the early nineties. A friend playfully commented that the USSR (formerly the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was no longer any of the aforementioned!
Yugoslavia, the kingdom of the southern Slavs, for long ruled by the dictator Tito became increasingly weak under a succession of effeminate rulers and it started to disintegrate step by step from June 1991 onwards. Continue reading “A History Without a Geography”
… behind high whitewashed fences topped with spikes and guarded by sentries.
Friday 12 May 1972
Somehow, on arrival at Lubumbashi, I was expecting such marvellous things that if the streets had been paved with gold nothing would have seemed out-of-place. Originally named Élisabethville after Élisabeth, Queen of the Belgians, it had a fine reputation as an elegant city high in the heart of Africa. I was excited.
Throughout most of the two-hour flight from Kinshasa, I had gazed out at clouds which cleared occasionally to reveal impenetrable jungle. But in the last half hour the jungle had yielded to the open and empty bush. I sat among well-dressed Africans who on landing brought cases and piles of plastic-wrapped parcels from every crevice in the plane. My thoughts raced at the prospect of living in this mysterious new land.
I descended to the airport tarmac. There was a host of red tulips, a privet hedge and everywhere black smiling faces ready to receive leur invités. Continue reading “Wide Lawns and Narrow Minds”
The electronic board: Train 56225, Chennai, 13:40, Departing, Platform 9 …
Bangalore is a bustling city. The town with its quaint British districts: Richmond, Benson and Cleveland has changed a lot since it was described as “a bit of England in alien land” by Winston Churchill when he was stationed there in 1896.
Even on a Sunday, the building sites are festooned with brown men in yellow helmets and red high-visibility jackets fixing steels, pouring concrete from giant hoppers, arranging groundwork posts or just standing and talking. The overhead metro construction stretches out to greet us as we approach along the Hassan road. Giant towers like the vertebrae of a gigantic prehistoric brontosaurus line the road at forty-yard intervals. A little closer to the town centre, these bare bones are connected by a concrete spine (awaiting rails) which shades our roadway beneath, nearer still appear stations and finally trains appear above our motor coach. Under construction too are blocks of flats; their bare box-like structures reach thirty stories or so into the bright blue sky.
As we make our way through the crowds to the station, our touring group is a target for trinket hawkers who rely on their ability to attract the interest of each potential customer. Fans are flicked open and alluringly waved, a penny whistle is hauntingly played, and, in response to a shake of the head or a disdainful hand gesture, the vendor replies with a polite “Maybe later?”. Ignoring the pleas of the vendors, we battle onward toward the giant electronic board which shows the times of the arriving and departing trains and the sanctuary of the station entrance.
…before looking up at the sheer rock criss-crossed by a zig-zagging metal stairway.
At the bottom of the steps to Lion Rock lingers a Sri Lankan in flop-flops and a shabby, thin cotton shirt.
‘He is waiting to help you up the seven hundred and fifty steps,’ warns our tour guide in the early morning heat, ‘but he’ll expect a big tip at the top.’
Reinforced by pride mingled with a personal determination to reach the top unaided, each of us in our elderly group climbs on. An old lady ignores the helper’s proffered assistance when he attempts to support her elbow as she climbs one of the larger interval steps. I politely refuse his attempt to gently push me from the rear up an iron staircase with, ‘I’m OK, thank you.’
The route upwards is not straightforward. It weaves its way up several levels via uneven stone steps and across the giant rock via a narrow staircase. At Lions Paw we pause and gaze over the plain below before looking up at the sheer rock criss-crossed by a zig-zagging metal stairway. The helpers have long departed for new prey; only the steep climb to the top remains.
‘I’ve counted seven hundred,’ says an optimist below me. I climb with renewed vigour, the view at the top will be worth the effort, I console myself. It is. Continue reading “Reach for the Sky”
We arrived at the Sudu Aralyia Hotel in New Town, Polonnaruwa although the tour notes described it as Giritale.
I swam in the hotel’s infinity pool which overlooks the national park. As I swam and bobbed my head for air, I could see in the distance a lone elephant on the far side of the man-made lake or tank. Many hotel guests assembled on the edge of the property gazing over at the elephant as well. I got dressed and joined them for a better look.
The lone bull elephant is tuskless, but slowly and inexorably he grazes towards the hotel. The onlookers on the boundary of the hotel and Angammedilla National Park are suddenly disturbed. The elephant is close. Local boys from our hotel protected by a man high wire-netting fence start shouting. Similarly, from the neighbouring hotel which opens directly onto the wilderness, boys start shouting and the guests who had been watching start running back inside their hotel. A peaceful viewing turns to worry and fear. The lone elephant suddenly seems so unloved. He appears to adopt a sad mien. His ears flap less. Does his head lower?
I lose interest and join a group in the bar for idle gossip. It is dark now.
We wandered, aimlessly at first, around the hill town of Kandy. It was the old capital of the county and is now a World Heritage City. A complete circuit of the central lake (Muhada Wewa) brought us to the arcaded Queens Hotel gleaming white in the sunshine in the centre of town. Opposite, a white milepost says 72 miles to Colombo.
The hotel is dated; the once grand lady is now merely old. The fabric of the armchairs in the airy reception is rubbed smooth. The carpets are threadbare and there’s no afternoon tea. It is disappointing.
Yet, it was somewhat satisfying to discover the Sri Lankans still harboured some nuggets of their uncomfortable past with the British. In 1903, it was promoted as: ‘A hotel of the highest class…best situation in the town… two large drawing rooms, a billiard room with three tables… with electric light… accommodation for 150 visitors. Tours to the intending visitors to Dambulla, the buried cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa…Single room 3Rs, Double Room 5Rs.’
In the river below, the Sri Lankans bathe. Their idle chatter floats up above the susurration of the river tumbling over smooth slabs of rock. It is the dry season and the river is low. A small catamaran ferry takes its full load of a dozen standing passengers across. A man punts using a paddle. The catamaran turns and glides across the slow current.
A red clothed boy carries a drum across the wide shallow river moving from slab of rock to large boulder. The water eddies and swirls as he walks, by turns, ankle and waist deep. He joins several thin boys in dark blue trunks who crowd around a large rock in the middle of the river. Now, he sits among them and beats out a rhythm on his drum. Other boys wade out to join the group waving they arms for balance as they tentatively place their bare feet on the stony river bed until there are a dozen or so assembled on or around the boulder. They sing; the drum beats. Everywhere people chat, swim or wash – their bodies turning white with soap before a final dip uncovers the brown skin.
On the sandy bank, fully clothed young children wander in small groups awaiting their rite of passage and entry into the water alone in years to come. Mothers sit by large bags of clothes and picnic rice. A snake charmer, encircled by an audience gripped by fear and curiosity, waves a straw hat over two low flat baskets made from palm leaves. From each, a cobra sinuously rises moving their heads in time with the hat. In his other hand, he plays a reedy wooden flute. Suddenly, a third snake escapes from one basket and the crowd steps back with a collective gasp of fear. The charmer puts down his whistle or flute and with the lid of a basket hits the snake forcing it back into his basket.