Fat Wallets and Young Hopes

IMG_3391…he withdraws from a rucksack a royal blue Sri-Lankan cricket shirt

The bicycle has an iron frame. It is sturdy, and typical of old-fashioned, reliable Ceylon. We will travel a few kilometres along a gentle path by the river. We are sixteen, well-heeled British seniors on a holiday excursion. After brakes have been tested, saddle heights adjusted, and the most rudimentary instruction on the gears given, we are ready to depart. Tentatively the pedals are pressed down and it all comes flooding back in waves of nostalgia from the days of cycling to and from school long ago on traffic-free roads. It is true you never forget how to ride a bicycle.

Most people selected a helmet. Most, but I hear one comment: ‘I haven’t done this in years,’ and pointing to the helmet, ‘Are these things necessary? I’m not wearing one of those.’ Continue reading “Fat Wallets and Young Hopes”

Reach for the Sky

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…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”

The Elephant at the Sudu Aralyia Hotel

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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.

Bang!

Continue reading “The Elephant at the Sudu Aralyia Hotel”

Glimpses of Kandy and its British Past

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.

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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.’

Continue reading “Glimpses of Kandy and its British Past”

Samuel Perera’s Big Day

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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.

Continue reading “Samuel Perera’s Big Day”