Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Adventures in Sri Lanka

After no sleep, some dubious plane food and a medical mishaps (swooning and ballooning), Lil and I finally set down on Sri Lankan soil. We had just five days to explore the country before moving on to India. Equipped only with a seriously outdated guide book and our jet lagged wits, we negotiated our way through taxi touts, money exchangers and other hustlers to locate a cab that wasn’t asking $85 and our kidneys to take us into Colombo. We had decided to follow the Foreign Office’s advice and head south, thus avoiding the near constant blasts in the country’s capital and the conflict in Tamil heartland of the north. Over a million people have been displaced by the conflict since the 1970s, and the escalation of violence between Sinhalese nationalists and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) has dramatically influenced the country’s tourist industry. The military presence was immediately noticeable. Khaki-clad soldiers seemed to outnumber the airport staff and our journey to Colombo was punctuated by road blocks, searches and passport checks.

We were dropped at Colombo Fort railway station from which we were planning to head to Galle, a costal fort that had been a stronghold for Dutch, Portuguese and British colonists since the 1500s. With three hours to spare before our train’s arrival, we searched the station for a place to rest our sleep deprived bodies. The station cafĂ© was our first port of call. The modest room was lit by light from high windows and the coloured fairy lights adorning a wonderfully gaudy image of the Buddha. We sat down to a coke, choosing not to indulge in the neon soft drink ‘Smak’, and drifted between exhausted silence and mild hysteria. Soon we acquired a fan club with a penchant for mimicry, so we moved to the ladies waiting room- a hangover from the railway’s colonial past. Safely in the maternal nest of this preening zone, we watched with interest as women rearranged their colourful saris and fixed their hair. The building itself possessed the faded glamour of run-down Victoriana, mixed with exotic foliage and bright modern alterations. Cats strayed casually on to the tracks, as did passengers, who, eager to get a seat, would race to the train to board it whilst it was still moving at some speed. The trains were heavy diesel-powered monsters, and despite their various states of cosmetic disrepair, looked like they would keep trudging on forever. Platforms were crowded with suits, vibrant saris and bizarre vehicles, such as steam powered three-wheelers loaded with chicks and vegetables. When our train pulled in there was a scramble, but we managed to find seats, thankful of somewhere to sit down for the next three hours. Inside the train, sellers of endless sugary delights made their way through the crowded carriages, each with their own song to advertise their wares.

The journey was spectacular. For the most part the track was some ten to twenty metres from the rough waves of the south-eastern coast. Children were playing cricket on the sands and well as splashing in the sea. Colourful boats were lying unused on the shore whilst others were just visible, bobbing on the distant horizon. The coast was also haunted by previous tragedy. Pre-tsunami houses were visible only by their ruined foundations and had been abandoned in favour of concrete bungalows some meters further away from the shore.

Arriving at Galle was a huge relief. The humidity had morphed my jetlag into pain in places I didn’t know could ache, top jaw and collar bones included. We found a guesthouse right by the rampart walls and so close to the sea that the noise of the waves infiltrated my rather aquatic dreams. Galle itself is sleepy little place. The Portuguese fort walls enclose the old town, which is made up of about 200 houses. The town’s architecture owes a great deal to the many nations that have controlled the area. It’s a strange mix of colonial splendour (dark wood fans, wicker steamers, and china tea cups) and the domes and intricate lattice work of the Middle East, due to the large influence of Arabic travellers and a substantial Muslim community.

The next day we strolled around Galle visiting the Mansion ‘Museum’ (rather a collection of nick-knacks owned by British grannies nationwide and a large gem shop), several churches the clock tower and government museum. No matter where you were in the town, there was always a sign pointing to the dubious Mansion Museum, usually in the wrong direction. The Dutch church was particularly beautiful. The whitewashed walls were covered with the names of the many foreigners who perished here whilst Galle was under foreign control. Many of the Dutch graves were carved with oddly stylised cartoons that, despite their age, could have come straight out of an issue of Le Gun. Death cheekily danced around podgy cherubs and was surrounded by all manner of strange creatures, each with faces like Mexican Sugar Skulls. The caretaker told us with delight that the stones were not just memorials to these foreigners but that their skeletons lay beneath each stone. The man showed rather too much delight to entice us to stay for longer

During a dinner of sweet aubergine curry, dhal and rice, we were informed that one of the most extravagant Sri Lankan festivals, the Esala Perahera, was taking place during our stay. On a whim we decided to move north to Kandy the next day, leaving peaceful Galle behind.

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