Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Memories of the past

20th September 1981 (Found in an old diary)

Rose at six in order to swim before breakfast but were forestalled by pool cleaning activities, so had an early breakfast instead. The car for our trip around Sri Lanka was comfortable and seemed much sounder that many of the vehicles on the road. Very few have doors or driving mirrors, and I don’t look too closely at the tyres because sometimes there aren't any. There are no pavements except in Columbo’s major streets and the roads are thronged with people, bullock carts, bicycles, dogs and children in even small villages in the countryside. Our driver sounded his horn at every obstacle, so that our progress was punctuated by the horn blowing every few yards.

There were two or three sudden and heavy rain showers, but fortunately they occurred while the four of us were safe in the car or inside a cafĂ© having a coke. I couldn’t face the smelly loo, and was therefore most thankful to see the standards at our lunch venue were very much higher though it did not match the splendour of the Oberoi Lanka in Columbo.

Lunch was edible though nothing very special. The soup was strange, faint, watery affair with white mushy strands and a few carrots. Instead of rice with the curry we were given what I think were thin noodles made from rice flour. Dessert was a small cup of fresh fruit among which we identified mango and banana but nothing else.

We were besieged by beggars who “entertained” with cobras and wailing flutes. On the whole I decided my sympathies were with the de-fanged snakes, which were basketed and unbasketed every ten seconds or so in order to winkle money out of us tourists.

Our first stop was at the shrine enclosing the sacred Bo tree, of which we saw only saplings taken from the original. We walked around in bare feet among the pilgrims who were dressed all in white as they prayed or meditated on the impermanence of life which is likened to the beautiful lotus offered on the altars – beautiful but short lived.

From there we waked across short grass to a vast dagoba built solidly of bricks. It was dazzlingly white in the sunshine and towered over our heads. Each level of the dagoba has a symbolic meaning which was explained to us. but the only one I recall is the crystal surmounting the final pinnacle; it represents nirvana. The lowest level of the dagoba is surrounded by a frieze of eight-feet high elephants, head and forefeet appearing out of the wall, tusks towards any person who dares approach.

Here we were accompanied by first one, then two, then three little girls who attached themselves to members of our party. They pressed flowers into our hands and offered small phrases in English. They were very pretty; in fact one was beautiful, but their faces had already become their fortune. Very soon they were asking for two rupees to buy a school pen. It is a tiny amount, but when we gave coins to the three little girls we were immediately surrounded by ten or eleven others all demanding rupees.

One small boy switched from asking for a school pen and pointed to my Kuoni baggage label. “I like that very much. I would like to have that. You give me that?”

I pointed out that I needed the baggage check on my flight-bag so that my bag would get home to England. I gave him my British Airways label, which he obviously thought a poor substitute, for he kept up his request for the Kuoni label all the sixty yards back to the car.

As we climbed inside we were surrounded. The light was blocked as children crowded round. Bob tried to distribute “Treets” against Shirley's advice - one to each child but gave up as hands thrust through the window. One boy grabbed the bag out of his  hand and disappeared as fast as he could leaving disgruntled children glaring at each other. The lucky few ate their milk chocolate Treets.

Our next stop was the ancient city of Anuranapur which was once the size of London today. Our tour guide Razeen gave us a lecture about a semi-circular moonstone, and then moved on to a bathing pool once reserved for monks from the nearby sanctuary. Since the light was beginning to go – photographically speaking – we told our driver Shirley Fernandez to head back to the hotel. In case you are wondering, Shirley was male.

In the village of Harabanai, the hotel consisted of cottages away from the main hotel buildings. There is a shower, but the water pressure is weak, and nothing like the pulsating jet at the Oberoi Lanka.

I was very hungry, but dinner was a disaster in many ways. The soup was some kind of fish plus celery which no one cared for overmuch. Then we were served fried bread topped with ham topped with fried egg. It was awful, fried I think in coconut oil. The main course was meatball and mine, contrary to everyone else’s, was almost raw. When this was pointed out, it was exchanged but the second was not much improved. I ate most of it not because I liked it but because I felt obliged to after making a fuss.


It was around this time that the waiter caught Marion around the ear with a plate and then nearly tipped an armful of dirty plates over her as he stumbled. Minutes later another waiter dropped the sugar bowl in trying to place it on the table by reaching over my shoulder. The final disaster was much later when the meatball had its revenge – I was very sick about two in the morning.

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