Where “B” was Before

Where “B” was Before …

Where “B” was before …

… back then, before I’d learned to fly again, before the break up of my marriage.  Before:  when I took a holiday, an innocent, well deserved holiday, and became infatuated with Serendib.

This is how it happened, let me tell you, for it was insidious, the way the Island wove its magic around me.

There were the usual beachside idylls, of course, and ancient cities and history galore.  There was breathtaking scenery for days – miles of manicured hillsides, with narrow bumpy roads winding up through forests and rocky mountain passes.  There were trees – great trees, shady trees, sacred trees, flowering trees and coloured trees;  a cornucopia of flowers and trees and gardens and paddy fields, mysterious acres of silvery rubber plantations, and spiky-topped coconut trees in serious rows or scattered haphazardly about the countryside – a “garden of Eden” it seemed, to my eyes.  Remember, this was before, when the country was lurching through decades of war.  Everywhere, the roads were home to a parade of characterful cars, and brightly spangled trucks;  and tiny tuk-tuks zipped along with saris wafting behind, or filled to overflowing with children, or packages piled high; and ramshackle hotels and rest houses, and other living remnants of the British raj.  Then there were the elephants, everywhere – even on clamorous city streets.

Slowly, the moist balm of those equatorial nights began to sooth a ragged soul.  Somehow, those riotous, undisciplined, inglorious sights, sounds, and smells that at first confounded, turned to delight, and to walk down a street turned to hours of fossicking, questioning, and wonder.

Galle!  It’s moated by the sea.  Few museums or painstakingly restored ancient sites have so convincingly taken me back to life in times gone by.  Its orderly streets are lined by crumbling 17th century Dutch colonial houses and churches;  its 19th century English municipal buildings stand in the shade of majestic old trees;  all are alive with a timeless,  purposeful,  bustle.  Scene of the nightly passagiata, its mighty  walls and stout-footed bastions are still guarded by the treacherous roiling sea.

I greedily absorbed it all.  Dawn, dusk and dark walks along the beach, early morning swims, sunset-seeking climbs to a stark white dagoba high on a rocky headland, underwater expeditions on the reef.   Here I had a sense of the rhythms of nature, and eagerly responded to my new environment.

Precious, intoxicating days, too, up in the hills.  Nothing could have been finer than to gaze across Kandy Lake to the Temple of the Tooth, set off against the vast green swathe of the Udawattakele Sanctuary on the hills beyond.  Enthralled, I would gaze as the last rays of each day’s sun burnished the golden roof of the Temple; and turn to catch the blinding Cimmerian disk dive behind those black-clad mountains.  All the while, the sound of rhythmic drumming from the Temple and  the clamorous bedtime squabbles of flocks of huge, blue-black ravens, as the birds fought for a safe night perch in favourite trees around the city.

Or was it the misty, silent, mornings that cast the spell?  All grey and silver, cotton wool muted, cobwebs glistening crystal ropes from branch to branch in the cool, dew-drenched garden.  Distant bell tones, as the two monasteries come to life, clear, alto voices ringing from mountain to lakeside, joined by the sterner tones of the muezzin, far in the distance.  An artless aria of heavenly sound.

I spotted an elephant, in the distance, its mud brown rear unmistakable as it receded across the bright green of last week’s grass.  A small family group, I saw too, and herds of wild buffalo, and spotted deer, a mongoose, a crocodile basking in the watery sun, wild peacocks, and ungainly painted stalks.  A pristine wilderness, a place put aside for the animals in a landscape of rocky forests, and gently ruffled lakes.  After watching in amazement at the speed of the grazing elephant family, and breathlessly skirting a herd of buffalo, we embarked by canoe, sliding silently across a lake till we landed on a rocky promontory, just twenty yards from a red trunked elephant half-submerged in the shadows at the lake’s edge.

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Everywhere I turned I was bowled over by glorious, illogical, and incongruous sights.

They say God created coconut trees to provide for every conceivable need of man.  Crunchy fruit, without which no Sri Lankan meal is complete, delicious, sticky honey from its woody cream-coloured flowers, fragrant cooking oil, fiery, and not so fiery, alcohols, thirst-quenching juice, versatile fibres, all forms of shelter.  And the high country Kitul, favoured food of elephants.  I don’t know what specific purpose that palm tree has, but God made it tall!  And those Royal Palms, surely God created them to grow into such a magnificent avenue, marching right through the centre of Peradeniya’s celebrated Botanic Gardens.

Kandy has another beautiful garden.  A small pleasure park on the steep hills behind the Lake, planted by the Kingdom’s last ruler at the beginning of the 19th century.  Here, lovers vie for secluded benches, placed to provide the view as chaperon.  There they sit, the view between them, under monstrous trees, while the more sociable matrons gather with their children at the swings, squeals of delight punctuating the compost laden gloom.

What is it about the elephant?  Its’ tiny particulars – eyes, mouth, trunk tip, tail – are like small punctuations on that shapeless wrinkled grey body. The things it does with that trunk!  Seen from behind, on a busy city street, ambling along amid the noisy jostling traffic, wide leafy meal clenched tightly in its mouth, slowly swatting its tail from side to side, its mahout tucked firmly behind its ears, my first urban elephant was a sight to behold.

But it was the people who struck the final incendiary spark.  The people:  some very black, skin like dusty velvet; others glowing ebony, moisturized and highly polished; eyes alive with enquiry; smiles that can’t wait to burst upon the world.  Curious, vehement, fun-loving, open-hearted, and worse, of course, but always an eye for the ridiculous, the humour to be found in everyday life.

Barely off the plane, I am already treasuring the deep contentment and heady intoxication of  ever-changing seascapes and sunset skies that take the imagination far, far away.  Of  succumbing to the temptation to linger on the immaculately swept ocean-facing terrace of Madame’s enchanted domain, gazing, reading, dreaming, watching.  Watching Madame with her deep contentment.  One Eye, the manager, so proud of fatherhood.  Fatso, the nurturer;  the decency of Moontooth, the vacuous patience of The Silent One.

And what of Pretty Boy?  Standing there on the threshold of life, arms widespread to embrace every passing experience with greedy delight, what is  his story?   What about sassy Madame P herself, running her flourishing little hotel perched on the rocks overlooking Unawatuna Bay?  And M.H.A.G, hajji and trader; many fingered Krishna; handsome Rohanne, what about the entrepreneurial and proud diver from Dodanduwa; unreliable Raja; hopeful Lal.  What ignites the carefree laughter and breath-catching sex appeal of Nishin?  Or sustains the ever ebullient Abeywickrama, or the woman I met, making her way home with her daughter in the dusk.  Why was it those two frail humans walked two hours each way, every day, to tend a small plot of land they had scratched out of the thorny scrub?  And what about R – the young cricketer I met on the Matara train – who somehow conjured happy discourse from peevish, sweaty discomfort; what was his story?

I was privileged to share meals and conversations with the devout MHAG and his family.  His friendship over the years has always given me a potent reminder of the need to be forever vigilant against prejudice and misunderstanding, for my first impression, catching him at his morning calisthenics on the walls of Galle Fort that time, was far from commendable, on my part.  Yes, I took one look at the boundless machismo radiating from the vital, but ageing body of this Muslim gentleman, and immediately characterised him as a show-off.  But this was the fabled isle of Serendib, and within hours of that early morning encounter, there I was, with my husband, having our first home-cooked Sri Lankan meal, in a Sri Lankan house, with a Sri Lankan Muslim family.

And so I came to delight in the piquant flavour that G and his community gave to the streets of the old city.  I would relish the glimpses I caught of high school girls dashing from shady verandas to the waiting privacy of a covered cart, and the rhythmic chanting of the boys reciting the Koran at the Madrasa, down by the lighthouse.  But most of all, I loved to watch as a veil was deftly, discreetly, drawn across face and shoulder, passing strangers in the street.

At the time I was disappointed not to have met more women, especially those like self-reliant and accomplished Madame P.  Necessity, and vigorous doses of self-confidence and determination, had freed this dashing black-eyed woman from cultural restraint.  While she would have been at home in the boardrooms of Pitt Street, here she was, joyfully replenished by the eternal peacefulness of her beloved place on earth.

Slowly, imperfectly, I began to learn the stories and before I realised, I’d been enchanted by the people of Paradise. For the first time in years – years – I was more interested in other people’s stories than my own, and it mattered to me that I didn’t know their stories, that they were made opaque by cultural difference.  I wanted to know, to understand these people’s lives.

That was before, back in December, 1992.

  • I must credit my Sinhala teacher, Michael Myler (www.mirisgala.net) and his friend, the artist Linda Gill, whose lovely akuru card for “B” (in this case, B as in Bodhi leaf) appears above.

33 thoughts on “Where “B” was Before

  1. This is as dense as it is lovely. It reads like a long tone-poem. Your descriptions are lush without being fussy. I’m going to re-read this a lot to see how you manage all that. Really well done.

  2. Beautifully written! Your love for your adopted home shines through! You must be so grateful for the serendipity that brought you here! (Couldn’t resist that :-))

    • I’d have been devastated if nobody had given it a whirl! And yes, on such small things can a life be turned upside down – even if I didn’t know it at the time.
      By the way, is a little cooler today? (I ask because the other night I switched on the telly just as the temperatures were being flashed up and was aghast that already you’re at 36. No wonder you keep saying what a hot box you’re in.) We’ve had clouds, and it’s been appreciably cooler.

        • Is that when you plan to go to Lao? 45’s hot in that humidity. When I was a kid we often got the 45s, but it was as dry as tinder. Mind you, I often felt I was walking into a blast furnace, going outside. I remember often just standing under the shower, fully clothed, cause I couldn’t wait, not a second longer, to cool down. How did we manage, those days, without modern air conditioning?

  3. Thank you, for the treat you have given to this armchair-bound traveller. I too was living by the Indian Ocean in 1992, and you gave me some lovely new scenes to savour.

    • Ah, and what scenes they were, Viv. Seen through new eyes, they were electric. Not that I’m immune now, in fact I often still go WOW when I’m out and about, but it has taken on a little of the familiarity of ‘home’. I guess there were quite a lot of similarities between our two Indian Ocean islands back then, Viv, but the Seychelles didn’t have the b….y guns of war eating away at its soul. I was very aware of the political situation when I first came, and it was something I was deeply concerned to learn about, but a lifetimes familiarity and knowledge of the situation would still not give (have given) me any answers so I just have to bypass dwelling on it. But it sure kept the country back in the ‘old days’, economically, politically, philosophically, especially as so many hundreds of thousands of people left and so few came back, for such a long time.
      How are you feeling today? I thought today’s Haiku sounded more concentrated – was that a good sign?

      • not war, but there were trigger-happy soldiers with machine guns all over the place – airport, bank, It was very unnerving to be fixed by a stern looking 18-yr-old ready to drill you if you put a foot to one side of a queue.
        I’ve just been for a looong walk – all round the house with Nordic poles and Jock hovering ready to catch me! Now I’m cream-crackered.

        • Oh really,l very unstable, then?
          Love the idea of the poles – sorry you’re pooped, but better pooped from exercise (and pain, I guess?) than from lying on your back doing nothing. Keep it up:)

    • I’m glad the photos were ok Sonel – as I said they were scans of old prints, so I was a bit worried. I had thought this is the time to post the best pictures I have of Sri Lanka, but, there’s 26 more days to go, and I might need them and then I thought – use the images you took when these things first captured your imagination. What a shame I’d given up on the old slides by then.

  4. You really bring your experiences and the places you’ve been to life in your posts. I feel like every one of my senses was engaged while I was reading this.

  5. I am so happy that I have met you, for I would be at a loss without your stories. Your writing is incredibly wonderful; I love it. I need to delve back in to your first stories to find out more….I know I am missing a big part here. The photos in this post just add to the lush landscape of this post.

    • You’re very generous Angeline. I’ve only just started, so there’s probably not much back-story in there, except for When Time is a Foreign Place, maybe. I had intended my blog to be more ‘scholarly’, you know, post well-researched pieces that tell about other cultures, other people. But the immediacy needed for a post a day regime means that’s out of the question and as the only thing I don’t need to research is me, for the next month, that’s what it will have to be:)

  6. I wanted to tell you, Meredith, that I saved this read for today. Lately, I have been consumed with much, and not able to do as much blog-reading as I would like. Your posts are beautiful, and I wanted to wait until I could savor the writing. And I did. Thank you.


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