The Last Post

Today is the last day of my gallivant. I fly from Colombo to Melbourne tonight. The plane leaves just after midnight.

This morning after breakfast they transported me across the lake on this dinghy thingy to Summerville Bungalow. Castlereagh had been booked out by a big party so I was moved to an equally comfortable room in equally lovely verdant grounds. I will stay here till driver Vernon comes to fetch me at 5.30 pm for the long drive back to Colombo.

Being on this side of the lake has cut a big chunk off the drive back to the main road, so much so that Vernon is happy enough to drive here in the company car and I don’t have to go in the 4WD.

Today I chose a Sri Lankan brekkie, which included an egg baked in a riceflour cup…

Breakfast Sri Lankan style

……on top of which as you see I have heaped some spiced vegies. Yum. Then it was down to the boat and across to the other side of the lake.

It’s an artificial lake dammed at one end for hydro-electricity production, Sri Lanka’s main source of power. Note the low water level. More than one local has bemoaned the drought currently afflicting the country and causing widespread planned power outages. Might the power go off at the villas? I asked Vernon on the drive up. No, such luxury resorts have their own generators. Oh dear. I begin to feel the burden of white guilt….

Uphill to Summerville House

…a burden not relieved when porters grabbed my bags and carried them, first down the hill to the lake (as in feature pic at top) then uphill from it to my new digs. I really felt for them carrying my suitcase ON THEIR HEADS and wrangling my other bag as well.
It was warm and very humid and I was a panting, sweating mess by the time I got to the top. That got rid of some of the postcolonial guilt. I offloaded the rest by tipping the porters, even though they were younger and fitter than me and probably not as oppressed by the climate. (Even though all tips are allegedly included, these dark-skinned outdoor workers get a lesser share of the takings – the brochures admit as much – and this offends my Australian egalitarianism.)

New view over private garden

This was the new dining-room, although as at Castlereagh it was warm enough to eat outside on the terrace. Both bungalows host a maximum of ten guests at a time.

That’s the tea factory we went to yesterday on the other side of the lake

You’ll notice it’s starting to look like rain. Vernon and I had passed through a couple of heavy showers on our way up, as I mentioned, but they hadn’t got to this lake area. It showered a bit yesterday at lunchtime and the staff were mildly apologetic about bringing in cushions from the poolside lilos, but by now I for one had caught the local mood of yearning for the rain.

Later, Wednesday April 10. I’m actually back home now but I haven’t finished my story, including an exciting bit!

It rained in the afternoon when I had a little lie-down, trying to get some sleep since I wouldn’t be getting any more till after dinner on the plane well into the wee hours. I didn’t sleep, but the rain made the air deliciously sweet and cool.

Vernon arrived at a quarter to five, recommending an early start back to Colombo because the rain was forecast to get heavier and the road therefore more dangerous. Yikes. A 15 minute scramble and I was ready. Everything was packed except ….. the eggs, now 3 days old. I decide, finally, to abandon them, despite the risk of breakdown, accident and/or stranding on a flooded road causing me to miss my flight home to Australia and the free airline food.

The first thing I wanted to know from Vernon as we set off in the rain was: did he find somewhere to sleep on Monday night after dropping me at my luxury digs? No, he had to sleep in the car. Did he find somewhere to eat? No he didn’t, not till next (Tuesday) morning. ‘I wish you’d taken my boiled eggs!’ I wailed, guiltily thinking about my own dinner consultation with the chef and the butler. ‘I even had a little stash of pepper and salt to go with them’, I said, but he just laughed, thanked me for my concern and urged me not to worry about him any further. I vowed to give him every last rupee except for what I needed to buy a fridge magnet at the airport. He did at least get to spend most of Tuesday sleeping.

The drive to Colombo was a repeat of the tedium of the drive from there two days earlier, except for the added thrill of the rain and a moment – well, many moments really, which felt like an eternity but was probably more like twenty minutes – of sheer heart-sinking horror when about an hour into the drive we came to a full stop behind a line of stationary traffic snaking around a bend and coming back into sight around a further bend in the misty distance.

We took stock for five minutes or so and I was filled with dread when Vernon, otherwise the most polite and formal of men, muttered ‘shit’ under his breath. ‘Probably an accident up ahead’, he said. I fought down an urge to get panicky and ask the obvious stupid question ‘what are we gonna DO?’ The traffic continued not to move, although some motorcycles and tuk-tuks – those narrow little 3-wheelers you see all over south Asia – came through in the opposite direction. ‘Shit’, said Vernon again.

I knew I shouldn’t have left those eggs behind! God knows how long we’d be stuck here, on a narrow winding mountain road in central Sri Lanka, in the middle of a rainstorm and three hours drive from the airport!

A couple of motorcycles passed us on the inside, then a couple of tuk-tuks came up behind us and passed us on the right. Hmm. Then a modern-looking van just ahead broke ranks and moved into the oncoming lane behind them. I gave Vernon an encouraging look and….he did likewise. We drove up the wrong side of the road, hoping we wouldn’t encounter any big vehicles coming towards us.

We didn’t! We squeezed through the middle when a couple of tuk-tuks came along, and we both marvelled that apart from the small vehicles only we and the van had had the cheek to break out by driving down the wrong side of the road. ‘Let’s hope no one tries this from the other direction,’ I said, jokily adding ‘bastards!’ ‘Like us’, said Vernon with a smile.

We came to the accident site about a kilometre further on. A small bus had jacknifed – there didn’t seem to be any human casualties – and was blocking the road except the bit around which we snuck on the outside, past the gawkers and the motorcycle cops who I feared would stop us and maybe even make us reverse back up but they didn’t.

The traffic in the opposite direction was of course backed up about the same distance, but we crossed back to our side of the road which was gloriously free ahead (the van having vamoosed as soon as it cleared the accident site) because no bastard had tried the same stunt we did.

I was feeling very kindly disposed towards Vernon, full name Vernon John. As we drove on I observed that this didn’t seem a typical Sri Lankan name. He explained that his mother was a ‘burgher’, which is what the Sri Lankans call the descendants of Portuguese or Dutch colonisers from centuries before. Interesting adaptation of an old German/Dutch word meaning ‘solid citizen’, related to the french ‘bourgeois’.

His father was Sinhalese. They are the majority and are mainly Buddhist. The Tamils, who came from southern India to work the British plantations, are the next biggest group and they are Hindus. It was they who started the 25-year-long civil war in 1983 in an effort to establish an independent Tamil state in the north of the island. They would say the Sinhalese started it by trying to suppress Tamil culture and language, but the Tamils did fire the first shots, as it were.

Anyway, it was a bloody mess and hasn’t been officially resolved even now. I didn’t mention the war in front of Vernon but now that we were down from the hills and getting closer to the capital he explained that the reason for the heavy traffic was the New Year festival just two days away. Both Tamils and Sinhalese celebrate it and both groups were stocking up for the feast before the shops shut for a few days. ‘Will you be celebrating it?’ I asked Vernon. ‘No, we do Christmas’, he said.

Vernon belonged to the smallest minority of the population, the Christians. He was in fact a Roman Catholic. The rest of the population is made up of ‘Moors’ – another interesting old word deriving from the Arabs who used to run all trade in the Indian Ocean and now means the Muslims.

Vernon was curious about why I chose Sri Lanka and why I was spending such a short time there, much of that time in a car with him, and why I appeared to have gone to such trouble for just a couple of days and nights at a luxury resort in the middle of the country.

Why Sri Lanka? Why anywhere, I answered. Because it’s there. Because I haven’t been there before.

Not everyone understands or shares my travel model including the global tourism industry who have the myopic view that most travellers choose a destination because of the particular attractions or activities it offers. They’re not much interested in the random wanderer like me, interested in history and the human story and who can find it anywhere.

I could see his other points about taking so much time and effort to go to one spot in the middle of the country. I just had to repeat the oft-repeated story that I hate doing the mechanics of travel planning so I leave it up to my travel agent and that as long as she puts a reasonable roof over my head and doesn’t get me up too early too often, and as long as it’s somewhere new, I’ll go there. Oh, and it would be nice to have someone waiting for me at the airport holding a sign with my name on it, someone who’ll take those heavy bags of mine and pop them in and out of the boot of a car, preferably one that’s clean and comfy and air-conditioned. Although I have been known to catch fast airport trains on my own (Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong) and buses (Miami Beach) and taxis, if I have to. I’m an adventurous traveller, not a spartan one.

And so we got to the airport three hours and ten minutes before my flight. Vernon raced off to get me a luggage trolley and on his return I thanked him profusely for his daring in getting me here on time, and pressed a 1000 rupee note into his hands. A lousy $8 AUD, but it was all I had. That left 400 rupees (just under $4) for the fridge magnet….

Top, Kathmandu; middle, Dharamshala; right, Bhutanese royal couple

…. and finally some small change. Off I went looking for another underpaid menial to give it to. I didn’t find one, and put the money instead into a charity bin for the Blind Children’s Foundation of Sri Lanka.