There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Colombo, National Day and a Full Moon: Part 15 of Sril Lanka, Isle of Serendip


We reached Colombo from Galle in mid-afternoon, checked into our hotel and went out to orientate ourselves and scout for likely restaurants.

Our hotel, the boutique branch of one Colombo's best hotels, was very modern and comfortable, occupying the seventh floor and upwards of a tower block. Our walk quickly revealed that it was in Colombo’s jewellery quarter where finding sapphires and rubies was easy, but not so rice and curry.

Colombo from our hotel window
Towards the top left are the cylindrical Bank of Ceylon Tower and the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, (see later)
and that is not an inappropriate attempt at humour, that is really what they are called.
We shared the lift back up with two large, athletic east European young men and their tennis rackets. Their body language was grumpy and they muttered unintelligible swear words when the lift refused to move after they swiped their room key. We used ours and headed upwards together. We had, we learned in the lobby, hit Colombo at the same time as the ITF Futures Tournament, the third level of professional tennis where wannabe superstars travel the world in search of ranking points to get themselves into the Challenger Tournaments. Clearly we had shared the lift with a couple of the day’s losers.

Colombo - the nation's capital is on Sri Lanka's west coast towards the south

Resorting to Google we found that had we walked the other way, just round the corner next to the Iranian Embassy we would have found an Indian restaurant called the Mango Tree.

It seemed eccentric going to an Indian restaurant in Sri Lanka, but it was good if a little expensive and we were reminded how different the Indian approach to spicing is. After poppadums and chutneys (more English Indian restaurant style than Indian Indian) I had mutton with chillies in a tomato gravy while Lynne chose a vegetarian dish of cashews and peas. We shared one nan, though it was big enough for a family.

Masked Dancers, Parade rehearsal, Colombo 
The following day, our last in Sri Lanka, would be poya – the day of the new moon. Poya is a holiday and also Sri Lanka’s monthly day of abstinence when no alcohol is sold. The day after would be National Day, another holiday, and there would be a big parade but as we were flying out we would miss it. Leaving the restaurant we observed that a dress rehearsal was in progress just down the road. Lynne was tired and retreated to the hotel to watch from a distance while I went for a closer look.

Dancers, Parade rehearsal, Colombo
Groups of dancers, each with their own musicians and drummers,.....
Drummers, Parade rehearsal, Colombo
alternated with richly caparisoned elephants. I took many photographs, but in the dark with a hand held camera so not all shots were usable.

Elephant, Parade rehearsal, Colombo
Each elephant was attended by a man with a shovel - no doubt the roses of Colombo will look beautiful this year.

The man with a shovel, Parade rehearsal, Colombo

Lynne's view of the parade rehearsal, Colombo

In the morning Lynne had fried eggs and a banana while I went for the fusion option, scrambled eggs, herby potatoes and a coconut roti, followed by curd and treacle.

Poya not only meant that we had drunk our last Lion lager, but that our tour of Colombo would be curtailed as nothing much would be open.

Temples, though, are always open and we started at the nearby Gangaramaya Temple down the road to the right of the elephant in the picture above. A Buddhist religious and intellectual centre, the 19th century temple has an eclectic mixture of architectural styles and includes a shrine designed by Geoffrey Bawa (see the Heritance Hotel, Polonnaruwa), but its cramped position on a city street means the architecture was hard to appreciate. Somewhat strangely we entered past a collection of vintage motor vehicles.

Vintage cars, Gangaramaya temple, Colombo
A stupa dominates the main courtyard…

Stupa, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
 … while near it is a bhodi tree grown from a shoot from the venerable tree in Anuradhapura. Many visitors were making clockwise circuits of the tree, reverently touching the large horizontal bough on each circuit,…..
Bhodi Tree, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
….while some placed offerings of oil, incense, fruit or flowers at its base.
Offerings by the Bhodi tree, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

I liked the row of dwarves holding up one of the buildings around the central courtyard.
Dwarves, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
There was also an image house, where several of the decorative elephant covers had been rather thrown down after the parade rehearsal.

Upstairs was a gallery of posters depicting the fates that await sinners. I will never covet anyone else's wife now I know what will happen.

Warning poster, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

Beyond there is much building and restoration work so we retreated to the entrance and a museum of sorts; a random collection of artefacts - Buddha images, Egyptian gods, oil lamps, old watches, china, wood carvings - resembling a large junk shop.
Collection of stuff, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

Outside, an impressive series of panels describes the early life of the Buddha. I particularly liked the one of the Buddha fasting. His road to enlightenment had many twists and turns, and a prolonged fast was one of those twists; moderation in all things is the Buddhist way, avoiding over-eating (yes, I know!) and over-aggressive fasting.

The Buddha after fasting, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
A park containing the small Beira Lake (there is a much larger lake of the same name – they are linked by canals – a little to the north) is the other side the parade road.

Beside it I saw the advertisement below. There are some foods that do not cross national boundaries. Tibetan tsampa (which I have tried) and Swedish Surströmming (which I have not) are two examples and until I saw this sign I thought Marmite was a third. Marmite fan as I might be, I find it difficult to believe it has anything to offer a chicken curry.

Marmite advertisement, Beira Lake, Colombo
We walked through the park and over the bridge to a small island. Pedalos in the shape of geese made their stately way round and round. We had seen boating lakes all over Sri Lanka, they all have pedalos, but apparently the goose is the only design available.

Another goose pedalo, Beira Lake, Colombo
A little to the north is Galle Face Green a five hectare space between the city and the Indian Ocean. Perhaps we did not realise the significance of Colombo's most important open space, but it looked like a large patch of worn grass and we did not even stop the car for a photograph.

The Fort is a promontory beside the docks where the Portuguese, Sri Lanka's first European visitors, built their fort, though nothing remains of it except the name.

We entered the area past the old parliament building, now the President’s Office. Behind it are the circular Bank of Ceylon tower and a pair of twin towers known as the World Trade Centre, smaller than, though still eerily reminiscent of their New York namesake (see photo at start of post). They were built as part of a new modern city centre but the area has never fully recovered from the massive bomb left outside the bank tower by the Tamil Tigers in 1996.
President's Office (the old parliament building), Colombo

At the centre of the fort is a clock tower lighthouse. The clock tower was constructed in 1857 allegedly because the governor’s wife was exasperated by oriental time keeping. The light was added ten years later and signalled to approaching shipping for a century until the surrounding buildings grew too high and a new lighthouse was built in a more appropriate location.

Clock tower-Lighthouse, Colombo Fort
Behind the lighthouse - and a blanket of security - is the Presidential Palace.

Nearby is Cargill's department store. In 1844 William Miller and David Sime Cargill started a general warehouse and import business. Cargills became a public limited company in 1946 but owned little beyond the moribund department store until an aggressive expansion in the 1980s. Cargill's Food City shops, Sri Lanka’s largest or perhaps only supermarket chain, are ubiquitous but they are only the tip of the commercial iceberg. The old department store is now the company headquarters.
Cargills, Colombo Fort

We were able to have a look at the docks…

Colombo Dock
… as we moved on to Pettah, Colombo’s most culturally mixed and colourful district. The street market is worth visit – at least when it is open, which it was not today. Authorities always feel a need to ‘clean up’ districts like Pettah and the floating market, a collection of twee craft stalls on a pontoon in a section of Beira Lake, was opened in 2014. Ravi was determined we should have a look at it – probably because it is purpose built tourist attraction and we were tourists.

Pettah Floating Market, Colombo
We are resistant to such attractions but it did provide us with a pleasant coffee stop. Most of the stalls were closed, but even open I would have found them less interesting than the pelican paddling around on the lake.
Pelican, Pettah Floating Market, Colombo

Across the road from the floating market is an area where railways lines converge as they approach Colombo’s main station. Driving along empty and rather desolate roads between high fences is a strange approach to the delightful Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil. It is reputedly Colombo’s oldest Hindu temple, but no source says how old it is, nor explains why it is known in English as the Captain's Garden Temple.

There is a large gopura, at least by Sri Lankan standards, though it is not particularly brightly painted.

Gopura, Captain's Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo
By contrast the main hall is full of colour….

Main hall, Captains' Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo

….and has a pleasing version of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, one of our favourite Hindu (a collection of interpretations of this myth make up a 2017 post) myths and a story that has been following us around since we first encountered it carved on the wall of Angkor Wat.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Captain's Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo

The Temple, dedicated to Shiva, has many smaller chapels….

Chapel, Captain's Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo
…. and coconuts and flowers were on sale for those wishing to do Puja. Our attention was drawn to a father and his young son who were introducing the son’s new born sibling to the temple. The baby looked to be only days old and its mother sat on the floor nearby looking understandably exhausted.

Coconuts for Puja, Captain's Garden Temple, (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo

We progressed via a Dutch Church….

Dutch Church, Colombo
 … the Independence Memorial with its statute of Don Stephen Senanayake, the first prime minister of an independent Sri Lanka, then still called Ceylon.
Independence Memorial, Colombo
There is an independence museum here, and Colombo also has a fine national museum, but both were closed and Ravi was running out of things to do. We made a short detour to Victoria Park  - it was renamed Viharamhadevi Park on independence but the old name has clung on - a large open green space much in favour with those who wish to play cricket, picnic or canoodle. We took a stroll to fill in some time.
Don Stephen Senanayake, Independent Sri Lanka's first Prime Minister, Independence Memorial, Colombo
We moved on, passing the town hall, to have lunch at the Colombo City Hotel, a rather old fashioned and fusty hotel with a rooftop restaurant, though at midday it seemed wiser to stay in the covered air-conditioned section. We knew there would be no beer, but the lack of lime soda was less predictable; at least there is always ginger beer. I chose Nasi Goreng as the Indonesian staple -  Chicken, prawns and chillies in rice with Satay sauce - had been on so many menus and I had previously ignored it. It was very good as was Lynne’s fried cuttlefish with rice and vegetables.

Colombo City Hall
After lunch we drove around a bit more, but Ravi had run out of ideas and we soon returned to our hotel. At its best I think it is fair to say that Colombo is not the world’s most interesting city, but with everything closed for the holiday it was far from its best. We had enjoyed a wonderful Tour of Sri Lanka, but it was now petering towards an anti-climax.

In the evening, with nowhere much available or open and only requiring something small, we visited the hotel’s snack bar. We were not impressed by the menu, and our final dinner in Sri Lanka consisted of chicken burgers washed down with ginger beer…. not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Next morning Ravi took us to the airport, and that brings us to the end of these 15 posts about our Sri Lankan adventure.

Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

Monday, 2 February 2015

Galle, Fish and a Fort: Part 14 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Seredip

Sadly the time had come for us to return to Colombo, completing our big circle round central and southern Sri Lanka, and then head home.

We drove west from Marissa, the road no more than a line of palm trees from the beach, a pretty coastline with more fishing boats than sunbathers. If there were few reminders of the devastating tsunami of 2004, it was not possible to erase it from our minds completely.

Stilt fishermen may be unique to Sri Lanka and at one time they were promoted as one of the sights of the island; perched on flimsy bamboo constructions among the breakers they have, or rather had, an unusual though not particularly ancient method of fishing. After the fall of Singapore in 1942 the British feared the Japanese would next target Sri Lanka in a bid to establish a route to the oilfields of the Persian Gulf. To defend the island the coastal waters were extensively mined so the locals, not wishing to be blown up, beached their boats and took to stilt fishing. After the war, when the mines were cleared, stilt fishing lingered on, but increasingly as a tourist attraction. Today, anyone perching on stilts during the hours of daylight is fishing only for tourists.

In this post we travel from Marissa, just west of Matara, to Galle and then on to Colombo
 As reality morphed into pantomime and tourist board promotion declined, the touts patrolling the shore demanding money from gawping tourists became ever more unpleasant and aggressive.

We encountered the largest concentration around the small town of Ahangama though, like coastal strips everywhere, one place seemed to run into another and I was never quite sure where we were. Ravi was reluctant to stop but slowed to walking pace so we could grab the picture below. Taken on the move with a small and distant subject, it is hardly a photographic masterpiece but even in obtaining this we were challenged by touts running towards us aggressively suggesting that we should pay for the privilege of taking a picture in public. Ravi shook his head and accelerated away to the sound of abuse.
Stilt fisherman somewhere near Ahangama

A little further down the road, on the outskirts of the city of Galle, we paused at the fish market. The catch, differentiated by species, was laid out on blankets on the pavement. Some of the stalls were extensive while others displayed only the product of a single small boat.
The fish market, Galle

With just under 100,000 residents, Galle (pronounced 'Gaul') is Sri Lanka's fifth biggest city. It was an important trading post long before the arrival of Europeans; 'a flourishing settlement' according to the 14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta. James Emerson Tennent, a 19th century British Governor of Ceylon identified Galle with the biblical Tarshish, from where King Solomon obtained gold, spices, ivory, apes and peacocks. The idea is fanciful, though all those goods would have been available.
The Fish market, Galle

A Portuguese fleet sheltered in the harbour in 1505. Hearing the town's many cockerels crowing at dusk they named the city Ponte de Galo, which in time became Galle. This too is fanciful - it probably derives from the Sinhalese gala, a place where cattle are herded - a common element in place names throughout the island.

80 years after they first put in an appearance the Portuguese returned and built a fortress on the easily defended, roughly rectangular headland. The Dutch captured Galle in 1640 after a four day siege and set about a serious upgrade of the fortifications. Their fort and the enclosed old city are a UNESCO world heritage site.

Galle Fort, copyright Galle Media Works, borrowed from Wikipedia
I like to use my own photographs where possible, but this aerial view shows Galle Fort so well I could not resist it
The harbour is on the right with the grassy oval of the cricket stadium behind while on the seaward edge the lighthouse and the white Meeran Jumma mosque stand out. The modern city is mostly hidden in the trees, top right.
The fortifications were never tested in armed conflict; when the British ousted the Dutch during the Napoleonic War little shooting was involved. They did, however prove their worth in the 2004 tsunami, protecting the old town while the new town was devastated.

The massive Sun, Moon and Star Bastions protect the vulnerable landward side. The rather ugly clock tower was added in 1883 during British rule and was paid for by public subscription to commemorate a much loved local doctor.

The clock tower and the Moon Bastion, Galle Fort
On the neck of land between the fort and the new city is Galle International Stadium. Still the home of Galle Cricket Club it was upgraded in 1998 to also become a Test Match venue. Largely destroyed in the 2004 tsunami, it was rebuilt and reopened in 2007. Unlike the Rajapaska stadium in Hambantota, and the Dambulla stadium this is definitely not a white elephant, having staged 23 test matches and numerous one day internationals. From the picture it is not obvious how it accommodates 35,000 spectators, nor why it is unfailingly described as the most picturesque stadium on the test circuit, but the grandstands would give views of the bastions on one side and the Indian ocean on two others.

Galle International Cricket Stadium from the Moon Bastion

From the bastion we headed out to the northern edge of the fortification and strolled along the wall above the ocean.

The walls are dead straight between the sharp angles required to accommodate nature’s reluctance to deliver straight lines. On each angle is a bastion staring defiantly out to sea and providing lines of fire along the sea wall – lines of fire that have never been used.
Looking back at Flag Rock Bastion on the seaward side, Galle Fort
Eventually we turned left across the blunt end of the headland towards the lighthouse on the Utrecht Point Bastion.

Approaching the lighthouse on Utrecht Point Bastion
Across the road, just before the lighthouse, is the Meeran Jumma mosque. The Portuguese allowed no mosques inside their fort, but the Dutch were more relaxed and the first mosque was built in the 1750s. The Meeran Jumma mosque was built in 1904 on the site of the earlier Portuguese cathedral which may or may not account for its strangely Portuguese baroque look.  Two small towers pass for minarets and if it was not for the Arabic writing and the crescent moons on the towers it would not be recognisable as a mosque. I have been unable to find any convincing reason for the unusual design.
Meeran Jumma mosque, Galle Fort

Approaching the harbour we left the wall and dropped into Queen’s Street where we paused at a converted warehouse for an overpriced ginger beer.

A good spot for an over-priced ginger beer, Galle Fort
A little further along is the Old Portuguese Gate, one of the few physical remnants of Portuguese rule. Until the British punched the Main Gate through the wall between the Moon and Sun bastions it remained the only entrance to the fort. The coat of arms over the gate is of the Dutch East India Company with their VOC logo (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). The British coat of arms sits on the outside of the gate, rather emphasising the passing of Portuguese power.

The Old Portuguese Gate, Galle Fort
At the end of Queen's Street is the post office where there is still a functioning British Pillar box, the GviR suggesting it was put here between 1936 and 1952.

A very British pillar box, Galle Fort
Built in 1836, the nearby All Saint's church with its strange squat tower is a small isolated fragment of the English gothic revival. I rather like it, despite the Lonely Planet calling it ugly, though I admit it looks more than a little out of place.

All Saints Anglican Church, Galle Fort
The Lonely Planet also calls the interior dark and mildewed, but I think the Burmese teak pews are rather fine. The church still functions and despite the altar standing on the site of the former town gallows it summons up the strange homely charm of the ‘warm beer and spinsters on bicycles' branch of the C of E which never really existed outside John Major’s imagination.

Burmese teak pews and the former site of the town gallows
All Saints Anglican Church, Galle Fort
Further up the road the Dutch Reform Church is a more universally admired piece of colonial architecture. The ‘Groote Kirke’ is the third building in Galle to serve as a church for the Dutch community. Built in 1755 the detached belfry was added 50 years later. It is so detached it is on the other side of the road and we did not even notice it. 

The Groote Kirke, Dutch Reformed Church, Galle Fort

That completed our circumambulation of Galle Fort. Having visited one of the wards of Galle we, like most tourists, left the other fourteen unvisited and continued our drive along the coast. There are 120km of this road before Colombo and as we had already seen plenty of it Ravi suggested we take the motorway. Unaware that Sri Lanka had a genuine stretch of motorway/autobahn/freeway we readily agreed.

On a new multi-lane road, unhindered by much traffic we made short work of the distance. I am old enough to remember a time when motorways were a novelty and people actually went out to service stations to eat. We had lunch at Sri Lanka's one and only motorway service station. It was clean, bright and largely empty but we found a bakery that provided a very satisfactory light lunch.

Lunch at a motorway service station, Galle to Colombo motorway
We arrived in Colombo in the early afternoon. The rest of the day belongs with the Colombo post, the next and final one from Sri Lanka.