Sunday, October 14

Sri Lanka Revisited

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Getting To Sri Lanka

Highlights of the first 24 hours of our journey to Sri Lanka; note the 3-hour jam on the motorway, the dash for the flight, the random meals and the bit where we are met by NK at Columbo airport, taken to a restaurant and served our third breakfast in 12 hours.
When NK laid eyes on the poor straggly things that we had become he said, When did you set off? ... Yesterday morning ... hahahaha ... we now have very a long drive, you are going to kill me ...


Friday, July 9

Today I Am Mostly Buying Foam

After bumping across the country for about 12 hours we finally arrived at the lodge where we will stay and film for the next month.

The first day is spent getting everything set up, we have a lot of very sensitive equipment so we make nests for all the components which we fit in the filming vehicles to help them withstand the battering they will be getting. Mostly what is needed for this is foam and cardboard - I have achieved piles of these items and the two vehicles are now ready to go.

It is bake-a-cake-in-the-oven hot but we can't use the air conditioning because it will upset the many computers that we use outside for filming then bring back inside to transfer and log the images. From now on I will become a Data Monkey working in my room all day tapping away with my fingers and operating a fan with my big toes.

The food is really good here and I'm wondering if sweating counts as exercise.

Sunday July 11th

My World of Wildlife

Every afternoon the boys drive off into the National Park to film proper he-man animals: crocodiles, elephants and leopards. I stay behind at the Lodge, process footage and have a different sort of wildlife experience. The Lodge is in a sandy woody area, guests stay in cabins among the trees. I have set up a work station on a couple of tables in my room and the geckos have taken up residence above me, their tails poke out from the rafters, I like them but wish they wouldn't deposit such unusually large amounts of lizard poo among my hard drives, adding fresh ones every time I go off for a coffee.

When I do go out for a coffee, giant squirrels suddenly appear on branches, close to my face, cocking their big-eyed faces and holding out little paws, (for what? Spare change?), palm squirrels copulate on the table where I am eating my dinner and cows belch and fart explosively outside my window.

In the evenings at six, about two dozen wild pigs come round for drinks, they snorkel noisily around the cabins waving their snouty lips up at the air-conditioning pipes to catch the icy drips. Tonight I watched a big old boar with his head stuck down a drain, front legs knelt down, hind legs on tiptoe, straining his bottom and huge swollen testicles up in the air in an attempt to reach something delicious, he sensed me watching him, jerked his head out of the drain and glared at me, the absolute image of Ken Dodd, it was just an instant, then he tossed his tatty mane and trotted off to join the outlet-lickers.

Wednesday, July 14

Shopping For Man Stuff

Photo: Gayam and W. M. Upali the tuktuk driver, we are eating fishy buns to fortify ourselves for the journey ahead.

Four hours before I took that photo, Gayam and I had come to town in a jeep, we were in search of lunchboxes, batteries, chargers, clips, leads and other motor-related items, we also needed a piece of ply the size of a small coffee table top.

In town there are lots of 'everything shops', they seem to be divided into two types; the ones that sell women’s things like household items, crayons, key rings and shinyshiny. The other everything shops sell men’s things; loudspeakers, bendy tubes, wheelbarrows and batteries.

Most of my items needed to come from the Man Shops, we chose the ones with most car batteries stacked up outside them but each shop only had one component on my list, we went from one shop to another and back again assembling a compatible set of items, none of the items have a guarantee, if you buy and it doesn't work - well that's just tough! You identify the shop selling a battery charger that works and another shop with the battery you are thinking of buying, then you accompany the owner down the road to a place where the equipment can be tested to everyone's satisfaction.

Prior to all this we had spent an hour in the bank, our jeep driver now had to leave, he introduced his friend W.M who would drive us back to the lodge in his tuktuk.
Last item on the list was the piece of ply - the shop would only sell us a whole sheet, the whole sheet was the dimensions of a king-sized bed but a bit longer.

cutting is not possible

A tuktuk is a three-wheeled mo-ped in a cabin with a soft roof, they are usually decorated, this one had gold fringing around the windscreen, a vase of flowers on the dashboard and a red and yellow garland hanging from the ceiling. The three of us looked at the big sheet of wood, then at the tuktuk, we went for tea and fishy buns then we returned to heave the ply onto the roof of the vehicle, we got in and each put an arm out, clamping the sheet onto the roof with a hand - finally ready, we put-putted along the pot-holed road for an hour - all the way home. 





Thursday, July 15

The Babbler

At dusk the most extraordinary boinging and hooting noises erupt around my cabin. I think it's mostly birds. There is a dust-coloured bird that comes around several at a time, the size of a fat thrush, it is not at all sleek, they chatter away together and make a lovely sound - I am told that it is a Babbler. I look the Babbler up in Birds of Sri Lanka where Mssrs Wijeyeratne, Warakagoda and De Zylva inform me that it is a garrulous bird ... members of the flock help build each nest, which may be shared


Friday, July 16

The Breakfast of Champions

String Hoppers are a sort of steamed shredded wheat.

To make Egg Hoppers
• Pour coconut milk pancake batter into a bowl-shaped iron pan on a hot ring
• swirl the batter up the sides and crack an egg into the bottom
• Place a lid on the pan and let it steam for a minute or two
• When it is cooked, the steamed egg in it's crispy pancake bowl will slide out onto your plate
• add a spoonful of dahl and a sprinkle of coconut sambal if you like.

Saturday, July 17
More Wildlife Than Might Be Good For Me
I'm much worse at packing than I used to be, I pack far more these days and yet I have only a couple of wearable outfits - the other ninety per cent of my luggage might as well have stayed at home.

I had considered my pyjamas to be redundant, at bedtime I take a cold shower and lie on the bed hoping sleep will come before I reheat. This morning, when I went to the bathroom, I noticed all the gecko pellets stuck on my legs.

A lady sunbird pecks for long periods on my window pane, I think she is attacking her reflection and imagines herself to be arguing with another sunbird but her persistence feels rather Hitchcockian.

Monday, July 19

The Jesus Pig

Just beyond the bushes surrounding my cabin is a bright green lake, the luminosity of which led me to assume that it didn't support much life but I watched as horned cattle waded in to shoulder depth in the mornings, stood around for an hour or two then disappeared back into the bushes. I also saw some deliciously cartoon-ey storks standing in the lake and realised that a lot of birds come visiting here, so I got out my crayons and walked up the spit of sand that runs part-way into the lake to see them more closely.

Yesterday evening I climbed to a look-out post from which I could see the lake. The sand spit was covered with fat man-sized crocodiles, which made me gulp a bit, then I watched a pig emerge from the bushes, keeping up a steady trot, she made straight for the spit, slalomed between the crocs and when she got to the end of the land she kept going, running on the water without slackening her pace until she got to the island in the middle of the lake.

impressive surface tension!


Tuesday, July 20


This is a map of my world these days, the film crew occupy three of the two dozen wooden cabins that accommodate the lodge guests, we each have a little fenced-in beer porch outside our front door.

A central wooden building contains the bar and restaurant, there is a Look-Out! tower on top of the restaurant and a fiendish pool outside the bar. The pool looks really good - new guests jump in with the anticipation of a refreshing swim only to find that the water level comes to just above a grown-ups knees. The children have great fun though, there are little islands to leap around on and I spent a happy hour watching three Dutch children playing an interesting drowning/life-saving game there the other day.

Apart from my foam- and battery-buying forays I am confined to the lodge boundaries and have yet to visit the National Park.

Due to the proximity of the park and the quantity of animals that could present us with so many exotic ways to die, we are requested not to venture out of sight of the cabins on our own. I can hear a crashing sea, metres from my cabin but I can’t go and look at it without company.

The Camera Boys are subject to the same restrictions as everyone else, when they pack up the vehicles for the shoot they must include a park warden and everyone stays inside the cars until they get back home again.

Langurs come to play on our roofs, usually a great big herd of them descend and bounce around noisily for an hour before moving on to the next one. 

Thursday, July 22nd

Points of View

Our film is about what happens at night.

If you go into the Park at night, and it is a bit cloudy without much moon, it all looks like black scribble.

With night vision goggles you can see shapes of animals but the ones more than a few metres from the car will be quite fuzzy.

Our magic cameras can magnify the light of a single star by a factor of thousands and translate heat into light. Out in the bush only the one with the camera gets a clear picture.

The view from my cabin is another thing. The Camera Boys give me their boxes containing the fragments of a thousand stories, I sort through the clips, looking for the edge pieces and important details that will accumulate to become The Most Interesting Story, a good one with little sub-plots and dramas.

Saturday, July 24

Some Things...

Sun Protection
I haven't seen a Sri Lankan in sunglasses yet, nor much hat wearing.

There is however, plenty of umbrella-sharing.

Feeling Like A Farmyard Animal
I am often sitting on my beer porch in the evening when the pigs come round, they poke their noses in at me through the railings. I think they are laughing at me.

If they had bananas I think they'd throw me one.

Laundry Conversation
I don’t understand how the laundry system works - a few days ago I put a pile of clothes on my bed with a hopeful note saying laundry. The man who comes in to sweep the room looked at the pile and said

I can’t take the laundry until tomorrow. Here is a bag, write your items on the list

I am confused
But you can't take it until tomorrow?

Maybe I can take it today

Monday, July 26
a concentrated product of cane juice without separation of the molasses and crystals, contains sugars and other insoluble matter such as ash, proteins and bagasse fibers.

Considered to be a particularly wholesome sugar, retaining more mineral salts than refined sugar. Moreover, the process does not involve chemical agents. Ayurvedic medicine considers jaggery to be beneficial in treating throat and lung infections.

Jaggery is for sale in all the shops I go in here - except the ones that sell car tyres - it is one of the things you need to make wattalapam

Jaggery is how I feel when I've consumed too much jaggery - on the other hand maybe it's how I'd feel if I had bee stings around my mouth.

Jaggery-filled things 

The Golden Pudding Cupboard stands at one end of the dining room - a glass case full of sari-coloured sweets.

Wednesday, July 28

Things I Can't Show You

I used to do a lot of people-photographing but nowadays all this bloggy, facebooking, interwebbery inhibits me, not knowing where an image may end up and how it might be used can make the camera an unwelcome intrusion, so mostly I leave it in my bag.

There are so many photos I’d love to take in Sri Lanka; groups of schoolgirls, clustered under umbrellas in the street, their hair in thick black plaits, looking like a flashback to the fifties in impossibly white dresses and ankle socks, I’d also like to snap the men in bright sarongs holding umbrellas, shopping slung around them as they weave between buses on their bicycles.

and there’s the little girl with birds-nest hair dancing on the shop counter in her baggy underwear...

Last time in town I went to buy some sarong fabric. As soon as I walked into the shop the owners called out back to someone to come and see me. A skinny child with enormous eyes and a huge tangled pile of hair peeped from behind the curtain. Initially shy, she was soon showing off and performing dance routines while I shopped. Fabric bought and bagged I asked if I could take a photo, the mother said yes and disappeared so I took a quick snap of the dancing child, said goodbye and was about to go when the mother returned with a set of clothes and a hair brush, she quickly dressed the child and set about taming the hair.

This is the photo I feel that I have permission to use - you’ll just have to imagine other one.

Thursday, July 29

The Mouse Deer Whale Pig

The star attraction of the nature reserves are always the big cats. In Yala the leopard paparazzi flood into the national park every day hoping for a fleeting glimpse of the big spotty glamourpuss.

My own crush is on the much more mysterious and melancholic-sounding mouse deer. The books all describe this creature as secretive and solitary, the sole surviving member of the infraorder tragulina. It runs up low, shallow-angled branches to get itself into trees and it isn't really a deer at all, it is in fact more like a pig, especially in it's sexual behaviour.

The native name for the mouse deer translates as 'a deer and a pig' and my sense of it being stranded between species is reinforced by the wiki entry that says that it has

... a remarkable affinity with water often remaining submerged for prolonged periods to evade predators or other unwelcome intrusion. This has also lent support to the idea that whales evolved from water-loving creatures that looked like small deer

Wednesday, August 11

Trying to Give Gifts

We went along to watch a farmer, his young son and their cattle herd being presented with an anti-leopard pen last week, the idea being that young or sick animals can be put in the pen at night to protect them from leopard attack. The farmer was thrilled, but the calves weren't too keen.

Monday, August 16

The Wonder Dog

This is the hotel dog formerly known as Bollocks. All that changed last year when he was discovered with his head down a python's throat.

The rest of the python was wrapped around the dogs body and squeezing hard, the dog's owner thought Bollocks was a goner but shouted out for help anyway and noticed that the tiny bit of Bollocks that wasn't being strangled, the tip of his tail, wagged in response to his master's voice.

Help had arrived, the two men hit the python with sticks and it released the dog, unharmed but a bit cross, Bollocks bit the python before running home and has been henceforth known as Wonder Dog. 

Bringing Back The Sun

I'm back in the UK feeling all hazy and jetlaggy and it's bloody cold. A little pile of books that I read while I was away are still by my bed so I have been dipping back into them since my return for a warm-up.

The Book of Indian Birds: Salim Ali (1941)
Lovely illustrations and great text, I particularly liked Mr Ali’s descriptions of bird calls, here he is on the Malabar Pied Hornbill’s call;
A variety of loud cackling and inane screams reminiscent of the protestations of a dak bungalow murghi* seized by the cook, and also the yelps of a smacked puppy!

*Baffled I looked for explanation and found this wonderfully informative passage here
The British had set up rest-houses known as Daak Bungalow... Somehow, there was always an Anglo-Indian woman who would found her way to the Dak Bungalow to keep the company of the traveling British officer. Every Dak Bungalow has a love story to tell, only if the walls could talk.

In the rear, every Daak Bungalow had chicken coup manned by 'Murghi wala'

Reef: Romesh Gunesekera (1994)
Narrated by Triton, a young houseboy in the service of his hero Mister Salgado, sensuous and funny, turning chillingly dark towards the end, I loved it’s 170 pages so much that I eeked them out for days.
Thanks for the recommendation Eryl

How to see Ceylon: Bella Sidney Woolf (1914)
An early travel guide, Bella Woolf went to Ceylon in 1907 to visit her brother Leonard and ended up marrying the Assistant Director of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Contains fascinatingly descriptive travel itineraries and plenty of useful advice:
A Topee should always be worn until 4 to 4.30 pm even on dull days

Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book (1929)
...constitutes a serious attempt to aid the housewives of Ceylon to practise the art of cooking so that, like the quality of mercy, the preparation of palatable dishes will bless her that gives and him that takes.

Contains recipes for things as diverse as Poached Eggs with Mince and Titta Tibbatu Mallung. I’m particularly fond of the section entitled Invalid & Convalescent Cookery, which gives this advice
Do not consult a patient about his meal, but try and find out what will be liked and let it come as a surprise.

Then follows such appetite tempters as Egg White Water, Beef Tea Custard, Invalid Blancmange, Sago Gruel and Stewed Spaghetti.
Who wouldn't get better when faced with this?

Running in the Family: Michael Ondaatje (1982)
The most delicious memoir of Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan family history, pieced together from photo albums and anecdotes told by friends and family members. I looked for it in a bookshop in Columbo, the elderly salesman snatched it down from the shelf when I mentioned the title declaring
this book is a must have ... an absolute must have
he clutched it so tightly that I had to fight it off him. Anyway it’s great and now it’s mine - here’s a bit;

An aunt gives an account of her journey to Ondaatje's father's wedding, they have seen a car in a ditch and next to it the Bishop who was to officiate at the wedding, everyone knew the man to be a terrible driver - he has to be given a lift.

First of all his luggage had to be put in carefully because his vestments couldn’t be crushed. Then his mitre and sceptre and those special shoes and whatnot. And as we were so crowded and a bishop couldn’t sit on anyone’s lap – and as no one could really sit on a bishop’s lap we had to let him drive the Fiat...
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