Saturday, 26 October 2013

Of Sri Lanka - The Best And Worst Of Serendib

Sri Lanka! Land of Fibreglass Monks!

So this ends Sri Lanka week. I've enjoyed it, getting all this stuff out of my system and down on paper but it's been disastrous for traffic. Lucky I don't lie awake at night worrying about traffic, isn't it?

Given our disastrous week in Galle led to us fleeing the place and swearing never to go back to Sri Lanka, Deepika gets props for talking us down off the ledge and she and travelling companions Ishara and Duminda take full credit for the remarkable turnaround this hectic and madly varied week have shaped. We'd go back at the drop of a hat as a result of this latest visit. And no more Worst Meals Of My Life took place! By the way, should you ever find yourself in Galle don't do what we did - eschew the rumpled twit up the hill and go stay at the excellent Galle Fort Hotel.

So what's the takeaway?

Sri Lanka is a land of contrasts, of poverty and wealth, beauty and dirt, glory and failure. It's never less than fascinating, often entertaining and amusing - sometimes toe-curling, sometimes beam-inducing.

From flying in, getting 40 winks and then being pitched into the dubious pleasures of the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala - as well as the madcap dash up the mountain road to Kandy - and the Earl's Regency Hotel, we were plunged into a full-on experience that confounded our suspicions and fears. Sri Lanka's fun, people. Truly.

Sigiriya's Citadel and Lion Rock - that immense ruined palace is well worth half a day of your life. And dashing around the veldt-like drylands of Kandulla National Park is a great way to round off that day, too.

One of the charms of Sri Lanka was the constant presence of a government that never comes across as anything other than sublimely venial. Every street corner is bedecked with the Cheshire Cat grin and trademark red sash of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man who looks as if he'd eat you raw if you were salted and there were a few Rupees in it for him. Sri Lanka's politicians are to be celebrated as a breed: conflict of interest, corruption and a clear appetite for the trough sit hand in hand with ostentatious acts of seeming philanthropy which are as shrilly celebrated as they are phony. It's all quite fun in its way.

It was that sense of power corrupted that had me questioning the cosy version of history we found as we visited Mackwoods' Labookellie Tea Factory, which we enjoyed tremendously. It seems like a bitchy way to thank our hosts by penning an expose of Sri Lanka's morally indefensible tea industry but obfuscation does that to me. It makes me want to scratch the itch. Hence this post about the story of tea that nobody's telling because they're so busy trotting out the press release version.

Sure, there are tourist scams and scamsters. Just go along for the ride and keep your money nice and dry. Remember, you've got a lot more money than the average Sri Lankan and they can't be blamed for trying to part you from some of it. What kills me is at the top of the pile are fat cats who could buy and sell the likes of you and me and they're squeezing everyone below them in the system. Armchair socialist, me...

And then there are the cool, gorgeous highlands of Nuwara Eliya, mountain passes and misty peaks, rolling hills and gushing waterfalls cascading for hundreds of feet down wooded slopes. The delightfully potty, charming and excellent Warwick Gardens Hotel was our reward and we regret not having tarried there longer - despite the bonkers, broken track that leads up to it.

We should have been more disappointed and perhaps even angrier at how screwed up the Mount Lavinia Hotel was - how the lovely old building and its rich heritage have given way to a lazy, sloppy hotel that manages to get nothing quite right. But we weren't - we'd learned the most important lesson there is to learn if you're to enjoy your time in Sri Lanka: Just go along for the ride.

Anyway, that's the wrap. Thank you for coming along for the ride this past week. Business as usual from tomorrow - well, usualish - because I'm just finishing the final edit of Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy and hope to have that up online next week. So you can look forward to the odd book promo here and there. Nothing de trop, you understand... Subtle and understated is the watchword...

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