Category Archives: Places

24 hours in the Maldives

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog. Since the last entry we have been to the UK a couple of times, spent a couple of months in Bangkok, a couple of weeks in Japan, and another couple of months in Yangon before moving back to Sri Lanka, where we’ve been for nearly eight months now. Part of the arrangement at the moment is a visa run every 30 days. And until this last one I have avoided the Maldives, despite being a short flight at around one hour from Colombo. I suppose I felt that nearby cities such as KL, Bangkok, Chennai, would be better for such fleeting visits. Yet I was wrong – and had a thoroughly enjoyable 24 hours in the Maldives.

From the first time I came to Sri Lanka five and a half years ago I’ve been curious to visit Male’, the tiny Maldivian capital. I remember Male’ rising from the Indian Ocean across the strait from the airport, hazy in the evening dusk, as we waiting on the tarmac to pick up passengers. I didn’t stay in the city but in one of the small guesthouses on reclaimed Hulhumale’, linked by road to the airport island. It was built just over a decade ago to ease housing issues and provide more space, with wide streets, a beautiful beach, an obvious plan, but with little discernable soul.

The ferry to Male’ took about 15 minutes, skirting around the airport on its way to the capital. Intense blue, everywhere. And flat: the perpendicular of sea and sky broken by small atolls of green, enormous boats, then Male’ with its low to medium-height buildings of banks and corporate head-quarters, clad in glass reflecting the sun or painted in different pastel colours, squeezing onto the little available land. It really does look like it grows out of the sea.

It’s a lovely thing, having several hours with nothing to do in a new place. I wandered from the Hulhumale’ ferry terminal at the northeast to Villimale’ ferry terminal at the southwest. From one corner of the capital to the other; just over a mile. Male’ is compact, frenetic, made up of thin streets that crisscross the island. Moving from northeast to southwest the buildings become lower rise, with fewer shops, fewer mopeds. There is a surprising amount of greenery. And you’re never far from a glimpse of that perpendicular. All of Male’’s roads are brick not tarmac which gives an unusual, appealing, streetscape.

Villimale’, two miles from the capital on the nearest atoll, yet a world away. Motorised vehicles are banned and the locals get around on foot, bicycle, electric moped or golf buggy. So it is quite, amazingly quiet. Along the promenade from the terminal the beach begins and, true to the Maldives, it is palm-fronded, azure and golden. From the palms hang individual hammock chairs that sway in the breeze. From what I can gather the locals spend their days asleep in these, not a bad way to spend a day. I join them, conscious, however, that I must return to the airport in a few hours.

 

Into Shan State

Into the setting sun

The sun sets over Tangalle bay
The sun sets over Tangalle bay

To all our wonderful friends in Sri Lanka, thank you for making our time here so special.

Good bye Sri Lanka, it’s been a hell of a ride and we’re gonna miss you.

Life in the east…

For several months we’ve been living on and off in Batticaloa, a beautiful Tamil fishing town on Sri Lanka’s east coast. I’m helping a project in Ampara with PCA that’s supporting local people from Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala communities get better access to local government services.

Batticaloa is a breathtakingly beautiful place. It seems to be surrounded on all sides by water – the sea to the east and various lagoons elsewhere – and has sunsets that turn the sky red and gold. I first visited the region nearly two years ago and was struck then by how idyllic the place is.

Initially I was homeless in the east, and spent my time living out of small, local guesthouses. The pick was a homestay north of Batticaloa, just off Kalkudah beach. When Katherine came to visit from Colombo we’d borrow old Singer bicycles, rusted by age and sea air, and cycle along the hardened area of sand that’s just beyond the breakers. The ruts from the tires eventually disappeared with the incoming tide.

The east coast of Sri Lanka is for the most part undeveloped. I speak little Tamil, but learnt that place names ending in ‘kudah’ (Kalkudah, Passikudah, Punikudah, etc) signify a calm and shaded bay. These are the sort that curve in a golden crescent, dotted with small and colourful fishing boats, where sea eagles hover on the warm currents above.

We’ve started living in a house on the edge of Batticaloa lagoon. Various volunteers have lived there over the last couple of years. The rainy season has not yet hit the region, and the days remain hot and dry, regularly pushing 34 degrees. Yesterday we cycled along the water’s edge to the sea, to an empty beach about 3 kilometres north. I was hoping to swim, but a fluther of jellyfish washed up in the shallows changed my mind.

We were treated to a night in the fabulous Kandalama hotel recently. The kilometre long, seven story building sits majestically in a forest overlooking Kandalama tank and Sigiriya rock beyond. All manner of tropical foliage sprouts and cascades from its louvers and crevices, so that it becomes fairly indistinguishable from the surrounding habitat. It is a testament to the genius of Bawa that this neo-brutal block is now a part of nature.

In the misty mountains

The statue of Buddha stands like a massive sentry overlooking the jagged peaks of the Knuckles range, the more remote and unchartered of the Hill Country. From the pass at Hunnasigiriya beyond the masonry Buddha stretches the eastern plains – a carpet of green broken by occasional domes of rock and the lagoons and ancient man-made tanks of the Gal and Maduru Oya reserves.

We take the road to Corbet’s Gap. It winds up through pine forests and abandoned tea plantations, clinging to rocky outcrops often barely the width of the van we travel in, deeper and deeper into the Knuckles. Wind whips up the dust into clouds, bending the trees into permanently hunched and gnarled forms.

The Knuckles range, so named by British colonialists due to the peaks’ uncanny resemblance to a clenched fist, is an inaccessible and untouched part of Sri Lanka. The mountains form a natural barrier that encloses an area within full of endemic wildlife and biodiversity. Until the mid 80s the road ended at the start of the ascent to Corbett’s Gap – the only point of entry between the massive peaks – and those intrepid enough to explore had to hike up and over the gap, and down to the land beyond. The journey would have been tough. The slopes are steep or sheer; those that can be trod are covered in thick, dense forest full of snakes, spiders, the occasional leopard and sloth bear.

The van can go no further as the road turns into a rocky track. We are travelling with our friend Nalin, an expert on biodiversity in this region. His son accompanies too, and, following in his father’s footsteps both literally and metaphorically, delights in identifying the birds from their enchanting calls, the enormous blue, yellow and black butterflies that cross our path, and the woodland spiders – the size of saucers – whose webs hang in the metres-wide spans between trees.

We walk deeper into the forest on our way to Nitre cave, high up on the slopes above the village of Kumbukgolla. Regularly we pass armies of frogs – tiny sandy-red creatures that ping away in waves, giving the impression of heavy rain bouncing off tarmac. The boy knows so much about the animals and plants here. In a natural clearing, he stops at some foliage similar to delicate fern or tall sheaths of corn. ‘Watch this’ he says, stroking the stem so that the heads bow and close. ‘This is Nidikumba or Sleeping Grass’ he explains.

The ascent steepens and the forest closes in around us. It grows dark and still. It’s the dry season and our footsteps crunch and crackle through the dead leaves and sticks that litter the slopes. This place is eerie – breathless and silent; overpowering. Ancient tree trunks several metres in circumference rise at regular intervals, waiting to succumb to their fate. Here, the trees are slowly gagged and destroyed over many decades by the Strangler Fig, that creeps around them, throttling the life from them so that, eventually, the tree is enmeshed, dies and disappears, leaving only the skeletal frame of its successor to flourish.

Finally we reach the cave, a huge semicircle in the rock face. The forest clears revealing the peaks of the Knuckles massif: Lakegala, Kalupahana, Rilagala, Selvakanda; in Sinhala the Dumbara Kanduvetiya or Misty Mountains. Nalin and his son have come here to take saltpetre from the walls of the cave. With rock hammer in hand we approach. The smell is overpowering – a stale stench that I’ve not come across before. The cave mouth looms and the ground becomes more and more loose underfoot, the texture of sandy ash. Soon we’re wading up to our knees in the stuff. Bat shit, guano deposited over years and years. Thousands of bats hang cocoon-like from the cave ceiling. Our presence is disturbing them and increasingly they awake, the screeching rises and they flutter around the roof in clouds. Unperturbed the hammering starts. I learn all about saltpetre and its explosive capabilities, the primary ingredient of gun powder before cordite became the norm. But I’ve now had enough, nauseous from the smell and taste I scramble out to the fresh air.

Concrete labyrinths in the clouds

Maskeliya town, Sri Lanka

I’m fascinated by the ramshackle, non-plan concrete dwellings that you can find in the Hill Country. These are the houses of very poor people, most likely Tamil workers in the tea plantations. Often they are single rooms, with a corrugated iron or blue tarpaulin roof. But what strikes me so much is the way they relate to and exist with their neighbours: they join together, side by side or on top of each other, squashed into tiny spaces or into the sides of steep hills, with facades of different pastel shades. The result I find strangely uplifting and fascinating. A bric-a-brac community of dwellings.

I was struck, too, by the tea workers’ housing in Tamil Nadu’s Western Ghats range, around Ooty.

There are obvious reasons for their appearance, such as community, topography, and economy. But there are more, non-quantifiable aspects that give these settlements charm.

One day I’d like to research the architecture and identity of South Asian tea plantations.