I had two trips round the country in 1980, taking advantage of the visits of friends not only to see established tourist sites, but also to explore routes off the beaten track. We had, I felt, ‘the greatest compass of beauty in a small space” to use a phrase that figured in one of the Diaries I wrote a few years later for the New Lankan Review. I am sorry that such a description is not used in our tourist literature, for it is certainly true, in terms of both landscape as well as man’s creations. The dagobas of Anuradhapura at twilight, the grace of the Gal Vihara even at the hottest time of the day, Sigiriya’s looming mass at dawn are only the highlights of a set of extraordinary constructions, the superbly preserved Dutch forts, the multi-religious structure of Lankatilleke and its neighbours, the exquisite wooden bridge in Badulla.
And then, to be able to move from both luscious and bleak plains in a few hours to hills piling up on each other in a myriad different ways, the sharp climb from Mahiyanaga, the regal sudden rise up Kadugannawa, the slow placid ascent through Balana, the dramatic drive from Wellawaya to Ella, the relentless curves on the Ginigathena route, provides a range of pleasures which elsewhere would require much more time and effort.
In my childhood we had not seen much of the countryside, for my father was not a great traveler, and I suppose with a family of young children, it made sense to get to one’s destination as quickly as possible, on the rare occasions we went on holiday together. We flew on my father’s warrants to both Jaffna and Amparai, and occasionally took the night mail, in the days when one could travel in berths in great comfort. Otherwise there were just a few excursions I remember from the sixties, one to the ancient cities with an Indian friend, one to Jaffna with Hope Todd when he worked for the Tourist Board.
So the eighties allowed me too to discover Sri Lanka, along with my friends. Some of what we experienced then has not lasted. I remember for instance the sheer joy of lunch, twice in three months at the Koslanda Resthouse, looking down dramatically over the Southern Plains. That was not possible afterwards, for the Resthouse has been closed for decades now. Then there was a mad drive along the coast road from Batticaloa to Trincomalee, where there were supposed to be seven ferries. We found I think five of them, but the waiting got longer and longer the further north we went, and finally they seemed to have collapsed altogether, so we gave up and drove inland to Kantalai, to join the usual route to Trinco.
But I must confess that it was not familiar to me, for I had never been to Trinco before. I fell in love with the place at once, and was delighted to go back soon afterwards when my sister came on a brief holiday, having I think just submitted her own doctorate. On that occasion we stayed at one of the established hotels on Nilaveli, enjoying the beach and the coral and Pigeon Island. The first occasion had been more adventurous, because we stayed in a small cabana just north of town, a place I have wanted to get back to, but never found, when I began to get back to Trinco frequently in the nineties. We were in the midst of a fisher community, and were taken exploring in tiny catamarans by an enterprising set of fisher boys who befriended us. Lunch most days was at the Trinco Resthouse, with lots of beer – this friend was Australian – and superb seafood that was incredibly cheap.
In Galle I discovered the New Oriental Hotel, which provided a haven for a couple of decades more, while it was still affordable. Initially I asked for the suites, with their splendid four posters, but later I preferred the garden rooms, which allowed easy access to the pool early morning. The hotel used to be practically empty in the nineties, and I have fond memories of floating in a timeless world under the frangipani trees. The last time I stayed there was with the then Australian Ambassador, at the turn of the century, having assured him the place was exotic, much more fun than the Lighthouse which was the place he had heard of. I am not sure he was entirely happy, so I suppose I should not regret that the place has now been done up and is extremely exotic, though that makes it impossible to drop in and stay as I used to do so often.
On the trip in April, with two friends, very different characters who argued endlessly, we had stayed with friends too, though in one case we only reached our destination at dawn. This was because, taking the road from Balangoda to Bogowantalawa, we were caught in a storm and found a causeway which was running deep and could not be crossed. The driver had advised the longer route, so I was duly chastened, but we spent a memorable night, playing cards and dropping off, testing the waters in between, to no avail until the sun rose.
Our host was Nihal Jayasundara, who was married to a niece of my mother’s. A couple of years later he vanished, and has not been heard of since. Various stories circulated, involving fraud usually, though whether he was the perpetratror or the victim was never clear. He was extremely bright, and my last memory of him is a discussion at S. Thomas’, when he wondered what could be done about the education system, which seemed to kill initiative. Though Nihal has gone, the concerns he expressed still reverberate.
In Colombo my Sri Lankan friends were extremely hospitable, as were my sister’s friends. They were divided over which of my friends they preferred, Richard who was gregarious or John who enjoyed playing the Englishman in the colonies, dressing in white and carrying an umbrella wherever he went. Richard much enjoyed the Arts Centre Club, and grew enamoured of Rohan Ponniah’s sister Jancey, and even took her out to dinner, to the immense amusement of everyone else. We loyally kept quiet about all this when Richard came back four years later with his wife.
Despite his naivete in some respects, Richard was enormously clever, and it turned out that he knew more about some aspects of Sri Lanka than I did. This emerged when we were taken for a drink at one of the clubs in the hills, perhaps by Nihal, though I cannot remember exactly. One of the last of the British planters was there too, and palled up with Richard, and from something he let slip I realized that our forces were being trained by British mercenaries. Richard knew all about it, though that was the first I heard of Keany-Meany, the le Carre type company the British had set up in the Channel Islands to do dirty work they did not want to be involved in officially. It was my first intimation of the fact that the struggle against the Northern insurgents was a serious one – though there are those who argue that it was the tactics introduced by Keany-Meany that were so resented that the terrorist movements developed by leaps and bounds.