Tuesday, March 31, 2009


When I was a tour guide myself, I led a group to Cuba.  We stayed in fancy hotels were Cubans were allowed to work but not stay – not that they could have afforded them.  One morning, I received a strong complaint from one of my group about the hotel’s inadequacies because they didn’t have English Breakfast tea on the buffet.

I was quite dumbfounded; there was perfectly good local tea available, but because it wasn’t the familiar brand, these people weren’t happy. In amongst all the poverty of rural Cuba, these people wanted their PG Tips.  I thought it was quite a petty complaint as the tour was billed as an exploration of a foreign culture, and if you’re going to explore a foreign culture but then want it to be just like home, what’s the point really?

I tell the story because I have a complaint about the Kandalama; in amongst all this five-star luxury, they serve lousy coffee.  While I have noticed tendencies in that direction, I do hope I am not turning into that petty Englishman abroad – the bane of every travel professional’s life.  In my defence I would point out that at every hotel we’ve visited here, the coffee has been fine and plentiful, so it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.  The catering otherwise is very good, so I can’t understand why they can’t do decent coffee.  Harumph!

Post-colonial huff aside, the hotel is still impressing me.  I still can’t get over the views.  Everywhere you look there is jungle and wildlife.

Today we were up early to head out to the rock fortress of Sigiriya.  There had been reports of hornet attacks on parties climbing to the top and it was unclear whether it was open or closed, so we drove out there anyway as it was en route to our second destination; the ruins of Polonnaruwa.  At Sigiriya we were told we could go in, but only to the Lion’s Paws (i.e. not to the top) but still had to pay the full price.  We decided to try again tomorrow and drove on.

Polonnaruwa is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.  The site is spread out and there is a lot to see but there’s an informative museum at the entrance to set you up with background.  In retrospect I wish we had taken a proper guidebook and done it very early in the morning.  Maliq gave a good commentary but sometimes it was hard to put things in context – although perhaps that reflects more on my lack of prior homework than anything.

The sun was baking and within a minute of stepping out of the van at each site, I was soaked with sweat; it was literally dripping off me and leaving a trail in the dust.  We rapidly drank all the water we had brought with us and were grateful to find a shanty rest-stop opposite one of the ruins.  We sat, resolutely declining and then ignoring the hawkers, while Brett supped Coca Cola and I quaffed Elephant Ginger Beer; a great restorative.

It seems that every king who ever ruled felt he had to build his own Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic as there are a number of them among the ruins. Because they are still considered temples, you are obliged to take off your shoes before entering – indeed some other British tourists were scolded by a primary school child for forgetting to do so.  It was a bit of an ordeal under the midday sun; the rocks were hot, really hot!

We certainly missed a number of the ruins, but we did the highpoints and were still in good cheer when it was done.  Lunched at a ‘recommended’ restaurant on the way back and had some tasty local fish and several fruit juices.

On the road back to Dambulla though, Maliq got pulled over by a random policeman standing on a bend for trying to overtake on a blind corner.  He got a ticket and was fuming about it afterwards.  I have some sympathy as he wasn’t doing anything that everyone else here doesn’t do, he was just unlucky enough to be spotted by an ornery policeman.  Our trip back to the hotel was lengthened by a stop at the local Police Headquarters for him to try to sort it out.

Given the heightened security in Sri Lanka, I did wonder how long our van could be parked, engine running but without a driver, on the roadside outside the gates to Police Headquarters before we became a security alert.  “Longer than it was,” turned out to be the answer as the only attention we attracted was another passing JetWing driver who stopped to check that everything was okay.

Back at the hotel I lounged in the jacuzzi for a while to wash off the sweat and grime of the excursion and then blogged some before dinner.

Over cocktails Brett and I were discussing our different reactions to Kandy; he found it overcrowded and overwhelming and felt like a target, whereas I loved the vibrancy and the bustle from the outset.  When he challenged me to say why, I found it hard to come up with anything coherent other than ‘because it’s new and different.’  Genuine curiosity and learning, or just cultural voyeurism?  Couldn’t say.

I guess you can tell I’m feeling a bit ambivalent today! :o)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dambulla and the Kandalama Hotel

From Kandy we headed north again towards our next hotel, just outside Dambulla.  En route, we passed by the headquarters of the Special Forces Regiment and, in amongst the additional road-blocks we had to navigate, there were cotton trees all along the road opposite, dropping puffy little cotton balls on to the road.  It seemed incongruous somehow.

Dambulla is known for its cave temple, created by a formerly deposed king as thanks for his regaining his kingdom.  There are a series of five caves high in a hillside, in which have been carved numerous statues of the Buddha.  In fact, to describe them as numerous is an understatement; in my view there were just too many.  One wonders what is the point of the repetition; many of them are identical.

On the climb to the cave temple, as well as a number of hawkers with postcards, wooden elephants and ‘secret’ boxes, we’d passed lots of monkeys sitting on the steps and in the surrounding trees eating fruit and larking around.  Apparently they used to be a real nuisance to the temple – sneaking in and eating the floral offerings.  The solution was to build a high fence and top it with electrification!  This allows the humans to control when the monkeys get their floral feast; instead of helping themselves, they now have to wait until a caretaker comes along with a bucket of old offerings, opens a gate in the fence and chucks them out…

We had arrived in the mid-afternoon which meant that the stones of the courtyard were quite hot underneath our bare feet – not to mention the occasional stretches of gravel to be navigated – so I was not sorry when the time came to move on to the hotel.  On our descent though, we could see the rock eruption that is Sigiriya on the horizon, lit by the evening sunlight.  Very pretty.

Our hotel, the Heritance Kandalama, is built on the side of a cliff face; all of the rooms look out over jungle to a large lake and the architecture of the hotel is arranged to make you feel a part of that jungle.  It is quite spectacular; you are high up, the only enclosed spaces in the hotel are the rooms and the dining room/main lounge.  The corridors and other public areas are all open to the jungle and built around the physical geography of the rock face.

In our room (which is again spacious and luxurious) the bed faces the floor-to-ceiling glass doors separating you from the balcony, looking out over the plain, edged with creepers and foliage and a regular haunt for the monkeys.  In the bathroom, the toilet likewise faces the view, but the real treat is the bath which occupies the width of the bathroom underneath the windows.  You can sit and relax in your jacuzzi right next to the glass with no fear of being overlooked (apart from by those monkeys, I suppose.)

You really feel a part of the jungle.  Everywhere you walk, there are tiny lizards scuttling over walls and ceilings.  Birds and bats fly through the corridors and swallows swoop beautifully in the evening out over the trees.  There is a herd of cattle that comes down to the lake towards dusk to drink before heading back into the jungle before the sun sets.

There is an infinity pool off the main lobby which looks out over the lake and during the day the waters seem to merge into a whole – creating some very odd perspectives when people swim out towards the far edge!  At night a solitary flautist sits and pipes above the pool before dinner.

All is not perfect in paradise however.  Upon arrival, and seeing the bathroom, I had the water flowing into the jacuzzi even before the luggage was delivered; what a way to wash away the grime of the day!  However, it the jacuzzi hadn’t been used in a while; as soon as I switched it on I got covered in flakes of brownish gunk.  Hmmm.

I took a shower instead.

The Streets of Kandy

Breakfasted on the terrace; all very pleasant.  The view was initially obscured by mist (smog?) but that slowly cleared as we ate.  We checked-out and met Maliq for a 9am run down into Kandy.  He’d stayed with his family rather than in the staff quarters; he didn’t say why, but I wandered at the quality of the spaces for the workers.

We had decided to take a walk around central Kandy to get a feel for the place as so far we haven’t really been out of our fully-catered hotel/tour guide bubble.  We started by walking around the lake, which was teaming with fish (and fishing birds!) and the occasional turtle, then ventured into the central streets of town.  It was more relaxed than I had expected; as virtually the only white tourists around I’d expected to be mobbed by beggars, hawkers and scams.  We did okay though, attracting some attention but all of it easy enough to disengage.  Mark had described the Sri Lankans along the lines of not having extremes of caste or wealth found elsewhere in South Asia and we found that to be true; there were beggars but no-one appeared to be starving and everyone was friendly enough.

After our walk around the lake, we were in need of refreshment so we picked a small bakery at random and bought some cream sodas.  They had seating on the first floor which opened out onto a balcony overlooking the street.  We sat in the shade and watched the world go by.  Central Kandy was colourful, noisy and bustling with people.   Brett observed a sign advertising a dental technician who also specialised in brasswork and curios and we decided that the combination didn’t inspire confidence in us wussy westerners.

Wandering the streets and alleyways I spotted an ornate gateway and we went in to take a look.  It turned out to be co-located Buddhist and Hindu temples (A religious mall, as Brett put it) which was a delightful oasis of calm and (almost) quiet in the centre of town.  Brett paid 500 Rupees (£3) for a blessing from a monk who had had his photo taken with the Dalai Lama.  (He was a little worried he’d been had afterwards though and described the white string bracelet they had tied around his wrist as his ‘rube bracelet’.  I had noticed our waiter last night wearing the same bracelet, so thought it was probably as genuine as such things go.)  Eventually though we retrieved our sandals, ducked the guy who’d followed us around trying to be our guide, and returned to the streets.

It wasn’t clear whether it was a market day or not, but there were plenty of vegetable sellers with their wares laid out on the pavement.  I found it invigorating and could have wandered for hours just taking it all in but we were now in need of a toilet break so headed into a new shopping centre that looked a good bet.  It had the facilities we needed, but was so new that only the supermarket and a couple of banks had yet moved in.  We went in to the supermarket to look for electrolyte drinks for me (John H had reminded me on Facebook that this could be the cause of my malaise) and came out with batteries and ice cream cubes – as you do.

We’d had about enough by now though and were ready to move on.  When I pulled out my phone to call Maliq I saw that I had three missed calls from him – it turned out that he had been getting worried as we’d been gone for two and a half hours.  It seems he hadn’t thought we’d last that long.  He doesn’t seem to be accustomed to travellers being as independent as we want to be.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tea Trail and The Tooth

We were up even earlier this morning to walk one of Norwood’s trails.  They have several treks of varying lengths marked out through the plantation.  We picked the 8km one which Mark & Chris had run the previous morning.

As we set off from the bungalow, the sun was just about to crest the mountains opposite, so we got some lovely early morning light on the tea bushes and trees as we walked.  The trail was a gentle 6km climb to a point where you could just see Adam’s Peak in the  distance and then a 2km descent back to the bungalow.  About half of it was on the road through the plantation and half was on tracks through the bushes themselves.  It was all very scenic and the first exercise we’d done since we came away!

Back at the bungalow we showered and had breakfast with the boys; Chris noting that four of the five people at the table were wearing  Abercrombie & Fitch.  After the sociabilities we all retired to pack and relax before our appointed departure hour.  Mark and Chris left around 10:30 (Mark wanting to try to break his land-speed record for the trip back to Colombo by doing it in less than the 3½ hours!)  We left as planned around 11am.

The drive north to Kandy only took a couple of hours but was somewhat marred by Maliq pulling in to a Gem showroom and expecting us to go in and do the tour.  He hadn’t mentioned it before we stopped and we had no wish to be sold at, so we said we weren’t interested and could we go straight on to the hotel please.  He didn’t take it very well and pretty much lectured us about how it was a ‘recommended’ stop and how we would have learned things if we had gone in!  He subsequently seemed to realise that he had gone a bit far and switched back to information-giving tour guide mode.

We found the hotel without too much difficulty.  It’s a small, very new boutique hotel set in a residential area.  It has lovely views over Kandy from the hillside opposite but, while it is certainly stylish, some of the design seemed poorly thought through and on the whole the place was a little cramped compared to other hotels we’ve stayed in here.

As we’d got there in good time though, we headed straight out to go see Kandy’s premier attraction; the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of the most revered artefacts of Buddhism.  After being searched twice by security on our way in and dispensing with our shoes and hats, we finally entered the temple.

Maliq guided us efficiently round the site (although I did have cause to wonder how it could have been King Edward IV who had come out to sign the Kandyan Convention in 1815.)  Because the actual relic is sequestered within nested shrines though, there wasn’t a lot to see except the ornament of the outer one and all of the flower offerings left in front. Lots of impressive carving in the wood though.

Afterwards we went next door to the Cultural Centre and watched a display of Kandyan dancing and some firewalking; Tourist trap.

Back to the hotel for dinner which we took on the terrace overlooking the lights of the night-time city.  We were the only guests in residence, so we had the whole staff to ourselves; the service was a little wobbly in places, but at least they were friendly and (excessively!) eager to please.  I did have to correct them, though when the advertised soufflé turned out to be a mousse!  (I did think a soufflé was possibly a little ambitious for the place, but the mousse was very good instead.)

I was still suffering from a minor headache so we retired straight after dinner and fell asleep by the light of the little fish-filled trough which made up our window ledge.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tea Country

We had a late breakfast this morning, not eating until 8am.  It was a beautiful scene though; sitting at the table on the terrace I could look out over the lawns and the flower beds to the mountain vista just beyond the garden, all partially lit by the morning sun.  Breakfast was all cooked to order and was pretty much whatever we wanted; the fruit plate looked like an architectural concept model the way the slices were stacked together.  There was toast and pastries with lovely jam and marmalade and even marmite for those who wanted it.  The cooked breakfast was equally scrummy and all was accompanied by a delicious selection of teas.

After breakfast Andrew Taylor, a relative of James Taylor who founded the tea industry in Sri Lanka back in the 1850’s, came by to conduct us around the Norwood Tea Factory.  It was an interesting tour, looking at the bud of the tea plant and the top two leaves which are really all they want to make tea, he showed us some bushes which are over a hundred years old and still being harvested today.

While there is a lot of machinery involved in the processing, it’s really a very simple process; nothing is added to the shoots after they are picked.  In essence they are just dried, chopped, filtered to remove the extraneous vegetable fibre and then packed and sold.

We were offered the opportunity to do some tea tasting after the tour.  I was feeling quite rough still and was just grateful to be able to sit down, so I declined, but Chris and Ping had a go and it was interesting to hear the process described; it’s a lot like tasting wine and knowing how the different aspects and flavours manifest  in the mouth.

We also spoke about the workforce; it averages one  person per acre of tea grown and the plantation, which is government-owned but privately run, provides cradle-to-grave support for the ethnic Tamils who make up the pluckers and factory workers.  This includes health care and education.  Only about five percent of those born on the plantations go elsewhere for work, the rest presumably stay to pick up where their parents leave off.

It’s a system that works for the tea production but we nevertheless wondered about the fulfilment of the workforce.  The question came up a couple of times later on but we didn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion.

After lunch on the terrace, we spent the afternoon each doing our own thing.  I blogged a while and uploaded postcards to Facebook and then read some.  Brett, Mark & Ping swam I think.  We reconvened for afternoon tea and explored their tea menu some more.  Before dinner we played various parlour games and ended up doing our own version of Taboo (where one person has to describe a word or phrase without using any of the listed taboo words.)

We had dinner in the dining room again, but by candlelight tonight as the electricity gets a bit uncertain during the rain and we thought it added atmosphere.  After dinner we stayed at the table for a second round of Taboo.  Lots of teasing between Mark and Chris about who was the better/worse loser.  It’s hard to tell which of them is the more competitive…

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Weekend in the Country

We left Galle early as the drive up to Tea Trails was expected to take us about six hours.  Rather than retracing our previous route through the centre of the island, Maliq took us up the coast road northwest back towards Colombo and later turned inland again.

We stopped at a turtle hatchery on the way; set up some years ago to help conserve the several species of turtle existing in Sri Lanka which were being threatened by over predation of both their meat and their eggs.  The hatchery collect the eggs as they are laid, allow them to incubate and hatch in enclosures protected from animals, keep the young for a few days and then release them to the sea.  We were allowed to handle the one- and two-day old turtles and they were very cute.  They also keep a few older turtles that couldn’t survive in the wild (one blind, one with no front flippers, one albino).  It was an interesting diversion and I felt that my 200 rupees were going to a good cause.

We carried on inland, through the colourful panoply of towns and villages, had a brief stop for lunch and a brief stop for me to photograph a large monitor lizard that was ambling along the roadside.  As we reached the hill country, the roads became far twistier and we encountered occasional rain showers.  The final approach to our bungalow is a single-track road, which was once made up but is now more pot-hole than tarmac.  That said, the destination certainly made the trip worthwhile.

I don’t know if I can describe Norwood Bungalow without sounding excessively smug.  The ambiance is that of being invited for a weekend at the villa of a wealthy plantation owner.  It is very much a house, not a hotel; there is a corner of the lounge with bottles of alcohol laid out, a couple of sofas and comfy chairs gather around the open fireplace, there is a small staff on hand to discreetly serve you endless meals, do your laundry, organise any excursions you might want and to generally keep the house in order.  There’s an outdoor pool, a croquet lawn and a couple of wandering paths around the grounds and longer walks around the plantation if you are up for it.

We arrived in time for High Tea and indulged ourselves on cake and scones until Mark and Chris arrived (they are spending the weekend here with us as a break from Colombo.)  We had more tea and regaled them with our experiences so far.  The chef appeared to confirm the dinner menu and time and then we went back to our rooms to freshen up before dinner.

I took a siesta as I’d been feeling under the weather through most of the day and was unusually weary.  It perked me up for dinner though.  We started with drinks in the lounge, where we met the other couple staying here; Anna and Kevin from Oxford, with whom we chatted for a while.  They are leaving tomorrow and seem to be doing almost the reverse of our itinerary, having come from the Kanadalama Hotel and going on to the Lighthouse at Galle when they finish at Tea Trails.  The staff had set them up with dinner in the second lounge, so the five of us had the big dining room to ourselves and had a lovely dinner.

I sloped off early to bed afterwards though to try and sleep off my malaise.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Day Relaxing

After some discussion, Brett and I decided to have a quite day today. Ping went off with Maliq to explore Galle while we lazed.  Brett did some reading and I wandered round with my camera, capturing brochure shots…

Brett had a massage, we both swam in the pool and watched the sun set over the ocean from the terrace.  This is pretty much the dream that Travel Agents promise you; long may it continue.

We have a 9am departure planned for tomorrow when we head up country to the tea plantations and what sounds like everyone’s romantic notions of the colonial high-life.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

To The Beach!

Having said our goodbyes to Mark and the staff of Kulu Safaris, we were reunited with Maliq for the drive down to Galle and our time by the beach.

Our itinerary is not the most logical, as we’ll have to go back past Udawalawe to get to our next destination, Hatton, but the safari shuts down now for a fortnight for the Buddhist new year, so it had to be the first item on our itinerary or we would have missed it entirely.

The drive to Galle was uneventful (although Ping would tell you we had numerous close-calls on the road) and I slept through a lot of it.  For all that you are just sitting in a jeep looking at the scenery, safari is hard work between the early starts and all the hanging-on as you travel cross-country!

We arrived at our hotel, the Lighthouse, mid-afternoon and it is quite the beach paradise.  You arrive on the ground floor via a gloomy canopied fortress-like driveway and are then led up a broad wooden circular staircase, decorated with ‘scrap’ iron statues forming a life-size battle frieze around the inner banister, and as you reach the first floor you turn off and are suddenly presented with a clear view out across the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that line the reception area.  Quite breathtaking!

You are seated out on the terrace beyond the doors while they process your check-in and served drinks.  The hotel is built on a rocky promontory so you are regularly treated to huge surf sprays as the waves crash on the rocks about fifty feet beyond the terrace; close enough to be a feature, but far enough away not to be a saltwater shower!  To the side are a couple of palm-tree-lined beaches and the hotel grounds.

The rooms are lovely; minimal as things go, but very spacious, very comfortable and with all the amenities you really need.  The en suite area is another room unto itself; behind a sliding teak panel you have a small lobby with the bath, basin and an enormous closet and to either side of the bath are shower and toilet rooms.  Our balcony looks over an infinity pool to the palm-fringed beach and the ocean.  For once, the reality really does match the image in the brochure…

We took advantage of the facilities to shave and properly wash away the grime of the safari before taking advantage of Room Service to save us having to walk anywhere for lunch, then we took advantage of the big, comfortable beds for an afternoon nap.  Bliss.

Pre-dinner cocktails on the terrace, listening to the sound of the surf and admiring the horizon lined with the lights of hundreds of fishing boats.  We dined in the main restaurant on the five-course-plus-coffee set menu, which was pleasant enough but reminded me that we are now at a package hotel – a recognition which sadly took the glamour off the place a little after the personalised experience at Kulu.  Nevertheless, it’s all relative and it’s still a fabulous hotel; I would happily stay here for a good long while as a chill-out holiday.

Final Safari

We were up at 5am again this morning for our final trip into the bush.  We did well again today with more elephant close-encounters, one of which was particularly photogenic, another of which involved a game of ‘chicken’ with a playful young bull.  There were also buffalo, pelicans, woodpeckers, eagles, monkeys and a peculiar black bee (that may have been a beetle) with diaphanous wings fracturing the sunlight into a constantly changing spectrum.

Back at camp there was a frog looking very cute, peering out  from behind the frame of the mirror in the shower.  And that wasn’t the last of it; even as we left camp for the final time, we had to chase an iguana off the road.  Our departure was further delayed by an encounter with three elephants enjoying the shade of a tree whose shadow crossed the road.  There was an amount of back-and-forth between the jeep and the one in the middle of the road before she finally stood aside and we could pass.

If we’d had the time and the money, I wouldn’t have minded doing a few more days with Kulu though.  Being (kind of) away from modern civilisation was tranquil and relaxing and watching all these creatures existing in their natural habit, lying there at night listening to the sounds of the jungle, serves to remind you that we are all part of a fabric of life, an ecosystem, and not separate from it as it is so easy to believe living in the city.

I won’t really miss the chemical toilet and having to keep the toilet paper in tupperware, but as such things go, that’s a minor issue – it did its job and didn’t smell (no bad thing in these temperatures!)  I got some stunning photographs of the wildlife and had a great time doing it.  Mark was a genial host and he has a good business going there I think.  (Amongst other things, Ping and he were talking about online marketing and he asked us all to send him our views on their website content.)  As soon as I get time, I’m going to check out Kulu Safari’s Facebook group and post a few of my own pictures too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grazing Elephants and Knee-Deep in Mud

We were up before dawn at 5am this morning.  The humidity means that absolutely everything around camp is damp, but the temperature makes that not unpleasant.  The porcupine had been back during the night and been gnawing on Brett’s sandals, so we are going to be more careful what we leave out tonight.

Mark brought us all coffee which was quickly supped and then we were on our way.

Today was a much better game day than yesterday; plenty of birds and herds of water buffalo, several herds of elephants and several solitary males.

We tracked the elephants for a while and once we saw their direction we pulled the jeep almost in front of them and switched off the engine.  Sure enough they grazed their way past us, within yards of the jeep.  I took plenty of photographs but once I was done, it was a deep pleasure just to sit and watch them; a selection of ages, massive and placid, interacting with each other, familial; the silence of the plain, broken only by peacock wails and the tramping and chomping and occasional guttural growling of the elephants themselves, was beautiful and very satisfying.

We also got close to a young bull who was accompanied by three egrets and sat and watched him grazing for a while.  There were huge owls, eagles and a small flock of parrots.  There are peacocks everywhere, some of them in plumage.  Several times we saw them take wing which is quite a sight and we got to watch an eagle catch some small prey and feed quite nearby.

We stopped for a while on a promontory overlooking the central lake of the park.  It was a comfort and snack break with some great vistas; most of the park is quite flat so you don’t easily appreciate the scale of it until you get a little altitude and see how far it goes on!  Although there were distant pelicans on the lake and a wandering buffalo, the only close encounters we had were with crows after our biscuit crumbs.

On our way back to camp for breakfast however, we attempted to cross a channel where the jeep just couldn’t make it up the other side and then couldn’t back out.  After a bit of spinning wheels back and forth, Mark got out and unwound the winch on the front and pulled it out of the ravine.  It was a chance for me to get out of the vehicle and I took it.  The warm mud between your toes was lovely – who needs expensive spa treatments!

A little further along the same track though, we got bogged down in the soft mud again and really could not get out.  We tried the winch, we tried rocking the jeep back and forth to release the suction – then the winch gave out.  We tried pushing unsuccessfully.  (Trying to gain purchase in the soft mud beneath a foot of water was interesting – but not unpleasant.)  In the end we had to call for help – bizarrely in the middle of miles of wilderness there is better mobile coverage than Rod & Jess get back in Wimbledon!

While we waited, we walked along to the next ravine and rested in the shade, drinking the mango juice and keeping cool with our feet in the running stream.  If I’d had a blanket to lie on, I could have stayed there all day, but the sound of elephants foraging nearby made a return to the relative safety of the jeep a necessity.

An hour or so after we’d sent out the call, the rangers arrived in their landrover and, after much discussion and trial-and-error, (which on several occasions looked like it would result in them being bogged-down too!) we eventually got the jeep free and set off for camp again.

Having waded through mud up to our knees, when we got back it seemed appropriate to bathe in the river rather than take a shower, so Ping and I did just that and it was very refreshing.  The boys were serving a combined breakfast/lunch by the time we were done, so we took our leisure by the river again and ate heartily.  Almost as soon as we’d retired for siesta though, the rains came down and didn’t let up.  We’d planned to do another safari in the late afternoon but aborted in favour of an early morning one tomorrow instead.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and just watching the river through the rain.  We had tea and biscuits and later cocktails and then a barbeque dinner.  (I had been sceptical of the chances of barbequing in a tent, but it worked out perfectly well.)  The porcupine (now nicknamed Peter) showed up later on and scared Brett out of his wits by walking over his feet before anyone noticed he was there.

As I write, it is pitch black outside, broken only by the few flaming torches which bound the camp.  The night is full of sound; the sounds of the river, the cicadas and crickets doing their thing, the occasional water pit-patting down out of the canopy and the odd peacock call or elephant roar.  The rain has stopped now and it’s a lovely mild night; the sky is clear enough to see the stars.  Ping observed earlier that we’ve been here barely forty-eight hours, but it already feels like forever; we are all comfortable and familiar and totally at home.  I have mixed feelings about having to leave tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Golden Light

The morning started early as we had a 7am departure organised.  Mark and Chris laid on true feast for breakfast; lots of fresh fruit, yoghurt, scrambled eggs with cheese and ham and home-baked pastries and muffins (I hate to think how early Chris was up to prepare them!) and plenty of coffee to perk us up.  It was a great way to start the day.

We met our driver for the fortnight, Maliq, and set off into the morning rush-hour, heading south.  The traffic was busier and more chaotic this morning than it had been yesterday afternoon but it wasn’t long before we escaped the Colombo suburbs and had as open a road as there is.  The trip to Udawalawe took a little less than four hours, which was better than expected.  I gathered so many impressions along the way that it’s hard to integrate them all into anything coherent, so I may leave talking about my general impressions until the end of the trip when I’m more familiar and in a retrospective frame of mind.

At the park entrance, we said a temporary farewell to Maliq, as he goes off to find himself accommodation while we are on safari. and we said hello to Mark, the owner of Kulu Safaris and our host for the next two nights.  As soon as the luggage was transferred into the jeep we headed off into the National Park.  Our camp is located fairly centrally within the park, so it was about a thirty-minute drive along the dirt tracks to reach it.

Along the way we saw our first selection of game; a distant group of elephants, some deer and several peacocks.  The camp itself is a marvel.  It’s set on the side of a river, in which we can swim, so long as someone watches out for the crocodiles and which is crossed on a regular basis by a herd of water buffalo who are hunted by the crocodiles.  Brett and I have a tent, all quite luxurious as camping goes, with a decent double bed within an insect-free inner and our own awning/lounge space.  Nearby there are enclosures for toilet and shower and in the other direction a canopy for dining under if it rains and the kitchen/staff tents.

We settled in, and then had a beer and lunched on the bank of the river; the boys had prepared us a selection of Sri Lankan dishes; mostly vegetarian and spiced/curried.  After a siesta we headed off into the bush around 3pm for our first proper safari.

It was quite a quiet afternoon and we didn’t really see much up-close.  The jeep ride along the game trails is an experience though – better than any rollercoaster I’ve ever been on!  It also rained from about four o’clock, but rain in the tropics isn’t quite the miserable thing it is in the UK.  Mark and his team had ponchos at the ready for us and when it got heavy, we rolled down the plastic shield at the front.

As we headed back towards camp around 6pm, the evening light turned the whole landscape from yellow, to orange, to red before the sun finally set.  It was quite special.

It was still raining a little when we got back to camp so we were dining under cover by lamplight.  I tried out the shower first though; they fill the reservoir with hot water on request (although normally it’s not required) and I had a quick shower to wash off the dust of the road before dinner.

Over dinner we chatted to Mark; he co-owns Kulu Safaris with a friend and they also have a boutique hotel less than an hour from Colombo.  Ping asked him for the card as it sounds like the sort of thing Mark & Chris may like to try.

After dinner we were joined in camp by their occasional guest, a foraging porcupine.  Once he’d wandered on though, we turned in for an early night.

Sunset and Dinner on the Beach

The onward flight was unremarkable.  We arrived at Colombo about half an hour early and were met at the gate by Mark.  We were first off our plane and our plane was about five minutes ahead of a packed Sri Lankan Airlines slight from London, so we were ahead of the crowd at Immigration.  Our luggage was amongst the first ones which came through.  All in all we managed to exit the terminal building about fifteen minutes after exiting the aircraft.  That’s got to be a record for a long-haul flight!

The drive back to their house took about forty minutes and, although Mark seemed worried we’d be petrified by the anarchic driving practices of Colombo, it wasn’t actually that bad.  I spent most of the drive looking out of the window and taking in the ambience; lots of lush scenery and tuk-tuks, people playing cricket and open-air shops.

Colombo reminds me of a combination of Havana and Singapore; it has a tropical climate – although pleasantly temperate today – but on the one hand the people are poor and the infrastructure is mostly run-down and on the other, there are spots of fine British Colonial architecture alongside occasional ultra-modern glass & chrome buildings.

There’s an obvious military presence and everyone in uniform carries a rifle, which Mark assured us were not for show.  There are regular traffic checkpoints throughout the city and lots of green-sandbagged watchtowers/gun emplacements.  The soldiers all looked young – Mark told us that, because of recent losses, the government had to up its recruiting targets and they are mostly filled by young men.  The soldiers we saw seemed to be in the 16-18 year range.

We had arrived early enough to be able to go out for dinner, so we did a quick freshen-up and then headed out in taxis to the old Galle Face hotel.

The Galle Face is a grand old colonial spot on the beach next to where the liners from the UK would dock, back in the day.  We had drinks on the beach-side lawn, watching the waves roll-in and the sun set over the ocean.

It was at that point I really began to soften I think.  There had been cracks in the facade on the drive from the airport as it settled into my head that this was terra incognita (for me), but while I sat there on the lawn, sipping my gin with the waves rolling in from Africa and listening to Chris regale us with all we can expect on the safari tomorrow, I really began to get excited.  We are going to have such a fantastic holiday!

Anyway, pre-dinner drinks complete, we headed up the road to their favourite seafood restaurant, Beach wadiya.  It’s the kind of place that gets imitated a lot in holiday resorts, but this felt far more genuine; we sat at tables in the sand a few metres up from the waterline and the menu was the catches of the day presented on a tray for you to pick from.  We got extremely messy picking our way through sweet-chilli crab, garlic prawns and grilled fish (I never quite got clear what type of fish it was, but it was very tasty.)

We rolled back to the house for a nightcap around 10 as we have to leave at 7am tomorrow to get to Udawalawe in good time.  Mark plied Brett and I with Glenmorangie, Ping showed off his sarong and Chris took Theo for his walk out in the garden.  (Theo being their lovely labrador puppy.)

Apparently we are sleeping in Kylie’s bed, or at least the one she slept in when she stayed here.  That will make a couple of friends back home insanely jealous.  Mwuhahaha!

And finally, because it just has to be said; “Mr Ambassador,  with ze Ferrero Rocher you are really spoiling us!”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunrise Over Arabia

Apart from traffic delays on the way to Heathrow, the holiday  has started quite well; we flew Business Class with Qatar which made the overnight flight much more bearable, although the flight wasn’t long enough to really sleep well.  As they were serving breakfast we were able to watch the sunrise over the desert of Saudi Arabia which was quite lovely.  (Note to self; avoid Arab Meze Breakfast in future!)

This is the furthest East that Brett has ever been and he seems both excited by the prospect and a little nervous of it.  He mentioned previously that this is his first trip outside of the ‘Western World’, so I suppose some trepidation is to be expected; he knows it will be different but he’s not really sure how different or how he’ll respond to it.

Ping is also excited, he is less clear about why though.  It seems to hinge on the concept of ‘the Western World’ too; he says he gets this feeling when he goes anywhere in the East now, but not to places like Helsinki, even though he’s never been there either.  Perhaps the sense of the exotic, the unknown?  I’ll have to see if I can tease it out of him as the trip progresses.  He also mentions his enjoyment of travelling with friends, which was nice.

As for me, I am not yet excited but I am starting to feel that I’m on holiday.  I think that the excitement will develop once we leave Colombo for the safari.  Tracking game in the jungle by Land Rover and sleeping under canvas will be enjoyable enough, but having a staff to serve your meals and make your bed while you do it will be quite the experience!  That, plus I probably need a few days to decompress and relax.

Have just chatted to Mark on Facebook and he tells me it’s looking like a lovely day in Colombo.  Chris is home too (last seen in Russia and Switzerland) so the timing has worked out well.

Ah, and now I’ve got a chat window with Chris C in Oregon – what a globe-spanning network of friends and relations I have.

Anyway, I’m going to publish this and go have a nosy out of the windows to get my glimpse of Qatar – although we have a longer layover on the return, so may save any exploration attempt until then.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Departure Day

Well, after a mammoth catch-up on the last two weeks in the previous post, here begins the holiday blogging.  Yeay!

We’re flying this evening, so we’ve just got a shedload of household chores and some packing to do and then we’re off to Sri Lanka for a fortnight.

Rosie is house-sitting for us and providing us  with airport transfers.  Ping, who’s travelling with us, is meeting us there.

In what is probably the last gasp of our pre-mortgage-commitment lifestyle, we are flying Business Class with Qatar Airways, so even though it’s a long flight (fourteen hours travelling, eleven and a half in the  air, overnight) I am expecting a comfortable journey.

Just Another Week

It’s been nearly two weeks since the last posting – I’m backsliding again! Then again, most of last week was pretty much the same as the week before, so you don’t really want to hear all that again, do you?

Notable differences were going to see Radio 4 Stands Up (A Stand-Up Comedy programme) being recorded last Tuesday. Another trade show on Wednesday; this one about Unified Communications which wasn’t anything special – apart from me getting a very good massage and a shoe-shine into the bargain.

Saturday was the day assigned for my birthday celebrations. Brett had organised a meal at Albannach, a Scottish restaurant on Trafalgar Square. It began to look a bit risky on the day though as several people called-off due to a bad cold which is doing the rounds – we began to wonder if anyone would turn up. In the end though, people did and we had a very pleasant meal in their private dining room, along with John Mc, Rod & Jess, Ping, Owen, Jerry & Rosie. Ping tried Absinthe but wasn’t much taken with it. Everyone else had wine and whisky (they have an extensive collection of both!) and I got given lots of cards and gifts.

Jerry bought me a rather nice bottle of aged port and a CD to try out a new artist, Rosie bought me fancy cufflinks and a box of hand-decorated champagne flutes (something we are a bit short off), Ping got me a couple of photography books; one a quite practical technique guide and one a coffee table book (Anderson and Low’s “Athlete Warrior”) which is more gay artistic soft-porn than anything else! (And hence I liked it!!)

On the whole though it was a very civilised evening of good food and conversation. We ended the evening with some delicious Balvenie and a contented feeling.

Chorus this week was at the City of London Girls’ School again and I got tagged for a birthday boy and had the whole Chorus sing to me. I’ve managed to avoid it every other year, but Brett wasn’t going to let that happen for my fortieth and it was a very powerful moment.

Michael W also spoke to me about doing some photo work for FFK to which I was certainly agreeable. We’re going to speak in detail after we get back from Sri Lanka.

Apart from it being the season for annual reviews, the week so far at work has been mundane.

My actual birthday was last Wednesday, the 18th. I hadn’t really planned much for it – I was at work all day and rather fancied a quiet night in.  Mikey, who hadn’t been able to attend at the weekend, had asked about doing something that night, so he was invited along. I dithered for a while about whether to invite anyone else and in the end invited Rosie too. Then Chris C from St. Helens dropped me a message to say he was going to be in town and did I want to catch up, so I invited him as well.

As the hour approached though, Rosie called off sick (that damn cold) and Chris was delayed en route, Mikey was delayed for reasons unspecified but showed up shortly after 8, so the three of us dined and drank and generally had an enjoyable drunken evening. For reasons to do with his profile photo which are too complex to explain, there was a point where we updated a couple of things on his Facebook profile and then stole his phone so he couldn’t change them. All rather teenage, but tremendous good fun and actually a bit of quid pro quo on my part for previous misdemeanours when he’s had his hands on my diary!

Mikey had to leave at 10 though (Surprisingly drunk for how much he’d had! I learned subsequently he’d thrown-up on the Tube. Oh dear, the yoof of today!) Which meant he almost passed Chris arriving on his way out.

Chris joined us after a tedious journey for a bottle or two more of the wine and we did a bit of catching up.

Actually, I’m not sure it really was catching up, it was more just drunken chatter as I was pretty far gone myself by that point.

Thursday, I had taken time off work to recover from a hangover which I richly deserved but managed to avoid by drinking lots of water before bed and staying up until about 2am. Nevertheless, I took it easy this morning and just pottered around the flat.

We were due in North London with the Chorus boys for a school assembly at Mikey’s school to discuss LGBT issues – fairly groundbreaking stuff for the LGMC and, I think for the school. It all went well; Mikey was his usual hyperactive self, but articulate and prepared; it was easy to tell that he does a lot of presenting.

We sang to top and tail the assembly and FFK members did ‘Bless The Broken Road’ in the middle. We also were asked to volunteer stories of our own experiences of homophobia or coming out.

I was slated to speak last and, listening to those who went before me I was glad because what I had prepared was so anodyne. I almost ducked out but in the end spoke briefly about the trauma of coming out for the first time; to Phil, my best friend at school. I don’t think I was especially articulate on any of the topics I’d like to have mentioned, but I was assured that I was at least spontaneous and genuine sounding. Hmm.

In the evening I’d been asked to chair a meeting of the Chorus’ Steering Committee as they discussed one of the more contentious topics they need to deal with; how to manage the growth of the group. It was quite a ride. Started out okay but as the complexities of the issues involved came out it got more and more messy and, although I stamped hard on people a few times, I rather think I should have done it more. Still, at the end of the meeting we had made a few decisions and inched the issue forward a little.

If they ask me to do it again, which is doubtful I think, it would certainly require a much firmer hand – and probably an alcohol ban!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Lots of Time Spent in The Cloud

Chorus on Monday was rehearsing at the Roundhouse. We were trying it out as an alternative rehearsal venue and we had four DMDs auditioning. It was a really nice venue, if a little monochromatic. Generally a good night apart, from Martin B having a real go at Mikey for our talking. He was quite threatening, so during break lots of words were had with Anthony and Sacha; Mikey and I may talk a lot during rehearsal, but Martin was out of order with the way he addressed it. I think he thought better of it during the second half though as he apologised to us afterwards.

On the way home, we travelled most of the way with one of the DMD candidates; he was one of my choices and a nice chap in person, but sadly didn’t get the gig in the end.

Tuesday I was up in town for a seminar about the Cloud. It was slightly unusual in that the first three speakers were telling us how easy it was to build your own cloud and the fourth speaker said, ‘Why would you want to? Buy cloud services from someone else!’ It was a thought-provoking session though, so worth half a day of my time.

In the evening I was to Greenwich with all my photography gear to do headshots and rehearsal shots for David W’s play. All went fairly smoothly and I got the dates for the other shots straightened out too.

The highlight of Wednesday was lunch with Owen. He had a lot on his mind about his relationship and where it's going but I managed to raise a few smiles…

Thursday night we had tickets to Fame. Met up with Rosie for food at The Atlas which was good before meeting up with Mikey, Joffrey & Michael M to head to the theatre. Stuart B had choreographed the show by Cygnet Players who did A Chorus Line a while back. Fortunately the choreography was good, but sadly the cast lacked energy – which you need for a show like Fame – and there were problems with the sound levels so you couldn’t hear the lyrics a lot of the time. But even so it was an enjoyable evening.

Friday morning I was at Old Billingsgate Market for another supplier event. This one was less worthwhile (who knew the Google UK CEO would be so dull??) I even managed to miss the free lunch. Back at the office I did my first presentation of the Tech Strategy… just to the team and it was more of a Q&A session, but it went well and everyone seemed enthusiastic.

Got a reply back from a lady in Microsoft’s marketing team too, so it looks like I might be joining their focus groups. I need to start a (technical) blog and get on Twitter (which I’m now on). More to follow on this I suspect.

In passing I noticed that Friday was also Marcus Nicoll’s birthday – not that there ever really was a Marcus Nicol; living in London now the paranoia of a Scottish squaddie seems a world away. I will probably always wonder what became of the guy I knew and will probably never know. Still, je ne regrette rien

We had a full-day rehearsal on Saturday. On arrival I had quite a firm talking to from Sacha (well, as firm as Sacha can do, he is really rather a gentle man) and it seems Mikey had had a similar dressing down from Anthony, so we determined to be quiet – and spent the day on the back row chatting by notepad instead. It all rather got me thinking about taking up sign language; I always was fascinated by the Drasnian secret language… We’ll see!

The rehearsal itself went fairly smoothly; lots of songs about London.

The rest of the weekend has been pretty much all geeky stuff. In my Microsoft researches I’ve come across a couple of neat facilities which I may be able to use (or at least use as inspiration for stuff) at work, so I was playing with them to get my head around how things worked. Housework too. Blah!

Think I’ve finally pulled out of the winter blues. Am fairly looking forward to work tomorrow as I get to start putting strategy into action.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Prince Who Relied Upon Their Words

And another week has gone by; this one just as crazy as the last.

Monday, as ever, was Chorus; sectionals this week. Still doing the part new/part familiar repertoire.

Tuesday I was up early to catch a train out to a supplier’s offices for a seminar on Software Asset Management. It was an interesting day but principally reassured me that we don’t have a need for that particular area of products. On the way back into town I met up with Mikey for a coffee. When he’d suggested meeting it had sounded like he needed to talk some heavy stuff over, but in the end it turned out to be a purely social visit. It seemed a little strange since we’d only seen each other the previous evening…

Wednesday at work was mostly taken up with hassling users about the rapidly dwindling disk space on our London file server. In the last two weeks, we’ve added more data than we added in the whole of 2005; even with Moore’s law factored in, that’s really excessive growth I’d say!

In the evening I was out at the Gay Photographers Network meeting near Vauxhall; listened to a lecture about Yukio Mishima, a photographic pioneer in Japan in the ‘50s, showed off a few of my own recent pictures and then came home.

Thursday was all about disk space again but we all left work a bit early to go to the Comedy Café for our (very late) team Christmas jolly. We had a good evening despite being sat right in front of the stage and getting picked on by each comedian. We’d booked a party package (meal + show) which meant we got party hats too. We were the only ones in the room with party hats. They didn’t get worn.

Friday was just an obstacle to be overcome to get to the weekend.

The night wasn’t great though as Brett heard back about his audition for FFK – he didn’t get in and was quite brought down by it since he suspects secondary criteria might have been put ahead of primary criteria in the decision. It seems to have crystallised his thinking a little about what his interests really are though and he’s reassessing his priorities now.

Saturday I spent a while working on the Sri Lanka itinerary and then we headed out to the new Westfield Shopping Centre near Shepherds Bush. I needed a lightweight summer jacket (my old one, which never fitted properly anyway, has developed a tear under one arm) and some trainers. Ping joined us on a whim and we had a good wander round. The place has something of the feel of an airport about it but still works well as shopping mall. I achieved a first by buying something from UniQlo (the aforementioned jacket) and then went on to Top Shop to buy cheap t-shirts to go with the jacket; one of the more unusual shopping combinations I’ve ever tried…

We had been planning Sunday lunch with Rosie, Mikey, Ruth & Chris but the latter two declined the invite early in the week because Ruth had a girlie weekend organised, Mikey called Saturday evening to bail out because he had essays to write (his unreliability is beginning to try my patience!) and Rosie spent Saturday with Ruth being girlie, so we cancelled lunch with her so she could carry on with their weekend.

Instead we arranged brunch in Wimbledon with Rod & Jess for late Sunday morning after they’d done their morning rides and had a very pleasant catch-up with them. In typical London style, we are seeing them more often now that they live further away!

This afternoon I spent processing the photos I took of Jerry at the session last week and there are some nice shots there, so it was a good day.

Am contemplating having a year along the lines of the one John Windle had a few years back; doing all the things I never did when I was young that everyone else seemed to. If not exactly that, then at least making a deliberate effort to push the boundaries of my existence.