In the Tree Tops

8 December 2015

Mornings are pretty slow in The Kandy House, our home-away-from-home perched on the side of the hills surrounding Kandy’s central tank (lake).

Here our two storey brick, tile and wood abode wakes to the mist that surrounds us, screening the jungle and river below.

 
The suburb of Primrose Gardens is a collection of villas and embassies that has escaped the chaos of Sri Lanka’s second largest city to its surrounding jungle-clad hills. Kandy was once the seat of the island’s Royal Family, and later the sanctuary of the colonial-era Brits escaping the heat of summer on the coast.

My Burgher grandmother (a term for the descendants of the Dutch colonists who arrived with the VOC) used to recall the time when “Society” would pack their bags, tea chests and staff to escape to this Hill Station for the “season”. The social circuit was relocated from the mansions of Cinnamon Gardens, a suburb in the coastal city of Colombo, to their villas in the cooler hill areas.
Excuse me for my little colonial-era reminiscing.

Back to 2015 and The Kandy House.

Our little villa has no staff and “Society” hasn’t discovered us quite yet. Our Kandy abode has its toenails clenched on the side of a verdant hill, surrounded by other testaments to architectural and engineering wonders. Primrose Gardens has one road that snakes from the traffic-laden Colombo to Kandy Road, winding its way on a switch back path from the valley below to its peak a few hundred metres in the clouds.

Our Air BnB accommodation is down a lane which, due to a recent landslide and steep decline, no car or even tuk tuk can traverse. The tuk tuk driver who delivered us from yesterday’s shopping expedition offered to drive us down the muddy and potholed two hundred metre lane to our house, but warned he would never be able to get his little three wheeler back up! His two stroke engine was no match for our steep driveway.

 
As isolated as it is from “Society”, we’re not alone. Located as we are in the trees, we have the constant bird life to look eye-to-eye with, and the owner warned us of wild boar, monkeys and vipers in the garden. To keep the mosquito population down we have the ever-present geckos.

Every morning I sweep up a mixture of dead moths and gecko poo from our tiled floors. I’m still questioning why I told the houseboy we wouldn’t need his daily visit.

This morning as I watched the bird life while sipping my cup of tea, I was jolted by a squeak and furry thud from the rafters above. We were paralysed with confusion, me with what to do next, and the rat with where to hide. This Mexican stand-off lasted for a couple of minutes while I tried to process that it wasn’t only gecko poo I’ve been sweeping up in the morning, and also how to stop the rodent seeking sanctuary in my bedroom. Ratty lay perfectly still, trying to work out if I’d noticed his furry descent from the rafters.

Then it was on, Mike with the broom, the rat’s nails sliding over the polished tiles, and me supervising. Someone needed to direct the “big picture” and determine the best strategy for eviction.

We now sit calmly having another brew, the rat out in the rain (for the time being) and us seated pondering that the only “Society” to call on us so far has whiskers and a long ugly tail.

Drop RatPostscript: Mikey the Rat Terminator just let out a girly scream as another furry rodent free-fell from the ceiling. The encounter was so close he shat on his descent. The rat shat on Mike’s shoulder, that is; I haven’t checked Mike yet.

Disclaimer: The previous statement regarding Mikey’s exclamation is in no way meant to be demeaning to the female gender; however, it was high pitched and falsetto. 

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A Bombay Sapphire Monsoon

5 December 2015

The cool of the bungalow’s interior didn’t reflect the intensifying temperature building outside. The high Dutch colonial ceiling with its lazy fans slicing through the mid-morning air created a sanctuary from the tropical heat. The view through the main reception room’s shuttered doors across the deeply shaded veranda hinted at the approaching monsoon. 
  

The cool environ of the garden. The lawns, bamboo grove and their shadows, normally an oasis from the heat, were now being replaced by an odd clouding and thickening of the air, which congealed around the ancient mango tree. 

The sky above the plantation was darkening. The acres of slowly swaying coconut trees were stilled, their fronded crowns anticipating the arrival of the midday storm. 

The yellows, reds and cornflower blue of the kingfisher and other abundant bird life, normally darting from paw paw’s to frangipani, were suddenly absent. Monitor lizards normally loping across the lawn retreated to the mystery of the surrounding jungle. 

Suddenly a rumbling roared from one corner of the garden around to the next, the deafening thunder proclaiming the breaking of the monsoon. 

The temperature fell, as did the first massive drops of rain. 

Suddenly the sky was falling, the sound deafening on the bungalow’s terracotta roof. The rain coursing down the peaked roof of the main house, the white-washed pillared veranda now decorated with clear curtains, the water’s fabric flowing into the surrounding garden. Some mischievous rivulets found a path through missing roof tiles, forming treacherous and invisible pools on the surface of the white highly polished concrete veranda floor. 

It had arrived. Sri Lanka’s South West Monsoon. 

The sloping manicured lawn was almost invisible under sheets of water. New tributaries were being created over the sodden red earth, sweeping into the plantation. Its workers, relieved of their duty, collected machetes, retied their sarongs, and retreated to their nearby villages. 

The garden’s branches were touching the ground, weighed down by the monsoon’s downfall. Speech was redundant, the volume of the rain carrying away any words. 

Then, just as suddenly as the monsoon steamed through the plantation, hiding the bungalow’s colourful garden in a roar of thunder and a blanket of water, it rolled through the jungle to its next station further down the island nation. 

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Sarongs and Snow

4 December 2015

Yep, another trip to Sri Lanka. Two weeks in tropical paradise, followed by another two weeks in Canada for a (hopefully!) white Christmas. 

What a challenge to pack for: sarongs, board shorts and thongs lay on top of my ski jacket and thermal underwear in my backpack. I know, I know. First world problems hey. 

So we’ve started the journey back at Comilla Bungalow, a Dutch/British era plantation bungalow we visited in March. It’s a perfect place to start our holiday, literally hidden away in the jungle. A planter’s house on several manicured acres of garden surrounded by coconut plantation and jungle. 

My parents, Mike and our houseboys Mr Martil and Chamra. We discovered after our Faulty Tower-esque visit earlier in the year that Mr Martil is deaf. Sadly it wasn’t until we checked out that we realised he hadn’t heard a word we had said to him. This resulted in some interesting meals and interactions. Chamra is now the younger smiling and hearing nerve centre of Comilla Bungalow. 

So tucked away far from nowhere, there is nothing to do but dine on delicious curries and read books. 

Oh, and drink Gin and Tonics. The mosquitoes are shocking here and what can I say, I’m tasty. The quinine in the tonic is malarial preventive. I hate the taste of tonic water, but I find Gin makes it more palatable. 

Those of you who know me will not believe that last statement for a second. If we haven’t had the pleasure, don’t listen to my friends. 

Yesterday afternoon, I imagined I was Somerset Maugham reincarnated. So indulge me with my Gin and Tonic-fuelled writing. 

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An 80 year old “Boy” and Us.

18 March 2015

Well, that’s not quite true. There is also “Brutus” (as we’ve named him), a battle-scarred old dog who seems to enjoy our plantation home’s wide verandahs to escape the sun.

Brutus

We ┬ásadly said “bon voyage” to our French enclave in South East India, and flew over the Bay of Bengal to my second home, Sri Lanka. I worked out we’ve now visited the island known as Serindib, the tear drop at the bottom of India, eight times. I never grow weary of visiting this island. In fact, driving from the airport, I felt a wave of familiarity, nostalgia and a warm comforting sensation.

After the crazy that is India, the Sri Lankan roads seem so civilised. I had almost forgot that those zebra lines across the road have a meaning; that a red stop light is not a suggestion; and those flashing orange lights on either side of the front and rear of an automobile actually have an engineered purpose. Our driver even used his indicator as he sped past the pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk tuks, buses and trucks that were hindering our journey to paradise!

Our temporary home is Comilla Bungalow, an old British Planters residence about an hour from the coast and tucked away in a coconut plantation. We truly feel we are in the middle of nowhere. The bungalow’s gardens are surrounded by walls varying between shades of green jungle on one side, and the ordered rows of swaying palms on the other.

Comilla Bungalow

Sitting in the dining room, looking across the infinity pool, my attention is constantly distracted by flashes of fluorescent blue – the resident Kingfisher who is taking stolen baths in the pool – or glimpses of cardinal red – the woodpecker is DIYing a home in the coconut palm in the garden.

Comilla Bungalow Pool

Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn all ornithologist on you. Crazy hair, with a pair of binoculars bouncing off my chest, and smelling like bird poo is not my thing.

Colonial Verandahs 2The 140-year old bungalow is a long building of lime-washed plaster, terracotta roof tiles, towering teak ceilings and a mixture of teak and polished concrete floors. Every room is surrounded by shuttered French doors that open onto the deeply shaded verandahs. The only sounds are the chirps, calls and songs of birds; the whir of the ceiling fan and, well … nothing.

Almost nothing; there is the slap of Mr Marthil’s thongs as he crosses the verandah. Mr Marthil is our houseboy. I know that sounds very superior and Raj-era British – but seriously, the person (usually a man) who runs the engine that is the kitchen, brings us tea, changes the sheets, makes the bed, scoops the pool clean and locks up the house at night is usually referred to as the “Boy”, no matter what age they are. My elderly relatives who live in the hill city of Kandy have a “Boy” who is older than them and must be in his late eighties.

So that’s us in our colonial sanctuary with the company of old Brutus, who looks like he once took on a tiger and barely lived to tell the tale. Two contented travellers, and Mr Marthil, who barely speaks a word of English.

PS > We had stars in our bedroom last night. Fireflies that twinkled us to sleep.

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Le mielleur de Pondichery.

17 March 2015

As we depart Pondichery/ Pondicherry/ Puducherry (depending on which language you choose to name it), we are left with its many highlights; there were no low-lights ­čÖé

  • Our wonderful temporary home at La Closerie … Bay of Bengal in the French quarter. Stylishly decorated and warmly hosted by Annie and her sari-clad team.

La Closerie

  • Promenading on the esplanade at sunset with the locals.

Evening Promenade

  • Wandering past a local version of “India’s Got Talent“, complete with sitar and tabla drums. Seven-thirty at night, our sunglass-wearing compere with greased-back hair, open shirt and assortment of gold chains had the audience eating out of his hand.

India's Got Talent 1

  • Stumbling upon a Gendarme Marching Band; although, due to the heat, they were more of a Gendarme Sitting Band. The clash of brass and drums was faintly reminiscent of my school band at assembly. Like listening to a car crash: the slow, awful sound of metal clashing together.

Gendarme Sitting Band

  • Attending a contemporary theatre production (in heavily French-accented English) by a young troupe in a theatre lit by a hundred oil burning lamps. Very hot, very atmospheric, and perhaps the reason the theatre burnt down several years ago.

Indianostrum Theatre

  • Driving two bumpy hours to visit stone temples and rock carvings from the 6th century. Amazing and memorable. So memorable that on arriving at the granite-hewn monoliths of Mamallapuram, sweat dripping off me in the 38 degree heat (only Ganesh would know the humidity level), I realised I had visited this same historic site twenty-five years ago on an earlier trip to India.

Stone Temple Pilots

Stone Relief

  • La Maison RoseSpecial mention goes to the wonderful French restaurants. Incredible food; I even felt on a few occasions that I was dining in a Parisian brasserie, so authentic was the typical laissez-faire (ie arrogant) ‘style’ of service that some of the waiters exhibited …

A French colony in a style that only the melting pot of French and India cultures could produce.

I’ve just read my Lonely Planet India and it seems there is a Danish colony further down the coast.┬áSounds intriguing. I’m already picturing The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo done Bollywood style. I do think there is room for a roly-poly blue Ganesh in Hans Christian Anderson. The Indians could take the Tivoli Gardens to a whole different level.

Although I don’t think my stomach is quite prepared to accept curried rollmops.

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Sacre bleu! Ici? Est-ce encore l’Inde? [OMG? Is this still India?]

13 March 2015

After traversing the sub-continent by taxi, air and hired car, I’m now in Pondicherry, or Puducherry as it is now known – the French colony on the southeast coast of India. Have you read “Life of Pi” (or, for those lazy readers, seen the film)? Well, it started at the Zoo in Pondicherry.

Early departure - Kolkata Airport

Early departure – Kolkata Airport

Slap my visage (face) with a poisson (fish) and shove a croissant (really if you don’t know that one, be embarrassed) in my bouche (mouth).┬áThis can’t still be India!

The boulevards are tree-lined, the villas lining the streets are French colonial in design, and the ever-present roundabout traffic cop is a gendarme, complete with his whit(ish) gloves and red pillbox hat.

Gendarmes

The attitude is different; our request for wine with our meal is not accompanied by the waiter’s ‘corrupted foreigner’ frown – it’s expected, “But of course”. Even better, alcohol is tax free in this small jurisdiction – still trying to work that one out.

La CloserieWe are staying at “La Closerie Bay of Bengal”, a boutique French white-walled villa surrounding a shaded courtyard and small pool. The wooden French doors (of course they’re French doors!) that open off the quiet street don’t even hint at the cloistered gem beyond. An explosion of fuschia bougainvillea, ferns and gardenias, all shaded by a massive flame tree. The small courtyard that our rooms looks into is a colonnaded oasis of chaise lounges, wicker and teak armchairs, massive stone and brass urns, all cooled by ceiling fans that languidly move the humid air. The tastefully chosen decor of Indian and French antiques is straight from the pages of Belle or Conde Naste magazines.

Those of you who know me will understand. I am in my idea of colonial-design heaven.

Having arisen at 3.30am in Kolkata for the journey to the airport (boy, Kolkata seems like another world, away right now – I couldn’t be in a more polar opposite place), we planned to have an early night. We decided to do as the Franco-Indians do, and take a sunset promenade on the ocean-front esplanade. No longer are we gazing at moss-covered statues paying homage to Lords Dalrymple or Mountbatten, now it is the Marquis Dupleix who lords it over the locals.┬áThe French only handed back this outpost to India in 1954. French is all the population has known.

Pondicherry Street

The locals. Well, it was like being in Place de la Concorde, with citizens in their “Sunday best” greeting each other, the monsieurs sitting on the low stone walls huddled and complaining about the youth of today and the madames gossiping about Mademoiselle Chandrasekar, who clearly has a new and quite ostentatious nose ring. We caught snippets of French conversations interspersed with Hindi and Tamil phrases. The haute couture was fine silk and organza saris, with gold brocade, in a brilliant array of peacock blues, emerald greens and startling pinks.

Fairy FlossSo as I sit having my breakfast baguette, we are planning a day of nothing. No traipsing around rocky forts, wandering through dusty city streets, or crossing hectic roads with sweaty palms and frayed nerves due to the constant car horns.

Today is devoted to reading a good book around the piscine (pool) with a cold Chenin Blanc in hand.

Vive la France!

This town has style.

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The Onion that is Kolkata.

10 March 2015

We have just done a walking tour of Kolkata.

Crazy, right? Most people thought we were crazy to come to this city full stop, let alone wander the slums by foot.

Now I’m normally like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: no product placement or mention of private companies. However, “Kolkata Story Trails” provided the best tour I have ever done in India – perhaps even anywhere (big call!). A tour tailored just for us, designed to reflect the experiences that interested us, using public transport, a guide who answered any and all questions we had, and who could take us deep into the Kolkata that only a local knows.

We started at 10am. First, our guide Kaushik checked whether we liked walking…

Kolkata Story Trails

Kaushik and Richard on the streets of Kolkata

I’m sure that later on at 7.30pm, standing on the banks of the Hoogly (Ganges), having walked 17.64 kilometres, he was regretting having asked that question.

Marigolds

FitBit 2015031017.64 km. That’s 24,575 steps. I received a FitBit for my recent birthday and it records all my exercise, so I’m not making these figures up!

But do you know, I could have still walked another couple of kilometres of this amazing city. By the end of the day, we had ridden trams, learned about Kolkata’s famous citizens, marvelled at the scale of the flower market, smelled the streets’ fragrances – both sweet and, well, I’m sure you can imagine Kolkata’s opposite to sweet!

We even took a ferry across the Ganges, on a vessel that was so overcrowded that when we approached the jetty, with most passengers crowded to one side to disembark (the side where I was leaning on the railing), the ferry’s Titanic-like tilt became quite alarming. My lean quickly became a white-knuckled grip. Then I saw the hundred or so people on the dock who were already jumping the gap onto the SS Calcutta’s deck.

Ferry Queue

I wasn’t thinking Leonardo di Caprio’s “King of the World”; I was telling myself “don’t inhale the water if I end up overboard”!

SS Calcutta

All the commerce, cooking, bathing, prayer, sleeping and living happens on these dusty streets. Everything is for sale: a safe-making district, perfume market, brothels, wholesale shoe area, watch bazaar and colourful fabric shops. Everything is carried by trucks belching black smoke, carts powered by foot, or bulging sacks balanced on sweaty heads.

Manual Transport

Commodities essential to Indian life. Goods destined from these Kolkata wholesale markets to shops and stalls in cities and towns across the breadth of the sub-continent.

Clay Idols 2We experienced “White Kolkata”, “Grey Kolkata” and “Black Kolkata”. Black Kolkata, that’s the scary slum part. But even as we stepped through the twisting passages of the pottery idol-making district, I felt nothing but awe for the people and city.

Sadhu

As Kaushik aptly explained, “Kolkata is like an onion; with each layer you peel away, it can make you cry with sadness, but also with joy.” After all, Calcutta is the City of Joy.

On the Ganges

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