It wasn’t effortless but we managed to sidestep, defy and satisfy enough bureaucracy to find ourselves stamped into the Schengen zone and legally resident in Finland for the month of July. Forget about taking off your shoes, belts and putting liquids in a zip lock bag. No, do that too. But add to the travel shakedown PCR test results, Covid cards (Whoever cautioned against laminating them, that was an error. They are much more resilient when laminated.) and extra, improvised popup queues at airports. In one case, add the required production of a marriage certificate.
Now we’re back in the Schengen zone after being barred in 2021. We needn’t quarantine on the strength of our two jabs plus two weeks, so we’re in and we have been granted a one month holiday at our Mökki on Lake Saimaa. We are open for business as usual although subject as always to having to juke around the seven hour time difference. Let me hear from you.
We’re still in Uusimaa tonight but Finland makes the trains run on time and one of them will deliver us here tomorrow. Where I will await hearing from you.
Here’s my monthly travel column for 3QuarksDaily, published there last week:
On the Road: In Myanmar Part One
Aye Chan Zin, a 22 year old competitive cyclist, once raced from Yangon to Mandalay and back. He fell and lost both incisors to gold teeth.
“Road very bad out there,” he grinned, goldly.
Aye Chan was a child of privilege, a third-year vet school student with parents with government jobs. His dad was Chinese, a doctor working on a leprosy project, his mom a philosophy teacher at Yangon University. A family album they kept in the family car was chock full of smiling brothers and sisters.
He had his dad’s tan Toyota with tinted windows. He would be our guide and driver, and on Tuesday the seventh of February or, as The New Light of Myanmar newspaper called it, the eighth waxing of Tabodwe, 1356 ME, we set out from Yangon for a drive into the country.
They must yearn in Burma just now for the good old days of six months ago when Aung San Suu Kyi’s political fig leaf, the National League for Democracy, stood between the people and the army, called the Tatmadaw. Seven hundred people have since died in street protests.
I’ve been reading this week about Burmese banks running out of money. People “if they are lucky” try to withdraw their savings, but they can’t get all of their own money. Banks “have imposed fees of 8%-9% to withdraw funds.”
Six months ago I had a plan to spend a month in Yangon. We even found a place to stay. Now, not a chance. The time we did visit, when we met Aye Chan, came after the coup that led to Aung San Suu Kyi’s years-long house arrest.
First on Aye Chan’s tour of Yangon hotspots, “That’s military headquarters.”
Did the leadership live there?
“Not live just work.”
There was the parliament building far across a lawn. It was not possible to visit the parliament building. You can tour the White House, the Kremlin and the Great Hall of the People, but you may not tour the Myanmar parliament. Up next came Myanmar Television and Radio, and then, “ice factory.”
Guides have their peculiarities. Aye Chan was a factory enthusiast. Before the end of the day we saw ice factory, milk factory, brick factory (“you want to take picture?”), rice factory and garment factory.
Beyond Yangon, beyond the airport, the road went full African. Benevolent open spaces countered an atrocity of broken asphalt. People, mostly barefoot, carried baskets on their heads or raised parasols. Up here people really lived outdoors more than in. Houses were mostly thatch, with open rooms. It was the vast Mississippi flood plain with banana trees.
At the World War II allied cemetery, the names of some 27,000 war dead under British crown command in the British Burma and Assam campaigns were inscribed in stone alongside endless well-manicured rows of graves. Names like Wrigley and Hicks, Collins and Stark, and also Singh and Gurung and Pun.
Local folks worked the road all the way to Bago. Barefoot women carried rocks in wicker baskets on their heads for crushing by big rolling machines. Road work conscripts made 100 kyats (“chots”) a day for six hours of carrying rocks on their heads, a meal included. That was a dollar. I read that up in Mandalay, the public was made to build infrastructure for no pay. Not even a dollar.
One time we became friends with a young couple on a trip to Albania. This road work made me think of how they remembered life under Enver Hoxha. The Albanian Revolutionary Triangle included physical labor as part of schooling.
In Burma, pagodas sprouted like the concrete military pillboxes Hoxha scattered across the Albanian countryside. And there was not a single military or para-military or renegade-teens-on-the-prowl-for-extorted-cigarettes roadblock. Driving was free and easy.
Out in the middle of rubber farms in the middle of nowhere, suddenly, just before noon, the world exploded before us. The whole earth went splintery and kaleidoscopic with a terrific bang.
Aye Chan kept a lead foot on the gas, the tan Toyota flew down the road, and all three of us were blinded until slowly we realized the windshield had shattered. We couldn’t see a thing in the billowing dust and finally Chan coasted to a halt.
He anguished for a long time. Maybe it was rocks from the construction work, but whatever caused it, there’d be hell to pay for busting his Dad’s windshield. We all pulled big glass chunks out of the windshield frame, cutting our hands a little and scraping the glass off the seats and wiping the sweat off our brows. A bird cawed a curious tune. Two men wandered out to look.
There was no choice but to bounce on the last 25 minutes to Bago. Little by little, shards and chunks fell and flew, with the dust and never-emission-inspected exhaust, straight into our faces.
From farther back into historical mists than anyone can see, a tangled mass of feuding tribes extended from the Indian Manipur plain to the southeast, here to Bago and on to the Irrawaddy delta. They’re still tangled and feuding today, with more or less formidable militias, often ethnically-based, operating just about all over the country.
(A new militia called the Chinland Defense Force skirmished with the Tatmadaw recently, briefly holding a town called Mindat in a four-day battle last month. Chin State, in the west, had been the last ethnic state in Myanmar without a Tatmadaw-challenging insurgency.)
In the eighteenth century rebellion spread like summer grassfire north from the Kingdom of Bago. A once great fortress at Ava near Mandalay quickly fell, the royal family taken captive. An unlikely unifier, a canny farmer named Aung Zeyya, then 36, drew a line in the pine forests and made a stand.
He defeated wave after wave of Mon fighters from the south. His army and territory grew with his successes and by the time he took the pagoda town of Dagon in May 1755 his followers called him Alaungpaya, “the Future Bhudda.”
The history, and to some lingering extent the present of Myanmar, is a story of these warring tribes, ethnicities and ideologies. Dagon, the “Future Buddha’s” conquest, known to British colonials as Rangoon, is now Yangon.
In Bago, teak and jasmine trees dropped ivory blossoms before us. There were tablets of stone they said predated Buddhism. Competing Buddhist evangels shouted into microphones soliciting money for improvements, an arcade of religious carnival barkers that threw a slant on Buddhism I’ve never seen before. One little independent fellow farther down the road just solicited in general, under a sort of Burmese revival tent.
The atmosphere at Bago’s pagoda was musty amusement park, a languorous, sleepy one, with gaily colored pavilions ringing the main pagoda like the different countries’ pavilions around a really tiny Epcot Center. All of them were different.
The Great Golden God pagoda, Shwemawdaw, stood deserted, making today a good day for laymen like us to dust up the bottoms of our feet with a few rounds of circumnavigation. An earthquake in 1917 sent this pagoda’s pinnacle tumbling. Not to be outdone by nature, they built a tiny pagoda right on top of the fallen bit and put up a commemorative placard.
The monastery revealed monks as pack rats – icons of Buddhas and pagodas occupied every inch of space. Seemed to me the impact of any one was diminished among others. The more the merrier, I guess.
The holy word had been inscribed on long stacks of leaves – for centuries, I guess. Monks’ austere sleeping rolls and a wood floor comprised the entirety of their accommodations. Kids chiseled new wood adornments for the grounds. A woman sauntered by offering watermelon – by the slice, pre-sliced – from a tray on her head. And chomping on one herself.
Aye Chan decided, yep, his Dad was gonna kill him. His only hope – stay with a friend and work all night to figure out how to fix the windshield. Said he knew a guy with a glass shop.
Back in Yangon Aye Chan turned down University Avenue. Aung San Suu Kyi lived here. Born in 1945, she was the third child of Aung San and Khin Kyi, a nurse (We’ll talk about Aung San in part two).
At 14, in 1957, Aung San Suu Kyi left Burma with her mother and lived abroad for thirty years. She married a British academic, a Tibet scholar named Michael Aris, and lived in Bhutan and Oxford.
Her National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, the SLORC, admitted the results but wouldn’t hand over power. In the run-up to the election whole Burmese towns were dislocated in an attempt to untrack the NLD steamroller. Still, the NLD won a convincing victory.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy was a coincidence (bringing to mind another unintentional president, Belarus’s Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, currently exiled to Lithuania). Suu Kyi didn’t mean to be in Myanmar for politics, but only to tend to her mother, who was in hospital after a severe stroke at the time of the 8.8.88 student uprising.
When that rebellion was suppressed, Suu Kyi switched roles from nurse to revolutionary. She won but couldn’t hold office, barred by the SLORC. Now she had a choice: return to London, to her husband and sons, in the certainty she could never come back, or personify the resistance, live alone, surrounded by military at #54 University Avenue, across Inya Lake from the military leader. Which is what she did.
The next summer the SLORC confined her to her house. During her six years of house arrest, “Every Saturday afternoon at four she stood up on a little box and spoke from behind the gates of her house, and hundreds of people came to listen….”
Aye Chan pointed out there was no military outside. “Inside the gate,” he said.
Just before sunset I crossed Strand Road to the ferry dock, tried to determine what vessel went where, and finally just picked one and climbed aboard. Darkness crept up.
People stared, benevolently. The “Autobus 1” had three bare bulbs strung overhead and a pile of eight-inch tall wooden seats that you grabbed and sat down low on, which I did. Pretty soon I was surrounded by boys, say seventeen, fifteen and eight years old. We hadn’t a common language. They just wanted to hang out with the foreigner. So we sat and smoked. What the hell.
Maybe 150 of us plowed through the water hyacinths for an eight-minute trip to the village across the way, and maybe 40 people came back. On the far side I saw that my new friend the eight year old was no passenger. He might have been working this thing all day, gathering the stools in a big pile for retrieval by the next batch of passengers.
One of my other new friends hopped off the ferry and strode toward a man with an ice chest by the light of two candles on the dock, who sold him a drink. Directly across the river, line of sight from the heart of Myanmar’s capital city, no electricity. Just candles.
Aye Chan was back the next day and brought his friend Kyaw Win Maung. I rushed outside and around the corner and found that he had done it! Between dusk and this morning Aye Chan had got a brand new Toyota windshield installed. In Myanmar!
He didn’t understand high-fives, but backslapping was good enough.
“How did you do it?”
“My friend has a glass shop,” He said, swelled with pride. “We finished last night nine o’clock.”
This was the greatest news. His dad wouldn’t kill him.
The plan today was to get out on the Irrawaddy, and while Aye Chann headed for the lower Pazundaung jetty, we got to know his friend (call him “Chaw”).
Kyaw finished school in ’77 as a geologist but had always been a tour guide. Clear-eyed and soft-spoken with an open face, Kyaw was easy to like, and it didn’t take much prodding to hear his whole story.
When he started his tour guide job they posted him to Pagan, optimistically eight hours drive to the northwest and full of ancient pagodas.
He met and married a country girl, built a house himself, and settled back, he thought, to live out his life there. The sunsets were beautiful. They had a daughter.
Then a man he’d met in his tour guide job invited him to visit the U.S. After saving enough to care for his family in his absence, off he went. For six months he stayed in the U.S. He saw his first snow in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
One day in 1988 he heard on Christian Science Monitor radio that his entire village had to move. The military government was trying to disrupt the elections the National League for Democracy won.
A week later he got a letter from his wife saying she had a week to tear down the house he’d built and move, along with everybody else in town, ten kilometers away.
He went back to Myanmar, gathered his wife and baby and moved in with his father in Yangon. His brother died at 32 leaving two nieces for Kyaw to care for, along with his wife, daughter and now, his elderly dad too.
His wife was a simple country girl. She had a small business selling candy to kids, cheroots, that kind of thing, when they met in Pagan and he didn’t know how she’d do in the big city. So although he hoped to visit the U.S. again and had a standing invitation, it would be some time before he got his nieces off to college and saved enough (at $15 a day) to provide for his dad, wife and child in his absence.
END PART ONE
My most recent On the Road column, as it appeared at 3 Quarks Daily:
On The Road: Southwest Africa
by Bill Murray
Former Finnish President and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari once gave a talk in our town and we went to see him. The distinguished gentleman who introduced him at Atlanta’s distinguished Piedmont Driving Club listed among Ahtisaari’s achievements “helping to achieve independence for Nambia.”
We visited Nambia a few years back, and found that the locals actually call it “Namibia.” Its European colonizers called it Southwest Africa. Call it what you like, it’s one of the world’s really remarkable places. Unusual things happen in Namibia.
Most places, rivers flow to the sea. The thousand-mile long Okavango River flows into desert, beginning in the highlands of Angola where it’s called the Cubango. The Cubango becomes the Kavango as it marks the Angola/Namibia border. There it hits a fault line and spills into the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where it is finally known as the Okavango.
It’s hard to visualize an inland delta, so consider its scientific definition; geographers call it an alluvial fan, depositing some two million tons of sand and silt every year and draining summer rain from a catchment area something like the size of Nepal or Tunisia.
This labyrinth of channels, islands and plains brings forth papyrus swamps, forests and savannah, providing habitats for elephant, lion, crocodile, hyena, leopard, zebra, cheetah, porcupine, monkey, serval, baboon, wild dog, hippo, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, kudu, warthog, impala, tsessebe and countless more.
On the way from Angola, the Okavango’s variously-named waters cross a cartophile’s delight, a relic of the Europeans’ Scramble for Africa called the Caprivi Strip. A bit of background:
The Scramble was Europe’s late 19th century wholesale rush to colonize the continent. Germany came late to the Scramble and left early when it was stripped of its colonies after World War One. Its important colonies were only four, roughly today’s Togo, Cameroon and Namibia along the west coast and a region in the east centered around today’s Tanzania.
The whole way through, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s gut told him to hang back from Africa. He put it in plaintive realpolitik terms: “Here is Russian and here is France,” he would declare, “with Germany in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”
Torschlusspanik is one of those German compound words, literally gate-shut-panic, its origin perhaps in medieval fear of being shut outside the city gates overnight. In the Scramble, modern day Torschlusspanik caught fire in Berlin.
As other Europeans madly claimed their bits of African coast, German importers were getting blistered by their British and French rivals. Both sides of the dockyards in Hamburg and Bremen, industrialists and labor alike, prevailed on Bismarck to commission the son of a Lutheran pastor, the explorer Gustav Nachtigal, to establish German protectorates along Africa’s west coast, in Cameroon and Togoland.
Further south, largely off European radar, Berlin granted a Bremen tobacco entrepreneur named Lüderitz protection for an exploratory base along a forbidding stretch of shoreline called the Skeleton Coast. The Skeleton Coast ran the length of today’s Namibia, between the British Cape Colony and Angola.
(Historically, the Portuguese outpaced all Europeans on a wild sprint down the coast a full 400 years before the Germans; mission after Portuguese sailing mission planted plinths, paeans to their king. But this was more exploration than conquest, more of a mad search for a way around the Cape and, for Portuguese purposes, around the trading houses in Venice and Cairo.
A notion had taken root, perhaps nothing more than a folk tale, but it pressed itself into the imagination of generations, and not just in Portugal; there was a river route across the continent, or at least to the Nile. Portuguese King João sailed caravels five hundred miles up the Senegal River; they were halted by rapids. His ships were blocked at the Barrakunda Falls on the River Gambia. These were persistent, painstaking, costly, sustained efforts in search of the presbyter Prester John, whose Christian kingdom was believed, for hundreds of years, to flourish among the Muslims and pagans, just over the horizon.)
But back to the late 19th century. In the early days of the Scramble, claiming territory for Europeans mostly meant collecting treaties with often illiterate local leaders along the coast. Dr. Nachtigal claimed Togoland and Cameroon this way in July 1884, and the German gunboat Wolf claimed Southwest Africa the next month. Down there, they put out wooden noticeboards proclaiming protection of the Reich that presumably no one could read.
Half a continent away in East Africa, meanwhile, another German clergyman’s son named Carl Peters sought to confound British interests. The recently-deposed King Mwanga of Buganda was shopping for allies to help him reclaim his throne and offering treaties first come, first served. Peters did a deal even before he could get his government’s sanction, meaning to insert a Prussian wedge between British East Africa and their territory of Sudan to the north.
For most of the nineteenth century Britain held an island called Heligoland just 25 miles off the German coast that Bismarck coveted for a naval base. And Britain needed the German bits of east Africa that Carl Peters had cobbled together. Here were the seeds of a deal.
Germany got Heligoland by trading Zanzibar (the “Zan” in Tanzania) and renouncing sufficient East African claims for the Brits to build a railway from coastal Mombasa to Lake Victoria, and with that came a general demarcation of borders between Germany and Britain. Borders were settled in the west between Togo and the British Gold Coast, between German Cameroon and British Nigeria, and German areas of interest were recognized in Southwest Africa. And one more thing: Germany pocketed that curious bit of land called the Caprivi Strip.
Perhaps Caprivi felt he was pulling a fast one when he asked the Brits to toss in a tiny little sweetener, an odd, narrow bit of Bechuanaland running 280 miles inland. Most places the strip was hardly twenty miles across, never more than 65, but on Caprivi’s maps in Berlin the region’s waterways all converged there into the Zambezi River, which the Germans saw as a trade route through neighboring (and ill-defined) Zambia, and on across the continent.
As it dreamed of a river route connecting its sand-fly-ridden western territory with its East African holdings, Berlin overlooked just the slightest detail: Mosi-O-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders,” Victoria Falls. It must have warmed generations of colonial Brits’ hearts, knowing the Caprivi Strip was no sweetener at all.
The Strip, bordered by four countries, turned out to be useless for shipping and not even particularly mineral rich. Bismarck, a Caprivi critic, decided Germany had traded its “trousers for a button.” In 2013 Namibia renamed the Caprivi Strip the Zambezi Region, one of fourteen Namibian regions.
The coastal desert, the Namib, is nicknamed the Skeleton Coast after whale bones and shipwrecks. Inland lies the great Kalahari Desert and between them lie the lands of two indigenous groups, the Herero and the Nama, where there is a little more rainfall, enough to graze cattle. Here between the deserts the Germans settled their capital, Windhoek, and here they met the indigenous population.
Aggressive German pursuit of lebensraum caused predictable tension leading to a general uprising in 1904. Turns out that, reluctant about the colonizing game as Berlin seemed to be, while they were there they meant to give it a good run.
So the German General Lothar von Trotha, fresh from suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, hit local ground running, declaring that indigenous people “must vanish from the face of the earth.” He issued a vernichtungsbefehl (an extermination order). Von Trotha was running a little hot.
He built a perimeter and starved people in the desert, reducing the Herero from some 80,000 to about 15,000 and halving the Nama population to 10,000. “The natives must give way,” von Trotha declared.
The official military history of the affair declared the local people “victim to the nature of their own country,” but the Socialist opposition decried the ‘Hunnish’ character of German imperialism. The Nazis named a street in Munich after von Trotha, and in 2006 the city council changed its name to Herero Straße.
Caprivi’s folly and von Trotha’s brutality stand out as Germany’s most vivid African legacies. Berlin left scant enduring influence in East Africa, but German architecture survives today in the Namibian capital Windhoek, the coastal towns of Lüderitz and Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, and enough German is spoken in Windhoek to support a German-language daily newspaper, the Allgemeine Zeitung Namibia.
Late in the afternoon a pilot named Lindy, a very, very young woman with blond hair and blazing blue eyes, took three of us up in a Cessna for a trip out over the dunes. She explained that at the coast (55 kilometers away), sometimes they run safaris on the beach, so if we saw any cars we had to let her know immediately!
That was curious. Why?
They could spoil our fun, she grinned. We were required to fly at 3000 feet, but out there she said she would drop us to 500. Where in the world can you flaunt rules like this if not on the desolate coast of bloody Namibia, she wondered. And so we did. I expect everybody does.
They’ve numbered the dunes by kilometers of distance past the town of Sesriem, and Lindy did a pinwheel around Dune 45, somehow an icon. Our Land Rover had stopped for us to see it, too, that morning, and indeed, folks had been already there and climbing it. Now, just before sundown Dune 45, and all of the dunes, stood deserted. Everyone had to be out of the park at night.
We did another long turn around “Big Daddy,” which local pride boasts as the world’s tallest sand dune (dunes in Iran and Algeria are apparently taller), and in the same sweep took in the striking Deadvlei, a former oasis whose water source changed course, starving its camelthorn trees.
The road ends at Deadvlei and beyond nothing but dunes stretch north to south, horizon to horizon. A curious landscape took hold, orange sand exposed inside low green vegetation in what they called fairy circles. They reckon trees died and somehow poisoned the soil. Nothing grows in the circles, defying intuition about the regenerative power of nature. Somehow in my imagination these were akin to those counterintuitive hexagonal basalt “biscuits” in Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway.
The coast gained focus, and we cruised over a fallen-in diamond mine and the fallen-in settlement around it. The entire idea of it, a man-made place, was jarring, its perpendiculars entirely out of sorts with the natural swirls of the desert that resembled nothing more than crumpled bed sheets.
We came down low along the water’s edge over seal colonies, dozens of them that stretched for miles, and over a shipwreck. This was the Eduard Bohlen, now rusted to its remaining rafters, a cargo ship launched from Hamburg some hundred and thirty years ago.
Hamburg’s Woermann Line operated the Bohlen as a mail ship between Germany and West Africa for four years. Then the Bohlen transported Herero prisoners, sold to the Brits in Cape Town as cheap labor. Then it ran aground in fog while supplying equipment to diamond miners.
Though some hundred meters out to sea, the crew could walk to shore at low tide. The ship even remained accessible enough that after a failed attempt to tow it off the sand bar, miners used it as a hotel. The manager claimed the captain’s cabin.
In a hundred twenty years the Bohlen has sailed 400 meters inland. The expansion of the Namib Desert is one more Namibian geographic oddity. The desert is reclaiming the sea.
My monthly travel column, about southwest Africa is live now at 3QuarksDaily. Read it at 3QD now, and I’ll put it up here on CSW in a few days. It’s a consideration of dodgy and disastrous colonialism in Southwest Africa, with a little flying adventure on the side.
I never posted last month’s 3QD column here at CSW. Here it is:
On The Road: Sri Lanka Part Two by Bill Murray
Politics as the family business works out better for some than for others. Last year Turkish President Erdogan had to fire his son-in-law Finance Minister. And the Trumps, well … you know. But things are working out pretty well for the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka.
The President is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, nickname “the terminator.” The Prime Minister is Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother. Basil Rajapaksa, “Mr. Ten Percent,” their younger brother, is a former MP. Their other brother Chamal, a former speaker of Parliament, is a cabinet minister, and Namal Rajapaksa, Mahindra’s son, is an MP and Minister of Sports, representing the next Rajapaksa generation.
When we left our story (Read part 1 here) it was six o’clock in the morning, election day 1999 in Nuwara Eliya, a highland tea-picking town south of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Two loudspeakers played the call to prayer, mounted atop a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, birds and dew run riot.
At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a regional bus station. People queued for rides and a few stores pushed open their doors. At a milk bar (that’s a name for convenience stores, here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day. Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”
People walked, made a day of walking, walking into town, walking to polling stations. They got time off from work to vote. Tyrone said all the drivers expected a curfew (they all stayed at a compound next to the hotel, like on African package safaris). When the announcement came, they’d go together to the police station in Nuwara Eliya town center and get travel permits for carrying foreigners.
When the sun beat down and the hills gleamed and blinded you clear out to the horizon, there was a cure for that. The St. Andrews Inn offered all the to-the-bone dankness of late winter on the River Tay. Just what you wanted in a tourist hotel.
Its snooker tables, they said, were a century old. The St Andrews Inn grew its own carrots, beets, beans, broccoli, cabbage, horse mint, peppermint, coriander and parsley. They were proud of their garden, where guests could pick their own salad. Except there was no sign of guests.
While we were inside clouds closed above a full blanket of mist that hung down and draped across Nuwara Eliya. Before you knew it the dripping sweat of Columbo, only 120 miles back up the road, was a distant memory.
We bought a mango and tiny peanuts. My wife Mirja liked them better than the big ones back home, the way Roma tomatoes are tastier than fat round factory-grown ones. The guy fashioned a bag from a folded sheet of newspaper and scooped it full for thirty rupees. Which is, roughly, free.
A beaming boy (photo up top), sleeves rolled onto his forearms, stood before a videotape and chocolate store chopping garlic and spring onions on an ancient stovetop. It smelled delicious.
This was a real vacation day, way out on a trip, not coming or going, no travel, no agenda, no problem. Chased inside by the dampness, we banged on the heater in our room in mid-afternoon until it showed life and I turned on the shortwave, as just now was NATO’s thirteenth night of bombing Serbia. In 1999, the internet hadn’t quite yet supplanted the shortwave, at least in Sri Lanka.
Chair won. The ruling alliance represented by a chair gained ground, losing seats only in Colombo and the suburbs. Tyrone told us the results but I already knew because a little animated chair did a little jig on morning TV. Later, the BBC World Service called it a muddle, no clear victor, no mandate for either side.
The vote: People’s Alliance 2,105,546, United National Party 1,979,546, making up 70 per cent of registered voters. “No deaths have been reported…. The majority of the complaints were of a minor nature, bordering on threats, abuse and cases of simple hurt….” as the paper put it.
There was some violence in Matale, north of Kandy, but the curfew the drivers had expected would last only from eleven at night to five a.m. Still, at a police checkpoint at the edge of Nuwara Eliya town, the cop wanted us to go way around the other way. Tyrone lied that he didn’t know that way.
Tyrone didn’t do bags. He’d call a bell boy. He’d let Mirja and me haul them. Whatever, he wouldn’t touch ‘em. He’d spend fifteen minutes guarding them in the lobby instead of loading them up.
But what a gorgeous day! Tyrone in his British driving cap, the air crisp and fresh, we set off at 7:30 sharp, down from the highlands, and drove five and a half hours to cover 160 kilometers. Five and a half hours, a hundred miles.
Mist filtered the sunlight way up in the hills around Lake Gregory as we drove alongside orchids grown for export, alongside the old British horse racing track on the east side of town, and then down toward Bandarawela.
Mirja had a cold, started a week before. What better way to chase it than an herbal massage at the reknowned Suwa Madhu Indigenous, Eight-fold Ayurvedic Treatment and Manufacturers of Herbal Medicine and Beauty Cream Institute of Sri Lanka, just on the far side of Bandarawela town?
While the institute did its magic I wandered down the street to a communal spring and watched babies washed by laughing kids, scarcely older, everybody splashing and playing in the pool. The oldest girl invited me home for tea. They placed a tiny cup in my lap and the whole family of eight watched me drink from it. I showed them postcards of home and they showed me their pride and joy, the oldest boy, away at the police academy, as photographed in his class picture.
Green double doors with a tassel of string instead of a door knob led to an anteroom that may have begun as the color of peach. The plaster had long ago cracked and smudged. Three framed photos, all askance, decorated the otherwise bare walls. Mama, in sandals and a print skirt, graying at the temples, sat in a high, straight-backed chair, her hands clasped in her lap, smiling, surrounded by her brood.
Meanwhile the Suwa Madhu Institute seemed to do the trick. Mirja came out hair up, oily and grinning.
Now rolling across the flats bound for the coast, lushness from every vantage point, endless gardens of paradise. Buildings, painted over with ads, hawked Sunlight, Astra, Vim, Signal, Rinso and Lifebuoy household products, and “Curd & Hunny.”
In monastery towns monks climbed on and off the buses. There were branches of Peoples Bank – “The Bank with a Heart” – and here was Triple Star Services – “A New Meaning to Cleaning.” Once we found ourselves trapped for a while by the Chirpy Chip truck – “From the House of Uswatte.”
We passed a truck labeled on each side, simply, “Retort.”
Bikes hauling bananas plied the roadway, now alongside cactus and sawgrass. Marsh and wetland, salt pans, lagoons and windmills covered the Sri Lankan south.
We just beat a tour bus into the otherwise empty Oasis Hotel at a place called Hambantota. Walking into the lobby, Tyrone gleamed, “How do you like it?” We turned to look around and he said, “My father was project manager for this entire complex. But he died before grand opening.” We told him we liked it real well.
They played bad disco at lunch, and the waiters tried proper, formal serving techniques, barefoot. They smiled sweet as the day is long pouring Carlsbergs that foamed up, over and out of the glass.
Two fellows named Nandiga and Chaminda showed up in what once may have passed for a jeep. Here was our afternoon safari team, and away we went to look for elephants.
Nandiga wore a funny shirt with stripes and curlycues, and smoked cigarettes like French people do in movies, forefinger and thumb, as he hurtled us, one hand on the wheel, back down roads we’d crossed more carefully earlier in the day. At the park entrance, Chaminda moved from the front seat to stand upon the back benches, and took the canvas top off.
We bumped along near the shore, sometimes coming right alongside it, and saw more elephants than you’d think, six or seven, but they all looked cornered by the inevitable convergence of rapacious jeeps like ours. We came upon a pair and gave them distance as they watered themselves, nuzzled and played, but it still felt as though we were imposing.
Paul Bowles wrote about the same thing in the 1950s: “You feel as though you were in a tremendous zoo whose inmates had been placed there for your amusement. Perhaps it is because a few miles outside the sanctuary you see what look like the same buffaloes working placidly in the paddy-fields, and very similar elephants moving slowly along the roads, tinkling their bells….”
Elephants, iguanas, monkeys, but this safari was mainly about birds – over 20,000 in the park at any given time, Chaminda said. Migratory wild ducks from Siberia, sandpipers, jungle fowl, peacocks, peahens, gulls, plovers, terns, a few green parrots, egrets, pelicans, herons and storks. And one crocodile (Chaminda knew where to look).
Nandiga too. At 22, he’d already been working here nine years, a helper before he got his drivers license, then as a safari master. He drove like 20 year olds do the world over, but we made it home. The Yala Preserve wasn’t Africa but it was fun, and this safari only cost $26.50.
A hint of the absurd hung over all our Sri Lankan affairs. Barefoot servers decanted Carlsbergs like fine wine, holding the bottles at the bottom, towels draped across their forearms.
“When does the monsoon come?” I asked Tyrone. “End of April, sir.”
“Is it ever late?”
“It is always late, sir.”
Paul Bowles told a story: he was “stripped naked by customs inspectors while their assistants fingered the seams of my garments. In the first instance they told me I was suspected of being an international spy. ‘But spying for whom?’ I insisted. ‘Spying for international.’”
A sunny dawn, but by mid-morning a silver cast covered the sky and storm clouds scudded up in the west. Surf crashed against the shore so determinedly that it chased off the stilt fishermen at Talpe, whose stilts swayed bare in the waves.
Stilt fishing looks like something the ancients have been doing since the days of mastodons, but it turns out to be less than a hundred years old. It’s a simple idea. Two or three fishermen drive a pole into the reef. They keep the distance between stilts enough that the lines of adjacent fishermen don’t get entangled and that’s it; hold the stilt with one hand, sit on a cross bar called a “petta,” go fish.
Matara, twenty miles shy of Galle, bottom left of the island, two miles past the lighthouse at Dondra Head. An imposing market of more or less identical stalls. Spices, powders, potions in jars, root vegetables in piles, bags of rice on hooks (some looking potentially fatal if they fell). One shirtless stallholder showed artistic flair, making a lattice display of galangal. Others built pyramid cities of onions, ginger hills and cane sugar towers.
The railway station bled into a massive tuk tuk lot and bus terminal, where people jumped on and off buses that merely slowed down. I saw this about thirty years ago in Mubarak’s Egypt when Tahrir Square was still a bus station. Local buses would slow but never stop.
Matara was busy but it didn’t share in Cairo’s seethe. In spite of one or two modern glass buildings, livestock retained some pride of place. At the southern tip of Sri Lanka bullock carts ruled.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to intrude on Ceylon and stay. Buoyed by their brutal pillage of India’s west coast at the beginning of the 16th century (brutal as in: after the battle of Diu in 1509, the Portuguese collected heads and hands of their victims and sailed south, catapulting body parts into waterfront villages as calling cards), the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of India, and built a fort at Galle.
The Europeans terrorized the coast but never captured the inland Kingdom of Kandy. In time, the Sinhalese King invited the Dutch to help fight the Portuguese. The Portuguese finally left Ceylon to the Dutch, who finished and fortified the Portuguese built fort. Inside the ramparts of the old fort even now, a few streets still hung on to their Dutch names.
Every little village along the coast was like the last, hardscrabble, vendors selling only the things you need to live. No luxury. People, bicycles, buses, tuk-tuks, bullock carts and us – all sharing the lane and a half of blacktop.
Famous mask factories made special masks for exorcisms at the town of Ambalangoda. An engaging merchant there explained ancient legends and fairy tales, and displayed masks of each of the eighteen Sanni Demons.
“These demons are very powerful and dangerous. They can make people sick by looking at them.”
There they all were, one by one, causing “diseases of the bile, stomach pain, measles, mumps, diarrhea, poison like cobra poison in the body, and blister.”
Up the road Spice Garden Number 100 (“private but approved by the tourist board”) complimented the work of the mask makers in fending off maladies. It provided a complete regime of 22 remedies, with documentation, including for example #3 cinnamon oil against tooth pain: “Put a drop into the cavity of the tooth, when saliva acumulates spite it out again put one drop into the cavity repeat four times.” Or #13 kamayogi bon-bon: “Indicated in pre-ejaculation, the 1/2 teaspoon ful paste of kamayogi bon-bon eat before sexual affinity to control the pre-ejaculation and other debilities. Better before twenty minutes the sex and have some milk more.”
A train blocked the road in Bentota town. There a man’s all-day job was to stand alongside the track and open and close the gates for the five trains a day.
An elephant walking to work at a wedding ceremony blocked our way for a time, but by mid-afternoon we inhabited a bungalow at Kasgoda beach. The surf crashed hard forty meters away. I rented a fridge for $3 a day and cooled an armful of Heinekens.
A day at the beach. Chipmunks, cows and coconut palms shared the shore. Southbound geese (next landfall due south, Antarctica, 5000 miles). I’d gotten into a little Glenfiddich the night before and woke slow, had a curative Thai chilli-laced omelet and retired to the porch to read The Teaching of Buddha, supplied in the room along with the New Testament in French, English and German.
The sea sounded a dull roar and palm fronds caused a wind-whipped tempest. Still, blue sky peeked through here and there offshore. Now and then manic low clouds came through, raking the manicured lawn with water-fire. We put on a Sri Lanka music channel and Mirja did a long walk, on which she found a turtle hatchery down the beach.
A chipmunk climbed down the palm tree beside the porch and stared at me from three feet away. The wind blew things around inside our room. I felt sympathy for those who had come all this way for a beach vacation in the sun, but I loved it. The earth was vividly, furiously alive. Wind, thunder, fury.