Elephants and egrets in the land of serendipity

Unexpected wonders abound in the spiritual home of Serendip. It might be a herd of elephants heading for its morning dip. Or the lovingly maintained Morris Minors, Hillman Minxes and Ford Anglias. Perhaps it is a passing cyclist turning his head the full 90 degrees to deliver a formal Hello. Or the ast polite inquiries about your family as you leave.

One day I took the ultimate wake up call - at 3.30 am - so I could make the three hours trip to Uda Walawe nature reserve before the sun was high.
On the journey I let the visual version of serendipity take over: Serendip is an ancient name for Sri Lanka and this is its spiritual home. I remember the dozens of candles shimmered in the dense dark outside a Buddhist temple. And the schoolgirl in her white uniform striding through the dawn mists along a levee between paddy fields, while an equally white egret stepped daintily through the water.
We drove around the nature reserve on an open back Land Cruiser, ticking off lesser wildlife. A serpent eagle with piercing yellow eyes; pelicans soaring in the hot sky; a chattering party of grey langurs; a group of wild boar, their curly tails like question marks.
Then the elephants, and truly wild this time. They were deep in the undergrowth, a dozen or more, but the driver knew they were coming our way. We watched for ten minutes as they made their sedate progress across our track, led by the matriarch. It was a privilege to be held up.
One turned back to push over an entire teak tree, as wilfully as a youth knocking down a litter bin in a town centre. Then the bonus. The very last female hurried across, trying to shelter a three week old baby.
Elephants are a living vestige of ancient Sri lanka. But the signs of a more recent British rule are much more commonplace. Independent since 1948, the country still displays street names such as York Road and Bristol Street; I saw red ‘GR’ post boxes, and many lovingly maintained Morris Minors, Hillman Minxes and Ford Anglias, holding their own along bland Japanese imports. And although I don’t smoke, how nice to see again the bearded sailor with the lifebelt in that Players cigarette advert.
And everywhere the impromptu cricket games on bare mud patches, in gardens, on roads; mostly it was a piece of stick for a bat, and a plastic drum for a wicket.
Sri Lankans are warm and friendly people, and compulsive talkers to tourists. Even a passing cyclist will turn his head the full 90 degrees to deliver a formal ‘Hello.’
Conversation Mark 1 go something like this. ‘First time in Sri Lanka?!’ How long you staying? You married? Wife not coming? How many children? How many years?
‘My name is so and so. What yours’?’
Conversation Mark 2 is a disguised sales pitch, but the most amiable I have heard. ‘You a very lucky man to come here.’ (I was walking along the ramparts of the 17th Century Dutch fort at Galle at the time, as the swallows zipped past). I agreed that I was. Then: ‘First time in Sri Lanka?!’ etc.
Before I knew it the man has slipped in six useful facts among the pleasantries. Such as: ‘See? - oldest lighthouse in Sri Lanka.’ A conversation had become a tour. You either back out at this stage, difficult but possible, or take your new persuasive friend on as your guide - the fee is negotiable.
With the civil war still live, most visitors stayed in hotels on the west coast. Taking the organised trips of one, two or three days they could still cover most of the rest of the country (the north was out of bounds) - as far as Trincomalee on the east, the mountainous centre, and down to Galle and Matara on the southern tip.
I took the tour into the high heart of the country. This is where you go for the nearest thing to cool in Sri Lanka - although, as an island, it is spared the raging pre-monsoon heat of India.
Kandy was the last stand of the last king of Ceylon, captured here by the British in 1815. It still feels like a charming, antique outpost of Empire, dominated with a massive lake two miles around, and dotted with guesthouses that recall Tunbridge Wells. Among the imperial throwbacks are a clock at the bus station that chimes like Big Ben.
I stayed at the Queen’s Hotel, all echoing wooden corridors and wide polished staircases. Our own queen once stayed here (although it dates from 1840, and is named after Victoria). It must be one of the island’s most genteel refuges.
In the Botanic Gardens I found the tree Queen Elizabeth planted, close to others pressed in by the boots of her great grandfather, by the last Czar of Russia, Yuri Gagarin and the glitterati of many lands.
Never turn up your nose at anything called ‘cultural evening’ in Sri Lanka. Some dreary-sounding event turned out to be ‘traditional dance meets high speed gymnastics.’ The backward somersaults unrolled across the stage, to a cacophony of clinking breastplates, in a blur of many coloured costumes. For finale two men casually walked on a bed of hot coals.
Next morning at 7.30 it was our turn to go barefoot, beating the crowds into the quiet serenity of the Temple of the Tooth, the sanctuary where Buddha’s tooth is contained within the innermost of seven caskets. ‘Come back and see it next year,’ urged our guide. ‘It’s going on display. You queue for two miles around the lake.’
We drove north to Sigiriya, a quarter-size Ayres Rock topped with the 1500 year old fortress of Kasyapa, who killed his father, and surrounded himself with a crocodile-filled moat to keep out his vengeful brother.
I passed up the chance to climb for an hour to the top and see the 1500 year old frescoes and the spicy 1000 year old graffiti. Instead I sauntered through the jungle around the massive defensive stones at the base.
In minutes the simmering greenery had closed above me. Huge golden-green butterflies fluttered past; a strange symphony of birds burbled out of the trees - Sri Lanka has many unique and wonderful species. In a gap in the canopy I looked up to the top of the rock and caught a flash of orange: a buddhist monk, in his vivid garb, had completed the climb. Pure Sri Lankan serendipity.
Travel here is memorable. But do not even consider hiring a car. The only thing you would recognise is driving on the left. Roads are an all day adrenaline rush-hour . Every road has great numbers of the following.
Wobbling push bikes with impossible loads. The ubiquitous tuk tuks - little three wheeler taxis oblivious to any rule of the road. The massive Ashok Leyland Tusker Super (made in India) lorries, all burnished painted wood, idealised lndscapes, and this doubtful assurance: ‘Fully Insured’. And filled-to-bursting, smoke-belching buses.
All drivers’ one wish is to overtake. I have a nightmare memory of four consecutive vehicles coming towards my taxi down the Galle Road, all poised to overtake, each a bit further out than the one in front of it.
At their worst roads resemble the Ride of the Valkeries on water skis. A tropical storm struck at dusk one day as we returned from a trip. The throng pressed on regardless through the standing water: weaving vehicles; bikes without lights; people in bare feet, their huge grins illuminated by lightening flashes; and everywhere wandering cows, suicidal goats and those nonchalant dogs that trot alongside every road here.
Amazingly this pandemonium seemed to work. Sri Lankans are too good natured for road rage. The chaotic roads are reasonably safe because most drivers do this for a living, and there are still few private cars.
Other days I took the train. As in India, this is an Awfully Big Adventure. I walked to No 1 Halt, just along from my hotel. The place slumbered under the profound calm of the pre-Dr Beeching country station.
I peered through a narrow arched aperture into the ticket office where the little pre-printed cardboard tickets were neatly stacked. The clerk consulted his tomes for ages, solemnly outlined my itinerary then politely asked which class I wanted to travel. It mattered, because my hour and a half journey cost 43p second class, but just 30p third class.
I stood on the platform watching multicoloured birds flick through the trees opposite, in the company of two goats, four bails of sisal and several random men who seemed to be there just for the conversation. One thoughtfully warned me to stand out of the sun.
The train came wobbling in - we had heard it blaring its klaxon at every little crossing from miles away. Every door stood wide open. I suppose they only shut for the monsoon.
We lurched off down the coast in Sri Lanka’s version of the Riviera Express. Revolving fans whirled in the ceiling. Men hurried through selling cold drinks and interesting hot food on trays. We stopped at stations that would do nicely for a remake of Brief Encounter, down to the famous old clock; white uniformed stationmasters whistled us away.
On our right breakers tumbled in from the vast Pacific onto pure sandy strands. On our left a succession of little tableaux - four boys on a lake in a canoe, two with oars, one furiously paddling at the front. A young girl up to her knees in a swamp picking blue water lillies, the national flower. There were pigs feeding between the tracks, and men arranging barrels of arrack, the fierce coconut alcohol, on rickety stands. And the ubiquitous cricket games - in back yards, on roads, alongside the track.
We arrived at Galle, the terminus. ‘Welcome to our clean and beautiful railway station’ read a notice. In a poor country, its fabric fraying so obviously, this was a touching boast. Sri Lankans like to give a good impression.
In the hotels charm school tops up the normal friendliness. One evening in my hotel a course was late. The waiter apologised. ‘Oh, that’s OK,’ I said, as you do. ‘No sir, it’s not OK at all. We like to give best service.’
My favourite example of the Sri Lankas’ need to know how well they did came in the tiny morning hours on the day of my elephant trip. It was 4 am and I was the only person in the hotel dining room, blearily eating pineapple slices and the most delicious fresh rolls, still hot from the oven. A man emerged from the hotel kitchen. ‘Did you like the bread? I made it. I’ve been baking all night.’
They were friendly to the end. The very last thing I heard, just as the aircraft door was being slammed shut on Colombo Airport, was the man who operates the steps chatting to (up?) the hostess. ‘First time in Sri Lanka?! You have husband? Children?’

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