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 Post subject: Midnight in Serendip
 Post Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2005 12:43 am 
Midnight in Serendip
'Dear me, it is beautiful.' It sure is.

By John Borthwick

Midnight in Serendib. The moon hangs above the sea like an apostrophe. From the balcony of the hotel, a watcher - last drink at hand - feels the thud of waves against the granite rocks below. Somewhere in the distance the Colombo train clatters north through the night.

Midnight in Serendib. The moon hangs above the sea like an apostrophe. From the balcony of the hotel, a watcher - last drink at hand - feels the thud of waves against the granite rocks below. Somewhere in the distance the Colombo train clatters north through the night.

Serendib. Taprobane. Ceylon. Call the past what you will, come morning you're definitely in Sri Lanka: the day unfolds in saris and trishaws. 'But no one goes to Sri Lanka,' I was told. 'It's too dangerous … isn't it?' Contrary to our self-image as intrepid travellers, Australians have become Nervous Nellies, cancelling trips to even our most familiar destinations at the first hint of civil unrest. Instead we happily divert to supposed 'safe' spots, there to be uncivilly mugged or traffic-maimed. For years we have skipped Sri Lanka, which seemed to me ample reason to 'risk' it.

If there's a problem in visiting, it is how to fit Sri Lanka's several thousand years of culture, its temples and spice gardens, beaches and mountains into one trip. My friend George and I had been told that the best way to explore the island was to skip the hubris of self-driving and to hire a car with a driver. Donovan, our driver-guide, turned out to be a boon companion. We made our first stop 90 km inland from Colombo at the Pinewalla Elephant Orphanage where the spectacle of 70 elephants taking a huge, sloshing, wallowing bath in the river resembles a free-range circus.

'Would you like to see the bridge on the River Kwai?' asked Donovan as we neared the inland village of Kitulgala. 'Seen it, thanks - good movie,' I replied. 'Not the film. The spot where the bridge stood - the movie was made here, not in Thailand,' he explained. 'Let's do it,' said George. We were soon talking with local man Samuel Perera who still remembers the day that Alec Guinness and David Lean came out of the skies in a helicopter and made him a star, 'I was eight years old - it was 1956 - and our country was still called Ceylon.' Young Samuel was given a bit part, while the nearby Kelani River grabbed a major one as the stand-in for Thailand's River Kwai. The bridge was destroyed in the film's climax, but Samuel, now 54, shows us the metal anchor points that still remain on the bank, as well as pictures of himself with stars William Holden and Jack Hawkins.

'Ceylon is an experience - but heavens, not a permanence,' wrote D. H. Lawrence. Like Lawrence the British colonial apparatus eventually moved on, but our next stop, the old hill station of Nuwara Eliya (the syllables, are pronounced slurred together: 'Nureliya'), is still dotted with rambling pseudo-Tudor hotels like the Grand, throwbacks to the Raj era now upgraded to contemporary standards. (The dessert buffets, still sagging with colonial inflictions like flummery and green jelly, remain in need of similar renovation.) No sweet tooth jokes at Kandy, three hours drive north of Nuwara Eliya, which is home to one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism: the Temple of the Tooth - said to contain a tooth of Gautama Buddha. Security at the temple complex has been tight since a Tamil Tiger bomb attack some years ago; this is one of the few indications of Sri Lanka's civil war. Regardless, there's no holy molar to be seen. The venerable fang remains well hidden except for a spectacular annual outing, the Esala Perahera parade during the full moon of July­August.

The highland ridges and valleys are quilted with tea plantations. A few hours drive further on at Sigiriya we clamber up the Lion Rock fortress, probably Sri Lanka's main tourist attraction. A 5th Century AD dynastic drama was played out here, centred on a usurper of the throne named Kasyapa - the tale of regicide and revenge is equal to anything in Shakespeare. We work our way up a cat's-cradle of iron ladders and walkways that clings to the face of the 200-metre-high granite massif in order to take in two enduring views. One is the jungle vista that stretches to the horizon. The other is this World Heritage site's famous 'pin-up gallery' - frescoes of voluptuous contenders for the title of Miss Sigiriya 500 AD. Curious décor for what had once been a Buddhist monastery.

Parasols, egrets and palm trees. Tuk-tuks, sweat and incense. As we head down the coast from Colombo on the southern leg of our journey it strikes me that Sri Lanka is like a Tidy Town version of India with ZPG. There's still room on rural roads for the occasional lumbering elephant, not to mention for lovingly maintained old Morris Minors. The Indian Ocean massages the granite headlands and empty beaches of this southwest coastline. Travelling surfers long ago discovered these breaks, and around towns like Hikkaduwa there's plenty of backpacker accommodation.

'Wash the dirt off a ploughman and you have a king,' it used to be said of a certain region in Sri Lanka. The comment still rings true despite the country's apparently intractable civil war. (The madness of the separatist conflict strikes me as comparable to the one in the north of another island, in Ulster: at its core a handful of hard cases wedded to the profession of terror and unwilling to demote themselves to a day job.) Unperturbed by events on the far northern Jaffna Peninsula, European holiday makers have never abandoned Sri Lanka; as a result its southwest coast has numerous sophisticated resorts, especially around Bentota.

One morning I looked out to see a traditional wooden fishing boat landing on a beach here. What started as a quick excursion to photograph the event resulted instead in me spending an hour with a team of 20 fishermen helping to pull in their wide horseshoe-shaped net. It was a long, hard haul and the resultant catch - mere kilos - seemed dishearteningly small, but it's the sort of interaction that Sri Lanka permits so comfortably; one minute you're rubbing shoulders with fishermen or sari-bedecked women in a spice market, the next you're among saffron robed monks or stylish city types in Colombo. It is the people who are the real attraction here: good-humoured and unintrusive, their nature seems much at odds with the ongoing civil conflict.

Continuing south we find the brave little Kosgoda turtle sanctuary that has bred and released some two million hatchlings during the past 22 years. We peer into tubs of wriggling baby turtles - hawksbill, green, loggerhead - each about the size of a 50 cent piece, who await release at night. Only fifteen percent will survive, but some of them could live a century or more.

Near the southern tip of the island is World Heritage-listed Galle, Sri Lanka's fourth largest city with a population of 80,000 people. In the 16th century the Portuguese established an outpost here, later being displaced by the Dutch and finally the British; the accretions of their collective efforts are a rambling walled seafront fortress town. A great place to get lost in and to find alleys, cannon, fortune tellers, mosques, churches, archways to nowhere, elegant old hotels, crumbling towers and a world-famous cricket ground. On a whim I engage or evade strolling vendors of everything; in gem shops that glitter like an Aladdin's Cave with trays of rubies, garnets, amethysts and sapphires I am revealed as a total tyre-kicker in the consumption race and I come away empty-handed.

'Le Corbusier gone castaway' might be the aesthetic of The Lighthouse, the hotel we're staying in, which was designed by celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Dominating a headland just north of Galle, the Lighthouse has almost guaranteed sunset lightshows. Guest room decor is minimalist - the scene at one's window is embellishment enough - as is the regrettably dim room lighting: the esteemed architect obviously never tried to read a book here. Sitting on my balcony, watching the ocean unload its freight of waves below the sun's last flare, I recall Mark Twain's comment when his ship reached Ceylon in the 1890s: 'Dear me, it is beautiful.' It sure is.

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