The purest serendipity is generally what makes a trip, but occasionally the combination of this with being in the right place at the right time and some careful planning makes for an unforgettable experience. The Kandy Perahera was this for me.
While in Ghana in1997, I had an email from the UK asking me if I wanted to go to Kandy in Sri Lanka. I had driven up the dual carriageway from the university to the centre of the Kumasi for my weekly dose of sanity in Nina Chachu’s British Council Office and was amazed to see this email. All my travels so far had been to the Americas or Africa, and the thought of going the other way attracted my interest. When I got back I had my parents 40th wedding anniversary celebrations in Gloucestershire to attend (on the hottest weekend of the year in the UK) and the following Wednesday headed out to Colombo on Air Lanka (as they were then). A foreshortened night brought me in on the west coast and the hazy sunshine was only just rising. A kindly gentleman by the name of Saman was waiting in the entrance hall and he guided me through the throng of people outside the gates and to the ubiquitous white Land Rover. I sat inside while he waited for his second charge, a large Man called Jock Stirling, who had been a regular visitor to Sri Lanka.
My brief preparation for the trip was to look at a few maps of Sri Lanka and I saw that Kandy, the old capital of Sri Lanka was more or less in the centre of the large bulbous end of the island. Often described as a teardrop, the island has a round bottom and a tapered top, with a few peninsulas coming off at various angles that spoilt its smooth outline. The most infamous of these peninsulas was Jaffna at the very top, at that time a government outpost beyond rebel held land. Apart from finding out where Kandy was, I tried to understand a little of the politics, but what I read was rather scary – I remembered a recent bomb in the centre of Colombo and of the ongoing war with the Tamil Tigers in the north and east of the country, but when you looked at a map, it was difficult to get an idea of where exactly the two parts of the country were – the portions were seamless – roads connected everywhere, the names of towns gave no trace of different backgrounds. I had emailed my host Roger White, sounding a little strange in asking about malaria and security issues. Roger said there were no problems – too cold in the hills for malaria and a simple tourist visa should get you through the airport, and by the way, can you bring 5000 pounds worth of computer hardware. My usual uptightness about customs was heightened.
But I got through with no problem, and looked forward to the drive up to Kandy. I was fairly content not to start my journey in Colombo with its car bombers and dodgy back streets, and I asked Jock how long the trip would be. “Oh, only about 30 minutes.” I was amazed by this; I knew Sri Lanka was small but I never thought you could cross half the country in 30 minutes. I asked Jock what he was going to do in Kandy. He said “I’m not going to Kandy. I am going to work on the west coast on a fishing project”. So I thought we were going to drop him off just outside the airport before we headed inland. But as we drove south, the bombshell dropped that I was going into the heart of Colombo. Roger had been busy with a project mid-term review. Several people from ODA’s Bangkok office, head office in Whitehall and an NRI man, John Makin, were out in Sri Lanka to see how their money was being spent. Roger had had to wine and dine them for five days, keep them happy and kept in the best hotels in Sri Lanka while they discussed whether ODA should really be giving their money to such a rich country. As I was to see, Sri Lanka was a strange case; it had two sections, the west coast around Colombo was well developed, in some places as rich as anywhere in western Europe. The rural areas and particularly the north and east were as poverty stricken as the poorest parts of Africa. The unfortunate split made it a political issue, as the North and East were also where the civil war was being played out.
The review team had come back to Colombo to discuss with some governmental figures about Roger’s project before heading out of the airport that afternoon. Roger and his girlfriend, Flo, were down in town to see them off, have a night’s rest in Colombo and head for the hills. There was no point in me going up to Kandy as there was nothing to do, so I was to stay in the Intercontinental, drive up to Kandy slowly to see some sights the next day (it being the weekend) and get ready for my training courses to start the following week.
While these arrangements were being described by Jock, who seemed to now much more of what I was to be doing than I did, I looked out on the landscape. My first time anywhere in Asia was a mixture of familiarity and shock. The first shock was the number of people; even in the heart of African cities, they never look as busy as any roadside in Sri Lanka. It was about 7:30 in the morning and the world was going to work, trooping off the filthy buses, cycling along the road three abreast, walking along with a cardboard box tied up with string. Hawkers and peddlers lined the route, supplying people with breakfast, shoe shines or repairs, bicycle repairs, newspapers and magazines, or just standing watching the view. Throng after throng of people headed towards the industrial estates near Colombo airport. Most of the area from Negombo airport to the northern suburbs of Colombo had been declared a free trade zone and it had led to a mass industrialisation in this area.
Heading along the coast road, one of the major routes in the country, we winded along a never-ending labyrinth of villages lined with shops, houses, workshops, small factories and people. To the right, every so often I would get a glimpse of some coconut trees lining the massive lagoon, a few fish pots on the road side told me that I was not far from the coast, but I saw little of the ocean.
The traffic increased as we got closer to Colombo, then we crossed a wide iron bridge over the Kelani Ganga, one of the major rivers in the west and we were in Colombo proper. Whereas before the houses were split up amongst occasional coconut plantations or horticultural plots, the density here was much more and eventually gave way to solid walls of concrete on both sides. We snaked our way through the old Fort area, close to the entrance to a massive container port and then some major shopping streets. Like several third world cities, the old colonial heart of the city has been somewhat abandoned and much commercial activity goes on in the southern suburbs, but a few businesses continue to remain in Fort, including the main department store of the country, Odells.
We emerged the other side of the city centre and almost immediately swung to the right and the Indian Ocean stretched out in front of me. To the right again was the huge gleaming tower of the Intercontinental. Jock and I both checked in under Roger’s project and I was shown to the seventh floor and a wonderful room overlooking the container ships anchored offshore. By now it was 9 o’clock and jetlag or no jetlag, we were starving and we headed back for a refreshing breakfast. I then decided, jetlag or no jetlag , that I wanted to lie down, so I ended up with the shivers of a body telling me its clock is out, sitting on a king sized bed watching BBC World. This was the first time I had come across the service – most of the American and African countries I had travelled to so far ended up with wall to wall CNN, and I found it most odd watching Ian MacGaskill, the little cuddly Scottish BBC weatherman giving me the forecast for Jakarta.