As we rejoined the main A1 eastwards the terrain had changed forever. No more rice fields or palm trees, the forests were plantations of rubber trees. Along the roadside, natural springs gushed out of the rocks. Some had been channelled in bamboo pole drains, others had simple rubber hoses sticking out of the crevices where they emerged, and this wonderful fresh cold water was put to all manner of uses – primarily car cleaning.
The road wound higher and higher, finally drawing parallel to the railway and past the monument I had seen miles away and a rather grand railway station marking the summit. Soon after we took another diversion as Saman was going to show me three Buddhist temples. Time was drawing on so I only had a few minutes at each, which was a shame as they were the first temples I had ever been in. Each was remarkably different. The first was Gadaladeniya. A rather basic stone building with outsize dome roof was built on a solid rock outcrop. I took my shoes off at the entrance, but the surface of the rock was so hot in the mid afternoon sun that I judiciously kept my socks on (yes they were white that day). Apart from the main building there were several smaller temples around. My knowledge of Buddhism was pitifully low when I arrived (I was to be well educated over the following three weeks), but several friendly Sri Lankans tried to explain the symbolism. What surprised me was how simple the basic philosophy was, how much it was less a religion but a way of life, less shackled by statues, books and interpretations than many other followings.
The second temple, Lankatillake, was much more grand in size and stature, sitting as it did on a high hilltop above some padi terraces, with the hills surrounding Kandy looking on to the east. It was a pale blue colour, about four storeys high and much more ornately carved. It serves much more as a Hindu temple but has a Buddhist building in one part, which is covered in simplified carvings of elephant heads or fronts.
The third temple, Embekke Devale, was more modest again, but possibly the most individual. For a start it sat close to the centre of a village, rather than off on a hilltop. It was also mainly constructed of wood, and had the appearance of a general assembly house rather than a temple. Open on three sides, it had ornately carved wooden pillars to keep its large roof aloft. A guide took me round showing me the significance of each of the carvings. I regret to say I have forgotten most of what he said, but that wonderful sense of tropical shade and dark away from the heat and light of the day still lingers in my memory.
Saman now took me round towards the main road and the final few miles to Kandy. My usual trepidation as to what my home for the next few weeks was to be like started to rise, and each twist and turn gave me more thoughts to characterising Kandy. First, though we had to pass through Peradiniya. Itself a sizeable town, it acts as a railway junction and a bridging point across the great Mahaweli Ganga – the Mahaweli River, longest of all in Sri Lanka and the reason why I had come to work in the region. A deep gorge cut through the terrain here and the river twisted and turned to take advantage of the best routes through this faulted geology. On that first passage through Peradiniya I saw a lot of dust and people, busying themselves on a Saturday afternoon. On the far side the road went through a tamarind avenue and passed by the gates of the Peradiniya Botanical Gardens on one side and Peradiniya University on the other.
A few industrial units followed and then we drove past house after house on the road to Kandy with the railway on our right. A huge bus station was passed on the right before we entered a traffic jam and we inched through the main shopping street. Guided by a policeman, Saman was able to turn right near the Queens Hotel and we sidled along another busy street. It was this point I really saw Kandy. A long thin lake stretched out to the left (we appeared to be driving along the dam which kept this in place). At the far end we turned up a series of hairpins rising out of the main town to one of the old suburbs. The road rose steeply and as we found our height it turned and followed the contour for over a mile. I looked left and got glimpses of the lake and the river beyond. The little city seemed teeming with people, which was not surprising as it was reaching the climax of the Kandy Perahera, the largest elephant parade in the country.
Eventually we turned off this road and rose steeply to my home for the duration – the Chalet Hotel. My first impressions? Hard to describe. Different I think was my word, but I grew to love the place. It could have been the colour which got me. It was a sort of dark olive green, not a natural colour for a building unless you lived in the army. There were other colours too; oranges, reds, blues and yellows, painted on. No, it wasn’t really the colour which got me… it was what the colour was formed into. For adorning the walls of this little hotel were painted gigantic monkeys.
The inside was part Bohemian, part Gothic. Very heavy antiques adorned most rooms, and a mixture of garish paintings and eastern wall hangings were everywhere. It was owned by a Belgian lady who had been educated in England but lived most of her life in Kandy. Her father had been some sort of diplomat in the town and she had become part of the elite. I saw her several times during my stay, usually wearing a flowing lounge suit or dress that oozed Virginia Wolfe. But I really could not fault the hotel. The staff were a bunch of young boys dressed in white trouser suits or saris, each one very young and unblemished; reminiscent of the kind of youth that would look be involved in the paedophilic business on the west coast. As if to affirm this concept but also avoid it, the hotel guide strictly forbid any servants to spend time in the rooms.
There were few people staying at the hotel, despite the Perahera, and my room was almost above the reception area. It had a small balcony, which mainly looked over the narrow steep road leading up to the hotel. To the right of me, beyond several other rooms, was the swimming pool, whose milky cloudiness dissuaded me from using it. To the left, a couple of small corridors brought me through to the dining room. Beyond I could descend a few steps to the garden, which had wonderful views over the lake and back to the city.