The Queen’s Bar to the side of the Queen’s Hotel in Kandy was one of the most bizarre places I came across in Sri Lanka, although the Irish Bar in Accra and a pub in Borrowdale, Harare did almost the same thing – walk inside and you are transported back to Britain – most of the faces are white, the décor is like a British pub and they serve drinks which at least half remind you of a terrible trendy bar in London if not a true English pub. I would head down there with Choi of a night and get chatting to the various expats that would wander in and out. Choi was a SouthBankUniversity student from London whose family had Hong Kong origins. She was very friendly and we got on well, and she was key in introducing me to Kandy expat society. I felt I belonged when I could get involved with this group but they really were the oddest mix of people you would ever expect to meet in one place. Generally very pleasant and ordinary on their own, it was the fact that British people seemed to crave British company in Sri Lanka that they all congregated for parties, drinks, events at the same place. I suppose in many foreign countries it is the same. But that gave rise to amazing combinations, you had the throw back to the tea plantation days talking with the down to earth, foul mouthed engineer, the scientist talking to the labourer, the student mixing with the lady of the manor. The other European countries represented in Kandy had even smaller groups to work with and often came in to this ensemble, as did a couple of Australians. Some were transient, only there a few months and not sure why they were there at all. Others were long termers who knew nothing else. Roger was approaching the time where he was regarded as the father of the whole community, and indeed was the High Commission’s Warden, whose major responsibility seemed to be to be able to scramble the whole community down to Colombo if civil war broke out. He rarely made an appearance at Queens in those days and it was almost always with Choi and her Sri Lankan Muslim boyfriend, Amal, that I went down there.
One night in the Queen’s, I saw the best pub game I have ever seen, one which was scarcely believable until you had seen it played out. How these things ever get started I do not know, but the scene was centred on a very pleasant young Scotsman who was an engineer working on one of the many projects his large firm had in the country. A woman colluded with another man; I think it was one of the Germans, to do the scam when she played this game with the Scotsman. She challenged this guy to a duel using spoons. The rules were that you put a tablespoon in your mouth and then you had to hit the opponent’s forehead, which must be offered up fairly, i.e. you had to drop you head down. The first shot was by the Scotsman. Of course, having a spoon in your mouth with only your lip muscles to control it meant that he could not hit her forehead with more force than a small wet fish. So he then obediently dropped his head and got a sharp “Thwack” across the forehead. It stung hard and amazed him. “How did she do it”, he asked. She just shrugged her shoulders and said “Practice”. He tried again on her forehead. A limp splat was all he got. She tried again on his – “Wallop”. He was astounded. What did she do to make it hit with so much force – “Do you hold the spoon in a special way?” “Hmm yes, that was it”. He limply slid the spoon across her forehead with all her might and he got a response which brought stars to his eyes.
He still could not work it out but the rest of us, creasing up with laughter, had seen the ruse; when he bowed his head, what he could not see was the German, who had a third spoon, thwack him hard with it using his hand. When he looked up, of course, all he saw was this woman with a spoon hanging limply out of her mouth.
I was very settled into my hotel by the next weekend and decided to go down to the Botanical Gardens at Peradiniya for the second Saturday. To get there was too far for me to walk, so I decided to take my own tuk-tuk. These three wheeler motorcycles cover most of Sri Lanka. The drivers split in two, the ones who are just using this as a staging post to their intended career as owner of a bus company or multimillionaire business man, and those who have gone in for the duration. Sitting in the back of this thing on a pile of carpets and shawls, pictures of Buddha adorning every corner, I started praying as soon as we lurched onto the highway. He dropped down to the lake and then we took the new bypass behind the railway station and down to the garden entrance. I haggled enough to be decent but did not begrudge him his rupees. I went to the nearby office to get a ticket and guide book and then entered.
Peradiniya is the largest botanical gardens I have been to in the tropics, it sits in a wide meander of the MahaweliRiver, a bit like Kew on the Thames. It is not cramped, rather the specialist gardens are spaciously laid out amongst wide grassy areas or woodlands. I ambled around quite happily for most of the day, past the giant bamboo clumps, the lake shaped into Sri Lanka, its water lilies seeming to mark the larger cities. Here and there huge buttressed trees demarcated new areas. I saw the avenue of Drunken pines, their trunks grown in such a swaying manner that it made you nauseous just to look at them. I would stretch out to the edge of the garden to get a glimpse of the MahaweliRiver. I went down the far end where in the woods I saw the seven or eight trees that were the roosts for the great fruit bats I saw blanket the sky every night. I was amazed that so many animals could be together in such a small area. I saw massive palm trees, including the double coconut trees, the fantastic orchids, the unbelievable cannonball trees. It truly was an extravaganza of botanical life, neatly trimmed in amongst planned avenues and set piece gardens. And for the most part it was a hassle free visit, but I came across one person who really annoyed me, and he happened to be a Buddhist monk. Dressed in the usual orange robes, with his shaved head and almost obligatory black umbrella, he carried his books under one arm. He was also one of the most malodorous men I had ever stood less than six feet from. I was looking at an herbaceous border when he approached. To start with we talked generally about how good the flowers looked then he inquired as to my origins. Then, as I inevitably thought it would, he started to talk about his monastery and how it needed money. Perhaps if it had been a one off payment I would have obliged him, but when he started talking about taking my name and address down and talked of bonds, I got offended and started to repeat the word “no” at frequent intervals. Still with his sickly smile, he eventually decided I was a lost cause and moved on. Of all the people I had expected to beg for money, and of all the places for it to happen, a priest in the botanical gardens had never crossed my mind.
Apart from a couple of rain showers, nothing else dampened my day and I managed to catch a tuk tuk back to town. This guy haggled about the price again, saying that going up the hill cost him a lot of fuel, and the way he got out and pushed the little vehicle to get up, I could well believe it, but I managed to save a couple of rupees that day.