07 February, 2010

Holiday in Sri Lanka and a photo essay from the Galle Literary Festival 2010

Galle Fort Lighthouse, a cathedral-like Mosque, and airborne Sri Lankan youth.

We've just returned to Chiangmai after 18 days in Sri Lanka, partly in order to attend the annual Galle Literary Festival which happened in, amazingly, the  town of Galle. Located at the south-western tip of the island, the 17th-century Dutch fort at Galle is an idyllic and emminently practical spot for a festival of this nature.

Here's a brief 360 degree pan movie I took from the same spot where the above photo was taken. (Oops - in the movie I called it a cathedral instead of a mosque):

...and here's another view I borrowed from the internet... these stone walls saved hundreds of lives during the Tsunami:

Close-up of the Mosque from the land-side:

...and yet another view, this time from our personal helicopter. In the distance you can see the Galle Cricket Ground, the most hallowed piece of real-estate in the entire country as far as cricket-addicted Srilankans are concerned:

(I took the Youtube movie  from the corner garrison nearest you,
...although we've never seen the tide as low as this)

The rear of the Fort ramparts overlook the cricket ground.
The stone sentry-box probably attracts a premium price during test matches.

And so - to the Galle Literary Festival itself. A fine array of invited Writers was on hand to provide close encounters of the literary kind. As when we attended in 2009, it was impossible to attend every session as some clashed or overlapped, so every person necessarily experienced a different festival. I'll mention some of my personal highlights from 2010.

First to "Dead Planters and Lost Dogs": the dogs didn't get much of a mention, all's the pity. I refer to Michelle de Kretser's brilliant and complex new novel The Lost Dog. But how much can you say in an hour, after all? Nevertheless, it was an articulate and interesting session about which writerly issues get her pumping. Also, Ru Freeman spoke honestly and insightfully on several occasions. Claire Tomalin's authoritative talk to do with the hidden women of history - and in particular concerning Nelly Ternin - was completely absorbing. Louise Doughty addressed the topic of otherness and displacement felt by Romany gypsies and offered personal and colourful anecdotes from her own family history. Likewise the Scottish-Nigerian poet Jackie Kay spoke of the personal ambiguities and complexities triggered by situations of inter-racial international adoptions, and revealed that many internal adoptions by Srilankan parents are simply a way of obtaining a child slave. Gillian Slovo's descriptions of writing/performing her play Guantanamo introduced me to nuances of "verbatim theatre" I had not considered. It occured to me that a Sri Lankan edition of Guantanamo might now be in order.

(Yes I agree, female Writers were represented strongly at Galle this year!)

Indeed, the big "Who Am I?" question loomed large over almost the entire festival: predicaments of Otherness, Displacement and Diaspora certainly offer rich pickings to the Writer. With the Sri Lankan presidential election occurring during the festival, such issues were foremost in the minds of Sri Lankans. The Fringe Festival hosted a great session titled "The Literature of Post-War Sri Lanka" (referring of course to the recent military defeat of the Tamil Tigers). I felt that this highly pertinent panel discussion ought to have been mainstreamed into the Festival proper out of respect for the host country and especially for the crushed Tamil minority (oops, now they'll know I'm a humanitarian liberal). I also felt that the term "Post-War Literature" might have been better replaced by "Pre-Peace Literature" given that there first needs to be a period of reconciliation and mutual acceptance of responsibility between Singhalese and Tamils before any peace can reasonably be said to exist. Military victory does not equal peace.  Perpetuating the "Us and Them" syndrome is futile and ultimately poisonous, and is poignantly meaningless in a situation where Singhalese and Tamils have been inter-marrying and working together over many generations. Finally, Srilankan bloggers are of course the defacto seed-bed of post-war writing under difficult censorship restrictions; I thought they didn't receive adequate acknowledgement - or encouragement - by the panel.

In this regard, the screening of the new documentary film "Do We Really Want To Live Like This?" was an important attempt to defuse the "Us and Them" problem. It showcased young Sri Lankans on both sides speaking frankly of their experiences of the civil war. This is exactly the sort of personal confessional and cathartic sharing that must take place as a first step during the unavoidable transition period to anything resembling true peace. A few audience members were bruisingly critical by commenting that the film should have suggested answers as well as posing questions, and ought also to have focussed on possible political mechanisms of the peace process. But they failed to grasp that the film was offering tentative first steps only, getting people at least talking to each other instead of hiding in silence and fear. And again, how much can a single 40-minute docco tackle? Get more info at the website pact.lk ...but this site, along with other key Tamil websites such as tamil.net and tamileelamnews, were mysteriously disabled during the run-up to the election. Interesting, especially given the violent political intimidation by the Rajapakse regime, the unexplained disappearance of a dozen dissident journalists over the past year or so, and Mr Rajapakse's unforgiveable prohibition of UN inspectors from visiting the Tamil incarceration camps after the war ended. Zero cred. Such uncouth behaviour one might expect from the Burmese military junta.

Goebbels step aside! Check out this unbelievable crap from a recent edition of the Daily News [roughly the Sri Lankan equivalent of Fox News in the US]:

(methinks the professor may now expect a promotion from the president).

As usual, though, it is the victor who writes the prevailing version of History, which, after all, is only a branch of Literature (the cynic might say of Fiction). In the current ecstatic but unrealistic mood of nationalistic optimism which has been deliberately whipped up in Srilanka, I feel that genuine short-term peace is less than likely. Indeed, during the Festival we got to hear precious little from Tamil authors - except a few poetry readings by Thavayoganathan Sajitharan marginalized in a less-than-optimal venue. Ironically, the British historian Antony Beevor, in his House-of-Commons delivery of  his session Playing Fast and Loose with History, made some salient points about propaganda, demonization, "faction creep", counterknowledge, and cherry-picking historical evidence in the Wikipedic Age - all of which resonated so strongly with the current political imbalance in Sri Lanka - but (curiously) no link was attempted. Mr Beevor even stated that Film is the most potent propagandic element in the post-literate age, yet neglected to point out that the important Sri Lankan documentary "Do We Really Want To Live Like This?" was about to be screened right next door. Mmm, ships passing in the night.

Here are some images and posters I took in Galle during the lead-up to Election day. The image of the leaf in the first poster is a reference to the Boddhi Tree under which Buddha attained Enlightenment and understanding about equality between all people, not killing any living thing, etc. You may draw your own conclusions:

The next poster needs some explanation: Rajapakse, on the right, asks "How's the food?", and Fonseka replies "Absolutely delicious, sir!!!". This is a spoof on a recent popular TV commercial for Lemon Puff biscuits in which an army commander asks his obediently drilling soldiers the same question. After the chorus of "Absolutely delicious, sir", the camera swings around behind to reveal each soldier secretly concealing a packet of Lemon Puffs. I'm assuming that Srilankan voters were expected to extrapolate that Fonseka, likewise, was secretly concealing political ambitions. If the public didn't consciously "get it", it was never going to matter too much because the poster was entertaining on a superficial level per se and jaded voters don't mind a touch of humour. Also, a not-so-sutble subtext reinforced the message that Fonseka had been Rajapakse's subordinate:

View from a Bajaj taxi:  street electioneering in Galle. Lean close to the screen and you might hear just how extraordinarily loud the Message was:

The posters below were all ripped down by next morning. I would have thought putting posters on a decrepit little hovel like this may have been a tad counter-productive... but maybe I'm just too western in outlook. (We had to chuckle, though, when we spotted Rajapakse's face plastered large over a hot-air balloon ...ho ho lol etc.)

...and here's the new 1000 rupee note recently issued by the Srilankan government:

You guessed it. Rajapakse also campaigned using the "Change" slogan.

Ah but I digress. As an antidote to all this political stuff, I'll comment on the Festival concert presented by the Chamber Music Society of Colombo at the charismatic old Dutch Reformed Church inside Galle Fort. The standard of performance was even higher than last year. Mozart's Il Re Pastore overture was strongly and confidently asserted. The audience's expectations for Hindemith's Acht Stucke were unfortunately damped down by being informed that it was 'difficult' music and 'lacked melody'. On the contrary, in my opinion, the eight miniatures are cram-packed full of the most intensely interesting Teutonic melodies of the entire concert. Having said that, intonation was, of course, more challenging because the music is chromatic and darkly contrapuntal, with fewer secure tonal anchor points onto which the performers' ears can latch as easily as in earlier styles. I respect the important decision to include some newer music (well, dated about 1920 or so?). After retreating to Vivaldi, resident composer Stephen Allen conducted the world premiere of his songs Forest Paths. I liked their shimmering touches of quartal harmony and added seconds... they also reminded me obliquely of Mahler's Lieder von der Erde. Soprano Mary Anne David was notable. Handel's Agrippina Overture was energetic. Its quavers could have been a little more strongly dotted, but in retrospect I feel it was adequate, given the relatively wet accoustic of the church and the fact that I was sitting close by in the second row of pews. Haydn's Symphony 39 served as dessert. Overall, very well done! I'll be back for more in 2011.

Now I'll shift gears into holiday/travel journal mode. Here's are some typical streetscapes inside Galle Fort:


[above] The Vice Squad, Galle Fort.

Looking up at the tiled roof of Pedlar's Inn. These are the Roman-style under-over tiles, possibly introduced by Srilanka's colonial occupiers:

The Festival held a kite-flying event at Galle Fort. Marie and Anna also took part in a bicycle ride (dubbed the Tour de Galle) thru the rice-paddies (although some briefly indulged in unintentional bog-snorkelling), and there was a whale-watching boat-trip which departed from Whalewatta
(aw shucks, sorry, that's an in-joke for Srilankan consumption only)

The YMBA (Young Men's Buddhist Association) is close by, but is much tidier.

The delightful Galle Fort Hotel  [below] has an unpretentious facade with colonial-style shutters, but the interior has been restored exquisitely. Well done Carl! (see the video):

PS: and thanks for the yummy homemade coconut-and-lychee icecream!

We stayed not far away at the small "Beach Haven" guest-house in Lighthouse Street with the delightful family of the charismatic Mrs Sita Wijenayake, a former mayor of Galle. Highly recommended. Here's a fam pic of mother and daughter:

Galle retains its domestic fishing industry. Below is a typical roadside fish stall close to where we attended many of the GLF sessions. Sniff the screen for a more complete sensory experience:

Beware - in the background [below, top left] is a dreaded Tata bus, the Tyranosaurus Rex of Srilankan Roads. The horn is manufactured dangerously loud because the buses have no brakes to speak of.  Question: What happens if you get scared half to death twice?

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
When in Galle, gobble freshly-caught seafood as often as decorum permits...
...as we did when we spent some time at the beach near Unawatana, just south of Galle:

A balanced diet is seafood in each hand.

Galle Face?

All suffered from the disease of iPhonitis. Note the ubiquitous lime sodas.

Haunted house, abandoned after the Tsunami. The figure on the balcony wasn't
there next morning. It's OK, don't worry, it was armless...

Good coffee was hard to find at Unawatana beach. We eventually tracked down a
barista at Sunil's Garden Guest House, so no longer had to resort to injecting caffeine.

...but the food was good, if you like rice and curry. Here are Marie and Anna at the Unawatana Beach Resort, known as UBR to locals (pronounced as "Yubia"). Anna's downing yet another Lion beer. It's here we discovered the existence of Lime Lassi. 

Marie nervously begins to suspect there's a storm coming.

One dusk we ascended the hill behind Galle, up to the Ladyhill Hotel at the very peak, then tramped up 4 flights of stairs up to the big rooftop restaurant, the highest point in Galle. Lo and Behold, 30 minutes after we had arrived, Darknesse fell and there cometh a Greate Thunderous Storme of Biblical Proportion. What you see in the photo was just the first hint - later, we couldn't even see the adjacent trees for near-horizontal rain. We were the only people there - spooky - and rain was blowing in sideways to the centre of the restaurant, flooding the floor. A truly gothic experience, complete with lightning. We turned off our beloved iPhones and retreated to the loos to keep safe.

A shop, abandoned after the Tsunami.

Election posters disrespectfully adorn a Tsunami wreck, sulking a long way from the sea.

Cat - the Other White Meat.
Anna photographed every single feline in Galle - and the married ones as well.

Then came a brief trip to Kandy, Dambulla and Sigiriya. First, a charismatic little area at the rear of Kandy's Tooth Temple in early morning light. This site is clearly much more ancient than the temple proper:

There followed the obligatory attendance at a performance of Kandyan Dance:

The Temple Caves at Dambulla were worth the climb, but do remember to take water:

Then it was off to Colombo to visit our friends Theresa and David who run the luxurious boutique hotel Mount Lavinia House. Next we met up again with Marie's cousin Ravi and our friend Kumar, who generously took us to dinner at a top-notch restaurant located in Tintagel, the residence of three former prime ministers and a former president. Read its chequered story here.

Next day it was off to Colombo's main graveyard at Borella to hunt down yet more headstones and genealogical evidence of M's family history. We found (and photographed) several graves which we hadn't located on previous visits. Ravi had a hunch... here he is leading the Band of Brave & Intrepid Explorers, not a single one of whom was wearing a regulation Pith Helmet nor bearing a loaded Blunderbuss: 

We also trudged off to a Buddhist temple and monastery, Vajiraramaya at the Colombo suburb of Bambalapitiya, where Marie's great-uncle used to be a monk. Bikkhu Cassapa (AKA Great-Uncle Cassius) used to use this library a great deal. We met and chatted to a monk (Rev. Gnalapala) who could still remember him from his childhood, and he generously gave us original articles plus a sketch by Cassapa himself. (Rohan, thank you too, and would you pass on our thanks to Rev Gnalapala?)

We took Anna for a stroll around parts of Colombo to get a feel for it. Guards at checkpoints around Colombo Fort were a bit touchy about security because armed soldiers were preparing for the Independence Day celebration on 4 Feb. Hmm, didn't want to rub them up the wrong way...

This abandoned (curved glass!) shop window near the Pettah Market sported a poster of you-know-who as well as an un-nerving reflection of an Auschwitz-style guard tower accross the street:

Plantation House, a colonial relic:


Cargill's Department Store - yes, it really is that colour - is now but a shadow of its former glorious self. It's become a small grubby supermarker. There are still dusty corners piled up with nineteenth-century shop-fittings, though:

These school-kids were singing nationalistic songs on the day before the election (when campaigning was forbidden, incidentally). They were probably praising You-Know-Who:

...and before leaving Srilanka to return home to Thailand, let's guzzle a cool mango lassi and goat curry/rice at Ravi's members-only Capri Club... thanks Kuhn Ravi, it was great.


 Some miscellaneous odd moments from the trip:
* the uniformed and heavily armed SWAT soldier in a Hikkaduwa convenience store turned out to be a bored security guard. Nevertheless, it kinda focusses one's attention...
* a shop named SHAM ANTIQUES
* Laugh's Gas - company name on the side of a van
* a monkey streaking into the restaurant in Kandy, then streaking out grasping a sugar doughnut before you could even say "Scratch my fleas please"
* Sri Lankan woman leading a porcupine on a leash
* The Ivory Inn - name of a restaurant near an elephant orphanage
* "Chinease Restaurant" with menu offering Mashroom Source
* Secondhand car yard called FAITH MOTORS - "the mechanical experts"
* shop advertizing AYURVEDIC THERAPHY

Then it was back to Thailand, Beloved Land of the Ever-Smiling Calculator. My next diary update, coming to a small screen near YOU, will document Anna's Evil Escapades upon her return to Chiangmai.
Watch This Space >>> ttttttttttttttttt

1 comment:

  1. You're a danger to the state of Sri Lanka, Comrade Smart-Alec FunkyPix2. I would be a bit more careful, if I were you. My people know where you live.

    M.R. (you may call me Dutugemenu II)