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July 17, 2006

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Faye and I flew off to Sri Lanka last weekend from the crazed gridlock and crowds that Heathrow Airport becomes in July. Trying to tell myself that 36 hours of travelling wouldn't be too much of an ordeal, we boarded the new, comfortable Qatar Airways plane and settled into reading the papers and chilling out for the first part of the trip out to Doha.

Stepping out of the plane in Qatar, the heat blasted us like opening an oven door, even though it was only 06:30 in the morning. With only a few hours until our connecting flight to Colombo, however, there was no time to explore the city or check out Al Jazeera's head offices, so we sat drinking coffee and eating croissants in the still-being-built sterility that's Doha airport.

We boarded the connecting flight through a sandstorm, hiding the flat desert from view, and were immediately told that the flight was delayed. The tiny, cramped Airbus sat on the tarmac for ninety minutes with its doors open whilst the air conditioning struggled to cool things at all and appalling comedy ran on the in-flight monitors. The full ordeal of the trip had begun.

Somehow, by jamming earphones deeply into my head and managing to contort into very odd positions, I managed to get some sleep in the massively uncomfortable seats. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I looked out of the window and caught my first glimpse of Sri Lankan coastline; white waves crashing onto a golden beach before the view filled with hillsides of lush, green palm trees.

As soon as the aircraft ground to a halt on the runway, crowds of old Sri Lankan women who, until then, had been well-mannered and lethargic, sprung into a sudden, desperate scramble to get out, pushing and standing on me and anything else that came between them and the exit doors.

Asanka was waiting for us outside the airport and we jumped into the minibus and sped off southwards. Within the first few minutes, I knew I was going to like Sri Lanka, as we passed palm trees and bright exotic flowers growing by the side of the road and the air was full of exotic smells. It felt so good to be back in Asia. I'd expected the roads to be fairly crazy in the country, but it wasn't long before the depth of that insanity was fully revealed,
with vehicles weaving in and out of streams of oncoming traffic, swerving back in at the last second - narrowly avoiding a collision, and suicidal cyclists and dogs thrown into the mix that's Sri Lanka's traffic system. I'd thought I was used to Asia's frightening driving habits but the trip south was a white knuckle ride with my hair standing on end!

We screeched to a halt and Asanka jumped out to buy mangosteens and rambutans from a roadside stall, which we busily munched in the van until our next stop further down the road for rotis. The roti shop turned out to be a fantastic, grim, run-down dive of a place, and while a young boy showed me to the dim toilets in the back we passed bread baking on an open brick oven and stacks of long, straight firewood lying next to it.

Before I knew it we were back in the van eating fantastically spicy rotis and heading down the coastal Galle Road through the dark night with the air full of salt spray and the smell of the sea. Several hours after leaving the airport we arrived at our hotel, Mama's, and piled out with our bags past a bar packed with people drinking beer waiting for the World Cup Final to begin. We grabbed a quick shower then went down to join them, Asanka, and the boys in our exhausted state.

August 1, 2006

Sri Lankan Time

On one of my first evenings in Sri Lanka, we were invited to a small farm by a lake in the jungle. The farm was a tiny shack overlooking the water, surrounded by papaya and palm trees with a chicken shed and ducks, goats and dogs running around it.

They brought out some plastic chairs and a coffee table and we sat in a small clearing and I drank my first Arak, a Sri Lankan spirit made from coconuts, as flocks of green parrots flew past and the sounds of exotic birdsong echoed through the jungle. The sun goes down fast here. One minute it seems to be high in the sky, and the next it's completely dark. The boys lit a fire, and brought out a lovely meal of fish curry and sweet potatoes as darkness fell. The Arak seemed to be playing tricks on my mind as bright sparks of light began flying around the trees. I asked Faye if she could see them too and was somewhat relieved when she told me they were fireflies.

It was a truly wonderful atmosphere but after several Araks we finally had to leave as we'd agreed to go to dinner somewhere else. We piled back into the tuk-tuk to go, but there was a problem; it didn't have any lights that worked. After a long, long time spent trying to fix them, we finally ended up shining my torch out one side as a headlight, and someone else doing the same on the other side. Not that this caused the driver to slow down - we flew down tiny jungle dirt roads, dodging past other tuk-tuks and people walking.

After a long pit stop at another house our driver eventually emerged triumphantly with a tiny bulb, fitted it and starting the engine.... and it produced virtually no light at all. Off we flew again, obviously guided by Buddha, and pulled out onto Galle Road - where we were immediately stopped by police for not having working lights.

We did eventually make it to dinner but we were very much on Sri Lankan time - very, very late.

August 21, 2006

Life in the Jungle

After looking around at several places in town we found a 2 bedroom house just outside Hikkaduwa to rent for Rs10,000 (about £50) a month, with a lovely garden overlooking paddy fields and a back door that opens out onto the jungle.

The garden's packed with wildlife - yesterday we had monkeys in the coconut trees behind the house and huge ratsnakes fighting on the lawn. Just while writing this, a mongoose and a couple of monitor lizards have wandered past the front door.

Hearing that one of the big snakes from the garden often likes to come into the house for shelter when it rains, we had all the holes in the window mesh repaired before we moved in. Within days, however, they were all destroyed again as the family of palm squirrels that has a nest in a corner of the living room likes to be able to run in and out of the house from different directions.

The garden's filled with exotic plants, and has papayas, breadfruit, chillies, peppercorns, bananas and dozens of coconut trees growing in it, with brightly coloured kingfishers and sunbirds flying around them. After a rainstorm, the noises from the jungle are deafening, as all the frogs and insects come to life, making it almost impossible to get to sleep some nights.

Our first night turned out to be quite exciting - Faye's scared of spiders and I have a deep disliking for cockroaches, so naturally, we returned from dinner to find a massive cockroach and a huge spider on the living room floor! The spider, being as big as my hand, was enough to even scare me, but after a head to head with it I finally managed to chase it out with a broom, and Faye took care of the cockroach with a big can of Baygon spray!

Since that first nervous night of little sleep, things have improved and lots of geckos have moved into the house, controlling the insects, and chasing madly around the walls and ceiling while we adapt to living next to the jungle.

November 20, 2006

Back in Ceylon

After a few days in Colombo we caught the charity's van down to the house on Saturday - a three hour journey just to cover 100km due to Sri Lankan driving and the amount of traffic on the road. What was once a nerve racking trip down the coast against suicide drivers has now become a mundane weekly occurrence for me, occasionally livened by police roadblocks (looking for terrorists) or sometimes an elephant on the back of a truck.

Faye and I were quite worried about what we might find in the house after being away for two weeks. Monsoon season has gone on longer than anyone can remember this year, with the rain still falling in torrents every afternoon, and this seems to have caused a small mudslide in the back garden. With visions of snakes, spiders and families of cockroaches living happily in the house, we entered cautiously, not knowing quite what to expect, but things turned out to be all right with only a collection of dead bugs lying around on the floor, and our family of geckos on the ceilings. The garden's still full of wildlife, however, and not long after opening the back door a huge snake appeared, looking like it wanted to come in, before thankfully changing it's mind and disappearing away into the jungle.

November 23, 2006

Loft Inhabitants

We seem to have finally discovered what's living in the roofing space in our house. We've heard footsteps and the occasional fight coming from the ceiling for months and had been guessing that it was either palm-squirrels or a mongoose.

Tonight, however, there was a loud thud on the ground and we looked out the front door to see a small bundle of fur sitting there dazed, and a bunch of big eyed, inquisitive faces looking out from a hole in our eaves! The mother, black and white and about the size of a small fox, jumped down to rescue it and they climbed back up the peppercorn tree outside our door amidst lots of squeaking from the others. Later, one of the adults walked casually along the phone-line like a tightrope, high above us, before disappearing into the trees.

From the books we've looked at so far we think it's a family of Common Indian Palm-Cats, which look like a cross between a mongoose and a cat, but they're something we've never seen before, and we're constantly surprised by how many animals we seem to be living in close proximity with here.

January 27, 2007

Buddhist Squirrels

We came back to our jungle house last weekend after a week away in Dambulla and Colombo, unsure, as always, as to what we might find living there in our absence. Opening the door we saw a huge nest had been built in the alcove where the Buddha statue is - the squirrels had moved back in! We've always had one squirrel nest in the living room above the window, in which they have front and back doors so they can leave their nest to go outside or come into the house, but they've never gone over to the Buddha statue before.

During our first days back they didn't seem to come in. It was only on Thursday evening, just after 5pm, that I was sitting at my laptop and a face appeared looking around the curtain at me. After running up and down the curtains, sizing me up, it leaped onto a chair and then onto our bookcase edge, shimmied up that, along a tiny ledge at the top, and up into the Buddha alcove. There, it stood on it's hind legs checking that it's nest was still ok, before jumping into it, pulling it down over itself, and didn't reappear until noon the following day.

November 8, 2007

Bouncing Back to Sri Lanka

The lightning over south India became more concentrated until finally it was flashing all around the plane. Our aircraft bumped and juddered it's way through, then plummeted several metres so suddenly that my stomach rushed up through my body. By the time we came in to land, the storm was all around us - shaking the aircraft and surrounding it with cloud so thick that I couldn't see the wing out of my window. With sweaty palms, we finally bounced down onto Katuniyake runway in the wet, 4am darkness. I was back in Sri Lanka. And glad to be on the ground.

November 14, 2007

Flying Tigers

We woke up in the early morning sweltering - the power had been cut so the fans in the apartment had stopped. It was only later we read in the news that the government, fearing an attack by Flying Tigers, had cut the power to the whole of Colombo... again. Surely the Tigers don't have GPS.

Flying Tigers trigger Sri Lanka alert (AFP)

May 27, 2008

Talangama

Last weekend Faye and her mum treated me to a couple of days in Talangama Villa - a lovely, modern villa next to Talangama Lake and nature reserve, which Faye and I had all to ourselves. Duleep, our regular tuk-tuk driver took us there through the maze of tiny roads that wind between huge houses, and we wondered if he would ever find his way back to Colombo alone.

The shock of suddenly finding yourself somewhere serene and peaceful with only the sound of birds after a week in the pandemonium of Colombo is incredible. It really felt like we'd gone far, far away rather than just a tuk-tuk ride - it was so relaxing.

We spent most of the time evenly divided between swimming in the pool and eating the fantastic food their chef seemed to continually prepare for us. Gehan dropped by in the evening and we did a bit of bird and bat-watching at his nearby hide. Very generously, he left his 600mm lens for me to use for the rest of the weekend - which is just about the biggest lens that Canon make - and very easy to get used to!

Hungover from too much good wine and terrific food as we were, I therefore had to make good use of it and get up the following morning to photograph some of the birds on the lake. We then spent the rest of the day chilling out and eating too much before returning to the dirt and pollution of the city.

June 1, 2008

Tropical Bugs and Monsoons

Most of May involved either or both of us being sick with one bug or another. Faye seems to have developed the knack of bringing something nasty back from work and passing it onto me, causing us both to be bed-bound and in pain for the following week.

This week it's been a quite nasty stomach bug (I deny that my cooking had anything to do with it) - prior to that it was a strange, tropical flu-like virus - but both seem to have been sweeping across Colombo, hitting lots of people we know.

In the last few days, however, the south-west monsoon seems to have begun, bringing lots of rain but finally cooling things down from the highs of April and May (often the hottest months in Sri Lanka). Hopefully, the cooler temperatures will cut down on a lot of the bugs going around - though it's been raining ferociously all day long and it looks more like a grey day in Scotland than Sri Lanka outside.