‘Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka’ by John Gimlette

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The ancient name for Sri Lanka was Serendip (or Serendib), and finding this book was indeed serendipitous. I’d just finished reading a book about the Sri Lankan civil war and, not being happy unless I have half a shelf full of books waiting for my attention, I needed to get something else. So I was happy to wander into Waterstone’s and find Mr Gimlette’s latest book in paperback. I admit to being a fan of his other travel books, which have taken me places (in my head at least) that I wouldn’t necessarily have had on my travel list before. As well as being very good at describing the places he visits, local flora and fauna, the journeys he makes, the people he meets, the food he eats, his thoughts and emotions, the author really brings the country alive through his explanations of the history of the island, both ancient and more recent. And Sri Lanka has a lot of history.

The book is unsurprisingly dark in places, although balanced, taking nobody’s word at face value. Mr Gimlette does not shy away from asking some uncomfortable questions, for instance while talking to the former second-in-command of the Tamil Tigers, who changed sides and now holds a position in the government. This was surely quite an ideological jump to make. The saddest parts are those that make you picture the life for people caught up in the war, neither Tigers nor government soldiers, who just wanted to get on with living their lives. One of the last chapters, about the so-called ‘No Fire Zones’ is particularly good at this, and upset and angered me in equal measure. The writing is so clear that it’s easy to picture the people and the situations, sometimes against your wishes.

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One impressive aspect is the amount of groundwork the author obviously did before going out to Sri Lanka. He meets many people and develops contacts. He visits his local temple at home in London and drinks tea with worshippers. While travelling round the country he has access to members of the most prominent families, but is also happy chatting away with random people he meets. I particularly enjoyed (though I don’t think he did!) his interactions with one of his drivers, Sanath. In the end their mutual incompatibility means they go their separate ways.

Despite part of me feeling as if I’ve been to Sri Lanka after reading ‘Elephant Complex’ as soon as I’d read about half the book I went back to the bookshop and bought the latest Lonely Planet guide. ‘Elephant Complex’ has made Sri Lanka top of my travel list and I’m looking forward to visiting some of the same places as Mr Gimlette did and comparing my experiences with his.

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Poetic prose from a master craftsman. 5 stars – highly recommended.

All photos courtesy of John Gimlette.
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Shwedagon…and on…and on

I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing places in my life – the Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza, Machu Picchu, Mount Everest, the Potala Palace, Khan Tengri, Swayambhunath, Rakaposhi, Ushguli, Paro Taktsang – are you noticing a bit of a theme (or rather two) here? Mountains and ‘spiritual’ places? Well, the latest addition to the (hopefully ever increasing) list is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

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People (including me) maybe overuse the superlative ‘breathtaking’ but this literally did take my breath away. I am an inveterate atheist and nothing, not even an incredible, gold leaf- and diamond-encrusted pagoda is going to change that, but I admit to welling up and my knees feeling just a little bit wobbly as I got to the top of the stairs. The quiet beauty of the place just gets to you.

I was supposed to visit Myanmar in the early 2000s, but history got in the way. This year I was lucky enough to finally get there. And Shwedagon was worth the wait. Leave your shoes at the entrance, climb up the stairs with everyone else – monks, little kids, old ladies, young canoodling couples, everybody – make sure you have plenty of time and absorb it all. The first time I went very early in the morning when it was relatively quiet, with just a few people lighting incense and praying, kneeling on the soaking wet marble.

Possibly the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world (so some say) Shwedagon is believed to house various relics of the Buddha, including four hairs, and is 110 metres high. The pagoda holds eight planetary ‘corners’, one for each day of the week, with Wednesday split into morning and afternoon. Each day is also represented by an animal. I was born on a Saturday so apparently my animal is a giant snake (naga). I don’t mind snakes but I’m not sure I’d want to be one.

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When you come down again (literally!) don’t forget to collect your shoes – I almost did. Whatever you think about religion, whatever beliefs you do (or don’t) hold I don’t think you could leave this place without feeling at least a little moved. And then you can go on to the next place feeling enlightened…

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All photos by me 🙂

 

So here it is…

Blimey, I wrote my last proper post last year – time flies when you’re having fun. Since October 2015 I’ve been studying for another master’s degree, this time in public health (well, control of infectious diseases, same difference). To say that this was a good decision is the understatement of the century. I have absolutely loved it – never been so inspired, never met so many people with, well, infectious(!) enthusiasm, I’ve even enjoyed commuting (huh?? Oh, time to read a book). Also never been so knackered but that feels like a small price to pay right now – and I’m in the middle of revision (ahem) so that says a lot. This time next week the exams will be over and I can focus on the next part of the course. And then try and figure out what I’m going to do with the rapidly disappearing (or at least that’s how it feels) rest of my life.

Turning 40 this October is terrifying, not because of the wrinkles and white hairs (got plenty of those already, particularly after revising statistics…), but because I wonder how the hell I’m going to fit in everything I want to do. Life expectancy is increasing, but I doubt it’s going to be 300 by the time I get to 80 (2056…aagh!). There are just too many places to see, too many things to do, too many conversations to have, too much wine to drink… I spent so long telling myself I should just apply for the course, try and see what happens, follow my heart etc etc, all that ‘romantic’ stuff. And of course the ‘sensible’ bit of my brain (the bit with the mortgage) kept telling me that I had a job, that what was I thinking of, going back to education at the advanced age of 39?!? Was I mad?? Had dementia set in already??

Sometimes you just have to say ‘get lost’ (or words to that effect) to that ‘sensible’ bit of you, and get on with it. And now, well, bring on whatever happens next, I’m ready.

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The long wait is over: Nepal has a constitution

I was staying in Pokhara, Nepal in April 2006 when King Gyanendra restored the parliament. I remember waking up in my hotel, going outside onto the lawn and looking at the newspaper headline. I couldn’t believe it. This country that I had just discovered and fallen in love with was going through some massive changes, culminating in the abolition of the monarchy in May 2008. Gyanendra became just another Nepali, his palace in Kathmandu became a museum. An amazing thing to see first hand.

Rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal

Rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal

The big news is that, as of yesterday, Nepal has a new constitution, something that politicians have been working on, fighting over and finally agreeing for the last seven years. Selfishly I wish it had happened two weeks ago, when I was still in Kathmandu. Having been there during the civil war, the restoration of parliament, witnessing the infighting, the king going, I would have loved to have been there at the end. Although this is most probably not the end. One thing that became clear in my visit earlier this month was that some sections of the Nepali people are not happy. Some of the diverse ethnic groups who live in Nepal want the country to be divided further, along ethnic lines, and are not content with the new seven-state system that has been agreed. The south of the country has been seriously affected by strikes for the last few months. However, other groups are ecstatic at the news, and the further good news is that the three main political parties are in agreement, suggesting that this move forward has the support of a large percentage of the ordinary Nepalis who voted for these politicians. And from what friends were telling me over there, most people just wanted it all sorted out and signed.

Sunset in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Sunset in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

So what does this mean for ordinary Nepalis, who had to get on with their day to day lives while the politicians argued? Well, hopefully it means that, now the politicians have agreed the constitution, they can get on with other equally important discussions and start to improve the infrastructure of the country. This can only be good news for all the travel agents, hotels, restaurants and shops who have been suffering as a result of the earthquake. The country has picked itself up, dusted itself off, signed a very important piece of paper, and now can get on with the hard work of making it all mean something.

All photos by me.