‘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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Faecal matter(s)

Please excuse the pun.

So, as you may know, I’ve just started an MSc in Control of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Today was the last day of the orientation week (and, coincidentally, my birthday). I feel a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights right now and am looking forward to the first day of teaching next Monday so I can ground myself a bit. The School is welcoming and I’m enjoying being there (I told the guy working on the till in the refectory this morning that it was my birthday and he gave me a packet of ginger nuts to go with my tea – apposite as I am a redhead).

Tasty gingernut (image from Google)

Tasty gingernut (image from Google)

As you’d probably expect the School is hot on hygiene on its premises and the doors in the loos (the ladies at least, I can’t vouch for the mens) are decorated with informative placards like this one.

A little light reading

A little light reading

It works on so many levels really – it describes the sanitary (or otherwise) situation in some countries in the developing world. It mentions a pretty shocking statistic from the UK. And it states what we can all do to prevent ourselves and others transferring this stuff around and making people ill. I suppose a key point is that even WITH easy access to clean toilets, plentiful clean water and antibacterial handwash we don’t take enough care of such a basic thing.

When I was in Kathmandu 4 weeks ago there was a small cholera outbreak that was mostly due to the fact that a few people are having to live under tarpaulin tents on the banks of the river as the recent earthquake has destroyed their homes and, maybe, their livelihoods. These people really DON’T have access to adequate toilet and washing facilities, and the river is often filled with rubbish, with large black pigs rootling around, looking for their next meal.

It’s a bit like that irritating thing that your mum used to tell you when you were a kid and you left food on your plate: ‘there are starving children somewhere in the world who would like to eat that’. Realistically whether we wash our hands or not is going to make zero difference to those people suffering (and sadly possibly dying) from a disease like cholera. Cholera is actually easy to prevent and treat – if you have the resources available. So if we are lucky enough to have access to these resources, then I vote that we should use them.

Young Lawrence by Anthony Sattin

I am absolutely fascinated by the lives of a few historical figures. I will read anything written about Napoleon (negative or positive – I am on the side of Andrew Roberts rather than Charles Esdaile – Napoleon is one of my heroes, albeit a very human hero). I will read anything about Churchill (particularly if it was written by Max Hastings). Similarly I will read anything that is about TE Lawrence.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Anthony Sattin’s earlier book ‘The Gates of Africa’ about the European ‘search’ for Timbuktu I was excited to see that he’d written one about Lawrence of Arabia. As the title suggests, the book focuses on Lawrence’s life up to the outbreak of World War One. His later life and involvement in Middle Eastern politics have been copiously written about and described by numerous people, and so it was interesting to be able to read a book that focused on his early years, as he, maybe unsurprisingly, had a fascinating life from the word go.

Lawrence in his Arab outfit (image from Google)

Lawrence in his Arab outfit (image from Google)

TE Lawrence is one of those people whose lives I envy and who I can identify with (in a small way). An interest in other cultures, a love of travelling and finding a ‘foreign’ place that feels like home all resonate with me. Not that I would want to live anyway except London necessarily, but it’s always good to have somewhere else you can go to, where you feel familiar and fit in. I love his confidence, tromping round alien parts wearing a suit and hob-nailed boots. Refusing to do as other ‘tourists’ and hire a load of people to carry his luggage (no tin bath and crates of brandy for him). Not liking, at some points in his journeying, being surrounded by men with guns (to protect him, although it didn’t always work out that way).

Sattin’s book has made the older, more frequently portrayed Lawrence more easily explained, although he will always remain something of an enigma, and no doubt we will never know the truth of some of the events that allegedly happened. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Not knowing is part of the attraction of the man.

There is a wealth of information about the digs at Carchemish, how TE lived there, and his very close friendship (if it was only a friendship) with Dahoum, who educated him in many ways. There is an explanation of his illegitimacy and how this may have affected his relationship with his family, and particularly his rather domineering-sounding mother. There are snippets of other people’s views of him. I’ve read books about and by Gertrude Bell (another hero of mine), who mentions him, so it’s interesting to read his view of her.

Dahoum (image from Google)

Dahoum (image from Google)

The book is supremely well written and is peppered with quotes, both by and about Lawrence, my favourite being ‘To do the best of anything (or to try to do it) is not a waste of opportunity’. Or of time, I would add. And certainly reading this book was not a waste of time – I thoroughly recommend it.

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.

Part 4: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

And so I woke up and it was the morning of my last full day in Bhutan. My flight back to Kathmandu left at 8am the next day, so I had to be at the airport at 6am. At least I would be back in Kathmandu for breakfast!

My final day was the most enjoyable of all. I love hiking, and combine that with climbing 900 metres up a rather large hill to see an amazing building, and I’m happy. Taktshang Geomba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) graces all the travel books and publications about Bhutan. Go to any travel show and I guarantee that the Bhutan agents will have at least one picture of this iconic place, maybe a few from different angles. It certainly is incredibly photogenic, and as you can get under it, above it, next to it, and in it, there are plenty of opportunities for taking great photos.

Up we go

Up we go

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Tiger’s Nest monastery is somehow clinging on to a cliff 900 metres above the Paro valley. Guru Rinpoche was lucky – he flew up here on the back of a tiger to do battle with a demon. I walked. Once he got here he had a nice sit down and meditated for three months. I was there for about an hour and a half and didn’t stop looking at things – it is a magical place. You leave all your technology at the door (no cameras, no phones, no video cameras) and make sure that your arms are covered (I had to borrow a jacket from one of the receptionists at the hotel. It was so lovely that I was tempted to nick it :)).

I’m pretty fit so I was bounding up the first bit, passing another couple of people who had also left their hotel sensibly early. Then I realised that we were climbing quite steadily and I slowed down. We walked through beautiful forest, saw sunbirds and disturbed some grey langurs, who leapt up, staring at us. We were passed by one group of blokes from the Indian Army who rather annoyingly had their mobile phones playing tinny Bollywood hits. We let them get far ahead of us and then continued.

The viewpoint

The viewpoint

After just over an hour we were standing looking at the monastery close up, with the waterfall at our backs. This powers the prayer wheel at the bottom so it never stops turning and prayers are constantly flying off into the sky.

Waterfall on the way up

Waterfall on the way up

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Once we got to the monastery there was a great feeling of camaraderie, as people struggled down across the bridge and then up the other side. First up was where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months after he flew in on the tiger. The cave itself is hidden behind a gilded door and seldom opened. Today it was shut but the murals more than made up for that. I have a thing about these wall paintings and there were plenty of them to look at all painted in beautiful, vivid colours. There were a few Buddhist pilgrims worshipping, praying, chanting and bringing offerings for the monks (mostly bags of crisps and packets of biscuits. I hope their normal diet is healthy!).

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

There it is

There it is

Despite being 100% atheist I did appreciate the spirituality of the place and I could easily have taken some of the murals home with pleasure. How on earth the monastery clings on to the side of the cliff I have no idea, but it does. It almost looks like an organic growth.

Going down the mountain was quicker, even being careful of knees and ankles. We stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two at the cafeteria and carried on back down. What an absolutely amazing place. I don’t think a trip to Bhutan would be complete without a visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery.

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After another enormous lunch (they feed you a LOT in Bhutan) we went off to see our last sight, the Rinpung Dzong. As it was raining we had the entire place to ourselves, with the exception of one very grumpy young monk, who was manning the charm stall. You can buy a charm to protect you from most things you can think of. Rain wasn’t one of them though. The building itself was beautiful, with more of the exquisite wood carving that adorns a lot of the buildings in Bhutan.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

The dzong was damaged by a fire in 1907, and when the ashes were investigated the massive thangka that is unfurled once a year in the courtyard was found untouched. The murals here are beautifully fresh and vibrant. Some tell the life of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint. Again, these could cheerfully have come home with me, but it wasn’t to be.

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

On my last night in Bhutan I went to a farmhouse a short drive out of Paro, into a more rural area, for some home-cooked food. Part of this involved trying some home-brewed firewater (arra), which I think is an acquired taste! It was good with chura (beaten rice) though 🙂 After eating my fill of chillies it was back to the hotel for my final bottle of Druk 11000 and my last night’s sleep in Paro. The alarm call was booked for 5.15am…

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂