February 7, 2013
To avoid exhaustion and superficiality, Carol and Joel have a three-day-rule of staying wherever they go for at least that amount of time. Hoping to take advantage of their experience, I express my wish to stay in Kandy for an extra day. Surprisingly Christof agrees, but only because he’s unsure of how to proceed and is debating about whether to hire a driver to ‘do’ the cultural triangle of Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Polonnaruwa on one day. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the new three- day-rule.
The Sharon Inn is booked out so we pack up and look for another hostel. Luckily most of the guest houses are on this side of town. Our first stop is at the Golden View, an inflationary term for a run-down guest house that provides a view of a small slice of the lake only from a rooftop balcony. Although the room is reasonably priced and the owner friendly, we need time to consider our options and promise to return within the hour. In the meantime we visit our American friends to make plans for the evening, and agree that we will meet at the end of the day.
Just as we’re leaving Christof asks the owner of their guesthouse if she has any vacancies, and since she does, we move in. I’m unhappy about breaking our reservation but Christof says he’ll give the owner of the Golden View a tip and tell him we wanted to be with our friends.
We speak to our new landlady about Christof’s idea of taking a tuk tuk for a day tour of the cultural triangle, which she discourages us from doing. It’s too far away to manage with a three wheeler, and because of the wealth of treasures stemming from a long cultural heritage, we couldn’t possibly do it justice by trying to squeeze three major sites into one single day. We should rather take a proper taxi, and plan in one or two overnight stays along the way. Because this would double or triple the costs for the trip with a driver, the decision is easily made; we’ll stay in Kandy today, and ride the 80 kilometers to Dambulla on our bicycles tomorrow.
Carol and Joel, who come downstairs on their way out, are surprised to find that we have checked into their pension, and companionably sit down with us for another chat. I’m dumbfounded to discover that they’ve been married for forty years! Not only do they look and act younger( they are 62 and 63) their relationship, which is fresh and respectful, gives one the impression of a newly-wed couple.
Once they’re gone, I try catch up on my blog entries, but people – who come by all morning long to look at the rooms and haggle over the prices – are a distraction, showing me how tourists are seen though the eyes of the locals. I watch our landlady repeatedly turning her sheets around on the small balcony so they will dry by evening, remembering how washing machines were being sold as duty-free luxury items at the airport. Imagine trying to keep up with the laundry produced by a large guest house without one!
A young German backpacker who looks like a turtle carrying an oversized shell and clearly fearful of being robbed, clutching a second backpack tightly to her chest, pretends a worldliness that backfires because of her age. Although she is only 19 or 20, she snootily notifies our landlady, a woman of 60, that her prices are non-competitive, adding as though she were granting her a favor, that if she lowers them she might consider staying. Our landlady, obviously tired of this game, sighs as she offers the backpacker a slightly lower price. Predictably, the German girl refuses and, turning on her heel, walks out the door without a word of farewell.
Tourists, who often feel harassed and worry about being taken advantage of, tend to have unrealistic expectations about the cost of living in Sri Lanka, unabashedly complaining and nitpicking in order to drive prices down. Sri Lankans on the other hand, imagining all tourists to be wealthy – which in comparison to themselves they are – have no qualms about fleecing them. The result is an unfortunate tug-of-war. Sri Lankans try to take tourists for a ride, while they in turn try to consume as many goods and services for as little money as possible. After watching the young German backpacker, we feel ashamed at having ever gotten ourselves caught up in bargaining and haggling over pennies, and resolve to take it easy from now on.
Our landlady says she is surprised at how few visitors are aware that Kandy is a holy city because of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
The relic is thought to bring rain, and therefore bestows power on its possessor for his ability to guarantee a good harvest and prosperity for the people. The ten day festival of Esala Perahera is the high point of the Buddhist year, celebrated by splendid processions headed by elephants carrying the tooth relic and accompanied by drummers, whip crackers and fire dancers. Complicated ceremonies are performed, a pouring away of old and taking in of fresh water, all thought to increase rainfall and ensure a good harvest. DH Lawrence, who spent time in Kandy described the festival in a letter in the following manner,
‘The perahera wonderful – midnight – huge elephants, great flares of coconut torches, princes like peg-tops swathed round and round with muslin – and then tom-toms and savage music and devil dances – phase after phase – and that lonely little white fish of a prince up soft – and the black eyes and black bright sweating bodies of the naked dancers under the torches – and the clanging of great mud-born elephants roaring past – made an enormous impression on me –a glimpse into the world before the Flood’.
Although in a biography written by Jeffrey Meyers we discover how little he cared for the island:
Christof does some sightseeing on his own and although I’d love to join him, I stay on the balcony of the guest house determined to catch up on my writing. It’s almost impossible to concentrate because during the day the hillside is transformed into one large construction site since everyone – hoping to profit from the tourist industry – is building additions onto their houses. The back-breaking labour is still done in the age-old manner by scantily dressed men in sarongs and flip flops, without any machines to lighten their workload. It is dusty and loud, and without a garbage system, the workers light fires to dispose of the debris, which covers the hill in a haze of foul-smelling smoke.
When the Americans appear, freshly attired in elegantly clothing, they suggest walking down to the Queens Hotel, which turns out to be a disappointingly faded and overpriced establishment. The Pub, another colonial building located on the Main Street, has a classic outside terrace where we sip iced cocktails until the loud traffic chases us into its dim interior, where films of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and other jazz luminaries are being projected onto the wall behind us, making conversation as difficult as it was outside.
Joel and Carol, who for many years worked part time, gladly taking a cut in pay in exchange for the luxury of having more free time, retired six years ago. Joel has all the activity and human contact he needs, but Carol, who loves being out amongst people, is involved in so many volunteer projects she finds it more difficult now to make time for travel than she did when she was working! The lifestyle of this couple has kept them young and vibrant, and they are an inspiration for anyone wishing to take a few steps off of the beaten path.