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Phespirit goes to Sri Lanka
tour     February/March 2006

A year on from his trip to Southern India, Phespirit returned to the same region for a tour of neighbouring Sri Lanka. The primary reason for visiting this part of the world in February and March is to avoid the two heavy monsoon seasons that peak in June-July and October to December. Of course, in these days of climate change and global warming there are no guarantees so whereas his passage through India was uninterrupted by rainfall, his Sri Lankan sojourn was mostly conducted beneath billowing clouds. Only a couple of days were rain-affected, so the clouds actually served as a benign shelter from the fiercely burning sun. Still, they shouldn't have been there - not when Phespirit had paid dry-season prices.

As is often the case with island nations, Sri Lanka has evolved a strong sense of national identity that helps to preserve its political and cultural independence, despite the presence of powerful forces across the Palk Strait and over four hundred years of European intrusion. Nonetheless, as Phespirit travelled from north to south he noticed that the sequence of tourist sights was eerily similar to the sequence he'd come across in India: starting with cultural sites (royal and religious), moving on to countryside (safaris, tea plantations) and ending up on the coast (beaches and cities).

The so-called 'Cultural Triangle' of Sri Lanka has an ex-capital city at each of its three points:

Located at the heart of the island, Kandy has sustained its position of importance, growing to become a busy modern city and centre of pilgrimage. The older capitals, meanwhile, have been reduced to ruins, albeit on a spectacular scale. Guidebooks report that the relative merits of each site are too close to call, but Phespirit rated Polonnaruwa as by far the most aesthetically rewarding. It has a prodigious diversity of religious and palatial structures; it has the most serenely beautiful Buddha statue on the island (the standing granite carving of the Gal Vihara), and the museum is excellent. Note the helpful label on its relief map of Polonnaruwa: Scale: One Chain to an Inch.

The hill country to the south of Kandy is tea plantation territory. Phespirit travelled by road through lush green undulating landscapes of immaculately trimmed tea bushes, twisting and climbing for mile after mile, passing by Hatton and the Devon and St Clair waterfalls, to the old colonial town Nuwara Eliya. Here he spent one night at the Hill Club hotel. This grand old establishment was founded in 1885 as an exclusive retreat for well-heeled gentlemen of taste, good manners and a respectably pale complexion. It is now reduced to providing overnight accommodation for fee-paying riff-raff such as Phespirit in order to keep its now-predominantly Sri Lankan membership in the comfort to which they have become accustomed. Guests are not permitted to roam the corridors after 7:00pm unless they don a jacket and tie. Some people of adore such ostentatiousness. Phespirit hated it; whilst lying in bed he bitterly noted:

      "There's no sincerity in a place like the Hill Club, just the vain arrogance that invariably accompanies manufactured exclusivity. The retention of colonial values is designed solely for the belittling oppression of those foolish enough to enter (willingly or otherwise) this warp in civilised society. The trappings of grandeur are merely a trap. Here the rickety grandeur is on life-support, artificially prevented from passing on naturally and with dignity. It is a sad, backward anomaly; an understandable paradise for 19th century tea planters but an unsuitable purgatory for 21st century travellers in a more mature world of broader values and social sensitivities."

But enough chip-on-shoulder ranting - onwards, instead, to Yala National Park for a nice safari, and then across to the west coast town of Kalutara with its uncomplicated beachside hotels and ready access to Colombo and Galle. The coastal region between Colombo and Galle, including the railway that runs in close parallel with it, was particularly hard hit by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Phespirit visited these cities by train and witnessed a corridor of land between the tracks and the sea that had been scoured of its buildings, leaving flat foundations, stumps of walls and acres of scattered masonry - the debris of destruction. The few homes that now stand are either new built, partially built or temporary shacks. Quite how 'temporary' these will prove to be for the poorest families remains to be seen.

Whilst up in the hill country, Phespirit glimpsed the extent to which human appropriation can have an impact upon nature's landscapes. Whilst down on the coast, he glimpsed the extent to which nature's appropriation can have an impact upon human landscapes. Across the island, he saw how the enduring national identity of Sri Lanka, both cultural and natural, transcends it all.

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