Colourful trip on the island of tears

AS our train from Colombo snaked up the jungled hills to Kandy, ancient capital of Sri Lanka, the rain came down and the distant mountains disappeared behind mist rising like smoke from valleys far below us.

I opened the door at the end of the carriage and leaned out, snapping the views: the wet, red carriages rounding the cutting ahead; the deep green of jungle; the dashes of colour as local people walked along the track, women in brilliant saris, men in colourful lungis; school children all in dazzling white. Everyone carried umbrellas, these as bright as the fruits and flowers of the giant jungle trees on the slope below us, their canopies almost at eye-level as we passed.

Standing in the open doorway enjoying the breeze and the cool humidity was infinitely more pleasant than sitting in the observation car, albeit the latter had cost us all of €3 each for the three-hour journey, first class. My wife joined me. The ticket collector flashed us a broad smile as he passed. He understood: we were cooling down and taking photos.

!Kandy is in the highlands in the centre of Sri Lanka, an island shaped like a teardrop at the southern tip of India, and indeed, until relatively recently it had been an island of tears. For two decades, Tamil migrants from India had sought to establish an independent state in the north.

Tamils have been in Sri Lanka, then British-ruled Ceylon, for centuries but had integrated and lived peacefully with the locals. However, more recent migrants were not happy with their status, and a vicious war ensued. The native Singhalese finally took draconian measures to recover the Tamil occupied no-go areas in the north. Right or wrong, a recent resolution by the UN Human Rights Council is seeking to charge Singhalese leaders with war crimes. The Singhalese population is incensed and the local press is full of vindications for the actions taken by the army to defeat the insurgent Tamils and recover the lost provinces of their island. We have seen demonstrations in the street.

Rain falls most evenings in Kandy but the days have been sunny and pleasant, and today we abjured a visit to the shrine that contains the Buddha’s tooth, a beautiful temple venerated by Buddhists everywhere, and went, instead, to the botanical gardens, a 157-acre park of extraordinary and magnificent trees, many the like of which one would imagine to grow on a planet other than our own. In the deep green shade of the pathways, women in bright dresses strolled and, in the less-frequented places, lovers were entwined amongst the massive roots of the gigantic trees, as if they had nowhere else to go for courting.

High above us, sometimes, fruit bats as big as curlews cruised between the trees upon which hundreds of their companions hung like miniature funeral umbrellas, although on binocular inspection they proved to have foxy-red chests and heads, and only the outer surfaces of their wings were black.

When they flew, these wings were translucent against the blue sky, and they seemed like creatures from a primordial age.

In Cambodia a frog jumped from a nearby pond under our table and croaked at us in chorus with other frogs nearby. Had I been a poor Cambodian farmer I might have captured it and taken it to the kitchen. Preparing it for the table, I would not, like the French, have taken the unfortunate creature’s legs and discarded the rest.

The entire corpus of the frog is eaten in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Some species are quite large and two would make a meal, while one would need at least four paddy frogs (frogs whose habitat is the rice paddies) to satisfy the appetite.

Tomorrow, onward, by train, to Ella, the highest village in Sri Lanka, a hill station surrounded by tea plantations, a spot beloved of the Raj and still, apparently, “a corner of a foreign field that is forever England”.

However, there are no longer any sahibs or memsahibs, but, apparently great walking, which we hope to enjoy.

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Saturday, November 28, 2020

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