Monthly Archives: February 2019

Record Of The Week # 59

February 25, 2019

Jane Kramer – Valley Of The Bones

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed: genuinely. The conveyor belt of Americana releases roll past revealing quantities of neglected beauty. How an artist gets the recognition and exposure seems as elusive as holding a winning lottery ticket. 

Kramer in promoting her Country Americana release Valley Of The Bones played a few songs on a Facebook Live event. Between the songs she told us of her husband having his debit card refused when buying a sandwich and her scheduled small time gig later at a local bar. Not for her that comforting call asking her to do an Elton John cover for an ersatz Country album where some major label artist has to bowl up to sing a weary vocal over some lethargic arrangement (and then stuff that wad into her purse).

However, let me pick this off the conveyor belt. The North Carolinian’s third album is packed with memorable acoustic led tunes, an expressive and attractive voice with autobiographical stories that leave you staggered at the breadth of topic and profundity.

“Hymn” she describes as a homework assignment from her songwriting mentor, Mary Gauthier ,who concluded all her self-deprecation wasn’t “cute or charming”. The gauntlet went down to write a song from a perspective of self-love. So she set to work and wrote this song on a backpacking trip around Italy. With a band in an acoustic setting she sings:

“Now I’m gonna swing this hammer like you ain’t never seen

I’ve got railroad ties and jasmine vines on the walls of my dreams

I’ve spent year apologizing for a heart that’s true and clean

Now I’m gonna  swing this hammer like you ain’t never seen”

“Waffle House Song” is as jaunty as you might expect (and anyone who fits in a name check for Travis Tritt within the first 38 seconds cannot fail with me). She’s upbeat about her recently broken heart and it seems hash browns have restorative properties. With Billy Cardine’s dobro picking some equally therapeutic notes this sails along and is another gem lost to Country radio. A potential boxset could be taken from the lyric of “I’ll See You Crazy & Raise You Mine”:

“Two years ago for Valentines

I got your name tattooed and you got mine

They spelled my name wrong but you didn’t mind, you said

‘Actually if you squint, you don’t see the extra e’” 

A heart warming tale of an enduring love albeit bordering on the dysfunctional. Again the band keeps this upbeat tune danceable with solos from Eliot Wadopian (bass) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle). 

There are two songs about the loss of a child. Both are beautiful and arresting. Her sonorous and sweeping vocal recounts the vacuum and abandoned dreams over a simple piano on “Child”.  The title track revisits grief in a conversation. This time the pace is picked up and the depth of emotion added to by the band. The words alone make these epic for their beauty and poignancy. Recent gold dust from Courtney Marie Andrews or Joni Mitchell comes to mind.

After the despair she signs off with “Wedding Vows” and strings complement the vocal of her purring satisfaction at the sanctuary and relief that the search is over for a soulmate. So before this passes by then step over that painted line and reach in to grab it quickly before it slides by.

Record Of The Week # 58

February 13, 2019

Hayes Carll – What It Is

Carll’s sixth release has 12 songs spread over a canvas of diverse sounds – acoustic, rockabilly, swaggering rock n’ roll, folk meets bluegrass, lush strings and a Chuck Berry pastiche. This combination is delivered with considerable aplomb and accompanied with his sharp wit and lyrical craft.

Carll’s said of the album “I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it”. We switch between the themes of politics, relationships and his philosophical take on where he is in his life now. He is an established songwriter with a talent for a lyric; when harnessed to these tunes we have an album that deserves critical acclaim; not least from this scribe.

If a woman wanted to have her personality exposed then “None’ya” is a love song extraordinaire.  It is a gently rolling acoustic song with a catchy chorus, telling of his fiancé, Allison Moorer. She seems a strong yet eccentric personality, with tales such as painting ceilings turquoise and sharp rebukes at his seeking to establish where she’s been. None’ya business! 

“Times Like These” follows a well trodden path. By the title you can work out that Carll has joined that long line of Americana musicians sharing his thoughts on the Presidency. He’s more bemused than angry and seeks to tough it out rather than storm Capital Hill. 

The single “Jesus and Elvis” came out in 2017 for Kenny Chesney. Now one of its co-writers sings a “story of a family, a bar, the memories it carries and the things that would comfort us”. It’s got clever wordplay and taps into that Country music tradition of delightful song titles and twists.  Carll’s slightly stretched voice brings personality over a John Prine like tune which thumps along with a Country lilt and some attractive piano. Eventually a trumpet joins the band and adds to the song’s wistfulness.

Bluegrass banjo delivers the album’s best melody with “What It Is”. Carll takes stock of what he has: ‘The future holds a promise that it doesn’t have to keep but it might not need keeping anymore … And what it is is right here in front of me and I’m not letting go”.

“I Will Stay” takes the lights low and finds him caught by a spotlight with his acoustic guitar. With a simple heartfelt melody he offers commitment and tells of his unwaivering love (despite the inevitable ups and downs to come). Strings embellish the beauty. A magnificent album closer.

Terrific.

Sri Lanka, The Last Couple of Days – IT, Lizards & Goodbye

Breakfast included a party of cyclists. This group of elderly pedallers hailed from Melbourne (Australia, not the village near York). One of the party was a lot younger. By the coffee urn I asked if he was the guide? ‘No’ he said. He was the son of one of the party. I quipped that given his age he presumably was expected to fetch and carry for the rest of the party? Apparently that wasn’t the case but he was their ‘IT Help Desk’ in residence!

As she was developing a penchant for complaining Anna sought a different tent for the next night: one further away from the early risers in the kitchen. Before returning to our new abode then there was the small matter of elephants. At the Udawalawe National Park we clambered on board our 4 x 4’s and set off down the bumpy tracks to find wildlife. We certainly found the odd elephant or two!

There were so many jeeps it was hard to drive around. Here in the park I regularly inhaled diesel fumes as we parked up for passengers to gorge themselves on photos. Craig wittily commented, under his breath, that we were ‘experiencing a large migration of safari jeeps’.

This park had some other creatures including water buffalo. It was a privilege to get close to the elephants and see how they ate. Note that one elephant was apt to reach into the jeeps, this caused a little bit of anxiety for the passengers.

From here we went to an Elephant Rehab Centre. We were sat across a small moat watching about 30 animals troop into a large pen for some milk. This was a supplement to the diet of vegetation they spent all day consuming.

Elsewhere in the pen was some broken branches with tasty leaves. You could see that the babies were not sure how to consume the leaves and watched the larger elephants a little lost. This partly explains why all these ages and sizes come together. It’s because the babies can watch the other animals behave and learn: this is what would happen if they had a mother to teach them.

Sri Lanka only has a few thousand elephants but had, Prabash suggested, up to a million before the British arrived. I think the inference was that the expat gentry and military had shot them all. It has to be said that ivory was highly sought back in the day. I inherited some ivory figurines from my grandmother. She probably bought them without a second thought about the elephant population early in the 20th Century. There was a thriving industry in Europe in ornaments and piano keys.

However, I think you also have to look at a shrinking habitat and a growing Sri Lankan population displacing these giants as a contributory factor. In 1980 the population was around 15 million. Today it’s nearer 21 million. No doubt it was a fraction of that 100 years earlier. Apparently marauding elephants, in pursuit of the contents of farmer’s fields, account for about 25 human deaths a year. It’d be reasonable to guess that bereft families have killed the odd mammal. Today in these discreet areas they are kept in by electrified fences.

It was tremendous to see these animals being nurtured. Human contact is minimised and the plan is to return the animals exclusively into the wild when appropriate.

Up to this point the G Adventures itinerary had been superb. However, we ended up with a spare afternoon without an activity. In fact the plan was to spend a further night under canvas and go back to the campsite. Campsites and canvas are awful on hot sunny days – you’re best getting there when the day’s heat is falling. Prabash had the solution for us staying around the swimming pool at a hotel we’d had lunch at. The logical question was why didn’t we stay at this hotel or get on the bus and head south nearer our final destination?

The campsite meal was nearly identical to the night before. The insect bite relief came in handy at 2am after one of these little bastards bit my thumb.

It was the final bus ride as we headed south to the coast. We had lunch in Matara which is about as south as you can get on the island. The reason for this direction was to pick up a motorway back up to the suburbs of Colombo and Negombo. The speed of the motorway was worth this ‘long way round’ rather than a twisty urban route. As we’re zooming along there a pop and a bit of a shake. The rear offside tyre had punctured.

We were all allowed to stay on the bus whilst the driver and assistant did a swift job in fitting the spare. Ferrari or McLaren would have been proud. Negombo was our last location/stop on the trip. Anna had booked us two nights. We all went out for the last supper at a fish restaurant and there was lots of clinking of drinking glasses by way of our goodbyes.

Anna signed off in style (sat next to our excellent driver)

Negombo is a bustling town with a coastline dotted with hotels. Ours is fine and nicely sat on the beach, it may not be in the first flush of youth but neither is Negombo.

I’m aware patronising Westerners can be wrong in their lofty condemnation but it’s useful to show the other side of the coin as regards the beautiful Sri Lankan countryside. (Yet again I would add there is rubbish on some of our UK housing estates but we have a local Council prepared to collect their trash).

This was found amongst the fishermen on the shore mending their nets or sorting their catches. Why not pick it all up? I’m assuming that there is an agency that would carry the detritus if it were all bagged up and ready to collect. The town itself was heaving. Lots of small shops selling everything.

Being back at sea level meant the heat was intense and I walked around a stationery shop literally melting. I was afraid to touch anything made of paper as I might leave it wet.

So one last night and it was up early to get to the airport and then a long two flights back home. Amazingly on the Dubai to Manchester leg we had live Premiership football – I watched three games as well as tracked the Leeds United score on the internet. My oh my how the inflight entertainment has come along.

So in summary Anna and I enjoyed this holiday immeasurably. It was always interesting and well paced with lots to see. The country is vibrant and colourful with kindly people who never posed any safety issues or discomfort. The weather was amazing and transportation quite easy. The culture was absorbing and educational. I did fancy cycle touring much of it (not the bigger towns) such was the quality of road surfaces, availability of food and water and the gentle gradients. The guide and his crew were truly exceptional. I hope we were seen as reasonable and that we all tipped them adequately.

Being on a bus was interesting with such a mix of nationalities in the party. We got along fine although it took eight days for one person to pluck up the interest or confidence to start a conversation with me. The two millennials were brilliant and I learned a lot from both. The ‘singles’ were a trifle indulgent in a conversation: always happy to bang on about their lives in the most excruciating detail, loving the attentive audience, but never thinking to ask you a question back. Maybe this is why their single?

Only one member of the group was a burden. I haven’t talked about them here as it seemed mean and a downer. I think they had some mental health issues. One amusing story was that at one place we transferred from the bus to two jeeps for a safari. Two of the party took a toilet break including this person. When the first of the party reappeared there was a big shout from both jeeps for them to join one of the two jeeps. This shout went up because no one wanted the remaining person to join them. Craig, in this instance, was touched by the surprising affection he’d suddenly accrued!

We filled in the questionnaire saying what we thought about the trip. We were happy to give top marks except for the camping.

Sri Lanka Day 8 – Tea, Grandeur & A Norwegian Cat

Kandy was a busy and noisy place: there were no regrets about our leaving and We started a long slow climb south. The roads outside Colombo were motorway standard for a short distance before becoming single lane. Despite being single lane they got progressively easier as the traffic lightened until we got to Kandy. After Kandy we had a long series of hairpins for 50 miles and 1,300 metres of climbing to Nuwara Eliya. At 1,860 metres high we climbed well into the mountains and into the rain!

The scenery has always been green but we went from sub tropical to alpine. Waterfalls, tall trees, steep roads and tea plantations. It was beautiful.

Our ascent behind the ever present tuk-tuks was slow but steady and we were invited to pile out for regular photo opportunities.

At Blue Field Tea we had a quick factory tour. The factory wasn’t working as it was a national holiday to celebrate independence. It was fascinating to say the least. The factory itself dates back to 1921 and was set up by the British. In fact Prabash ran through the British ‘abuse’ of the Chinese during the years we ‘lured’ the Chinese onto opium in order to extract their tea and silver. We Brits by then had a great taste for the little leaf and even went as far as to take the leaf from the now spaced out Chinese and plant it elsewhere in the Empire. We brought it to Ceylon. From here a great industry grew up and still flourishes today. Many of the producers have British names for their plantations such as ‘Edinburgh’. (Sadly not the Duke of Edinburgh).

(Despite abolishing slavery in 1833) Prabash advised that we brought Tamils from Southern India to work the tea plantations as ‘slaves’ in the 1860s. I think there was the imposition of indenture and considerable restriction. However, It comes to mind that a guarantee of regular paid work (and accommodation) and an aptitude for working hard made the recruitment attractive to employer and employee.

The factory made about eight types of tea from the leaves they grew on the steep slopes around. The most popular was the Broken Orange Pekoe which is more commonly known as English Breakfast Tea. The factory kept about 20% of their production for their own sales but the balance went to Colombo to the auctions. Apparently the big drinkers are the Poles, Brits and Russians. We sampled a few variants and had a spot of lunch.

Continuing to the top we came to rest at Nuwara Eliya. This town was established by the British as an administrative centre for the Civil Service in the 19th Century. Not least because the expats could escape the heat below. British pursuits of horse racing, boating, golf, cricket, hunting on horse back etc took hold for the gentry and many of the buildings acquired a British look. It sounds like period drama.

‘British’ buildings can be seen including the Post Office below:

The centre of town is down at heal but there are hotels that host the tourists who come to experience some of the colonial grandeur. We stayed at The Grand Hotel, which felt like a country hotel back in Blighty.

Prabash spoke highly of it and I have to say the service was sublime and all things worked! After checking into the room the present Mrs Ives complained to the management about the mattress being too soft. Staff found an alternative mattress for Her Ladyship.

We then strolled into town for a quick look and for the third of our commercial ventures of the day. Anna who isn’t an enthusiastic holiday shopper started the day as she meant to go on. Firstly at a silk printing shop where she tried on a selection of garments before buying two gifts for ‘Cost Centre 1’ and ‘Cost Centre 2’, namely our daughters. I don’t want to ruin their surprise by saying what was bought but it’s not often you can find lime green silk sequinned balaclavas. They say you can always tell that a person is a Sri Lankan if they automatically smile at you. My salesman lost this national gift as we started in US dollars and went to Rupees. Along the way we came to two prices of which I sought a third lower one. I must have got it right because he looked downright miserable when he took the cash*.

The second deal involved two small ornamental elephants (yes, I know I think she’s losing her mind) where Prabash took over the haggle to Anna’s satisfaction. The last was me again and this time the shop owner who parted with a fleece cum top for Anna looked distinctly too happy about our transaction. I strolled away knowing that it was probably a win, draw and loss overall.

We dined in the hotel and retired early. One dish caught the eye!

We’re all on a WhatsApp group called ‘So Lost’. This is the name agreed for our group. Photos are being circulated and this is how I got the leopard photo from Helena of Toronto.

We set the alarm for 4.40am. This lunacy facilitated a one hour drive to The Horton Plains National Reserve. In the dark a fleet of mini vans raced up the winding road in the dark. It was like being at the back of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. Vans overtook where the narrow road did or didn’t allow and we were thrown around. On rail crossings, on pieces of road with sheer drops or where they could wind up their tired old trucks to sufficient speed to race past each other. Needless to say the hotel’s pack up breakfast could be eaten or worn as we ascended. At the top we joined 20 or 30 other vans in a undisciplined line to get into the park. This madness meant an inexplicable traffic jam for 40 minutes wondering what was going on and watching dawn break.

Eventually we were disgorged and embarked on a hike to two wonderful view points: The Greater World’s End and the Mini World’s End. They were amazing. The hike was a walk of 6 miles with many other tourists – Japanese, Chinese, French and Brits. We’d been advised to wear hiking boots. I wore trainers but other tourists wore mainly sensible footwear but flip flops and Crocs were spotted. The park rule was that you were not allowed to take polythene and our bags were checked. Despite this there was a little litter on the trail despite signs advising not to. This really frustrates me.

Back at the bus I discussed bikes, including his Brompton, with Ching and we soon arrived back at the hotel. We cleaned up, had lunch and then started a four drive down from the Highlands to Udawalawe. Anna discussed Norway with Louise toward the back of the bus. Louise was regaling her with some long detailed story about ‘house sitting’ in Oslo. Part of the discussion involved Louise’s difficulty in persuading the house cat to come into the property. Anna was volunteering a suitable ‘call’ in Norwegian. Those around them in the bus put in their headphones to shut out this nonsense.

The scenery was never short of staggering and we saw ladies working in the fields.

We passed through Ella. This is an up and coming spot with younger back packing tourists. We stopped for a ‘biological break’ and bought some coffee in this trendy spot. On the long drive we passed through many settlements. I’m aware that these locals are not wealthy and their lives don’t prioritise making their villages pretty. However, a few coats of emulsion paint, a bit of gloss and some renewed signage would have lifted everything dramatically.

You could get well away buying your booze from here!

I wasn’t the only grumpy person complaining about being back under canvas for two nights. This isn’t like my cycle camping at all. Just somehow less space, no hot water, terrible wi-fi, poor lighting (to sort your luggage), insects, frogs, lizards and a bit noisy first thing in the morning. It was turning dark as we stumbled around our tents and again under a starlit sky we dined outside, which was lovely. After our dining we returned to the tent to enable the mosquitos to dine.

*Kandy was the last time I saw my Debit Card. I didn’t realise my loss until two days later when I needed it again. I think I lost it at this shop: sweet revenge for my maligned shopkeeper. At the time of cancelling it then there had been no fraudulent use of the card.

Sri Lanka Days 7 – Putin, Charity & A Serial Killer

This is the leopard we saw a few days back. Helen kindly circulated her image and I must share it.

So let’s talk about the British legacy. We departed in 1948 and Ceylon became independent. Prabash, our guide, would have it that Hitler enabled their escape from the colonial yoke. He opines that Britain granted independence to much of its Empire due to its financial predicament after the war. We were skint. He sees little good about our colonial heritage and I can imagine him throwing an energetic V sign to our departing backs (had he been around at the time). There you have it! I think that has elements of truth but not all of it.

Today the Sri Lankans have our language. This is an asset and as regards its structure and organisation there appears something a little British in the way they do things including roundabouts! In Kandy there are many links with British higher education establishments; so our education must be coveted. However, it seems since independence that Britain has slipped away as being important as a trading partner or influence. We were preoccupied by our own post war domestic priorities and certainly not interested in faraway parts of the Commonwealth. There are hints at Sri Lanka being a once useful export market with odd sightings of Morris Minors, a Ford Anglia, old Jaguars and the still ubiquitous Leyland logo.

On this latter point then Leyland ceased to have anything to do with this Indian truck manufacturer after 1985 but the name lives on (unlike Leyland in the UK where the plant makes DAF trucks). I can understand that with our failing car industry we had other priorities on our mind. Let’s face it the dealers in Leamington Spa, Southend and Lincoln probably bought the same volume as Ceylon at the time. Today Toyota, Honda, Suzuki and Mitsubishi’s are the cars of choice today.

A colonial power cannot be defended but when you look at post-war India and Ceylon there was and is still poverty and corruption. The level of death on the sub Continent through religious conflict was enormous (but before we get too smug then let’s not forget Northern Ireland’s sectarian turmoil).

So how do they ‘earn a living’ today? The major earner is repatriated income from Sri Lankan’s either living or working abroad, second is the manufacture of garments (check that tag for ‘Sri Lanka’). Third would be tourism and fourth precious gems – out of the 264 gem types in the world they mine and sell 203. Lastly there is the export of cinnamon and tea. I mentioned corruption above. This extends into cricket. I asked why I’d only seen one set of men playing cricket and I was told that the problem lay with the Sri Lankan cricket board! The cost of equipment is prohibitive for schools apparently. Corruption has stopped the money reaching those who need or want it.

We get these facts and commentaries from Pabash as we drive along. (It is beyond doubt that his thought for the programme and care for each member of the party is immense). Today we were off to Kandy and it was our usual brisk morning start. The first stop was wood carving. We had the local species of wood explained to us and their uses. I asked if any of these wood species were protected by environmental legislation? I was told that they replant to compensate for the depletion. However, how long does it take to grow an ebony tree? I’m not convinced there is serious protection of these scarce resources. This solution seems ineffective if even true. All the wood working and painting was top class.

I would have bought something and I admired the vast selection of elephants, masks, flowers and icons. The prices were bizarre. A hovering salesman said the prices were ‘negotiable’. Who can be bothered to go through all that palaver?

Back on the bus we next stopped at a small shed/lock up garage and saw the many uses of coconut and its tree. These included – food, alcohol, oil for lights, vinegar, roofing, rope, mats and cooking utensils from the shells. Quite amazing. This host family of man and wife, child and mother put on a slick show demonstrating how they used the flesh, leaves, shell and liquids to make all these things. We were enthralled.

Getting back on board it was a short ride to learn about the medicinal uses of the various plants and trees that grew in Sri Lanka. The list included nutmeg, turmeric, cloves, pineapple, arnica, vanilla, ginger, aloe vera etc. In fact I stopped writing them down. Treatments, prevention, control of and cures extended to cancer, diabetes, cholesterol, hair lustre, arthritis, thrombosis and many others. Sadly I noted none for baldness…

This wasn’t ‘witchcraft’ as many of the above are sold at Holland & Barrett and at other British outlets nowadays. So back on the bus we drove and briefly saw a Hindu Temple before a hectic lunch break then into the centre of Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth.

Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka with a population the size of York but a road system for the size of Wetherby. It is very ramshackle and grid locked with traffic. This is due to it being in the mountains and finding space for wider or more roads is impossible. The Temple was another off with the shoes, cover your shoulders and knees ‘event’. I’ve worn my long shorts on all these religious visits yet the other men tend to don long pants. It’s too hot for me to contemplate (even if I’m not allowed in!) The Temple was heaving and the tooth is one of Buddha’s. It was smuggled to Sri Lanka from India when the Mongol hoards invaded and controlled the mainland in the 5th Century. It was rescued from Buddha’s funeral pyre. It is enormously important for the Sinhalese majority.

The tooth is under lock and key and we didn’t see it. It is always held by the highest in the land, whether that is the king or now the President. We Brits held it (appropriated) after our occupation yet ‘kindly’ gave it back in 1857. This return is shown in a picture in the Temple. More recently the Temple was bombed in the late 90s by the Tamil Tigers killing 16, including the bombers. This is not the first bombing. The damage has been repaired.

We were all now jaded after the heat but there was traditional dancing to endure. This was in a theatre full of tourists and just dragged on with little charm. The four drummers beat the ‘ess haitch one tee’ out of their weapons and occasionally a man would appear to make a noise, like a cat in a meat grinder, on a flute. The girls and blokes leapt around a bit but ‘The King & I’ or Bollywood it wasn’t. One of our party abandoned this din for the relative calm of a bustling street outside.

The hotel was just fabulous by comparison and we all celebrated with Western food and beer!

A day in Kandy was planned and so into the bus and by the time the driver had found third gear he was braking. We stopped at a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. During WW2 over 2,000 soldiers lost their life in the conflict operating from Ceylon. The island was a vital staging post between Asia and Europe and strategically important. The Japanese attempted to neutralise it with attacks to damage the ports and ships. As always the ages of the dead is sobering. A sacrifice we cannot forget not least of the Ceylonese troops who died in a war that probably visited them due to a British presence. As always these cemeteries are immaculately maintained.

Next was a gem showroom. If you’ve read an earlier blog we weren’t happy at the last detour to one in Colombo. This was a different story in that this was a higher class establishment and it was more educational. They explained the mining process and had better wares. The ring that Princess Diana wore as her engagement ring that Prince William gave to Kate is much talked about with no little pride.

This large sapphire is Sri Lankan in origin. So we did the history, did the manufacturing process and then were plonked in the showroom with 10 sales people. Much to my amazement some of our sober and money savvy travellers were buyers! Craig, the easy rolling Aussie software guy, bought his mum some earrings (or that’s what he says), Anastasiia (correctly spelt) our lofty Russian millennial model was always likely to buy and bought a ring and so did the Canadian couple. As regards this latter couple I’m glad I hadn’t been asked to bet on the likelihood of their buying as I wouldn’t have risked a rupee. It goes to show that you never can tell. Helena and Allan bought a star sapphire ring. So how much? Well all I can say is that they secured a 56% discount on the asking price!

….and Tony was Anna interested? No not at all. “I have enough jewellery” was the repeated mantra and our old friend American Express remained in its holster.

Next stop was the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was calm and idyllic with lots of exotic trees and flowers. Carl, ever the practical policeman did advise against lurking under trees with bats in them.

He pointed at various black spots on the path. This was bat vomit. He tells me they gorge on fruit but when hanging upside down they spew it up. (Don’t tell me you’re not learning with this blog).

Note the orchids.

I chatted with Anastasiia about Russia. She’s from Siberia near Lake Baikel. I asked about Putin and life for ordinary Russians. The story is as per China. Within 50 years most people have come from poverty to relative prosperity even if it still seems quite a hard life. With such progress who really cares about democracy, freedom of speech and openness? They know their leaders are corrupt but they personally have progress, stability and improving economic prospects. With their nation’s progress comes the logical reassertion of global reputation and power. They see their leaders as strong.

After lunch we were ferried to a shop/cafe that the tour operator (G Adventures) contributes toward the upkeep. This shop raises funds and awareness for under privileged and abused women and children with special needs. This is not a well funded activity in Sri Lanka and women are very much a ‘second class’ group of people.

We received a talk and then shopped for some goods made by some of the women they help. Anna and I bought some items and also added a donation. In Sri Lankan terms we were quite generous but by UK standards it wouldn’t have kept your local charity shop in business.

As we’re on the subject of a big heart and charity let’s talk about Joe. Quite a character. A bachelor with a gift of the gab and an independent spirit. I’ve told you he works all hours for UPS and takes immense exotic holidays. He wanders around the monuments we visit on his mobile. He’s not just taking photos but messaging. On his UPS ‘beat’ he has regular customers. Many of them are his friends. I asked him at one stop what the message was? He said it was from a customer – some elderly lady who’s made spaghetti for her husband but made too much. Was he hungry and what time would he be in her block? I can see how they’d love him: he has a ready, warm personality and is completely upbeat.

At breakfast he told us a little about his Italian heritage and a grandmother, born in Italy of a poor family, who lived with them in New York. They kept animals such as rabbits, ducks etc. The children viewed them all as pets but they kept going missing. “Joe, they’ve jumped over the fence and gone”. The reality was that his grandmother killed this livestock regularly for the evening stew! She was used to killing her meat on the day. Joe, with that Brooklyn drawl concluded… “all those years and I was livin’ with a serial killer”.

But I digress, back at Sthree. Joe decides to let four of the staff buy a certain value of items for themselves, he’s no use for ceramics, sarees, fridge magnets, throws, kitchen utensils, purses etc. The staff are really delighted and pick stock off the shelves and Joe pays. He probably also makes a separate donation. It’s a lot lot more than Anna and I spent or donated. We’re piecing this together because he’s not advertising this generosity.

Sometimes you can be in the presence of humbling kindness.

Sri Lanka Days 5 & 6 – An Aston Martin, Climbs & Sour Milk

Despite the beautiful setting the breakfast cereal milk was sour and the coffee the waiter fetched me was 70% milky water. I consumed neither. However, consumption hasn’t been a problem generally with copious amounts, usually at buffets, both lunchtime and evening. Without little irony the food here is better suited to vegetarian Anna than in France and definitely Germany.

After a leisurely start we climbed on the bus we each were each given a flower. This gives the giver ‘good karma’. By the same token we’ve received cups of tea and biscuits as part of this karma on parts of the tour. This is part of the Buddhist tradition and seems (and is) kind and peaceful but up until 2009 the country had a 25 year old civil war with the Tamils (Hindus). The UN calculate that over 100,000 died with several high profile assassinations and atrocities. Under the British we placed a number of Tamils in high positions because of their education and quality of English. The Buddhist majority (Sinhalese) resented this favour. After the British left there were ethnic tensions and by 1978 legislation was being passed for affirmative action for the majority. Actively the Tamils were being replaced.

War erupted with Tamils seeking a separate state and later an autonomous region. The war was bloody and the Tamil Tigers were not religious but highly political, organised and internationally well funded and armed. Even agreed Indian armed intervention (where 69 million Tamils live) was unsuccessful with India eventually becoming their foes. There were numerous peace attempts and eventually the Tamil cause internationally was proscribed as terrorist. In 2009 the Sri Lankan army prevailed with horrific bloodshed and the war was over. Despite our history lesson from the guide about all sorts then this era is assiduously avoided. Maybe the Sinhalese and Tamils aren’t at war but a toxic legacy must remain?

We were on the road to Habarana. This has place has a preserved traditional village. Here we’d see the plants, the farming, go for a boat ride on their lake, ride in a cart pulled by bulls and then have a traditionally prepared lunch in a hut. All very unique and interesting. On the road Prabash gave an introduction explaining how a farmer first found the land and prepared it for living and farming. He said the land needed clearing but they always left one big tree. Why? It was left in case there was a rampaging elephant or elephants. When this happened you could climb the tree to escape the trampling. Mind you, it had to be a strong tree!

We walked the village and our guide explained some of the medicinal properties of the fauna. Anna knew quite a few of these from her Mungo Deli shop days. More than a couple of the party thought the village was idyllic and self sufficient. With electric fences the elephants were more controlled nowadays! A woman prepared lunch (that we ate with our fingers) and even demonstrated breaking the husks off rice with a very large mortar and pestle.

Again more food, quite delicious and lots of it. Buffets are always fatal in that you can have seconds. I say fatal because a piece of grilled fish stuck in Anna’s throat and it took a bit of thumping on the back from Karl to displace the offending animal. Next we drove to Dambulla and a visit to the Golden Temple. The terrain is now becoming a bit more hilly and this temple (a historic rather than active place) is reached by a long walk uphill. A feature are the caves where there are many Buddha statues and paintings. In the scheme of things then most of these monuments were built by kings all the way back to the beginning of the first millennium. They seem to have had long periods of disuse, probably during the British colonial rule.

All our guides, demonstrators, canoeists, hotel porters etc. have to be tipped. Usually it is a couple pounds equivalent in Sri Lankan Rupees. To alleviate all this we were asked and gave Prabash 10,000 Rupees (c£40) along with the rest of the party to cover all this activity. In fairness when off the bus and at the sights there are a number of hawkers but little harassment. It is quite a relaxed and comfortable place.

After the visit the drive was short to a smart hotel. After we all checked in and showered and convened for a beer. This hotel is a tourist hub and lots of French people were about. Dining was at the hotel and whilst only £10 per head was at least double of what we usually paid and probably eight times what we’d pay out on the street.

It was an early start and we were headed for the Sigiriya ancient rock fortress. This was built in the 5th Century by King Kasyapa. He had expected an attack by a prince he had usurped for the throne and who’d been banished to India. The fort is atop a 200 metre rock outcrop.

Climbing it before the heat set in was the plan. Later in the morning the high heat would arrive with throngs of school children, German, French, Russian, Chinese tourists. There are some English voices but not many.

Mrs Ives (avec chapeau) ascending)

The fort complex starts at ground level but the ultimate safe haven is at the top. Our ascent was steep via stairways and steps. I enjoyed the workout. The views at the top were spectacular but a little hazy due to the heat. The king had a wife but, in addition, around 200 concubines. The view is that he was kept busy. Around 17 years after taking residence in this very defendable location he ventured out when the rightful prince returned. He descended from his safe haven and lost the battle, country and life.

From here we returned to the hotel via a supermarket stop to buy some lunch. It was a relief to not have the usual curry buffet and buy some simple bread based items. In the afternoon I stayed at the hotel whilst Anna ventured out for a massage with a couple of the others. She came back smelling like vegetable biryani. Lord knows what they rubbed into her hair and body but a shower was in order.

In the bar and the sticker says Aston Martin?

In the evening, when actually hungry this time, we slipped across road from the hotel to a roadside cafe. It was a vet ‘local’ haunt with a corrugated metal roof, trestle tables with plastic table cloths and plastic patio chairs. This is where the chef cooks in his open air kitchen beside the tables creating his dishes to the sound of chopping, scraping and frying. All of this smelt divine. Sat here loads of food arrived including dahls, hoppers (like a pancake), kottus and fried rice. We washed it down with some soft drinks and yoghurt to finish. Needless to say the costs was really negligible – a quarter of last night.

To pack this down we strolled the hotel grounds for a constitutional in the balmy evening beside a field literally throbbing with the sound of crickets. We returned to the room to listen to Talksport 2 on our iPhone app. The cricket commentary from the West Indies was ball by ball. Sadly England are limbering up for a battering.