It was half-an-hour until dusk and the view from our hotel room balcony was atmospheric. Flocks of alternately white and black birds flew though the wide valley between high green hills. A cawing sound, and the noise of traffic too – yellow and red buses occasionally visible between rustling trees. The wind grew stronger and soon there might be lightning. Big white sheets of electricity, the same as the evening before.
Then the clatter of drums as the nearby dance show started up. A roaring sound too as a man with a smoke gun blasted all the hotel shrubberies. My moment of peace was over. It was time to go downstairs and eat dinner.
Our first day in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s bustling second city, had been well spent. In the morning, before it became too hot, we’d visited Sri Lanka’s holiest place of worship, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. Then a quick drive up to a viewpoint, where we gazed down upon the octopus of valleys, a squat blue lake in the middle, and hundreds of white buildings rising from the green slopes. Its layout reminded me of Wellington – and perhaps it was a warmer, tropical version of the city in which Kate and Andy live.
Back in the centre, the bus dropped us off at the Clock Tower. We wandered through the market where vendors enthusiastically tried to sell us bananas, papaya, vanilla, and a thousand other fruits. Upstairs was the textile market, plus wood carvings and leather goods. Kate led the way into a batik stall, where she bartered for two scarves.
The road outside the market was so busy it was impossible to cross. Three lanes of tuk-tuks puttered down one side, while an everlasting line of buses dieseled up the other. For a while, we dithered on the curb, watching locals dash across, weaving perilously between all the vehicles. Then fortunately, I spotted a subway – a much safer, more scenic route.
The subway led into an underground area filled with local street artists. They sat with their brushes and tins of paint, creating colourful, standout murals. One showed a traditional dancer around a supporting pillar. Another depicted a row of rich, flower-power elephants. As we left, we saw a boy painting ceremonial elephants, then as we emerged back onto the street, we saw the most amazing elephant of all – a real elephant standing upright on the back of a flat-bed truck. It was being conveyed somewhere, and appeared calm, making no attempt to escape. Perhaps it was an orphanage elephant being taken back to the wild? Or perhaps it was lazy and hitching a lift?
For a while, we wandered. The streets were busy with people, and it was very warm. The traffic too never let up, and the only way to cross at corners was to tag onto other people and dash across behind them. In this way, feet heavy and faces hot, sidestepping and scuttling and wiping our brows, we visited one shopping mall, two bookshops, three cake outlets, and even spotted a Santa grotto with Father Christmas. Yes kids, he was here in Kandy – preparing for his big night in a week’s time.
But we’d had it with the heat, the traffic, the sheer busy-ness of everything. Heading back along a calmer pedestrian route by the lake, we bumped into another member of our group who was watching the birds.
“Look, there’s a cormorant!” He pointed out a huge beaked bird resting on the mud.
“And a squirrel!” Kate gestured at a tiny creature on a tree branch.
Kandy, it seemed, was full of life. Yet not at the next place we visited – the Kandy Garrison cemetery. We found it at the top of a flight of steps, a quiet sunny graveyard that, like its inhabitants, was not on the way to anywhere else. The headstones were well preserved, many partially made of local bricks after damage to the original British stone. At the far end, two big families of monkeys played in the shade of a tree.
The caretaker wandered up, a positive treasure house of information. In an extremely polite voice, he explained how many of the people buried in the cemetry – all British – had died young. Some of malaria, others of cholera, and at least one man, according to the inscription on his headstone, killed by an elephant.
He also had a story about Prince Charles. The prince’s original visit in 1998 had been cancelled following a truck bomb outside the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. Yet fifteen years later, in 2013, Prince Charles returned to visit the cemetery. He visited four graves and was told how money for a new fence – to keep out wild boars – had run out. And a week later, at the prince’s behest, the balance of funds arrived as a gift from Britain.