Kandy is our favourite city, an amalgamation of Kate and Andy. It is hot. It is busy. Yet like Wellington, as you climb into its surrounding hills, you can appreciate that this is a place where sky, water, and forest collide to produce a tapestry of sometimes frenzied, sometimes peaceful loose ends. The successive flocks of birds, white against forest, black against sky, that every dusk swoop north to south onto the lake. The crows that congregate in trees, cawing loudly, and the monkeys that cross telegraph lines then raid hotel balconies.
Overall, we’ll have spent five nights in Kandy out of our total of twenty-eight. And while we’ve observed the obvious – the birds flying at dusk and the twinkling city panorama after – I can only sense the real Kandy in my dreams.
And such dreams I’ve dreamt here, from our big wide bed in our eyrie room. Not dreams of the Kandy we see – the valley, the lake, the little white houses dotted like Lego bricks in the forest – but of a more rural city, a place where time circles, like those birds, progressing nowhere, beginning at the end, and ending at our beginning. This is a city that embraces my heart and torments my head. Twice have I woken from different versions of Kandy, mid-afternoon naps in which the sun smiles in in an odd way, the dead are embraced again and the living are kinder. Perhaps it is our room, how it seems to sit so precariously on the edge of everything, looking down on everything – fish, bird, man, lake, beggar – and taunting our elevated view of ourselves.
We checked back into the Thi Lanka early in the afternoon. The room we had last time possessed such a special atmosphere, we wanted to repeat the same self-indulgent transcendental experience. Our old room – 711 -wasn’t available though. Someone else with a red case had taken it. So they offered us a better room – 969 – up on the fifth floor. And the layout was the same, the bathroom a ballroom with a badly fitted bath, and the balcony so high up eagles might nest there. We would be able to see everything we had before. Our room with a view, of a city retiring to sleep, and then later of New Year’s Eve, celebrating with hundreds of fireworks as the last sun of 2019 set on yet another day.
This time in Kandy we weren’t in a group, and this time we were lazy. Later that afternoon, we went pastry shopping: four vegetable samosas, two egg rottis, one sausage roll, plus all the various sweet things that Devon Bakery could fit in one bag. I also made a clandestine visit to the bottle shop hidden like a speakeasy in the carpark at the back of Carim’s supermarket, the sort of place where you pulled your hoodie up over your ears and came out with a clinking concealed brown paper bag. Then we tried our luck in the modern mall next door, first gobbling down a patty filled Texas Burger, then watching the miniature roller-coaster coast spin like a teaspoon outside.
Sunil had taken the bus back to Negombo so he could be with his family for midnight mass. We had the keys to his car in our safe, yet valiantly resisted taking it out for a ride. Kate still hadn’t fulfilled her desire of driving a tuk-tuk, but that was a different matter. Instead we ate some of the pastries, watched a few lights, and went to bed early. Tonight was the end of a sad year whereas tomorrow was the beginning of a newer happier one.
As promised, Sunil arrived back promptly at midday, always such a reliable man. He drove us out to the big Buddha statue that looks out over the whole of Kandy, then onto the War Cemetery where many allied soldiers are buried. The cemetery lay in a beautiful green knoll, the flowers and grass kept immaculate by the head gardener who’d worked there for twenty years. He explained how the dead were buried in different sections, all the Muslims in one part, the Sri Lankans in another, the British in a third section. A plaque on the wall described the history of conflict in Sri Lanka during WWII, and how many soldiers had died during a Japanese attack on the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee on April 5th, 1942. Many of the casualties were extremely young, some only eighteen. This was a special place to visit, not only because of its beauty but also because of the tragic history of the men it now honours. Some places on the Sri Lanka trip will really stick in my mind- and this undoubtedly is one of them.
Then onto the market, to view the wonderful street murals again, and to engage in some very unpleasant bartering.
I wanted to buy a large handcrafted, embroidered batik of an elephant that I’d seen two weeks ago when Kate had purchased some scarves. The price then, before bartering, had been seven and a half thousand rupees. Now however when I asked, it had risen by a staggering forty percent to twelve and a half thousand rupees. I frowned and told the salesman this, but he joked back anyone could claim to have come in before and stuck rigidly to his price. Then Kate stepped in too, holding up the scarves she’d bought and challenging him to recall the conversation we’d had back then about New Zealand.
“You just told that couple in here -” she referred to a couple of tourists who’d only recently left the shop “- that the boatmen on the lake are con men. Yet it’s you who’s the con man, giving us one price one week, then doubling it when we come back. You remember New Zealand? You remember Kane Williamson and you remember Trevor Chappell? Well, Kiwis don’t like people who bowl underarm!”
He had to back down after that. I paid him seven thousand for the batik. Probably still too much I’m sure, but the pushy aggressive guy on the other side of the market was even worse – he wanted nineteen thousand for a similar batik, nearly three times the amount I’d paid. With starting prices that much over the odds, it’s not even worth negotiating.
Swim carefully in this market, the central market in Kandy, for despite all the beautifully made things on sale, danger lurks. The elephants might keep their trunks above water, but they also have long memories.