We check in to the hotel and the steamer to Ceylon sails away. This part of India has some fantastic temples and Mahabalipuram is a name that lingers. For three days, we visit several catching a couple of festivals. One has a huge procession going slowly though the main street, while at another we see a young couple and baby, all with shaven heads.
Three days and the boat is back where we are at the head of the queue, but formalities take forever. A French couple are miffed at not having favourable treatment like we Brits and have to wait in a longer, slower queue. But we feel sorry for one guy, headmaster of a Pakistani girls school who with several other teachers, shepherds this gaggle of young girls onto the boat. One of the teachers does Art and has stayed on in (then) West Pakistan after partition and has no interest in returning to Blighty, her English now having a Pakistani accent.
Next morning we arrive in Ceylon, and take a train up into the highlands hauled by a powerful Canadian locomotive. With a gentle breeze across it much of the time, Ceylon feels cooler than southern India. We get off at Kandy in the central highlands and go to Peradeniya to see Anussorn’s friends. His school chum is not there but his father, an Army Colonel is and we swap travel stories. David Lean’s film Bridge on the River Kwai was shot there and the Colonel provided the transport – the steam train used was ready for the scrapyard, but worked well enough for the film and to be crashed at the end. Opening heavy rain scene was courtesy of the local fire brigade (rain stops very suddenly) and the Colonel was surprised at the actors’ lines being written up on boards off camera, for the actors.
The AA Club is on a main road and one day we take a trip down to the docks. We meet two Irish guys in their Bedford Dormobile whose windscreen has just been replaced after a break-in, fixed quickly with perspex cut to shape. Their diet across Asia has been steak and chips most of the time, avoiding local food – although they mention that they have seen other tourists eating it!
Plenty of food stalls in Madras, where a simple meal of dhal and chapatti is eaten with the fingers. They trickle water over your hands before and after the meal to clean them while the palm leaf on which the dollop of dahl and sabjee (veg) is served, is thrown away afterwards. Masala tea with cardamom, made with boiled milk is served in the solid metal cups which seem to be unique to India. This tea is made with the leaves/spices kept in what looks like an old sock – no teapots here. Originally white muslin, this sock acquires a brown colour and stretches, ending up looking like a huge condom.
The sides of the streets have piles of rubbish which are searched regularly. Some look for paper, while others take metal or glass and these piles get smaller until the next load of rubbish is dumped. Beggars, many of them children, roam the streets. Outside the AA Club a little girl no more than four years old needs a pee. Standing up and watching the traffic, she just lifts her dress and does this – no one takes any notice. Other beggars are organised. A little boy runs up and clamps himself to my leg. “Baksheesh, baksheesh!” A couple of whacks to the head and he lets go. Later we see the effect of a more generous reaction. American tourists upon seeing a beggar often think “Give them a dollar” which sounds fine but is fatal in a poor country. Walking away from the docks, we see an American couple, cameras round their necks who have tried to be generous and are pounced on by a hoard of child beggars. It is like watching a David Attenborough film where wild dogs converge on a wounded animal. These gangs are marshalled by a smart young man with a pressed short sleeved shirt and chinos.
Anussorn and I drive south stopping at the former Portuguese colony of Pondicheri, an island of prosperity in the poverty of rural Madras state. Some Americans are staying in the same hotel whose previous lodging was shared with an Indian film star who they were able to talk to, while crowds thronged outside.
Last part of the journey to Rameswaram is via a railway causeway where we have to put the Land Rover on a special railway truck like when we travelled through the St Gotthard tunnel. This is an even tighter squeeze and Anussorn can only just get of the driver’s door. A steam train shunts us to a platform where we can drive off – but leaves a two foot gap. Thinking this is a mistake at first, the steam engine backs away and a young man in smartly-ironed short-sleeve shirt and slacks, steps forward offering to help – Twenty rupees. Not a huge amount but no one likes being taken for a mug. Haggling gets this rip-off down to Seven rupees. Prior to setting off, Anussorn had considered fitting a winch which would have easily solved this problem. Seven rupees it is and the young man rounds up half dozen men who lean on the end of the truck moving it up to the buffers, so Anussorn can now drive off. In one rupee notes, I have the seven rupees and am surrounded by the guys who pushed, so the money disappears in seconds. Twenty seconds later, our man turns up holding out his hand but I tell him everyone has been paid pointing to the last guy who is walking away. He is not happy.
Please Shut Up!
Staying at the same hotel, it is so hot that we prefer to sleep on the roof. Very early next morning, I can hear someone shouting and walk over to the noise. From the roof, I can see down into the room where the occupant is a stark naked young American guy who is running around his room slapping the walls and screaming. I tell him to shut up and the noise stops. Although dawn, I try to get some more sleep when a damn peacock lands on the roof near Anussorn, squawking loudly – sometimes you can’t win.
Arrangements are made to ship the Land Rover over to Ceylon. This involves lashing two lighters together and our hearts are in our mouths when our vehicle is finally placed on them. Reverse procedure gets the Land Rover onto the boat and into the hold.
Now that we have our own transport, we do a grand tour of Ceylon going north first to Jaffna then turning south down the eastern coast, stopping at Trincolmalee a huge Royal Navy port in the time of Empire. Finding a quiet beach, we have a swim where I get bitten hard by a small red crab on my hand and a picture of me holding this creature shows me the slimmest I can remember. The swim itself is scary. At that time I can do breast stroke but am not a strong swimmer. A river estuary is visible a mile away. Swimming out only a short distance, a rip catches me – feeling like you have just been grabbed by the lapels and dragged backwards. A few minutes swimming at an angle gets me back on the beach and I am quite shaken.
Continuing our circuit of Ceylon we then turn inland to visit the hill fort of Sigiriya with its famous graffiti depicting fulsome young ladies. We do the main sights including the Reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa, Nuwara Eliya eventually getting down south to Hikkaduwa, famous for its scuba diving where 2001 author Arthur C Clark has retired to.
A General Election is approaching and the colonel is involved in politics, confidently expecting to win. The opposition has promised everyone an increased rice ration, raising the inevitable question of how would the country afford it? Driving back north just after polling day, we see a couple of lorries that have been celebrated on/vandalised and our host’s house is unexpectedly quiet. The opposition won giving Mrs Bandaranaike her second term as Prime Minister, having previously been elected the world’s first female prime minister in 1960. The colonel takes it philosophically saying “I suppose I will have to get round the old girl now.” One of Mrs B’s first acts is to change the name of the country back to an older name, Sri Lanka.
On the Boat
Before leaving, we are given three large packs of best Ceylon tea and are directed to a hotel and shipping office in capital Colombo. Our hotel does not have air conditioning but the ceiling fans work OK. Unlike the fans we found in the trains for example, which all had beautifully sculpted blades making them quiet, but with such small pitch that you could hardly feel the draft six inches away.
Our rooms are down a corridor where the doors have frosted glass panels. We meet a shipbroker from London who is in Colombo to complete the sale of a ship. This has taken longer than expected as the captain is picking up cargo wherever he can. We swap stories over glasses of Black Label whisky with ice and soda. Across the corridor, a couple are staying whose door never opens. A white shirt hangs on the door next to a blue wired bra of a well-endowed lady which stays there for two days – honeymoon couple?
Land Rover shipped, we can move on to Singapore and in our second encounter with one, catch a BOAC Standard VC-10 to Singapore, my first jet flight. The pretty air hostesses are chatty, informing us that actually jumping down the escape chutes in tights means that your legs and bum get very hot. I meet a young lady jazz singer doing a world tour, whose name I sadly forget. Another memorable passenger is a gorgeous married woman with her teenage daughter, but the mother is much prettier.