Thursday, September 27, 2007

A pagebreak in protest

I'm breaking the flow of my Diaries to show my disgust at whats happening in Myanmar. Peaceful demonstration by the Buddhist monks in favour of democracy is being curbed by the ruling military junta in a violent fashion. 3 monks have been killed, 100s put behind bars and now the military is storming the monastries.

Its shameful!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Emerald Isle Diaries - 9

It’s my last evening at the Isle and this is the last post from the Isle. But this isn’t the last page from the diary. I have to write a few more pages on it and that will happen from India.

The good friend arrived much later than the expected time due to some technical snag with the aircraft. And, as usual, much has happened since then. Planned, unplanned and foiled plans. Let me tell you about a couple of them.

Friday evening brought in a major experience of the ‘Rock’ side of Sri Lanka. Chaga took us to meet some of her friends who are into ‘real rock’ music and the two of us were delighted way beyond our expectations. She had mentioned about it earlier and I had thought it will be a bunch of guys having some fun together. What we experienced was a bunch of highly professional and accomplished musicians inside a dark and great sounding studio, having some fun together.

The band is called ‘Sage Merlyn’ and it consists of 3 fat and happy brothers. One with his awesome throaty (Louis Armstrongish) vocals, another at the lead guitar with extremely some extremely taut guitaring and the third one at the keyboards. When we waked in, they had just started playing a solid rock rendition of ‘Sandman’ (America), which is originally on the softer side. As the evening unfurled, guys kept joining them on different instruments and it became one long trip for everyone who was present there, including us. The famous Sri Lankan Arrack in the red color case kept going down our throats as the atmosphere kept going high.

They sang their renditions of some great tracks but what bowled me over completely was how they turned a sentimental number like ‘Diamonds and Rust’ (Joan Baez) in a powerful rock number. I’ve never been to a better night-club in my life. A couple of hours later, I had joined them on vocals for a few numbers by Cat Stevans and the personal favorite ‘Dust in the Wind’ (Kansas).

The early morning trip to Sigiriya Fort and Minnariya Tank (a natural reservoir) forced us to leave the music and those three happy and high brothers.

The long awaited trip to Sigiriya / Minnariya Tank began at 7:45 am from the hotel lobby. Sigiriya is an ancient fortress built by an insecure King on the top of a mountain and Minnariya Tank is a natural reservoir famous for its elephants. Both these places are close to each other and the plan was to cover them both with one night’s stay at the guest house near the fortress.

The trip ended in the hotel lobby at 10 am of the same day and the stupidity of the driver assigned to us by the car-hire company was responsible for it. I don’t want to get into the frustrations of those 2 hours over here. I had to cancel the trip to get some peace of mind for the two of us.

Since then, it has largely been a shopping based weekend with a dip in the pool. Magical Laphroig, purchse of some good DVDs and India’s smashing victory over Australia has been the high points.

I haven’t given up on the plans climbing up the fort and going to the reservoir. It shall happen in my next trip to the island, which will be soon.

The photograph above is of the vocalist of Sage Merlyn.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Emerald Isle Diaries - 8

My experience with the famous Ceylon tea began as a let down and I mentioned it in one of my earlier pages. Taj Samudra has Orange Pekoe in their menu but it’s absent from their kitchen. Chaga, my colleague came to my rescue with a pack of BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) belonging to the famous Mlesna (pronounced Melesna) Tea Estate and more importantly a small metallic sieve. Now, I brew my own tea inside the comforts of my room and the mornings have become beautiful. Sipping on orange pekoe while staring aimlessly at the sea with ‘Pet Sounds’ as the background score is a great way to begin the day.

Sri Lankans consume a lot of sugar in their cuppa and it can become very frustrating at times, especially when you are used to half a teaspoon of sugar. After the first couple of days, the woman who is responsible for tea / coffee, in my office had to be asked to give sugar separately. Her name is Shakuntala and she is always ready with three questions, whenever she sees me. They are, Tea? Coffee? or Water? She lost everyone she had in the Tsunami of 2004 and she is always full of smile and service.

What we call as ‘black tea’ is referred to as ‘plain tea’ over here and it’s more popular than the one with milk. One can expect the quality of this tea to be usually good (if you can discount the amount of sugar in it) even in the cheapest looking joint.

The hill station of Nuwara Eliya, near Kandy is one of the major tea producing zones. History suggests that the production of tea in Ceylon began after a deadly fungus destroyed most of the coffee crop on the island. The coffee plantation owners realized that they needed to diversify. This was around 1860s.

Though its of fine quality, I’m yet to taste anything close to the Darjeeling variety of Orange Pekoe. But, Shakuntala’s smile and readiness to serve makes up for it.

I will be getting samples of the Ceylon Tea for some of you and then you can give me your opinions. For now, a good friend from India is expected any moment. Charmed by the Diaries, he is flying down to be here for the weekend.

The photograph above is of Chagas gift. The kettle belongs to the Hotel.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Emerald Isle Diaries - 7

Arnold is the name of an excellent singer in Colombo. His rendition of ‘Wind beneath my wings’ at the popular Karaoke Bar called ‘Sopranos’ keeps ringing in my ears. But, Arnold is tired…tired and bored of Sri Lanka. He says that nothing ever happens in Sri Lanka….everybody just goes to the nightclubs on Wednesdays and Weekends like a ritual…that’s all that they do and will keep doing. With my 3 weeks of stay in the Isle, I can see some truth in his statement. That night, while leaving the Karaoke bar, I felt a little sad for Arnold. I still do.

The musical landscape of Sri Lanka has different types. Type one is what they call as ‘Baaila’ and has its origins in Portugul, hence it has similar melodies, rhythm and structure as the Goan music. Happy, dance-worthy and easy! This sort of music is equally popular at the up-market night-clubs as well as a street side shop in the upcountry.

Type two is the film songs from old Sri Lankan movies and interestingly, most of them are set on the tunes of old and popular Hindi film songs. If you are into old hindi film songs, you can hear the familiar melody of a ‘Teri Aankhon Ke Siva Duniya Mein’ or a ‘Koi Saaghar Dil Ko Behlaata Nahin’ to the unfamiliar Sinhalese lyrics. In fact, when I started humming the Hindi lyrics of the song playing at a local restaurant, my Sri Lankan colleagues got very fascinated.

Type three is what plays in the cool night-clubs of Colombo. Mostly English and can be a mix of retro as well as contemporary. Due to Thiyagi’s connections, I managed to witness a local band selection competition and I heard some talented guys. Of course they were playing the harder stuff.

Type four is of the Classical variety and is a mix of North Indian and Carnatic style of classical music. Frankly, I'm yet to hear anything from this genre anywhere in Sri Lanka, but I’m told that its there.

Type five would be the current songs from Bollywood. SRK, Aishwarya Rai, Hrithik Roshan are popular and young kids download this material on their mobile phones. These kids, usually aren’t the western night-clubs sorts.

The Japanese muse, Karaoke is big in Colombo and almost everybody who visits a Karaoke Bar is a decent singer. But, to my extreme discomfort they all invariably end up singing the great MUSH tracks. MLTR, Air Supply, Elton John etc are some of the frequently attempted artistes. AS one 'Neil Diamond' loving (to my happiness) Sri Lankan explained, ‘Sri Lankans are a mushy race.’

More on the famous Ceylon tea in the coming pages of the Diaries.

The photograph here is from the insides of Sopranos. The singers shown here are Menuka and Sasha. Good singers but once again, they sing MUSH!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Emerald Isle Diaries - 6

It began with serendipity and ended with an empty town.

The road from Colombo to Galle (pronounced “Gaul”) is sea-laced and worth a few photographs. Chaga, my cool colleague and friend was my companion for this work-cum-pleasure trip. Work for her and pleasure, for me. As we began to approach the outskirts of the region, the signs of the terrible Tsunami of 2004 started showing in the ruins of skeletal houses. Galle was one of the worst hit regions.

The village where we had work was about 40 km away from Galle and reaching there was like serendipity. We had no idea that it will be tucked in one of the tea valleys of the southern Sri Lanka…the Watawala tea estate which produces the famous brand Zesta. The weather, with its light drizzle was giving perfect accompaniment to the place. After dropping Chaga at the place where she had to be along with the people from the research agency, I did a trip of the ‘Village Green’ and the tea estates. The charming number by 'The Kinks' was running in my system while the drizzle continued. My love for tea added to the pleasure.

The journey from Village Green to ‘many many years back in time’ took me an hour. The drizzle had stopped by then.

History suggests that Galle is the Biblical city of Tarshish from where King Solomon drew Ivory, Peacock and other valuables. The modern history of Galle started in 1505, when the first Portuguese ship was driven here by a storm. In the course of time the port city saw three different rules….Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British. It was the Dutch who constructed the present and 90 acre Fort of Galle in the year 1663, and this fort was my reason to visit Galle.

Once inside the fort, I was transposed into another world. The city inside is one of the world’s best-preserved colonial landscape with its understated, sleepy charm. Its low-rise streets are lined with old churches and Dutch colonial villas, many of which retain original street-facing verandahs, their white plaster now stripped by sea breezes and weathered to a peeling grey and yellow. Interestingly, the city was left unharmed by the Tsunami.

Amongst the many churches inside, stands the very atmospheric Dutch Reformed Church. Built in 1755, its one of the finest Christian architecture that I’ve seen. With its enormous canopy over the pulpit and the attractive, ancient organ, the place saw me spending an hour inside it. The floor is covered in ornately carved memorials to the city’s Dutch settlers in English as well as Dutch, illustrating the brief life expectancy of the island’s early colonists. Although I’m a non-believer, I found calmness inside the ancient structure. Perhaps, it’s my love for all things old.

The day ended with me witnessing a town becoming absolutely empty in less than 10 minutes…an experience which will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Powerful earthquakes had hit Indonesia, resulting in a Tsunami scare. Having a disastrous prior experience, the people of Galle started running for their dear lives. Seeing them, the scare crept in within me too. Language problems with the driver of my vehicle and inability to get in touch with Chaga (phone networks had stopped working) who was still at the Village Green, just added to the confusion. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to ask the driver to put on the radio and the guys at the station were doing a good job. They were repeatedly announcing that it’s just an scare and there isn’t going to be Tsunami and my driver kept repeating 'NO TSUNAMI'. Guess it was more to calm himself than me.

Rest of the evening was about the drive back to Colombo and nestling inside the hot bath-tub. Chaga managed to come back with the people from research agency in their vehicle. Being part of a Tsunami scare in the Galle region of Sri Lanka isn't an everyday affair.

The first photograph is of the beautiful dutch church from inside and the second one is of a street in the fort city.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Emerald Isle Diaries - 5

Largely immersed in work for the last few days, I’ve been neglecting the Diaries. So, woke up early today to make up for it. The morning ocean looks calm and easy, as if it has had a good night’s rest. BBC informs that Nawaz Sharif has been bundled off to Jeddah from Islamabad airport. That nation will always be in a state of chaos, I guess…pretty bad for the common citizens!

A week before coming to the Isle, I quit smoking…something which I’ve never attempted in the last 15 years of my smoking career. And, barring two occasions of temptations, I’ve been easily successful from staying away from the stick. One of them was the evening at Anuradhapura, mentioned in previous post. The next one happened at one of the restaurants of Taj Samudra.

I usually take my evening meals inside the comfort and convenience of my room, but this particular evening I decided to step out and check the eateries of the hotel. ‘Navaratna’, the popular Indian restaurant looked awfully crowded, driving me to the place next door, The Steak & Grill House. In a dramatic contrast, the place had nobody inside except a lady sitting on the pianoforte and softly playing ‘Lara’s theme’ while a couple of waiters watched her. The lady was playing quiet well. I had found my place!

In the course of the evening, she played a lot of my requests, and except for the extremely difficult ‘Moonlight Sonata’ they were all rendered very well, the best one being the peaceful ‘Air on the G String’ by Bach with its intertwining harmony and melody. Bordeux was great, as usual and the food perfectly went along with it. I text messaged to my friend in India,

“She has music in her fingers
While, I have a fork in mine.”

And suddenly, the evening felt incomplete without the white stick between my fingers. I asked the waiter for one and he replied that I will have to pick up a complete pack.

So, I remain a non-smoker. And you know what…it feels nice and healthy.

I left the pleasure-filled evening by thanking the lady who had made it so. I was humming the difficult sonata in my mind, trying to get it right.

With tomorrows dawn, I shall be headed towards the ancient port city of Galle in the southern part of the Isle. Its famous for its time-warped streets lined with historic Dutch villas. More on that in the next page of the Diaries.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Emerald Isle Diaries - 4

In their day to day living, Sri Lankans follow the principles of Zen Buddhism. No matter what religion they have in their surnames and faith, they follow the art of Zen. Zen teaches you to be mindful and aware of your surroundings and that’s how the people of the Isle are.

They will always keep the door open for the next person, they will always ask you if you slept well, they will try to sense every expression on your face to assess what you want; they will listen to whatever you are saying and then they also listen to the unsaid. That is Zen!

The Sri Lankan hospitality is astounding, almost magical and motherly. Back home in the city of Mumbai this kind of experience is unheard of. The last time I felt like this was with my parents as a child and with certain good friends.

With frequent halts for conversations along with some extremely sweet Ceylon tea, we reached the UNESCO heritage city of Anuraadhapura by the evening. It’s a town full of Buddhist history and ruins from the 4th century BC. Legend has it that it was the fabled capital of the Asura King Ravana in the Ramayana.

Smirnoff, bought at the local Cargill superstore gave us company for the night at a local resort called Nuwarawera Rest House. Sitting next to a lit pool and a 'witchy looking' tree, we did full justice to the famous brand of Vodka and the evening. A black cat kept walking around our feet. We talked about various superstitions, clients, marriages, love and personal philosophies.

The next morning saw us turning into tourists. Sri Lanka's largest Stupa called the Jetavanaramaya belittled me with its size and grandeur. At a height of over 400 feet (120m), it is the tallest stupa in the world, largest brick building ever built, and 3rd largest structure in the ancient world, after the two largest of the Great Pyramids of Giza. Next stop was at the Mahabodhi tree, which is said to be the sapling from the original Bodhi tree from Bodh Gaya, a town in Bihar. Interestingly, Bodh Gaya happens to be the city of my origins too. Sadly, this important temple is very ill-maintained. Some more ruins from the BC era, around the city and we were on our way back to Colombo. A little halt at a charming, seaside village of fishermen was beautiful. Because of the paucity of time, we excluded the famous Sigiriya Fort and Elephant Sanctuary for another day.

By the time, I reached the hotel, I was extremely exhausted. A couple of drinks from the Red Label gifted by my friend Mr Shaffie proved to be of great help. It put me to a sweet and dreamless sleep.

Today was pretty critical and successful in the context of work.

And thats how the world's tallest Stupa, completely made of bricks, looks like. Notice that its top is broken. It was discovered in that state in early 1900s.