Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Scaly Surroundings: Part II

Fred woke up with a start.  He thought he smelt something strange – a burning cigarette, his brain identified once it had yawned awake. 

Marie slept hidden under the blanket with her knees pulled up and pointed towards him.
He was thirsty. The water bottle was unsurprisingly empty on the desk.
Fred was happy Marie was too asleep to say I told you so.  He got out of bed and as he walked by the window, he smelled the cigarette smoke again.  The air was still enough outside for smells to hang heavily suspended in the same spot.

He fumbled with the switches on each floor so he could see where he was going.  He ignored the skeleton who was still hanging out by the window in his room with damp shirts and vests.  Downstairs, the TV was glowing blue.  There was no other sound except for the muted mutter of whatever show was on.  Fred glanced at his watch and saw that it was almost 4 am. What in the world…

He opened the tap and filled his bottle. He had decided not to turn on the light in the kitchen because there was enough moonlight streaming in.  He saw the boxes of cigarettes right on the kitchen counter and realized someone must have gone outside for a smoke right by their window.  A moving shadow got his eye outside the window and Fred’s manly heart missed a beat like someonetripping over a misshapen curbside.  He peered out and realized it was just a cat; a very fat, black cat with glistening eyes slowly making its way into the backyard.

Fred turned around, half expecting Anthony to be standing right behind him, quietly observing, a sharp silver blade in his hand.
Stop it, stop it brain, Fred muttered, breathing out when he saw there was nobody there behind him. Of course because this isn’t some stupid horror film.

And now I need to pee. At least the bathroom is on my way.

Fred pulled at the string in the bathroom to turn on the light and stopped short halfway to the toilet.

It looked as if an operation had gone horribly wrong - the scene of a man turning into a scaly monster and throwing up all over the toilet seat because it couldn’t have been a pleasant experience.  Flecks of skin and other unidentifiable specks, white, red, brown, scattered the floor and the toilet seat.  There were two small stains above the toilet, dark red, like dried blood.  For a minute Fred wanted to turn right around and forget his bladder even existed.  But realizing that if Marie came in here she would pass out, and he didn’t want her to pass out on this skinscaped floor, he pulled up his sleeves, grabbed enough anti-bacterial wipes to cover his hand and cleaned up just enough that somebody wouldn’t throw up if they came in.
I’m glad boys can pee standing up, was his last thought as he washed his hands with boiling water and climbed back up to the room.

Marie felt something move in the dark and her eyes fluttered open, still half asleep, as a shape moved up from the foot of the bed, crawling towards her.
“Sorry, sorry,” Fred muttered, bumping his head on the low ceiling.
Marie leaned over to the side-table and turned on the lamp. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” he said in his evasive tone.
“Hey! What’s the matter? Where’d you go?” Marie poked his arm as he settled into the covers next to her.
“Well. Something weird happened-”

Bewilderment followed by disgust followed by a very strong feeling of uneasiness set in once Fred told her the story.

And then right after -

“Alright, let’s go to sleep.” And before Marie could nag or fret or talk more, Fred was breathing deeply, an almost but not quite snoring to indicate the veracity of his sleep.
Decidedly upset, Marie turned and twisted in bed and then picked up her phone to let the soothing bright lights of social media distract her.  A few minutes later, she clicked the lamp shut and pulled the blankets tighter around her.

It wasn’t much later when she heard the click of the door.
Somebody is trying to come in…
Marie tried to keep her breath steady but her heart pumped harder and faster, trying to escape its cage.  She heard the muted patter of feet walking gently on carpet, and desperately, she tried to nudge Fred but her limbs wouldn’t move.
Her eyes were shut but she could still see the dark shape leaning over her.
“Hello,” someone whispered, and he was smiling widely because she could see the white glisten of his teeth in the blackness above her.
Marie tried to scream her husband’s name but her voice was gone.  Her body was frozen and her screams echoed silently, flailing, failing.

The nightmare paled for a few seconds and then repeated, the sound of footsteps on the carpet, the darkness of a person standing above her over the bed, and then the shape faded into blackness.

Marie tried to catch her breath, still asleep but lucid enough to know it had been a dream. She was finally able to move and she moved closer to Fred.  


“I did not sleep well,” Marie stood by the window, rearranging their travel paraphernalia on the desk.
“Yeah, me neither.”
“Do you think we should move out earlier?”
“To where? It would be difficult to find a place right now. I mean, it is just one more night you know.”
Marie nodded, scrunching her nose. “I guess.”
The house was quiet as they walked down the steps and out the kitchen door.  Marie saw a small pot, meant for plants but full to the brim with spent cigarettes.  As she pointed it out to Fred, he nodded. “Explains a bit.”

Later that day, after a hearty breakfast of eggs, toast, beans and grilled mushrooms and a cup of strong black coffee, the couple decided it wasn’t an ideal situation, but it wasn’t as sinister as they were making it out to be.
“I mean, look at these reviews.  A couple of them mention Anthony being ill, but nothing else. Everybody who has stayed there has avowed the hosts’ niceness. Except maybe these two reviews. But anyways! We can ask him to get the bathroom cleaned if it isn’t already done by the time we get home.” And with that mature approach, Marie pulled out her list of Fun Things to Do in a New City.
Fred ordered another cup of coffee.


Anthony stood by his window, looking out at the couple as they walked down his street towards the bus stop.

He felt a loneliness spread inside.

His partner, a steward for a budget airline, had left for a three day trip to Barcelona and Anthony hated being alone. 

It was this same loneliness that kept him up all night.  And it was the same sadness that had made him go into their room last night.  He had just stood there by the door, not doing anything but listening to the sound of their sleep, their deep breathing calmed him. 

Maybe just for a while.

The street outside was empty.

Anthony moved away from the window, opened his door and slowly trudged up the stairs to the loft.  He opened the door to their room and paused for a while.  Then he went to sit on the sofa, flakes of dried skin disappearing into the carpet, floating slowly to settle on the red fabric of the sofa.

I think I’ll just wait here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Scaly Surroundings: Part I

The bright pink trolley bag rumbled over the pebbled sidewalk like an empty stomach as Fred and his wife Marie made their way to the house they had booked over a website for two nights.  The house had had decent reviews but as Marie followed Fred to the door, she felt a shadow pass over her head.  She looked up to see if it was a cloud but for once, the English sky was bright and sunny.

Fred knocked on the door but there was no answer.  He pressed the bell but there was no sound.  They called on their host’s number but nobody picked up. 
“How annoying,” muttered Marie, pressing the bell again, which suddenly came off the wall and into her palm. No wonder there was no sound.
The couple decided to go get lunch in the nearby town center and wait for the host to respond.

About an hour later, just as Marie was pointing out the pasta sauce on Fred’s chin for him to wipe off, they received a polite message from their host. Apologies. Please come now, I am home.

And so they found themselves in front of the door again.  There was a thirty-second pause after they knocked and then suddenly, a face appeared in the window.  A man with dark eyes and a French beard gestured to come around from the back.

There was a small garden in the backyard and a faint disagreeable smell that Marie could not put her finger (or nose) on.  The backdoor opened and a tall pale man greeted them, “Hello, I’m Anthony.”
His voice was soft and wheezy as if he had trouble breathing and the skin on his face, neck and hands was peeling, dry and flaky.  Even the skin on his eyelids hung loose and dry, giving him a strange sad sleepy look.  He extended his hand and Marie shook it quickly, trying not to cringe at the touch.  If it was contagious then he wouldn’t have offered his hand …
The man with the French beard stood a little further away. “That’s Marvin,” Anthony said and Marvin waved quickly.
“Come, I’ll show you to your room.”

The room was on the top floor, a sort of loft with an arched ceiling that cut close over the bed.  It was clean and the window was open, letting in some fresh air.  There was a cabinet with pink, black and white plastic hangers for them to hang their clothes on, and a sofa with white flecks that Marie hoped was dust and lint and not shreds of skin.
“There’s a bathroom on the first floor,” Anthony whispered in his breathless voice.  He showed them the large bathroom that they were to share with the hosts: a linen shelf with fresh towels, a washing machine, bath tub and shower, the toilet and a green potted plant stood with room to spare.  Anthony gave them their key and they decided to go out to explore the town.


“He looks pretty sick,” mused Fred. “What do you think he has, AIDS?”
“I don’t think its AIDS!” Marie gave her husband a light whack on the shoulder. “Maybe it’s just a bad case of eczema.”
“He sure seemed to have trouble breathing…”
“You don’t think it’s contagious, is it?” Marie twittered nervously. “We’re not going to wake up in the morning with our skin coming off?”
“No,” Fred pulled at his shirt collar. “I sure hope not.”
Marie took the opportunity to take a bite from his beef chili burrito. “Hey, this is good.”


They returned home with the same sinking feeling that comes and snuggles in the pit of your stomach at the end of vacations and really good TV shows.  But they were too tired to continue wandering the streets and besides, their room seemed quite comfortable.
The only light was the blue glow of TV from the living room on the ground floor.  Everything else was dark with not even a lamp turned on and Fred had to turn on his phone’s torch so they wouldn’t trip over their feet – or something else – up the stairs.

Marie fumbled for a switch on the next floor (where the bathroom was) and nearly shrieked – the room to one of the doors was open.  It seemed like they dried their laundry in that nearly empty room.  Hung laundry to dry and talked with the skeleton there to kill time …
“It is a skeleton!” Marie pinched Fred’s arm, her eyes wide and her voice a fretful whisper.
“Well it isn’t a real one!” her husband rubbed his arm. “It’s one of those that doctors keep in their offices or something!”
“Except I don’t think either of them are doctors.”
“Come on, come on, up to the room.”
“I wish there was a lock on the door.”
“You know they’re too frail to come barging into our room and attack us, Marie.”
“I guess that’s some consolation,” Marie leaned against the wall to take off her shoes.  Her eyes fell on the empty water bottle on the desk by the window.  “Oh darnit, we don’t have any water in the room. Honey would you get some from the kitchen?”
“But I’m scared of our hosts,” Fred blinked at his wife.
“Lazy ass.” Marie pointed out accurately.

The bed was tucked away from the door into an alcove.  You had to be careful not to sit up too suddenly or you could hit your head on the ceiling.
They changed into their PJs and got into bed, Fred feeling very happy about the TV in the room.  Within minutes of a reality show called True Crime that showcased real murders reenacted with terrible actors, he was snoring.  Marie extracted the remote from his fingers and switched it off. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Birds Sound Different in England

I woke up today to complete silence.  Later, when I sat near the window I heard the sweet twitter of birds, faint, polite, cute.  Quite a difference from the loud caw-cawing of the crows that came to perch on the AC right outside our bedroom window in Karachi and wouldn’t stop their yelling for several long painful minutes.

We’re in Nottingham now – currently moving from one AirBnb to another, nomads wearing the same pair of jeans for the last eight days, realizing how useful a washing machine can be and wondering if we will ever be able to wear sandals or open-toe shoes again.

From the comforts of life in Pakistan to the start of a brand new story in England.

When did time slip off its clunky wooden shoes and replace them with silver roller blades? Sometimes it feels like if we’re always chasing after time, our arms outstretched but our eyes glued to our TV screens or phones or laptops, making it difficult to catch up.
And I bet Time rolls her eyes, muttering, you know all you have to do is stop – take a seat and let go of your stupid battery-operated devices – I’ll come sit right next to you and we can have a chat.

I think some of the longest days (in a good way) I’ve had are ones I which I do two things – get up before 8 am, and stay away from phones and TVs and computers.

We’re at a peculiar junction in life (I think I may have been here since I graduated from college).  There is an uneasy fear of permanence – if you add the word ‘forever’ next to anything, even things you like, it becomes too heavy to hold, makes you bend over like a heavy dumbbell, dragging you down. 
Because we are cursed with our knowledge and belief in life’s potential, we find it hard to be content.  As soon as a moment begins, we wonder about the opportunity costs attached to it.  What if, what next …

The idea of stability is boring.  Routine can get tedious, tiresome, it glues days together into an unidentifiable undistinguishable stack of newspapers nobody ever reads and that continues to pile up lonely and dusty in a corner.  And so we look for ways to break it – a trip somewhere, a change of jobs or maybe a decision to get back to books after several years.

The idea of change is exciting – but (of course there is a but) it is also scary.  And after Fahad got admitted into University of Nottingham on a scholarship and we decided that’s where we were going next, we didn’t spend too much time pondering over all the changes that would come with it.  And there is the flip side of the coin – when you wonder why you suddenly hammered the tracks you were on (the nice, smooth, boring tracks) and derailed yourself.  

We’re at that peculiar stage of life, 30 or uncomfortably close to 30, when it is a constant battle between comfort and adventure, the fear of the unknown versus the fear of the steady and the too-familiar, deciding whether we want to live in the same mould because the edges are worn and soft now or climb out and dig a new pathway, which might cut and chafe but it might be full of newness – new fears, new joys, new adventures, new possibilities.

We’re too old to be completely nonchalant about big decisions, but I think we’re still young enough to be hopeful that there is more to discover, to see, to feel and to experience.  And I’m grateful that I don’t have to do it alone. So yes – there will be cold cloudy days when a spray of rain hits my face annoyingly wet and cold, there will be waits at the bus stop for the wrong bus and getting lost and turning one-hour journeys to the market into two-hour ones because we wrote ‘Nottingham Street’ instead of ‘Nottingham Road’, there will be cutting too many onions and living sparsely in a tiny little flat because everything is expensive and even if we find a cheap deal on a side-table, how do we lug it to our house?
But I think there will also be sunny days when the gold rays make little rainbows on our eyelashes, hot coffee and baked beans on toast, beautiful green hills rolling down to neighborhoods of little red houses, walks on cobbled streets and kind bus drivers who give us concessions on tickets.

Here is to Nottingham (or 'Noh-ing-hm' as the English say) and hoping we get our little flat soon! 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ceylon Dreams IX: Exploring Colombo Without a Camera

Three tips for the traveler –
1.      Tip generously (maybe save a few bucks on buying three pairs of elephant-printed pants and reallocate to the drivers and guides who give you good service)
2.       Perhaps use a registered taxi service rather than go with a random tuk-tuk driver’s brother who happens to own a car
3.       Always, always do a thorough check of your rooms and cars before exiting (don’t forget to lift the bundle of blankets on the bed and peer under)

It doesn’t take a scientist to notice that our generation (and actually all generations in this day and age) is obsessed with taking pictures. We lose the moment, the emotion, the scents, the tastes just because we want to capture it all on a cell phone. Only to forget about it for the next months to come.
Unless we post it immediately to Facebook or Instagram or Whateverchat and then check obsessively for the number of likes, determining how good a cup of coffee or how beautiful a sunset was, not on the actual experience but on the clicking of friends, acquaintances and I-only-added-you-to-be-polites. I mean really, do you want to see the entire concert through the tiny viewfinder of your camera? How can you even jump in the air and clap if you’re filming nonstop!? It is actually interesting to note this change in travelling these days– at any touristy spot, if you put your own phone down you’ll see couples, friends, solo travelers all around you with their arms stretched out, head tilted, pouting or grinning or pointing – some of these are so bad I want to walk over and tap their shoulders, to ask if they would like me to take their picture so that it doesn’t look like there are two head-shaped balloons floating in front of the Leaning Tower.

Anyways, back to Sri Lanka - after a bit of moping, I tried to flip the situation and think about how it would be to explore a city and experience things without the itch of capturing it on an electronic device.
Sri Lanka is a dreamy place, with its deep green trees and sudden rainstorms that trap you inside damp, cool terraces and entrance you with the quiet distracted music of rain on rooftops and tree branches.

Colombo is a pleasant, well-planned, clean city without the crass commercialism of other cities. Not the most thriving night life but enough cute, hip places to keep it interesting. We went to a café called The Coffee Bean the night we got back from Bentota, the café was complete with organic coffee beans and young men and women sitting upstairs on comfy couches, laptops and guitar cases. It was a bit pricey but a good combination of chic and cozy.  Then there was the Barefoot Café which I fell in love with. It has a beautiful store full of bright red yellow blue and green colored yarn – teddy bears and baby giraffes, table mats and scarves, paintings and posters – it was the most artsy place we saw. The colors were so vibrant just walking inside made you feel like you were in a house made of rainbows.  There was a lovely garden and courtyard with twinkling fairy lights curling up trees.

Another place I really liked was Flamingo House, located away from all the hustle and bustle, the bar and restaurant had a very cool, bohemian feel to it with giant flamingos painted along with mysterious Indian princesses and Buddhas, gilded mirrors and sweetly mismatched chairs. The food was excellent and the service was very good.
Since Fahad was busy the next few days with his conference, I spent the days exploring Colombo on foot and tuk-tuk. I didn’t stray too far from our hotel but saw nearby neighborhoods, the quiet serene Anthony Church, the candy-striped Red Mosque (or Jami-ul-Afar Mosque) which looked as if it belonged in Alice’s wonderland but was smack in the middle of a terribly crowded market, and since there were only men streaming in and out of the mosque, I decided not to go in. Which was kind of sad because it would’ve been nice to go and pray in a mosque in the middle of Colombo!

I absolutely loved the city for its simple, multicultural, multi-religious, placid beauty.  The idea of standing at a junction and being able to see from the same point, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, a church and a mosque – it was beautiful! I am sure the city has its own underpinnings of unease and intolerance, but the surface feel was definitely one of a seamless blanket stitched in a patchwork of different colors and patterns but together making a larger even more beautiful pattern.

My favorite part about Colombo was right across the main road from the hotel – Galle Face Green. A large green space divided the sea from the main road (which has some of the most expensive hotels in the country, large and sprawling, each decorated with Christmas lights and Christmas trees made of twinkles) while the edge of the lawns were cemented footpaths where fixed green cabins stood selling everything from fried fish to samosas to ice cream. Hawkers selling bright kites, glow-in-the-dark boomerangs and glistening soap bubbles sat around the park while little children ran crazily around them. Each cabin had a large blue dustbin next to it and I was just so impressed by the whole atmosphere

There was a short strip of sand and you had to go down stairs to the beach. I sat at the edge of the footpath with my legs dangling, watching the tremendous waves rush towards shore their anger and greatness starting large and then dwindling to a forgotten memory as it came closer, till they had forgotten why they had been rushing forward so, and then going back, bemused, musing.  

A boy blew a soap bubble into the face of his tiny sister, who almost burst with joy like the bubble when she poked it with her finger;  a mother clapped as her child ran past her trying t o propel his kite into the air and then finally it soared; a couple sat close by on a bench, her left foot touching his sneakered right one, both licking pink ice lollies.
The sun slowly set into a cloudy bed right above the waves, making the sky glow gold and pink, and one by one the bulbs in the green cabins flickered to life, lightning like fireflies in the darkening blue evening. It was the most peaceful beach front, the air was permeated with calmness and love and happiness, the kind that makes you smile as you walk by yourself, probably making you look a little creepy to the people nearby, but it cannot be contained inside!

I most definitely fell in love with Sri Lanka. This is one destination for you to discover yourself, your partner, see your life in a brighter, clearer light. If you need help planning your trip, let me know.   

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Ceylon Dreams VIII: The Day of the Camera

Sometimes, I make mistakes.

Our fancy hotel turned out to be more expensive than budgeted because of a stupid asterisk that I hadn’t paid attention to (taxes exclusive. Whoops.) We scrambled through our finances and made a few mental calculations (my mental calculations are on an actual calculator). The last leg of our trip was going to be in Colombo, where Fahad had his work conference. Which is why we were to check in to a proper hotel there the next day, which also meant that a significant chunk of our over-utilized budget was going to be spent on this uber-fancy place. I quickly checked the prices online and gulped – “I hope you get some company discount, buddy.” The little imps of stress quickly climbed onto our shoulders and stayed there for the rest of the day, every now and then pulling our hair and whispering in our ears to remind us of how we might be in a little bit of trouble.

We had decided to go with our tuk-tuk driver’s brother, who had a taxi, and was giving us a better price than the TripAdvisor registered taxi companies. The car was clean and compact and soon we were on our way to the Dutch fort in Galle, about 45 minutes from Bentota. The plan was to head to Colombo after Galle, about 2.5 hours away.

It was a very bright sunny day. The ride to Galle – we chose the scenic longer route over the tolls of a highway – always, always choose the scenic longer route in life – was lovely. We passed quaint little towns with shacks selling rubber sandals and adventure, tourists strolling around in bikinis with sarongs wrapped around their waists and everything from sprawling resorts to tiny cheap inns for the tight-budgeted folks. And every now and then the towns disappeared and the coast appeared, racing alongside us with its shimmering beach and towering palm trees.

Galle is a sweet old town with Portuguese, Dutch and local inspired architecture.
What I loved about Sri Lanka was how they had preserved their history and somehow made the colonial buildings their own. The stations and offices might have been built by the Europeans but now it all belonged to the Sri Lankans; they had taken care of it and they dwelled and ruled within (as opposed to our beautiful buildings that corrode in Saddar, Karachi, slowly being eaten up by the ravenous Time, home to pigeons and ghosts).

The Galle fort was cool, right by the sea and stretching on andon along the coast for miles. But we didn’t find a guide and it would’ve been nice to have a guided walk along the ancient ramparts. Also the sun shone bright, browning our arms and faces.
There were lots of cafes and restaurants nearby, and our driver told us that some of the richest people in the country had acquired the property there and had sprawling mansions. But even they hadn’t been allowed to tamper with history and the new constructions were bound by law to respect and complement the old.
If we’d had more time I would have loved to spend a night in a quaint b’n’b in Galle. It had an enchantingly desolate feel about it despite the people milling around everywhere.

After Galle, we retraced our steps and drove by the little beach towns again. The towns became less beachy with more mechanic shops and restaurants as we moved closer to Colombo. We stopped for lunch with our driver at a small restaurant – where we had Chinese food and bright sodas. We entered Colombo late afternoon and headed to our next and last AirBnb which was in a great location near the city center, about a 15-20 minute walk to the Independence Square.

I remember seeing a beautifully pale rainbow in a cloudy blue sky right before we turned into our new neighborhood. I have always loved rainbows – one of my favorite science facts was how to spot a rainbow and whenever there is a shower with the sun still out, I get super excited and run to the nearest terrace, situate myself accordingly and 9 times out of 10, am rewarded with the sight of a light band of colors arching across the blue. Something magical about the colors in the sky; makes me feel special, makes me think there are good things to come.

Anyways, I remember seeing the rainbow and fiddling around for my camera but we had already turned by then so I decided to let the photo opportunity slip.
By the tie we finally pulled up in front of the right house, after a couple of missed turns and the wrong entrance, we were pretty harried. We lugged the bags out and as our hostess stood by the gate, we paid the driver, dragged our bags and the many little items that always seem to multiply in car rides (why aren’t we as neat in a car as we are on a plane? Something about all the space at our feet and behind our heads that makes us scatter all our stuff in three different plastic bags and a box). I asked Fahad to check if we’d left anything in the car, his head disappeared for a millisecond and returned with a ‘yeh yeh’.

Our bedroom was on the first floor, which had two other rooms, empty right now but also lent out in AirBnb, a nice living room and our host’s office space. The room was very cute, a white bedspread with the customary soft mosquito nets tucked away on the sides, a large white bookshelf that covered one entire wall and a window that led into a small balcony-kind of space that looked out on the courtyard where a solitary tree grew as the center piece.

Like our other rooms, it was a no frills kind of room with dim lighting, cemented floor, sparse furniture but comfortable and sweet, with stories quietly hiding in the corners. And the shelf of books! It was a great collection with a lot of English books that we were encouraged to peruse.

The fan whirled slowly and we opened the windows, the temperature was pleasant enough that we didn’t need the AC (which was there – at an extra cost) and we were finally able to lay out flat on the bed, with books from the shelf.

About an hour or so later, I heard the sound of fireworks and I went by the window to peek out. I couldn’t see much so I asked Fahad if we should go for a walk. It took a little prodding but he agreed and it was about now that I looked for my camera. It’s a Canon DSLR and in its own bag so not exactly that difficult to spot.
“Fahad. I can’t find my camera.” I said with that horrible sinking feeling that indicates that something horrible has happened, hanging on a silky spiderweb thread of hope that maybe we’re wrong.

To cut a sad stressful story short, we couldn’t find the camera anywhere and I guessed that we had left it in the car. “But I told you to check the car!” I was distraught and poor Fahad was guilt-ridden. “It must have rolled under the seats…”
We went down to our hosts, who had the driver’s number on their phone because he had called them to understand the address. But the driver was adamant – there was no camera in the car.

I could actually picture my faded old camera bag lying in the backseat, perhaps on the floor, and I was about 99.9% sure that it was in the car because I clearly remembered fiddling with it when we saw the rainbow. But it was not meant to be. All my beautiful photographs of hills and tealeaves and waterfalls and turtles …

I am not a crier but I admit there were a few tears. I loved my camera, ashamedly because it is of course an object. Common sense took some time but it finally won over after a thought-aloud battle along the lines of “I can’t be so materialistic that I’m letting a thing ruin the rest of my trip” but for the rest of the evening (and a few days) every time my mind strayed, the little gnome of sadness sitting heavily in my stomach, sighed loudly.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Ceylon Dreams VII: Beachin` Awesome

Bentota is a very cool beach town.  Quite possible to see all of it in a day or you could spend more time on the beach and spread out the attractions across two days. There was one wide road along which many of the hotels, resorts and restaurants were located.
This was our first actual hotel and I’m ashamed to admit how excited we were to see the TV (in our defense, we didn’t actually see much on it). Our balcony looked out at the river where people whizzed on banana boats and jet skis all day and evening, and if we walked out of our door there were wide windows facing the sea. The beach was beautiful, the sands a lovely shiny sandy golden yellow, and the water a deep blue, not too different from our Karachi beaches (when they’re not blackened by oil spills and garbage).

After the breakfast buffet (the only buffet that I actually enjoy is breakfast. Definitely my favorite meal time), we took a boat to the reception (I’m not sure if we loved the idea of always having to wait for a boat to be able to exit the hotel. Even though the boat service was 24/7 and fairly efficient but it’s just a little disconcerting that we couldn’t just walk out when and if we wanted) and then made a deal with a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the town.

Our first stop was the turtle sanctuary. Its walls were cutely painted with sea life drawings (the kind third graders do with bright colored fish blowing blue bubbles). It was right by the beach and the caretaker told us he rescued turtles before they even hatched. Since poachers often stole eggs from the beach to sell (even though turtle eggs were illegal they were apparently quite a delicacy), he would walk the sands and pick up the miniscule eggs, bury them in sandboxes in his sanctuary and provide them the right temperature. Not all of them hatched, of course, but those that did were transferred to a shallow pool. There were several cemented tubs in which turtles were grouped according to size. I picked up one of the tiny ones, trying to keep my fingers on the shell and avoid the slinkier head and legs that waddled in the air indignantly. The little critters calmed down if you petted their heads.

Fahad petted all of them. He even managed to grab a hold of one of the bigger turtles – which he says must have been around 4 lbs. or so.
That was a good photograph, which our friendly guide snapped: I remember the wind in our hair, the golden light of the sun on our faces, the beach just behind us; Fahad’s kindred connection with the turtle (which he held like you’d hold a baby who had just peed) and my happiness at my husband finally genuinely smiling for a picture. There was a small fee that you paid and which was meant to keep the turtle home going, and if you were feeling more generous you could buy some of the roughly hewn turtle toys or jewelry from a shack inside the same premises.

Our next stop was the Lunganga, or Number 11 (I had to google the local name again). Lunganga was Geoffrey Bawa’s home in Bentota.  Geoffrey Bawa is Sri Lanka’s most famous architect. He led an illustrious, solitary life and towards the end, he came to live on his estate in Bentota. The house and its gardens were now turned into a hotel but it seemed as if all efforts were maintained to keep its original aura intact. Even if you’re not a staying guest at the hotel, you can visit the gardens and take a tour with a very helpful, knowledgeable guide.

Our tuk-tuk driver whizzed down a dirt road and stopped in a small clearing in what appeared to be a forest with tall, thin trees grazing the sky. There was a huge rusted gate in front of us, bolted from the inside. A mysterious path dappled in shadows behind the gate led up and curved away. There was no one in sight and the driver didn’t have any ideas.

Now if I hadn’t researched we would have probably swatted a few mosquitoes and eventually left – but since I had, we saw that a small old-fashioned bell hung on top of the gate and a rope hung down from it. We grabbed the rope and rung the bell a couple of times, waited and finally a man dressed in the white button-down of a hotelier came down the path. We told him we were interested in a tour and he unlocked the gate and led us in.

There were huge trees all around us and a beautiful carelessness about the gardens, so artfully maintained that you couldn’t sense the planning at all. Instead as we walked through the place, we felt as if we were strolling through a natural, wild garden.
I loved the living space we saw, with its railway sleeper doors, wide windows, rough teal paint and bronze statutes that Bawa collected from all over the world. Bawa and his brother, who was a famous landscape artist, had planned the estate beautifully. A heavy wrought iron table and chairs stood by the edge of the first terrace, looking down at the rice paddy fields, trees, and wetlands. A bell hung on a tree close by and the guide told us Bawa would sit here with a friend or two and ring the bell for a cup of tea – or a shot of whiskey.

Hedged green arches, romantic gazebos and lonely statutes were subtly scattered around the gardens, so that you would come across something cool or strange every now and then.

There was a set of small rooms and a lovely open porch with a giant chandelier (Bawa merged sophistication and nature in this really surreal way), apparently Bawa’s workshop and now a set of more private guestrooms. Later we climbed up a hill to the main house. Although you couldn’t go in, if you stood by the front door, the back door was perfectly aligned and at Bawa’s height (he was taller than most!), you could look out at the lake on both sides from this spot.

The architect was actually buried at the base of a lovely tree in these same gardens and we said a little prayer for him as we passed it by.
It was sticky by now and the mosquitoes and gnats were having a feast till I put on a wrap. I’d rather feel hot than be devoured!
After our tour we stopped at Diya Sisila, which was on our way. It was a very late lunch and the place was empty but the service staff was very welcoming. The restaurant was right by the lake with a few gazebos and lights at night. We sat in the golden afternoon light and had seafood. Excellent quality food, even though I’m not a seafood fan.

Back towards our hotel, we went the other side to the Big Buddha on the hill, walked around to enjoy the weather which was more pleasant with a wind now. Our driver took us down the backside of the hill where a beautiful elephant was chained in a small clearing at the bottom of the temple. There was a male and a female, kept separate, both tragically sad and we told our driver no, we didn’t want to get any photographs with the poor elephants.

As we start to travel more and more, integrating social media into our travels and spreading more and more information, it is essential to equip yourself with the knowledge of what is good tourism and what is bad for the environment, animals and/or the local communities. Most animal-related spots and sports like elephant trekking, tiger petting, etc. is a serious infringement on animal rights. So please do your research before you snap that picture.

We finally went back to our hotel to rest our feet up and soak in some air-conditioning. Before poor Fahad got much of that, I caught the sight of the sky outside. The sun had gone on a painting spree, swirling yellows, golds and oranges in the sky. We walked down to the beach and waded into the water, the waves were choppy enough to give us a bit of a whipping but we love the water.

The sunset was absolutely gorgeous – the sky in front of us was clear with the sun able to collapse into its cloudy bed right above the horizon, but to the left was an army of dark rainclouds, vertically piled up like several scoops of blackberry ice cream, and slowly it swept across the sky towards us.

We bade a hasty retreat into our hotel right behind us and it started to drizzle. I opted for a swim while Fahad decided to read his comic in the outdoor café, which had been promising live music for the night.

The hotel pools were lovely, the water comfortably warm. When it started to rain harder, the cold water from the sky fell on my upturned face while the warmth of the pool snuggled around me and I swam in the rain for a while.
That night we listened to some reggae music which turned into Christmas songs very soon and after three or four of those, we bade good night and went up to our room. Fahad won the battle for food and it was ordering in the room.

An incredible storm shook the hotel for hours that night, purple streaks of lightning like webs sprawling across the sky and clouds thundering so loudly it felt like the gods of the sky were right above us, racing their horses and cracking their whips in the clouds. A beautifully terrifying storm that eventually faded into a drizzle and lulled us to sleep. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ceylon Dreams VI: A Door Closed, A Raft Opened

The little house – it actually belonged to a British man who used to live here and then converted it into a guesthouse before leaving – was cozier than a sheepdog. There was a small kitchen and living room with beautiful mirrors, dark wooden chairs and dining table, and a chic cart-turned-into-a-coffee table (straight from Pinterest), plush sofas with lilac and white cushions. Every time I sat in the lounge the hotelier would bring me a cup of coffee.

Our room was tiny with a lovely window down which the rain streamed steadily, the bed was soft, white and comfortable and the rain outside made you want to stay under the soft cloudy blankets forever. The sound of the rain on the tin roof, the cozy blankets, hot cups of coffee and our 9-year-old matching LUMS hoodies – and even though we were back in our guesthouse at 5 pm, the rain called for an early evening –  we were content as two kittens in a basket.
Still no TV but we watched Youtube videos on my phone – Fahad’s selection of sinister short documentaries.

Dinner consisted of pizza – and lays chips, an expensive meal because it had to be delivered by a guy in a rickshaw who went in search of it to the town and returned an hour later. The Sri Lankan hotelier (who knew some Urdu because he had lived in Dubai for a while – where he picked up Hindi. Ah I love globalization!) struck up conversation with me and we realized that if the rain continued, it wouldn’t be advisable to go on our adventure trek. “It’ll be too muddy and slippery, and the clouds will hide the view at the ‘End of the World’ point.”
Which made sense, but I had been dreaming about this magical trek through the birds and the bees and the trees to a place dreamily called the End of the World. “I guess we can just see around 3 or 4 am, if it has stopped raining we can go.” and my friend agreed, told me he would get up and check, and if it had dried up, he would prepare a breakfast-to-go.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well despite the coziness of the room – I usually love the sound of rain but that night every time I woke up, it dampened my spirits a little bit more, till finally I tiptoed out of the room around 5 am and the hotelier was standing in the dimly lit kitchen – “still raining,” he said and I nodded sadly. “I don’t think we will be going.”

The next morning we had breakfast at our guesthouse and left just before midday. Our next destination was Bentota, a beach town about two hours from Sri Lanka. We left the cool windy drizzly green Little England and just forty minutes later, when we stopped at a viewpoint it was pretty warm. Strawberry juice was available (in December?) and there was a funny little museum showing how the water plant worked. Tea fields layered the mountainside and the hills looked bright green against a now sunny sky.
Later, as we tumbled down the road, our driver asked if we wanted to stop at the river for White Water Rafting. I was still bummed out about the morning and like I usually do, I decided to ensure that everything else would go down the crappy road too (I know, very mature) – but that’s where marriage helps and Fahad cajoled me into saying ‘okay…let’s see’.

I think it must be my age but I started to get butterflies in my stomach as we passed by the little shacks advertising water sports, red, yellow and blue rubber rafts drying on the roofs. (The older I get, the greater the population of these temporal butterflies!). We stopped at a cool restaurant-lodge where our driver’s friends who own their adventure group met us.

The hotel was very cool, very rainforesty, with grey stone walls, pebbled pathways, quirky décor – a rusty tractor, wooden benches, old typewriters and Picasso-inspired statutes. There were trees everywhere and by now the sky was overcast again so it was dim and mysterious as we walked down to the restaurant. ‘This is where the rafts land,’ the adventure guy told us, pointing to some large flat rocks at the end of a dirt path from the restaurant.

The river was calm here, maybe about 20 feet wide, a light brown tinged with the emerald of trees that were leaning in from both banks.
We agreed on a rate, changed into water-friendly clothes and walked up to the hut with the rafts. There we put on a few helmet sizes before finally admitting that we both needed the largest size for our large heads, put on the life jackets and grabbed the oars. Our two guides lifted the large raft up on their heads and deftly put it on top of the small tuk-tuk – it hung precariously over the sides and we went up the road to the starting point. A two-minute walk down a steep path and their our guide gave us the low-down on rafting. The most nerving part was the way you sit on the raft – not safely snugly inside on the floor but perched on the round edge! “Really?” I gulped. “Just tuck your foot into this strap so that if you tip over, you’ll be close to the boat!” the guide offered helpfully, gesturing at a gray strap attached to the floor.

There were a few basic commands: Forward (where you paddle), ForwardForward (where you paddle more furiously to avoid rocks and such – and the best part is, this usually happens when the water gets rough so that’s not when you want to use all your muscles to churn the water, this is when you want to duck and curl into a ball on the floor of the boat), Relax, Lean In (you lean into the boat to avoid toppling over) and the most exciting one of all: ‘Get down!’ which was for the really scary parts, and which the guide used just once to mess with us/or create a higher level of excitement.

Before getting into the boat our guide kicked some water to acclimatize us and then we all hopped on to the boat, our leader at the back and us sitting across from each other at the front. And onwards!
It was absolutely lovely. I’m sure it was a very beginner’s course but it had at least three rocky rapids through which our boat would tip forward with the waves white and foamy hitting us happily, and here we would paddle as furiously albeit pathetically I’m sure as possible.

The scenery was breathtaking so I enjoyed the calmer parts of the river as well – we were in a valley with the mountains all around, the sky with roiling blue gray clouds, the banks covered with lush green trees. And then our guide told us that there was a patch where we could ‘body raft’ – the rocks created very mild friendly rapids that you could just go over without the raft – as in, just jump into the river, cross your arms and float straight up and down over the rapids. We politely declined that but agreed to the ‘swimming patch’ which was just jumping off the boat into the river and swimming! It had started to drizzle by now and since I had my lifejacket, I jumped off and into the cold brown water.
Best. Decision. Ever. Fahad and I swam lazily by our boat and the joy of floating on a calm river, with the spray of rain on your face, the mountains green and blue and happy looming around us – it was thrilling and beautiful and I hope I never forget that happiness in my heart!

Back on the boat, we landed at the restaurant, changed into dry clothes (this time not in the hotel’s nicer drier bathrooms but a creaky old room with a creaky old pipe that spewed cold water in one thin stream outside the hotel in its gardens). Grilled cheese sandwiches and ginger ale for lunch and then back into our car.
We had around four hours or more left and it rained intermittently. Closer to our destination we left our mountain roads for a highway, which felt so strange and developed after the last few days, and entered Bentota, the beach town with several large mosques by the main road around 7 pm.

We arrived at our hotel – the only fancy place we had booked for this trip: Centara Ceysands. I hadn’t realized we had to take a boat to the actual hotel – it was actually built on an island with the Indian Ocean on one side and a river on the other. Here we bade farewell to our sweet guide and driver and then sat down in the lobby to wait for a boat, exhausted but content.