4 out of 5 stars
Sri Lanka is a pearl-shaped island just off the southern Indian coast. Traces of human life have been found going back thousands of years, and it abounds with legends from its past. The island is rich in wildlife and forest too and even has its own subspecies of the Asian elephant. They were part of the commonwealth until 1948 when they declared independence and they have had a troubled history since that point with pretty much civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations.
Close to where Gimlette lives in London is a community of Tamil’s. It is thought that there are around 8000 of them, but nobody knows for certain, This is a small proportion of the number in the UK and they are a people that are fairly self-contained. Their temple looks like an art deco department store, but inside it was like stepping into Sri Lankan. He knew then it was a place that he would have to see for himself.
On arrival in Columbo, he stopped to as a man the direction to go, who by chance happened to be heading in that direction. They were soon in a three-wheeler in the chaotic traffic heading towards the temple, Gangarama. It was slowly dawning on him that something was going on and he asked to go back. They took him and asked for a huge fee for his experience, which after a few minutes of sitting around was negotiated down substantially. The first few weeks in the city, he walked everywhere though navigating was challenging as their beautiful script was incomprehensible to him. After a few weeks, it was time to leave the city and head out into the countryside.
At that point, the fireflies appeared, filling the treehouse with their twinkly light. It was like being in the cockpit of a tiny thatched jet.
Being driven was an experience, they have a very different set of safety parameters and the rules of the road are more fiction than law. The road took them to the coast, where the sea glinted its amethyst colour in the sun. Inland the landscape became harsher and drier and he saw his first signs warning about elephants. They stop and climb a small hill and there in front of them were hundreds of silvery wewas. These water channels are not natural, they are a massive civil engineering feat to bring water across the island to irrigate the land.
In places, everything had been scorched away, and pools of crimson had formed in the hollows. The thorn tresses looked as if they’d been added later in ink, they were so spare and black.
His travels take him all over the island and to some of the little islands off the coast and in each place he finds out more and more about the people and the conflict that caused so much anguish. He learns how they live with some of the horrific things that the various sides inflicted on each other and sifts through their complex and long history, finding out how they have lived under various European authorities.
Gimlette has a sharp eye for detail and a way of travelling that does not presume anything. Rather he finds interesting places to go and he waits for things to happen and then tells us about them and the people that he meets there. I am a big fan of the other books that Gimlette has written, in particular, his award-winning Wild Coast and the most recently published, The Gardens Of Mars. However, I didn’t quite connect with this one as much as those other two. I think that it was because there was a lot about the civil war in the book and it felt more like a history book rather than a travel book. I thought that it was still worth reading, though as he has a wonderful way with words. There are a few pictures from his trip in the book, but there are more here.