Saving Time…. A Letter to a Sister


Do you ever wish you could bottle time? Take a memory and seal it up, ready to get out and savour again whenever you needed to?

I remember wishing that I could, when the children were small. I would watch R concentrating on painting or cooking or a story, know that she was completely, one hundred percent happy, and I would wish I could store it up for her. To save those secure, carefree toddler days for when she was an anxious teenager or a stressed out adult or whatever. I have never asked her if she ever wished I could have, never asked if she needed one of those memory bursts. I just know that sometimes I would have liked one myself.

So sometimes I catch myself trying to absorb moments. I see something or experience something special and I want to bottle it, capture it for later. Trips abroad often provide those moments. Perhaps because I have time and space to notice them. Sri Lanka certainly provided a few – you might have detected a little enthusiasm when I described seeing the elephants in my last blog! But there were many others, some of them just lasted a second. Like smiling at a young child, sharing the international language of parenthood with a stranger. Or watching a pelican, clumsy and awkward as a clockwork toy.

I would even save some sad memories. Feeling the rain as I stood next to Dad’s grave, surrounded by the family’s shared grief. It was real. In a world so full of artificial, of pretence, real is important. There is life. There is death. There is God. There is a lot of weird and wonderful in between….

There was one moment in Sri Lanka, on the way to the airport. We slowed for traffic lights and the scene was so foreign, so alive. It told a thousand stories and I wanted to be able to paint it or photograph it, though neither would do it justice.

Try to imagine it for a minute. It only lasted a minute, sixty seconds. The traffic is slow and our car creeps forwards. There are people crossing: a man carrying coloured crates, someone with three sacks stacked on his shoulder. Women elegant in saris, boys sauntering in jeans, a man with no legs wheeling his chair up the road against the tide of traffic. There are beggars waiting for the red light so they can stand, silent, beseeching with empty eyes next to car windows. Small shops with tired workers, rubbish blown against the walls, bright signs with curly symbols I can’t read. And the traffic – lots of buses, patterned paintwork, inside the seats had crocheted covers under protective plastic, bright, hot, uncomfortable, with arms and faces leaning out open windows. Aggressive drivers, loud horns, pushing through the traffic scattering pedestrians and tuktuks. And tuktuks, multicoloured, personalised with cushions, flowers, pictures, beads, whole shrines stuffed in the front. Some ferrying tourists, others carrying families. Can you see it? All that life. Impossible to capture, yet very real. It all mattered to someone.

Sometimes life whizzes on.

I hope you have some wonderful moments this week, something you wish you could bottle. Even if only for a minute. Try to notice if you do.

Take care,
Love, Anne

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Elephants at last….


“Move out the way!” shouted the man as the elephants approached the river.

I thought this was bit of an over reaction, there was plenty of room for him to pass, but I did move slightly more to the side.

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Then I realised more elephants were coming behind him. And more….

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Great lumbering beasts, so big, so intent on getting to the river. A bit like a crowd of nine year old boys rushing to play, very likely to knock someone with their shoulder by mistake. But these shoulders were huge, I would be toppled and crushed within seconds. I moved further back, up some steps leading to a cafe. The elephants lumbered by.

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I cannot explain how exciting it was. The thrill of a brass band that vibrates deep inside your being, the thrall of something wonderful and scary all at the same time. Best sight ever. They trooped down to the river and then behaved a lot like my family would. One stood away from the others and just enjoyed being in the river. One submerged completely and just lifted a foot from time to time. One squirted himself and anyone near. One was very task focussed and had a good wash. One tried to organise all the others. I won’t name them…

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We saw them at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. I was slightly worried about how ethical it was – there were some chains and men with sharp sticks and quite a lot of shouting. But bull elephants are randy in the spring and need to be controlled, and I don’t know anything about rearing elephants (clipping a duck’s wings probably looks cruel to someone who doesn’t understand) so I will reserve judgement. Certainly they looked happy as they went to the river. And there were lots of warning signs – they hadn’t been tamed, they were still wild animals (which I like.)

We saw babies being bottle fed and adults stripping leaves from trees. But nothing compared to the bath in the river.

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We hired a car and driver from the hotel. The whole day was good – a chance to see more of Sri Lanka. We saw birds as vibrant blue as a slush puppy, paddy fields being planted with rice, pineapples growing on a bush, a woman leading three porcupines on a lead and stood in rain drops that felt like whole cups of warm water being thrown at us. But really, I just wanted to tell you about the elephants.

I like Sri Lanka. It has an unspoiltness about it. It is the only place I have been that doesn’t have a MacDonald’s and Costa Coffee as every second shop – perhaps because it’s only a few years since the civil war ended, so tourism is just beginning to develop here. If you are planning to visit, come soon, before it changes.

Take care,
Love, Anne

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More days in Sri Lanka


Thursday and Friday

Husband went into office, I worked in hotel room, putting through the changes my editor had suggested for my book, Hidden Faces. When I needed a break, I stood on the balcony and absorbed the sea and palm trees. Not bad at all.

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Went for a fast walk along sea front. Lots of families, groups of boys in white tunics walking home from their Madras, street vendors, stray dogs sleeping in the sunshine. There’s a big Buddhist festival over the next three days and they’re decorating the streets with giant lotus flowers and lights and flags.

The weather goes from bright sunshine to complete deluge in a flash, you can watch the storms coming in across the sea. There are signs up warning people not to swim because of dangerous currents and poisonous fish. Booked trip to see elephants tomorrow.

Saturday

We were both ill. Food poisoning. Ghastly. Cancelled trip to see elephants. But at least we both had it at the same time, so only lost one day of holiday. Annoying because I have been very careful, drinking only bottled water and eating only hot cooked foods. Makes you thankful for toilets.

Sunday

Walked past the green and the harbour to fort region. Area more official, lots of armed gates, groups of military. Saw the old customs house, onion shaped roofs, faded Victorian mansions. It is similar to Mumbai, but less intense – fewer smells and colour, less noise, less people.

If we stood still, even for a second, a man would emerge from nowhere, always wearing an open necked shirt, and asked where we were from and would we like a tuktuk, a tour or a cup of tea.

We passed several booths decorated with lanterns and sculptures – I think for the festival, it looked like it might be a competition. Saw a tiny old lady sweeping. Husband raised his thumb at her, told her the booth was “very good.” She smiled at him, no teeth, scant hair, ragged clothes, but a beautiful smile. Her whole face lit up. Precious moment.

Looked round the old Dutch hospital – now a complex of gift shops and cafes. The shops were closed for the festival, so I couldn’t buy a cushion cover. And I could see them through the door. So close…..

Got a tuktuk back to the hotel. Agreed price beforehand (very important) but when we arrived, he said he had no change and gleefully showed us his empty wallet. Husband said it wasn’t a problem and he could wait while husband went into the hotel and got some change.

Had a drink in the bar, under ceiling fans. Watched crows stealing food from the buffet. Listened to them screech while the sea bashed against the beach and the wind stirred the palm trees. Worth coming.

Got a tuktuk to Pettah region. Here they have a station and streets of market stalls. A rabbit warren. It was one of those experiences that feels scary but actually, as long as you kept your wits about you, it was just interesting. The people wanted to sell us stuff (at inflated prices) not murder us.

Hunted for a cushion cover. Not easy with no local language. Tried miming and got shown lots of bedding and pyjamas. In the end I bought some fabric, very ethnic, will make cushion cover when I get home. Then we went to a leather goods stall – lots of shoes and bags and poofs. Husband rather keen on a poof made from buffalo skin with elephant design. Assured me it would make a good (if rather large) cushion. He bargained with the seller and bought it. Lots of smiles all round.

Seller than offered to sell husband “a better tee-shirt”, which I thought was hilarious but husband found less amusing. Walked back to hotel along sea front. Loads of people again, all very happy. We are the only white people. I like it here.

Tomorrow we hope to go and see elephants…..

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There might be elephants tomorrow……

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Sri Lanka – Letter to a Sister


I met Husband at the airport (he took back all the Sri Lankan money he had given me!) Flight and everything was fine, though much too long – 10 hours. Whenever I use a washroom on a plane, I always remember my first flight, aged eight, when you told me that if I didn’t lower the lid before flushing, I would be sucked out of the aeroplane.

As we flew into Sri Lanka, we could see the extent of the recent floods. In some places they have had nearly 35cm of rain in a day. We saw destroyed roads, flooded houses, rivers that had burst their banks. Several people have been killed.

Immigration was efficient, then we collected our luggage and walked out through the Duty Free shop. In England (and every other country I have visited) this shop is full of chocolate and alcohol and cigarettes. In Sri Lanka, it’s full of washing machines. And fridges. Obviously holidays abroad stimulate the local population into a frenzy of kitchen appliances desire.

As we drove to the hotel, we saw streets of shops selling spare parts for tuk tuks, cars with whole shrines on their dashboards, lots of flooding. We passed Hindu temples, golden Buddhas on roundabouts, giant statues of Mary. There were people hanging clothes to dry on wire fences, trees, anywhere they could really. Many of the houses were very simple, made of corrugated iron and bits of wood. Some had cows in their tiny garden area.

Hotel is lovely. Galle Face Hotel, Colombo. It’s an old colonial building, full of dark wood, carved elephants and ceiling fans. Our room has a balcony, right next to the Indian Ocean (you would love it.) I feel a little like I have walked into a film set. At 5pm every day they play the bagpipes and lower the flag (a tradition from the 1800s when the British were ruling here.)

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This evening we walked along the sea front – a bombardment of the senses. Crashing waves and a babble of languages mingle with fried seafood and spun sugar. Children playing, kites flying, an ancient snake charmer, joined by his friend with a monkey, as the sun dipped behind the brick built pier, silhouetting groups of men and families.

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I’ve never seen a snake charmer before. He took the lid off his basket and played his pipe and a snake – think it was a cobra – rose up. Then the snake got bored and started to slide towards us, so we left – he was bit of a naughty snake!

We ate dinner in the hotel buffet. Very nice, though the Sri Lankan idea of ‘very mild’ for a curry is somewhat different to mine! We watched a man frying hoppers – they’re bowl shaped pancakes, made with flour, egg, coconut milk and yeast. Delicious. You fill them with something savoury and roll them up to eat with your right hand (using your left hand – the toilet hand – is a bad mistake to make.)

While we are here, I really want to see some elephants. There is an elephant orphanage, which is where the government care for elephants that have been abandoned. It’s more of a reservation than a park/zoo I think, so am hoping it’s well run (and has happy elephants.) I’ll let you know if I do.

Take care,
Love, Anne x

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On A Balcony in Sri Lanka


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They needed a weapon. Not to hurt anyone of course, just to cause a diversion, enough of a distraction to get past the guards in the entrance lobby. To reach the tuktuk driver undetected.

She hoped the drivers would still be there, would be willing to help them. They looked as though they would be, would be willing to do anything for a price. And the invasion of the hotel had been so stealthy, so professionally implemented with a minimum of fuss, avoiding detection from the outside world, that it was likely those outside of the perimeter of the hotel were still in ignorance. Still unaware of the silently moving gunmen, the imprisonment of foreign guests.

She knew of one weapon. If it could be called that. She had seen him using it while she was writing on her balcony the day before. Before the gunmen came, moving like shadows through the hotel, demanding everyone return to their rooms. Before their world turned inside out. When everything was still normal, the sunlight warming the tiled floor of her balcony, the sea crashing against the beach, storm clouds far away on the horizon.

She had been resting from her work, gazing out across the sea and the lawns, when she had seen him. The hotel grounds were full of crows. Crows or ravens or jackdaws – she didn’t know which. A large black bird that landed greedily whenever she ate, staring at her, trying to hypnotise her into sharing her food. They called constantly, their screech as constant as the rolling waves. She had been standing, enjoying the warm blanket of humid air, scanning the black horizon as the next band of rain raced towards shore, watching the palm trees dance in the wind.

She saw him on the lawn, next to the pool bar, near the steps to the sea wall. He was dressed in white, like all the staff, his skin almost as black as his hair. He turned, following the flight of the crows, hands raised, catapult ready. When he noticed her watching he ducked behind the building, out of sight. Perhaps some guests had complained. They liked to photograph the birds, were sometimes seen feeding them, encouraging their numbers. The hotel knew this was foolish, that they carried germs and caused damage. It was easier to scare away the birds than to reeducate the guests. So they hired catapult man.

The next time she had seen him, she had been quick to wave. To let him know that she approved, was friendly, on his side. The third time he waved back, smiled. Teeth very white against his dark face. Was that enough? Did that make him a friend? Could she now ask him for help? Did he even speak English? She didn’t know. But he was her only chance and they didn’t have long.

They needed to leave quickly, before news of the siege became known. Before people started choosing sides. Before the government sent troops and the gunmen became fearful.

It had to be her who went. They argued about that, of course, he wanted to be the one who left the relative safety of the room. The one to risk losing anonymity, to become a possible target. But they both knew that she was right. He was too great a prize, his capture would mean something. And he would be noticed. A foreign business man – even in casual clothes he was unmistakably so – was a valuable hostage. One that might be made an example of. So it had to be her.

She dressed carefully. No make-up, hair tied back, clothes – what she referred to as ‘missionary clothes’- the high necked, long sleeved baggy blouse and loose trousers. She was well travelled, she knew that there was nothing in the whole world as invisible as an unattractive middle-aged woman.

He looked at her before she left. One long look. No kiss, not wanting to risk affection that might cause feelings, arouse emotions that needed to be held in check. Feelings could come later. She knew what he was saying, thinking, feeling. It needed no words.

Then she left the sanctuary of their room. Heard the door lock behind her. Headed for the stairs. The stairs were beautiful, reflected the old world elegance of the rest of the hotel. Dark wood bannisters, wide stairs with plush red carpet, sweeping under the paneled ceiling, curving down into the entrance lobby.

She met the first gunman on the landing, leaning against the bannister, next to one of the carved elephants. His gun was hanging loose at his side, cigarette in mouth, casual. No older than her boys at home. He stiffened when he saw her, raised the gun.

“Why are you out? Go back to your room,” he said.

She feigned ignorance. Pointed authoritatively down to the lobby, said something indiscernible, a made-up language. Hoped her age would remind him of his mother, her non words would be taken as a language, her confidence would give her authority. Few people will argue with someone foreign, someone who won’t understand them. He would either resort to physical instruction, possibly violence, or would consider her low risk and high effort and would let her pass.

He spat, did nothing, she passed.

Down the stairs to the lobby. There were two men guarding the glass doors. No one behind the desk. There was shouting in a far off room, but the entrance was calm, guarded but casually so. They weren’t expecting trouble. No one outside knew anything was amiss. There had been no declaration, no demands made, no threats. The world was unchanged.

Beyond the glass doors she glimpsed the tuktuk men, waiting in vain for fares. Beyond them, on the green, families still flew kites, hawkers shouted their wares, the ancient snake charmer sat with his round basket, waiting for tips. A normal day.

She continued down, not looking at the groups of young men she passed, not running but walking fast. Somewhere to go. Clear direction, confident, legitimate. There were more stairs beyond the restaurant and she went down them, guessing they would lead to the kitchen area, to the staff quarters.

One more guard. One more loud, nonsensical conversation, spoken with the authority of mothers and aunts the world over, rarely questioned by young men. Even young men with guns. She was, after all, just a woman. A middle-aged woman.

Into the kitchen. The staff were surprised to see her. They began to rise, their training ingrained, anxious that a guest had strayed into their domain, keen to help, to lead her back to the public areas. She ignored them, headed straight to where catapult man was cowering in the corner. Told him her plan. Offered him money, showed him enough to make him listen, to nod, to agree to the risk.

The rest was easy. She returned to their room, same non-conversation with same young guard on the stairs. He left as she passed, determined to find a higher authority, to discover who she was and if she was legitimate.

That gave them time. Only a slither, but long enough. Enough for her to tap on the door, to tell him to hurry, to flee the way she had come. Back down the stairs. Pausing on the bend. Waiting for catapult man to do his best. To shatter a window to the left – the first thing she had ever seen him hit – enough time for a distraction, to remove the guards, very briefly, from their post.

Then out the door. Running now, calling to the tuktuk man, showing money, the language they would understand, climbing aboard, sinking back behind the window, shouting “airport”, feeling the lurch as the three wheeler pulled away. Into traffic. Amongst cars. Towards safety.

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