Galle : Retreats into Silence
Galle Travel Blog› entry 257 of 268 › view all entries
The wheels keep turning. Hot rubber on hot dusty tarmac. Not for the first time my friends you join me jolting along on a bus. How many cumulative days of my life have I spent sat on these bone janglers on this journey so far? Best not to think about it and just keep moving.
Today almost ten hours in total. Eight and a half the first leg from Nuwara Eliya in the Sri Lankan hill country all the way around and down to Matara on the south coast. In all that time, one stop for tea, food and other necessary activities. Not even ten minutes! 'Parp PARP!' calls the bus.
Hot. Sweaty. Hot and sweaty. Drip. Drop. Drip-drop-drip. Judder-judder. Mop the brow. How long now? Crush. Arms up reached to grips. Children hang on hips. Sardines in their can, every woman and man. No fans on Sri Lankan public buses. Instead we recycle and the atmospheric fumes of one another’s discomfort with every breath. In-out, in-out. 'Oh man!' Drip drop drop. The sweat don't stop. Repeat, repeat : 'at least I have a seat.' The worst of it is the music. 'Pic-poc-poc, pic-pic-poc-' The same CD with the same six or seven Sri Lankan pop songs cycling on repeat for the entire journey!!! The wheels keep turning.
Arriving at Matara there's not one second for rest as a bus onwards west along the coast is ready to roll as soon as I have my backpack and bearings. The wheels keep turning. Hot rubber on hot dusty tarmac. Hot. Sweaty. Tired. Hot and sweaty and tired. Smelly. Really dirty now too. Can't even mop my brow without leaving black trace marks of G*d knows what. Where did this sh*t come from?! People tell me Marissa beach is idyllic and I could stop there, but no, I've got it in my head to get through this journey and get to Galle (pronounced 'gaul'). Galle is giving me the call.
The wheels finally stop turning. The sardines escape from the can. Every woman and man. Hot. Sweaty. Noise. Galle town. A bus station next to a train station. A tout's paradise. 'Mister, mister!', 'Tuk-tuk?', 'Rickshaw?', 'Mister where you go?', 'Mister you want rooms?', 'My friend - my friend!' But it's no good. I am practically deaf to such commercial cat-calls these days. The tinitus derived from 10 hours of Sri Lankan pop also blocking out all other sound. 'Pic-poc-poc, pic-poc-poc-PIC!' 'Mister, mister? Where you go?' The feet know exactly where they're heading.
Silence. I stand still a moment. All the noise retreats. Silence. It's as if passing under the arch into the walled Dutch fort of Old Town Galle I have stepped over some talisman that protects the interior of the fort from the noise and hassle of the outside world. Protecting me from the same. A cool sea breeze licks the warm sweat upon my limbs and face. Some dry leaves skitter across the street. They the only noise. I'd expect a tumbleweed but we're not in Texas. After the heat and human closeness and sonic onslaught of the 10 hours of journey making this is a very different environment altogether. Noise and chaos inverted to calm. Balm for body and soul. A retreat into a quieter past.
But I still have a 15 kilo backpack on my back so a little more trudging and enquiry making later and by chance and not design I find myself at the entrance to the Weltevreden hotel.
Yes, a place where time stands still. Time and mind. This is my experience of the fort town of Galle. It is the perfect setting for me to wind down from another hectic month of travel. To let the dynamo powered by my feet and passport slow a little. Still recovering from India. I stay in Galle five days, defying the 'there's just naaahthin' to do there!' nay sayers with my utter contentment in the calm that is protected within its hefty stone walls. The compulsion to keeping moving leaves me, as if a madness lifted from my mind.
I sip my second tea. 'Thank you Piyasena'. 'It is okay, this is a welcome drink.' Weltevreden, the 18th Century Dutch villa turned renovated guesthouse is one of a large number of heritage homes and buildings preserved within the fort walls. It’s rooms sat around a charming grass strip and flower courtyard atrium. The British, as in Melaka, Malaysia, mercifully didn't seem to have been too concerned with effacing the architectural imprint of the Dutch whom they claimed the fort from at the close of the 18th Century. Several Dutch era churches remain also. The roof of the town a near unbroken sea of weathered terracotta tiles, reminding me of Dubrovnik but without the conflict-induced restoration.
The Fort's origins in fact (as usual in the colonial parade that danced to the spice trade) were Portuguese who found harbour here in 1505, though Galle Fort proper with its eleven sea-defying bastions was not constructed by the Dutch until 1663. A lighthouse, the oldest still operating in Sri Lanka, was built by the British in 1938, and rusted semicircular iron rails still arc the bastion floors where World War II moveable gun emplacements were once wheeled and swivelled into action. More recent history did not leave much of a mark, the surge of the Tsunami breaking against and washing mostly around the Fort walls, flooding a few streets, whilst the wave continued to then funnel more destructively on into the bay of Galle Town with the loss of much property and life.
Piyasena seems perfectly placed in the aging mellow setting of this home acquired by his mother-in-law from a Burgher lady in 1967.
I tease one out of its mouldering repose. Questions Children Ask by Edith and Ernest Bonhivert. It's long ago lost its dust cover. A great retro design front cover of a mother reading in a chair to an inquisitive son and daughter.
Strolling around town, more time capsules present themselves. Driftwood and old cannon pieces. A pleasing little play of architectural forms. The wealth of fabulous colonial era curios that populate the shelves and glass cabinets of The Dutch Wall Antique Shop (and others of its ilk) in rusty, musty, mysterious congregations and avalanches.
Back in Weltevreden with Piyasena and I have plucked up courage to ask him about his wife as he has dropped the fact of her (so far absent) and an illness into the conversation a couple of times - ’.
’I took her to a specialist here.’ ’Where, in Colombo?’ ’No, here in Galle, and they asked her to be admitted to the hospital for tests. So she stayed there. And that is where [cough cough!] - they diagnosed her case. And the doctor he explained unfortunately that there was nothing.
‘In many ways she has not changed. She is not aggressive. She is not angry. Never in her life was she so. Never angry. Never used bad words. She was always a kind, very affectionate lady. And still she is. The same.’ The pieces of course have long since coupled together in my mind and I realise now that the slightly surly seeming lady who did not return my greetings upon my first arrival was his wife, Pavitha. She had just sat staring with a muted, vacant, vaguely troubled look.
I ask Piyasena how long it has been since she last spoke. He says about a year. Not a word since. Barely a sound although occasionally broken tuneful moans do flutter out of her vocal chords. Alzheimer’s is a disease that I am fortunate to say I have had no close experience of and consequently know very little about. But it seems like the cruellest of afflictions one could design for a human being. A species so felicitously endowed with a proud capacity for cognitive thought, feeling and complex psychology.
Their daughter - their only child still resident in Sri Lanka - comes to visit once a month from her job as a nurse up in Vavuniya to the north where a lot of her work presently centres around the Tamil refugee situation.
I try to imagine how a heart must fracture by so many infinite painful degrees in observing this slow silent erasure of a loved one.
Mum in some of her most challenging moments in hospital would harbour vivid delusions and nurture complex conspiracy theories that would number her son and daughter amongst a supposed legion of enemy individuals conspiring to make her believe she was ill and seeking to keep her trapped under lock and key in the clinic.
Of course a critical difference I imagine between depression and Alzheimer’s is that no matter how slender, at least in the former situation - that of my mother - there is always a hope that somehow if you all pull together in the same direction and try and try and try, you might just be able to take each other; take your mother by the hand and lead them back out of the murky labyrinth into which the illness has most cruelly led the mind.
Musing on such subjects, maudlin though they be, occupies a lot of my becalmed mental space whilst I while away the days doing little more than nothing at all in Galle. It’s time I need. I need to be in the business of slowing, stopping and taking stock more nowadays than before. It’s a way of making the journey (maybe) make some sort of sense I suppose? Or have some meaning from time to time. Nothing happens here. Nothing intrudes. The silence is all encompassing.
Walking the Fort walls at least once around becomes a daily ritual. A thorough delight. The wash of the waves on stone. Kicking my heels over the edge. The sea breeze attempting to teach the crows to sing a sweeter song. They refuse. A kingfisher sits upon a telegraph wire and seems to chatter to two sparrows. Scabby-nosed cats doze but look up suspiciously as you pass in the back allies strung with the days washing.
Sitting on a stone bench or with my legs thrown over the fort walls as the sun goes down is one of my favourite activities in Galle.
Some brief moments of rain too fall upon my days in Galle. Appropriately accompanying my typing of a journal piece cheekily whinging about having had too much good weather for the last eighteen months. On one night a fantastic series of thunder and electrical storms explode through the skies around the Fort from all sides. Crackling over the ocean.
Later I am invited to sit at the table, have a tea and join Piyasena and Pavitha for some slices of date sponge cake as they sit together on the chez long. Pavitha hunched slightly forward with her wide vacant eyes as usual. My hosts are more comfortable around me now. A familiar if odd face now for Pavitha. This strange little flame-haired sprite that keeps flitting in and out of her existence. She sometimes smiles a cracked but nonetheless pretty smile when she sees me. Sabudrah smiling in kind at my attempts to talk to her ward as sincerely as one can in such situations. ’She recognises you now’ Piyasena smiles. ‘Part of the furniture’ I say and explain the English idiom to Piyasena.
On my second evening, having dinner at Weltevreden (as I do on all but my first night in Galle) Piyasena asks where I would like to have my tea and I express an ‘if you don’t mind but whatever suits the family best’ preference he then shuffles with mild embarrassment, a host caught off guard and tactfully hints maybe outside might be better as ‘sometimes she [Pavitha] forgets to eat and then we must... help her a little. You know... put food in her mouth. It might make her a little uncomfortable to have someone she does not know see this.’ I kicked myself mentally as I had envisaged just such a truth in an earlier thought but forgotten to be sensitive to it at the point of being asked.
But now they don’t mind. Piyasena and I nibble away. A moment for blushes as Pavitha begins to just crush and crumble her cake all over her flowery skirt and the floor. The act of an unknowing child. ‘S’alright Pavitha, it’s cake. We’re supposed to be messy when eating cake!’ Inane, but in my experience it’s better to throw something into such awkward silences rather than letting them grow. Pretending nothing slightly odd has happened. The English way.
‘This is the problem... this is the price of marriage’ says Piyasena gazing at me with an indecipherable mixture of pride, defiance and pitiable distress - but not regret. Those tears pricking his eyes and his arm around his wife’s shoulders. Robbed of each others company precisely from the moment they both retired from a lifetime of teaching and raising three successful children. A lifetime of inspiring young minds only for your own to start to shut up shop the minute your work is done. Alzheimer’s no reward for such endeavours. ’No, this is the virtue of it!’ I exclaim. For me, as a 30-something singleton it’s been a minor epiphany to see what a powerful bond and comfort it must be to have someone to love and stand by you through the tragedies that tend to touch us all at one time or another in life. A security I’ve not yet found, or tried too hard to find. I go on to explain to him how genuinely moved I have been to spend time in their company and again, how although a different situation and relationship, it has made me think a lot about the time spent with my mother and family in difficult times past.
It really is a most tender and beautiful tableau of marriage and partnership. One of the finest I think I have ever been witness to. ‘The important thing is to never forget that every action still counts. That everything you do for your wife still has meaning for her. Too many times in these situations when the mind has been harmed or gone’ I babble ’people just give up on treating the sufferer in the same manor as they would have done before. As if they’re not there anymore. Gone. And you can’t let that happen. As you say, she is still your family.’ My bizarre rallying Jerry Springer moment over it’s back to sipping sugary tea : ’What the British Empire was founded upon’ Ha ha. Sip sip. Piyasena helps his wife by lifting her cup hand to mouth and latterly gently tipping her head back with one finger pressed gently to her forehead. We talk some more and don’t realise until too late that Pavitha’s let her cup tilt too far down, the tea sputtering down onto the floor.
The next morning is goodbye. Time to leave the silent world of Galle and especially the special little time-frozen world of Weltevreden that I had entered. Weltevreden apparently means ’Well Satisfied’ in Dutch and this is most apt for the happiness I derive from my time within the villa’s walls. Piyasena offers me his hand in farewell. ’Oh, so you are leaving?’ He knows this. And do I sense the tiniest tinge of regret in those glistening, kind eyes? Nah, just kidding myself I think. ’We have enjoyed having you as a guest very much.’ But I sense he has appreciated someone taking plenty of time out to talk to him and his family in a way maybe a little more attentive than the usual revolving door or sight-seeing tunnel vision guests. I can feel every bone slipping around inside his warm, age-slackened, papery-skinned hands. He wheezes and coughs in the usual manner that makes me fear for his health too. And the ’we’ importantly I sense encompasses poor Pavitha his wife whose final grasp of the stimuli of happiness I hope lasts long enough for her to be able to take in her daughter’s wedding this December.
I’ll offer no apologies, but at the same time, hope you don’t mind an entry that even more than is usual with me had relatively little to do with a Place, but rather more the people and a situation that I encountered. Travel needs such moments and stories to bring it to life, and such is true of the writing of it too. I am very privileged to be able to choose to indulge in slow travel and have the time to eke out such histories from the lives of the wonderful people I encounter as well as the settings I encounter them in. As I explained to Rini and Fran in a bar in Jakarta last week, after over eighteen months of travel now, it is a movement towards and through people, their personalities and stories far more than destinations and tourist attractions that engage me these days and that will see me through to the end of my journey. Even if sometimes those stories are sad.
A grandfather clock coughs unheard in a dusty antique shop. Does anyone hear it?
All the noise retreats.
Retreats into silence.
Everything does in the end.