Sri Lanka, Week 1: “Your death is not in your hands… ”

On the way to Sri Lanka

Welcome to my first weekly blog post on my residency in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

Since this is the first of six weekly posts, I will begin with a quick introduction to the residency and my work.

Be warned, this is a ridiculously long post. To paraphrase the old adage, I’d have written a shorter post but I didn’t have enough time. I don’t expect the rest of my blog here to be quite so verbose.

This is a six week residency in association with UZ Arts of Glasgow and Galway 2020. I’d like to straight off thank Neil Butler at UZ Arts and all the fine folk at Galway 2020 for this wonderful opportunity.

I intend to make a blog post once a week, documenting my visit to Sri Lanka. I hope to convey an impression of what it is to make art in this incredible country, as well as my thoughts on the country itself. I will introduce you to the other artists who are on this adventure with me, as well as the many Sri Lankans who I hope to share tea with.

In case you don’t know me, my name is John Rogers. I am a theatremaker, originally from Co. Leitrim, now based in Galway City. I have been working in theatre for 13 years. After my MA in Drama & Theatre from NUIG I became heavily interested in devised theatre and theatre that is often non-narrative. In this regard I’ve worked with Moonfish, Mephisto, Waterdonkey, Dick Walsh and others. Recently I have focused on creating a series of one-man-shows that strive to move away from the traditional Irish monologue play. I am also interested in the use of digital technology in making theatre, in particular social media. I believe that such tools should only be used if they serve the theatre and I am exploring different ways to do this. In 2013 my debut one-man-show Decision Problem [Good Time for Questions] premiered at Dublin Fringe and was also shown at Galway Theatre Festival. This play, performed by me and my computer, concerns the origin and rise of the digital programmable computer. In 2014 my 24-hour nonstop ARTIST SCIENTIST PRIEST also played at DFF and GTF. ARTIST SCIENTIST PRIEST charted the origin and rise of the human race over the course of a day. In 2015 I received my first Arts Council award for the development of my new one-man-show P.I.S.C.E.S., a science-fiction show about contact with extra-terrestrials.  P.I.S.C.E.S. will premier in 2016.

My proposed project for this residency is the creation of a tea ceremony that celebrates the ancient traditions of sharing tea and explores all links between Sri Lanka and Galway.

One last thing before we get started. I don’t take a lot of photos. I am not much of a photographer and on top of that I find the act of taking pictures can get between me and what I am seeing. However I am lucky to be joined on this residency by some excellent photographers. I hope that in the weeks ahead they will allow me to share some of their wonderful shots with you.

I promise all future posts will not begin with such a lengthy preamble.

Right let’s get to it.

Day 0: Sunday 1st November 2015
Galway to Dubai

I still don’t believe that this is happening.

I get Citylink on a glorious Sunday morning from the Galway Coach Centre direct to Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport. It’s my first time flying out of Terminal 2. It’s quite nice, for an airport. I am to fly from Dublin to Dubai and then from Dubai to Colombo. On board my first flight, I get a kick out of calling my wife on Whatsapp while I am over Iranian airspace. I love technology.

It is night when we get to Dubai. Coming into land I look out my window and I see hundreds of boats in the bay all lit up with an Arabian moon shining overhead. It is a beautiful sight. I make my connection with no fuss.

Day 1: Monday 2nd November 2015
Colombo Airport & Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

Land on time at Colombo Airport. There is a mix up with my driver but eventually we sort it out and we hit the road for the two hour drive to Hikkaduwa. The way Sri Lankans drive is crazy. I thought Italians were nuts behind the wheel of the car but these guys would leave them in the ha’penny place. I mention this later to Juri, one of my fellow artists here, and he informs me that they drive even more recklessly in India. He tells me a story about a time he asked an Indian bus driver to slow down. The bus driver replied:

Your death is not in your hands, so why slow down?

Juri is a musician and street performer from Switzerland. He has travelled a lot and is an adventurous sort (think Bob Kelly) and will I think be a good influence on me.

I wish I could tell you about all the amazing sights I saw on the road form Colombo to Hikkaduwa but unfortunately I slept for most of the drive.

I am at the Sunbeach Hotel, Hikkaduwa. This is to be the base for my six week visit to Sri Lanka.  Hikkaduwa is a small town on the south west coast, in the Southern Province. According to Wikipedia:

The name Hikkaduwa is thought to have been derived from the two words Ship Kaduwa, with Ship being the shorter version of Shilpaya which refers to knowledge in Sinhalese and Kaduwa which means sword. It is believed therefore that the name Hikkaduwa means sword of knowledge.

Hikkaduwa has incredible beaches and is a surfers paradise. Here is the view from my bed.

View from my bed

And here is the view from my breakfast table.

Due South

So yeah, these six weeks will be a bit of a slog…

A Sri Lankan woman called Puja, exuding a wonderful mix of energy and cool (a mix that I am to learn is a bit of a Sri Lankan trait), shows me to my room and sets me up with WiFi codes and so on. She introduces me to the hotel manager, guru, elder and all round fixer Chaminda. As the following days unfold I am to learn that Chaminda is the man. Puja isn’t staying with us for long. She’s to head back to Colombo today but we’ll hopefully see her again soon.

I meet my first fellow artist. Martin is from just outside Prague in the Czech Republic. He is an instrument maker and a decent guy. He has been here for a few days already. He has brought some apples from his orchard back home and he gives one to Puja as she is leaving. Next I meet Juri, the Swizz musician and street performer. He is based in Marseille. Until recently his sister was studying music in Cork. Juri nearly made it to Galway when visiting her and regrets he didn’t. He is almost too good-looking but I’m sorry kids, he’s married.

After Puja leaves I have lunch with Martin and Juri. Well I have been told that Sri Lankan food was good but holy hell this is delicious. We have rice and curry with lots of different dishes to share. The flavours are incredible and the sea food is good and meaty. As we are finishing we meet the latest arrivals to our team – Samson and Stefi from Graz, Austria. Samson is originally from Nigeria and he is a sculptor. Stefi is a painter. They are interested in discovering and exploring Sri Lankan mask culture to create some interactive performances. I am to learn over the next few days that they are a wonderful couple.

After lunch I have the best nap of my life. I wake up not knowing where I am. It is already getting dark. I come downstairs and have a smoke. I am at a loose end and feeling a little lost. Then Juri comes along and tells me about a walk he went on and how he ended up in a boat on a lagoon – a little adventure and discovery. I am jealous. He asks, do you want to go for a walk before dinner? I jump at the chance.

Juri and I get lost on our walk. We walk up a country lane away from the more tourist-esque main Hikkaduwa strip. The air is full of the sound of the jungle at night. I am sure Hikkaduwans would laugh at me classing their gentle countryside as the jungle but all I know is that it’s a far cry from Mohill. Fireflies follow us as we walk. We meet some locals. They are all very friendly. There is a hint of thunder in the air and the night is warm but not oppressively so. Everywhere there is the smell of incense.

We think it’s time to try and find the hotel. We’re already late for dinner. Back on the main street we meet the Sri Lankan equivalent of the great Sligo woodcarver Michael Quirke. This local artist creates work that is very good and not of the usual tourist trash. I don’t catch his name but I will return to him. Juri decides that since our hotel is on the beach let’s skip the street and walk the beach instead. It’s a good idea except it soon entails wading across a narrow but fast running river (Juri jumped first) and walking through a very fancy hotel who have blocked off a part of the beach. We eventually make it back way past dinner time. The wonderful staff don’t make a fuss and I am served a tuna steak with garlic and spices with rice and salad. I wash this down with the local Lion beer. Juri, Martin, Samson, Stefi and I have an enjoyable discussion on art and what it is we hope to do here. Talking to them helps me begin to put a shape on my own project.

I go to bed with the balcony doors open and the sound of the surf crashing sends me straight to sleep.

Day 2: Tuesday 3rd November 2015
Hikkaduwa

A lazier day today.

I awake well before my alarm at around half six. The sun wakes me. I slept like a child. I do my morning pages sitting in bed. I get up, have a smoke on the balcony and look at the sea. Downstairs breakfast is a fruit platter with toast and coffee. I think I will have tea with breakfast in future and find me a proper cup of joe later in the day.

After breakfast I go for a swim. Oh the water. It is sublime. I am hooked and immediately I decide that a dip in the ocean will be part of my morning ritual after morning pages and before breakfast. After my swim I go for a walk. I get lost again and that’s fine. Eventually back on the main strip I find a Lavazza café and delight in an excellent Americano. You can take the boy out of Europe…

Back at the hotel lunch is a delicious spring roll. I take another nap after this. I’m still catching up on lost sleep. I mean to nap for an hour but sleep for almost three! By the time I make it downstairs it’s dinner time. Dinner is crabs with rice and salad. We smash up the crabs and suck down the meat. Delicious. After dinner we sit and smoke and watch the lightning out at sea. Juri sings and plays his drum. I try the drum and am happy that I can get something out of it. We talk more about our projects. I think that A Long Way To Go For A Cup Of Tea (that’s the name my dad put on my tea ceremony project) will be about collecting and sharing stories. I will not write or record these stories but only store them in my brain. Each retelling will be slightly different and so they will always be alive. The oral tradition. Maybe I can give my piece a subtitle: I Give Good Head. Sorry, that’s a very bad joke.

Bed now. Just got off from a call with my wife. She’s in good form and hardly misses me at all. Well at least the dog misses me. I’ll be home in a few weeks Bonnie Dog, hang on!

Sleep now. Oíche mhaith.

Day 3: Wednesday 4th November 2015
Hikkaduwa

The day here, at only 6 degrees north of the equator, is almost perfectly split 50-50 night and day. The sun rises just before 6am and sets just before 6pm. I decide it makes sense then to rise early and go to bed early so as to get as much of the sun as possible.

I swim after my morning pages. This morning’s pages told me to be patient and that it’s perfectly fine for me to enjoy my time here in Sri Lanka.

After breakfast we sit with a local guide called Nilan. Nilan is a guide to the shaman and spiritual healers of Sri Lanka. He specialises in the Sri Lankan tradition of Tovil Dances. The Tovil or Devil Dance is a form of medicine. Illnesses ranging from headache to coma are believed to be caused by demonic possession. The dance drives the demon out. Jury’s phycology teacher in Switzerland knows Nilan and that is how we get to meet him. He is a very interesting man. He tells us of a guru who is now in Switzerland but will be returning to Sri Lanka soon. We will get to meet him. This guru helped Nilan with a haunting at his own home. Nilan’s daughters told him that they could see an old woman in their house at night. Nilan knew this to be his great-grandmother. With the help of the guru, the spirit was coaxed to leave and move on. Nilan completely believes what he tells us and you would believe him if he told you. He tells us that the guru can talk to animals. He once talked a bull elephant in the jungle into not attacking him and Nilan. He made a home for himself in the jungle. To make the roof he brought two massive slabs of rock together. Nobody knows how he did this. After this the locals reported him to the police for not being human. I love that.

I look forward to meeting this guru.

Nilan tells us that the Tovil tradition is dying out as more people turn to modern medicine. He said that the problem with modern medicine is that it only fixes the problem in the present but does nothing for a person’s future lives. I ask him if anybody uses a combination of the old ways and the new. He says that sometimes local doctors will say that they have done all that they can. The sick person will then be sent to a shaman. Nilan tells us about temples in the jungles that we can visit and that the monks are very welcoming. There are women monks are well as men monks but not as many.

We have a new arrival today. Stephen is from Scotland and he is an artist who works with sound and video. A proper Glaswegian, I warm to him immediately.

I go looking for rotty today for lunch but what I find is poor tourist fare. The search continues. I swim again in the afternoon.

Today I get caught up in #wakingthefeminists (way to bloody go Lian Bell!). It is good to get involved but it does take me out of here for a while.

We’re going on a road trip tomorrow.

Sleep tight.

Day 4: Thursday 5th November 2015
On the road

We’re on the road heading north along the coast in the sort of minibus that the Gallogly’s used to take us to school in in Mohill. Juri’s in the fold down seat that everyone wanted to sit in when I was a child. Samson and Stefi have organised a quick tour of local points of interest, starting with a Mask Museum in Ambalangoda.

This is a museum on mask culture in Sri Lanka. On display are masks used in Tovil ceremonies but also masks that are used for entertainment and theatre. I’m struck by how similar some of the masks look to the European mask cultures, especially commedia dell’arte. I wonder what influence colonisation had on Sri Lankan mask culture and visa versa. I try to ask our guide this but she seems uncomfortable straying from her very accomplished routine. The Tovil masks are incredible. There is one for each ailment and the one for headache is awesome. It is a face in considerable distress, with a cobra coming out of its nostril and covering its right eye. As someone who used to suffer crippling headaches as a child, I am blown away by how spot on the mask is in depicting them. There is a shop above the museum but of more interest to us non-tourists, there is a workshop where we could watch the masks being made.

From the museum at Ambalangoda we travel to what is referred to as Madampe Lake on Google Maps but what our driver calls the Blue Lagoon. This lake, along with its sister lake Maduganga make up a water reserve. We take a boat around the islands of the lake and it is beautiful. I am bemused to see plenty of boats bearing names from Ireland – Blanchardstown National School, The Loft Restaurant, Sligo and so on. I find out that these boats were provided by a Tsunami relief fund set up by Irish Ferries.

We meet a lizard in the water. It is a varanus or monitor lizard. It swims languidly as our boat slows down for a better look. The lizard for some bizarre reason reminds me of my dog.

We stop at one island where a man harvests cinnamon. He shows us how it’s done. It’s delightful to be here in this hot place with the smell of cinnamon all around, considering that it’s a smell I associate with winter and Christmas. I buy a small jar of cinnamon oil. Apparently its uses are manifold. After this we visit another island with a Buddhist temple on it. Strange to say that this is my first temple since I got here. Our boatman shows us around. It is peaceful but also nicely real with a lack of preciousness. There is a radio playing somewhere. We are brought to a monk in a room who shows us books that are hundreds of years old. They’re just sitting there, not under glass. You’d almost swear that they were still writing in them. He blesses us and ties a string around each of our right wrists. We are then gently encouraged to make a donation. It is a bit off-putting that while this is going on our boatman is yawning in the corner. At one stage his phone goes off with the old Nokia tone. Bizarrely on the wall above the monk is a calendar for the Sri Lankan Air Force showing a fighter jet taking off.

Back on the road we visit a moonstone mine at Meetiyagoda. Again this is interesting and our guides are capable but they tend to struggle with questions. We are eventually brought to the shop. The truth is we are being treated like tourists. Here is where we receive information. Here is where we spend our money. It is a dangerous arrogance to assert that we are not here to play at tourists (says the guy staying at a beach hotel) but to make art. But that is the truth. We are going to have to work to get past the industry if we want to truly engage with Sri Lankans.

And then it happens. On our way back to Hikkaduwa our driver brings us to the Tsunami Museum at Talwatta. The woman who set up this moving photo museum is called Kamani and Juri later puts it best when he says that she has a beautiful energy. Kamani created this museum not only to tell the terrible story of the Tsunami of 2004 and how it devastated the region but to explain to her community the science of seismic activity and the cause of the Tsunami. She wants to explain that nobody caused it, that the Sri Lankans did not bring it upon themselves. Therefore the first thing you see on entering the museum are graphics and information displays explaining tectonic plate movement, undersea earthquakes and P & S waves. The science is in no way dumbed down. This woman is doing an honourable thing here.

Later Stefi tells me a story that Kamani told her.

Before the Tsunami hit, the sea got sucked out for miles. The people were drawn to the beach to watch this strange occurrence. Nobody had seen anything like it before. (There is a frightening photograph at the museum showing the people at the beach looking at the retreating sea. This photo was taken 15 minutes before the first wave hit.) But Kamani felt an instinct not to go to the sea but to grab her children and run in the opposite direction, towards the jungle. She doesn’t know why but this is what she did. At one stage the water caught up with them and engulfed her and her daughter and son. She managed to put her son in a tree, above the water. With one arm she then hung onto the tree, with her other arm wrapped around her daughter.

The three of them survived.

We meet the daughter and the son. Like their mother, they are smiley and peaceful. I want to return here and have tea with this family.

We have a late lunch at a local favourite restaurant that turns out to be a Chinese. So I have Sri Lankan chop suey.

On our return to the hotel we meet our last member of our gang. Matteo is from Milan. He works in theatre and performance (he is the love doctor!). His work will well compliment mine.

Bed. I’m beat. Oíche mhaith.

Day 5: Friday 6th November 2015
Hikkaduwa

I do a stupid thing. I decide to walk the length of the beach from our hotel to the rocks where the fishermen are found. I put on plenty of sun block. But I forget that it is the middle of the day (I’d overslept so what felt like morning is actually already noon). I walk under the midday sun for a couple of hours on hot sand.

I don’t realise the damage immediately. Neil has arrived and in the excitement I pay little heed to the ever increasing glow of heat from my neck and feet. But by dinner I know I am hurting. I have been applying plenty of fresh aloe vera all evening but obviously it’s not enough. My feet swell and my neck blisters.

I don’t feel like talking. I go to bed. Woe. Me. Me the woe.

Day 6: Saturday 7th November 2015
Hikkaduwa

I chat with Neil about what I hope to do here and he gives me some helpful feedback and suggestions. He tells me to talk to Chaminda about Buddhist parables and about milk ceremonies. He says if I wish to make tea on the street then I need to learn how to make a fire. Excellent.

Right, let’s not beat about the bush – I got a bad case of sunburn. My feet look like red hobbit feet and my neck doesn’t look too smart. Every time I see myself in the mirror, I feel like crying at what I’ve done to myself. But fortunately I am already on the mend. I have put myself under house arrest for the next few days until I am satisfied that I can go out under the sun again. So no swimming until next week I’m afraid.

Neil suggests that tomorrow we all present to each other in a slightly more formal way what it is that we hope to do here. On Monday I will sit with Chaminda and get his advise on a number of things.

We have vegetable roti for lunch. Finally I get to taste the real thing. It’s bleeding delic. What’s roti? I hear you ask. It’s this(Disclaimer: I have no idea if that’s a good recipe or not.)

The guys go to a local ceremony tonight. Pains me as it does, I decide not to join them so as to allow myself to heal. Better to sacrifice a couple of days to recuperation than to make a bad situation worse. Neil, Steve and I have a wonderful dinner of prawns cooked in spices and garlic. We have a couple of beers too. Life ain’t so bad.

There is a sign in the hotel. It says:

You are nowhere.

Or perhaps it says:

You are now here.

Oíche mhaith.

Day 7: Sunday 8th November 2015
Hikkaduwa

Sunrise at Hikkaduwa: 5.57am

Sunset at Hikkaduwa: 5.49pm

The sun is in the sky today for 11 hours and 52 minutes. It is at its zenith at 11.53am. At that time I face the sun, turn one eighty and find North. I turn ninety left and find West, one eighty and there’s East.

I don’t know what to do with my day. I am under self-imposed house arrest until tomorrow at the earliest. My sunburn damage is healing but I’m not recovered yet. I play some silly trigonometry using Google Maps and the calculator on my phone and my fingers for measurement and find that Galway is 23°36’ N of W of Hikkaduwa. This is a very rough estimate and doesn’t take into account the curvature of the earth.

We all realise that today is Sunday so we decide to postpone tonight’s presentation to tomorrow night.

I spend my day reading, writing, eating, dreaming and waiting. Waiting to get back in the water. Waiting to get back into Sri Lanka.

So ends Week 1. Thanks for reading and see you next week.


Galway 2020  UZ Arts


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