Sri Lanka, Week 3: Just me and the tea

Public Space Performance
photo by Matteo Lanfranchi

Welcome to my third weekly blog on my six week residency in Sri Lanka. You can read about week 1 here and week 2 here. A note on the official name of this residency. It’s called Suramedura and it is run by UZ Arts of Glasgow. My residency is in association with Galway 2020.

As I write this my third week draws to an end. I am halfway through my residency.

Day 15: Monday 16th November 2015

I spend most of today preparing for my trip to Colombo and beyond. I also work on a presentation of my work that I will give to performance art students in the capital tomorrow.

I am reading Walter Isaacson’s somewhat muted biography of Einstein. Apparently one of Albert’s college professors was amazed when he heard about the Special Theory of Relativity back in 1905. “He was such a lazy dog,” he was reported to say about his former student. Cool.

After lunch the young fisherman who I’d hoped to go fishing with dropped by the hotel to say that he was for sea on one of the larger trawlers and mightn’t be back for a month or more. It all depends on how quickly they can catch their quota of 50,000 kg of fish. Six men can haul 50,000 kg of tuna in a month or less. That’s not good.

My tummy is playing up today. Nothing serious; I think my Irish digestive system has become a little overloaded with all the curry I’ve been eating. Chaminda recommends drinking the juice of a freshly squeezed lime. I did as he advised and it worked.

5.30am start tomorrow so early night tonight.

Day 16: Tuesday 17th November 2015

We are at the Colombo University of Visual & Performing Arts. Juri, Matteo and I are presenting to performing arts students. Later in the day Martin, Samson and Stefi (who have re-joined us) and Steve will represent to visual art students. The students range in age from 19 to 24. They are quiet but attentive. My presentation focuses on my work since Happening with Waterdonkey back in 2011. I talk about how I ended up making solo pieces and how my shows are made. My audience looks a little bemused. The presentations only really come alive at the Q&A. The students are very reticent to ask questions at first and some of this hesitancy is down to their differing levels of English. But towards the end of the session they liven up and ask some very smart questions.

After lunch Matteo gives a workshop to the students. The workshop will run for the rest of today and all day tomorrow and will culminate in a public space performance on campus. The performance ties into his work on emotional memory. He has kindly offered me and Juri the opportunity to join him in facilitating. After a fun warmup Matteo splits the students into groups of four and I take charge of three of these groups. Each group is asked to devise and perform a short scene based on a memory they had of the University. Some of the scenes created are good but overacted with over reliance on mime and parody. Nonetheless I am very impressed with the students’ energy, focus, enthusiasm and playfulness. I can’t wait to get back here tomorrow.

Juri, Martin, Steve and I are all staying in the same hotel in Colombo. (Matteo is staying with a professor from the University and Samson and Stefi have headed off for Kandy.) The hotel is a half hour to the south so we need to get downtown during rush hour. You know what that means – tuk tuk race! Juri and I go in one and Martin and Steve in the other. Last to the hotel buys the beers. This turns out to be a bad idea as the drivers take our competition very seriously indeed. I’ve often wondered what a real-life car chase in a big city would be like but never considered I’d end up in one, in a tuk tuk. Driving in Sri Lanka is hair-raising enough as it is but this is nuts. We weave in and out of traffic, often traffic that is oncoming. There is at least one moment when I am convinced my life is about to end. I want to take Juri’s hand and say goodbye. All this isn’t helped by Juri providing a fast percussive soundtrack to our race on his flat drum that he brings with him practically everywhere, or that I start singing at the top of my voice, or that whenever our two tuk tuks draw level we reach in and thump the hell out of each other. But we get to the hotel in one piece and the important thing is that Juri and I win.

We have dinner at a seafood place on the beach in the Wellawatta district of Colombo. We are the only foreigners present. One group of Sri Lankan men spend their entire meal singing and hammering out percussion with their hands on their table. You can imagine what this does to our resident musician Juri and he starts singing songs from Italy, Mexico, Hungary (I think) and lots of other places while playing his cutlery on glasses, plates and a nearby bin. The Sri Lankans love it. The beer is crap but strong and flowing well. I end up singing The Night Visit. Mad crack.

Back to the hotel. Oh the hotel. Well all I can say is that it’s cheap.

Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs…

Day 17: Wednesday 18th November 2015

Matteo starts today’s workshop with another warmup. He makes good use of passing gestures, objects and balls. Delightful use of rhythm and steps that of course almost fry my Leitrim male head but I survive. As I said yesterday the students were divided into groups of four with each group devising a short scene based on a memory they had of college life. Juri, Matteo and I take charge of three groups each. Yesterday’s work by the students wasn’t bad but was over-reliant on parody and mime. So I want to strip out the acting and help them to identify the emotions and mood of their pieces. I then ask them where in their bodies this emotion lies. I help them imagine and find this emotion and simply walk in the space with it. I encourage them not to act, not to pretend the feeling and that it is ok to lose it, stop and find it again. I show them how to shake off the feeling when finished so as to remain in control of it. All the time I remind them that this is a learning exercise, an experiment and that as there is no set way to try the exercise then there is no pressure on getting it right. I don’t have a lot of time with them but they are remarkably fast at picking it all up. It helps that I make sure each group has at least one student with good enough English. By lunchtime I have them walking in the space whilst embodying whatever emotion their scene dictates.

At lunchtime I am famished and gobble up the delicious rice and curry provided by the University. After eating I go exploring the campus. I come across a dance studio where ten young women invite me to sit so they could perform for me. They dance two traditional Sri Lankan dances just for me. The first choreography makes use of metal water jugs that they dance with and also use for percussion. The second dance utilises wooden clappers that they play on their arms, legs and foreheads. The dancing is complex and well executed. The women sing as they dance. You can see that they are still learning but their potential is evident. I love it, especially the complexity which means that there is always more than one thing happening at any time. These dances are delightful; they are a gift and I will cherish their memory.

After lunch one of my groups is missing (they have an exam or something). Matteo wants each group to chose a place on campus that speaks to the group’s performance. So my groups bring me to two different places in the University. I then run from one place to the other as I help the students to incorporate this morning’s work into the scenes from yesterday while at the same time reacting to their chosen performance spaces. I explain the importance of structure – make sure the scene has a beginning, middle and end. I implore them not to act; to keep it simple; to find the emotion rather than to pretend to find it; to remember that they couldn’t fail; to enjoy themselves.

Matteo, Juri and I plus the students and their teachers then become the audience for an installation of public space performances throughout the campus. Each group next to perform has to run to their chosen space and await their audience. The difference between the performances from yesterday and what we now see today is huge. Matteo deserves enormous credit for designing and facilitating a workshop that does so much in so little time. We are all helped of course by the students themselves who are brilliant. They are not afraid to try new ideas, not afraid that they might look stupid and they are there for each other. I am impressed by Matteo and Juri’s work. Their groups all perform dynamic, emotionally charged pieces. Juri’s experience in street theatre shines through. I am gratified by the strength and presence shown by my students. All the students are buzzing after the performance.

Afterwards we debrief. One girl says this to me.

I always felt stressed when performing onstage. But today I felt so relaxed and I really enjoyed it. I don’t know how you did that but thanks.

I talk a little to my students about #WakingTheFeminists. I say that of course I have no idea about the state of gender equality in Sri Lankan theatre but if it’s anything like Ireland then I implore the young men to always check their privilege and I wish the young women courage and success.

This workshop is easily the best work I have done since I came to Sri Lanka.

We spend the evening at the home of Chandreguptha Thenuwara, one of Sri Lanka’s leading artists and an activist. He is a member of the University’s faculty. He is a friend to Neil Butler and is the reason we are giving a workshop in Colombo. We go late into the night eating pizza, drinking gin and talking European theatre for some reason.

A wonderful end to a great couple of days. Thanks again Matteo.

Day 18: Thursday 19th November 2015

We are at the visa office. We have to extend our visitor’s visa. This takes an age and there is no rhyme nor reason to the system, if there is a system. Sri Lankans don’t queue by the way. They all stand at whatever administrative window you’re using and all try to have their transaction performed simultaneously.

After an age we are done. Matteo heads off. He’s leaving Colombo today to tour elsewhere in the country. Juri and decide to stay in the capital for another day so as to explore some of it. We go to the Pettah market district. Juri has a list of things he needs for his cupa cupa drums including fabric and hose clips. This means we end up exploring much of this large market area searching for textiles and hardware suppliers. There are hardly any tourists about. The stores sell everything you can think of. I am particularly impressed by the food stores we find. Most are wholesalers and I see crates of massive sacks of garlic for instance. The air is full of the smell of different spices and the cries of street vendors. It’s a step up from Mullan Market.

We go for some Tamil food for both lunch and dinner and it is delicious. We are the only white folk to be seen. After Pettah we go to the Barefoot gallery and store for a nice change of pace and scene.

A good day. Goodbye to the Orchid Inn Hotel. Kandy for me tomorrow. Juri heading south instead.

Oíche mhaith.

Day 19: Friday 20th November 2015

I take the train from Colombo to Kandy and Neil wasn’t lying; it is a beautiful train journey. I give up my seat to sit at a door and watch the scenery grow more and more beautiful as we cross the country.

Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka and it sits in the Central Province in the middle of the island. It was the last capital of the kings of Sri Lanka. After checking in to my hotel I immediately go to Sri Dalia Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, if you believe this sort of thing, it houses the relic of a tooth of the Buddha. The temple sits in a complex that once was the royal palace of the Kingdom of Kandy. I get there at around 4pm and the place is jammed with tourists and worshippers. Those worshipping try to do so amidst the tourists who are snapping away on cameras, phones and tablets. The architecture of the temple is impressive. The relic which you don’t get to see is housed in seven golden caskets. I wander around and struggle to take it all in. I walk the grounds and an old man gives me a tour of the Royal Palace which contains archaeological remains from the time of the Kandy Dynasty as well as artefacts of Dutch and British colonisation. I meet a couple of Germans from the University of Hamburg who have been commissioned by the Temple authorities to create a 3D map of the entire complex. They use an infrared device coupled with a digital camera to scan the buildings. The infrared records what it sees in 3D and then the computer maps onto this the colour images taken by the camera. I ask what about the tourists milling around. Oh the computer gets rid of them, I am blithely answered. If only we could do that in real life I think.

After the temple I go see some traditional Kandy dances. This takes place on a stage in a large auditorium and the dances are performed to a large audience of tourists. I find it hard to shake the notion that what I am watching is the Kandy equivalent of Trad on the Prom, tourists clapping along out of time included.

I’m not slagging off Buddhism or Sri Lankan culture. The truth is I’ve not been able to get past the tourist industry in Kandy. Little wonder – I only have half a day here. But the tourism is a kicker. Why do people feel the damn need to photo and/or video everything? I am standing at one of the most sacred sights in Buddhism and all around me people are holding phones and tablets between us and what it is we are here to see. This isn’t how technology was meant to be used. It creates a disconnection between us and what we hope to experience. If you don’t truly engage with the world in the moment you will never really remember it.

Not to mention that nobody will ever go through the huge amount of images and video that they create. I’m not talking about real photographers mind you. They tend to know what they are doing.

I don’t know why the monks allow people to take photos at all. Mind you, some of the monks are also on their phones.

Right. Rant over.

Coming back from the dances I walk along the lake that sits in the middle of the city feeling underwhelmed. It is dusk. Suddenly Buddhist singing rings out as the faithful are called to the evening ritual. High on a hill across the city sits the giant white statue of Buddha shining in the falling dark. Above the statue hangs a bruised coloured sky and the clouds light up from within with a succession of silent lightning flashes. A nice moment.

I return to the temple for the evening ritual. Believers and tourists alike stand before the relic holding gifts of flowers (you buy them outside for 1,000 rupees or about €7). Drummers play and the crowds climb the stairs to the upper level. I don’t join in.

Truthfully I am not overly impressed by Kandy. Yes I only saw one or two things and the temple is worth a visit. Yet nothing so far in Sri Lankan Buddhism has moved me. In fact it’s remarkable how much it reminds me of Irish Catholicism. The two forms of faith share the same focus on morality. They share a distrust of women, to put it mildly. The hand is out all the time. They have relics! No more than JC and the religion that grew from his teachings, I get the feeling that the Buddhism I have encountered isn’t exactly what The Enlightened One had in mind.

Goodbye Kandy. Tomorrow I will take one of the world’s great train journeys to Ella.

Day 20: Saturday 21st November 2015
Kandy to Ella

Tea Train 1

I am on the morning train to Ella. It is hard to describe what I am seeing but I will try. This incredible journey truly comes alive from Nawalapitiya onwards. The train passes through a succession of valleys, each one more beautiful than the last. We go through Hatton where you get off if you want to go to Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s holy mountain. At Kotagala station a man is working in his vegetable garden. There is a smell of cinnamon in the air. Glorious scenery brings us to Watagoda. There are tea groves in forests. This is fantasy stuff. The train continues, often crossing wonderful rickety bridges. I sit in a doorway as we pass over great drops. The scenery is breath taking. I can see Adam’s Peak in the distance shooting out of cloud. After Radella we pass grove upon grove of tea plants. Around Perakumpura we are in tea country proper. The train passes through the plantations and I can almost reach out and pick some leaves. There are women picking by hand. They don’t wave back to us. It looks like hard work. The groves are large and run in every direction. The landscape is all the more remarkable considering that it is human made. It is an undeniable testament to the arrogant achievement of the British Empire.

Tea Train 2

On the train I meet a couple of young French photographers who are touring Sri Lanka. They are using black and white film to make a photographic record of the country. It is a strange choice to use monochrome film in such a vibrant country but nevertheless there is something appealing about their process. The two women are using cameras that once belonged to their fathers. They will not see what they have until they return to France and develop their film. We mention Paris briefly and we all agree that we are glad not to be in Europe right now. Not because we would feel unsafe but we would have to put up with the sadly predictable media and political response to the attack.

Tea Train 3

The train snakes around the valleys, climbing all the time until we reach Pattipola, Sri Lanka’s highest train station at 1,891 metres above sea level. On we go to Ambewela. The weather is much cooler now and I put on layers for the first time since coming to Sri Lanka. After Ohiya we pass through a number of tunnels. The train makes a piping sound in the chasms. We are slowly descending now, the valleys below us are full of cloud. I can see glimpses of tea factories on the valley floor. We continue down into the cloud forests of the Badulla District of Uva Province. Hardly anybody talks, we just take in what we are seeing. It is beautiful enough to almost make me cry.

Tea Train 4

We make it to Ella around an hour behind schedule. I wish the train had never stopped.

Ella is a small town with a nice vibe. I am staying in a wonderful guesthouse with a balcony overlooking the Ella Gap, a valley that on a clear day shows the plains of Southern Sri Lanka. Across the Gap to the right are the Rovena Falls, the muted thunder of which becomes a soundtrack to my stay. Directly across from me is Little Adam’s Peak, the holy mountain’s little brother that sits as a wall of green rising to the sky.

It is dark now and I can hear crickets and other noises of the Sri Lankan night. Fireflies coast before me. I hear a bizarre metallic chirping that sounds like a cross between drops falling into a bucket and a phone’s text alert. It turns out to be frogs. We are surrounded by them. Their strange chorus rhythmically builds to a crescendo and falls and builds again in a way that can only mean that there is some amazing Kermit love going on around us.

Sri Lanka I love you but it’s time for sleep.

Day 21: Sunday 22nd November 2015

All the guests in the house are woken at around half six by the never ending blast of the morning train that passes below our balcony. It’s time we were up anyway.

After breakfast my wonderful host Ruwan organises a tuk tuk driver to bring me to a nearby tea factory. But there’s a catch. I’ve forgotten what day is it. All the factories are closed on Sundays. Right. Not to worry. The thing is, from what Ruwan tells me I gather that any visit I make to a tea factory won’t amount to much more than a tourist experience. It would be interesting no doubt but that’s not why I am here. Chaminda has already told me that there is a tea factory near Hikkaduwa that I can visit that might allow me a more behind the scenes look at the process and what it is like for the workers. So I ask the driver to bring me to a nearby plantation and leave me there for a while.

Tea Grove

He leaves me off at a grove a few kilometres from the guesthouse. I then have the most wonderful time strolling alone along the paths that crisscross the groves. It is late morning and the sun is shining. I stand in this place and wonder if any of the tea grown here has ever been drunk in The Secret Garden in Galway. I steal a tea leaf. I climb to the top of a grove and sit under a tree. Just me and the tea.

Tea Grove Tree

After a little while my restless mind rebels as it so often does against the lack of distraction. I calm it down by attempting to explain to an imaginary companion Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which is one hundred years old this month. My mind soothed I settle down again. Mist, like smoke, drifts across the groves. Rain starts to softly fall. Whatever way it falls and whatever way I am sitting means I don’t get wet. So I sit and try to let be with the tea.

Tea Grove Mist

And it comes as I knew it might. What I have to do to make the tea ceremony. The shape of it becomes real in my mind. More than that, the feel of it comes to me like the swelling of the heart. The making and performing of it still lies ahead but it is at this moment, sitting in the rain under a tree in a Sri Lankan tea grove, that I know I will do what I came here to do.

After a while the rain stops and I stand and walk back to the road. I text my driver that I am ready when he is. On the road I meet a man, a tuk tuk driver, with three women who I take to be his mother and sisters. The man asks me where I am from.


Ireland! Do you know Jesus?

I groan inwardly. I answer him:

I’ve heard of him.

He is my personal saviour. I was a sinner, a bad one.

I still am, I think to myself.  He continued:

I was badly ill and he saved me.

I am glad to know that you are better.

I invite you to let Jesus into your life.

Thank you for your kind invitation. I’ll think about it.

And off they leave, his mother beaming with pride and love for her son.

My driver arrives. Where next? What do you suggest? The waterfall. Ok, let’s do that. But not long into our drive there the rain returns, much heavier than before. The road to the falls twists and turns around the Gap, providing incredible views made all the more dramatic by the mist and rain. We stop at one point and I just stare across at Little Adam’s Peak. Clouds drift up it like massive columns of smoke.

At the waterfall we don’t stay long. It is beautiful but not very peaceful what with the traffic, the tourists and the guys trying to sell me stuff. And the rain is bucketing down in a Galway fashion. So we go back to Ella. I tell the driver that if the sun comes back out we might hit the road again but I know I won’t. I know I will just go back to my balcony and sit and see the valley. I think he knows that too.

And that’s what I do. The sun eventually returns but I stay put. I read a little but mostly I daydream. I have a cup of tea.

I stay there as the sun goes down. In the dusk the air force arrives – bats. They swoop around me, hopefully gobbling up all the mossies. They come right into the balcony, swerving inches from my face. Exhilarating.

After dark the sleeper train passes below the balcony, singing that strange piping music they do in the hills. It is all lit up like a lantern parade. I follow the noise of its progress around the valley and sure enough it finally reappears like a toy train set across the way as it crosses the bridge over the now ghostly falls and disappears into a tunnel, sounding a final note of farewell.

Ella is one of those magic places.


Galway 2020  UZ Arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s