Elephant Complex – John Gimlette

Of all the sudden, unexpected spaces, my favourite was Galle Face Green. It was slap next door to the ocean, and was so long that the far end often vanished into the spray. Although never quite the hub of Colombo (nowhere is), it’s always been through of as the natural place to fly a kit, display an army, or walk off a dish of mulligatawny. In the evening, half the city would be here, crunching up roasted crabs, or tottering into the waves, saris hoiked up to the waist. Alice would have loved it. One of the gypsy’s monkeys was always dressed as an Englishman, and, up by the lighthouse, all the anti-aircraft guns wore little quilted jackets.

I’m going to say it, John Gimlette is now officially my number one travel author. Sorry Paul Theroux, you held on for a good while. But while Mr Gimlette will no doubt revel in his new found glory, I will concede that for me, Elephant Complex was not as enjoyable as his romp around Paraguay or the Guyana’s and Suriname. Why did I bother reading it I hear you mumble, as you flick onto the next blog. For those of you who stay, I want to say I was hoping my love of Gimlette would pull Sri Lanka into the orbit of my interest.

Travel Writing can’t just be about the author, which sounds obvious, but reading this drove the lingering doubt out of my mind. It seems I’m not much of an armchair traveller, I have to have an interest in the place, almost care about it, and while I thought I might have an interest in Sri Lanka, I don’t.

Gimlette’s own interest in Sri Lanka came from local Tamil’s who lived near him in London, and after months of planning he dives headfirst into this complex land drenched in the history of racial violence, incursions from Portuguese, Dutch and the stubborn buffoons of England. Gimlette travels this history, meeting all types of Sri Lankans, both native and historical interlopers as he traces the story of this remarkable and historically important island and detailing the savagery both past and more recently present of the foreign powers who coveted Sri Lanka and the natives who despised each other enough to drown it in blood.

He meets people from all sides, as he marvels at the native Elephants, the gigantic reservoirs, the mysterious kingdom of Kandy, the awesome passion for cricket and the wildmen of the east.  All the while Gimlette observes characteristics of the people, flora and fauna, and how they are coming to terms of a recent peace after decades of brutal civil war, which somehow left the country’s tourism unscathed. Using a mix of local transport and hired drivers there is little of the land that he does not scrabble around in. He treks in the wild with guides and stays in dilapidated hotels, all the while poking under stones and into matters and issues that form the strata of this complex country.

It is a credit to Gimlette that he stays objective in his retelling of the history, despite his friendship of Tamil exiles in London. He recounts the atrocities and absurdities from both sides in the civil war that barely bumped into the news around the world except very occasionally, before sinking without a trace. The episode of India stepping in, which eventually ends up uniting the two enemies is something I was completely unaware of. It’s not all warfare though, although after such a long, horrific and recent period of conflict it is always there, just bubbling under the surface. Gimlette’s family come out to spend some time with him during his three months on the island, and he visits the tea plantations and the more hidden locations to properly inject himself into this physically beautiful island.

Sri Lanka was somewhere I was thinking of visiting a few years ago, and indeed a friend of mine had been recently and commented on how amazing it is. However, Gimlette’s thorough exploration has sated any lingering interest I had. Maybe I am an armchair traveller after all.

Sanath never got to inspect the half-eaten man, and was unfazed by this brush with eternity. He still drove like a fighter pilot and blamed the English whenever the road wasn’t there.
In a sense he was right. A lot of these roads were English, many of them engineered by a single man: Thomas Skinner. He began building highways in 1820 at the age of sixteen. ‘Ceylon,’ the governor had said, ‘needs firstly roads, secondly roads and thirdly roads.’ For the next forty-seven years, Skinner worked to this brief, covering the island in over three thousand miles of road.

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