KALA was originally published by Lonely Planet in their 2011 collection of on-the-road tales from screen storytellers: ‘Lights, Camera … Travel!‘
Sydney 2011. Eli and I sit quietly on a garden step in silent conversation. We often do this. I’m sixty-six and he’s six. I’m looking for a point of contact in faraway eyes. I enquire of my young neighbour what he remembers of our shared holiday in Galle Fort on the southern tip of a teardrop in the Indian Ocean known as Sri Lanka.
The sea turtles … Eli recalls, shyly … and… with a roar … Kar – luuu!
Sydney 2010. My own recollections of this trip began with the news that greeted me on arrival at Sydney Airport on June 24, a day of political drama. After an overnight coup, Julia Gillard had replaced Kevin Rudd as the Prime Minister of Australia. Fellow travellers greeted this turnaround with uneasy silence. As opinion pixelated across plasma screens, one commentator slipped in a sly aside … they’ve thrown another leader on the barbie.
I’d scheduled a Bangkok stopover before meeting up with Eli and his mother Aline at the Galle Fort Hotel. The trip was intended as a triple-treat: it offered respite to Aline, my friend, neighbour and documentary film producer and renewal for me. For young Eli it was a free pass into a world beyond his own backyard.
Bangkok. The view from my hotel room in the newly minted Le Meridien on Surawong Rd was contradictory; ochre-tiled pagoda temples on one side and the eerily deserted twilight zone of neon nightlife on the other. Spirit and flesh were Bangkok magnets, but the city was recovering from riots by supporters of exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra and even sex tourists were in short supply. I’d flown from an overnight Aussie political coup into the aftermath of a military coup-d’etat.
Tom Vitayakul, a friend, art-lover, and restaurateur, revealed another Bangkok. He guided me through the vertical labyrinth of the BACC Gallery; a soaring atrium that housed beautifully curated modern art. And we ate. A traditional Thai meal at Tom’s Ruen Urai Restaurant and, after a market quest seeking hand-sculpted toy animals for Eli, he introduced me to the delights of thousand-year-old Chinese duck eggs. A wave from Tom: There you go!… his farewell take on the Thai Buddhist adage: mai pen rai – it’s nothing.
Galle. As my flight disembarked at Colombo’s Bandaranaike Airport I was reminded of tropical North Queensland. At 0100hrs the airport seemed provincial, dowdy and slow. I met with Amahl, the perky hotel driver, and we embarked on the 3hr drive that would deliver us to Galle Fort Hotel at 4.30am.
Amahl steered his 4WD along dimly lit and often pot-holed roads. Sri Lanka was devastated by a tsunami in 2004 and by a 30yr war with Tamil separatists that had only recently ended. It was a post-tsunami, post-war reconstruction zone and soldiers had been redeployed into a nocturnal army of road workers. There was a shanty-town feel to the place, enlivened by bursts of light from luxuriant temples. Amahl explained that they’d just celebrated Poya, the full moon festival. Illuminated temples and the murmur of revellers returning to their villages punctuated our journey.
The shanties soon gave way to the ghostly ocean and the realisation of being on an island under the dominance of the sea. It was easy to imagine ancient deities rising out of these tempestuous tides and demanding worship or sacrifice. We passed Sinhalese revellers partying on a black rock, their flesh silhouetted by glinting moonlight as they swayed and weaved around with waves dancing at their feet. I was reminded that islanders know all about the sea: its beauty, bounty and random fury; while tourists simply enjoy the view.
The Galle Forte Hotel is used to nocturnal arrivals and the friendly manager ushered me into a spacious apartment. I unpacked and slid under mosquito netting into the comfort of a four-poster bed. Morning revealed a beautiful sunlit room with a high ceiling; fashionably sparse, elegant and meditative. There was a walk-in shower, a desk, discreet WiFi but no distracting TV. It seemed the perfect place to turn thoughts into ideas; and so it proved.
Daylight encouraged a post-breakfast stroll to explore Galle Fort, with its trading history stretching back to Greeks and Arabs and encompassing a succession of Portugese, Dutch and British colonial eras. They’d all left their mark in blood, stone, culture and architecture along the walled ramparts, narrow mediaeval streets, and terraced cottages housing today’s religiously diverse Sinhalese.
The afternoon heralded the arrival of Aline and Eli. The hand-crafted wooden giraffe and silk elephant from a Thai market excursion worked their spell. Eli was up and away, brandishing his complimentary ice cream. A relieved Aline relaxed by the pool, reclaiming some of the sensuality that she’d sacrificed to work and childcare. Eli, meanwhile, established diplomatic ties with the youngest of the hotel staff, two A’s: Arunja (Dawn) and Ahmeel (Invaluable).
At dusk, Eli murmured a reluctant bye-bye to the A’s and dutifully accompanied Aline and I on a hike around fortress ramparts at the magic hour; that ultramarine moment before night’s curtain envelops black rock promontories and the velvet sea. Scanning this southern ocean, I was reminded of a song: Antarctica starts here.
In the respite days ahead, Aline read, relaxed, swam in the hotel pool. I paced and ruminated in my sun-filled room. Eli treated the Galle Fort Hotel like an adventure playground and, with balloons supplied by the playful A’s, he was chased, captured and cossetted. There were day excursions where hillside meals alternated with Eli stick-fishing, suspended on wave-defying stilts. Eli was at his happiest releasing baby turtles back into the sea and on twilight rampart strolls, where his tiny footprints landed lightly on ancient battlegrounds. There were wide-eyed stares at death-defying cliff dives by athletic locals and we were joined in nightly meals on fan-cooled verandas by Eli’s new best friend, KALA, the hotel dog; lazy, but loved.
KALA, pronounced Kar-Lu, means black; it’s the old Arab word for Galle, named after the harbour’s black rocks.Kar-luuu! It’s a primal yodel, and the word throbs in your throat. It became Eli’s banshee cry as he clambered over ramparts and chased balloons around the hotel before being corralled by Arjunja or Ahmeel and settled into angelic sleep on a foyer sofa.
Eli had two default states. One was as sweet and engaging as the hotcake butter from a Galle Fort breakfast, while the other was full warrior mode: loud; attention-seeking; destructive. His child’s world was a silhouette in black and white; more subtle colours would wait in the shadows to be etched in by time.
The sunlit room, the fort, the island; they ruffled my imagination. It’s 20 years on. Eli is 25. Aline is my age. I’m gone. Eli returns to Galle Fort Hotel to relive the sensation of his first encounter with the wider world. Arunja and Ahmeel now run the modernised hotel. They’re middle aged. The two A’s try to recall a rambunctious kid they once chased with balloons. They can’t. Galle is now a busy town and the once shanty-strewn road from Colombo is a neon-lit, apartment-flanked highway. Galle Fort is an international tourist mecca.
Sydney 2011. We sit on a step in a Sydney garden and Eli’s cry jolts us back to teardrop islands past. Adventurers return with treasure from their travels and Eli’s bounty is a single word: KALA. It conjures distant forts, enchanting hotels, animals, rocks and sea; its sound throbs and pulses across time …Kar – luuu!