Excerpt from 28 Days in Sri Lanka: Ancient City
Fortunately it was only half-an-hour’s drive to Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s second oldest city. As we parked on top of the dam bordering the Parakrama Samudra we marvelled at how big this glittering tank of water truly was. Fourteen kilometres end to end, and in places five kilometres wide.
Yet despite all its history – this shining orb of ancient engineering – people in our group seemed more interested in an old bicycle standing upright by the side of the road. Frank knelt down to take a photo of it. So did Jerry with his newly sanitised phone. Amy and Beca too, everyone eager for an image of the bike’s silhouette against the blue stillness of the water. Admittedly it was a sturdy, old-fashioned bike: a wire basket at the front, a crossbar, and a metal rack over a twenty-seven-inch rear wheel. The sort of bike your grandpa would ride on his way to collect the water or feed the goats. Functional nostalgia framed against picturesque antiquity. Yet for all the fuss people were making, the bike might have belonged to King Parakrama, or even his successor, King Nissankamalla, who’d bankrupted Polonnaruwa by having his name inscribed on practically every building. In all likelihood the bike was the property of one of the many vendors selling souvenirs. They strolled everywhere around the ancient city with trays of merchandise: straw sunhats, postcards, plastic replicas of carvings, and multi-coloured elephant jigsaw puzzles.
Excerpt from One Hundred Days in Samoa: The Real Samoa
And now here was Ula, the grandmother who ran these beach fales, come to spy on us. Her eyes sparkled, and her face crinkled like overbaked pastry. She asked us many questions: how long had we been married, did we have any children, any siblings, any pets, our favourite colours, and what did we want for dinner? Our answers amused her, and she laughed so loud her jaw split like the halves of a coconut. Then she retreated to the kitchen, pots and pans banging, bent on mischief.
Ula peeled vegetables, boiled chicken as she prepared our dinner. She had a reputation for being a top-notch cook, one who stuck to traditional recipes that she’d inherited from her mum: chicken with pumpkin, tuna poached in coconut milk, and sweet fried bananas. Dishes she’d cooked a thousand times, and would no doubt cook a thousand times more. One half of the red and white timber house was devoted to the kitchen, while the other half was the dining room, a place for us guests to eat, drink and watch the sunset.
We were palagi, we had to remind ourselves, elemental creatures in her eyes who didn’t understand and were to be treated with the same degree of flippancy as her grandchildren. She expected us to ask for food she could not give us – chocolate bars, mayonnaise, iced coffee – the same as we’d gobble our dinners so quickly we’d finish before starting. She knew that was the way of us palagi, consuming more than she could produce, demanding what she could not provide, conjuring our own world in the middle of somebody else’s.
Ula fetched us coconuts to drink, then swept our fale. She knew it wouldn’t stay clean for long because, as palagi, we trod the beach in bare feet and bore grit to our floor and bed. Sand was the great leveller here, the substance that distinguished us nomads from stay-at-home islanders like Ula. She had always lived here – in this village, by these fales – and saw no need to go anywhere else.
The next morning she brushed the beach into tidy furrows, collected rubbish and filled crab holes. Ready for the tide to wash the sand smooth, then for us to litter fresh necklaces of footprints. For we palagi loved leaving our marks, just as we loved taking a tiny part of everything we saw away with us: shells, photographs, souvenirs. Our lives were amalgams of everywhere we’d ever been, while hers remained an essence of here.
Later a new set of palagi would arrive at her fales, though they would be no different from us. Blonde, brown, bald, grey, none of them stayed for long – one or two days – then moved on. Like the sweeps of her broom, us palagi were forever seeking, but never finding.
* * *
Someone whispered in the next fale. Not in English or Samoan. But French.
Not “Je t’aime” or “Je suis Jacques.” More like “Passez-moi le bombe patelle,” and “Pas la même comme le Rainbow Warrior.”
A man and a woman stepped out, snorkels and masks in their hands. No fins. Nor any of those circular magnetic discs to clamp onto hulls.
Which was just as well. This was not Auckland Harbour in the nineteen eighties. Nor were there any protest yachts or ships out there in the lagoon, not even in the great ocean beyond. Nothing to blow up, unless they intended to attack the reef itself, an act of eco-terrorism designed to draw attention to the world’s rising sea levels.
There was the Dive Savai’i boat down the coast. Perhaps that was their target. Or the Lady Samoa III, the ferry back to Upolu. But they’d already told us they were going diving tomorrow. And they’d need the ferry too if they ever wanted to return home.
“You want to see my camera?” Jules’s laugh was cruel. “From here I can take pictures of the equator, of the International Date Line, of the Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.”
“Bullshit!” Kate didn’t hold back. “You can’t see the equator from here.”
“It is not so far.” The woman, Nadia, laughed too. “Only one and a half thousand kilometres. I can see it with my phone.”
“It uses a special lens.” Jules puffed up his chest, then winked. “I am in surveillance. I know these things.”
It was an odd confession to make from a rickety Samoan beach house on the shores of a dead coral bay. We were about as far from the world of gadgets and espionage as anyone could be. We were not even in modern-day Samoa any more, but Savai’i, the Real Samoa instead. It has no city like Apia. No big towns. Less than one quarter of the country’s population live on the island. It was like stepping back twenty years and taking life so slowly our hearts beat only three times every minute. For some people, this might qualify as no longer being alive.
“Do you have any photos you can show us?” I said. “I’ve never seen the equator before.”
“Sacre bleu!” He shook his snorkel, then his mask. “Of course not! If you see them, we will have to shoot you.”
“For your own safety.” Nadia laughed again. “They are top secret. Even we cannot study them.”
“Okay.” I sat back in my chair and stared at the horizon. None of their conversation made any sense, but then, who told the truth when on holiday? He was probably an office clerk in La Défense, and she was an assistant at the Louvre. Here in paradise, though, they could become anyone they wanted to be.