A tranquil tea estate bungalow
“We won’t be able to do this forever, you know.” “Won’t be able to do what?” “Stay warm and have a bottle of wine as well”, Sally explained. “One day we’ll be on a pension and have to choose. Or … there is another way.”
The other way was to move from the Pennines to Sri Lanka when we retired. Sally had been born and brought up there, a fourth generation member of a tea planting family. They left when she was thirteen, returning to England overland in a Mini-Moke and an Austin 1300, zig-zagging through India, up to Kashmir, across the Khyber Pass and the deserts of Afghanistan and Iran and on into Turkey before a meander through Europe fetched them up in Kent. But that’s a story for another time. We’d visited Sri Lanka a couple of times and I’d fallen in love with the island Sally still regarded as home. So in 2004 we set off there again, this time intending to return having bought a house.
Unable to find a suitable house, we ended up buying three acres of overgrown tea and jungle near Kandy, with a stream and a splendid viewpoint across to the Knuckles mountains. And eventually we built our bungalow, Jungle Tide, on the top of the hill. Building a home from six thousand miles away is, frankly, a stupid thing to attempt. That we got there is due to an exceptional local project manager, a great architect, a good dose of luck and sheer bloody-mindedness on our part. Not to mention having to fork out for costs way above what we had been told to expect. It was late in 2015 before we could afford to pack in work and move to Jungle Tide and it’s not exactly been plain sailing since. The whole story is told in my book “Broke’n’English: Learning to live in Sri Lanka”.
The name Jungle Tide comes from a wonderful book written by rebellious colonial administrator John Still in 1930. Too small to make our fortune as a guest house we nonetheless hoped it would supplement our UK pension income, which it was just beginning to do when the bombers struck last Easter and destroyed hundreds of lives and, with them, the island’s emerging tourist industry, only now beginning to recover. As with much of the developing world, tourism in Sri Lanka is a mixed blessing. Since the end of the long civil war in 2009 tourism had been growing steadily until the Easter bombings stopped it in its tracks. But the nature of tourism changed in those ten years. As a trishaw driver comments in Andrew Fidel Fernando’s amusing and thoughtful book “Upon a Sleepless Isle” (Picador, India 2019) visitors during the war years were full of questions and brought gifts for the local kids; “Now, they just look at the sights and go.”
Big hotels have mushroomed, especially on the west and south coasts. Former colonial bungalows and abandoned tea factories have been transformed into luxury spa resorts. Down-market, hundreds of locals have added a room to their modest houses and become homestays. The wealthy and the package tourists, as well as low-budget backpackers have arrived in numbers. Meanwhile the government, eager for foreign exchange, plans to grow tourism dramatically without apparently giving much thought to the downsides of such growth.
One problem is the antiquated infrastructure, especially transport and associated urban traffic management. People tend to think they can “do” the main sights of Sri Lanka in a fortnight and end up spending most of their holiday in vans or on trains and buses. There is also the impact of tourism on wildlife habitats and the natural environment both generally and in the most popular national parks, strewn with jeeps. A lack of vision means the inbound tourism industry focuses on a few well-trodden routes and locations resulting in over-tourism of places like Sigiriya, Ella and Mirissa, while people in the majority of the island are excluded from the economic benefits of tourism despite having equally wonderful places on their own doorsteps, largely unfrequented by foreigners. The tourism industry is poorly managed and co-ordinated, meaning that visitors find it difficult to find information, book travel or understand what is and is not OK in the local culture.
We and others in the small-scale, mid-range independent traveller market are doing what we can to promote sustainable tourism and provide useful information to our visitors. Our market is split between families and retirees but what most of our guests have is a discerning, learning approach to travel. Some come for the history (both colonial and ancient), the temples and culture; some for the phenomenal wildlife, much of it endemic; some for the mountains, waterfalls and trekking; some just to relax and de-stress in a beautiful country full of charming and helpful people. It is difficult to promote this kind of tourism as the target group is small and dispersed but for now, we will continue enjoying the delights of dinner-table conversations with our fascinating guests.