On Monday 27th March, I methodically packed my belongings – some of which I’d leave at Sunbeach Hotel and collect at the end of the week. Lewis, Zoe, and I decided to pay a last visit to Galle before I would head on to Mirissa and Tangalle, and they’d fly back to Scotland. It occurred to me later that we no longer batted an eyelid at the speed, noise, and chaos of the journey – which we’d at one point found so nerve-wracking.
Galle Fort is probably one of my favourite spots in Sri Lanka – although the abundance of trickster tuktuk drivers around its fringes could get very frustrating. It’s perhaps due to the end of season that they seemed even pushier (I later made the mistake of asking a driver in Mirissa for directions to a particular teashop. He immediately told me to forget about that place and that he could take me to a tea factory for 2000 rupees, and waved a leaflet in my face. Before I knew it – and because I was tired and had told him I would be moving on to Tangalle, he told me that he’d be over to my hotel to pick me up and would make me a “very good deal”. All this for a simple request for directions. Later that evening I spotted the teashop I’d been searching for directly across the road from where I’d had this encounter).
Anyway, Lewis, Zoe, and I wandered through the streets of Galle Fort before having tea and a smoothie at a café called Calorie Counter. Upon leaving, our waiter held the door and called, “stay healthy!” – which was the café’s slogan. It was kind of sweet in a very cringe-worthy way.
We walked along Pedlar Street to Sugar – another favourite haunt of the artists. We had a wonderful lunch before taking a last walk along the fort walls towards the lighthouse. After negotiating a deal for a tuktuk to take us to the bus station and then me to Mirissa, we said goodbye. It was painful but, as we all live in close proximity to each other in Scotland, I felt confident that we’d see each other again soon. As my tuktuk sped away and Galle, Hikkaduwa, and Sunbeach grew further in distance, the ache of moving on ebbed and the promise of new adventures felt increasingly exciting.
I arrived back at Hotel Ever Green in Mirissa, where Joshua and I had stayed the other week. The rooms are pretty basic – and I did wonder a couple of times if something had died under the floorboards of my room. However, Jagath is an amazingly friendly host and was even kind enough to bring me a small lunch free of charge. It was yet another example of the selflessness I’d become familiar with in Sri Lanka.
Later, I found a fantastic navy-owned restaurant and villas – Weligambay. The area includes a working lighthouse and is at one of the highest points of Mirissa, with views across the bay. I went for breakfast there and could see the many whale-watching boats passing by below (of which Josh and I had been passengers a couple of weeks before). I returned in the evening for dinner and was greeted by a stunning sunset.
On Wednesday morning, I made the bus journey to Matara, which is close the southernmost point of Sri Lanka. From there I got on another bus to Tangalle. It was on this journey that I could see distinct changes in the landscape. Heading slightly northwards, we drove through a hilly jungle, with various small villages dotted throughout. Despite the density of the jungle, the earth is much dryer and the surroundings are a little harsher than in the west. By the time I reached Ranna – the closest town to my new accommodation – many of the roads were dirt tracks rather than motorways, and everything felt a world away from Galle Road.
Arriving at Lanka Beach Bungalows, I was presented with a welcome drink before checking into my room. A bit wiped out from the three busses and tuktuk ride to my accommodation, I dozed off on the sun lounger, only to wake sometime later surrounded by a herd of buffalo – which was a tad surreal.
Once the buffalo had dispersed, I decided to take a walk along the nearby dirt track. I was astounded by the diversity of flora, and, with it, many unusual smells, all within a very short distance.
As a bird, hidden from view, chirped into life, I became very conscious of its call against the deep bass backdrop of the ocean. Back in Hikkaduwa, Mary had called it “Neptune breathing”.
Deep bass sounds aren’t just to be found at the beach. Busses are heavily armed with subwoofers in order to deafen the passengers, and even many tuktuks are “pimped” with speaker systems powerful enough to give one nosebleeds.
The following morning, I visited the Mulkirigala Buddhist Rock Temple Monastery, which dates back to the third century BC. Mulkirigala is almost like a strange fusion of Sigiriya and the Dambulla Cave Temples north of Kandy (and, in fact, has the nickname “Little Sigiriya”), although it definitely has a character of its own. The temple is built on a rock rising 200m above the jungle, and consists of seven Viharas (or monasteries), each containing a statue of Buddha.
The climb to the summit was tough, but the views were breathtaking. The soundscape from up there felt surprisingly intimate. I could hear clearly the various wildlife, intermittent traffic, and even a baby crying. My guide pointed in the direction of Sigiriya, and it made me smile to think of the five artists, in a parallel universe, standing on that great rock some 300 km away.
During my last morning at Lanka Bungalows, I took a long walk along the beach. It was a stark contrast to the beach at Hikkaduwa. I could easily walk a mile without encountering another human here. During this particular walk, I spotted a fisherman steering his catamaran into shore. I waved to him and kept walking, but then heard a voice shout “hello, can you help?” A couple of young guys were standing further up the beach and were indicating towards the boat. I realised that they wanted my help to drag it onto shore, and I was overjoyed at the opportunity. With two of us standing on either side, we’d wait for an assisting wave before heaving the boat gradually further back. There was no singing – as with the Hikkaduwa fishermen – but an unspoken stopping and starting that lasted for nearly 20 minutes. The further back we got, the harder it was to stand on the burning sand, which undoubtedly gave the pushing motion some additional momentum. Inside the boat I could see several fish (including one huge barracuda) and two still-living lobsters. When we were finished, I asked if they were aware of the singing of the fishermen in Hikkaduwa. “Ella…Ay-la….something?” I asked. There was a look of instant recognition, and the flash of a smile. “It’s a migrant song” one of them told me. But, despite pushing for further information, I couldn’t determine who these migrants once were or where they were migrating from. I guess I may never know. We exchanged handshakes and mutual thanks, and I headed back to my accommodation, feeling grubby, sweaty, and very happy.
On Saturday, I made my way back to Hikkaduwa to collect my belongings from Sunbeach before heading to the airport. Hikkaduwa almost felt like a ghost town, and I was glad that I’d chosen not to spend my final week there. Having said that, it still, in a strange way, felt like coming home.
The journey and the long hours spent at Bandaranaike and Dubai airport, are a bit of a blur. I didn’t sleep during that time, and was a complete zombie by the time I reached Glasgow’s border control. The woman at the desk there asked me where I’d been, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Thankfully, I was still allowed into the country. Walking through the automatic doors into arrivals I was utterly baffled by the sight of Lewis and Zoe standing with a welcome sign. For a moment I thought I must still have been in Sri Lanka. I realised that this was, of course, impossible. I was utterly over the moon to see them and very humbled by their kindness. It was a wonderful reunion.
A couple of days later, I was back in Aberdeenshire, unpacking my suitcase. I had purchased three radios in Sri Lanka and I’d managed to take them all back with me. I took one out of the case and decided to turn it on, almost expecting to hear Sri Lankan pop. I was however, gobsmacked to hear the dulcet tones of my WHɎTE friend and colleague. It was uncannily spooky. What were the odds that at that particular moment I would turn on the radio to that particular station and hear Alasdair Whyte singing? I immediately set the camera on my laptop recording and sent him this video:
As the dust has settled – I’ve been back almost a week now – I’ve been contemplating the various possible outlets for the work I created in Sri Lanka. One upcoming opportunity is going to be a performance for BBC Radio 3’s Exposure show. It feels very fitting that these sounds will once again be transmitted through radios. The performance will be recorded at Woodend Barn, Banchory on 18 May, and broadcast on 30th June. There is also the possibility of a sharing of material at a showcase event by Sura Medura on the 20th April at The Briggait, Glasgow.
The work that I created, using the umbrella title Degrees of Separation, feels far from finished. There is much I still want to explore: the fishermen’s song, the soundscape elements, the lost-in-translation-ness, the musicality of language, and radio – both as a performative medium and as an important historic institution in Sri Lanka.
This entire experience has transformed my life and strengthened my skills as a solo composer and sound artist, and as a collaborator. It’s a different person who stepped off the plane in Glasgow and a better artist for it.