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Part I: ARTHUR C. CLARKE – Science Fiction’s Sahib of Serendipity


Photos by Christopher Ondaatje & Victoria Brooks.

 

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, sahib of science fiction and serendipity, relaxes in his Colombo home with his one-eyed Chihuahua, Pepsi. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.I arrive in Colombo only a few hours before sunup, in torrid heat, to endure a 22-mile taxi ride from Bandaranaike International Airport, a ride that bumps and jounces over pock- marked streets and is disrupted further by mandatory and makeshift checkpoints padded with sandbags and manned by air force, army, navy, and antiterrorist commandoes, their faces annihilated by night shadows. All are armed with flashlights, flack jackets, and rifles. They are checking identification papers – hunting for Tigers.

Far to the east, in Yala National Park, leopards stretch and fret and growl. They wile away the late afternoon on smooth, high rocks that bask like dark pools in the flickering light, or glitter like oil beneath falling rain. Once lions roamed this diverse and beautiful island, but now the great golden beast that represents Sri Lanka's Sinhalese is extinct and only visible on sunset-colored billboards emblazoned with Lion Lager’s audacious slogan: put a lion in you.

Sri Lankan troops, Galle Face, Colombo. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.There are no tigers in Sri Lanka except for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The ltte or Tigers have terrorized Sri Lanka since 1983 when the southeast trade winds conveyed on their dank breath an anti-Tamil government-fueled pogrom that devastated Colombo’s Tamil areas. Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic group, the Sinhalese, backed by government troops, have been battling these shadowy separatist guerrillas ever since. Their methods are extreme: suicide bombers and surprise attacks. Their weaponry is modern: T-56 rifles, grenades, and rocket-launchers. The Tigers fight ferociously in this ethnic civil war for a separate and independent homeland in the north and east where they are based. They accuse the majority Sinhalese of widespread discrimination against Tamils. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict so far.Sri Lankans display a sense of humor. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.The 3.2 million predominantly Hindu Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka’s 18.6-million population. The country's Sinhalese, the ruling majority at 69 percent, follow the teachings of Buddha, the government-approved religion. Buddhism has thrived in Sri Lanka for millennia except for a brief 75-year-period in the late 10th and 11th centuries when it was suppressed by a Hindu dynasty from nearby Tamil Nadu.

To my untrained eye there seems little, if any difference, between the physical appearance of a Tamil and a Sinhalese. They are all Sri Lankans, renowned worldwide for their physical beauty. Beauty or not, for nearly two decades Colombo has been in a continual state of emergency.

They are all Sri Lankans. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.By the time I arrive to see Arthur C. Clarke, the Tigers and the government troops have begun battling it out at Elephant Pass, the narrow land bridge that leads to the hotly contested Jaffna Peninsula and the Tamil city of Jaffna. The area is a Dry Zone; War Zone now.

Another bleak, meandering road leads 72 miles east to the port of Tricomalee, a favored diving spot that intrepid voyageurs like Clarke can no longer explore. In 1970 Clarke and his company Underwater Safaris introduced the three Apollo 12 astronauts to those fecund depths – after the astronauts returned from the moon’s barren landscape.

 

Arthur C. Clarke and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space. Courtesy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1968. As I look out at Colombo's famous Galle Face Green, all thoughts of civil war fade. I admire two young men, lean and brown- muscled in white cotton boxers and scoop-necked undershirts, stretching under a fast light sky shot through with marigold-stained clouds. In Sri Lanka there are two seasons: the Siberian High with its northeast trades, and then the May-to-September Mascarene High. It is very near May now, and the southeast trades churn the island’s waters off the south and west coasts, the areas still open to travelers.Clarke and company discovered treasure off Sri Lanka's coast. Courtesy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1956.My choice of hotel was determined months earlier when Clarke, in his forward-thinking way, e-mailed me with the message: "You must definitely stay in the Galle Face Hotel." During an electricity blackout in 1996, Clarke moved into the hotel to write his latest bestseller 3001: The Final Odyssey. He was one of a long line of illustrious people who have stayed at the hotel and whose photos line the walls of the office once occupied by the late Cyril Gardiner, the hotel's manager. Among the famous faces are those of Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, a youthful Prince Philip, and Indian leaders Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, the latter assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomb. An oil painting of Clarke is mounted among the photos.

 

The Galle Face Hotel, most famous hostelry east of the Suez. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.Three floors below my room is the 132-year-old high-ceilinged, open-air lobby with two tiny square pools cut into the floor. These ponds are fragrant with jasmine, a tree that cartwheels with pink, blood-red, or velvety white blooms on Colombo's already leafy boulevards. A glass- encased bronze bust of Clarke, the great leveler himself, stands near the ponds. Clarke is credited with bringing science to the masses and science fiction into the realm of literature.

Clarke's journey to Sri Lanka was more indirect and far more enduring than my own. Back in 1943, a bespectacled, tall, and gangly 28-year-old officer and instructor of the No. 9 Radio School (Yatesbury) in the British Royal Air Force packed his bags and raincoat for an assignment to a foggy airfield at the southern tip of England. In seclusion he worked with the young American physicist Luis Alvarez, inventor of the ground-controlled approach (gca) talk-down system, a radar device that could bring down an aircraft, in Clarke’s words, "in one piece, instead of several." Clarke credits that mysterious assignment with allowing him the time away from the war to work out the principles of communications satellites (comsats) – and the world has looked up to space and to Clarke ever since.

Next month in Part II, the adventure in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Sri Lanka continues.

Note: Literary Trips II will be available, hot off the press, at greatestescapes.com bookstore beginning March 1, 2000; in book stores April 1, 2001.The brilliant Clarke at 28. Courtesy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1943. When You Go:

Destination: Sri Lanka is the most exotic of islands. The people, the majority Buddhist, are sweet-natured and sleek of skin. Many speak English, always a boon. Pale beaches sway with tall, feathery palms, there are mountains to climb, ancient cities and exotic religions to explore, and a wealth of easily accessible wildlife. It is an easily negotiated and varied experience that has sparked travelers' and explorers' imaginations since Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived in 1497. The island has been plagued with an on again/off again ethnic war. Thankfully, the situation has calmed since I was there, but please check with your embassy before considering a trip to Sri Lanka.

Where to Stay: The wonderful Galle Face Hotel in Colombo has been a traveler's institution since 1864. The GFH has hosted a diverse group of travelers, among them Noël Coward, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and Trevor Howard. It is comfortable, shabbily elegant, on the sea, in the city, and not to be missed. It is Sir Arthur's favorite hotel in the city and where he wrote 3001: The Final Odyssey. No. 2, Kollupitiya Road, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka. Tel.: (94) 1 541010-6. Fax: (94) 1 541072 or (94) 1 541074. E-mail: gfh@diamond.lanka.net. Inexpensive.

For more Information: Contact the Sri Lanka Tourist Board. It is located at 80 Galle Road, P.O. Box 1504, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka. E-mail: ctb_dm@sri.lanka.net. Web site: www.lanka.net/ctb. United States: Tel.: (212) 839-0900. Fax: (212) 524-9653. E-mail: ctbUSA@aflusa.com.

Sri Lankans display a sense of humor. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.The 3.2 million predominantly Hindu Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka’s 18.6-million population. The country's Sinhalese, the ruling majority at 69 percent, follow the teachings of Buddha, the government-approved religion. Buddhism has thrived in Sri Lanka for millennia except for a brief 75-year-period in the late 10th and 11th centuries when it was suppressed by a Hindu dynasty from nearby Tamil Nadu.

To my untrained eye there seems little, if any difference, between the physical appearance of a Tamil and a Sinhalese. They are all Sri Lankans, renowned worldwide for their physical beauty. Beauty or not, for nearly two decades Colombo has been in a continual state of emergency.

They are all Sri Lankans. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.By the time I arrive to see Arthur C. Clarke, the Tigers and the government troops have begun battling it out at Elephant Pass, the narrow land bridge that leads to the hotly contested Jaffna Peninsula and the Tamil city of Jaffna. The area is a Dry Zone; War Zone now.

Another bleak, meandering road leads 72 miles east to the port of Tricomalee, a favored diving spot that intrepid voyageurs like Clarke can no longer explore. In 1970 Clarke and his company Underwater Safaris introduced the three Apollo 12 astronauts to those fecund depths – after the astronauts returned from the moon’s barren landscape.

Arthur C. Clarke and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space. Courtesy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1968. As I look out at Colombo's famous Galle Face Green, all thoughts of civil war fade. I admire two young men, lean and brown- muscled in white cotton boxers and scoop-necked undershirts, stretching under a fast light sky shot through with marigold-stained clouds. In Sri Lanka there are two seasons: the Siberian High with its northeast trades, and then the May-to-September Mascarene High. It is very near May now, and the southeast trades churn the island’s waters off the south and west coasts, the areas still open to travelers.Clarke and company discovered treasure off Sri Lanka's coast. Courtesy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1956.My choice of hotel was determined months earlier when Clarke, in his forward-thinking way, e-mailed me with the message: "You must definitely stay in the Galle Face Hotel." During an electricity blackout in 1996, Clarke moved into the hotel to write his latest bestseller 3001: The Final Odyssey. He was one of a long line of illustrious people who have stayed at the hotel and whose photos line the walls of the office once occupied by the late Cyril Gardiner, the hotel's manager. Among the famous faces are those of Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, a youthful Prince Philip, and Indian leaders Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, the latter assassinated in 1991 by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomb. An oil painting of Clarke is mounted among the photos.

The Galle Face Hotel, most famous hostelry east of the Suez. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.Three floors below my room is the 132-year-old high-ceilinged, open-air lobby with two tiny square pools cut into the floor. These ponds are fragrant with jasmine, a tree that cartwheels with pink, blood-red, or velvety white blooms on Colombo's already leafy boulevards. A glass- encased bronze bust of Clarke, the great leveler himself, stands near the ponds. Clarke is credited with bringing science to the masses and science fiction into the realm of literature.

Clarke's journey to Sri Lanka was more indirect and far more enduring than my own. Back in 1943, a bespectacled, tall, and gangly 28-year-old officer and instructor of the No. 9 Radio School (Yatesbury) in the British Royal Air Force packed his bags and raincoat for an assignment to a foggy airfield at the southern tip of England. In seclusion he worked with the young American physicist Luis Alvarez, inventor of the ground-controlled approach (gca) talk-down system, a radar device that could bring down an aircraft, in Clarke’s words, "in one piece, instead of several." Clarke credits that mysterious assignment with allowing him the time away from the war to work out the principles of communications satellites (comsats) – and the world has looked up to space and to Clarke ever since.

Next month in Part II, the adventure in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Sri Lanka continues.

Note: Literary Trips II will be available, hot off the press, at greatestescapes.com bookstore beginning March 1, 2000; in book stores April 1, 2001.The brilliant Clarke at 28. Courtesy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1943. When You Go:

Destination: Sri Lanka is the most exotic of islands. The people, the majority Buddhist, are sweet-natured and sleek of skin. Many speak English, always a boon. Pale beaches sway with tall, feathery palms, there are mountains to climb, ancient cities and exotic religions to explore, and a wealth of easily accessible wildlife. It is an easily negotiated and varied experience that has sparked travelers' and explorers' imaginations since Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived in 1497. The island has been plagued with an on again/off again ethnic war. Thankfully, the situation has calmed since I was there, but please check with your embassy before considering a trip to Sri Lanka.

Where to Stay: The wonderful Galle Face Hotel in Colombo has been a traveler's institution since 1864. The GFH has hosted a diverse group of travelers, among them Noël Coward, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and Trevor Howard. It is comfortable, shabbily elegant, on the sea, in the city, and not to be missed. It is Sir Arthur's favorite hotel in the city and where he wrote 3001: The Final Odyssey. No. 2, Kollupitiya Road, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka. Tel.: (94) 1 541010-6. Fax: (94) 1 541072 or (94) 1 541074. E-mail: gfh@diamond.lanka.net. Inexpensive.

For more Information: Contact the Sri Lanka Tourist Board. It is located at 80 Galle Road, P.O. Box 1504, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka. E-mail: ctb_dm@sri.lanka.net. Web site: www.lanka.net/ctb. United States: Tel.: (212) 839-0900. Fax: (212) 524-9653. E-mail: ctbUSA@aflusa.com.