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Part II: ARTHUR C. CLARKE Ė Science Fictionís Sahib of Serendipity


Photos by Christopher Ondaatje.

 

It is 5:45 in the morning Colombo time. I unlatch the massive casement of my windows, pushing them wide to the sea-heavy air, to the sounds of gulls and crows swooping past my balcony. The sun commences its habitual yet perpetually seductive ascent. It is a moving masterpiece of special effects reminiscent of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the classic collaboration of Clarke and the ingenious director Stanley Kubrick.

By noon, Clarke's Colombo will be an inferno of heat and seething traffic led by shoeless bajaj drivers tooting and threading through a mélange of suited businessmen and half-naked beggars, bicycles, trucks, motorcycles, cattle, and cars. But now, on Galle Face Green, the expansive yellow square that sleeps peacefully beside the restless Indian Ocean, a lone driver grabs at a few last dreams in the breezy back seat of his Jetson-like three-wheeled taxi. A length of Indian madras covers him. The soles of his feet are callused and bare.

Snake charmers entertain passersby. Copyright: Christopher OndaatjeI have risen early to watch the city stir into life and to go through my notes. I am excited as well as nervous about meeting this amazing man, sometimes referred to by his legions of fans as acc. After being knighted in Colombo by Prince Philip (New Year's Honours List) in early 1999 for "Services to Literature," Clarke remarked in his tongue-in-cheek Internet Ego-gram: "I regarded this as a compliment to the entire genre of science fiction as much as to myself. The Eng. Lit mandarins could put this piece of news in their pipes and smoke it!"

Later I will learn that Sir Arthur also awakened early on the morning of my arrival. After rising, he is dressed by Wickie, his valet, and begins his daily routine. The morning is fresh and he has not yet gone to his Intel computer (a gift from cnn for live cybercasts) to open his 50-odd morning e-mails, answer calls from old friends like Rupert Murdoch and Walter Cronkite, or glance out his window to see a baby cuckoo fall from its nest. That incident causes him to think about the odd habits of the cuckoo and how it makes its home in another bird's nest. Letting out a short burst of laughter, he realizes he and the cuckoo have something in common.

****

My husband, Guy, arrived that night and the next day we are let loose on Arthur C. Clarke's Sri Lanka in a rented Toyota Bluebird. We forsake the city for the south coast with its pale sand bays set against glittering waters made choppy by the monsoon season. Our little car swoops and lunges down Galle Road, past bare-chested men in rainbow sarongs fastened tight over slim hips by origami-like twists, past dark women in cotton-candy-hued silks with hourglass figures worthy of the 1940s Hollywood siren Dorothy Lamour. There are saris and sarongs everywhere, all under the cover of parasols that sway like giant sunflowers above human stalks.

Sir Arthur strolling near the Island of Taprobane, in a still from the video series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. Courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke, 1989.We fly beside Sir Arthur's beloved ocean to fabled Unawatuna Bay, the setting of his 1976 science- fiction novel Imperial Earth. It is the year 2276 and man has colonized Mars. In The View from Serendip, Clarke also speaks of the magnetically scenic Unawatuna Bay and plays with serendipitous events, science, and the great Indian Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. As in person, his words are steeped with high spirits and grounded in science. He asks: "Did something really fall down, centuries or a millennia ago, at Unawatuna Bay?" Then he speculates: "A meteorite would be the obvious explanation: it must have been a big one for the legend to have lasted down the ages."

Drummers from Kandy, the cultural center of Sri Lanka. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.The 2,000-year-old epic he refers to lives on in the garishly hued statues worshiped in Hindu temples and sometimes even in Buddhist shrines. We spend time in so many we become inured to the cloying fragrance of incense, the jolt of bold colors, and the shock of almost air-conditioned cool the temples offer to worshipers and travelers.

Daily I hunt for newspapers, then wish I hadn’t found them. "More roads closed in Kandy," I read. Kandy, the island's cultural heart, is next on our itinerary. "Bodies returned home," I read on. And then a headline pounces on my personal paranoia: tigers threaten to hijack international flight.

We pass through the seaside village of Dickwella, where Sir Arthur's beach shack sits boarded against the season. Here I learn in the newspapers that tigers trounce government forces and india called on for support. The next day we discover that "India refuses."

A Buddhist monks stands serene. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.I study civilian faces in the markets, on the road. I search for the glaze of fear in the eyes of soldiers tightly holding battered AK-47s while manning roadblocks and checkpoints. I see only bravery and am reminded of Sir Arthur. My Sri Lankan experience is unique in the way it exhibits positive energy and the highest spirits in the face of incredible adversity. So too, does its famous resident, Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

At Clarke's beloved Unawatuna the day is overcast. The beach is deserted. The sand is sluiced pink with the powder of rubies mined in nearby Ratnapura. Crumpled plastic bottles and wrinkled bags, byproducts of tourism and poor infrastructure, drift in the warm sea and then die like old jellyfish on the exquisitely tinted sand. I read in the newspaper The Island that "All reports on military affairs subject to censorship under Emergency Regulations proclaimed." And I see that my hunt for news is as desolate as the view before me.

We move on to Dondra Head, where the sea stretches to Antarctica. Here the ocean speaks in a rushing tongue to whomever will listen. It whispers the secrets of the universe as it has for billions of years. It whispers long and clear, and behind the sound I imagine Sir Arthur's ready guffaw of joy. I go to his books and read: "For politicians and governments and social systems come and go; the land and the sun and the sea remain in exquisite proportions."

Sir Arthur gets ready to explore undersea. Courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke.Soon we are off to Yala, where leopards bask on high rocks. Then it's upcountry, past Adam's Peak, which we are unable to climb because it is not the season. Here we discover the revered temple that contains Buddha's Tooth (bombed in 1998 and surrounded with guards like some inside-out prison). Next comes Sigiriya, the site of a brooding rock fortress built high in the clouds. Then, finally, we head back to Colombo for a flight away from Sir Arthur's adopted land, with its palatable threat of all-out war and death to the unlucky by suicide bombers.

The result of adventurer Christopher Ondaatje's camera's hunt for the leopards in Yala National Park. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.When You Go:

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. The island is slightly smaller than Ireland and in recent years has been plagued with an on again/off again ethnic war. It is an easily negotiated and varied experience that has sparked travelers' and explorers' imaginations since Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived in 1497.

Thankfully, the situation has calmed since I was there, but please check with your embassy before booking 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.

Kandalama Hotel: This fabulous and isolated natural setting is Sir Arthur's "favorite view in all Sri Lanka." It can be used as a base for day trips to the nearby fortress of Sigiriya, with its rock frescoes, and to the well-preserved ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The three small naturally filtered swimming pools are delightful and seem to be suspended over one of Sri Lanka's most beautiful and naturally bountiful sites, the Kandalama Tank (ancient man-made lakes). From my balcony I witnessed two marsh crocodiles copulating. Twelve miles southwest is table-topped Sigiriya. The Kandalama, an eco-resort, was designed by Sri Lanka's most famous architect Geoffrey Bawa. Clarke spent his 80th birthday here, and as a treat the manager screened 2001: A Space Odyssey. Highly recommended. P.O. Box 11, Kandalama, Dambulla, Sri Lanka. Tel.: (94) 84100. Fax: (94) 66 84109. Web site: www.xasia.lk/kandalama. Or contact Aitken Spence Hotel Managements at www.aitkenspence.com/kandalama. Inexpensive to moderate.

For More Information:

 

Contact the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, 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. There are tourist offices in the arrival hall of the airport and in Sri Lanka’s major tourist centers.

Sir Arthur strolling near the Island of Taprobane, in a still from the video series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. Courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke, 1989.We fly beside Sir Arthur's beloved ocean to fabled Unawatuna Bay, the setting of his 1976 science- fiction novel Imperial Earth. It is the year 2276 and man has colonized Mars. In The View from Serendip, Clarke also speaks of the magnetically scenic Unawatuna Bay and plays with serendipitous events, science, and the great Indian Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. As in person, his words are steeped with high spirits and grounded in science. He asks: "Did something really fall down, centuries or a millennia ago, at Unawatuna Bay?" Then he speculates: "A meteorite would be the obvious explanation: it must have been a big one for the legend to have lasted down the ages."

Drummers from Kandy, the cultural center of Sri Lanka. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.The 2,000-year-old epic he refers to lives on in the garishly hued statues worshiped in Hindu temples and sometimes even in Buddhist shrines. We spend time in so many we become inured to the cloying fragrance of incense, the jolt of bold colors, and the shock of almost air-conditioned cool the temples offer to worshipers and travelers.

Daily I hunt for newspapers, then wish I hadnít found them. "More roads closed in Kandy," I read. Kandy, the island's cultural heart, is next on our itinerary. "Bodies returned home," I read on. And then a headline pounces on my personal paranoia: tigers threaten to hijack international flight.

We pass through the seaside village of Dickwella, where Sir Arthur's beach shack sits boarded against the season. Here I learn in the newspapers that tigers trounce government forces and india called on for support. The next day we discover that "India refuses."

A Buddhist monks stands serene. Copyright: Victoria Brooks.I study civilian faces in the markets, on the road. I search for the glaze of fear in the eyes of soldiers tightly holding battered AK-47s while manning roadblocks and checkpoints. I see only bravery and am reminded of Sir Arthur. My Sri Lankan experience is unique in the way it exhibits positive energy and the highest spirits in the face of incredible adversity. So too, does its famous resident, Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

At Clarke's beloved Unawatuna the day is overcast. The beach is deserted. The sand is sluiced pink with the powder of rubies mined in nearby Ratnapura. Crumpled plastic bottles and wrinkled bags, byproducts of tourism and poor infrastructure, drift in the warm sea and then die like old jellyfish on the exquisitely tinted sand. I read in the newspaper The Island that "All reports on military affairs subject to censorship under Emergency Regulations proclaimed." And I see that my hunt for news is as desolate as the view before me.

We move on to Dondra Head, where the sea stretches to Antarctica. Here the ocean speaks in a rushing tongue to whomever will listen. It whispers the secrets of the universe as it has for billions of years. It whispers long and clear, and behind the sound I imagine Sir Arthur's ready guffaw of joy. I go to his books and read: "For politicians and governments and social systems come and go; the land and the sun and the sea remain in exquisite proportions."

Sir Arthur gets ready to explore undersea. Courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke.Soon we are off to Yala, where leopards bask on high rocks. Then it's upcountry, past Adam's Peak, which we are unable to climb because it is not the season. Here we discover the revered temple that contains Buddha's Tooth (bombed in 1998 and surrounded with guards like some inside-out prison). Next comes Sigiriya, the site of a brooding rock fortress built high in the clouds. Then, finally, we head back to Colombo for a flight away from Sir Arthur's adopted land, with its palatable threat of all-out war and death to the unlucky by suicide bombers.

The result of adventurer Christopher Ondaatje's camera's hunt for the leopards in Yala National Park. Copyright: Christopher Ondaatje.When You Go:

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. The island is slightly smaller than Ireland and in recent years has been plagued with an on again/off again ethnic war. It is an easily negotiated and varied experience that has sparked travelers' and explorers' imaginations since Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived in 1497.

Thankfully, the situation has calmed since I was there, but please check with your embassy before booking 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 NoŽl 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.

Kandalama Hotel: This fabulous and isolated natural setting is Sir Arthur's "favorite view in all Sri Lanka." It can be used as a base for day trips to the nearby fortress of Sigiriya, with its rock frescoes, and to the well-preserved ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The three small naturally filtered swimming pools are delightful and seem to be suspended over one of Sri Lanka's most beautiful and naturally bountiful sites, the Kandalama Tank (ancient man-made lakes). From my balcony I witnessed two marsh crocodiles copulating. Twelve miles southwest is table-topped Sigiriya. The Kandalama, an eco-resort, was designed by Sri Lanka's most famous architect Geoffrey Bawa. Clarke spent his 80th birthday here, and as a treat the manager screened 2001: A Space Odyssey. Highly recommended. P.O. Box 11, Kandalama, Dambulla, Sri Lanka. Tel.: (94) 84100. Fax: (94) 66 84109. Web site: www.xasia.lk/kandalama. Or contact Aitken Spence Hotel Managements at www.aitkenspence.com/kandalama. Inexpensive to moderate.

For More Information:

Contact the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, 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. There are tourist offices in the arrival hall of the airport and in Sri Lankaís major tourist centers.