Friday, 29 April 2011

The Tempest

It’s not often you can say ‘I woke screaming in the night’ but I do admit it. I’m not sure if it was the storm itself or the sound of my own terror that actually roused me, but at quarter to five this morning I was fairly sure the end of the world had come. The lightning, frequent to the point of being constant, so penetrated through curtains, mosquito net, sheet, blanket and tightly closed eyelids that I thought it was actually IN the room and was convinced my corneas were about to be seared.

The attendant thunderclaps matched exactly the intense flashes so the storm was obviously directly overhead and despite the wind and the lashing rain, didn’t sound to be moving in any direction as every blast physically shook my little beach cottage like bombing. I thought of getting under the bed like they did in air-raids but settled for covering myself as completely as possible with blankets and pillows in case of flying glass from the battered windows.

It was getting light by the time it moved out to sea.

I like thunderstorms. I can happily lie awake listening to torrential rain and the rumble of thunder for hours, but the power and intensity of this one, and the sense of immediate proximate violence really did scare me.

Midmorning and you almost wouldn’t know it had happened. Leaves and debris have been neatly swept up by the morning groundsmen, people are swimming, the loudest sound is the waterfall in the swimming pool. But still an occasional offshore rumble warns that the cyclone may not have done with us yet.

It’s the midpoint of my stay, and a chance to assess progress. I’ve dropped 10lbs and whilst I still have love handles at least they no longer look as though they’re attached to one of Emerald Cunard’s bulkier steamer trunks wedged in a companionway on the Queen Mary. How much of that is sweat and expelled alimentary detritus is hard to judge, as is whether it will all return with the first bacon sandwich, but my prime objective was to tackle the diabetic blood sugar levels by adopting the Ayurvedic diet, and any weight loss is a bonus.

They arranged blood tests this morning to check my sugar levels, and whilst the poor man found it hard to find a vein (I have no idea why mine are so deep seated, I don’t recall having been a heroin addict in my teens although I may have blocked it out) the results will be available in 24 hours instead of having to wait two weeks courtesy of the NHS. What I can also say is that whilst my GP takes two or three goes with my blood pressure to find a reading he’s willing to enter on the computer, usually settling for something like 135/85, here it’s been 110/70 five mornings in a row.

I also feel quite well. My mind has stopped racing. The aches and pains on raising or twisting my arm for which I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for a year now seem to have abated, as has the old cartilage problem in my knee, and as I’ve mentioned before the flexibility and freedom of movement in my head neck and shoulders has improved beyond measure with daily acupuncture. Well, not today because Malaka my favourite acupuncturist has gone to visit her parents in Colombo, but we may resume tomorrow. Her temporary replacement is the restaurant dietician who may be equally qualified or judging by the number of clients who have said 'it hurts' may just be an enthusiastic member of the hotel darts team.

I don’t seem to have any cravings, either. Not for favourite foods, or chocolate, and certainly not for alcohol: I saw a facebook photo of friends drinking outdoors in the unexpected English heatwave this week and felt almost nauseous at the thought of multiple pints of lager. Mind you, some of my friends can make you feel nauseous even without a drink in hand. I’ve certainly no intention of giving up but it’s nice to know you can survive a month without it.

If I have a food fantasy, it’s for a bacon and avocado sandwich. Not in itself a great calorific sin, at least not if you grill the bacon and drain it, and use wholemeal bread, low-fat mayonnaise and only eat them occasionally. Unlike the first two years I worked at Canary Wharf when I bought one nearly every day, almost certainly made with undrained streaky and fully-leaded Hellmans.

And the other thing I’d like is a tomato. Yes, that harmless, watery, vitamin-rich, low-fat, low-carb feature of many a Western diet plan is proscribed here, they don’t use them either cooked or cold. Apparently the cheeky little redskins unbalance your doshas. Who knew?


Cholesterol down from 4.8 to 3.4

Blood sugar down from 8.2 to 4.4, below the 'threshold' for diabetes at 7.0

All other blood tests in the 'normal' range

and one interesting phenomenon, I'm blood group O Negative, one of the rarest, less than 5% of the global population has it. So not much chance of a transfusion in an emergency ...

still, all in all, a day for celebration.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Vatha, Vatha everywhere ...

Last night was the wettest and stormiest night so far, and according to one of the doctors this morning officially a cyclone. It certainly began with one of those ground-shaking thunderstorms that drenches everything in the first five minutes, but fortunately always after dark. So far.

This morning has white skies with a strong breeze from the sea.

It’s apparently a good day for wrapping your head in a tight cloth bandage.

Which is what they’ve done to me following a treatment called Shirodhara – which I thought was one of the Japanese guards in Tenko – but turns out to be Ayurvedic for being poured on from a great height with warm herbal oil, it drizzles on to your forehead and is squelched into and out from your hair by a pair of masseurs before your greasy grey-green Limpopo-smelling locks are finally swathed in the cotton headgear and tightly knotted. Sic transit Gloria.

In my case the Gloria being Swanson except this fashion accessory isn’t quite the full Norma Desmond since it is more Russian peasant than Sunset Boulevard in style: I look like a cross between Mother Courage and the cook on the Battleship Potemkin.

It’s meant to be a revelatory experience, freeing your mind and encouraging deep relaxation although it might have been more stress-reducing if the two masseurs who administered it hadn’t chatted in whispers to each other throughout the procedure. I’ve slept a bit during the day but I can’t say it’s made me feel vastly different although I’m certainly relaxed, and I put that down more to yesterday’s double acupuncture when she inserted about sixteen needles into my neck and shoulders and I’ve never felt more fluid in that department. Sixteen more and I’ll be Linda Blair.

On Shirodhara days you’re meant to refrain from swimming, sunbathing or even washing and if you can’t just think beautiful thoughts it’s OK to do a little light reading. I’ve leafed through the ‘Hello’ I brought from the plane and now know twice as much about Kate Middleton and her make-up habits as I’ll ever find useful, as well as having an opportunity to wonder what is the legitimate earthly purpose of people like Peaches Geldof and Elizabeth Hurley or why cap-toothed Gurkha-crusading arctic-sledging Joanna Lumley has sold her soul as an ambassador for Wrigley’s chewing-gum.

I’ve also found my mind wandering and recalling people I’ve not thought about seriously for years, notably Robert Liederman – for a long time ‘the love of my life’ – an American I met in about 1976 and with whom I had tempestuous and romantic trysts in London, Amsterdam and New York – including the New Year’s Eve his boyfriend tried to kill me - until we lost contact back in the days before you could stalk someone successfully on the internet. Somewhere in a box I’ve still got his letters and I’m horribly afraid also the gushing gauche carbon copies of what I wrote to him.

Carbon copies, that dates me.

Some of my seventies flashback may have been prompted by reading Simon Doonan’s memoir ‘Beautiful People’ about growing up gay in a low-rent suburb of Reading and then escaping to London and the States. He’s now creative director of Barney’s in New York so I can’t say our lives are parallel but we’re contemporaries and much of his youthful experience in Reading is similar to mine in the North. I was quite tickled to realise that I knew his best friend Biddie as well as Biddie’s cabaret partner Eve Ferret, in fact I’d hired them to perform at a succession of office Christmas parties I organised at YRM.

Doonan’s life moved to LA and New York at the start of the ‘plague’ and he lost a lover to AIDS almost before the disease had been accurately named. As I said, I’d lost touch with Rob and heard nothing more about him until about ten years ago when I had dinner with a mutual friend whom I’d also not seen in the intervening time and who mentioned, as though I already knew it, that Rob had also died of AIDS in 1982.

You’d be surprised how devastating it can be to hear of a twenty-year-old death.

When I was in New York three weeks ago, I had brunch with Susan and Rhea at the Fairway supermarket on the Upper West Side and effectively just round the corner from Rob’s apartment, so took a nostalgic walk to find the address on West End Avenue, but too many of the buildings looked similar and I’m not so sure I pinpointed it.

Simon Doonan found fortune and happiness through moving from the English provinces to America at a time when such geographic flexibility was comparatively rare. I do think if I’d been brave enough to do the same then a great love might have blossomed. Then again, I might also have died in 1982.

It’s six o’clock and time for some more foul-smelling medication. The four o’clock libations have been changed and I now have to drink half a bottle of what tastes like the vinegar from the pickled onion jar. Which is a taste I’m familiar with because when I came home from University to critique my mother’s Sunday salad-making and tell her on good authority that smart people made salad with ‘oil and vinegar’ rather than Heinz Salad Cream she promptly dressed a bowlful of lettuce, cucumber and tomato with the juice from the pickle jar and a ladle of oil from the chip pan.

I’ll have been here a week tomorrow, and whilst I’ve lost some weight I don’t want to quote numbers or speculate about the outcome, partly because it’s difficult to assess what counts as sweat and ‘vitiated Vatha’ (which is what you produce on the loo) or to know whether I may yet break out to find beer, chips or chocolate in the nearby village ...

The Curious Incident Of The Drink In The Night-Time

temple is tended by very young trainee monks

Sunday was Full Moon day and at 5 in the afternoon they bussed us to the local temple, site of the biggest Buddha in Sri Lanka, a 60 metre modern man-mountain where we milled about with the locals making their offerings at the temple. However anti-religion you are it’s hard to dislike Buddhism because it seems to engender such kindness, and since it’s anti-violence doesn’t tend to wage wars or subterfuge against those who don’t subscribe.

It certainly produces smiling people who don’t push and shove their way to the front of a queue, even to do their devotions, and there seemed to be much sharing of fruit and flowers, including with us: overhearing Lesley and I debating whether we should have bought a garland at the gate, a charming family offered us two handfuls of their beautiful white blooms to scatter at the feet of the statue. Try pinching your neighbour’s chrysanths next Harvest Festival and see how far it gets you.

There were a few retail stalls around the temple, including an incongruous ‘Highland Ice Cream’ van on blocks under a sea-almond tree and a stall promoting an organic green tea ‘guaranteed to cure diabetes in three weeks’. I’ve paid nearly three grand for this trip to reduce my blood sugar and steady my diabetic development, I shall be exceedingly miffed if it could have been cured by a three hundred rupee packet of tea.

When I came back the room attendant was arranging the mosquito net and just as I was leaving for dinner I noticed a bloody great – well, 8cm long – cockroach basking in the netting, on the inside. I told him to get rid of it, completely forgetting that his Buddhist tendencies would mean he wasn’t allowed to kill anything and there then followed ten minutes of pantomime whilst he chased it around the room, up the curtains and under the wardrobe trying to coax it into a sanitary towel bag. Eventually I stunned it with the bug spray and he nudged it into the bag to take away and, I assume, release into the wild.

Like a cockroach Schwartzenegger, it will probably be back.

Another rainstorm broke during dinner and the pounding of the surf and thunder should have combined as a soothing sedative if it hadn’t been for some German banker twunt at dinner sounding off about how this was the sort of weather that made snakes seek refuge indoors and 80 of the 87 indigenous species were dangerous.

So I didn’t exactly drop off to dreamland in an instant, even having checked under the bed and in the shower drain for sheltering serpents, and after some fitful napping realised about midnight that I hadn’t taken my 9pm medicine – even though I’d mixed it with hot water and left it beside the bed. So I chugged it, and the disgusting residual taste meant I had to grab a bottle of water from the dressing table and wash it down with that.

It was only when I put the light on I saw that the bottle contained a milky liquid suspiciously like cleaning fluid that I realised it was probably something the room boy had left earlier.

Panic ensued, not just in me but in the two doctors who arrived within minutes and then later the receptionist, room attendant and cleaner who had all been summoned from their beds by management to give account of how this bottle could have been left in my room and what exactly were its contents. And a fair amount of ranting, largely from me, about how cleaning products should never be put into drinking water bottles and what sort of place were they running that didn’t have proper health and safety procedures to avoid such risks.

In return the doctors had an urgent debate about whether I should be taken to hospital for a stomach pump or just given a total purgative in the morning if I lived that long.

There was a lot of shaking the bottle, holding it up to the light and sniffing it, before anyone summoned up the courage to tip a drop into his palm and taste it – it looked like lemon barley water but had no scent, no flavour and certainly wasn’t corrosive, so we concluded that the balance of probability was that whatever it was wouldn’t kill me, at least not tonight, but the doctor made me drink a litre and a half of water just in case.

Obviously I survived otherwise I couldn’t be typing this now, but I did have considerable anxieties and a pretty bad night.

It was only the next afternoon, when I was taking my handful of ‘Western’ medicine which includes a daily soluble aspirin that I remembered a previous occasion back home when the aspirin once slipped back into the drinking vessel. And clouded the water ...

Friday, 15 April 2011

Sports Day


After a night of glorious thunderstorms I wake too late and have to combine my 6am and 8am medications with breakfast in order to make an 8.30 start on the treatments. It’s the same rituals as yesterday but fortunately the acupuncture’s at the end instead of the beginning and I’m fairly relaxed when it comes round.

The woman on the adjacent slab introduces herself as Lesley, one of the two other ‘English’ guests, although she actually lives in Holland. She’s outgoing and funny, and chatting to her takes my mind off the needling. At lunch she introduces me to the other one, Andrew, on first impression an unreconstructed old-colonial club type of stentorian voice who during the fifteen minutes he talks at me from the adjacent table doesn’t ask me a single question about myself. I must be a ‘good listener’ because at least I don’t allow my glazed expression to transmit to him, but for a man who’s lived in Borneo, Argentina and New York, not to mention travelled to places like North Korea and Mongolia, he’s surprisingly unforthcoming, although he did warm up on subsequent meetings and turned out to be amazingly well-connected.

In continuation of the new year holiday, this afternoon is the staff sports day and they gather, with their copious offspring, to play the sort of games which would have graced a summer fete in England in the sixties. Perhaps in rural villages it still does, but it’s rare and charming to see children queue willingly to be blindfolded to play ‘put the eye on the Elephant’ (work it out) whilst their fathers have an adult version where also blindfolded they have to hit with a big stick one of three crocks of coconut water suspended on a wire. At the edge of the sea they’ve rigged up a log on two cross timber supports and opponents sit astride it with a hand tied behind their back to swing a rag-filled bag at each other and see who’s knocked off first to loud cheering.

The kids compete to drink Fanta from a baby’s bottle, there’s a raucous three-team race to transfer water in cupped hands from a bucket to a bottle, musical chairs, a beauty contest and a fancy dress competition. Everyone joins in with such innocent good humour that in sharp contrast I’m reminded of ghastly hierarchical company picnics at Barclays, or terrifying office Christmas parties with dire food and gut-wrenching cheap wine and 63-year old Tina the Cleaner getting her tits out. Here, there’s no alcohol, or smoking, but a good time is definitely had by all.

My masseur brings his two small sons to shake hands, and makes them speak a few words of English which is brave of them and nice of him: the boys are carefully turned out in their ‘best’ shirts and pressed jeans and their mother has a sparkly sari swathing her ample frame. I’m reminded that in this culture to be larger and rounder is desirable for married ladies, they seem a happy family as the boys each hold dad’s hand and steer him to the next entertainment.

There’s a table laden with parcels wrapped in yellow paper and it seems ‘all have won and all must have prizes’ as Alice was told after the Caucus Race in Through the Looking Glass – again it’s a credit to this family business that not only all the children but all the adults receive something with which they seem to be pleased.
Either I’ve become acclimatised very quickly, or it’s much less humid today and typing this on the terrace of my little cottage (more about the accommodation tomorrow) just after sunset with the breeze from the pitch black ocean, it’s really not unpleasant.

Talking of which, it must be time for some more medicine.

Auspicious Start

My driver was quite insistent ‘you have come on the best day of the year’. Best in his view because there’s almost no traffic on the notoriously congested, not to say dangerous, stretch from Colombo airport to the coast resorts and what can take three and a half hours on a normal day is accomplished in just over 90 minutes of mild swerving and horn obbligato. We only almost get killed once. As he says, a good day.

Sri Lankans are big on ‘auspicious’ - apparently it’s Buddhist new year, which is why so much death is being kept off the Sri Lankan roads as most families take a day’s downtime of fasting and rest before a ceremony – at precisely 3.18pm to greet the new year with a meal of sweets which are taken facing North, your first taste of the new year should be something sweet as an augur of good things to come.

Our hotel has replicated the ceremony with what at first seems the ritual attendance of dumpy Germans at the Ceremony of the Removal of the Sacred Cling Film but when the hotel’s lady owner explains the rest of the significance, and invites us to swap a worthless coin for 20 rupees wrapped in a leaf and a small gift – mine’s a lovely handmade notebook with a cover featuring the image of a rather dark and moody elephant, how appropriate - the sense of generosity and inclusion is really rather sweet.

Later in the day I spot her own nephews and nieces come to make the same offering to her and her husband but their obeisance includes the youngsters kneeling to bow and kiss the avuncular feet, something they perhaps thought the Germans weren’t sufficiently telescopic to attempt.

It’s been a long day, preceded by a long night. I left home at 6.30 in the morning to fly on BA to Muscat via Abu Dhabi, itself relatively uneventful since it’s a journey I’ve done before, but then to change on to Oman Air for the ride down to Colombo, a sector I decided to endure in economy on the grounds that it’s only three and a bit hours, for £124 it was a bargain and they had spanking new A330 aircraft with generous 34” legroom, a four course meal (with four choices of mains) that was actually nicer than the bark and grit-filled tikka masala in BA Club World, free drink, hot towels, crew that weren’t bored or argumentative, and the most impressive array of movies and entertainment on a personal seat-back TV screen that was also possibly about the same size as my new laptop.

Of course the downside was that the cabin was mostly filled with migrant workers going home to Sri Lanka and the Maldives and not many of whose armpits had recently been on nodding acquaintance with a wash-cloth. Lest you think mine were two of them, I had a shower at Muscat in the oddest ‘executive lounge’ where the ‘napping cabins’, private cubicles with a relaxation couch in sticky vinyl one happy ending shy of a gay sauna, and a billowing voile ceiling were immediately adjacent to the also roofless and even at midnight rowdily noisy children’s play area. This seems a foolhardy juxtaposition when the airport shops also sell curved Arabic scimitars.

So thanks to the uncharacteristically empty roads, I arrive for breakfast but as my body clock thinks it’s 2.30 in the morning and after four airline meals it’s all I can do to eat a couple of pieces of fruit – I just want my bed. My delight that the room’s available at this early hour is punctured by the fact that, because of the festive occasion, the staff will be taking off early so my medical consultation and first treatments have to be done right away.

Dr Indaka is nice, early thirties and speaking perfect English he’s like an eager batsman in the cricket nets – every time I tell him a symptom he goes ‘anything else, give me another one’ but I run out of topics of medical concern and my over is soon, er, over. But he’s really assiduous and discusses the massages, herbal decoctions and treatments that can help lower my blood sugar, combat stress or increase my haemoglobin – something I didn’t actually tell him was an item of recent concern at my GP’s. I’m too tired and weak to resist when he asks ‘would you like acupuncture’ and actually alarmed when it turns out to be the first of my scheduled treatments and conducted in a slightly communal hall where we’re laid on adjacent slabs as in a mortuary.

The very pretty acupuncturist beguiles me with her turn of phrase, ‘I can needle you softly’ ... oh my dear, if I gave you a list of the people who’d done that over the years, we’d be here till Christmas. Apart from one in a little finger which I moved after it was inserted, it doesn’t actually hurt but I lie there wondering why I have quite so many pins in, or rather through my ears (diamonds if you’re thinking of buying) and in my stomach.


The ones in the ears are strange, I can sense ‘things’ rushing towards the locations of the needles, and my neurological pathways seem as busy at the roads were empty. I’m tense though and glad when she comes to take them out.

And so to massage, where I’m led by the (male) masseur, a man of about forty with only a casual handful of teeth but as we start with head massage it’s obvious that he knows what he’s doing and that this really is a therapeutic rather than a cosmetic exercise. For the four-handed full body massage, he’s joined by a mumsy co-worker but her hands aren’t as strong as his and I’m going to need them to swap sides if it’s the same team tomorrow to even out the pressure. I’ve no idea how long it lasted because I was asleep, waking only for an episode when they dab at your loins with hot poultices which smelt and felt like mushroom bhajis but turn out to be cloth pads filled with boiled herbs. It’s all quite culinary though, because the copious oil smells of cumin and turmeric and when I eventually get a chance to rinse out my underpants they’re bright yellow.

After that, it’s a bit of a blur – outside in a garden with running water and shady trees, someone applies poultices, hot or cold, to various joints and fatty areas, and gives me a facial with cucumber slices over my eyes before wrapping me in a gauze cloth. I’m fairly sure I’m now gigot of something on the restaurant menu but sleep claims me again. In the final phase, I have to shower whilst rubbing herbal paste into my loins before lying in a bath whilst a woman rinses me with what Lancastrians will recognise as a ‘lading can’ a lipless cylindrical metal jug holding about a litre of warm hibiscus water swished again and again and again down the lines of your haunches, flanks and rump. The last person to wash me like that was my granny, in her kitchen sink.

I’m done in, and sleep through lunch waking only just in time to collect my medicaments from the doc. Most of the liquids look like syrup of figs, or soy sauce in clear bottles, and the pills and powders come in twists of paper marked urgently with the time to be taken. I have eleven things to be taken with warm water at various times from 6am to 9pm, most swallowed in a single disgusted chug but there’s one of powdered shale that just won’t go down without rinsing the cup out with warm water again and again.

I think it’s lurking on the night table for my 8am feed too.