After those idyllic few days with my father at my cottage, I went to Algeria, determined to see more of the Roman remains of Africa, and if possible get to the deep desert. Years earlier I had bought guidebooks for Tunisia and Libya, which had better sites, and I had managed to get to Tunisia in 2013. But Libya had now been in essence destroyed by the West’s wickedness in getting rid of Gaddafi and unleashing extremist forces. The Tunisians had told me sadly how, pleased though they were with their own change of government, what had happened in Libya now threatened them too. And a couple of years back there was indeed an attack on the El Bardo Museum in Tunis, with its wonderful collection of Roman mosaics.
Algeria had less to offer in that respect, but I much enjoyed the site at Tipaza which we visited on the first full day there. It had two splendid amphitheatres and an impressive gate, but I also relished its setting, on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean.
That had been an unexpected joy with regard to Algiers itself. We had found a hotel overlooking the sea, which allowed for the most exquisite sunrises. And though there was nothing spectacular, the religious buildings in the city were well worth viewing, especially the Cathedral high on a hill overlooking the city.
Places were miles apart in Algeria, so we could not use buses, but flights were cheap. We went first to Tamanrasset in the south, where there were spectacular formations in the desert. But as I was arranging with the hotel to go out to one for an overnight stay, we hit an unexpected snag. I had been provided with an escort from the airport when I went to the hotel because I had a diplomatic passport, but then it turned out that this meant they were excessively careful about my safety. There had, I think some time back, and just once or twice, been an attack on foreigners venturing into the desert, and they would not give me a permit. Indeed they would not let me out of the hotel without a guard, so it was a good thing that on the evening we arrived we had had a long walk through the city.But the next day, even to get out for lunch, the police chief came along, and sat sedately while we ate. So there was nothing to do but sit in the hotel, trying not to get angry. Fortunately I could spend hours playing Spider Solitaire on the iPad I had been given by the eldest son of Mrs Navaratnam (widow of my father’s old friend who had been MP for Chavakachcheri, whose house I had been able to help get back for the lady), while Kithsiri had an infinite capacity for sleep and watching television. And in the evenings there was sunset in the lovely hotel garden, and beer in the lounge.
On the last day the police chief relented, and took us out under escort a short way into the desert so I could see something of its extraordinary rock formations. It was not too far, but the landscape was fascinating, and the passing inhabitants wending their way across the sands with their flocks.
Back in Algiers we called up a lovely old taxi driver, who had stuck with us when we had to go back to the airport and then to the airline office because our luggage had been misplaced. He gave us a beautiful tour over the hills behind Algiers the next day, stunning scenery that made you understand why the French had been so determined to hold on to this corner of their Empire. And though it was a long distance back, and there was much traffic, he got us to the airport in time for the plane to Ghardaia, the other area I had decided should be visited.
This was a collection of communities in walled cities who had not it seemed changed their lifestyle in centuries. A mark of this was that, in one of them, women had to cover even one of their eyes. And there too we had a police escort, but this was a group of younger men who were much less strict, doubtless because this was not a place where violent extremism flourished. They took me to all the places I wanted to see, and were quite happy to be photographed in marvelous settings, the narrow streets giving onto imposing citadels, the palmeries which each little community had below their dwelling places to provide cooling greenery, even the elegant mosques.
That these were special we were told very firmly by the most imposing of the guides, who limped along with a stick, commanding us where to take pictures. He claimed that his village had inspired le Corbusier and showed us a mosque with beautiful lines which struck conviction. In another less exotic village we were hailed by the village elders who were gossiping in the main square and had to pose for endless photographs. And back in the town where we stayed, we were an object of fascination to the hotel staff who put on an impromptu performance with the traditional drum that Kithsiri bought.
Back in Colombo at the beginning of May, I had to coordinate my 60th birthday celebrations. Ten years earlier I had gone to Oxford for my 50th, hosted by the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, since I have long realized that one’s best friends are those one grows up with, and it is with my friends from university days that I can still spend the most time happily. But this time round I felt that I had received so much in recent years from a host of older people, and others too, that I should share the occasion with them. These included my aunt Ena at Aluwihare, Derrick Nugawela in Kandy, and my aunt in my father’s ancestral home down in Getamanna.
I had asked some of my foreign friends to join us, but only a couple did, one having mistaken the dates and come earlier, another arriving later, and the third not being able to work out a complicated schedule that was supposed to get him to Laos afterwards for his brother’s birthday. But Miles Young, who had bought a property down in Mirissa, was reliable as always, and hosted some of us for a couple of nights before the birthday itself, and provided two splendid dinners. Vasantha Senanayake joined me there, and the former Australian High Commissioner Peter Rowe turned up on the last day. And in between I went down to lunch in Getamanna, for my aunt and the cousins there to join us for lunch on the estate, produced by the wonderful couple who had looked after the place for over a decade.
The night before my birthday we went to my sister’s beach house at Ahungalla, where she too had laid out a feast, and brought down a few close friends from Colombo, including my favourite cousin, Sharmini who was down from Canada, Hope and Kaly Todd, the latter my mother’s most devoted guide, and also our Indian friend Mohan Bhatkal who had liked the country so much that he now had a house here. Peter and I then went off to my cottage, so I could wake up on the day itself to sunrise over my river, and the thoughtful presents of Kithsiri and his family.
There were over a dozen for lunch, including Miles and Vasantha who had been to Colombo in between, and he and I went in the afternoon to Kandy, for dinner at Derrick’s. We were joined by one of my English friends who had been unable to face the endless journeys, as it seemed to him, that my birthday schedule entailed. Sadly the couple had to leave the next day, so they could not join me and Vasantha for lunch at Ena’s, where she was in great form, and even accepted with equanimity the claim that her father had jilted one of Vasantha’s relations to marry her mother (having of course, perfect gentleman that he was, got her agreement to release him).
The celebration ended with a stay at Vasantha’s hotel in Nuwara Eliya, and internet bridge on the lawn before a celebratory lunch. I should note though that there was also another celebration a couple of weeks later, when the friend who was late turned up, with his latest girlfriend. He had asked if he could bring someone, to which my response, remembering several reading parties with a new young lady in tow each time, was that it would have been astonishing if he was not thus accompanied. My sister, who had also known him at Oxford, entertained us for a night at her beach house, and the day they left we had lunch at home, which meant my father was also a part of the prolonged celebration. He had not been able to join us at the events outside Colombo, so I was glad that Chris turned up so we could have an event at Lakmahal.
I also asked for this occasion Dr Navaratnam, who had looked after all of us so sympathetically over the years. Three months later, she was my mainstay, along with my cousin Theja, when my father was sinking. But it never occurred to me that she too would be gone before the year was out. And the next year my aunt Ena died, and also my boss at the British Council, Rex Baker. He had not been able to make it, but his wife Maj Britt had come to lunch at my cottage, so in a sense I could feel that, except for those in Oxford, all my mentors had been part of the moment when I too crossed into old age.
Ceylon Today 4 Oct 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=6628