Everyone has their thinking space: the bath, the shower, the treadmill after work. Voltaire had his bed, Dylan Thomas his shed – and I a narrow track of road weaving through jungle hills and valleys. Flame trees and palms line the edges, and beyond stetch plantations of timber, pepper, rubber - and space.
A thinking space. And a very agreeable one, as I give four of the five dogs their early morning walk. The only distractions are monkeys, which have the schnauzers pulling on leads like charioteer horses at the Circus Maximus.
It was a counting day this morning as I checked the leafy path to see how many more showy, and indulgent trees I could still shoehorn into the vista.
And as two plus two inevitably takes you to four, counting led me rapidly to the crumbling mathematics of mortality. It has been a challenging time. Two close relatives and three friends dead in quick succession. “It makes you wonder,” said Ann Patchett presciently, “all the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.” Or, she might have added, if we had made time.
My private calculations shows a fifth of my life devoted to childhood, education, entertainment, and the odd dash of character-building psychosis thrown in (therapists might argue that this is too modest a fraction). Thereafter two fifths devoted to toil and struggle, mortgages, money, doer-uppers, friends and family, travel, endless travel, shopping (I’m ashamed to say), and yet more work, and work.
The Bible gives seventy years as the cut off, but concedes eighty “by reason of strength.” So assuming I qualify, that gives me the last two fifth for – what?
Of course – today - for many 80 is just a beginning. Many of my incipient octogenaric friends wear their decades like a feather boa, flicking this way and that: a game of tennis here, a city break there; magnums and yoga all the way. But for others, it’s the start of the Great Decline. When you reap the benefits (or not) of having looked after yourself a bit better in the previous 20 years or so.
And, as my sorrowful tally of deaths suggest, these mathematics are arbitrary. Fit, healthy and ambitious one day. Dead the next. No warning. That’s it. Done and dusted. Stuff left undone – too bad. You are due somewhere else, and only the luckless wait in the waiting room.
If it doesn’t really bear thinking about, not thinking about it is even more difficult.
Launching and running a jungle hotel in the Sri Lanka highlands keeps inertia at bay; though the read credit is down to Angleo and the amazing team here. They keep the porcelain plates spinning no matter how many times wild boar eat through the water pipes, or the country itself wobbles (Easter bombings, COVID, Aragalaya).
But as others declutter and kick back, chill out, and denest, take up golf, grandkids and climb the Monroes, here the opposite looms larger. Sri Lanka is reverting to normal, guests return to the hotel, and the prodigal work of taming wild plantations, planting arboretums, gardens, of building staff bedrooms, spas, cabañas and so on returns, gladdening the heart.
But it is not – quite - enough, not when you consider the mathematics of mortality.
So I thought to tell a story too – Scheherazade like (with its mortality motivator). Sri Lanka has an remarkable story to tell and a compelling one to research, and disseminate. Despite the Tourist Board’s best efforts, it remains something of a well-kept secret. Before COVID, 40 million tourists went to Thailand, 26 million to Malaysia and over 4 million to Burma. Ten million fetched up in India, but just a stone’s throw away, barely 20% of that number reach these shores – roughly the same figure as went to the Maldives.
Travellers see bits of Sri Lanka; and natives their part of the whole. Argument rage about what it really is; though it is, of course, everything that it is. Every last fragment.
And there are many. The country has rarely done things by the book. Contrary and creative, it created a tropical Versailles whilst other countries were still experimenting with wattle and daub. When the Cold War ended, its own war began. It has absorbed, synthesised, and repurposed everything that has come its way, welcome or not, into a singular Sri Lankanness.
It is an attempt to document some of this; to make its history, fauna, flora, culture, topography, art, literature, mood, and manor more accessible that sits behind www.theceylonpress.com, the online publishing website that will take up much of the remaining two fifths of my fair portion of living. I would hate to hauled out before it is at least reasonably complete. If I am lucky to go out feet first, I will be clutching a keyboard and half a dozen marked up research papers from JSTOR, my thinking space much enriched.