The Shahrukh Khan
This article first appeared in Australian Travel + Leisure, November 2005
I once met a man who'd been riding his motorcycle when a leopard leapt out of a tree and onto his back. 'My jacket saved me,' he said, before offering to show me the scars. This story bought together two elusive but longed for things in my life: Indian men in black leather, specifically the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan, and wild leopards. My passion for Shahrukh was ignited some years ago by Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, a film in which a boy breaks his mother's heart by falling in love with a woman of the wrong caste, and then dances alot. He is also the face of Pepsi Cola throughout Asia, but, overexposed as he is, I can't get enough of him. While I have never stalked Shahrukh, I have, on occasion, spent time and money stalking leopards.
I did once visit snow leopards in their breeding enclosure at the Darjeeling Zoo. They were very beautiful and pale, with long thick tails that they flicked in irritation as I stared at them through the wire. It was in Darjeeling too that I got up at four in the morning to watch the sun rise behind Mount Everest. I lay awake all night, as you do when you have to get up unnaturally early, had a cup of tea, then walked down to Observatory Hill at 4.30 in the morning. I stood there for an hour or so, watching a thick layer of cloud smolder, dull red, like the embers of a dying fire. It was cold, as it had been the last time I attempted to watch the sun rise behind that great mountain. That was in Nepal twenty years previously but other elements of the story were the same: a sleepless night, an early rising and lots of clouds. I returned to my Darjeeling hotel room to read Peter Mathieson's The Snow Leopard. I tried to convince myself that not seeing was more spiritual than seeing; that it was the journey that counted, not the destination. Then I fell asleep.
It is of course embarrassing to admit to travel's many disappointments: of Michalangelo's hidden under scaffolding; of ancient cities being missed because you slept in and missed the bus; of entire itineraries being destroyed by endless, incomprehensible and unscheduled religious festivals; of famous Italian piazzas being dug up to create an underground carpark; of New York's Museum of Modern Art being reduced to about 1/100th of its size and moved to Queens. But do people confess to this kind of thing when you ask them how their holidays were? No. 'Everything was great,' they say, and, 'make sure you go and see. . . '
I have a theory that if we were able to share the very private grief of, for example, missing the largest Buddhist elephant festival in Sri Lanka and, indeed, the entire world, because you got the dates wrong, life would be easier. I would like to be able to say out loud (just for example, I don't mean to go on about it): I missed out on seeing hundreds of the world's largest mammals dressed in exotic fabrics and fairy lights and I'M PROUD OF THE FACT. Instead I just feel sheepish and ashamed.
The Kandy Esla Perahera is a ten day event, held annually - and here I quote my guidebook - sometime in July or August. It culminates on the full moon: Poya. On that night there is a procession of thousands of dancers, drummers and yes, elephants. The most magnificent and tusked beast carries Buddha's left incisor - a relic usually locked up in Kandy's Temple of the Tooth- aloft his back in an elaborate casket. It's an event described by the Lonely Planet, somewhat cruelly I think, as 'the most magnificent annual event in Sri Lanka'. When I rang up some people I knew in Kandy they told me that this year the event was to culminate on July 21. I arrived in Sri Lanka at the end of May. I confirmed and reconfirmed my July bookings at some of Kandy's best guesthouses and restaurants, and was even warned that prices were higher during Perahera.(I did, I admit, interpret such conversations as an indication that the timing of my trip was pretty darned accurate, Peraherically speaking.)
In early July I rang a little place called The Pub to book yet another table that would allow maximum elephant viewing pleasure. 'But the Perahera's in August,' said the man who answered the phone. I assured him he couldn't be right, as I had been told by Kandy's best guesthouses and restaurants, that the Perahera was in July. I hung up only to receive, at that precise moment, an SMS from my partner Virginia (she was still in Australia). This is what the SMS said: 'Are you sure about our dates?'
The Perahera began on August 10, the day before we were booked to leave Sri Lanka. (That day would prove to be a painful one, a day on which I saw elephants on the back of trucks, trumpeting loudly with their trunks curled above their heads as they driven off to Kandy.) To recover from the sheer indignity of having booked Kandy's best guesthouses and restaurants to attend the Perahera a month before it began, and to fill the now gaping hole in our itinerary, Virginia and I embarked on a plan that, in given our inability to arrange to see an entire herd of elephants in the main street of a town, might seem perilous: we decided to go on a Leopard Safari.
Yala National Park, on Sri Lanka's South-East coast, has a population of 35 leopards over an area of 14,100 hectares. This might not sound like many, but it is, in fact, one of the densest populations of leopards in the world. It was six hours drive away from where we were staying up in the hills, so Virginia entertained each other on the long trip by roaring at regular intervals. We were simply asserting our kinship with leopards, but our driver, VP 'just call me Eddie' Selvam, thought we were plain bonkers.
We knew we were close to Yala when we reached the strangely beautiful scrub of the flat lands and the salt pans, some that were ancient, and some newly created by the tsunami. Eddie told us that almost all the animals in the park survived the wave because they noticed the elephants running north and decided to follow them. (Clearly I was destined to be reminded of the brilliance of elephants for the rest of time in Sri Lanka). The tsunami damage had also thinned out the park's vegetation. 'That is why,' Eddie elaborated. 'People are seeing more leopards than usual.' We roared.
Virginia and I spent a total of 9 hours sitting in a jeep, both morning and evening, peering into the scrub. We saw Peacocks, dozens of them, scratching the earth like so many chooks in a chook shed; smelly Wild Boar and their remarkably cute babies; buffaloes; spotted deer including stags with highly impressive antlers; and several mongoose, including one being disemboweled by a sea eagle - an extraordinary sight which seemed to amaze even our fairly jaded tracker. We saw snakes climbing trees by lifting their bodies, straight as sticks, several feet into the air and elephants, including a tiny baby being breast fed and a very pregnant female. Two meter long Crocodiles lay around in the heat opening and closing their mouth to cool themselves down. At dawn we saw a family of jackal trot across the salt pans and then turn to watch us, ears alert, as we drove on by. The birds were magnificent: pelicans,painted storks, egrets, Indian darters and tiny, shiny Green Bee Eaters.
As we embarked on our third and last safari we saw buses ahead of us: hundreds of excited, shrieking, white-uniformed school kids . Our fate was sealed. Our tracker and Eddie, concerned that they'd failed us, kept driving well into the dusk. In the half-light a baby monkey chased a peacock and pulled its tail. When we returned to Yala Village (the only hotel in the park left undamaged by the Tsunami) a hotel employee approached us. 'You didn't see a leopard?' he asked, anxious perhaps that we'd demand a refund. We shook our heads cheerfully. 'It doesn't seem possible,' he muttered, 'Everyone else has seen them.'
We spent our last week in Galle Fort, a gorgeous, if very hot and now very touristy, 16th century Dutch Fort on the south coast, a few hours from Colombo. On our last night there we walked along the rampart walls watching kids fly their kites, men dressed in white lounging around the mosque, lovers sitting under umbrellas and, less idyllically, being harassed by local boys for sex and local lace sellers for sales.
'Let's do this walk again at dawn,' I said to Virginia, 'The light will be different.' Because that's the kind of traveller I like to think I am: a woman who is attentive to every flicker of light, every cultural moment. And actually, we almost did get up at dawn - we were only half an hour later than it- and began the hour-long walk. The night before we'd walked anti-clockwise, towards the lighthouse, to the Sun Bastion, across to the Moon Bastion and back past the army camp and along the sea wall. That morning we headed off clockwise which meant we'd reach the lighthouse last.
By 7.45 am it was pretty darned hot. Despite the monsoon it hadn't rained much and the humidity was soaring. We were soaked with sweat. About 50 metres from the lighthouse Virginia and I looked at each other. 'Perhaps we should head back,' I said, 'and get breakfast?' We were staying at Mrs Khalid's and she served a mean fruit platter and fried egg.
So there we were, half an hour later, having breakfast with a Dutch guy staying at our guest house. 'I was walking around the fort as the sun came up,' he said, 'and they seemed to be filming some Bollywood movie in front of the lighthouse. They were singing and dancing. It was very amazing.' He offered us his digital camera so we could see his pictures. Virginia leaned forward to have a look and nodded as she recognized a couple of Bollywood's more luscious actresses. 'I met this guy in black leather,' he went on. 'We had a talk. He seemed pretty famous. Very, you know, handsome.'
Virginia was quicker to get the significance of this than I was and she looked at me anxiously. And that's when I knew. If I hadn't slept in till 7.00, if I hadn't got too hot, if I hadn't been so f-ing lazy, this would have been the morning - and lets face it, there weren't to be any more of them - when I would have met my idol: Shahrukh Khan.