A home in the country

After many years of yearning, and 18 months of searching, we have finally found – and bought – a forever home, on the shores of Lough Corrib, on the eastern slopes of the Connemara, to the North West of Galway City.

Now the work of retrofitting it – to bring it up to a modern energy rating – and moulding its rooms, fixtures, fittings and decorations to our tastes, begins: a project that will take many years!  Bring it on!

On the death of Queen Elizabeth II

I confess, reading all the news this morning, that I have had a quiet little cry.

She has been there all my life. My own mother was only 19 when Elizabeth ascended the throne, 11 years before I was born….

It feels quite strange that I am sat in a hotel room in Limerick, chairing a conference in Tokyo, in the small hours of the morning, reading The Guardian and the royal.uk websites, shedding a few tears…

I shall not mourn having left the UK. Life in Ireland has proven to be wonderful – and moving probably the best thing I ever did. But something that had somehow continued to make the UK home has now gone, and leaves with the country in turmoil and seemingly irrevocable decline …

Greener pastures in the Emerald Isle

NUIG From 1st December 2020 I take up a new post as a Lecturer (‘B’ Above the Bar) in the Business Information Systems group in J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, National University of Ireland, Galway.  It will be almost 17 years since I was appointed as a Lecturer in the Information Systems Institute (ISI), University of Salford, in January 2004.  Salford was at around No. 50 in the UK rankings at that time, and the IS Group I joined likely No.2 in the country.  As an Early Career Researcher with a new PhD, I was awarded a 30% research allowance, which grew over the succeeding years, hitting 60% at one point.

During those 17 years, however, the ISI was absorbed into the newly created Salford Business School, which experienced many years of poor leadership and low morale.  The institution as a whole has struggled over the past decade, falling in the UK rankings, and times have frequently been quite hard for an IS researcher. Nonetheless, I was promoted to Senior Lecturer, then Reader, during this time, and, briefly, in the past couple of years, to (Interim) Associate Dean Research and Innovation, in the School, and these have been in some ways the most rewarding years of all, with better leadership and better morale.

Yet, due to the decade of austerity in the UK since 2010, having seen my salary fall, in real terms, year in and year out, I will now receive a decent pay rise when emigrating to Ireland, despite my title falling from Associate Dean back down to Lecturer.   Also, the pressures of UK policy for Higher Education seem set to shrink the sector down to a top group of research-intensive universities, in the coming years, with the rest forced either to partner with, or become Further Education Institutions – with little if any research going on in them at all.  Salford – at No.103 in the UK rankings this year – seems more likely to be in the last category, than the first, and my research allowance for this academic year at Salford was set at 20% – the maximum allowed in the School. It will 40% – the standard for a Lecturer (B Above the Bar) – at Galway, in a thriving IS group with a strong research culture.

So, there is push, as well as pull, in my career, to leave an Institution that is struggling against severe headwinds, and to join one – at whatever level – that is already an established and leading research-led University (ranked 238 in the world!).  Equally, I must add, as the UK continues its march off the cliff of Brexit, with the potential for the break-up of the union to follow, and much economic pain with it, the prospect of returning to the EU is extremely welcome.  Finally, I must say, it’s a no brainer, however, when the beautiful Atlantic coast of Ireland is compared to the grim and often depressed urban sprawl of Greater Manchester.  And I’m already used to the rain.

Even when the gain is clear the pain required to get it is often dear and emigrating in the midst of a global pandemic is a challenge in itself.  I’ve got warm feelings of gratitude and comradeship for many of the colleagues I have worked with over the past 17 years, who I now leave behind in Salford, and working relationships I will miss. There are some great people there, and it is a shame for them that things in the UK are as they are.  But the pushes have become too strong for me to bear, and the pulls too enticing to resist, and the time has come for me do what many others have been doing during the years I have given to Salford – to leave for pastures greener.


Hope seeks a thread to cling to

Coda to Hope at Last

Sad to say, not just in the US, but, personified by the likes of Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil, and Scott Morrison in Australia, climate change denial continues to defy the obvious.  Boris Johnson won a thumping majority to continue his  disregard for traditional British pragmatism and stability – and now takes charge of COP26. And today, the GOP displayed their utter corruption by acquitting Donald Trump, who will become the first impeached President to seek re-election.

The forces of reaction continue to be in the ascendant.

Ukraine October 2019

1911 Census
1911 Census
Kamenets in south west Ukraine

Born in 1874, in Kamianets-Podolskiy, in the Russian Empire (as it was then, now in south west Ukraine), Samuel Kreps left his home town sometime in the early 1890s, in his late teens, to come to London – then capital of the largest Empire the world had ever known.  There, on London Bridge, he met Miriam Marco, from Ukrainian Black Sea port, Odesa, and they married in London in 1898, and had three children, including my grandfather Sydney (nicknamed Solly). His youngest son, Peter, was my father, and I, in 2019, some 120 years later, am the first descendant of Samuel to have returned to Kamianets-Podolskiy since.

Hotel Ukraine, Kiev

The journey of course begins in Kyiv, the capital of what is today the independent state of Ukraine.  ‘Maidan’ – or Independence Square – is where the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan protests of 2014 have helped to carve out a fiercely proud democratic nation from centuries of being occupied by the Lithuanian Empire, the Polish Empire, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Nazis.  We stayed, on arrival, in the Soviet era Hotel Ukraine overlooking the square, and enjoyed wonderful views from our balcony.

Alley of the Hundred Heavenly Heroes who died in the Euromaidan revolution

Kyiv is an old place, with a history of pagan peoples with strange stone idols dating back many thousands of years.  On the ancient ‘Kyiv Hill’ – one of several in the heart of the city – a few of these survive, as relics, alongside a modern pagan circle where white-robed worshippers honour the ancient gods to this day.  But the history that is most remembered is of the three brothers who in the 9th century founded the first kingdom – on Dytynets – Kyiv Hill – and then in the late 10th century turned to Byzantine Christianity, and developed their own form of it to which the various Eastern Orthodox churches and many Slavic nations all trace their origins. The City was famously divided between the royals on one hill, the churches on another, and the artisans on a third, with deep canyons in between, and it was only in the 17th-18th centuries that these were brought more coherently together.

Stone Babas on Dytynets
Golden Gate – or ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’

The Great Gate of Kiev, (as Mussorgsky called it,) or the Golden Gate of Kyiv, (as the Ukrainians call it,) was one of three main gates to this city, another being the Jewish Gate, because there were so many Jews living here, and a third being a small gate opening out onto marshes.  The ‘Kievska Rus’ era included great churches in the city bedecked with fabulous mosaics and frescoes.  In the 10th-11th centuries it was the largest and most powerful state in Europe.

St Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv, 1037AD
St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

But the small gate onto the marshes was the weak spot of the city, and when the Turks and Tartars came to attack, in the 13th century, they waited for winter and walked across the frozen marsh into the city and conquered it.  This was, for the Ukrainians, the first of many such occupations.  For the Lithuanians were soon to take control, and then the Polish, and then the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union.

Babi Yar, Kiev 1941

It was during the Soviet era that Kyiv saw probably its darkest days, first with the millions who were starved or simply ‘disappeared’ by Stalin, and then, when the Nazis occupied the city in 1941.  Although probably some 100,000 people were killed during the Nazi occupation, in Kyiv, the worst of all these mass killings took place over two days, when 33,771 Jews were slaughtered, with machine guns, and with the assistance, as our guide told us, of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, at Babi Yar.

Babi Yar Memorial

From Kyiv, then, we took the road across country to Kamianets-Podolskiy.  The roads in the Ukraine are in a terrible state, once you get out of Kyiv, and it is slow and heavy going.  But the Autumn colours, mixed with the unprecedented October heatwave (some 10degrees above normal) made for a very interesting journey, both across this broad and fascinating country, and back in time, both to one of the most historic cities of the region, and to my own, family history.

Kamianets-Podolskiy is an incredible city built in and around a stunning ‘island’ of rock.  An earthquake millions of years ago tore apart this land and created a deep ravine in an almost circular shape, making for a perfect space to defend from enemies.  The resulting city, and the castle defending the bridge across to it, became one of the most multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cities of the region, and was, at times, capital of various kingdoms and principalities.

The town has its own ancient pagan origins, of course, with the archaeological museum including both items from an ancient pagan altar -the time of the Trypil culture – and several Stone Babas, too.

Stone Baba, 7th-3rd century BCE

During the Mongol occupation, when Islam was the overarching religion, minarets were built, but not all these were destroyed when the Eastern Orthodox Christian tribes regained control.  Here, uniquely perhaps in all Europe, there is a minaret with a statue of the Virgin Mary on the top, as part of the Roman Catholic Church.  This was the one church that survived the Soviet era, kept as a museum against religion, when all the other churches, mosques, and all but one of the synagogues were destroyed by the Marxist Fundamentalists under Stalin.

Old Synagogue now a restaurant, on the edge of the island city

Over the centuries between the Mongol and Soviet occupations, there were Armenians, Greeks, Poles, Russians, Jews and Ukrainians all living here in their own ‘quarters’ of the city, all at once, the fortunes of each rising and falling according to which Empire was in charge.  During the Polish empire (very Roman Catholic) the Jews were not allowed to live in the city, and began to live in ‘shtetls’ – small shanty towns – on the outskirts, their trades restricted to certain professions only. Then Russia took possession of much of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, including Kamanets, now part of what was declared the Pale of Settlement.

View of the castle from the (Polish era) 18th century Jewish Cemetery outside the city

During this occupation by the Russian Empire, by the 19th century, Jews were not only allowed to engage more fully in the life of the town, but had their own quarter in the old city on the ‘island’, facing the castle across the bridge, as well as occupying a large village at the foot of the ravine below the bridge (now the site of a Soviet era power station). Of course, “no Jew could be employed as a teacher, or by banks, by the railroad or in the post office, in telegraph or telephone offices, in the courts or in any capacity by municipal, regional or state subdivisions including the police. Jews were not allowed to serve even as janitors or jail guards.” (Jewish Gen) nor could they travel in Russia beyond the Pale. But life in Kamianets was probably not all that bad. There is, today, both an Armenian Square and a Jewish Square in this part of the old city.

View of the site of the old Jewish village below the bridge, from the Jewish quarter of the old city

The rivers in the ravine – because the area, millions of years ago, used to be a sea – are brackish, and not good drinking water.  There are, therefore, only one or two deep wells where drinking water is available, and, therefore, a limit to the numbers of people the island city can support.  In the late 19th century Kamianets-Podolskiy was very over-crowded.  There were Cossack-led pogroms against the Jews in various parts of the Russian empire, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, in 1881, and Jews were expelled from elsewhere to live in the Pale, expanding the population of towns like Kamianets.  Many Jews left altogether, seeking a new life in the West, often passing through London on their way to North or South America, or South Africa, some – like my great-grandfather – staying in England.  I guess coming from such a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, thriving and crowded city like Kamianets-Podolskiy, London seemed like a home-from-home for Samuel Kreps.   Those Jews that remained in Kamianets-Podolskiy into the 20th century (some 40% of the population in 1939), were all murdered by the Nazis in August 1941.

To crown my visit to Kamianets-Podolskiy, then, I was taken, finally, to the 19th century Jewish cemetery, sadly in very poor condition now, though there are others not far away looked after by Marla Osborn and the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage project.  This was, in many ways, the point of the journey for me.  As I said to Colin, who took the photo, below, there were undoubtedly people there whom my great-grandfather would have known.   I don’t really understand quite why it matters, but it does; it does.  It is important that we never forget.

More photos, as ever, on Flickr.

Hope at last

Today is the first time in many years that I have felt hopeful about the general global political situation. Three women have stirred this hope.

Greta Thunberg

On Monday, in New York, crowning a global wave of strikes and protests around the climate emergency, Greta Thunberg told the UN what’s what in no uncertain terms: https://youtu.be/bW3IQ-ke43w 

See ‘The climate crisis explained in 10 charts’ https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/20/the-climate-crisis-explained-in-10-charts

This morning, the eleven most senior judges in the United Kingdom, the Supreme Court led by Brenda Hale, asserted in uncompromising terms the sovereignty of Parliament over a wayward and unelected executive bent on a City led disaster capitalism

Full text of Lady Hale’s judgement https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-49810680.  Video: https://youtu.be/BzXzRk08cMg

Nancy PelosiThis evening, Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House of Representatives in the United States, announced the beginning of impeachment proceedings against a similarly wayward President who lost the popular vote, and has been abusing his office for the past three years. 

New York Times article and video

Today the tide turned.

By 2025 we should be marching lock-step – in a global green new deal – towards a better world likely to survive the coming climatic onslaught we are already too late to stop, and winning the battle to prevent it getting worse. Today there is hope.

Today there is hope for Greta’s generation, and all who follow. 

But, sadly, by February  Hope seeks a thread to cling to


Orkney Isles 2018: Week 2 of 2

It is always a unique pleasure to have two weeks holiday in one go.  I rarely manage it – the last time in 2015 – and it is even rarer for me to stay in one place for the whole fortnight; I can’t recall the last time I did so – unless you count Peru in 2010, of which the first few days were a conference, and the next 10 a tour around the country.  This holiday, Colin and I have taken one cottage for the whole two weeks (albeit that we spent two nights away from it, last week, on Westray and Papay) and this is a wonderful, relaxing, and rare treat.

Hoy, South Walls and Flotta

The Dwarfie Stane

Our first excursion in this second week, was to the south western islands of the Orkney archipelago.  We couldn’t visit them all, but it was fairly easy, in a day trip, to take the ferry across from Houton on the southern coast of the main island across to Lyness on Hoy, drive across the causeway from there to South Walls, and get off the ferry on its way back from Hoy on the island of Flotta, catching it again an hour and a half later to get back to Houton.

The single really rewarding and indeed awe-inspiring sight on this trip was the famous Dwarfie Stane on Hoy.  This incomparable marvel of the ancient world, contemporary with the other Neolithic archaeology of the Orkneys, is a single huge stone – a glacial erratic dropped millennia before in a stunning glacial gorge through the mountainous territory of Hoy – that has been painstakingly hollowed out, to provide a small chambered tomb.  The amount of work required – with bone and stone tools – and the simply stunning location, are surely signs that this must have been a very special burial, indeed.  The plug-stone, that sealed the tomb, now lies outside it, where it was pushed by grave-robbers who broke into the chambers from above (the roof now repaired by conservators).  I have never seen anything like it, and indeed I believe there is nothing else like it anywhere in the UK, at least.  Simply magnificent – though, as Colin said, it was perhaps disappointing not to see any dwarves.

The rest of Hoy, South Walls, and Flotta, I’m sorry to say, that we saw, are rather drab. The whole area is littered with World War I and II remains, rotting, rusting and crumbling away, sad shells of what were once hastily put-together barracks, munitions buildings, ‘batteries’, and gun emplacements.   Oh, and, of course, the 1970s North Sea oil terminal on Flotta.  The general feel of these islands, then, away from the ancient grandeur of the glacial interior and its megalithic jewel, is one of decay, waste, and the worst of 20th century industry and refuse.

By the end of the day, then, although happy to be able to tick off three more islands from our spreadsheet – including one of the ‘Top 20’ largest scottish islands (Hoy) – we were glad to return to Unigar cottages.

North Ronaldsay

The Stan Stane

The contrast, on our next excursion, could not have been greater. Taking the (very) early morning flight from Kirkwall – 15 minutes in the same plane that took us from Westray to Papa Westray – we flew to the furthest north of the Orkney Islands: North Ronaldsay.  This island is  even smaller than Papay, and has only one archaeological jewel: the ‘Stan Stane’ (disappointingly merely Scottish dialect for ‘Standing Stone’).  This stone is, however, at over 13ft high, one of the tallest  standing stones in the Orkneys (the tallest being on the island of Eday – which we’re saving for our next trip to the northern isles).  The Stan Stane is said to have been the site of annual dancing among the locals, on the New Year.

The Stan Stane

It sports, moreover, uniquely, a small hole in the middle, although there seems not to be any record of marriage or birthing rituals similar to those at the holed stone at Stenness.

North Ronaldsay sheep

North Ronaldsay also boasts a unique breed of sheep. DNA tests on bones found in Scara Brae suggest that the North Ronaldsay breed are in fact likely the survivors of the sheep first brought to the northern isles at the start of the Neolithic here, c4000BC. A small, hardy breed, some grey, some black, some white, and a few brown or ‘tanny’ in colour, they were kept, when the rest of the island was given over to cattle, by the building of a wall or dyke all around the island, demarcating the beach area for sheep, and the inland pasture for cows. North Ronaldsay sheep, as a result, eat seaweed, and can develop copper poisoning if allowed to eat too much pasture. Their mutton is said to have a distinctive flavour, as a result, and is much prized at specialist restaurants. The lady in the Post Office claimed to have sold some of her sheep to The Star Inn, Harome – one of my favourite restaurants, where Colin and I had our 2nd Anniversary. (After Honeymooning on the Isle of Arran, our first anniversary was in Lerwick, Shetland, our third on the Isle of Coll.)

North Ronaldsay sheepskin

We had a fascinating tour of the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse – though I elected not to climb to the top, after our four mile walk from the airport to the  Stan Stane to the lighthouse, and with another two and half miles yet to walk back!  But after a lovely lunch in the little cafe, (though there was no mutton on sale!) I could not resist a ‘tanny’ North Ronaldsay sheepskin from the little Lighthouse shop, and we walked back to the airport via Linklet bay, watched all the way by the seals.

Linklet Bay, North Ronaldsay

The full gallery of photographs is, as ever, on Flickr

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An Orkney Holiday

I have stayed three times, now, at the wonderful Unigar Cottages, and ought really to give them a plug.  Very comfortable, well appointed, and in a quiet part of the island near to Scara Brae, but only 25mins drive from Kirkwall and less to Stromness, and only 10mins to the Ness of Brodgar.

Unigar Ginger Tom

Here, too, this time, we have befriended a young ginger tom, who has delighted our evenings with his skittish affection.

The Orkneys have pretty much everything. As one local told us, on Papa Westray, Kirkwall is the centre of the universe, and indeed it has all the sporting and leisure activities one would expect of a good sized town, and supermarkets, pubs, hotels, clothes and specialist shops, as well as an airport (serving the isles, Aberdeen, and Manchester) and the ferry port.  But the Orkneys have a population of little over 20000, and there is plenty of space, of green, and only one murder in the last 20yrs (a very strange affair, I’m told.)

The Foveran, St Ola, Kirkwall, Orkney

Orkney also has some fabulous restaurants, including the wonderful Foveran, where we had this year’s Wedding Anniversary dinner, and a fantastic evening it was too!

Orkney Isles 2018

Week 1 of 2

In the summer of 2018, Colin and I returned to the Orkneys.  On our visit in 2015 we had seen pretty much all there is to see on the ‘mainland’ island, and taken the quick and easy crossing to Rousay to see the four chambered cairns in a row there, including the impressive MidHowe.  This time, we’re here for a fortnight, with many of the other smaller islands as our principal goal.

Ness of Brodgar

Ness of Brodgar archaeological site

The first weekend was of course dedicated to revisiting the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, to see the latest finds.  We were lucky to be here in time for the second of two ‘Open Days’ when the archaeologist, Nick Card, and his team were on hand to introduce all comers to the site, the finds, and a range of demonstration activities.

2018’s finds at the Ness of Brodgar – the year of the polished axe

I headed straight for the latest finds, and exclaimed ‘There it is!’ as I saw the colourful polished stone axe that was found this summer, towards the beginning of this year’s dig.

Nick Card, Ness of Brodgar Archaeologist

As I then looked up, I soon realised it was in fact Nick Card who was standing in front of me, explaining more about the recent finds, and how much he especially liked the smaller, plainer, but exquisitely carved polished axe (to its left in the picture above), which, he told me, was more likely ceremonial, or a gift, whereas the more colourful one showed enough signs of wear to likely have been in use, all those thousands of years ago.

Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar

On the next day, we took the Heritage Scotland tour of the Ring of Brodgar, which was really interesting, and introduced us to a whole different way of looking at the ring: the henge (though without an outer bank it is arguably not like any other ‘henge’ monument) when cleared of vegetation, reveals quite light coloured stone, which would have made a clear whitish circle visible for miles around.  It had been dug out in ‘sausage shaped sections,’ possibly by different communities, before each section was finally knocked through to the others, to complete the ring.  Moreover the stones seemed also to come from various parts of the island, erected upon the ring nearest to their origin, perhaps representing, or erected by the same communities who had dug that section of the ring.  The monument becomes more like a community space, perhaps for meetings (where marriages, for example, could be arranged) or some kind of parliament, or perhaps where markers of special events in that community could be laid, from time to time.  In this way, the ring becomes a process, rather than a finished monument with a purpose.  All fascinating stuff.  But of course no-one really knows….

Isles of Westray and Papay

Map of Westray and Papay

Our first big excursion from the ‘mainland’ of Orkney was to the Westrays.

We took the car ferry from Kirkwall to Rapness, and drove slowly up to Pierowall – the only town on Westray – where we had a room in a lovely B&B for the night: No.1 Broughton.  Our host cooked us a very nice dinner.

The Pierowall Stone


On Westray, there were two principal visits to make: the Westray Heritage Centre, where one can find, on display, the Pierowall Stone, a stone decorated in a very similar manner to those found in Knowth, Ireland, found in the local quarry;

The Westray Wife

and the Westray Wife, one of three figurines – the only representations of humans found in any Neolithic dig in Orkney, unearthed at the Noltland Links neolithic site, near to Grobust beach, in 2009.  Here – faintly – one can see the ‘eye-brow’ motif on the face of a human figurine for the first time.

Noltland Links archaeological site, Westray

This site was a second visit, where we were fortunate enough to be given a free – if quick – guided tour to the site, where there are a wealth of both neolithic and bronze age buildings, being gradually uncovered by wind and rain, as the sand dunes are gradually denuded in a shift in weather patterns that first revealed the archeaology beneath in the early 2000s.  There are decorated stones here, paved walkways between the houses, and thousands of finds awaiting dating and -eventually – display.

Decorated stone at Noltland Links archaeological site, with the ‘eye-brow’ motif

Noltland Links archaeological site, Westray

Logan Air flight from Westray to Papa Westray

The following morning we took the shortest scheduled flight in the UK – the 2 minute journey to Papa Westray – known as Papay by the locals. Here we stayed at the Beltane House Hostel – a community run affair built recently with good funding and very comfortable.

Knap of Howar, Papa Westray

On Papay there are again two principal sites to visit, the first of which we saw on the first day as part of the all day tour with the Papay Ranger, and second on a special trip he took us on, by boat, on the following morning. The first notable site is the Knap of Howar, a Neolithic dwelling similar to, but slightly older than Scara Brae, and was inhabited between 3600BC and 3100BC.  [For comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed c.2560BC, and the henge at Stonehenge – the first part of that monument, was constructed in 3100BC, the final site completed about 1600BC .]  The Knap of Howar is very impressive, showing very fine masonry, the distinctive ‘dresser’ style internal furniture, and walls (now surrounded by earth to help keep them up) several feet thick and high.  The two buildings are all that is visible of who knows how much more.

South Cairn on the Holm of Papa

And secondly the Holm of Papa, a tiny island off Papay where there are two cairns, the most impressive of which, the South Cairn, with a new concrete roof, includes in its SE chamber three wonderful neolithic carvings.  It is likely, in the fourth millennium BC, that the sea-level was lower, and the Holm of Papa a rise, beyond a low-lying, possibly marshy area of Papay, rather than a separate island.  It is possible even Papay was connected to Westray.

The carvings in the cairn, along with chevrons and dots, also display the ‘eye-brow’ motif common to many of the decorated stones in this area.

Decorated stone inside South Cairn on the Holm of Papa, with ‘eye-brow’ motif

Decorated stone in the South Cairn on the Holm of Papa

Decorated stone in the South Cairn on the Holm of Papa

Sri Lanka, September 2017 2/2


Piper and Drummers with offerings at Mihintale

I planned to come to Mihintale to be here for the New Moon (at 11am GMT 20/09/17). I did not know whether there would be any ceremony to witness. Poya – The Full Moon – is a national holiday each month. I was very pleased to see a few people with a horn player and two drummers like at the Galadari conference (only no dancers this time). They brought a golden covered tray with small pots of food offerings to each of the special places at the top of this mountain. I followed them to take pictures at each place where they made their offering and to clasp my hands in prayer and meditate celebrating the New Moon. At the last, they beckoned me forward: I touched the lid as I had seen others do, but again he beckoned, saying ‘take it’. I had noticed them taking turns to carry it. So I took the tray, reverently, and I carried the tray up to the altar of the central stupa (the spot where Buddha sat in meditation on his third visit to Sri Lanka), placing it on the altar and, as I had seen them do at the bigger stupa above, lifted the lid to make the offering. We all stood back to clasp our hands in prayer, as the horn player and drummers played. Then they beckoned me to take it up again, and carry it through to the private area past the guards. As we walked, one asked me, “Are you Buddhist?”  I hesitated, and said merely, “I try.” They liked this.

Stupa marking the spot where Buddha sat in meditation on his third visit to Sri Lanka

I followed the guard up into the office where I put down the tray, and fresh food offerings were placed in the pots. Then they beckoned me one last time to carry the tray again through to the relic house, and place it at the high altar. This was a very beautiful inner sanctum, with elephant tusks, rich cloths, and a seated Buddha with an altar in front with flowers, and room for the tray. Such a privilege and honour, to stand with the monk, the musicians, the followers, hands clasped, mind still, at the very moment of New Moon, at the crest of Mihintale. Thanking the monk for the honour, he said “Buddha bless you,” and I went back to the public area, beaming.  Easily the highlight of my trip!


Vedda Cave Carvings

The Wilpattu National Park is famous for its leopards. Eco Team Big Game Safaris offer a night in a large square tent inside the park, with candlelit fireside dinner, and a jeep safari to see the animals. A 16month drought ended with rains a few days before my arrival, so there were plenty of insects (!) but this wasn’t so much of a problem. The inner tent has a double bed with a mosquito net! What I found difficult was the heat. Since arriving in Sri Lanka I have been in air-conditioned hotels. This was my first experience of a true Sri Lankan night. I had no appetite at dinner, and barely touched my food, drank less than half my can of beer. In the day, it had been 34′. Thankfully i had descended from Mihintale before it reached 30′, but my visit to the Vedda Cave Carvings was a river of sweat. At Wilpattu, at night, it did not fall below 28′. I sat in front of the fan in the settee area of my tent, sweating, for a while, then retreated from the moths and flies to the inner tent, inside the mosquito net, the second fan playing gently against the net as I tried to sleep.

Luxury Tent at Wilpattu

Awaking at 5.15am, as instructed, I was at the meeting tent at 5.30am for my jeep. Some other guests, (Dutch, German, Australian, French, two Chinese girls) all got into the jeeps they had had the previous evening. Asking about mine, the staff there seemed unaware that I had booked a safari. Perhaps slightly shorter tempered than usual, (I had barely slept, just hoping the night would be over soon) I showed them the email, proving my booking. They got onto the phone with their manager, who assured me my driver was now on his way. The staff there said it was his mistake. He arrived a minute or two later blaming the driver for miscommunication. All-in-all not a great start: this was easily the most expensive outing of my trip, and wasn’t turning out too well thus far.

Location screenshot at Wilpattu

At the park, we were joined by a very friendly and knowledgeable Park Guide, and made off into the National Park. I saw Spotted deer, the National Bird – Jungle fowl; a Stork billiard kingfisher and various Kites and Eagles, Monitor lizards, and Jackals. Of the dozen or so jeeps out on safari this morning, however, only one was lucky enough to see a leopard, for a few seconds, and no-one saw any bears. I, however, along with my guide, was fortunate enough to witness – for about three seconds (too short a time to get to my camera) – a Tusker! Of all the elephants I have seen here in Sri Lanka this was the only one with tusks – and big 3-4ft long tusks they were too. My guide said this was very rare indeed. He was clearly excited. I also saw Wild buffalo, Grey headed fish eagle, and Green bee eater birds. I’m no David Attenborough so offer no wildlife photos from here. See what I managed to snap on Flickr.


The salt flats of Mannah Island

Leaving Wilpattu late morning, meeting up with my driver Rohana again, we made for the last excursion of my trip – Mannah. This part of Northern Sri Lanka is mostly Tamil. Tamils are more Muslim, Hindu and Catholic, and less Buddhist, than the rest of the country. The Buddhas here seem mostly to do with the large police and army presence, underscoring the victory of the majority over the ethnic minority separatists only a few years ago.

Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple

Along the way were two more temples – the great Catholic Church complex at Maddhu, and the Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple. The former, to be honest, I found rather dull, but (from the crucifix and Jesus-pendant in the car) I guess my driver is from the Christian community here, and he was clearly interested to visit this place. As I told him, I have been to Jerusalem and to the Vatican – ‘so you see plenty churches,’ yes. The Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple, on the other hand, is something I have never experienced before, but, in a different way, was also rather disappointing.

Me shirtless at Thiruketheeswaram Shiva Temple

The Temple was ‘under renovation’, with no access inside; all the statues from inside were arranged in a great shed outside the Temple, but there was no access inside the shed either. What was strangest, in the 33′ heat, was that to enter the complex at all, one had to not only remove one’s hat and shoes – which I am used to now from the Buddhist temples – but one must also remove one’s shirt!

Mannah itself is an island promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, petering out into a series of islands that then at last become a new promontory jutting out from southern India. This is known as Adam’s bridge, and the beach where this begins was my final visit of the day.

Location Screenshot at Talaimannah

Me at the tip of Mannah Island – the beginning of Adam’s Bridge

Tomorrow begins the long journey back south, for a last night, at Negombo, before the flight home, with just a couple more temples along the way.

Manavari and Chilaw

The Shivalingam at Minavare, called the Ramalingam

To break up the long journey, a little research revealed a fascinating Shiva Temple at Manavari, just short of Chilaw, where we could stop for lunch. This little known temple in fact houses one of only two Ramalingams in the world (the other in India), so called because the Shivalingam venerated inside this temple was made, according to the chronicles, by Lord Rama himself. Here, the Hindu priest sat on the steps of his temple, speaking with two or three devotees, and welcomed me with a warm smile, beckoning me in to visit, and to take photographs. Reverently, I entered, and soon discovered at the back of the temple the inner sanctum where the Ramalingam was kept, draped in a cloth. Returning to the steps, I smiled and said, “Ramalingam” and the priest nodded smiling, enthusiastically explaining that this lingam was 10000 years old!

Ardhanarisvara at Minavare

I asked him if there was also an Ardhanarisvara statue here – perhaps I did not pronounce this properly, or it is known to him by another name. I explained by saying “Shiva, Pavarti” and miming the two together by clasping my hands and threading my fingers together, hoping this would convey the hermaphroditic union of the God and Goddess in one deity that is Ardhanarisvara. He nodded, explaining there was one on the left hand side of the temple. I looked, and found an old blackened statue there, but was not sure this was the one I sought.

Kali Kovil, Chilaw

Shortly further down the road, at Rohana’s suggestion, after lunching in Chilaw – a rather hot but very tasty Sri Lankan rice and curry – we also stopped at Chilaw’s Kali Kovil Temple. Here, I caught the eye of the Hijra (the third gender of the Indian subcontinent, often a specifically religious one, and clearly a much respected devotee here) who took it upon him/herself (perhaps after seeing me put notes into the donation box) to show me around, introducing me to each of four different statues, beckoning me to photograph each.

Kali at Chilaw Kali Kovil

Then s/he brought me forward to the altar, instructed me to bow, placed his/her hand upon my shoulder, and proceeded to chant a blessing for me -helpfully explained here and there in English- for good fortune on my travels. I was most grateful! What an honour, on this trip, to have received, without seeking it, the blessing of both a Buddhist Monk and a Hindu Hijra, at their Temples. I am blessed indeed! Just outside the Kali Temple, at a stall packed with Indian brass statues, I spotted a heavy brass Shivalingam, and with the aid of my driver, Rohana, paid not too handsome a price for it, to bring home as a keepsake of my Hindu blessing.


Sunset from my room at the Heritance, Negombo

At last, then, to the Heritance Negombo – a wonderful beach hotel just 20minutes taxi ride from Colombo airport, for my final night, and a fantastic sunset view from my bedroom.



The New Moon, rising above the Heritance Negombo, on my last night in Sri Lanka