Dr Rainlove

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wet Season (again)

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I moved to Darwin seven years ago this January, so I know the monsoon deal well.

Dark clouds, thunder, lightning, pouring rain, sunshine, humidity, repeat.

And I loved it too. The chaos of the storms. Negotiating sudden flooding on Bagot Road in a hatchback. The thrill of the temperature dropping to 25 degrees and reading a book on the couch in your tracksuit pants, fans turned off.

I loved all the different kinds of rain: fat rain, skinny rain, sleeting rain, sheets of rain. I loved the way it smelled and I loved the way I’d get out of swimming laps because the pool must close during a thunderstorm.

I even had three different umbrellas for the spectrum between casual and formal wear.

But somehow, somewhere, in the two weeks of monsoon since I got back from holidays, I lost the love. I’m prepared to take hate mail now from rusted on Territorians, bushfire beleaguered Southerners and The Farmers, but there you have it.

I’m not sure what tipped me over the edge. It all started with 12 straight days of rain, load upon load of washing that never dried and a cupboard full of mouldy shoes that even ten bottles of oil of cloves, three pairs of pantyhose and Shannon Lush couldn’t fix.

There was the smell in the back of Mr Tea’s car like something had died, nay that something crawled in between the spare tyre and canvas fly with the sole, spiteful intention of inflicting stench. Then again, that could just be the golf buggy Mr Tea found at the dump. (“Just $5! And I’ve wanted one of those for ages”, he told me.)

Every social invitation we received was to a farewell, as friend after friend moved south for new jobs, study, opportunities and to bring their kids up closer to family.

The only song in my head was by Mental as Anything. I found myself humming in the car…“If you leave me, can I come too?”

Add to this the general climate of back to work blues, or in my case, not back to work blues. And by the end of last week, the inside of my brain smelled like an open sewer in South East Asia and the soundtrack was even worse.

…You’ll never get better your career is over you’re hopeless you have to lie down after you have a shower you won’t be able to work full time ever again you’re a financial burden you’re a shit friend you let everyone down you’re a burden to your family everyone thinks you’re boring now why can’t you just get better why do you have to be such a broken down loser…

Yep.

I was ready to curl up in the car with the thing that died (or the golf buggy) and call it a day. So it was with limited enthusiasm that I agreed to join Mr Tea for a monsoonal weekend away.

And we didn’t get off to the best start.

“Shall we go down the back road to Litchfield?” asked Mr Tea

Umm, OK, I said.  Is it even open? Won’t it be flooded?

“Why don’t you check the road report?” said Mr Tea.

I checked the road report.

It’s flooded, I said.

“Let’s try anyway”, said Mr Tea.

Let history record that the road was, indeed, flooded, and we had to turn around and go back the way we came.

The dark space in my brain was still pretty fetid at this stage.

But over the weekend, the black clouds hovering over the highway started to become beautiful again. The magpie geese honked, the station horses brayed. The termite mound scarecrows, dressed in high vis and sodden Carlton Draught caps, made me smile. So did the bullet holes in road signs and the Stuart Highway wit who put up the placard “Emerald Springs: Population 1”. I drank a delicious mango smoothie in Pine Creek and we stripped off for a brave swim in the raging flood waters of Mother’s Day Gorge.

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

Termite mound scarecrows near Adelaide River.

I remembered that this time of year there are more shades of green than we have words or Dulux paint chips for. Fluorescent green, pandanus green, eucalyptus green, green with a sheen of mud, where the water levels have dropped. Kaffir lime green, spear grass green, unripe guava green and dew soaked green.

On the way back to Darwin, we drove back to Litchfield for a walk and swim in my favourite secret spot.

Just as we arrived, the rain began again, with interest.

I was a bit nervous about scaling a waterfall in torrential weather, but we walked in anyway. And as the rain soaked my hair, my shirt, my trousers and then my sneakers and socks, I felt more and more elated.

Pink pretties in the rain (also known, I think, as native ginger flowers, step in now naturalists...)  Litchfield National Park.

Pink pretties in the rain (also known, I think, as native ginger flowers, step in now naturalists…)
Litchfield National Park.

The rainforest was alive and green—all those many kinds of green—and the trees were covered in intricate fungi. An entire corridor of native ginger plants had burst into pink and yellow flowers. The path had become a creek and every step up the escarpment was trickling with water. By the time we got to the top, the waterfall was bursting at the seams. I was so sodden, I jumped into the falls with my clothes still on.

“You look like a drowned rat”, said Mr Tea. “An excited drowned rat.”

Isn’t this terrific, I enthused.

Mr Tea agreed that it was terrific.

Isn’t this just life affirming!

“Yes”, he said.

There was a 40% chance that Mr Tea was not finding our walk in the rain especially terrific or life affirming, but he’s good like that.

We sloshed back to the car, made sandwiches out of the stale bread we had left over and I felt a sense of calm for the first time in weeks.

This morning, I’m back in Darwin and it’s raining again. The record in my brain is still playing, broken bore that it is, but at least it’s a bit quieter. Like any good tailings dam, my mind might take a few decades to clean up, but it’s nice right now to have fresh memories of all those beautiful black clouds and the many, many shades of wet season green.

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Bumper Sticker Territory

Eat the peanuts out of my shit.

That’s what the bumper sticker on the ute next to us says.

It’s just…so…specific.

Eat. The. Peanuts. Out. Of. My. Shit.

But then, Territorians love a bumper sticker. It’s our second favourite thing after personalised number plates. In a place where you can drive any car you like as long as it’s diesel, bumper stickers are the means de jour to express personality, eccentricity and anger on the open road.

For example:

I float and I vote = Marginally Political Fisho.

Game fishing is going out with the boys on Her Birthday = Slightly Funny, Mostly Sexist Fisho.

Bundaberg Rum – I like to drink.

Jack lives here – I REALLY like to drink.

Magic Happens = I own a pair of fairy wings.

Fuck off we’re full = Racist. And punctuationist.

It gets confusing when Magic Happens is on a car with a number plate that says SKANKUP, but hey, each to their own.

Another sterling bumper sticker, made even better by the Bundy and Coke can left in the tray of the ute.

Another sterling Territory bumper sticker, made even better by the pre-mix can left in the ute tray.

Mr Tea and I are venturing into Darwin’s Rural Area, and it’s bumper sticker heaven. Where the Hell is Noonamah? screams one Pajero. And then a Hilux speeds by: The Lord Said Unto the Shepherd…Piss off, this is Cattle Country.

The noticeboard at Coolalinga Shops has turkey chicks and quad bikes for sale; someone’s also lost their pet python. $50 reward.

Toto? I don’t think we’re in Nightcliff anymore.

We’ve been home a week and Mr Tea has resumed his favourite interest: looking for boats on Gumtree. He’s managed to find two kayaks for $300 in Bees Creek.

It’s a bargain, so we’ve made the 40 minute trek out to a rural block near the Elizabeth River. After all those months of hankering for rain like a smack addict, it’s finally raining. It’s pouring. The old man is snoring.

We get to Bees Creek and the drive way is a waterfall. A sign proclaims that trespassers will be shot on sight, survivors will be shot again. A rooster and two peacocks are taking cover under the verandah. They nestle under a buffalo skull with horns and a small cross-stitch of a cheerful glass of bubbly that says “Get me a drink!” Three cocker spaniels jump around, while Dave from Bees Creek, owner of the bargain kayaks, greets us and grabs a raincoat for himself and one for Mr Tea.

I’m not a dog person, but I’ve always had a soft spot for cocker spaniels. There’s something about those long ears and pleading eyes.

“We used to have five”, says Dave. “But see that creek down there? They like to chase birds, don’t they? Wound up at the river for a drink and SNAP.”

Yep, this is the rural area. Your pet dog isn’t hit by a neighbour’s car, it’s taken by a crocodile at the bottom of your garden.

Dave leads us out to the shed, and my thong blows out straight away in the rain so I walk barefoot, past a collection of Brahmin cattle, a demountable and some old railway sleepers.

Dave is glad we came today; he has pistol club tomorrow.

The kayaks are in good nick. Dave is a painter and got them from a guy who couldn’t pay up.

“Bloke reckoned they’re worth $500.” He shakes his head.

Mr Tea is drenched in his borrowed Bunnings raincoat but he can barely contain his excitement.

The boat empire continues.

It’s on the way home, $300 lighter and two kayaks heavier, that I spy Mr Eat the Peanuts out of My Shit of earlier bumper sticker fame. He’s driving aggressively, taking over from the left, true to form.

I gawp for awhile. If nice Dave from Bees Creek with his peacock and cocker spaniels is one end of the rural area spectrum, this is the other.

And with that, I’m home. Sri Lanka is over. This is the Northern Territory.

The slow train from Ella to Kandy

Railway tracks also double as a footpath for traffic savvy Ella locals

Railway tracks also double as a footpath for traffic savvy locals

When it comes to trainspotting, I’ve traditionally been more of the Irvine Welsh school of thought. Despite a year living in the UK when I was regularly told to mind the gap, I’ve had little interest in donning an anorak and seeking out obscure locomotives. As far as I was concerned, trains were just for transportation and, occasionally, long chats with anarchists who had day jobs making stained glass windows.

But in Sri Lanka, I’ve become an ardent trainspotter.

Partly, so one doesn’t crush me. Despite laws to the contrary, locals use the train tracks as an all-purpose footpath and cattle thoroughfare and we have followed in their footsteps. It therefore pays to have a lookout and a good working understanding of the train timetable, which any self-respecting local can rattle off for you at a moment’s notice.

“Ella to Kandy, Sir? It goes at 6. 40, 9.20. 12.30….”

But it’s more than that. It’s spectacular to stand by the side of the tracks and watch the trains pass, with locals hanging out the doorframes and waving from the windows. The train is a means to an end, but it’s also an end in itself for tourists who actively seek out vantage points from which to wield their telephoto lenses. We learn to exchange gems of trainspotting wisdom as readily as guesthouse numbers. An excitable Swedish couple tells us, “If you follow the track through the pine forest at around 7am, you’ll even see the train pass over the Nine Arch Bridge!”

All this enthusiasm, and not an anorak in sight.

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Part of it is that Sri Lankan Railways still has an air of ye olde colonial glamour that you definitely don’t find on the Train Link Xplorer from Sydney to Armidale.

And then there’s the renegade adventure of it all. Michael Ondaatje (he of The English Patient) hails from Sri Lanka and has written a fantastic memoir that includes some of his father’s exploits on Ceylon Rail back in the day. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Mervyn Ondaatje was known to get drunk on the train and wave his army pistol around. On his most infamous journey, “he managed to get the driver of the train drunk as well and was finishing a bottle of gin every hour walking up and down the carriages almost naked, but keeping his shoes on this time and hitting the state of inebriation during which he would start rattling off wonderful limericks—thus keeping the passengers amused.” And this with a war on.

Not surprisingly, Mervyn was banned from Ceylon Railways in 1943. Maybe it’s not so different to the Sydney-Armidale Xplorer after all.

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With all this in mind, Mr Tea and I wanted in and we decide to book train tickets from Ella to Kandy. In a country where people are almost unanimously friendly and courteous, the single guy manning the fort at Ella Station missed the customer service memo from Colombo. He’s busy chewing betel nut and watching an Indian soap opera and why we got to be so STUPID and ask HIM for a ticket when we clearly need to wait for the station master?

Betel nut chewer gets back to Bollywood and we sit around on the platform for a while.

Eventually the station master shows up, and Mr Tea asks for two first-class tickets; we’ve been warned about poultry and overflowing pit toilets. The Station Master is only marginally friendlier than his accomplice. He can offer us two third class tickets, that’s it, take it or leave it, suckers.

We are suckers, any tuktuk driver can tell you that, so we take the tickets and hand over our 800 rupee.

At 6.30am on the appointed day of departure, Mr Tea and I walk down the railway tracks to wait for the train. It’s only ten minutes late and we get on board. The seats even look like they recline; this isn’t so bad, I say.

But our fellow carriage mates wave us away – “This is second class! Not reserved!”

We head towards first class, but the ticket master sends us right back to where we belong – Third Class Reserved. Two young Sri Lankan women snigger behind their hands. “Third Class!” I hear them whisper, as we schlep our luggage down to the other end of the train.

Fortunately, Third Class has seats, a working toilet and no chickens in sight. The trip is six and a half hours at a brisk jogging pace, but it’s magic. The train rattles and clanks along to panorama after panorama: of mist floating off the top of mountains, tea plantations, waterfalls and rice paddies.

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We watch a wedding party alight, dressed in elaborate saris and holding drums and bags of food. At smaller stations, local children run after the train, squealing and waving. At the larger stations, entrepreneurial types stroll the platforms, selling “Wade-Wade-Wade-Wade”, a lentil cake deep fried in coconut oil, or strips of green mango to be dipped in chilli salt. In our carriage, several families munch away on these snacks or on home made lunches of rice and curry packaged up in old homework papers.

Half way through the trip I remember that Prasanna, our hotel manager, pressed a styrofoam box of train treats into my hands at stupid o’clock. Hungry mid morning, I open it up to find sesame balls, pistachio shortbread and deep fried biscuits laden with chilli salt and cumin.  It’s perfect road trip food for the perfect Sri Lankan road trip, and I get to thinking that maybe those railway enthusiasts back home are actually onto something.

Helga’s Folly

Helga de Silva Blow Perera, replete with diamante sunglasses

Helga de Silva Blow Perera, replete with diamante sunglasses

“Helga’s chief folly was being on lithium when she decorated”—Luxe City Guides, Sri Lanka

Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second biggest city with 1.5 million people in the district, but Helga de Silva Blow Perera is hard to miss in the crowd.

Helga is the owner and creator of Helga’s Folly – a hotel right up in the hills of Kandy. I think the Luxe Guide is a little uncharitable, but then I’ve always been a fan of the more is more philosophy both in life and interior decorating. Fair call on the lithium though.

Helga’s Folly is a bit difficult to describe but I’ll do my best.

Just imagine that Frida Kahlo had a Sri Lankan love child with Paul Gauguin, and let it smoke opium for breakfast every day until it turned 12. And then gave it a paintbrush and said, knock yourself out, kid.

Yes. That’s what Helga’s Folly is like.

Stalactite candles, stag horns and unicorn murals

Stalactite candles, stag horns and unicorn murals

When you walk through the front entrance, there are plastic skeletons sitting on a chaise lounge and a Sri Lankan man called Lionel who will reluctantly take your drink order.

Around the corner, it just gets more fantastic: stalactites of candle wax dripping from candelabras and bright green and pink Indian silk cushions. In one cabinet sits the family’s collection of antique pistols. In another, oriental lamps and wooden carvings of Buddha and various Indian gods and goddesses. There are murals, Sri Lankan folk art, Dutch antiques, teak and lattice recliners and chandeliers. One room is pale blue and the walls are lined with blue china plates. Another is bright red, with a Sri Lankan elephant procession painted on one wall and gaudy Mexican characters drinking on the other. Above the doorways are stag horns, family photographs and paintings of unicorns. And because it was Christmas a week ago, they’d done some extra decorating: wreaths, baubles and glittering fairy lights.

Outside Helga’s Folly is a backyard made of jungle. There are monkeys swinging from the eaves and sitting on the window sills. Apparently one used to be nicknamed Captain; Captain liked to expose himself to guests at regular intervals.

Helga’s family story is something else. She hails from European-Sri Lankan stock, with a father and grandfather who were both politicians. Her grandmother fought for women’s rights, her mother was an artist and designed the original chalet and her aunt was the first Asian woman to become an architect. Helga herself is an artist, celebrity and local eccentric with three husbands under her belt. Her daughter is a fashion designer in London and her sons are similarly inclined.

Celebrities have flocked here over the years. Helga’s Folly has entertained Sir Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, Paula Yates and the Ghandis. Vivian Leigh had an affair with Peter Finch here. Kelly Jones from The Stereophonics stayed once and wrote a song in honour of Helga; the lyrics to ‘Madam Helga’ are up in the entrance.

The Dining Room, darling. Well, one of them.

The Dining Room, darling. Well, one of them.

I was desperate to meet Helga, but when we inquired the staff were suitably vague. I think she is still in London with her daughter, Madam, said one.  She has been very unwell.  Another murmured, I’m sorry but she is up country riding elephants, Madam.

I would have believed anything.

And then at around 7pm, Helga sashayed into the dining room.

I actually heard her before I saw her. Helga was behind the oriental screen and monkey statue when she introduced herself to a couple of guests and enquired after their wellbeing.

“I do hope your room is clean?”

Well may she ask. I wouldn’t describe Helga’s Folly as the most hygienic hotel in the country: the antiques and bohemia all come with a good layer of grime and spider webs. It’s just so hard to get good help around here.

Helga meeted and greeted for a while, and then finally she came our way, dressed in diamante studded sunglasses and a long black evening dress cinched in at the waist with a gold leaf belt.

She had a flimsy handshake and indeterminate accent.

It was like meeting an aged film star or obscure member of the Swedish Royal Family: you’re a bit dizzy with excitement but not quite sure why. Mr Tea isn’t easily impressed, but even he got a bit carried away. I turned to get something from my bag, and all of a sudden I look up and he’s showing her our Christmas photos from Galle.

We stayed with Henri and Koki at Kikili House, I tell Helga.

“Oh yes”, trills Helga. “Henri is a dear friend. I must write to her. We’re friends from London, same circles you know.”

I don’t know.

“It’s so nice to meet you”, she says. “We’re going to have Christmas dinner now, it’s my daughter’s last night. But I do hope you enjoy yourselves.”

She leaves us star struck, and after a three course meal by candelabra, Mr Tea and I return to our homestay waxing lyrical about Helga’s Folly.

But Patthi our host is less than enthused.

“That hotel!” he cries. “It is so dirty. I take guests there and one of them got an electric shock. And you pay $240!”

He shakes his head. “Much better you stay here.”

I know Patthi is right, but part of me still wants to take up residence in the gothic museum that is Helga’s Folly and write opium-laced poetry.

Mr Tea settles in for another G and T. How appropriate.

Mr Tea settles in for another G and T. How appropriate.