Like most people, I have always been certain there was a place somewhere on this planet that could provide the necessary respite from all reminders of present-day chaos and noise, a place to which one could escape and, having escaped, shut the figurative door, there to breathe pure air and hear only the sounds provided by natural forces. So it was with tremulous excitement that I first saw the little island of Taprobane, in Weligama Bay off the south coast of Sri Lanka. Here was a site that seemed to have all the requisite qualities: It was scarcely more than a hummock of black basalt rising above the waves of the Indian Ocean, yet was heavily covered with high trees that left visible only a glimpse of the house at its summit. I had never seen a place that looked so obviously like what I was searching for. And I felt that it was aware of me, that it silently beckoned, sending forth a wordless message that meant: Come. You’ll like it here. Three years later, I signed the necessary documents and became the owner of this tiny parcel of paradise. The erstwhile proprietor, a rubber planter named Mr. Jinadasa, also bred racehorses and bet on them. When a horse in which he has great confidence failed to justify his hopes, he found himself in immediate need of cash. My informant in Sri Lanka wired me in Madrid, and as soon as the news arrived I rushed out to cable the money. I inherited a couple who were resident gardener and maid, and who continued their work as if they were still in the employ of Mr. Jinadasa. In aspects they had worked for several owners, scarcely knowing them apart, and were aware only that their employer must be addressed as Master. The island had belonged to various people in the recent past, and none of them had kept in very long. It was a pleasure dome, a place they used for weekend parties. The only person who had actually lived there was the Comte de Mauny Talvande, who had built the house and furnished it after reclaiming the island from its former status as the local cobra-dump. (All cobras found in the region were put into sacks, carried across to the island and left there, since in Sri Lanka one doesn’t kill snakes). In order to settle in, I needed to buy only new mattresses for the beds, and lamps and kitchenware. The furniture, made of the heaviest kinds of tropical wood, was well-nigh immovable. Finding a good cook was the greatest initial challenge, but eventually, in the nearby town of Matara, I unearthed a man who had been chef in a hotel. At the same time I discovered that no cook would work without an assistant, so I was obliged to take on two men. The cook cooked; the extra man served at table and washed dishes. Indeed, each employee in the house had a very precise idea of what his work involved, and it was impossible to get any of them to perform an act he considered to be outside his domain. The maid polished the furniture and filled bowls with orchids. The gardener fetched things from the market in the village on the mainland. Another man, a Hindu came twice a day to empty the latrines, as there was no running water on the island. Life moved like clockwork; there were no complications. For me, much of the joy of living on Taprobane had to do with lying in bed at night listening to the sound of the big waves booming against the cliffs below, and the more distant, subdued sound of the same waves breaking on the sand along the great curved beach. I couldn’t conceive of a greater luxury then, nor can I now. The subsidiary luxuries consisted of early tea along with an assortment of fruit (served in bed), a real English breakfast at nine and, at midday, a curry the like of which I’ve not eaten elsewhere. The cook provided twenty side dishes for each meal (including marunga leaves which, sprinkled over coconut cream, gave the food an irresistible flavor). At night the men would go down to the rocks and catch enough lobsters for the next day’s curry. When the lobsters were too few, we made do with spearfish, the local equivalent of pompano, and equally delectable. Only once was this tranquil existence significantly disrupted: What happened was that the government of Sri Lanka came to an agreement with Peking whereby China would receive the totality of Sri Lanka’s rubber crop in return for specified quantities of China’s rice. The rice arrived, but it had been lying in damp warehouses for so long that it was rancid. When one tried to cook it, it gave off an unbelievably powerful stench; it was inedible. All the Sinhalese were complaining, but there was no help for it. The only solution was to comb the shops in all towns along the coast for boxes of English rice and hoard them and, when the shops were empty, which they soon were, to go more than a hundred miles to Colombo and bring back all one could find. Only thanks to such efforts did the curry continue to be as good as ever. For the most part, however, life on Taprobane was trouble-free: The ocean was languorously warm, and the sharks left alone. You could see them a few hundred feet away as they patrolled the reef, but they never ventured inside. Occasionally a gigantic tortoise that lived among the rocks on the southwest side of the island would rise to the surface and remain there, a floating boulder. If one swam toward it, it quickly submerged. “Old,” Benedict the gardener told me one day, indicating its domed back. The catamarans bearing fishermen streamed past the island before sunrise and returned en masse at sunset, oars and sail giving them speed. And just as regularly, each daybreak flocks of crows arrived to chase away the hordes of bats that spent each night hanging from the trees outside the windows. The bats were surprisingly big, often with a wingspread of three feet. Their bodies were covered with dark, russet-colored hair and their teeth looked very sharp when you flashed a light into a tree and saw them hanging above you. They were fruit eating animals and entirely innocuous, even with respect to the vegetation; the big trees on the mainland where they gathered in day time were burned white by their dung, and nothing grew in the immediate vicinity, but for some reason they did not excrete at night. It was the crows that saved my trees. They came in great numbers at dawn for no purpose that I could discern other than to drive away the bats. Once they had done that and remarked about it with each other for a while, they flew back to the mainland. But the bats never returned until dark. The central room of the house was 30 feet high, with a cupola at the top that let the wind blow in from all sides, so that even though the air was hot there was always a breeze moving through the room. The voluptuous breeze and the sounds of the sea made an after-lunch siestas inevitable. I missed two or three hours of the afternoon, but how fine it was when the cook’s assistant arrived from behind the curtains at five o’clock saying, “tea, Master,” and put the tray down on the bed, and I drank the tea still listening to the pounding waves. Then it was time for a late afternoon dip in the sea, when Benedict would return with provisions from the village along with two men who waded through the waves carrying tanks of water on their heads. Benedict did not like to be out after dark. Although he claimed to be a Catholic, he shared some of the superstitious of the uneducated Buddhist coastal population. He was particularly afraid of meeting a black dog on the road. According to him, all black dogs were evil spirits and should be avoided. I knew that the island had been cleared of snakes several decades earlier, and I had never seen a sign of the presence of venomous spiders or scorpions. Nevertheless, one evening the cook on his way to the kitchen stepped barefoot on a large centipede. He cried out, dropped the tray he was carrying and fell to the floor unconscious. Benedict, having been called from below, came with a “cobra stone,” made an incision in the foot and rubbed the stone over it for some minutes. When the cook had revived, I asked to see the stone, but Benedict did not want me to touch it. In his hand it looked something like a sponge, light and porous. This miniature drama became in retrospect a major event, so uneventful was the passage of the days and weeks. Time moved swiftly, imperceptively, on the island. Had it not been for two things, unrelated but equally important, I could have prolonged my sojourn there indefinitely. The first was that at the end of June the southwest monsoons arrived, so that during the high seas of the summer months Taprobane was uninhabitable. The other was the Sri Lankan law required every foreigner who remained in the country six months or more to pay a high tax on his global income. Since I generally went to Taprobane around Christmas, I had to arrange my return to Europe for mid-June. Taprobane was not a permanent escape, then, but for half of each year it was idyllic. Of course, no idyll is without its irony: When I finally did sell the island, the proceeds were impounded by the Finance Control of Sri Lanka, so that I have never seen any of my money. One can’t always win—but one can always remember. -- Paul Bowles, author of "The Spider House"
Unawatuna Beach, Sri Lanka.
A small child runs home with his cricket bat. Galle Fort, Sri Lanka.
One of downtown Colombo's oldest landmarks, the Bristol has housed many small offices and businesses throughout the history of what was once Ceylon and is now Sri Lanka. Beyond it, on York Street, is the Grand Oriental Hotel and the harbour.
Royal Park Apartments in Rajagiriya, Sri Lanka, shot from a full kilometer away in Narahenpita with a Opteka 500mm fully manual lens with no auto-focus or image stabilization features, but this was shot hand-held by stopping down a bit, upping the ISO and using a fast shutter speed.
Named after Utrecht, in the Netherlands, the hometown of the first Dutch Reformed priest to arrive in Galle in 1641, this bastion dominates the approaches to Galle Bay and its harbour. By 1760, it had six cannons installed, and also protected a gunpowder magazine which can still be seen today. The building on the left is the Meeran Jumma Masjid or Mosque, built in 1904 in the style of a Portuguese Baroque cathedral. The lighthouse was erected by the British in 1939, after the original one — the first lighthouse in Sri Lanka, built in 1848 — was destroyed in a fire. The fort itself is a UNESCO heritage site and dates back to original fortifications built by the Portuguese in 1505. It was then captured by the Dutch East India Company in 1640 and extensively expanded and reinforced over the next century. In 1796, the fort was captured by the British 70th Surrey Regiment of Foot under Capt Lachlan Macquarie who would later, as a major general, become the fifth governor of New South Wales. Shot in May 2015 from the Vlagklip Bastion.
Last-minute adjustments to the wedding sari of a Sri Lankan bride before she leaves home for the ceremony.
Hunsruck Mountains, Germany, in spring.
Catamaran at anchor outside Mirissa Harbour, Sri Lanka.
Lake Maota from the Amer Fort, Rajastan, India.
A female chimpanzee in the Dehiwela Zoo outside Sri Lanka's commercial capital, Colombo. Once one of the best zoos in Asia, the Dehiwela zoo is now nothing more than a prison for animals with terrible conditions. Animal numbers have dwindled in recent years from official neglect that often verges on the criminal. Many animals are malnourished and close to starvation, with food rations being stolen by the keepers entrusted with looking after the creatures. They are also constantly tormented by visitors who are not supervised by zoo authorities. Animal rights activists in Sri Lanka are now petitioning the government to close down the zoo.
The Mosel River where it divides the Eifel and Hunsrück mountain ranges
More than anywhere else in Sri Lanka, on the Jaffna Peninsula, the sky seems to dominate everything as soon as you step out of the city or town, flattening all else down to a mere frame for its vastness. During the thirty-year civil war that ended in 2009, the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam only ever controlled portions of the land and sea. The sky was ruled by the gunships and jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force, making the it as threatening for the inhabitants of Jaffna as Damocles' Sword. Now, all one has to worry about is the burning sun. Nainativu Island, off the coast of Jaffna.
A Sri Lanka Railways train guard awaits the arrival of the morning train to begin the first shift of a gloomy Saturday morning. Maradana Railway Station, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
A frail old man, unable to climb the stairs at the entrance to the Samangodu Sri Kathiraveluyutha Swami Hindu Kovil in Pettah, leaves his slippers on the street and shuffles past to a side entrance in the hope of gaining access and conducting his evening worship.
Maradana Railway Station, Colombo, Sri Lanka
The Randoli Sports Club, Fife Road, Colombo
A fish monger at the Colpetty Market in Colombo takes a break from the Saturday morning rush to catch up on current affairs.
Mirissa Harbour, Sri Lanka
Sweeper in the Women's Quarters, Amer Fort, Rajastan, India
Passikudah Bay, Sri Lanka
Passikudah Bay, Sri Lanka
Morning over a section of rampart connecting the Triton and Vlagklip Bastions of the 17th Century Dutch fort of Galle, Sri Lanka. On the left is the old town inside the walls of the fort. The Vlagklip Bastion (also known by its later English name, Flagrock) in the distance is the southernmost point of Fort Galle and, beyond it, the Indian Ocean stretches 8,000km, almost unbroken, to the Antarctic.
Passikudah Bay, Sri Lanka
This is a recent black and white process that I did to a shot I took last year and posted in colour.
Dehiwela Beach, Sri Lanka
The Colombo Race Course was completed by the British in 1893, and was temporarily used as an airstrip during WWII for Hurricane fighters and Bleinheim bombers. Horse racing ceased in the 1950s, and the complex was taken over by the Sri Lankan government. During the civil war, it was used as a garrison by the Army Pioneer Corps, and to house new recruits prior to basic training. The Race Course was reopened in 2012 as a mall with several restaurants. While the original structure with its ancient iron girders has been retained, much has been refurbished, including the wood panelling in the roof.
Italian Car Show in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Victoria Reservoir, Central Highlands, Sri Lanka
A working bull elephant passes his chain to his mahout at the end of his morning bath.
Named for the Dutch word for sea breeze when the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or Dutch East India Company expanded and rebuilt the older Portuguese fort in the 17th Century, the Aeolus Bastion is still used for military purposes today. It houses an outpost of the Sri Lanka Army’s 2nd (Volunteer) Gemunu Watch which is headquartered in the fort. While this bastion is closed to the public, the much larger Star Bastion, two hundred metres to the north, is a perfect spot to watch the sunset. The entire fort and the old town of Galle which it encompasses is now a UNESCO heritage site.
Hunnasgiriya, as seen from Siridigana in the Teldeniya area of Sri Lanka's Central Highlands.
Queen's Street in the Galle Fort, with the Maritime Museum on the left, set into the Commandment Bastion, part of the northeastern ramparts of the fort.
Pedlar Street in the Galle Fort, Sri Lanka.
Crowds throng the southernmost strongpoint on the ramparts of the Portuguese- and Dutch-built star fort of Galle. Shot from Point Utrecht Bastion.
A "kopi kadé" is Sinhalese for a small roadside coffee shack where coffee and tea are brewed over open wood fires. The walls are often made of "kadjan" (woven palm fronds), as is the roof, or "wattle-and-daub" (clay pressed into a wooden frame and baked in the sun). The woman on the right is holding a "pittu bambuwa", a bamboo device used to steam "pittu", an Indian food made of flour and coconut. Shot at Space Turn Studios, Bokundara, Sri Lanka.
Inn on the Green, Colombo
Police protection for an anti-racism protest march in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Young poultry butcher at the Colpetty Market, Sri Lanka.
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Victoria Reservoir, Central Highlands, Sri Lanka
The Waldsee, Hunsruck Mountains, Germany
Today, 8th March, is International Women's Day. In Sri Lanka, a tea plucker takes a water break in the hot afternoon sun of the Central Highlands. Plantation workers like this woman were originally brought in from South India by the British colonial administration to work in near slavery to produce some of the world's most famous tea brands. After decades of statelessness in independent Sri Lanka, they were finally granted citizenship, but still live almost as they did for centuries, in poverty, picking tea for a daily wage.
The "Radler" (or cyclist, in German -- three parts beer, two parts lemonade) is the most perfectly refreshing hot-weather drink I've ever come across. Legend has it that a Bavarian publican, running low on stocks of beer for thirsty cyclists in a race by his pub, began to mix in lemonade, hence the name.
I had been at the Waldsee almost the entire afternoon and the sun was finally going down, leaving just a few pockets of light between the trees. This footpath along the lake was in deep shadow except for one patch of light. I saw someone walk into it, but by the time I got my camera up it was too late. So I set up and stayed focused on the spot at full zoom. Ten minutes later, this young woman walked into the shot.
Off southern Sri Lanka
Mirissa Harbour, Sri Lanka
Whale watching boat off southern Sri Lanka, looking for dolphins and blue whales.
Morning meditation on Dehiwela Beach, just outside Colombo City, Sri Lanka