Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Sri Lanka - Sites of Significance

Dedicated to Louise's Bump

This is the first of three updates summarising just a few of the highlights from this adventure in Sri Lanka.

There have been too many things happening, and too few opportunities to describe them to you. So allow me to bring these events to you now, so that there can be something else to talk about when we next catch up!

Buddhist Temples and Palaces of Sri Lanka

Something I especially wanted to do on this Grand Tour was check out "important old stuff". The kinds of things you simply cannot do in Australia, bar our Indigenous cultures. Sri Lanka possesses numerous sites of great significance that are exactly this. They are unique places and architecture which have hosted events and continual cultural usage over many centuries. They are all profound, beautiful, jaw-dropping and very special indeed.

There are three I'd like to describe here - the Cave Temples of Dambulla, the ancient fortress / summer palace of Sigirya, and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.


Dambulla is located in Sri Lanka's mid-northern "dry country", only a few hours drive from Colombo. This drive takes you past inummerable roadside stalls selling bright orange coconuts, handmade rope, plastic inflatable toys and exotic-sounding household products. Lots of Sri Lankan drives are like that actually. Aishwarya Rai is invariably to be seen in every town, incongruously matching her face to advertisements of "Lux" soap. She appears to be Sri Lanka's (and perhaps India's) answer to Megan Gale.

The cave temples begin with an enormous gold Buddha, easily 30 metres high, behind which the pilgrim's ascent winds its way up the mountain. Under hot, humid, crowded and steep conditions, with vicious territorial monkeys and persistant souvenir hawkers, this was not an especially easy climb. The temples themselves are a stunning row of white buildings tucked into an overhanging cliff, serving to protect the ancient painted caves. These were made over a number of centuries, and are loaded with fascinating staturary. When I have more time I'll link you to the images elsewhere online. Our guide was very helpful, and clearly enjoyed his work, although he appeared to have been doing the same thing for many years.


Another majestic climb, Sigirya is part military fortress, imperial pleasure palace, former Buddhist temple, and a lot of James Bond. It lies on top of a massive rock that lurches out of the ground like an emerging cicada-shaped Godzilla. The pathway to the rock takes you through the remains of extensive water gardens, moats, and forests, leading to the sheer ascent up a 1950s-era cast iron ladder and stairwell. It is rusted, but so many hands have passed over it that is has developed a silky patina and unusual maroon hue.

This caged spiral staircase takes you to the few remaining frescos (techically tempura) that once adorned much of the ascent to the palace. They are topless dancers, costumed and bejewelled, beckoning to each other and generally being very distracting to the Buddhist monks who later destroyed about 500 of them. They were created (some at truly impossible angles) for the enjoyment of the original creator of the palace, well before the monks reappropriated the site.

The "mirror wall" that lines the next section of the pathway carries a threat of imprisonment if touched. That is something we should have tried at the Portrait Gallery! It is a shiny plastered (?) surface inscribed with archaic Singhalese graffiti, mostly in poetic praise of the dancers mentioned previously, and has proved of tremendous value to modern linguists.

The final aspect of the ascent will be described purely by images. I'll get these online when I have the opportunity.

The palace itself remains only in the form of foundations, but it's really Kublai Kahn material. Tremendous views, not too many tourists, great freedom to explore. Very very Wow.

Temple of the Tooth

Quickly now, my last description. This temple is one of the top sites for Buddhist pilgrims worldwide, as it holds the relic of Buddha's left front tooth, snatched as he was cremated. It is now in Kandy, although the artworks describing the saga of the Tooth narrate the stealing, theft, smuggling, and political manhandling that the Tooth has gone through over the centuries.

Inside the temple was loud with drummers, dark with nightfall and candles, humid with the tropics and the breath of hundreds of visitors - Buddhist and tourist alike. We arrived just as the golden door to the tooth itself was being shut. Another twenty minutes of reflective time followed, just waiting, sweating, and being generally silent as all the noise and commotion continued around us.

The door finally opened to reveal a luminescent gold stupa, quite some distance into the chamber, which the most dedicated tourists and serious pilgrims bowed to as they quickly passed by from a few metres away. It was an excellent sight, worth the wait.

I am due to leave for Cairo in a few hours, but shall be heading off to dinner with the Australian High Commissioner (ie, Ambassador) in Colombo in a few minutes. The next two Sri Lanka summaries will be much shorter, I promise.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Sri Lanka - the Elephants of Palawi

This post is dedicated to Grant and Louise Chamberlain

Sri Lanka has provided more stories and photographs than I can do justice to in the few minutes I have to write your update.

There are a few vignettes I would like to share now instead, and when I have reliable access to a secure computer, I will add some of my images to these posts.

It was great to catch up with my cousin Grant (a jazz saxophonist and ethnomusicologist) and his wife Louise in Colombo. They live in a beautiful region of the city - a bit like Canberra's Yarralumla or Red Hill - and they were in the midst of packing for their upcoming move to Sweden as we arrived. Thank you very much for your warm hospitality during those days!

We also saw the Kelandiya Temple in Colombo, which has a stunning and vast Bodhi tree adjacent to the primary edifice laden with complex murals from the mid-nineteenth century, illustrating the life of the Buddha and Sri Lankan Buddhist history. Await the images for more details, there are plenty.

The first story....

The Elephants of Palawi

There is a spectacular orphanage for elephants a couple of hours drive from Colombo. It provides rehabilitation, veterinary services, and general care for about a hundred elephants of various ages, from tiny (shetland pony sized, only a few days old) calves to a 70-year old blind beast of burden. Some were the children of orphans taken to the park many years earlier.

We arrived amidst a swarm of several school groups, just in time for the feeding and bathing of the pachyderms. They were tremendously cute - again I will have to taunt you with the allure of promised images! Their mahouts (handlers) were very skillful in their herding and oral instruction skills. Our driver, Harald (a lovely bloke with cutting-edge reflexes), told us that the Mahouts have an entire language all to their own, not unlike Gypsy's cant.

The highlight of that morning was taking time for a tea break beside a vast river. This was where the elephants were taken for their daily bath. One, a big girl by the name of Adila, was given poersonalised massage and exfoilation with coconut husk by her mahout. It was very sweet, as there is clearly a distinctive bond between elephant and handler, and it is a lot of work to scrub an elephant!

Unfortunately, I must go now. There is only one computer here, and others must have their turns to write to their loved ones.

More to come later!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Sri Lanka - just to let you know I'm alive

Sri Lanka is a fantastic place, which duly deserves a proper series of blog posts.

However, I am pressed for time. I will tell you all about it tomorrow afternoon, after I return from a 12km trek to World's End, here in Sri Lanka's verdant vermillion tea fields.

I am 6800 feet above sea level in a five star hotel. It is a reconfitted Tea Factory, loaded with industrial machinery and an impressive atrium seven stories deep. Japanese tourists are whispering behind me, and Aishwarya Rai beckons from the tabloid pages next to me.

More to come...

PS: My mobile phone is several thousand kilometres out of range, so if you've been texting me, I won't get it until January 2006. Email still works, so please drop a line. Be warned, I haven't been able to check it often. Last time was three days ago beneath 30 metres of Golden Buddha, in a broom closet, with an assistant who spoke Singhalese and Italian fluently but not very much English.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Singapore Airport

Dedicated to the Understated Elegance of Travellators

In five minutes I must summarise the magic and mysteries of Singapore Airport.

The long, green corridors have electronic muzak pumped from the ceiling, sourced from a variety of world cultures. It is loaded with pep, gusto, sound effects and a hint of tinnitus. I'm currently finding it amusing, but I doubt this relationship will last another half hour.

It also has travellators. Travellators are brilliant. They are, on paper, instruments for the obliviation of general fitness levels in the western world, but check them out if you get the chance sometime. There's a sense of the world whooshing past as you walk along them, as if you're on some kind of incredibly important business. Perhaps their novelty for me is based in the fact that I really haven't had a chance to stretch my legs for a few hours, and remember playing on them as a kid.

Finally, there is a TV screen behind me which is odd. It's showing an old episode of Charmed, but all the actors are moving distinctly faster than their backgrounds. Also, the special effects are way more pixellated than usual, and you can see the subtleties of their facial makeup as if they were on a theatrical stage. I think it's a high-definition TV, which I haven't yet seen in Australia, but it's an odd experience considering how years of television viewing train us to expect a distinct visual distortion through the screen.

Anyhow, I must be off to explore the rest of this haven for the transitory traveller.

And escape the muzak.

Singapore Airport Travellators

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Dedicated to Lost Dutchmen

Just a quick note today. This morning began with a jaunt down the Swan river to see the mansions of Perth's uber-rich, and plenty of their moored yachts. It seemed telling that absolutely none were being used at any time I saw the river today.

Fremantle, where I spent most of the day, is a heritage-listed town under fresh paint. It's not unattractive, but it does feel touristy. Most of my time was spent in the two Maritime Museums - the new one, with flamboyant sail-like architecture, currently run by Dawn Casey (formerly of the NMA when I worked there), and the "ancient" one dedicated to the WA shipwreck legacy - primarily the tribulations of the Dutch East India company (VOC).

At the first museum I explored their Ovens-class Submarine. This beast presented an interesting logistical challenge for guiding small groups through exceptionally contorted spaces. It was like caving in an enormous engine room. The second museum's dedicated space for the Batavia was moving and impressive, as was their exhibition space dedicated to the Dutch maritime legacy in WA (although it was text-heavy, it accomplished the feat of a palindromic display - capable of being started from either end without confusion).

That afternoon, the Fremantle Gaol was a captivating experience. It's very similar to the Old Melbourne Gaol in layout, but was used as a maximum-security facility until quite recently. Unlike Melbourne, they have no provisions for self-guided tours so it's paid admission or nothing. The tour was well managed, and the speaker engaging and erudite.

Now I'm back in Perth, and off to the Hare Krishna's for a cheap dinner.

Sri Lanka tomorrow!


Monday, August 22, 2005


This post is dedicated to DJ, Clare, Alanna and all my mates who've experienced Perth firsthand.

The drive to the airport was heralded by Smashing Pumpkin's "Tonight, Tonight", amongst other dramatic songs, which set an ideal fanfare for a journey of this nature.

There have been a number of events worth describing. The fellow on the seat across from me in the plane (there was no one between us - the unanticipated elbow room felt like we'd been upgraded from economy!) was a Perth-based lawyer who had just completed a weekend skiiing in Charlotte Pass. He told me he loved it there because it was so small, intimate and completely out of mobile phone range. Turns out his daughter is also an art historian, who holds a PhD and works for Sotheby's in Paris. He personally hates the private auction houses, and provided me with vivid stories of their used-car-saleman antics for the multimillion-dollar collector market. If there wasn't so much money it in for his daughter, he'd be insistent that she find somewhere more ethically rewarding to work!

Another great conversation was with a dorm mate in the Britannia YHA off Williams St. He's English, named Darren, and worked as a scuba diving instructor in the Cayman islands until Hurricane Ivan wiped them off the tourist maps. Since then he's been travelling the world, writing a book on what's he's seeing and doing. He's had fantastic luck in meeting members of international sporting circles totally by chance. He shared plenty of other stories about freakish good luck, the worst hostels and roughest cities he's encountered, and unusual travellers he has met on the road.

I'm hoping that by the time my Tour is over, I'll have equivalent stories of my own to share!

I stayed last night at Miss Maud's Swedish Hotel, which sounds kinkier than it was. The best thing about it was undoubtedly the stupendous smorgasbord breakfast, which was truly a thing of legend. All you can eat of all the conventional European breakfast/brunch dishes comes free with your room. Being a novice backpacker, I also proudly snuck out with a pile of muffins and fruit for later - one item per serving. By the time I'm an experienced backpacker I should be able to extract full meals by this method, inshallah.

Today was spent exploring Perth on foot and with those free CBD "CAT" buses. It is a clean, well-kept, luminous city that reminds me of Sydney for its light and skyline, Canberra for its broad streets, and the Gold Coast for its tourist kitsch. I have also been trying to answer a nagging question - is there such a thing as a WA accent? So far, I'm proposing a hesitant yes. It is slightly softer and lilts more on "i" and "ei" sounds.

The WA Museum was a classic cabinet of curiosities. Lots of bones, rocks, stuffed animals prowling glass cases, and the odd multimedia interactive to throw the spectator back into the late 1990s. It's the kind of place people expect a "museum" to be like, and the type of thing I used to love as a child, although I can now see how lacking some exhibits were. That being said, it was still fun, and by a stroke of good luck I saw the "Policeman's Eye" exhibition that I missed when it was on at the National Archives.

The WA Art Gallery was much better. Internally, it felt like the designers really, really liked the Guggenheim NY but couldn't get it to fit on their site. Lots of very young school groups were exploring the main collection with plenty of gusto. There was a John Nixon show (remember his self-portrait in To Look Within, GA Team?), and a marvellous Russian exhibition focussed on St Petersburg. It was so good I bought two postcards for my handwritten journal. I seriously was taken by some of their theatre ephemera and the ink portraits by Ivnik.

That'll do for now, as tomorrow I'm off to Fremantle ("Freo") for the day.


Sunday, August 21, 2005

2 hours to liftoff...

This post is dedicated to Katya, Diana and Aprel, who have all recently completed their Grand Tours and served as inspiration for mine.

The last few days have been hectic and fun.

There has been all the usual flurry of activity preceeding a major trip overseas, as well as the social circuit of friends, family and workmates who need a proper farewell. There have been too many to list here, but you probably attended at least one to be reading this, so you know how much fun it was.

Thank you very much for your goodbyes and bon voyage messages! I have really appreciated them.

This morning, the final one in Canberra until January 2006, was spent with my sister Tabbi and my dog Assad. We had a special breakfast at Verve in Manuka, then went for a long walk around the lake as a farewell gift for Assad. He loved it - loads of smells to transfix his very short attention span.

I gave my housemates a special toy to remember me by - a Bop It Extreme 2. This ridiculously insulting, colourful, patronizing, reflex-challenging and addictive noisemaker has been the most popular thing in the house since the Llama Song insidiously penetrated our skulls. That song is still yet to be exorcised.

I'm sure they'll love it. You must try it if you can wrestle it off one of them.

But some words on the future - it's only a few minutes before I leave the house for the airport. I'm feeling excited, but also slightly tense - just like the night before an exam. I've done everything I can to prepare, except learn Turkish, Italian, Greek and Arabic (But I admit it was optimistic to put those on my to-do list). All looks set to go. My pack is still under-weight, and quite a lot of it is stuff to be left in Cairo anyway.

It is almost Spring in Canberra, the days are warming up and the blossom is just starting to emerge. I wrote to a friend in Finland (hello Anna!) recently, that with all the energy of the past few days and the gorgeous weather, it feels almost like the city is trying to coerce me to stay here for a while. Well that's too bad, because I'm off to Perth!

Here we go!

Yalla Habibi!


Friday, August 12, 2005

Preface to Remarks on Italy, 1726

Click on the image above to zoom in, the text is noteworthy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

An Original Grand Tour, published 1726.

This beautiful text, by Joseph Addison, describes the sights, cultures, landscapes, politics, technologies and antiquities encountered by the young English author as he travelled across Italy from 1701-3. At that time, Italy was a group of independent city-states or tiny nations, and transportation was very rugged and arduous. It is littered with quotes in Latin, translated to English, and peppered with quaint anachronisms in word selection and f's for s's. Early tourists would frequently write and publish accounts of their trips abroad, as there was a substantial market for these texts which carried through well into the early twentieth century.

(The 19th century in particular has left bibliophiles with a wealth of travel literature. The proliferation of these publications provided a considerable component of research for my Honours thesis last year).

This particular book holds a very special coincidence for me. It is dedicated to John Lord Somers, Baron of Eversham. A much later successor of this English aristocrat founded a youth leadership camp in 1929, Lord Somer's Camp, based at Somers in Victoria, south east of Melbourne. The last three generations of my family have been pertinently involved in this camp and the associated sporting clubs of Powerhouse, so this is a meaningful link.

It was dedicated to this patron as he was almost certainly the principal sponsor not only of the text's publishing, but of the Grand Tour itself.

Centuries ago, this book was once the classic summary of a most important stage in the lives of many thousands of young, educated men. Now, almost three hundred years later, the same type of journey is being recorded, and transcribed to be read by those who matter most to the traveller. The technology has changed but the narrative remains intact.

In addition to this blog, I shall be recording my travels in a handwritten journal, and private emails to individuals who write to me or leave comments on this blog. (Note that if you comment anonymously, I won't be able to respond to your questions!)

Friday, August 05, 2005

So, why Tourbilon?

Tourbilon is one of many archaic words meaning 'whirlwind'. Such words include Turbilon, Turbillion, Torbilion, Tourbeilon, and have primarily been sourced from old French and English during the centuries when spelling was lackadaisical and phonetic.

The term links into the early use of the word 'tour', which once meant to move in a circular manner. My Grand Tour [for more info, check out this too] is essentially a circular path around the Eastern Mediterranean. Other words with an ancestry connecting to Tourbilon include "turbine", "turbulent", "tournament" (as in, a series of challenges in a ring or arena), and "tourniquet". Perhaps the most frequent use of this term now is to describe a strange clock mechanism designed to counter gravity's effects by revolving around the center of a clock, rather than sitting hidden behind the clock's face. Read into this what you will.

The concept of 'whirlwind' also ties into a song I particularly like by a Melbourne-based band called Architecture in Helsinki ("Do the Whirlwind"), but this is incidental.

The name seems apt, and I happen to like these kinds of archaic terms.