The cover is jaunty enough to suggest this might be yet another tale of a hapless Brit making a new life abroad, complete with quaint locals and mañana, mañana builders. It isn’t. Many people leave Britain in search of a materially better
lifestyle – more luxury and leisure for less outlay. Rory Spowers was seeking something radically different.
Having written a history of ecological thought, Rising Tides, he had come to see environmental and economic meltdown as inevitable within his young sons’ lifetime. The best way to prepare for the looming catastrophe, he decided, was to move his family to a part of the world where they could live self-reliantly on high ground. After a few winters in a draughty Welsh farmhouse, he and his wife, Yvette, settled on Sri Lanka, the most bio-diverse place on earth after the Amazon.
They arrived in 2004, rented a house in the hills behind the fort of Galle and, within a week of moving in, saw the coast devastated by the tsunami. Rising tides to the power of 10.
As well as living sustainably, Spowers wants to turn a tract of land into an ecological learning centre. Expecting to buy a few acres, he ends up with 60: An old tea plantation engulfed by jungle. Abandoned for years, Samakanda (‘peaceful hill’) has impressive bio-diversity – rainforest flora, plus wild boars, monkeys, porcupines and even pangolins. With a natural bowl, a river and several wells, it is ideal for a ‘forest garden’, in which fruit and vegetables are inter-cropped as nature might have intended.
The potential is massive, but so are the pitfalls. A ‘permaculturist’ supplies compost full of old batteries; the workers fall out; Spowers receives demands for money and even death threats. When the monsoon further dampens his mood, he nearly gives up. The breakthrough comes with the arrival of a magnificently old-school manager, Mr Pitchamurtu, who – to Spowers’s embarrassment – calls him ‘Sir’.
This is a candid and evocative account of the struggle to live ethically and to adapt to a foreign culture. Spowers agonises about where to compromise between his beliefs and his family’s needs. He buys a Subaru because tuk-tuks – three-wheel taxis, often steered by maniacs – are so unsafe. This he feels guilty about, until he discovers that tuk-tuks are 200 times more polluting per mile than his
Life in the tropics is no holiday: the mosquitoes are rapacious, the water pump breaks down and the vegetation can seem lush to the point of oppressive.
But passion for the green life and a fondness for Sri Lanka win out. With Mr Pitchamurtu, Spowers transforms
Samakanda into a kind of Eden Project. The forest garden supplies organic fruit and veg to the restaurants of Galle and his dream of a ‘bio-versity’ – an alternative university where people can learn about permaculture – becomes a reality.