Much of my time in Colombo was spent at the home of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Arthur’s contributions to science, science fiction, space and space travel are well known, and if you want to learn more about these I recommend you visit the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation website and watch its short video biography of Arthur. Probably the most important achievement of Arthur’s life was his landmark description in 1945 of the concept of a series of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit (now known as the Clarke orbit) that provided the fundamental concept to the global boom that has revolutionized telecommunications and shrunk the size of our planet. Arthur was always a dreamer, and he never thought that in his lifetime any of his dreams would come true — space travel, man’s walking on the moon, the exploration of the outer planets, etc. He lived to share in and experience so much — an intellectual life in full.
Arthur was a busy man, even well into his 80s. He moved to Sri Lanka in 1956 from England. At the time he arrived in Ceylon, it was a “tropical paradise”, still an island at peace and was cited by many as an example of how people of different religions could live together in harmony. Arthur was an avid diver and the scuba diving off the coast is terrific in many places. After the cool weather of the UK, the warm tropical climate appealed to him and he was genuinely fond of the Sri Lankan people. The move to Sri Lanka seemed a perfect fit for him. During the early years, life here was quite isolated, but as telecommunications improved, Arthur became wired to the world, an addict to faxing and e-mail.
While I, your humble narrator, was growing up as a boy in Canada, Arthur was my favorite author. I loved science fiction — one might say that my ABC’s were Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. I enjoyed his entertaining writing and the way his words stimulated my mind. Among my first exposures to his work was 2001: A Space Odyssey, a story he co-write with director Stanley Kubrick while they were making their film of the same name. Its a story that opened my imagination to the endless possibilities of the universe in a way nothing else ever had. Never as a child did I think I would ever get to meet this man, much less to be welcomed into his home as a friend and have dozens of conversations with him — a dream come true to a SciFi geek like me. In the last decade I have been surprised at how many people I have met had a similar reaction to this film, ranging from physicians, space scientists, astronauts to entertainers. As an aside, Wayne Houser and I were fortunate enough to be guests to the 40th anniversary screening of 2001 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2008, shortly after Arthur had died. We had the great privilege of meeting many of the people behind the making if the film, including its star Keir Dullea and his wife, Mia Dillon (wonderful people!)
It was always a great joy to visit with Arthur, talk about current events, what’s new in science and space, and what was his latest writing project. And he would always patiently sign the many books, etc. I brought with me. It was a unique treat to be able to share my love of his writing with him, pick his brain about plot points and his mechanics of writing, and sit around, sometimes in a comfortable silence, over tea, lunch or dinner. Arthur, raised in England, liked bland food like toast and tomato soup, and never developed a taste for the delicious curries and spicy foods of Ceylon. I on the other hand very much enjoyed the wonderful homemade Sri Lanka dishes his staff prepared. I could spend hours talking and writing about these visits but this does not seem like the right venue. Suffice it to say that I grew to love this kind, gentle and optimistic man. I respected his brilliance and achievements. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Like many, I mourned his death.
Thru Arthur C Clarke and Wayne Houser, I got to know several other expats who lived in Colombo. Of these I became friends with one man in particular, Hans Monheimus. Hans was born in Holland and worked most of his life for the tropical hardwoods division of Unilever, mostly in Indonesia. He retired to Sri Lanka, an island he had visited as a young man. He was a close friend of Arthur’s, a patron of the arts, a collector of fine paintings, and a lover of beautiful creations. Hans was also a superb amateur photographer, and I spent dozens of hours in his “photo room”, studying his beautiful work which he had crafted into magnificent “trip albums”. One might even say that Hans inspired me to try my hand at creating this blog — creating a sort of hi-tech album to share with others.
So for me, Colombo was much less about tourism and much more about visiting friends. Unique and precious friends. I still cherish all these memories.