Helga’s Folly

Dusk was setting in. The hundreds of candles that had once burned bright had melted upon each other and the candelabra with these candle relics cast a ghostly pall on their surroundings. With only a few lamps illuminating the rooms, it was easy to imagine ghosts lurking in the corner. The effect was enhanced by a face staring at you from the wall, an old writing desk with an old ledger left as if the person working on that decades ago had just stepped out and would return any time.

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When I saw the old vanity table with a framed photograph placed on it, the thought that had crossed my mind earlier and became stronger was that I might very well be in the ruined house of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, had she been inclined towards murals. It seemed like a living memorial to the ghosts of the past by the owner, who lives on the top floor of the (guest) house.

As we moved across the room, we suddenly heard a thud behind the seemingly black walls off one corner that led to the dark stairs. We peeped down the unlit stairway and saw a black door at the end of it. There was another thud. With the haunted atmosphere hanging in the air, my friend and I scrambled back to the lounge area, which was playing music from the 30s and finished our tamarind juice drinks before leaving Helga’s Folly.

I was intrigued however by this first dusk visit to Helga’s Folly, a home turned into an art museum/ guesthouse in Kandy. So, when a couple of friends visiting me in Sri Lanka this month wanted to go to Kandy for the weekend, I decided to explore more of Helga’s Folly with them. Visitors who are not staying overnight at the guesthouse, where the rooms start at USD 100 and go up to USD 500 per night, or dining at their restaurant can walk around the house after paying a tour fee of USD 3 per person. I think it is wonderful that they allow visitors to tour the house and at such a reasonable price because the artwork in the house is truly worth seeing.

This time though I chose to visit during daylight, when I could see the murals better and the house had a slightly less haunted atmosphere. What greeted us first as our vehicle climbed up the steep road leading up from the Kandy Lake was the bright red buildings covered with colourful artwork. The house was originally designed in the 30s by Helga’s mother, Esme de Silva. A house that has welcomed famous dignitaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi during its political heydays, given that Helga’s paternal grandfather was Sri Lanka’s first Minister of Industries and Fisheries and her father was the Mayor of Kandy, a parliamentarian and Ambassador of Sri Lanka to France and Switzerland in the 60s.

Helga’s parents turned their house into Chalet hotel. However, it is after Helga took over the house a few decades ago, renamed it Helga’s folly and covered it with artwork that I feel it has become a legacy for future generations. It has certainly attracted many movie celebrities, such as Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier, and the Folly brochure boasts of its Hollywood heydays as well as the Stereophonics song, Madame Helga, inspired by a stay here.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

The front office manager handed us a sheet of information on Helga’s Folly before suggesting we start our tour of its interior from the Jane Lillian Vance grotto. So we walked into the front room where the artwork of American artist Jane Lillian Vance covers its walls.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

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Jane Lillian Vance grotto is an amazing art room combining Vance’s beautiful artwork, Helga’s family history as well as a bit of Jane Vance’s personal traumatic story.

We retraced our steps past the reception where framed news clippings of Helga’s family line the walls and passed the former office of Helga’s father, Frederick Lorenz de Silva. The office is currently used by the front office manager as her office. We were not able to see the room that Mahatma Gandhi stayed at during his visit, but the friendly manager mentioned that she had been lucky to stay in that room when she first arrived at the Folly.

Both times that I visited the lounge area, it had some lovely old French music playing in the background. This time though, I was not able to explore the artwork in this area much as there were other guests seated on all the available couches that I did not feel comfortable walking around them looking at the walls. Anyway, I knew I would need to revisit a few times in order to leisurely appreciate the artwork in each room.

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A little corridor leading away from the lounge towards the gardens had this little nook, which we decided was a great spot for a group photo.

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Taking the stairway up to the restaurant area, we came across several dining areas which were set up as private dining spaces. Each seemed to have a different theme and the dining room with the octagonal Taprobane table seemed extra special and perhaps reserved for special occasions.

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The corridor leading away from the dining rooms and to the guestrooms was covered with black walls. One of the walls had a white tree and red hearts and writing that asked you to add a heart for each beloved soul you have lost. I really don’t think I could comfortably stay overnight in a room in a corridor that was decorated like this. I felt that the house was not haunted, as I initially felt during my first visit but rather had dark vibes of a place that had absorbed the grief, depression and angst of its residents, the owners and its guests.

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There was a colourful, whimsical corner under the staircase, along the sombre corridor, which lightened its dark overtones.

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What’s interesting about the place is that the artwork is diverse and at first seems the result of a psychedelic mind. However, you begin to see individual stories emerging and the hand of different artists at work, whether it is in the whimsical or spiritual overtones of the murals. I was informed that Helga’s Folly welcomes artists, writers and senior citizens for longer stays at special rates and the house is certainly a place that seems to inspire the creative. From artists who have been inspired to contribute to the murals to musicians who have been inspired to write a song about the place, it is certainly a place that invokes your emotional and creative response to the visual extravaganza.

I left Helga’s Folly with a sense that here was a house that needed preserving for future generations and some maintenance in the present, as it seems to be acquiring a certain dilapidated air about it. I hope Helga and her family consider establishing a trust that will manage it well in the future and continue to allow visitors to tour the place. And, for travellers visiting Kandy city and interested in amazing murals, I highly recommend that you visit Helga’s Folly at 70,Rajapihilla Mawatha, Kandy.

Following my visit, I interviewed Helga Perera, the person responsible for creating Helga’s Folly. You can read her interview here.

Have you visited a (guest)house that has amazed you with its beautiful murals? 

[I am linking this post to City Tripping #38Wanderful WednesdayThe Weekly Postcard.

I am also linking the post to #TravelLinkUp, hosted by Adventures of a London Kiwi, Silverspoon and Fresh and Fearless , under the October theme of ‘most interesting item you have discovered or seen in a hotel room/ accommodation‘ as the murals in the Jane Lillian Vance grotto at Helga’s Folly is the most interesting and amazing item that I have seen in a guesthouse room]
Wander MumWanderful Wednesday

Travel Notes & Beyond

Interview #2 – Ellen Needham

I first met Ellen Eileen Needham when she arrived in Sri Lanka around eight years ago to start up Emerge Lanka. I remember that I admired her confidence to come to a country she had not visited before, when still in her early twenties, and start up a social enterprise that worked with teen survivors of sexual abuse by providing them training on bead jewelry making.

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Since its initial start when the target market were potential buyers back in USA, her home country, Ellen tells me that the social enterprise has evolved now to have a large local market within Sri Lanka. They recently were awarded the second place at Project Inspire, a global social enterprise competition hosted by the Singapore Committee for UN Women and MasterCard.

Given my interest in social enterprises and my interest in Ellen’s story, I decided to interview her for Perspectives Quilt.

  • Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and from an early age I was mesmerized by travel—my grandfather would travel all over the world and send me back postcards from Zambia, China, Greece, and more. Since then I have sought a life (from the type of jobs I’ve taken to the man I’ve married) that allows me to experience this world more fully.

Through travel to Sri Lanka, I met my husband who was at the time also working in the country—we were engaged during a trip back to Sri Lanka in 2014 and married a year later.

I recently moved across the USA (from the East to the West coast) in the pursuit of new experiences and opportunities. I’m currently learning to ski and embracing the outdoor life that Lake Tahoe, about an hour from my home, has to offer.

I also enjoy being physically active—I played volleyball through college, and continue to look for new opportunities (rock climbing, yoga, mountain biking) to push myself.

  • What made you decide to join the Emerge initiative?

I first got involved with Emerge as a senior in college when I was introduced to a classmate, Alia Whitney-Johnson, who had recently come back from Sri Lanka and was sharing her experiences. I was drawn into the Emerge story immediately, particularly the strength and courageousness of the girls Alia had met.

I decided to join Emerge because I was excited about the possibility of contributing and helping to build an organization that addressed issues that I was passionate about. And ultimately, it was Alia’s dedication, drive, and compassion that convinced me to commit my time to Emerge.

  • How did you feel about leading the expansion of Emerge in Sri Lanka?

When I arrived in Sri Lanka in 2008 Emerge had several goals: first and foremost was to make the organization sustainable. What was less clear was how we would go about doing so, and the lack of clarity was both exhilarating and overwhelming. As an engineer by training, I approached leading the formalization and expansion of Emerge Lanka Foundation like I would any complex problem: identify the goal, system, and key variables (people, places, etc.) and then test out different options until one worked, learning throughout the process. This was trying; I can recall several times I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to succeed, and was going to let the team and our girls down.

  • What were some of the challenges you faced when you started up in Sri Lanka?

While living in a country different from your own is never easy, I was incredibly fortunate to have Emerge supporters and, at the time, our only staff member Nirukshi, to help guide our work. What I found hardest about starting up in Sri Lanka was figuring out just how things got done. Often it would be a relationship, or a certain external perception of the person you were working with that would be the difference between moving forward and not. Sometimes being a foreigner was advantageous; other times, the only person who could get the job done was a Sri Lankan. Navigating these relationships was by far the most challenging part of my time in Sri Lanka.

  • When you refer to Emerge as a social enterprise, what do you mean?

We call Emerge a social enterprise because it occupies the space between a pure-play for profit company and a charity, or nonprofit. While Emerge does fundraise and solicit donations, our goal (and model) is to be self-sustaining on the programmatic level. Through Emerge, we teach women important skills—a byproduct of this is the creation of jewelry, which we then sell to generate savings for the individual girl as well as cover programmatic costs.
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  • How would you describe the impact that Emerge Lanka has made on the lives of the women it works with? Please share an anecdote.

To me, Emerge is a collection of stories of the courageous young women we work with. While I can share the facts: the support of 556 girls, the sale of more than $125,000 worth of jewelry, the stories of Emerge are just as powerful. One story that particularly struck me last year was that of a past program participant who is in the midst of completing nursing school. She wrote a letter to the Emerge office in which she shared that she “worked hard and was able to fulfill your hope by becoming second in my batch out of 108 students.” You can view her entire letter here: http://emergeglobal.org/5413-2/

  • What has been the most positive impact that Emerge Lanka has had on you?

Working for Emerge Lanka has taught me the power of unconditional love, given me perspective regarding the things that really matter in life, and shown me how powerful and resilient we can all be.

  • What do you plan to do next?

I recently started a role at Patagonia, a global outdoor clothing company with environmental and social responsibility at its core. I’m looking forward to learning a new industry (retail) while contributing meaningfully to a company that cares deeply about the impact it has on the world.

  • What do you do to de-stress or recover your equilibrium when things do not go according to plan?

I try to keep perspective, and remember how fortunate I am to have an amazing family, career that I meaningfully contribute to, and the freedom and flexibility to pursue what I’m passionate about. Also, nothing beats a good massage!

  • Wrapping up this interview, do share a favourite quote or verse that you look up whenever you feel you are in need of inspiration.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein

[Photo Credits: Ellen Needham]