The Sunday Leader

Bringing Colour To Galle:\ Geoffrey Dobbs

By Raisa Wickrematunge
He starts his days with a cup of tea, and ends it with a good dash of port. Geoffrey Dobbs is a man who needs no introduction. He is one of several expatriates who fell in love with Sri Lanka and eventually made his home here. But he didn’t just settle here – he also added a dash of colour and culture to our island, particularly in Galle. Originally, Geoffrey attended King’s School in Canterbury, which he says is the oldest school in the country. Even as a child, he enjoyed Arts-related subjects, gravitating in particular towards History and Geography. Geoffrey went on to attend Trinity College in the city of Dublin, where he read for a Business Studies degree, and then on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied Economics and History.

So how did a man settled in the UK come to be settled here in Sri Lanka? Geoffrey says he was drawn to Sri Lanka over 30 years ago by love. According to travel writer Pico Iyer, Geoffrey first saw the island of Taprobane in an airline magazine in the 1970s, and was struck by the beauty of the place.

The island was in fact first built in the 1920s by the Count de-Mauny Talvande, who built a house complete with sprawling verandahs, featuring much open space. Over the years, he hosted aristocracy, governors and top business magnates. After the Count’s death, American writer Paul Bowles lived at Taprobane for four years, even writing a novel during his stay.

Geoffrey was similarly drawn to the island, and patiently negotiated until he was able to rent and finally buy Taprobane, which is located just off the coast of Weligama – it was arguably the first privately owned island in the country. It is now an exclusive tropical hideaway for those who want to escape from city life.

It was Taprobane which brought Geoffrey Dobbs into the vicinity of Galle, and he went on to develop and add to the culture of the Southern town. Geoffrey eventually started up two other boutique hotels in Galle: the Sun House and Dutch House. In fact it has been said that these two hotels were pioneers in the boutique hotel industry.

Yet the main challenge Geoffrey says that he faced was simply negativity from other people – opposition he experienced when he set up his two boutique hotels on Upper Dickson Road. This negativity continued when he began the Galle Literary Festival – an event which gives Sri Lankans a rare opportunity to meet and interact with international authors.

This year, the Galle Literary Festival was cancelled due to ‘unforeseeable cancellations and rigid time constraints’ but Geoffrey is already busy with preparations for the next festival, hopefully to be held early next year – he says that it will be the ‘best ever’ although he prefers to keep mum on the details.

Despite all the negativity Geoffrey has had to face – there was even an organised boycott of the Galle Literary Festival in 2011 – he still considers Galle his first home. His love for the town led him to set up Adopt Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami in 2004. In the two weeks following the tsunami, Adopt Sri Lanka provided much-needed humanitarian aid to over 8,500 people in camps. This included building and renovating houses, building over 200 new toilets, laying one and a half kilometres of road, and providing water and electricity to over 100 houses. Adopt Sri Lanka also provided medical equipment, rebuilt and constructed schools and classrooms and even assisted 125 guesthouses to rebuild and re-open; all thanks to Geoffrey’s tireless efforts.

When asked which of his ventures he is most passionate about; the Festival, his hotels or Adopt Sri Lanka, Geoffrey instantly answers, “All three!” He says that it’s his own drive and motivation which pushes him to balance all his varied interests, even in the face of opposition.

What with all these business ventures, it is not surprising when Geoffrey says that he does not have much spare time.  However when he does have leisure time, he enjoys playing elephant polo. In fact, Geoffrey is the President of the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association. What’s elephant polo? Well, exactly what it sounds like – polo played from the back of an elephant, with three elephants (and three riders) a side, switching sides at half-time. This venture too was received with some scepticism, but that hasn’t stopped teams from several countries participating each year – with teams from Nepal, Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand, to name a few.

If that isn’t wacky enough, Geoffrey also recommends tuk-tuk polo – the inaugural match was held on March 1 and 2 this year, and was organised by the Ceylon Polo Club. The rules are very similar to elephant polo, except of course, instead of elephants, the players use trishaws. According to Geoffrey, the Nepalese team won the day, with the local Taprobane team coming in third, causing much entertainment when their trishaw overturned in the heat of the match.

Apart from polo – elephantine or otherwise – Geoffrey also enjoys sailing; from traditional boats to his own personal junk.

Geoffrey is fiercely protective of his favourite hideaway spot in Galle- ‘not telling!” he says when asked. He is also publicity-shy, preferring by far to provide details on Adopt Sri Lanka than go into details about himself. But there’s no doubt that Geoffrey Dobbs has made an impact on Galle, and added a little more character to the town. Hundreds of people flock to Galle during the Literary Festival alone; filling hotels and boosting tourism in the area. While Geoffrey may be a man of few words, he certainly is a man of action.

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