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Published: March 28th 2018
Sri Lanka had been on my travel horizon since 2007 – the year Ren and I started travelling together. Ren spent her first seven years on this small island off the south eastern tip of India, so the place had a strong allure for me. I wanted to visit the buildings and streets where she played out her childhood years – the places that contributed to shaping the person she is today. This was a journey I was really looking forward to.
Ren, on the other hand, was a slightly reluctant traveller on this trip. If it wasn’t for my keen interest in visiting her birthplace, we may have travelled to another distant land elsewhere in the world. And maybe, just maybe, that would have been for the best. In the words of William Blake: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing but foresight is better...” If only I’d had a little more foresight before this trip. Or maybe I should have just listened to Ren.
Travel epilogues can be problematic when you look back with a critical eye. Travel is such a privilege, so it can be appear (possibly even be) sanctimonious to be critical of something that
should never be taken for granted. Yet when I came to recap our Sri Lankan experience, an ambivalent haze weighed upon my thoughts. I love reflecting on a travel journey and capturing the experience in words – it’s a way of celebrating and seizing moments and etching them forever into the future. What stood in the way this time? Of all our trips, this should have been the easiest and most enjoyable to chronicle. Yet when I started this epilogue on the flight home, I struggled to summarise our four weeks in Sri Lanka. While frustrating on a superficial level (my first real case of writer’s block), it was disconcerting from an existential standpoint. Why Sri Lanka? And why now?
All I could manage was two headings and a dot-point list of arbitrary thoughts beneath each. Rather than restructure my notes into a coherent travel script, I decided to leave the epilogue in its original format. Heading 1: What I loved about Sri Lanka The curries
Oh my god the curries, and in particular the Tamil curries. I’ll never forget the thick prawn curry we shared at Green Grass Hotel and Restaurant, or the fish curry and fiery dahl
(lentil curry) we shared at a local Tamil family’s home, both in Jaffna. I also became a big fan of Sri Lanka’s short eats
(an umbrella term for Sri Lankan fried or baked snacks) – especially the egg rolls. We shared many, as they were the perfect snack for train travel, or for long road trips. The wildlife
This was something I hadn’t expected. My main Sri Lankan travel focus had been on places and food, with little attention to fauna. However, early in the trip on the outskirts of Dambulla, we decided to go on an elephant safari in Kaudulla National Park. Being surrounded by a herd of 70 female elephants grazing on a lake’s edge was as mesmerising as it was unforgettable. We just didn’t want to leave the lakeside, and if I was to return to Sri Lanka, I would make a beeline for this place. What made the experience particularly memorable was the friendliness and environmental sensitivity of our Chena hosts, which cannot be downplayed. Good hosts can bring experiences to life, whereas poor hosts can bury experiences for life.
Our whale watching adventure off Sri Lanka’s southern coast was another amazing experience.
We will forever remember the excitement of seeing a blue whale gently break the ocean surface with its back, then raise its tail out of the water as it gracefully slipped back into the ocean depths below our boat. We spent three hours on the ocean off Mirissa, and during that time we saw four blue whales. It was an absolute highlight of our Sri Lankan travels. The people
We met some amazing people in Sri Lanka. Their friendliness was infectious, and their capacity to forgive is as extraordinary as it was perplexing. Sri Lanka’s 25 year civil war (spanning 1983 to 2009) polarised families and friends as racial prejudice tore the country apart. The prejudice remains and racial tensions simmer, but some have moved on, despite living through hateful and abhorrent war-driven atrocities. By forgiving the unforgivable (something I cannot comprehend), they have risen above the vulgarity of man. We met vulgarity in Sri Lanka, but we also met some incredibly loving and generous people. Saman was one of these. On a three-wheeler tour of Colombo, he made an unexpected detour to Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam kovil, the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo. Hidden behind the chaotic Colombo
Fort Railway Station, this colourful temple had a calm ambiance, and it was more than apparent that Saman (a Sinhalese Buddhist) genuinely loved the place. He had learned to speak Tamil (which we later realised was a rarity), and mingled with the Hindu priests with ease. He told us he didn’t discriminate between religions, and that he prayed at all places of worship. Saman was such a friendly, tolerant and respectful guy. I really liked him. Heading 2: What I didn’t love about Sri Lanka The racism
This was difficult to stomach. Despite the violent end of the civil war in 2009 (which the previous Government celebrated in the most obscene manner), simmering racial tensions remain, and they are very apparent. Regardless of where we were in Sri Lanka, men in the street would invariably ask the same question of Ren as she walked past: “Sinhalese or Tamil?” This was never asked in English – only ever muttered under the breath of an old man in Sinhala or Tamil. It was infuriating. We have travelled extensively over the past 10 years, across different continents and cultures, and never have I felt the bile of racial prejudice. Yet here it
was for all to see in Sri Lanka. Why does a complete stranger need to know a person’s race or religion? What possible difference could it make to the rest of their day? But these old men needed to know. They needed to know because they’ve wasted a lifetime fearing and loathing people that are not ‘like them’. I hate racism, and I hated the inherent racism in Sri Lanka. The previous government
I wasn’t a big fan of the previous Sri Lankan government. I didn’t like the conceited and obscene monuments celebrating victory in war, which serve as a constant (and deliberate) reminder to innocent survivors who lost loved ones during the 25 years of fighting. I didn’t like the gargantuan Chinese construction site on Colombo’s foreshore which is breaching the ocean itself – evidence of a lucrative government contract which may not end well for the people of Sri Lanka in years to come. And from a very selfish viewpoint, the government’s lack (or loss) of control of Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was infuriating.
Tourism bodies are beginning to voice their support for the regulation of the sharing economy, and I can understand why – especially
when it comes to accreditation. Individuals participate in training to get the skills they need to offer a tourism-related service (at considerable expense to themselves or their employers), only to find untrained and inexperienced operators undercutting them by offering an inferior service. This is not a new problem – it’s an ongoing issue that many countries and regions are grappling with. And I have to admit guilt here – I’ve had some amazing experiences at the hands of untrained tour guides over the years. However, we had a few too many sub-par experiences in Sri Lanka, and they marred our enjoyment of the country. I’m not suggesting the tourism industry needs to be regulated by the Sri Lankan government, but a set of minimum standards wouldn’t go astray. In Memory of Melanie
Only a few months after returning from Sri Lanka, one of Ren’s cousins succumbed to a long battle with cancer. In defiance of her reduced mobility, Melanie arrived at our hotel on our first morning in Colombo, and we visited her later that day at her house just outside Colombo. It was the first time I’d met Melanie, even though we’d been Facebook friends for years. I
was amazed by her energy and vitality – despite being chair-bound, she shared hilarious stories and made the room sparkle to life. Ever the organiser, she gave me a sarong, two packets of toilet seat covers and a USB stick to ensure my Sri Lankan travels were comfortable – and they all came in handy. 😊
I’ve met perfectly healthy (cancer-free) people with barely a fraction of Melanie’s vigour and energy. She was full of life but short of time. And she was only a few years older than me.
Farewell Melanie – a life cut way too short. SHE SAID...
I can now finally say that my thoughts and feelings on Sri Lanka are based in actuality! And not just on my sepia toned childhood memories… which were probably based more on family stories and photos than reality anyway. 😊
Before I start writing about our travels and impressions about Sri Lanka, I want to write about my cousin Melanie
who sadly passed away not long after we saw her in Colombo. She was the oldest child of my Mum’s older sister, and the oldest of our many cousins. My siblings and I
had a somewhat closer relationship with her than our other cousins as she was Mum’s Goddaughter, and she also lived with us for a few years during her high schooling when I was just a toddler. Some of my earliest memories involve my immediate family and Melanie.
Melanie had that stereotypical ‘oldest’ personality and was by far the most vocal, most directive, most nurturing and enfolding of all of us. Although her ferocious and tenacious spirit was tested when she was diagnosed with cancer at a brutally young age, she defiantly fought it for many years.
Our family, like many Sri Lankan families, dispersed throughout the world over time, but Melanie was one of the few cousins who made a decision to continue living in Colombo. We spent some time with Melanie when we arrived in Colombo, and while it was sad to see her pretty much immobile by then, she was still as bright and animated as I remembered her from my childhood. Melanie was one of those rare people who despite all the cruel cards life dealt her, lived her life passionately and ardently! Our trip
• We started with a fleeting two day stop
in Colombo and a three day visit to Kandy where I was born – both those visits were focussed on seeing my extended family and visiting childhood memories.
• Then we travelled back to the west coast and started our Intrepid Travel trip – a geographical loop starting on the beach in Negombo and travelling roughly clockwise with a focus on the central and southern parts of the island. We headed north-east for two stops in the cultural triangle – Sigiriya and Dambulla – then south to Kandy in the central highlands, and further south into the tea estates in Bandarawela, then down along the south-east coast to Yala National Park, continuing on to Mirissa and Galle on the south-western coast before making our way back up to Colombo.
• We regrouped in Negombo and started our second Intrepid Travel trip – another clockwise loop taking in a northern and eastern aspect. We headed north to Anuradhapura (the third point of the cultural triangle we’d visited on our first trip) and Wilpattu National Park on the west coast, then proceeded further north to Jaffna on the northernmost tip of the island, moved south along the east coast with stops in
Trincomalee and Batticaloa, before travelling inland to Mahiyangana and Kandy, and finishing our travels in Colombo.
• Our travels over four weeks essentially covered most of the small island and gave us a broad impression and sense of the country (well beyond just the beaches and tea plantations). My childhood
• I have very little prior memory of Sri Lanka except for images from my child’s mind of our home, its immediate surrounds and our extended family. There has been much talk about the new Sri Lanka after the civil war, but I have no comparisons to make. However, this allowed me to approach the country with a fresh outlook, and not fall into the trap of expecting things to be the way they used to be.
• Not surprisingly, I recognised nothing of Colombo; but on walking into the houses of family members, glimpses of childhood memories trickled through.
• On our first day in Kandy, I was both surprised and disappointed at my memory. As we stepped out of the train from Colombo I recognised the station immediately, but had zero recollection of the roads around it or which direction we should head in. Then we rounded
a corner to the Kandy Lake, and I had vivid recollections of being there as a child – of walking along the white cloud walls and my Dad lifting me up to look at the fish in the battery-acid green lake water. However, nothing of the surrounding roads near the lake seemed familiar, not even the main road of the city that I’m sure I would have travelled along numerous times.
• I find it fascinating that my child's mind had absorbed and stored some information that I could recall instantly, but had discarded others.
• It was fabulous to see my childhood home again, and the parts of the Trinity College campus that comprised my entire world when we lived in Sri Lanka. But as is usually the case with childhood memories, everything was a bit smaller in real life than I remembered them being! 😊
• I had quietly hoped that being surrounded by Sinhala and Tamil conversations would bring back my language skills, and to my immense joy by week two I realised that I could understand a few conversations around me (compared to next to nothing when I first arrived)… but only when it was spoken
at reasonable speed and about topics that were familiar to me – which wasn’t very often. My travel observations
• Sri Lanka has two official languages, Sinhala and Tamil. English is also quite widely spoken and usually found anywhere tourists are expected to be. Train and bus destination boards, road signs, many shops and even advertising billboards often included an English translation. This was one of the few non-English speaking countries I’ve visited where I was able to have more than just cursory conversations with the locals.
• Even though Sri Lanka is touted as a year-round destination, with the opposing monsoon seasons on the West and East Coasts, we had to be very canny about trying to get the best of the weather all around the little island. We visited in March/April which was the tail end of good weather in the west, centre and south; and the beginning of good weather in the north and east… so we still hit quite hot weather in some places, but happily missed the sometimes destructive torrential rainstorms.
• Sri Lanka was mostly ignored by investors and tourists during the two decades of civil conflict, but both these groups are now
aggressively making their mark on the country – with both good and bad consequences. Chinese and Indian investments in roads, ports and tourist developments are pouring in thick and fast – make of this what you will.
• As a holiday destination Sri Lanka seems to fall under the same umbrella as Myanmar – a newly opened-up destination that has been out of bounds for a while. It also has echoes of the recent sudden rush to Cuba…‘go before it changes too much’. And changing quickly it is, but the changes are predominantly economic and not cultural (at this point anyway).
• For tourists visiting countries like Cambodia and Sri Lanka that are still going through post-traumatic issues and figuring out their place in the tourist world, it means balancing a lack of tourist awareness with getting a more local experience. Outside the capital and the main highways, the roads are still local and pot-holey; and outside the high-end boutique hotels and restaurants, the service models can be lacklustre and chronically laidback. On many occasions I thought we were going to grow old and die while waiting for something as inconsequential as a spoon. 😊
• Tourism in the
1980s was apparently mainly backpackers, and while there’s still a large element of that in the southern beaches, a lot of post-war tourism seems geared towards high-end boutique accommodation and yoga retreats.
• Like most tourists, I was mesmerised by the terraces of manicured tea bushes on steep hills and the age old processes that keep the tea industry ticking along. The most iconic image of the tea industry is the all-female tea picking teams dressed in bright clothing and moving among the tea bushes with ease. These women pick 16kg – two leaves and a bud at a time – six days a week. They work swiftly and mostly silently, but were also quick to smile at us when we engaged with them. It was a glimpse into a way of things that has hardly changed since colonial times. And this made me very much question why the lucrative tea industry hadn’t modernised its labour, mechanical or operational practices in so many decades.
• In the 1970s, my Dad was a contributing author to a book focused on the poor working conditions of the tea plantation labour force (predominantly imported from India). While I know there have been many
changes for the better in their housing, health and education conditions, I couldn’t get a proper grip on how the working conditions of the tea workers compared to other local labour conditions (or to global standards).
• Sri Lanka has been permanently marked and shaped by the streaks of cultural and colonial influences that run through its history. However, I was uncomfortable with aspects of the tourist fascination with the colonial period. Many colonial bungalows along the tea trail in the valleys of the highlands have been converted into small, high-end tourist accommodation with world-class chef-designed menus and personal butlers – so tourists can experience the lifestyles of the colonial masters of old Ceylon. While I was happy to see those buildings preserved and repurposed, to be honest, I was slightly creeped out by how a classist master/servant system could be dressed up as tourism and revived so quickly. High end tourism in so many old colonies seems to fall back into a subservience model that frustrates me beyond belief! And even more aggravating are the tourists who feel they can treat service staff in these countries in a way that they would never dare to in their own
• The influx of tourists into Sri Lanka is seen as a positive venture. However, I fear that without proper planning and regulation, the tourist destinations could end up a mess. We particularly felt this in the southern beach towns, where they seem to be hurtling towards becoming generic coastal tourist towns like elsewhere in the world – with unsightly beach shacks, ubiquitous Bob Marley soundtracks and pizza ovens. It would be a shame if Sri Lanka misses the opportunity to maintain a uniquely Sri Lankan character, and more importantly, keep the beaches unspoilt and pristine.
• It certainly was a sign of the tourism times when we came upon signage for ‘no drones’ at some of the tourist sights (and it wasn’t even that long ago that ‘no selfie sticks’ signs had to be erected). On the other hand, in certain inland areas the culture seems indifferent to tourism. I particularly felt this while walking through local markets where commerce is still conduced in the old traditional way, or when visiting temples and ancient stupas where religion is practiced by monks in exactly the way it was hundreds of years ago. The tourists and the technology we carried
in our hands were the only signs that it was 2017. It was very heartening, and I hope that those types of genuine cultural encounters remain unsullied by the tourist influx. My cultural observations and sense of the country
• While I knew that Sri Lanka was a decidedly conservative country with inherent cultural and religious values, I hadn’t quite grasped how intermingled the two were, or how deep those values ran. A country with multiple religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Animism – we were fortunate enough to experience all five religions and associated ethnic cultures (even though our porthole into the Veddah’s lifestyle was superficial at best).
• There’s an innate friendliness in Sri Lankans that’s immediately apparent. Most people are naturally curious and ready to strike up a conversation at the merest suggestion of a smile. Even though the large population size can make the place seem chaotic and unruly at times, within that chaos there’s a calmness and cordiality that made us feel welcome. Even the three-wheeler drivers who have reputations for being dodgy and aggressive in other countries, were polite and affable when we said ‘no thanks’ with a smile.
• We have
a running joke in our family that if you were given a timeframe by a family member you’d ask ‘real two minutes? or Sri Lankan two minutes?’ (which could be anything from a few minutes to an hour). I now realise that the relaxed attitude to time keeping is a cultural foible that runs through the whole country… not just certain members of my family. 😄
• As with many male dominated societies, quite a few men I encountered were masters of condescending mansplaining. I know it happens everywhere, but I think I was more aware of it on this trip, as I could communicate in English with many of the people we met, and on topics that were more than just simple questions about how we were enjoying the country. It took a bit of Zen deep breathing not to react negatively to it. However, an unintended but fabulous consequence of male dominated societies is that the women tend to develop resilient and spirited personalities – a fact I’m personally proud of given I have so many amazingly strong female role models in my family.
• Before I travelled to Sri Lanka, I was curious about how I would
be perceived by the locals (given I look like one). While it’s understandable that people were curious about me, I hadn’t counted on how curious they’d be – and my feelings are mixed on the reception I received. For the most part I was happy to engage in conversations about my background, but it was very off-putting that race is so very much at the forefront of people’s judgement. Random people in markets, bus stops or passing by on the street would stop and want to know if I was Sri Lankan or a foreigner (which I wasn’t that bothered by), but if I engaged them, the inevitable next question was ‘Tamil or Sinhalese?’ – for no other reason than they like to pigeonhole people by race. This was as infuriating as it was irritating. However, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a country that had been at war, a war which was drawn up along racial lines. And pre-dating that war, had for centuries been separate kingdoms drawn up by ethnicity. I sincerely hope that future generations of Sri Lankans will be able to let go of this draconian racial fixation. The war
racial issues in Sri Lanka are hard to talk about. While people are understandably keen to move away from the stigma of the war and look forward to a brighter future… it felt more like the past was being swept under the carpet rather than there being a genuine acknowledgement of the atrocities on both sides of the conflict.
• In Sri Lanka’s hurry to put the war behind them and make economic progress, I think they’ve taken the dangerous path of putting band-aids on deep-seated wounds. This doesn’t build trust no matter how much PR you throw at it. We had a similar sense of this in Cambodia, where the fallout from the Khmer Rouge era was sidestepped rather than faced head-on.
• The root cause of the inter-racial tensions and the civil war hasn’t been addressed. If the injustices and prejudices that caused the conflict in the first place continue to rankle, how long before frustrations and hatred spill over again? My gut feeling is that until they get fair but strong leaders who can encourage healing and truly unify the country, animosity will continue to chafe true progress.
• ‘Having peace’ has been used as an appeasement
when calls have been made for war injustices to be investigated. This exasperates me, because the binary choice presented to the people is itself riddled with injustice – having peace and getting justice are not mutually exclusive concepts. History has taught us that unresolved conflicts very rarely just disappear – they are more likely to sit under the surface and fester. But history has also taught us that we never learn from history. 😞
• Nonetheless, I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t live in Sri Lanka. As a result of a choice my parents made in the late 1970s, I’ve had the luxury of watching the atrocities of war from afar. The direction the country takes should rest with the people who live there, and however partisan that decision is, it’s their decision.
• The majority of Sinhala and Tamil people seem to see themselves as vastly different to each other. And even though there are undeniable differences in the ethnicities, from an outsider’s perspective, I saw more similarities than differences in the people. I can only hope that in time, their similarities transcend their differences. To paraphrase a silly description of a comparison I heard a
while ago… the two races are like ‘Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez... they don’t look like each other, but they both look like their father Martin Sheen’.
• On a slightly irreverent sidenote, whenever we stumbled upon conversations on race or ethnicity, I had the urge to stage whisper ‘don’t mention the war’ to Andrew. But I didn’t. And I didn’t break out in a John Cleese goose-step either. 😊
*Editing Note: I wrote the above reflections in the months after we came home from Sri Lanka – in late 2017. However, by the time we posted this in March 2018, there had been some disturbing occurrences in Sri Lanka. Long standing tensions between majority Sinhala Buddhists and minority Muslims erupted in tit-for-tat killings, and rampant burning of Muslim houses, shops and mosques. This resulted in a 10 day State of Emergency being imposed. It seems that the 25 year civil war hasn’t cured the blood lust of the religious fanatics. I’m very disheartened that such a small country can carry so much hate and prejudice in its heart. These events have made me feel very weird about my above musings. The food and drink
• This trip
greatly resurrected my love of ginger beer. I favoured the homemade versions, but even the commercially made stuff was a great thirst quencher on hot and humid days… and a great mixer for the local rum!
• I grew to love the mellow coconut flavoured local tipple of arrack mixed with soda or in a cocktail with tropical flavours. It was fabulous at the end of a long hot travel day.
• Despite multiple tastings, I just couldn’t get my palate to appreciate the freshly tapped toddy from coconut flower sap. The slightly fizzy and yeasty flavour just wasn’t pleasant.
• It’s no secret that a major drawcard to visit Sri Lanka was for us to get to know its food better. The most ubiquitous of Sri Lankan meals is the rice and curry combination, which involves an almost infinite range of curries packed with spices and textures. I loved the creamy coconut sauced curries in the southern provinces, the freshest of vegetable curries in the central food bowl, and the fiery intense flavoured curries in the north.
• My deep love of egg hoppers
(thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepes cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in
the centre) was well and truly confirmed after visiting Sri Lanka.
• Other foods that I now have an increased love for are pol sambol
(shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime), seeni sambol
(caramelised onion relish), brinjal moju
(fried eggplant pickle), green chilli laden Sri Lankan omelettes, pan rolls (filled and rolled up crepes, that are crumbed and fried), watalappan
(spiced coconut egg custard of Malay origin), and falooda
(cold milk with rose syrup, ice cream, basil seeds and jelly).
• In the slightly different category of ‘didn't like it before but love it now’ are string hoppers
(steamed vermicelli-like rice noodles) and masala vadais
(lentil fritters), but with the stipulation that they have to be super freshly made.
• In the category of ‘still don't like it and so probably never will’ are polos curry
(young jackfruit curry), biryani
(rice dish steamed with a meat curry), pittu
(coarse rice flour and coconut rubbed with water, like couscous, and steamed in a cylinder), idlis
(steamed cakes made from fermented black lentils and rice), and kavums
(doughy deep-fried rice flour oil cakes)… very much to my Mum’s disappointment as she loves all these dishes.
• New food sensations that
rocked my world were egg roti
(a thin roti cooked on a smoking hot griddle with a filling of eggs, vegetables and chilli), egg curry, and egg rolls… and until just this minute, I hadn’t seen the common feature in that list! 😊 The summary
• If I were to use ‘unexpected awe’ as a gauge of the place in Sri Lanka that tugged at my heartstrings the most, I’d say it was Jaffna. There were signs of war all over the country, but the wounds are deepest and the scars most brutal in Jaffna. Despite this, or maybe because of this, I felt the people had a dignity and resilience about them that I really admired.
• Using ‘desire for return travel’ as a gauge of my favourite place on the trip, I’d have to say it was Galle. It’s a fascinating small city with really interesting architecture and a 16th-century Galle Fort in the old town. If we had our time over we would have definitely scheduled some down-time in Galle at the end of the trip.
• And if ‘unbridled happiness’ was a gauge of my favourite experience, it would without a doubt be my first
sighting of truly wild elephants in the Kaudalla National Park. The big herds of those gentle giants were so amazingly peaceful and composed – with large flappy ears and waving trunks, and huge feet moving quietly on the slightly muddy grass.
• The ‘best day of the trip’ was tricky to judge as we had a few dates vying for that position… but I think I’d have to go with the day in Dambulla which started with climbing the 5th century rock fortress of Sigiriya, followed by lunch at a Chena cultivation cooked for us in an open cooking hut by the farmers, and ended with the safari in Kaudalla National Park mentioned above. I think my memory of that experience is even more incredible than the actual day, which if I’m honest went by in a bit of an excited blur. Great travel experiences are gifts that keep giving, and giving, and giving. 😊
Gihilla ennam and Poitu varein people, and may you travel lightly and live happily! 😊 Flying ships on this trip... Virgin Airlines code sharing with Singapore Airlines (Hobart – Melbourne – Singapore – Colombo)
; Virgin Airlines code sharing with Singapore Airlines
(Colombo – Singapore – Melbourne – Hobart).
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