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Published: April 13th 2017
Sri Lanka has been on my travel horizon for the last ten years, but it has rarely been on Ren’s. We made a mutual decision to always travel to new and different places, and while Sri Lanka is new to me, it isn’t entirely new to Ren. She was born in Kandy and spent the first seven years of her life in the country (before moving to Nigeria and eventually to Australia). So while Sri Lanka holds exciting new experiences for me, it holds slightly familiar and recognisable experiences for Ren.
However, Ren has seen the hospital where I was born, the house where I spent the first five years of my life, the school I attended as a child and the town where I developed my sense of self belief. Yet I haven’t seen the places where Ren played out her childhood years – the places that have shaped the person she is today. It was therefore time to travel to Sri Lanka, a country and travel destination that I knew very little about before meeting Ren in 2006.
I was six years old when the country known as Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka
in 1972. I was living in a small mining town on Tasmania’s west coast, where the outside world rarely impinged on the daily life of a six year old. At the time I wouldn’t have been able to locate Sri Lanka on a world map.
As I moved through my teenage years, this small island off the south eastern tip of India (flanked by the Indian Ocean to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east) still did not feature in my day-to-day life. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that my awareness of Sri Lanka was kindled, and for all the wrong reasons. Cricket was not a key interest of mine at the time, but I enjoyed limited over games and the occasional test match. Unfortunately, my memory of the Sri Lankan cricket team is overshadowed by Muttiah Muralitharan (the country’s premier spin bowler) being called for throwing. I’ve never been a fan of cricketing petulance, be it on the part of players or spectators, but I remember smiling when Australian crowds (possibly imitating the Balmy Army) would sing the following to the tune of ‘Row, row, row your boat’ when Muralitharan would bowl:
throw, throw the ball
Gently down the seam
Murily, Murily, Murily, Murily
Chucks it like a dream’
I always knew cricket wasn’t for me – my skin wasn’t thick enough.
On Boxing Day 2004 I woke to news that an earthquake in the Indian Ocean had triggered a tsunami that had impacted coastal communities in a number of adjoining countries. Initial reports suggested minimal causalities, but as the days and weeks unfolded, the grim reality of the destruction became devastatingly clear. Of the 230,000 people who lost their lives, 35,000 were in Sri Lanka, the second worst affected country after Indonesia. In the hours after the news broke, a cricket match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka (underway in New Zealand) was abandoned. I remember thinking how isolated the Sri Lankan players must have felt, being so far from home.
In the lead up to this trip I read a harrowing memoir of the tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lost her parents, husband and two sons to the heartless wave. She barely survived herself, being dragged kilometres inland and only just managing to clutch a branch before being dragged back out to sea (as the water receded).
Her family was holidaying in Yala National Park, a place we will be visiting on this trip. On finishing the memoir (titled Wave), I remember feeling grateful that it had been written, and glad that I had read it. It stridently puts into perspective the suffering that continues well beyond the tragic events we inadvertently forget when hard-hitting headlines turn our attention to new stories. I realised countless Sri Lankan families will still be experiencing the bitter aftermath of the tsunami. When we visit Yala National Park, the harrowing opening pages of Wave will play over in my mind.
So pre-2006, my knowledge of Sri Lanka was limited to Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling action and the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. However, things changed significantly when I met Ren. I discovered incredible Sri Lankan food through Ren’s mother, and I discovered the huge importance of cricket to Sri Lanka’s sense of identify through Ren’s father (which was slightly ironic, because he was an ardent supporter of the English cricket team). I would have loved to have discussed this trip with him – the food we should seek out, the books we should read, the politics we should discuss...
issues that I hope to have a better understanding of by the end of our travels are independence and the civil war. There are differing (and at times equally compelling) sides to most political issues, and British colonisation is a case in point. Some feel it was the best thing that happened to Sri Lanka, while others feel it dissolved the country’s cultural heritage. Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, and the decision to make national language the media of instruction was a significant change arising from the separation. This negatively impacted so many Sri Lankan students in the mid 1950’s, with Sinhala textbooks replacing English textbooks over a short transition period. I’m pretty sure I would have given up if the media of instruction suddenly changed half way through my education.
Sri Lanka’s 25 year civil war (spanning 1983 to 2009) polarised families and friends as racial prejudice tore the country apart. I can barely imagine living through a war, let alone understand the emotional impact of being surrounded by war-driven atrocities. I remember seeing a staged media event where the commanders of Sri Lanka’s armed forces were presented with a memento in honour of
their role during the war. I wondered what they’d achieved, or what incentives they’d been offered, to receive such public adulation. A 2015 United Nations report suggested that war crimes had most likely been committed on both sides during the civil war. I hope the crimes do not go unpunished, as thousands of innocent Sri Lankans suffered (and suffer still) from the folly of power.
I’m not sure how easy it will be to discuss independence and the civil war during our travels, so these issues may remain untouched (and justifiably so). I’m travelling to better understand Ren’s birthplace and to eat as much Sri Lankan food as possible, so this will be my focus 😊
The lead up to this holiday was relatively calm – so much so that I managed to complete a new song in the weeks before we left. We dropped Mia (the cat) at the cats’ home the day before we left, and I dropped Jasper and Oliver (the kelpies) at the kennels on the morning we left. Over the years we’ve found that Jasper (our older kelpie) gets particularly anxious when we are both in the car with her on the way
to the kennels, but she doesn’t get anywhere near as anxious when there is only one of us in the car. As a result, it is much easier for me to take her and Oliver to the kennels, although managing two excited kelpies on leads while signing paperwork in a small office is not an easy feat!
Our flight from Hobart to Melbourne was comfortable and uneventful, as was our transition through customs at Melbourne Airport. I’d purchased a new camera in the days leading up to this trip, and it was eligible for the Tourist Refund Scheme (TRS), where the taxable component of certain products can be reclaimed if you are travelling out of Australia. I’d been warned that the TRS counters at most international terminals are notoriously busy, and there was a chance I would run out of time making my claim. Undeterred, I downloaded the app onto my phone and completed the details. We noticed the TRS counter as we cleared customs at Melbourne Airport, and it was empty. I walked straight up to the counter, handed over my phone and within minutes my claim was approved. With a sense of relief, we browsed the duty
free stalls before making our way to the gate lounge.
The flight from Melbourne to Singapore was very comfortable. I had the braised beef with red wine sauce, which was fantastic, and Ren had the stir-fried sliced chicken, which was equally good. Even the snacks were OK (I had the tandoori chicken sandwich, while Ren had the braised egg noodles). After dinner I settled in with a cognac, opened my laptop and started writing. I love travelling, and I particularly enjoy air travel, as it affords a period of time where nothing can distract you (although I often become preoccupied by movies on other people’s screens).
The flight from Singapore to Colombo was also comfortable. We both had the chicken biryani, which was very hot (due to the abundance of green and red chillies) and surprisingly good. We were finally on our way to Sri Lanka, and an underlying sense of excitement and anticipation was growing by the minute…
However, despite our excitement, we’re travelling with heavy hearts knowing that a fellow blogger, and one of the most positive of souls, will not be following this journey. Earlier this year, Tara Cloud passed away in Arequipa (Peru).
A passionate advocate of slow travel, Tara was living the dream in South America, and when she wasn’t travelling herself, she was following the blogs of many others. Regardless of when, where or what we’ve posted over the past few years, Tara would always be the first to reply, and always with an upbeat comment. We didn’t meet Tara, but we knew her well from her personal observations and travel anecdotes. Each of our Sri Lankan posts will therefore be made with more than a touch of sadness, because somewhere in the world a computer will not be turned on, and a keyboard will remain silent.
Vale Tara Cloud. SHE SAID...
Well we are off to Sri Lanka – the place of my birth and a place of intense curiosity for Andrew.
We have an implied rule that if either of us has a 0 or 5 as the second digit of our birthday, that person gets travel destination picking or veto rights that year. Well it was my turn to pick, and quite ironically I picked a country that Andrew had been pushing for a few years, and one I had been vetoing! 😊
Unusually, we were on an afternoon flight out of Hobart, which should have meant a much calmer start to the trip. We had dropped Mia off at her cattery the evening before, so all we had to do that morning was drop Jasper and Oliver off at their kennels and then leisurely close the house down and pack the car. Well that was how I thought it would go… while it was nice not having a mad drive to the airport for an early morning flight to Melbourne, we relaxed a bit too much with an afternoon flight and left too many of our last minute tasks for that morning. Typically, while running late for a flight we got stuck behind two cars that insisted on sitting 20km under the speed limit for most of the drive into the airport. I never thought I’d say it, but I think we may have to revert back to that early morning flight!
The flight to Melbourne was quick and easy, apart from the very nervous flyer sitting next to me who started grunting so loudly on landing that I had to ask him if he was ok. I honestly thought
he was having a heart attack. I love transiting through Melbourne Airport – not only do we know it well, but security and immigration flows so much better than at Sydney Airport (even with renovations of the terminal in full swing). We were flying all the way with Virgin Airlines, so our luggage was tagged right through from Hobart to Colombo, which is a treat when flying out of what is essentially a domestic airport. So all we had to do at Melbourne Airport was claim our Tourist Refund Scheme return on a recently purchased camera for Andrew and make our way to our boarding gate.
Our flight to Singapore was a codeshare arrangement with Singapore Airlines, so we got the best of both worlds with Virgin Australia frequent flyer points benefits and the phenomenal hospitality of Singapore Airlines. No sooner had we taken off from Melbourne (which we both slept through) than we were served drinks. My ultra-strong Baileys White Russian perked me up no end, and I managed to stay up and do some writing while I waited to be fed. 😊
The meals were some of the best plane food we'd had in economy. My
stir-fried chicken dish, fish green curry and braised egg noodle dishes were delicious. The rest of the flight was one big snooze fest for me… only waking up to change the music or adjust my blanket.
Our transit in Singapore’s Changi Airport was again quick and effortless. Even a slightly delayed flight, which apart from meaning that we sat a bit longer in an arctic holding gate lounge, didn’t impact us in any way, as the pilot made up time and we landed on schedule. I’d meant to do a lot of writing on the Melbourne-Singapore leg of the flight, but true to form, fell asleep instead… so I was adamant that I would write for the duration of the four hour flight from Singapore to Colombo.
Before we travel to any country I enjoy immersing myself in information about the country, especially its history and culture. However, this time it was a slightly different experience – for the first time I was actually immersing myself in my family’s history and culture. It was exciting to gain an insight into things that had informed and impacted my life, but it was also quite telling that I had never
had the interest to find out more about Sri Lanka until now.
Sri Lanka has been known by many nicknames, which some think is a reflection of affection evoked by its richness and beauty. Personally I can’t help but make a connection between the names and the many colonial masters who have wielded power over the island for their various nefarious desires. The somewhat romantic monikers (that are still occasionally used) are Teardrop of India, Resplendent Isle, Island of Dharma, and Pearl of the Indian Ocean. The country’s official name is thought to have originated with the ancient Sanskrit name Sinhaladvipa and the Buddhist Pali name Sihalam. These were mangled into the Persian name Sarandip (which gave birth to the English word serendipity), the Portuguese name Ceilao, then into Dutch Zeylan and finally baptised Ceylon by the British.
Going back in time before any invaders had stumbled upon the island, the country was inhabited by the hunter gatherer Veddahs – the original people. Sadly there are very few Veddahs left, and their culture and way of life are very close to being decimated. I’m sorry to say I know nothing about them, and no Sri Lankans I’ve met
seem to know anything about them either. I think that says a lot!
It is generally thought that the ancestors of the Sinhalese people came from northern India during the 5th century BC, and that the ancestors of the Tamil people came from southern India at various times from the 3rd century BC onwards. I’ve gathered that the dates of ‘who arrived when and where’ have always been contentious for political and religious reasons, and will most probably continue to be so forever.
The first major literary reference to Sri Lanka is apparently in the Indian epic the Ramayana
, thought to have been written around the 4th century BC. It describes the activities of Lord Rama, including the kidnapping of his wife Sita by Ravana, demon-god and King of Lanka, and the subsequent attack on Lanka by Rama to free Sita. Even though much of the country’s very early history is entangled in legend and myth, most historians believe that Sri Lanka has had a continuous record of settlement and ‘civilized life’ for more than two millennia.
The next wave of invasion came with the Portuguese traders in pursuit of cinnamon and other spices, who in 1505
commandeered the coastal areas and brought Catholicism to the island. In 1658 the Dutch conquered the Portuguese and took control, but were evicted by the British in 1796.
In 1815 the British defeated the King of Kandy, last of the local rulers, and created the Crown Colony of Ceylon. The British established a plantation-economy based on tea, rubber and coconuts. In 1931, the British granted Ceylon limited self-rule, and in 1948 Ceylon became an independent country. Sri Lanka changed its name from Ceylon in 1972, reverting to the name Lanka/Ilankai that was used by the local Sinhalese/Tamil people.
Since independence, and in large part due to the imbalanced structure of power left in place in the new country, Sri Lanka has been plagued in various degrees by hostilities between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese (in the south) and the minority Hindu Tamils (in the north). In 1983 a fully-fledged civil war erupted when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) demanded a separate state of Eelam for the Tamils. While the war was largely confined to Sri Lanka’s north and north-eastern provinces, there were bombings in Colombo and elsewhere in the country. By the time the war came to
a brutal end in 2009, the casualties were countless. Thousands of people had been displaced, the economy was in a mess, and neighbours had been pitted against neighbours.
While the ‘civil war is over’ and people clearly want to get on with their lives, it’s very obvious that the repercussions on some people’s lives will continue for a very long time, especially in areas where whole towns and villages were decimated. My take on the situation from afar is that the many people who lost family and friends, who have all manner of post-traumatic stress issues to deal with and whose lives are in tatters (not to mention the many who have risked their lives to attempt to seek asylum around the world), is a persistent indicator of how ‘not over’ the fallout from the war is. However, I hope I’m wrong…
The country has also battled to recover from the devastating tsunami that hit on Boxing Day in 2004. The 30m high wave hit an estimated 1000km of coastline, killing over 30,000 people and shattering whole communities. And as with most natural disasters the world over, the poorest people of the country were hit the hardest.
Thankfully it would seem that Sri Lanka is finally starting to rebound from the long list of evils thrown at it from centuries of colonisation, conflict and natural disasters. The island is again being featured in travel magazines as an attractive tourist destination.
I was born in Kandy and have vague recollections of the town, but when recently looking at a map of the place, I was quite taken aback that apart from the central Kandy Lake, I recognised absolutely nothing (even despite occasional family holidays there until my teenage years). Understandably, my sharpest memories are of the house in Kandy where I was born and where we lived until we left the country. Dad was a teacher at a private boys school – Trinity College – and we lived on Trinity’s extensive campus. Teacher’s daughters were allowed admittance to the Trinity junior school, so I didn’t even have to leave the campus for my grade one and two classes. The Trinity campus was my entire world for the time I lived in Sri Lanka, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again… but this time through adult eyes.
On a sadder note, I would have loved
to share my memories and experiences on this trip with Dad. Dad was the keeper of dates and recaller of main events in our family, and I’m sure he would have loved to help me put my scant recollections into perspective. On the other hand, Dad being a Tamil had lost a lot of faith in a country which had let him down in many ways, and made no secret of the fact that he thought Sri Lanka was no place for me – with a Tamil surname, not speaking any local languages, and being a bit outspoken about my political and feminist views. 😊
Taking into account my confession that my memories of Kandy are meagre, it’s a given that I know absolutely nothing about the rest of the country. Names of certain places and a few restaurants ring bells (I was probably a piggy guts even as a child!), but I’m actually glad to be approaching all of it with a completely clean slate and fresh eyes.
If I’m being very honest, I would have to admit that getting to know the food of Sri Lanka a little better has been a very big enticement to
Road from Colombo to Kandy (1819)
Dubourg, M., Amanapoora, on the road from Columbo to Kandy, London : Edwd. Orme, 1819 (Set of views in the Island of Ceylon), reproduced with permission from ALMFA, TAHO
visit. I know nothing of Sri Lanka’s regional or seasonal cuisine, nor anything about the distinct differences between Burgher, Muslim, Sinhalese or Tamil foods – and I’m making it my mission to find out. What I know as Sri Lankan cuisine is totally defined by how my family has defined Sri Lankan food. Given my parents left Sri Lanka just over 35 years ago, I’m starting to realise that family recipes gathered over time may have been altered to suit personal tastes and Australian ingredients. I’m looking forward to having my few assumptions about the food challenged. My curiosity levels are very high!
I’m also looking forward to seeing members of my extended family – it’s been many years since I’ve seen a few family members on my Mum’s side, as well as my two aunties and uncles on my Dad’s side of the family. My Aunty Ruba (Dad’s sister) and Uncle Sara were the only family members who lived in Kandy with us, and I have happy childhood memories of spending school holidays with them, so I’m very much looking forward to travelling to Kandy to see them.
Our decision to visit Sri Lanka has made me
Three Miles from Kandy (1819)
Dubourg, M., Ferry at Wattepalogoa, three miles from Kandy, London : Edwd. Orme, 1819 (Set of views in the Island of Ceylon), reproduced with permission from ALMFA, TAHO
very curious about how the locals will perceive me. I may look like a local, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m also very different. I don’t speak either of the languages, and I’m a bit hazy on local customs. I remember sticking out like a sore thumb when I last visited as a young teenager (in hindsight it might have been my ‘80s mullet haircut or my MC Hammer pants!), and to be very frank I felt no affinity to the country. I’m not sure if surly young teenagers have an affinity to anything, but regardless, it will be interesting to see how things have changed in that regard.
I was an expat kid in Nigeria and then a migrant kid in Australia, so my self-identity has been shaped very differently to most people I know. All ‘third culture kids’ (a kid who grows up in a culture different to that of their parents’, and the ‘third culture’ is an amalgam of their parent’s culture and the culture they grow up in) have distinctive self-identities, but then there’s also the identity placed on them (usually without their permission) by how others perceive them. Regardless of how I feel, to
Tombs of Kandyan Kings (1819)
Dubourg, M., Tombs of Kandyan kings at the north end of the town of Kandy, London : Edwd. Orme, 1819 (Set of views in the Island of Ceylon), reproduced with permission from ALMFA, TAHO
the majority of observers I’m branded Sri Lankan, but would Sri Lankans see me as Sri Lankan? And then there’s the other distorting factor that my parents were of different races, and even when we lived in Sri Lanka, our family spoke English at home and we had a more western upbringing than a traditional Sri Lankan one. So even back then my siblings and I were in-between cultures. I’m curious to see how this unfolds over the next few weeks. 😊
We published our first (prologue) blog for the trip before we left home, but we probably won’t be publishing any more until we return home. We will still write as we travel, but editing, picking photos and publishing takes a lot of time, and we thought it would be easier (and more enjoyable) to do it from the comfort of home.
Speaking of our blogs, we’ve been sadly discussing that this will be the first of our blogged trips that won’t be read by or commented on by our travel blogger friend Tara Cloud. Tara passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly early this year while she was travelling in her beloved South America. We still can’t
Kings Palace at Kandy (1819)
Dubourg, M., The Kings palace at Kandy, London : Edwd. Orme, 1819 (Set of views in the Island of Ceylon), reproduced with permission from ALMFA, TAHO
believe the tragic way in which her life ended, and we miss her ever positive and encouraging comments and contributions to our blog and Facebook posts. Tara had mentioned many times that Asia was going to be her next continent of ‘slow travel’, and she had been particularly intrigued by India and Sri Lanka. So much sadness. 😞
Well, all that reflection has made the flight from Singapore to Colombo fly by (see what I did there?). It seems we are nearing our destination, and I’ve got those familiar butterflies of excitement in my tummy. I’m sooo looking forward to getting the land component of this adventure started.
I’m sure my expectations of this trip will be different to the reality we’ll face – especially as my expectations are quite high! I have been dreaming of empty beaches and beautiful oceans with frolicking whales; crowded cities with friendly people and incredible food; tranquil ancient city ruins full of history lessons; foggy terraced tea plantations with good quality tea for sale; noisy wild jungles full of elephants, monkeys – and very hopefully – a leopard or two! I’m yet to see an elephant in its natural habitat, and Sri
Town of Kandy (1819)
Dubourg, M., Town of Kandy from Castle Hill, London : Edwd. Orme, 1819 (Set of views in the Island of Ceylon), reproduced with permission from ALMFA, TAHO
Lanka is touted as the best place in Asia to see elephants in the wild… so I’m expecting to see many many many herds of wild elephants. 😊
I’m also very much looking forward to seeing the lovely face of our friend Damien who will be joining us in Colombo in a few days. We travelled with Damien in south India two years ago (when he was on his big birthday trip), and recognising that fabulous travel companions are worth their weight in gold – we cannot wait to have another travel adventure with him.
First up, we’ll be following some well-trodden tourist routes around the country – from Colombo to the central Cultural Triangle, to the Hill Country and then down south to the beaches. However, in addition to this, we will also be beating a less trodden path to the north and north-east – parts of the country that were essentially closed off to the rest of the world for the duration of the 25 year war.
The next time I write I’ll probably be sweltering in Colombo’s famous humidity, and possibly dealing with it the only way I know how – with an icy tropical fruit cocktail in my hand.
See you in Colombo!
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