Just Back From
Throughout its 3,000-plus-year recorded history, the island of Sri Lanka, located off the southeastern tip of India, has been given many names. The first Indian prince to drift ashore called it “the land of copper-red earth” (Tambapanni); ancient Greeks referred to it as Taprobane; the 14th-century Arabs who chanced upon it named it Serendip (the origin of the word serendipity); while in the colonialists’ mouths it morphed from Ceilão (the Portuguese) to Zeilan (the Dutch) to Ceylon (the British).
In some ways, even today’s visitors may feel this tug to find a new way of capturing Sri Lanka. Because this small island, which hangs like a teardrop-shaped, slightly ajar jewel off the slender neck of India, is one that gets under your skin in such a visceral way that you can’t help but feel a bit like an explorer of the olden days.
All senses are on high alert here—it’s obvious why the island has most poignantly been captured by sensual writers: Michael Ondaatje, Paul Theroux, Pablo Neruda, Ibn Battutah, Asian poets. Especially during the first few days of a journey, when the tropical heat still makes your head swim, you find yourself continuously bowled over by the sum of it all: the air spiced with cardamom and cloves; the bursts of color (flowers, saris, the sea); the shattering chorus of birds in the early morning, the sweat pouring down your back by midday; the fragrant curries in the evening.
The variety and splendor of the landscapes is overwhelming, especially as you travel from the southern coast’s palm-fringed white beaches, past lotus ponds and rice paddies into the Kermit-green tea plantations of the Hill Country. Books could be written about the different shapes of leaves here alone: the lattice fingers of bamboo stalks; the mango tree’s lance-shape whirl studded with emerald-colored fruit; the jagged lobes of the bread fruit; the tangled khaki canopy of the Banyan.
The fact that most everything thrives in Sri Lanka made the island “a paradise to be sacked,” writes Ondaatje in Running in the Family: “Every conceivable thing was collected and shipped back to Europe: cardamoms, pepper, silk, ginger, sandalwood, mustard oil, Palmyra root, tamarind, wild indigo, deer's horns, elephant tusks, hog lard, calamander, coral, seven kinds of cinnamon, pearl and cochineal. A perfumed sea.”
However, in the country's devastating recent history, no greedy conquerors or opportunistic colonialists were necessary to bring about the great tragedy of a three-decades-long civil war (Asia’s longest), briefly interrupted by the massive 2004 tsunami, which swept away nearly 35,000 lives from Sri Lanka. But the island is home to a hopeful, resilient and forward-looking people, who, since the end of the war in 2009, have been rebuilding with dedication, one of the reasons this destination has been topping so many travel lists lately. Which is not to say that it’s an easy place to visit, logistically and, often, emotionally. For such a small geography—it’s just 270 miles long and 139 miles wide—the island packs a punch. Itineraries need to be crafted keeping in mind two monsoon seasons, lengthy driving times, extreme temperatures and the intimate sizes of the best hotels that book up during high season.
A trip to Sri Lanka isn't a sterile package with a bow on top. Getting to the top of Sigiriya Rock Fortress demands work, as does exploring the ancient city of Anuradhapura by bike. Many activities are still slightly rough around the edges (but also very authentic); towns like Kandy and Trincomalee are crowded; and heaps of trash are found throughout the country, even at some of the best-known tourist attractions. There’s incredible wildlife: myriad bird varieties, elephants and monkeys, but also snakes, wasps and other critters. If you cannot deal with the unpredictable and the slightly wild, Sri Lanka is not for you. But if you’re someone who travels with a mind switched on and a heart wide open, then Sri Lanka will wrap itself around your conscience.
This is in large part thanks to its people. As a travel writer, I loathe the hackneyed (and slightly racist) take on the “warm locals,” especially when covering Asia. But in the case of Sri Lanka, there’s no way to get to the bottom of what makes a trip there transformative without describing the encounters along the way.
On my trip, there was the barefoot fruit vendor who rushed to machete open some refreshing King coconuts but took his time to carefully select the best from a huge pile in front of his simple hut. There was Dilan, our good-natured tour guide, who, once he’d discovered our culinary preference, made extra stops for sampling Sri Lankan street food (safe to eat and delicious). And there was the kind hotel manager who treated all his guests, even a particularly picky Londoner complaining with gusto about the hot weather, with the gentle care of a patient parent, which was particularly moving when we later learned that he had lost his mother, his wife and his son in the tsunami; that only he and his daughter had survived.
This, too, is Sri Lanka. The unspeakable tragedies of the not-too-distant past are carved into people and landscapes (parts of the ravaged east coast look like the war and tsunami happened last year). But large servings of beauty, optimism and laughter are also hard at work on healing and moving into a brighter future.
The experience that stays with me most vividly happened at Ritigala, an ancient Buddhist monastery hidden in a forest. While hiking with our guide, we came upon a group of pre-schoolers, their energetic teacher and some local women enjoying lunch. We smiled and were about to pass when one of the women mimed if we wanted to eat something. We declined at first, but then the teacher asked in broken English if we could stay, as it would be "a good experience for the children." And so we folded our sweat-drenched, pale bodies into their midst and polished off a banana leaf topped with a delicious, homemade rice, curries and coconut sambol, eating with our fingers like everyone, giggling and pantomiming with the kids. At the end of the meal, we took a group photo (which we will send to the school) and left in a flurry of high-fives and yells of bye and Singhalese ayubowan. On the photo, my goofy smile perfectly captures how grateful, humbled and completely happy I was in this moment.
Ritigala was one of many experiences during my Sri Lanka journey when the Sanskrit meaning of the country’s present-day name surfaced loudly, powerfully and utterly true. Sri Lanka…the resplendent land.
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