Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Finding Serendipity in Sri Lanka

      Are you in need a new dishwashing machine or vacuum cleaner? As you exit passport control in the Colombo Airport in Sri Lanka, even at 2 a.m. as we did, you can buy these and more without leaving the airport. An appliance store in the departure lounge displays washers, dryers, and microwaves while eager salesmen stand by ready to arrange delivery. Weeks later in the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle Fort, we met a woman who actually bought a dishwasher at the airport. She said it is useless because she couldn’t find dishwashing soap anywhere.
    
     Sri Lanka is a place like no other. That’s what the marketing posters say, and why not state the obvious? But if I were in charge of marketing for Sri Lanka my slogan would be “Feel in the mood to drop down the rabbit hole? Come to Sri Lanka, a Wonderland where the unexpected happens and serendipity is the rule.
    
     In Colombo we stayed at an old colonial hotel, the Galle Face, which still feels veddy-veddy British and where ex-pats working or passing through Colombo gather nightly for drinks on the terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean.

     Despite the location and many amenities of the Galle Face, room rates were reasonable in 2008. The cease-fire that lasted from 2002-2008 during the decades long civil war did little to bring tourists to Sri Lanka. In January 2008, the cease fire officially ended causing tourism to fall even more. At the time of our visit in mid 2008, most of the hotels or guesthouses were empty. In the former ancient capital Polonnaruwa, for only $41, we stayed at the Polonnaruwa Rest House in the same room Queen Elizabeth the Second rested her crown in1954. Not as much of a bargain as it sounds. The room hasn’t changed much since then. The loo definitely dates from the 50’s. Still, we called each other Liz and Phillip for two nights. Me: “Oh Phillip, I do wonder how the Corgies are doing back at Windsor.” Scott: “Liz, are you done there on the throne yet? Consorts gotta go too you know!”

     Anyway, timing is everything and as guests of the Galle Face Hotel we were invited to watch an annual race called the Cannonball Run. In the 1840’s the area adjoining the hotel was used as a practicing ground for the British Royal Artillery Company. One day a young Ceylon Lascar got the yips and shanked a 30-pound cannonball; it went off course and ended up in the hotel dining room, unexploded. Each year the hotel commemorates this accident with a two-man race and a big party. In 2008, the British High Commissioner and the American Ambassador competed for the title. At 5pm the pomp commenced, as did the steady rounds of cocktails. British or American flags were offered to the crowd. Scott, I, and, inexplicably, a German family took the US flags, but not due to any nationalism on our part. In the same way you check out a horse before a race, we noticed that the US Ambassador had very long legs and looked a few years younger than the long nosed British High Commissioner.
    
     The runners had to run only a short distance but they had to carry a full glass of champagne on a tray without spilling it while they ran. (Don’t you just love the ex-pat lifestyle?) The first to touch the cannonball would be declared the winner and “…be honored as Champion of the Cannonball Run. His title will remain only a year but his name immortalized forever!”
     The British High Commissioner won by a nose. With such long legs, I felt sure the US Ambassador sandbagged for diplomacy sake. Or maybe he was off his oats. No matter. The race was over and the party commenced in earnest around the pool bar overlooking the Indian Ocean. And a Navy gunboat patrolling a short distance offshore.
    
     Food and drink was plentiful and delicious. The German family was fun. The two US Coast Guard officers who crashed the party were also fun. I would never have guessed we would someday be at a swank party in Colombo Sri Lanka singing the Sponge-Bob Squarepants song and reciting dialog from the movie ‘The Quiet Man’ with two career coast guard officers. But like I say, the cocktails were flowing.
     While all this was going on about twenty young men tried to move an old London double-decker bus that the British contingent had rode in on but was now firmly stuck in the sand. The sunset behind the men pushing the bus while the driver gunned the engine and dug the wheels further into the sand was spectacular.

     After 10pm when the waiter said, “Beer finished. Only whiskey left” and the Coast Guard Officer (the one who had excelled at the Sponge-Bob refrain) said, “Well then, let’s have that!” we knew the party would soon be over. Fireworks exploded overhead illuminating the double-decker bus, men still pushing, driver still gunning, tires buried up to the first upper deck step.
    
     So our first day in Sri Lanka was pretty good. Two days later on my birthday, as we fell further down the rabbit hole, I bathed an elephant in a river. (See "Bathing an Elephant in Sri Lanka)

     Sri Lanka was first known as Serendib and this might have been where the word serendipity was derived. They should never have changed the name. It fits the Sri Lankan experience and her people so well. To be there is to experience serendipity in action.

    
     Despite being identified mostly by her war, Sri Lanka is intrinsically gentle. The first sound you hear in a Sri Lankan morning is someone sweeping (the street, the dirt, the grass…) with a broom made of long thin twigs. “Swish. Swish. Swish.” Every morning the same rhythmic sound awakens you. It’s a place where bar snacks are called “small munch.” Where if you ask, “What do you call that type of monkey?” you will be answered with patience and extreme enunciation, “We call this “monkey.” If you leave your shoes outside your guesthouse door, someone will come along and warn, “Monkey take shoe” or if you try to eat your lunch out on the porch, someone else will caution, “Monkey attack food.” Where no matter how posh a hotel is, there is still a man who stands patiently all day on the grounds using a slingshot to keep the crows and monkeys at bay. Where the only gem store we were enticed to enter was the one called Schmuck Jewelers because at least he was being honest. It’s the country where we have enjoyed bed sheets with the highest thread count yet in all our travels. But pillows are still mostly hard like bricks.
    
          The people of Sri Lanka love you to love their country. Everyone we met asked “How do you like my country?” We always answered truthfully, “It is very beautiful! You have so much nature and so many interesting cultural sights. We love it!” And they smiled broadly, happy that their country pleases others. What we wanted to add was, “No country has been more humid or made us sweat more” but I don’t think that would please them as much, even though it is the truth. The men in Sri Lanka are the best fathers I have encountered in all my travels. They are incredibly affectionate with their children- holding, cooing and smiling at them as a mother would.
    

     Sri Lankans make major decisions in life based on astrology and their horoscope. Weddings are held at odd days and times, because an astrologer has deemed it auspicious. Parents advertise in newspapers for brides or grooms on behalf of their sons or daughters asking that horoscopes be sent along with applications. There is a full page in the newspaper of parents advertising for sons or daughters in-law. Some even advertise for their children living overseas. Here’s one we read in the Colombo daily newspaper: “Parents of 40 year old PHD scientist working in California seek bride 30-35 for their son. Prefer if she live in California or a state close by. Caste and religion not important. Send horoscope.” Because the country was at war during our visit sometimes things were tense. But the thing that most frightened me in Sri Lanka was my daily horoscope. It constantly said things like “Piles or minor injuries likely today. Beware of contagious disease.”
This last one really worried me since a story on the front page that day was “Mysterious disease kills four, so far.” No wonder Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop.

     Most of Sri Lanka is Buddhist but the Tamils are primarily Hindu. Periodically during our 45-day visit we were advised to avoid large public gatherings which, during the war, could become violent. During the week long Hindu New Year celebrations we stayed inside the former Dutch walled city of Galle Fort, which is mostly Muslim.

     Life inside the old Fort walls of Galle is a delight. We had an airy room with a terrace overlooking the ramparts and the sea. Every morning as we had our coffee, we watched the same characters pass by on the rampart wall. First the kingfisher posted himself on the power line across from our balcony and waited for bugs to walk by. Then the total number of goats in the fort, four, grazed the new shoots of grass that cropped up overnight. Then one of the two monkeys in the fort came swinging through the coconut trees and sometimes landed on the terrace just to see me jump. Later, some of the human Fort residents strolled the wall for exercise. Fathers carried toddlers along the rampart wall at sunset, tending to their children as attentively as a male emperor penguin would.

     Everyday a man led his horse on a long rope, standing by it for hours while it ate its way down the street. It reminded Scott of a passage in a Terry Pratchett novel where a peasant holds his cow by a string and stands by it for hours in a field while it grazes. A man watching finally had to ask, “Why do you stand by your cow in the field?”
    
     “It’s good for the field,” said the peasant.
    
     “But doesn’t it waste a lot of time?” asked the man.
    
     The peasant gave the question due consideration and answered, “What’s time to a cow?”

That’s life in Galle Fort.
    
     I miss Sri Lanka. I miss her stunning natural beauty and friendly people. I miss the pink sunsets and stupendous nightly thunder and lightening shows. I miss the beaches and watching cricket games played on the sand. I miss the charming guesthouses. But the thing I miss most about Sri Lanka is the bird I call Curly. His song every morning sounds just like Curly from the Three Stooges. “Woob woob-woob-woob-woob!” without the “nyuk-nyuk-nyuk” at the end. It is a sound that cannot help but make you smile.

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