Past shrines to Buddhas who smile sphinx-like under flashing rainbow halos, past billboards of bleeding Catholic martyrs pierced with real arrows, past the ramshackle rows of fruit stalls and bright clusters of women, as we spin along in our toy-town tuktuk, it’s the smell of Sri Lanka that holds my attention. Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom – the air is spiced and heavy. The breeze constantly weaves different perfumes. Exotic spices mingle with exhaust fumes and the unmentionable odour of decay and waste. Each breath is a gamble and I ricochet between delight and disgust.
I think that’s pretty much sums up my state for the whole period we stayed on this beautiful island – three weeks of incredible highs and bruising lows. Now, a few days later while I try to write this scrap of a post, I’m still scrabbling to find my view. I feel torn, divided between those things special to Sri Lanka which I absolutely adored and those which chipped away at my joy.
On our final Sri Lankan rail journey, to background cries of “wadi-wadi-wadi”, the train skirting the incredible blue of the Indian Ocean, I scrawled my fleeting impressions of the island in my notebook.
Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom; the press of people; huge, genuine smiles and full, unabashed eye-contact; constant curiosity – “Where are you from? Where are you going?”;
Edinburgh in Kandy;
The slogans printed on tuk-tuks: “a real man has manners”, “life is a nice rainbow” and, bizarrely, “God bless Milan”; wonderfully convoluted, and slightly colonial, English: “Crocodiles go about”, “Beware of the train”, “All most at the sea side”, “Whale-watching – close to large aquatic mammals”;
The delicately curving letters of Sinhala, the right-angles of Tamil;
Vibrant lengths of saris spread out to dry on grass, tin roofs and the ends of abandoned train platforms;
Wicker baskets and wadis, fried red chillies wrapped in the torn pages of school exercise books; blind singers warbling in time to the click of the rails; beautifully old-fashioned train timetables;
Tea plantations and tea-pluckers; little boys playing cricket in the fields and parks, practising their bowling;
Adam’s Peak pilgrims, bare-foot and chorusing “Good morning, good morning”; Dalhousie village spread below in fairy lights; steps forgotten in the magic of greetings; an echoing ring of a bell announcing a first visit; a triangular dawn; little girls asking to have their photo taken with us; an old lady praying at Sri Pada; buddhist chanting at sunrise and sunset; painting Buddha’s eyes;
Seeni Sambol; the staccato drumming of kotthu rotti; rice & curry; seeing an old friend reflected in a new prism; saris and sarongs; Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim iconry mingled and aligned; temples and dagobas; reserved seats for clergy; coconut oil lamps and burnt feet;
A wonderful scam of snakecharmers and painted bindis;
Jack fruit and woodapples;
A most beautiful view at Pidurangala and disappointment at World’s End;
A gracefully dismissive leopard, bearded monkeys, a zoo of jeeps, wonderfully lumbering wild elephants;
Rolling waves and King Coconuts; grilled barracuda and overhead fans; the breathlessness of drinking ginger beer; the texture of greetings….
Our train pauses at a station and another pulls up beside it, rusted red and green, windows aligned. The family in the next train smile and waves at me, like I’m an old friend. I wave back and the next thing I know, a little girl is being stretched through the gap between the two wagons, parents holding her tightly around the waist. She has come to share her fruit with me. Simple and lovely. The whistle blows, the little girl retrieved and my lap is full of tiny green fruits. For me, my trip to Sri Lanka has been essentially about these rare and wonderful encounters.
Of all the places we’ve wandered through up to now, it is the people of Sri Lanka who have impacted me the most. To my great frustration, I’m not really a people person. Encounters with strangers and conversations with friends hold too much sway for me to ever be fully at ease. Yet, in Sri Lanka, a place of wild and roaming monkeys, leopards and elephants, somehow, it was the people who held my attention. Women, small and beautiful in their saris, men chatting in groups, a blend of East and West in their sarongs and shirts. Our arrival in a bus, train or marketplace was always met with happy waves and choruses of “Hello, hello”. Children leaned out of windows, mothers behind them echoing their enthusiasm. Old ladies sidled up shyly on the street just to nod and smile. Always smiles. People here beam. There seems to be no such thing as a thin, polite, smile. Everybody smiles these huge, face-splitting, teeth-showing grins of absolute genuineness. It is just so lovely and time and time again, it took my breath away.
And then, in the midst of such genuine full-hearted generosity and kindness, there was a blip, an incident. Nothing too serious, a shot across the bow. At a guesthouse in Sigiriya, I stayed on my own on the terrace while Damien explored the property seeking out crocodiles and elephant tracks. An employee took an opportunity, keeping my hand in a vice-like handshake and breathing heavily, he lunged to steal a kiss. I wish I could say that I jerked free and delivered a round slap but I didn’t. I absolutely froze. In a situation which I’ve turned over and over again in my head searching for what I could have said or done to provoke it, I come up baffled. Every time I play the scene over, I urge myself to do something, anything. Instead, smile in rictus, I stood up poker straight and set off to find Damien, whose timely appearance triggered such relief and a flood of tears. Damien’s complaints (my faith in my ability to stand up for myself having taken a serious blow) to the manager were met with the troubling response, “Did you see it happen or did she just tell you?” (WHAT??!) In the space of a moment, I was frightened and humiliated. I was somehow left questioning my own behaviour. Had I done something wrong? Had I said something or acted somehow to provoke the situation? Questions which can lead nowhere.
Feeling newly vulnerable, I found myself more and more aware of the attitudes of the men around me. My pale skin had already attracted a lot of attention in Colombo and Kandy but while before, I had been able to shrug off any unwanted attention, I now felt exposed under the lecherous scrutiny. As we travelled inland, I found that the stares became more and more intrusive, in spite of my non-revealing clothes. Male shop assistants, tuktuk drivers and waiters spoke only to Damien, canvassing “Sir” for his business and I found myself having to make requests through him. I felt depleted by the type of male attention I was getting and humiliated by the converse male disregard. It clashed completely with my warm experiences of Sri Lanka up to now. I felt at a loss.
It was only when we arrived at a tiny guesthouse on the coast in Mirissa that I found again that indescribable, intangible thing that I had lost. The owner’s frank and welcoming friendliness, the full, beautiful smile of his young son, Sati as he served us breakfast before school, the shy, self-conscious waves of his big sister and his wife’s warmth and kindness cocooned me and gave my experience of Sri Lanka back to me.
Human nature is what it is, I guess, wherever in the world, and as some encounters deplete you, others allow you to grow. For me and for the time I spent in Sri Lanka, the good far outweighed the bad and, armed with new wariness, I would return there in a heartbeat!