When I was in grade school we had a school play based on the Jungle Book. As a young boy growing up in Laramie Wyoming I could hardly imagine that I’d one day meet a beautiful girl from an exotic place called Louisiana, or travel to a country with elephants, monkeys, unique and enchanting people – the kind of place you see in a Disney movie. Back in October we had a chance to spend a week in Sri Lanka. It was a short trip and barely enough time to get a sense for the country, but really eye opening and enjoyable. It felt like we were right back on our honeymoon world tour.
Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972, as a new government came to power. I’m using the old name because it conjures up the sense of travelling back in time that comes with a visit to this country. The roads are clogged with buses of that vintage. This country has embraced modernity and the outside world without totally succumbing to it. The women seem to wear the traditional sari because they prefer it, not out of nostalgia or pandering to visitors. Life still seems pretty barefoot and carefree. It’s also quite hard. You can see it in the day to day toil, in the tired expressions on the faces staring out of those buses. Life here is one of poverty, splendor, squalor, abundance, pollution, congestion and loosely organized chaos. There are marked contrasts with the types of stressors, abundance, congestion, chaos and scarcity that we deal with back home. Coming back from Nepal in 2008, I had a romanticized view of life in the third world as compared to our life back home. This trip seemed to burst some of that naïve, idealistic bubble.
Around the time I was wearing an elephant costume for that school play, a civil war began in Sri Lanka and lasted until a few years ago. We don’t get much of a sense for how and why this country was divided, torn and damaged by the war. It’s not an easy subject to learn about (really nothing is due to the language barriers), a tricky one to ask about, and even then hard to understand. What is clear is that nobody won the war. To ‘win’ a war is really an awful expression, as if one could injure a foot, get infected with gangrene, lose the leg to amputation and call that a victory.
Sri Lanka was settled several millennia back by Indians. Eight hundred years ago when the Europeans were building tremendous cathedrals, so were the Buddhists of Ceylon – fresco paintings and all. Some of these religious and political sites were built atop mountains and granite cliffs, with steps, statues and water works chiseled into the rock.
It has been colonized over recent centuries by the Portuguese, Dutch, British and most recently Coca-Cola, Maersk, Honda, Tata and Samsung.
This is a place to see elephant, cattle, goats, herons, an ox drawn cart (wooden wheels and all), lots of people, tuk tuk’s, lumbering Lanka Ashok Leyland trucks, stupas, rice and curry, tea and rubber plantations, tree fruits, spices, water buffalo working rice paddies, miles of countryside and roadside chaos. It seems normal to the locals.
This place is not covered with rice paddies like Bali. The jungle has been parted gradually over the centuries and millennia, the flat valley bottoms converted to wet paddies. There are big, brown rivers, but where creeks and streams once ran, the thick red-brown soil long ago turned to paddies and canals. We toured the country in a Tata Nano, the world’s least expensive car. It was horribly under-powered, yet impressively innovative at the same time. It worked just fine there on the chaotic two lane roads jam-packed with humanity. Driving for days on the crazy congested jungle roads, we saw a lot of poverty. In some places this takes the form of squalor, as it does in much of the developing world. At times it is hard to see past this, to see the beauty, tranquility and novelty. Then you see an elephant walking down the road, and you’re reminded of just how lucky you are to be here. There is something unspoiled and charming about the people and their corner of the world. In terms of population and area, it’s something like one fiftieth of India. It reminded me a lot of Nepal.
We stayed at an historic guest house near Sigiriya built during the British colonial period. It was rustic and just clean enough. Perhaps true to the British heritage – the food was awful. Our bathroom lacked hot water but did have a resident frog. The guidebooks talk about Sri Lanka in the context of serendipity – you have to be open to surprises and ready to make the most of them.
I really admire what Buddha taught. It’s hard for me to comprehend how much ritual, superstition and mental slavery people have added to those teachings over the centuries and millennia. I guess you could say the same for Jesus and Mohammed, if not all religions. They seem to diverge from what their founders taught, to make mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains. I say mental slavery because it’s the only way I can think of to describe the willing subjugation societies have submitted to in the name of religion. Of course, it’s hard to say how willing that subjugation was. Kings, politicians and other conniving bastards have always used brutality, ignorance, the threat of damnation…anything it took to get and keep power. In that context, it’s interesting to contrast the ancient world, where war, religion and politics dominated power, to today, where economics has come to the forefront in the struggle for power. I do believe that commerce and technology have made the world a more peaceful place (since the Second World War), but not without plenty of casualties along the way.
It takes a while to come to embrace and appreciate the people here. They are calm, quiet, charming, kind, peaceful and innocent. Sri Lankans are super nice and amusing – with their head wave mannerisms and “yes madam, no madam.”
When I said we got to visit Sri Lanka back in October, that wasn’t two months ago. It wasn’t last year. It was October of 2013. On our ‘round the world honeymoon our life slowed down to a nice, natural walking pace of two miles per hour. Since then, after coming back to the States, finding work, buying a condo and living the first world life, our life is back to the 70mph first world pace. Months and years can pass us by with little notice. We’re all very, very fortunate to live in the first world. I do sometimes find myself wishing life could be more like the Jungle Book.