He looked to be in his 60s, with dark-red betel-stained teeth, wearing a faded blue and white checked sarong. He walked over to me slowly as I was standing on the sand, watching my children play in the waves. Through broken English and gestures, he told me something of his story. He used to have a home and a small jewelry shop in this touristy beach town of Hikkaduwa. Then one morning, it was literally all washed away and his life nearly with it.
I asked him, using my hands as much as words to express my question, of that infamous December 26, 2004 tsunami, “How big was the wave?” His answer was indeterminate — probably something around 20 or 30 feet high (the wave height varied greatly even among nearby locations) — but he said that what was most frightening was what happened before the wave: as if by the hand of an angry god, the ocean disappeared. Prior to coughing up a destructive wall of water on the shores of Sri Lanka (and many other vulnerable, low-lying, and usually poor coastal areas around the Indian Ocean), the tsunami swallowed the sea. According to the old man, the beach suddenly stretched two kilometers further out, with sand exposed to the sky in a way I have only imagined on Passover, hearing the story of the Jews escaping Pharaoh through a parted Red Sea.
(A young man we spoke to later in our trip said that the incoming tsunami wave, if its size were not menacing enough, was also black, fiendishly presaging damage of mythical proportions.)
Perhaps it is Buddhism, I think, as he shows me the scars on his shin where four surgeries have been required to repair the bones he broke as he stumbled through a mile of jungle to escape the oncoming wave, which lets him face with relative equanimity the fact that he lost every material possession he had accumulated over what must have been the majority of his life. Maybe it is because what he had accumulated was, by Western standards at least, not very much. Maybe I will never really understand. And maybe I should be thankful of that.
Later, as we drive through this area, my four-year old son points to the shells of former homes, shacks, and temples, asking “Did the salami do that?” The unintended comic relief is welcome as we recognize the real human cost of the disaster of Boxing Day eight years ago.
STILL, WHEN YOU VISIT the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, tsunami destruction is not the dominant feature. The small beach town of Hikkaduwa has something of a split personality, with shops selling clothes, ayurvedic medicines, and food, along with a few mostly quiet restaurants lining Galle Road, the main coastal route in the southwest of this island nation. Less than one hundred yards further west, sitting on the sand are boisterous bars and restaurants, twice as expensive as those along the road, where surf-lovers and mostly European travelers drink Lion beer (not quite as good as Three Coins but easier to find) and a strong coconut-based liquor called arrack, while listening to crashing waves and watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean.
In this description, there is little that separates Hikkaduwa, or many of the beach towns that dot the coast of western Sri Lanka, from similar towns anywhere across the planet. Indeed, other than the very large number of pairs of Western women holding hands — apparently a hippie mecca has turned into a lesbian one — the town is unremarkable, and therefore a relaxing way to begin our time in Sri Lanka and shake off the last of this damnable jet lag.
It’s rare these days, and therefore particularly appreciated, to find goodwill toward America and Americans, but a genuine “happy to see you” attitude pervades Sri Lanka. No doubt it is in some part due to the rarity of Americans here and the knowledge that we traveled a long way to get here. But people, especially along the coast, rarely fail to mention their gratitude to America (as well as to several other countries including England and Germany) for the quick and substantial aid to Sri Lanka after the tsunami. In these days of confused, confusing, and wasteful foreign aid spending by the American federal government (such as paying for television ads so Hillary can apologize to Pakistan), it is good to know that some money ended up helping the desperately needy, helping rebuild destroyed roads, homes, and lives, rather than just ending up in some tin-pot dictator’s or oligarchs’ fat Swiss bank accounts.
(Lest I give too much credit to our government, I assume that much and perhaps most of the good work was done through private aid organizations and by private individuals — indeed, we have met several people from the U.S. and UK who moved here as post-tsunami volunteers and have never left. After all, what is the chance that federal bureaucrats, and especially the State Department, would ever be able to distribute aid, whether in the form of people or cash, quickly enough to be of help to those who actually need it?)
One might assume, as I did, that a comparison between India and Sri Lanka, with their physical proximity and similar appearance of much of their populations, would be something like comparing the USA and Canada. But a more accurate contrast would actually be the USA and Mexico, namely two places that in most important ways are more different than the same despite some common heritage: different languages, different majority religion, and strikingly different people and culture. For me, in most ways, Sri Lanka comes out on top in comparison with India. For Sri Lankans, it is far more so.
ON OUR WAY TO the central city of Kandy, the last capital of pre-modern Sri Lanka, we stopped at the Pinniwala Elephant Orphanage, one of the most visited tourist sites on the island and a place that inspires mixed emotions, beginning with being shunted to a ticket window for foreigners with ticket prices (a bit over $16 per person) four times higher than for locals. On the one hand, the place is overwhelmingly touristy, with young men tending to elephants and inviting visitors to take a picture with an elephant before then asking for tips so outrageously high than they must just be assuming their visitors are clueless. On the other hand, seeing two truly adorable baby elephants who were rescued from certain death, and knowing the devastation wrought by (primarily British) hunters on the island’s elephant population — they killed about 90 percent of the elephant population from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century — makes the enterprise seem worthy of the high ticket prices and hyper-commercialized mindset of certain employees.
One of the little-discussed but most important aspects of high humidity is that it causes cold beer to warm much more rapidly than it does in the foothills of the Rockies where humidity peaks at around half the usual level here in Sri Lanka. Lesson learned: in the tropics, drink your beer fast.
We went to a house near Kandy where we intended to stay for five nights. It is a vacation home for a wealthy Colombo family, and their happy family photos are on prominent display in a large but minimalist dwelling that seems inspired by a Buddhist temple. Although the place was beautiful, we didn’t love the location, so in between everything that it wasn’t close to anything. In that sense, it reminded us of our own home and perhaps a place better suited to a honeymoon than to traveling with children while wanting to explore surrounding areas.
The good news is that we did indeed move to a better location after just two nights. The bad news is that the change was caused and allowed by our one truly unpleasant experience in this country. The property manager, whom I will call “E,” is a man of about 55 years whose behavior from the moment we arrived evolved from slightly strange to horrendously inappropriate.
The property has a small swimming pool. When he was showing it to us, E casually mentioned to my wife that “some guests swim naked.” He invited my wife to visit a nearby tea plantation, where E knew the long-time manager; they would travel there by motorcycle. My wife was happy to agree, being interested both in tea and in riding motorcycles — she often asks me about having one at home to which I risk-aversely reply that I enjoy my children having two parents.
When the time arrived to head out, my wife was napping. When I told E this, and said I would go ask her if she wanted to leave her relaxation for the excursion, instead of just walking away E creepily walked to the far side of the room, all glass doors and windows, and looked in on my sleeping wife. What was he expecting to see?
After they returned, although my wife told me of a fascinating visit to the tea plantation, she also seemed not quite right, though maybe more in retrospect than I noticed at the moment. However, that night in bed, instead of sleeping she was tossing and turning, clearly disturbed, and around 5:30 in the morning I asked her what was wrong. She said she wasn’t sure if she should tell me or just keep it to herself. I told her that anything bothering her this much was something she should be talking about. Here is what she told me:
While heading out to the tea plantation, my wife was holding loosely on to E’s jacket when he suggested “you can hold me tighter.” She said no thanks. He also asked her odd questions about how much she exercised and if she liked having a “trim body.” He also asked a very unusual question, not that any of the rest was usual: “Which of your children do you love more?”
But the real trouble happened on the way back from the plantation: While riding the motorcycle, E grabbed my wife’s hand and pulled it around to his chest and started stroking it. She pulled her hand away immediately. Then he stopped in the fading twilight near a dark, empty forest, said something about the unmatched privacy of the area, and asked “so what should we do now?” My wife said “we should go back to the house.” He obliged, but tried the hand-grab yet again — with the same result.
While I appreciated what my wife probably thought of as trying not to disturb our vacation by keeping this to herself, and while she offered to try to put it aside, it would have been reckless and irresponsible of me to have her — or my children — remain in such a poisonous, potentially risky environment. And it occurred to me — perhaps a few minutes later than it should have — that my wife must know that I am always there, first and foremost, to defend her regardless of any other consequence or inconvenience, financial or otherwise. Once that thought penetrated my thick skull, the course of action was obvious.
At 6:30 AM I called my travel agent (Miguel, owner of Sri Lanka In Style, whom I recommend to anyone looking to visit this country) and told him that we were leaving, and that despite it coming up to Christmas week and one of the busiest travel times of the year, we were counting on him to find us accommodation for the next few nights. We quietly packed our things, keeping our departure intentions from the house staff until our van and driver arrived for us just before 9 AM.
After informing E that we were leaving, he had the nearly sociopathic nerve to ask me “was it something the staff has done?” In the interest of not being arrested for assault in a foreign country, I kept my cool and simply said that the cook and the other boy who had been helping around the house had been excellent — as indeed they had.
THANKS TO MIGUEL’S QUICK WORK, we were able to get one of he last rooms available for those days at the Sigiriya Village hotel, near the remarkable rock fortress of Sigiriya in the Cultural Triangle region of north-central Sri Lanka.
The unforgettable World Heritage site of Sigiriya was built in the 5th century over only 18 years by a former king who took the throne by killing his father and exiling his brother — who eventually returned and recaptured his rightful place as ruler.
Sigiriya is built on and around a giant boulder, about 500 feet high, with surrounding gardens that include swimming pools for King Kashyapa’s many imported female consorts, the pools fed by creative gravity-powered water pipe systems many of which still function today. Climbing ancient stairs for the first part of the walk, and modern (1930s and onward) metal staircases up the sheer faces of the upper half, one is struck by the ingenuity of the design, the utter defensibility of the fort, and the centuries-old human appreciation for beautiful art.
Militarily, an attacker would have to go through several narrow natural stone archways, going uphill the whole way, to assault the fort. And the defenders, with well-placed vantage points could not only alert archers where to go, but had an additional weapon: positioned around the fort were several boulders, each roughly 20 feet in diameter, which were somehow, almost magically, supported by a handful of narrow columns of rock. The lookouts could announce which direction attackers were coming from, and soldiers could then “aim” the boulders while shoving them off the supporting columns, turning them into gigantic multi-ton death-spheres bounding down the hill and into the oncoming forces.
Along a wall about 100 feet below the plateau of Sigiriya are painted about a dozen (there used to be many more) frescoes of (topless and buxom) women from around Asia and Africa, perhaps highlighting Kashyapa’s particular interests. There is also the famous Mirror Wall, which was made of a very highly-polished ceramic and which now hosts carved graffiti some of which dates back more than a thousand years.
While we didn’t have time to visit other ancient archaeological sites in the area, the next part of our trip was fascinating in a different way as we moved to the moderately higher altitudes of Sri Lanka’s hill country, where some of the best tea in the world is grown.
Staying near the town of Hatton in two “bungalows” which used to belong to British plantation managers in the late 1800s, the colonial sense of the place is overwhelming. Not only do tea estates have names like Norwood, Shannon, Strathdon, and Glencairn, but the cook in the first bungalow, an extremely pleasant man (and great cook) named Geram, whose father cooked for the British in the first half of the 20th century, insisted on calling me “Master.” It was not in the sense that you would have heard that word in the American South prior to the Civil War. Rather it was meant as a measure of respect, again in a very British colonial sense. For me, being called “Master” was a combination of amusing and uncomfortable, and somehow I was unable to convince my wife of the validity of the appellation.
On the large field along the road below our bungalow, children played cricket every day. In this part of the world, namely India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, cricket is not just a sport. It’s an obsession. You may think the Redskins versus the Cowboys, or the Packers versus the Bears, or the Celtics versus the Lakers, is a rivalry. But you’ve never seen a sports rivalry until you’ve seen a “test match” between two of these countries. When India plays Pakistan, you’re talking about teams representing well more than a billion people, of whom probably at least a quarter — about the same number as the entire population of the United States — take more than a passing interest. Imagine every American knowing or wanting to know the result of a baseball game. While Sri Lanka’s team isn’t great, it’s better than it used to be and it put up a good fight against Australia while we were here, the subject of many a conversation between my cricket-mad Australian father-in-law and hotel staff. Cricket does more for international relations than any ambassador ever has.
I’VE NEVER ENJOYED the taste of coffee, and have always enjoyed tea, so being in a place that produces some of the finest tea, learning about the history and the process (including visiting a tea factory), and tasting various teas was for me nearly as enjoyable an experience as my travels in Burgundy, Napa, and the Barossa where I’ve learned a bit about and sampled an even more preferred libation.
The making of tea, like the making of wine, beer, champagne, cognac, coffee, cheese, and chocolate, is a combination of art and science, with different qualities of final product based on where the source material was grown and how it was processed, and those resulting products being given grades such as (whole leaf) Orange Pekoe, BOP (“Broken Orange Pekoe”), the superior Golden Flowery BOP, and the inferior (but stronger tasting) fannings or dust, those two most often used in tea bags or sold to Arabs and Russians whose sensibilities tend toward stronger rather than more subtle tastes.
There is only one true tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, whether you’re talking about tea from China, India, Kenya, or Sri Lanka (in order, the world’s four largest tea-producing nations), and whether you’re talking about black, green, or white tea. Herbal teas, rooibos from South Africa, and other such drinks, although delicious, are not true tea.
The part of the tea plant that is picked to make tea is usually the top two leaves and the unopened leaf bud between them at the top of the stem. Together, this bit of valuable but wholly ordinary looking stuff is called the flush. It looks like an ordinary leaf, and prior to drying and processing has no particular taste or smell, unlike, for example, curry leaves or cinnamon both of which are grown in large quantity here. In Sri Lanka, each tea plant is picked every five to seven days, depending on the season, in plantations where the plants are arranged in beautiful rows along nearly every arable piece of land in hill country, including on steep hillsides. The Tamil (the main Hindu minority in the country, and the majority in the far northern part of the country) women who comprise all the tea pickers labor across each row, laying a 6-foot section of dry bamboo across the bushes to mark off each section as they pick it.
For their toil, tea pickers earn a base salary of about $6 or $7 per day (quite a bit higher than just a few years ago) for which they are required to pick a minimum of 20 kg (45 lbs) of tea leaves, then earning another 40 rupees (about 30 cents) per kilo above that amount, expected to end the day with around 30 kg of leaves. It is a difficult, exhausting life and the pickers look older than I assume they are. Yet every one of them has a smile and a wave for us, either proactively or in response to our greeting, as we walk by.
The pinnacle of Sri Lankan tea is called Silver Tips or Golden Tips (depending on the sub-variety of tea plant), which come from the picker taking only the small bud atop the plant, and leaving the leaves. Then, unlike most Sri Lankan tea which is heated after drying to make it black, Silver Tips are not heated, leaving them in a class called White Tea, with a delicate aroma and flavor — not suitable for Russians or Arabs.
While BOP sells for about 1000 rupees ($8) per kilo (wholesale), the going price for Silver Tips — which is generally not produced by the large-scale factories — is closer to 20,000 rupees ($160) per kilo. I bought 50 grams (sounds like buying drugs, doesn’t it?) at a shop in Hatton, which was all he had, and returned the next day to buy the 100 grams that was his allotment for that entire day — only a few hundred kilograms of Silver Tips are produced in a given year; it felt like buying drinkable gold (or perhaps silver would be a more appropriate metaphor).
You’ve never really seen “Sunday best” until you have seen Sri Lankan women and girls, down even to the age of 2 or 3, wearing their holiday saris with matching scarves. Perhaps, like women everywhere, even modest poverty — maybe more than modest by our standards — does not keep them from having something pretty in the closet. Each full moon day is a national holiday here, based on full moons being auspicious in Buddhism. The streets of Hatton, on that day in late December, were a riot of brightly colored and patterned cotton and silk. Taking it all in for a few minutes was something like watching a Jackson Pollock painting come alive — but more gorgeous; a sartorial fireworks display. Surely, such common yet sparingly displayed beauty not only reflects Sri Lankans’ happiness, but also enhances it.
ON THE DRIVE FROM COLOMBO through Kandy to the tea-covered hills, I saw a mosque in nearly every small town. Although Muslims represent just under 10 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, which is about 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, and 7 percent Christian, the Muslim influence on commerce seems outsized. In Hatton, for example, although a much higher percentage of the population is Hindu (due to the Tamil plantation workforce) than in other parts of the country, I would guess that at least a third, perhaps over half, of the town’s businesses are run by Muslims.
One small town we drove through appeared almost entirely Muslim, and our Buddhist driver commented how “in this town, they never smile at you.” That sort of perception of Muslims fit, too easily perhaps, with my own biases, but as the trip progressed my view of Sri Lankan Muslims, if not of the religion overall, became dramatically more positive, on which more in a few moments.
From Tea Country we made our way about 6 hours southeast by road to Yala National Park, the second-largest park in the country, bordering the Indian Ocean and teeming with wildlife including many beautiful birds along with a few large mammals including several species of deer, crocodile, Asian elephants, leopards, and sloth bear — even rarer and harder to see than leopard.
We first got set up in our South African-made safari tent, which comprised four rooms: a main room, about eight feet across, which led, going forward, into a room with a queen-sized bed, and going left or right into small rooms each with a twin bed, where the children slept. Each sleeping area was separate from the main room by a zipper-and-Velcro fastened panel, with mesh windows to allow air but prevent mosquitoes. The tent was set up in what appeared to be jungle, yet walking just 100 yards east, your feet are in the sand of an Indian Ocean beach, usually empty except for the safari camp’s guests, though sometimes visited by local fishermen.
We headed out on the first — and what turned out to be the best — of the three game drives we did with Kulu Safaris, another group I can highly recommend. About half an hour into the drive, the guide got a call on his cell phone (something of a surreal experience in a remote wilderness on a 2nd- or 3rd-world island), and he promptly hit the accelerator, taking us to a clearing where about half a dozen other safari vehicles were full of tourists looking about 75 yards away at a mustard-colored spot in a tree. Taking the binoculars, I saw my first wild leopard.
The sighting made the entire trip to Sri Lanka worth it — not that it wasn’t otherwise a wonderful experience. But as if good karma (what else would it be in such a Buddhist country?) were following me, just a few minutes later as we were driving down the road, another leopard crossed the path just 10 yards in front of us, walked through the bush next to us, then crossed the road again 10 yards behind us. Having tried to see leopard in the wild over a few dozen game drives during four trips to South Africa since the late 1980s, I felt a sense of satisfaction (quite different, I realize, from accomplishment) that is, at least for me, truly rare, as if by seeing one of nature’s most beautiful and majestic creations I’d done something I have always wanted to do and may never do again.
WE SPENT A MAGICAL New Year’s Eve on the beach, celebrating my father-in-law’s birthday, as he and my mother-in-law joined us a few days earlier, traveling from Australia. After a wonderful beach barbecue, my wife thought it would be nice to do her part to relieve at least a single plant from any drought it might be suffering. She grabbed a flashlight and headed down the dune toward the dark beach. Less than a minute later, I heard her yell “Ross, come here! Hurry!” I did as I was told, as one would in that situation. As she was about to water a beach plant, she heard a scraping noise on the sand right behind her. Turning around and shining her flashlight, she saw an enormous — roughly 4-foot long and nearly 3-foot wide green sea turtle laying eggs in the sand. Others came to look, shining flashlights, causing my wife to suggest that the turtle might enjoy a little privacy.
After about two hours, she finished her work and disappeared into the waves, leaving at least 50 future potential turtles whose greatest risk, believe it or not, is the local fisherman. We asked the camp staff to try to disguise the eggs’ exact location by erasing the turtle’s tracks and the outline of where she was digging. Instead, they made footprints all around where the eggs were buried, which might slightly delay but not prevent the theft and eating of the eggs by hungry fisherman whose views on conservation are trumped by centuries of considering turtle eggs a nutritious delicacy.
Just before we were leaving Yala the next morning, a local fisherman was already sniffing around and had done a little digging, then walking about 50 yards away and sitting patiently on a rock as we ate breakfast on the beach. We asked the camp manager to try to dissuade the man from further excavation, but I expect that mother turtle’s progeny have become a Sri Lankan snack. Part of me is displeased with this, but I also wonder whether that feeling is too close to my frequent criticism of certain environmentalists: it’s not as much that they love animals as that they hate humans.
Standing at the counter of a supermarket pharmacy on the way to our next destination, we met two young Canadian teachers who were vacationing in Sri Lanka from their current jobs in Egypt and Pakistan. Their overwhelming sentiment was “it’s so nice to be out of a Muslim country.”
Again, Sri Lanka is not a Muslim country, and as one of three religions here Islam represents only about 10 percent of the population. But in many places, if you were estimating population by religion based on those people you made contact with as a tourist, you’d guess a much higher number for Muslims.
This was particularly true when we arrived in the town of Galle, staying for a few nights inside the old Fort, built initially by the Portuguese beginning in 1588, then expanded by the Dutch who took over about 60 years later. Although technically part of the larger city of Galle, the Fort has a life of its own due in part to its appeal as a tourist destination. Land inside the Galle Fort is the most expensive in Sri Lanka. Inside the Fort, the portion of the population that is Muslim is around 25 percent. I would estimate that more than half of the businesses within the Fort, including many of the nicest, highest quality shops and restaurants, were Muslim-owned, one obvious sign being the inability to order alcohol with a meal. Another sign is an establishment’s being closed for an hour midday on Friday, from 12:30 to 1:30, so the proprietors can go to the mosque. The Fort mosque was built in 1898 on top of an old Portuguese church and sits on arguably the best half-acre of land in the nation, just inside the southeast corner of the Fort wall with views of the ocean and lighthouse.
Not just inside the Fort, but everywhere in Sri Lanka where I spoke or did business with a Muslim (something I initially did with real hesitation), I noticed — for the first time in my experience traveling — absolutely no change in how they spoke to me or treated me upon finding out that I am American. Remarkably different from, for example, majority-Muslim Bangladesh (one of the several unusual destinations on our honeymoon) where after just a couple of days I realized I was doing myself no favors by revealing my nationality in a place whose residents believe that “the U.S. is at war with Islam” (rather than with terrorists). After that, I simply said I was living in Australia (which was true), from which point the conversation immediately turned all smiles with questions about cricket. Again, a sport doing more good than any ambassador. Maybe we should deal with our problems with Pakistan by putting together a good U.S. cricket team.
I BOUGHT MY WIFE a nice ring, gold with some small blue Sri Lankan sapphires, at a jeweler near our B&B in the Fort. The owner, a very nice man named Iflal, is, along with his brother, the third generation of his family to own the business. He is also the fifth generation of his family to live in his house — which also holds the jewelry shop — a piece of property which is somewhere between valuable and priceless, a few blocks along Rampart Road from the mosque.
Iflal and his extremely friendly wife also have a guest house taking up part of the building. As they are Muslim, no alcohol is allowed. They are both very smart, well-spoken, with lively senses of humor, and reasonable to deal with as I negotiated for the modestly expensive piece of jewelry. (It probably helped that my father-in-law had already bought something with a heftier price tag for my wife’s mother.)
When Iflal and I were alone, I told him a bit about the perception of Islam I have, which I think is widely shared in the USA, as an aggressive, intolerant creed. He seemed, by facial expression and his spoken words, truly surprised. I told him how much of a pleasant surprise it has been for me meeting Muslims in Sri Lanka, that I had not for a moment felt a moment of resistance or dislike due to being American. Iflal said that Islam teaches tolerance and respect for other religions.
While I do not believe that is actually true in the Koran (which I am reading, albeit fitfully) or in the Arab world, it seems to be a pleasant fact of life here in Sri Lanka and I take Iflal at his word, at least as far as he and his family live and understand their religion. He added that his employees included people of each of the island’s four major religions, and that they worked, ate, drank, laughed, and socialized together without regard to the differences that seem to cause so much turmoil and violence elsewhere in the world. I have asked half a dozen Sri Lankan Buddhists and Christians, mostly hotel staff in different parts of the country, whether there is any trouble between Muslims and the rest of the population here. There is never even slight hesitation when they, to a man, answered something like “no problems here; no problems at all.”
Perhaps one result of Sri Lanka’s horrible 26-year long civil war, which ended with the death of the Tamil Tiger (officially the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or “LTTE”) separatist/terrorist leader in 2009, is the galvanizing in the minds of most Sri Lankans the importance of social harmony.
I will leave the story of the civil war for others to tell (Mark Stephen Meadows’ Tea Time With Terrorists is a fun and informative read on the subject) but you’ll get the idea when I tell you that some Tamil leaders trained in the 1980s with the PLO, and the Tamil Tigers are credited with the invention of suicide bombing, though I suppose WWII Japanese kamikaze pilots might also have a claim on that score.
When I offered this theory regarding social cohesion resulting from the civil war, Iflal and his wife both said that the happy cohabitation of many religions on Sri Lanka was far older than the war, far older than a century or two.
A PIECE OF ADVICE for those traveling to the Indian subcontinent: buy your medicines, whether things you think you may need for the trip or even most things you buy with a prescription at home, here. I take a medicine (similar to Vioxx) which, although approved in most Western countries, was not approved by the FDA, an organization probably responsible for many deaths and certainly responsible for much pain and suffering due to their interminable processes, fear of lawsuits, and assumption that Americans are too stupid to make their own decisions if there is some risk involved.
If my drug had been approved, it would probably cost nearly $2 per pill. I buy an Indian-made version for 30 cents a pill, though usually over the Internet since I haven’t been to this part of the world for several years. I bought a year’s supply, cleaning out the inventory of three different pharmacies because this particular drug is not kept in large supply. It was a small but impactful reminder of how unfree Americans are regarding health care, held hostage to high prices and inconvenience and de facto rationing due almost entirely to government policy.
Many drugs that require a prescription at home, including many antibiotics, are available over the counter, and very cheaply, here in Sri Lanka, as in India. So skip the $25 for cipro before you leave home, and buy it in Sri Lanka for $5 when you arrive.
My wife had a toothache in Galle. We were referred to a local dentist who had trained at Kings College, London for five years. He gave up the chance to make a lot of money in order to return to the home country that he loves. To make a long story short, an X-ray cost $4 and three fillings with the most modern Japanese glass-polymer material were a total of $75. Coincidentally, a friend e-mailed yesterday to tell me he went to Costa Rica to get some dental work done. He said that including the cost of airfare and hotel, it was cheaper than using his dentist in Florida, and he thought the quality of care was better in Costa Rica as well.
ANOTHER MORNING WATCHING my kids on the beach, another conversation with a middle-aged local man about the 2004 tsunami. Semantha (typically names ending in “a” belong to men here) drives a tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous three-wheelers that serve as the primary form of taxi here and on much of the subcontinent. On the morning of December 26, 2004, he was driving when the colossal wave caught him and his tuk-tuk and swept them away. The next thing he remembers, he was clinging to a tree, some 50-75 feet off the ground, naked. Less than 5 minutes later, the water was gone, but so was his life as he knew it. His tuk-tuk was never found. His modest home was destroyed, but fortunately none of his three children died.
He says that the government never responded to the claims for homes or property made by many thousands of poor people, that instead they just helped the rich. I don’t know what’s true, but I believe he believes it. He was recently able to get a loan for a tuk-tuk, and now lives in a wooden hut with a banana-leaf roof about a mile inland. He did not seem desperate; he never asked me for anything, though my wife and I did hire him to take us to town in his tuk-tuk and paid him about double what the fare was. To put the ordinary Sri Lankan’s income in perspective, we were his only fare of the day, a not uncommon occurrence in a place with a surplus of tuk-tuks. And from us he earned about $13, about double his average daily income on which he must support three children.
After five wonderful, relaxing, true vacation days at the Apa Villa in Thalpe, a few miles east of Galle, we head to back to Colombo to finish our journey. Yesterday, my son, almost 5, said “I miss my home.” When I told him we’d be home in about a week, he replied, “No! I don’t want to leave Sri Lanka.”
Our last dinner here was one of the most memorable: an incredible seafood buffet at the Sea Spray restaurant at the historic Galle Face Hotel, sitting about 20 feet from the sea wall, watching and hearing the waves and, yes, the sea spray, of this always-busy ocean. My father-in-law, a man who has seen a lot of things in a lot of places and is not easily impressed, said “this must be one of the world’s great spots to spend an evening.”
I too have been a lot of places on this planet, to every continent except Antarctica — and of those all but South America at least four times. My wife and I have rarely been as willing to stay in a place for longer, rarely thinking as soon about returning, as we are about Sri Lanka. It’s an extremely long trip for Americans, but for those willing to endure the time and cost to get here, the reward is a beautiful country with a beautiful nature, in every sense that can be meant.