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Sri Lanka sure can seem that way once you’ve explored it over a long stretch. A special winter vacation report.
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.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?