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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.
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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.
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