Stevie in Bloom (with Sri Lanka's national flower given to him by a kind shopkeeper)
I awake. It's early. It's dark. The air oppressively close. Suffocating. As if the mosquito net were a giant pink hand pressing down over my mouth. Thunder rumbles outside. Then the deluge begins. Great! My last morning in Sri Lanka. Just when you need all your things to get sodden wet! I lie still. Breathing the hot air. Lightening flashes. The power goes. I stumble over to the room door, open it, and proceed to pack my bags and prepare to depart the country by the light of the electrical storm and my headlight once I find it. One flash of lightening reveals a big fat roach scurrying across the floor towards my backpack to try to stowaway to Indonesia with me.
It's New Years day in Indonesia today.
"Happy New Year folks!".
Tirhani and Bro, who kindly drove me all around Anuradhapura "Thank you!"
Not the best weather. Water pours off the Peace Villa roof in great torrents creating puddles and lakes where once paving used to be. I sprint around to the front of Chris and Rani's shop. I had returned to Negombo
for my last night in Sri Lanka both as it is the nearest town to the airport and to bring a sense of circular closure to my time in Sri Lanka. Chris and Rani had been the first couple to show me genuine kindness and hospitality in this incredibly friendly nation a month ago and had invited me to come back. So I did and was once again treated to a delicious meal. My last in the country and so one whose memory I will savour as much as the flavours.
Living room snap of my hostess Philomena and her hubby on that special day 25 years or so ago...
Lightening explodes directly overhead. This is not the best weather to go out in. But with an 8.30am flight to Kuala Lumpur I have no choice. Sunil, a tuk-tuk driver and friend of Chris's is good to his word and ready to pick me up in this G*d-awful situation at 6.30am. His little three-wheel red metal bug practically drowning in the rivers running down the roadsides. Do these things attract lightening?! "Gulp!"
About one kilometre short of the airport our little bug sputters to a stop and dies. Lightening flashes. Rain battering down upon its forlorn little tin-pot form. Sh*t! So close to the airport, but in this weather, SO FAR! I can't possibly walk through this with all that I own.
Hospitality of the highest order from sisters Mergaret (left) and Philomena in Trincomalee
Sunil attempts any number of tricks to coax our ride back into life but without luck. He bows his head to the steering column in momentary defeat. Not a good sign. A young army officer in waterproofs strolls over with his gun slung at 45 degrees to be amused at our predicament. Sunil, slopping about out in the rain again ferrets about in the butt-end of the tuk-tuk and somehow or other, tweaking something in the right way, manages to bring the bug back to life. The soldier waves us along. "Happy New Year!"
Waving me out of his country. For I'm here now at the airport. Checked in. Drying off. Realising I have not enough Sri Lankan Rupees for either food or drink of any nature. I forgot how much they ramp up the costs in airports.
Fishermans' nets 1
I sit and await my first of two flights today and start to think back over my month in Sri Lanka...
As stated when I arrived, Sri Lanka to some extent was going to be a break from constant 'sight seeing and story' writing for me. And I apologise again to Sri Lanka that this has been the case for my backpack of course, when weighed in at the airport today, though not a pound heavier than when I arrived, nevertheless travels onwards with the intangible weight of many a rich experience and memory gleaned from this beautiful nation. But I absolutely cannot leave the country without offering a brief piece of writing by way of an open letter of thanks to the people of Sri Lanka, as the welcome and hospitality they have afforded me every step of the way in my time here has been incredible.
Fishermans' nets 2
Profound even. A minor travel epiphany. Whilst my journey has been blessed with the kind attentions of many a friendly individual, family or populace along the way and there is not yet any country I have been where I could say I had a bad experience or was made to feel unwelcome, the Sri Lankan people have redefined hospitality for me.
Christopher and his wife Rani in Negombo were the first to invite me into their home for tea and chat and then dinner but, to my great surprise, burgeoning wonder and delight, they were certainly not the last. Harrison-Fernando in that town too with 7-Up, smiling children and Jesus. Mr Jayasundera the plantation owner on the outskirts of Kandy and his wife Jasmine who likewise were inclined, for reasons that are beyond me, to like and trust this dirty, sweaty, red-haired travel ragamuffin enough to invite him off the road, as a total stranger and serve him tea in their best china and then dinner to boot.
Fisherman and his outrigger canoe in Aurugam Bay
Tirahni and her family picking me up off the roadside and inviting me to accompany them on their chauffeured tour of Anuradhapura
. Then Philomena and her sister Margaret and the rest of the family in Trincomalee
too. Piecing my travel spirits back together after my failed attempt to reach Jaffna
. Piecing them together with smiles, great kindness, coriander-coffee (Has to be tasted to be believed! Two of my favourite things in the world in one hot mug. Divine!) and then a fine home-cooked Sri Lankan dinner.
Fisherman and his vessel in Aurugam Bay that was ravaged by the Tsunami but has made a healthy, swift recovery largely down to independent foreign donations
My time with Piyasena and his wife Pavitha in Galle
too, though as a paying guest, always felt like something a little more genuine and rewarding than just a customer/ host relationship. And I must tip a nod too to the countless happy souls who waved me over for a quick chat in a shop or market stall and bought me tea every time. A constant procession of warmth and open-door, 'my home if your home' hospitality that I am still dazzled by nearly a month later.
I am so happy to have had this experience in Sri Lanka for a number of reasons. Importantly it is the memory of such generosity that by far and away will be my defining memory of Sri Lanka. Generosity. Humility.
Nuwara Eliya (Tree Print)
Hospitality. Kindness. These are all intangible things. Invisible to the eye (except for all those smiles). Not to be captured on camera. Yet I have no doubt that the memory of such moments will quite likely outlast those of the endless images of sightseeing splendour I have collected along my way. Because, especially as a lone traveller, nothing touches you more profoundly than the kindness of strangers. Unknown individuals reaching out to welcome you and enrich your journey. The truth and obvious travel lesson to be gleaned from such positive experiences of one's fellow Man/Woman is of course that the richest experiences one can hope to take away from any given country are those imparted to you, unexpectedly, by good old fashioned, no-strings friendliness.
A stroll along the tracks in beautiful Ella.
Such friendliness sometimes seems practically an art form to me in Sri Lanka. Hospitality a favourite national pastime. It is indeed part of the very culture of the country's people. Those I was lucky enough to meet anyway. And this sets me to thinking. I begin to fear, as with so much in modern cultural progressions, if this inherent kindness could turn out to be as perishable as anything else in a nation’s identity. That it could be weathered and whittled away given another few generations exposure to the pressures of population growth, increasingly individualistic obsessions with money and possessions and technology and, pressures on the employment market and an ever increasing exposure to mass tourism etc, etc. People on The Road with more experience than I often bemoan the ’change’ (i.
Ella Rock in the distance, viewed across an Ella tea plantation
e. for the worse) that they feel they've observed in the attitudes towards foreigners/ tourists in many countries. Thailand over the last decade or so is a recurrent example offered though I am in no position to pass judgement myself. A country so over-exposed to rampant tourism (and some of its worst faces and excesses) for too many years now they seem to suggest. What if the same were to happen to Sri Lanka? Could it happen?
I remark on the extreme kindness of the Sri Lankan people to Mr Jayasundera, a bright beaming smile of a man whose family used to own vast tracts of tea plantations in the central highlands but had their land holdings gradually, and vastly eroded by the various political land reforms in the decades following independence. Miss Bandaranaike's legislative land grabs in the early ’70s most significantly.
His response to the question is for his unflappable smile to retract a little and say ‘Ah, but this is changing now. This is the way of the old people but now everything will change. The young they do not care, they are not so considerate. The young...’
His sentence had trailed away as if to continue to list the perceived present and future ills of the younger generations would either take too much time, or be too dispiriting. Disparaging the ’Youth of Today’ is of course a pastime as old as Humanity's family tree. Piyasena, my host in the fort town of Galle is of a different opinion and believes that ‘No, this is part of our culture for so many thousands of years.
Part of our character, and you cannot change something that has been part of who we are for so long'.
'What you lookin' at moosh?!' :)
Without specific reference to the Sri Lankan people, young and old, I have to say my own gut feeling on such considerations is closer to that of the more disillusioned Mr Jayasundera. We live in a world increasingly squeezed in every sense. Pressure for access to employment, money, space to live, water and food. Manufactured desires for technology and possessions. Exposure to constant mass advertising, a pressure on mental space too. Cultural homogenization that all of the above is rapidly ushering in across the globe. Societies inexorably moving away from traditional foundation concerns of a communal nature (family and community etc) towards the needs and concerns of the individual.
I believe, sadly, that good will is only too fragile and perishable in the face of such realities. And as much in danger of becoming a cultural relic as any old temple, building or monument given enough time and further pressure.
Although a depressing thought, I can’t but help feel a certain truth in it, whilst hoping it won’t become so. But I only have to look briefly at my own country to have one example of where the concept of open-door, open-armed kindness to strangers has become as good as extinct. I couldn’t possibly comment on whether times were ever notably different. I think fear and/ or antagonism towards foreigners may have been part of the national psyche of my little island (yes, even pre Daily Mail) for a very long time. Colonialism speaks loudly of a rather flagrant disregard for a culture of neighbourliness after all.
But whatever the past, you can bet your bottom Dollar, Euro, Rupee, Lira, Yuan, Yen, Dong or whatever currency you wish to bring to our shores that (of course with exceptions to the upcoming generalisation) as a foreigner visiting the UK, though we might just give you the time of day should you pluck up the courage to stop us in the street and ask for it in our own language, you will certainly almost never be invited off said street as a total stranger and offered tea, biscuits and then an invitation to dinner with the family. Hell, even though we got on perfectly well with our perfectly nice neighbours and my perfectly nice parents were a most generous and perfectly sociable couple I reckon it’s true of my memory to whisper to me that never once in the 15 years I was a permanent resident in my family home in Angmering did we have them over to dinner.
Sri Lanka Bloom 1
Such a situation being reciprocal. It’s just the English way.
Which is maybe another reason I am so blown away by my treatment at the hands of the Sri Lankan people. Such a different culture to my own. making me feel ever so slightly ashamed. And I feel deeply privileged to have come here, and to have received such kindness. For the point of all the above waffle is basically to say that kindness is a culture too. Not one that everyone or every society still possesses. As my journey has progressed - a journey in the beginnings of the 21st Century through a world already completely mapped out and GPSd and so over-saturated with mass tourism that no single step you take has not already been trodden several million times before by Lonely Planet huggers - I have had to throw in the towel to the idea, the hope that anything I ever see, do or experience on The Road will ever be unique.
Sri Lanka Bloom 2
Nothing is new, special, as it once was or in a Golden Era. The world is a beaten track. Getting of The Track requires interstellar transportation now. But actually, in experiencing Sri Lankan hospitality at first hand I feel I have been in a place, in a time (despite all their social-political turmoil and a General Election campaign on the go) when something still remained of something vastly for the good. Something that I have been privileged to experience. But something that might not be there for ever. I found kindness just in time.
So again, my great thanks to the Sri Lankan people for treating me so well every step of the way. (Even the soldiers that took me off the bus when trying to get to Jaffna were extremely courteous).
Sri Lanka Sunshine Bloom
) Long may your kindness towards strangers last for it is something to be deeply proud of. A national, cultural treasure.
Now it's time to run and catch that flight...