Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reflections on Sri Lanka


Sunset in Sri Lanka.

My dear readers,

I recently returned from a 17 day expedition to my father's homeland, Sri Lanka. I'd been wanting to go to this mysterious island since I was a child, to see where my dad grew up, to experience the culture first hand, to truly understand my heritage. And I accomplished all that, and more. The trip was at once exhausting and exhilarating, it was hectic and stressful at times, but also beautiful and moving. It was intense, and I'm still trying to process everything, days after returning to the strange city I begrudgingly call home, Las Vegas.

I flew to Sri Lanka with my dad and a group of about 30 people (my father never travels light.) My entire extended family came with us (mom, dad, stepdad, four brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it- they were there). Most of us met up in London, where there were many hugs and kisses and reunions, and a buzz of excitement running through the air. After a beer at the local pub, and a good night's rest- we were off! Stepping onto Sri Lankan Airlines, the beautiful stewardesses adorned in turquoise saris, bowing down to us, with the now familiar greeting "Ayubowan" (may you live a long life) I got chills. We were off!

The trip had many highlights (and some lowlights) and instead of going through the whole itinerary with you (which was so jam packed we barely had a day to breathe, let alone lounge on the beach with cocktail) I've decided to categorize things, to make it easier (for me, and for you). Off we go!


Beaches of Colombo.


Tea Plantations in the high country.

The Landscape:

Sri Lanka is a tropical island, and you could feel the humidity the moment we stepped off the plane. My hair seemed to grow five feet in the span of seconds, and the sticky air had me sweating in no time. Obviously the country has some beautiful beaches (the water was warm and inviting, apart from the giant waves) and I loved the time we spent near the coast. But one of my favorite areas was the high country. We took an old fashioned train up there, and you could feel the air changing, the fog rising up between the hills, waterfalls and pine trees, pure beauty surrounding you. There were tea plantations everywhere, and if you looked closely, you could see hundreds of white figures scattered high up on the hills, painstakingly picking tea leaves for four bucks a day. These women worked hard for their money. We visited a tea plantation later on and ended up learned all about the tea making process. We also visited Kandy, which was lovely, with a big lake and huge Buddha statues adorning the surrounding hills.


Sweet Sri Lankan dancers.

The People:

From the moment we stepped off the plane, we were treated like royalty. Almost all of the hotel employees (and we stayed in a record seven different hotels) treated us with a mixture of kindness and curiosity. The men in particular had lots of questions for me, which I was happy to answer. When it was revealed that I was, in fact, one of them, their eyes seemed to sparkle, their smiles grew wider. "Sri Lankan?" they'd ask, as if not believing me. I would nod. "Oh, that's very good!" they'd say, encouragingly. And I would smile. Yes, yes it was very good. We'd then resume our conversation, somehow a little bit closer than before.

We toured the country in a large bus, and spent many hours traveling through small villages to get to our various destinations. I have never seen a people so happy to see a big white bus coming their way. Nearly everyone we passed waved and smiled. I'm talking, old men, young men, women, and especially children. At one point when we were leaving the tea factory, a young man selling flowers motioned for us to stop. Unfortunately we were trying to make a sharp right turn down a steep hill, and couldn't. Finally, after many dramatically tight turns, we made it to the bottom. The boy was there too, panting, still holding two bouquets of flowers in his hands. He had run down an enormous distance to reach us, it seemed impossible that he'd made it in such a short amount of time. When he finally climbed on board, we gave him a standing ovation, and the boy's smile seemed to light up the entire bus. Of course we bought the flowers.

Another moment I'll never forget- at one point the bus made a pit stop to grab some snacks and drinks for the long ride ahead of us. Sitting near the stand were two boys, a young girl and their mother. The kids waved frantically at us, smiling and giggling. The girl seemed to be making gestures with her hand, but I couldn't understand what she was saying. My mother did though. She opened her window and handed the young girl a pen. The look on the girl's face after receiving this pen was priceless. I've never seen anyone so happy to receive anything in my life. She jumped up and down with glee, then ran over to her mom to show off her new gift. The girl's ecstatic reaction and pure gratitude after receiving something as simple as a pen almost brought tears to my eyes. Of course now her brothers were jealous. They wanted pens too! And so my mom gave them her last two pens, and they too were consumed with happiness, bouncing around like they'd just won the lottery. My dad later handed the family some money, but the kids hardly seemed to notice. The pens were all they wanted.


Wild elephants.


Elephants in the Perahera parade.


An elephant at the orphanage.

Elephants:

Elephants are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka. They're on postcards and bags, statues and buildings, they're taking baths in the river, carrying wood down the street, they're in parades, they pick up passengers at luxury resorts. Sri Lankans sure do love their elephants. They're sacred here, and after awhile, seeing a man riding an elephant down the street seems perfectly normal.

We went to an elephant orphanage, which was amazing, and yet it saddened me to see the chains around the elephants' legs. We also saw an elephant parade, where they were adorned in glittering costumes and lights. This also kind of depressed me, because once again their legs were chained up, and they just didn't look very happy. We spotted the parade elephants the next day, chilling out and eating their dinner on the street. Some were still dancing, the music of the parade apparently still in their heads, their trunks swaying from side to side, their large ears flapping in the wind. I swear, I could've stood there all night, watching the dancing elephants eat their dinner. We also went on a safari, where we saw elephants in the wild. You could immediately tell they were different from the other ones we'd seen. They seemed skinnier, and walked in a tight pack, at one point charging at a jeep that got a little too close. "Get out of my way," they seemed to say. 'We're not here for your entertainment."


The Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy.


The massive reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa.


A Buddha statue in an 800 year-old temple.

Buddhism:

I'm not a religious person by any means, but if I had to choose something to worship, Buddha wouldn't be so bad. There's something very calming about being in his presence, and I like how sometimes you can see a hint of a smile in his face. It's like he's in on a secret.

Obviously not all Sri Lankans are Buddhist. I saw a few churches, some Muslim Mosques, and some Hindu stuff, but Buddhism is definitely the most prominent religion in the country. Every town we visited had a Buddha statue somewhere, all lit up with rainbow lights and flowers. Buddhas hailed from the mountains, from the streets, in caves, in shop windows, in ancient relics and tombs. He seemed to be everywhere you looked. We visited the Temple of the Tooth, which is said to hold Buddha's actual tooth. We all dressed in white, and were told to take off our shoes before entering the temple. I was also told to pull back my hair and button up my blouse (no cleavage in front of Buddha!) Inside the temple, it was madness. Thousands of people, praying, squatting, chanting, praying some more. It was overwhelming.

In Polonnaruwa (which was the island's capital from the 11th-13th century) we saw ancient ruins and huge statues, including a 46-foot reclining Buddha. We visited these sights near dusk, and it was raining slightly, so the air was crisp and clear, the falling sun reflecting off the ruins beautifully. Later, we went to the Dambulla caves, where hundreds of Buddha statues lined the walls, the ceiling covered in Buddhist art. It all felt very sacred and a hushed silence came over the crowd when they entered the caves, as if all the energy in the room was emanating from the powerful statues within.


"The French Connection" as Uncle Terrence called us.

Travel Companions:

In the end, it didn't really matter what we saw, it was who we saw it with. Having my entire family around (especially those I don't see very often, such as my Sri Lankan relatives, my French family, and those who live in Australia) made the whole trip even more special. Of course, there were 20 or so other people on the journey with us, and although I can't say I enjoyed every single one of them, all the time, we all actually got along surprisingly well, considering the circumstances.

When I say this was a once in a lifetime experience, I mean it. I don't know if we'll ever go back, or if it will be the same if we do go again. So I'm just grateful I got the opportunity to experience Sri Lanka with the people I love. Next time though, I'd like to be in charge of the itinerary. Less bus trips, more beach time, please!

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