I was in Sri Lanka earlier this year for a destination wedding and for a short adventure. It was nothing like my haul across West Africa a few years back, just a two-week visit to learn about this strange little island off the coast of India.
It took two days to fly to Sri Lanka on an incredible itinerary that took me over eastern Siberia, the whole length of Japan (just before the earthquake), Singapore (strange place), and finally to Colombo, the capital.
Third world cities are terrifying, especially before you arrive and especially at night. The weird thing about Colombo from the air is that city lights spread for miles and miles in every direction, but the lights form no discernible pattern, few lines or grids to betray streets or structure. It's as if the lights were randomly thrown in by a lackluster urban planning student and then further scattered by mangey dogs. Incredibly, Karl's driver Metshiri found me at the airport so I was spared - for the time being - having to navigate the un-navigable.
I was in Sri Lanka for my childhood friend's wedding. Karl is Swedish and his wife is Sri-Lankan born, and against all odds they convinced 100+ Swedes, Britons, and this Norwegian-American to cross the globe in their honor. The wedding was at a posh resort on the south coast near Galle, and it was a really classy wedding, good to see old friends, and a good and soft introduction to the country.
Sri Lanka is not nearly as poor as I had imagined. All the roads are paved and in good condition, houses are painted brightly and made of cinderblock and concrete, cars, buses, and "tuk-tuks" are in decent shape, everyone has electricity, there are few beggars on the streets and public-works projects are everywhere. With the exception of tuk-tuk drivers, people rarely hassled me and instead were ready to lend a hand, show me the way, or offer a cup of tea. I spent a day touring Buddhist monuments with an Ayurvedic doctor and I spent two days far out in the Indian Ocean with local fishermen. I usually travel solo, but on this trip I had the company of my good friend Nina, which made traveling more fun.
Sri Lanka is one of the most biologically diverse places on the earth outside the Amazon. The whole country is lush and green, and some of the most beautiful birds I've ever seen gather wherever you turn. I saw bee-eaters and turquoise-blue kingfishers; in Yala national park there were parakeets, ibis, storks, and and a beautiful, long-tailed orange-brown bird I just barely caught a glimpse of. Steep mountain ranges and light-green tea plantations form the interior. I spent a day with the bachelor party in Sinharaja rain forest, where the rain fell so hard it blackened the sky and leaches gathered in huge puddles before crawling up our bare legs. Up north I heard its much drier, semi-arid. The coast is what you'd expect of a tropical island: white sand beaches, palm trees, warm clear water filled with millions of colorful fish, chorals, and sea urchins. Inside and outside the parks I saw elephants, jackals, mongoose, giant lizards, monkeys, water buffalo. I never saw a leopard but they exist, as do many species of poisonous snakes.
In the spring of 2009, the Sri Lankan army concluded a brutal campaign to crush the LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebel army, after over 25 years of civil war. They systematically deported the foreign press before trapping rebels and terrified civilians against a remote northern beach, and then with almost no witnesses they shelled and gunned down an estimated 30,000 people. The tuk-tuk driver who drove me to the airport on the return, who was a Muslim Sinhalese man, was apologetic and visibly embarrassed about how the war had ended. Sri Lankans are among the kindest people I've met but they don't like talking about the war and I don't understand how they could have been so cruel to each other.
Ethnic conflict has plagued this little island for as long as recorded memory. The Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority have been at odds with the Tamil-speaking Hindu minority for centuries. Add to that a growing Muslim population, remnant colonialists, and other small minorities and you get a really complicated society. Sinhalese claim the Tamils were invaders from India and that they are the sole heirs to ancient kingdoms; Tamils say they've always been there and it’s their land too. The two languages are completely different. When the British ruled the island (then called Ceylon) they used the better-educated Tamils as their administrators. Resentment brewed, and after independence in 1947 the Sinhalese enacted laws that excluded Tamils from universities and government.
In our personal arguments we can escalate the anger, returning tit for tat plus 5 or 10% until we've turned good friends into great enemies. That's exactly what happened on this island: one group did something arrogant and hurtful, the other returned the compliment, and before long there were punitive laws, then mob riots, assassinations, and increased nationalism on both sides. Add a messianic, megalomaniac rebel commander and affluent ex-patriots that can fund armed conflict, and civil war is inevitable. We drove down a stretch of highway near Yala that had been the frontline a few years earlier. The forest was cleared for a hundred yards on either side, and every half-mile there was a bunker or small military fort. Two elephants grazed peacefully in the grass as if there was no problem at all, as if there had never been a problem.
After a few days of traveling on ridiculously hot and extremely overcrowded buses, I returned to Ram's Surf Hotel in Midigama, where a breeze blows away the worst of the heat and a delicious curry buffet arrives every night at 7. Most of the patrons at Rams were English and French (and Swedish) surfers. I tried surfing once but mostly I went swimming and worked on what would become 18 gouache and watercolor paintings of the sky and ocean. I painted some from the balcony, some right on the beach, at all times of day and night from a grey dawn until the blackest night, when lights from distant fishing boats are all that tell you where the sea ends and the sky begins. A humid layer of clouds rose steeply from the horizon and in many paintings these are darker than the water, an effect I like very much. It's the first time I've used gouache in a meaningful way. I like that I can rework it like an oil painting, it's thicker and more satisfying than pure watercolor.
One day I went to the nearby town of Wellligama and met a crew of fishermen. They invited me to join them, and so I spent a few days hanging out with fishermen, learning their craft, hearing their stories and watching the ocean. It was awesome, far out at sea on these beautiful, brightly colored fiberglass and wood catamarans. They told me about encounters with Somali pirates and ferocious monsoon storms; they pointed out a whale on the horizon, a school of beautiful silvery flying fish jetting across the surface, a faraway flock of terns that hinted at fish below. The fishermen didn't catch anything the first day; the second day they hauled a modest 50 kilos that brought in about $4 per person. A tough way to make a living. I saw another boat haul in a shark, and learned that shark-fishing is extremely lucrative. The small crew on that boat shared $180, with the shark’s fin presumably flavoring soup bowls in China.
My return trip took me through Hong Kong, Chicago, DC, Atlanta, and then back to San Francisco. I've been home two months, re-settling and also wondering, where do I go now?