Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sri Lanka

Note: All pictures in this blog post are by my wife Jenna, to whom I selfishly delegated all photography duties so I could be lazy. Also, she likes taking photos more than I do. For her Sri Lanka blogging, look here.

So we visited Sri Lanka over Chinese New Year. We decided on it because, of the foreign destinations we could fly to relatively cheaply, Sri Lanka was both an entirely new country for both of us, and one not likely to be overwhelmed with tourists from East Asia also celebrating CNY.

As it turned out, we made a good choice. In fact, we both came back from our ten days there absolutely in love with the place.

The most natural place to compare Sri Lanka to is southern India. I visited Karnataka and Kerala a few years ago, and I do think Sri Lankan cities and towns look broadly similar. If you look for it, you can find food similar to what you'd get in south India. But 'similar' does not mean 'identical' -- at a Tamil-owned restaurant in Kandy we got ghee dosa with mutton curry. This was the first time my wife had ever seen dosa served with meat, and she used to live in Tamil Nadu, where dosa is an everyday food!

Sinhalese food for us took the form of a variety of spicy curries served with rice, or occasionally string hoppers. Snacks were vadai or samosa-like entities that one could buy at room temperature from ubiquitous little stores. They weren't the healthiest things to snack on, perhaps, but they were awfully good.

We got these vadai at a roadside rest stop and they came wrapped in some kid's geometry homework. Waste not, want not.

Most people would say that the foremost easily visible difference between Sri Lanka and southern India is the prevalence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. White stupas and statues of Buddha are common throughout the parts of the country we visited. One time, we were on a bus speeding up a coastal road in the southwest and the driver pulled over at a roadside temple so that the conductor could run out, give a few coins as an offering, and do a quick prayer before the bus resumed its journey (total elapsed time: maybe ten seconds).

But a more general comparison of the two countries? I spent ten days in Sri Lanka, and two and a half weeks in southern India, so maybe these aren't most well-informed observations. Hope I don't offend anyone. But I found (and Jenna agreed) that towns in Sri Lanka looked more prosperous than comparable towns in India. There was less litter on the streets. There were annoying touts at tourist sites, but they were fewer in number and less persistent than their Indian counterparts. Everything seemed to be less of a hassle than in India. (And I say that as someone who likes India and would like to go back there.)

As for the actual trip, we had a pleasant enough time that we would definitely go back. Part of it was the fact that, while Sri Lanka is a small country, it's big enough that we couldn't see everything we wanted. We never made it to the northern half of the country; we were very sad we did not see the ancient ruins at Anuradhapura and Sigiriya. We also want to see the majority-Tamil areas in the north of the country.

A quick run-down of where we did go...


Kandy, the old inland capital, gets plenty of tourists who come for the Temple of the Tooth and other highlands attractions. But it's also a real city, not just a tourist town, with well over a hundred thousand residents.

We stayed in Freedom Lodge, which, like all of our accommodation in Sri Lanka, served up excellent food that was easily the rival of any restaurant.

The Temple of the Tooth, while majestic, is almost guaranteed to be crowded with foreign tourists taking pictures (unless perhaps you go in the early morning, which we did not).

I have a bad habit of not bothering to learn any of the local language when visiting a former colony that uses English in an official capacity. I never even committed to memory the Sinhala words for 'Hello' or 'Thank you'. It was probably a mistake to think that knowledge would never come in handy. Jenna speaks a small amount of Tamil from her time living in India. It's not enough for her to carry on a full conversation, but we went to two Tamil-owned restaurants in Kandy, and her Tamil was enough to establish a pretty quick rapport with the waitstaff in both places.

(After one of those meals, when I enquired if there was a restroom available, one of the Tamil guys, looked around, thought for a moment, then led me down the street, into the municipal hospital, through winding corridors, and finally to men's and women's rooms which were signposted only in Sinhala. If he hadn't shown me which one to use, there's a good chance I would have made an embarrassing mistake. I felt wonderfully awkward.)

This lake in the middle of Kandy is magnificently picturesque. Particularly when you're doing your best not to think about what you just read in Lonely Planet:

Dominating the town is Kandy Lake, which was created in 1807 by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the last ruler of the kingdom of Kandy. Several minor chiefs protested because their people objected to laboring on the project. In order to stop the protests they were ruthlessly put to death on stakes in the lake bed.

Wow, um, isn't that a beautiful lake?

Finally, I rather liked the synchronicity of this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon appearing while we were actually in the old Kingdom of Kandy.


Yes, this is Sri Lanka.

To get to Ella we took a train that wound along a beautiful stretch of mountainous railway. The train itself, which contained approximately equal numbers of locals and foreigners, was rather nicer than we were expecting (and we were in 3rd class!); we suspect the government deliberately put the nice trains on the route that foreigners were likely to take.

Unlike Kandy, Ella is really nothing other than a tourist town, a base for travelers who want to visit the various sights the Sri Lankan highlands have to offer. It serves its purpose, though, and isn't an unpleasant place to hang out.  (I continue to believe in the ridiculousness of Western travelers complaining about the place they are currently at because it has too many Western travelers.)

Our guesthouse, Green Hill, served some fine food and offered excellent services despite being located at the end of a slippery, muddy trail that we didn't want to navigate in rainy weather.

Horton Plains National Park is a long drive from Ella (we hired a car together with some German tourists). It is a downright wondrous place to hike, though, through scenery that one would never think to associate with a tropical country like Sri Lanka. The Scottish moors was what one of our companions compared it to.

World's End is where the highlands abruptly stop, with a steep drop to the hills below. Supposedly on a clear day you can see all the way to the ocean.

We had to take that on trust, because we got rolling fog that occasionally parted enough for us to see spectacular views.

This lone monkey was at World's End with us. I was pretty wary around him (I imagined him grabbing an expensive camera and hurling it off the cliff... monkeys can be jerks sometimes) but he seemed content to sit and look off the cliff, while keeping a wary eye of his own on us.


Mirissa is a town on the south coast, between Matara and Galle. It is another tourist town that doesn't appear to have much of an existence apart from the tourists (actually, there seemed to be several towns on the southwest coast that fit that description).

The beaches are beautiful, I'll give them that, even if the snorkeling was a bit disappointing (the one area with interesting marine life was so shallow that I was terrified of injury-by-sea-urchin).

Our guest house, Palm Villa, had excellent food, as did all the hotels we stayed at. Otherwise, there's not much to say about Mirissa.

Galle is a city of about 100,000 people, in the island's southwest corner. Perhaps like most tourists, we didn't see the bulk of the city where most of the inhabitants live; we went to the Fort, full of charmingly restored old colonial architecture.

Walking around Fort, I kept thinking 'foreigner preserve' despite the many locals who lived there. I felt the same way about Fort Cochin, India, and Antigua, Guatemala. After wandering around the city full of foreigner-friendly businesses in revamped colonial buildings, we finally gave in to decadence and shared three dessert crepes for lunch.

(No worries; we had rice and curry for dinner that night.)

Signs in all three languages (Sinhala, Tamil, English) were encouragingly common in Sri Lanka. A sufficiently ignorant foreigner might never guess the country's recent history of ethnic warfare. 


We spent very little time in Colombo -- we stashed our bags in Fort Train Station and spent a couple of hours wandering around the city center before leaving to catch our late-night flight.

Street scene near Fort Station, Colombo.

What we saw, on the bus ride in and on our wander through Fort, convinced us that the city was actually somewhat nicer than what we'd been expecting. (And we didn't even get to the parts of the city that are supposed to be really nice, like Colombo 7.)

Granted, it was a Sunday so crowds might have been less, but it was nowhere near as unmanageable as, say, Mumbai. (In all fairness, if one goes by population within city limits, Mumbai has about 17 times more people.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Anil's Ghost

Anil's Ghost
by Michael Ondaatje
Published in 2000
Published by McClelland & Stewart

The protagonist of our story is Anil, a forensic pathologist of Sinhalese heritage who has been based in the United States for many years. She returns to her homeland of Sri Lanka to take part in a UN-sponsored human rights investigation.

She and Sarath, a local archeologist of uncertain political loyalties, attempt to track down the identity of a corpse dubbed 'Sailor', a recently killed man found in a much older burial site. Sarath and his brother Gamini, an emergency room doctor who gets through his days by heavily medicating himself, seem inured to the realities of the Sri Lankan war; they both appear cynical, or perhaps simply resigned to the slow-burning horror that is life for people enmeshed in the civil war.

Day after tomorrow my wife and I are headed to Sri Lanka to check out the tourist sites over Chinese New Year. After reading A. Sivanandan's When Memory Dies last year, which I felt to be informative (if a little dry), I felt I wanted a little more modern literature in my head, so I picked up Anil's Ghost. Michael Ondaatje is and always will be best known for The English Patient, but in Anil's Ghost he draws on his own Sri Lankan heritage

I'm tempted to cynically say Anil's Ghost belongs to the genre 'novels that explain the world's trouble spots to Westerners who want to be cosmopolitan'. (Also in this genre: The Poisonwood Bible; The Kite Runner.) There's nothing wrong with this particular genre of books; I will say, however, that a comfortable, slightly older person comfortably ensconced in the West who read Anil's Ghost might well immediately dissuade any damned fool younger relative from going to Sri Lanka on holiday.

As it is, the civil war ended in 2009, and Sri Lanka is now considered a safe country. It is actively trying to encourage the development of its tourist industry. I can already tell that the civil war is going to be the sort of topic that we politely avoid discussing with a local unless the local brings it up out of their own free will. That's fine. Hopefully there are some non-historical-horror-related travelogues or fiction floating around out there that can help cultivate a more peaceful image of the country among foreigners. (Most books recommended by our Lonely Planet seem to deal with the years of violence.)

As for Anil's Ghost, it's a very readable literary work, clearly written for Westerners, that has inserted several bits of Sri Lankan imagery into my head.

It seems to lack focus, however. The 'local' characters such as Sarath and Gamini are much more compelling and interesting than Anil herself (who despite her heritage generally comes across as a foreigner). Yet we keep getting lengthy flashbacks to Anil's life in the United States, which could have been cut entirely and the Sri Lankan story would still be intact. They're clearly there to reveal Anil's character (and there are at least three different ways to interpret the title 'Anil's Ghost'), but I felt that Anil's character was never as central to the narrative as Ondaatje probably intended. To me, the narrative was about Sri Lankan society, and the mindset created in the people by the years of horror and violence.