As we descend through the clouds and can see the rich green peaks poking through I am remembering my first exposure to Sri Lanka. My grandmother had an old book, which she loaned me depicting the story of a woman leaving England to live in Ceylon. It brings up images of tea and rubber plantations, colonial life, heat, humidity and sickness. What would you think landing on the docks from England and arriving in this wild and tropical destination where all points of reference have changed?
The English, Portuguese, Dutch and other conquerors’ no longer rule this country known as Sri Lanka. However, they have all left their stamps on the landscape and in many cases descendents of their people who have chosen to remain. The Arabs brought the early Muslims, the Dutch their fortified fishing towns, Portuguese brought Catholicism, and the English their road and rail systems.
This is the first time I have ever used a tour operator to organise my ground packages. Although I am travelling independently with a driver, another driver and the hotels have been organised. The journey starts well as I am greeted off the plane by an airline representative and ushered through customs. The airport is empty but I am told I am just lucky there are no other flights arriving.
This is where the first small glitch happens as my guide, Sam, has encountered car problems and I am greeted by another representative of Sri Lanka in Style and whisked off to the hotel. It’s approximately 20 minutes from the airport and in a very unlikely spot for a hotel. The car passes through small roads in a rural area before turning into a driveway. This road is a small dirt track and offers no hint of the oasis within.
Many of the hotels on the island are Sri Lankan mansions that have been converted into boutique hotels for discerning travellers. Typically there is a veranda providing a lovely cool space to sit and if you are the indoor type there is often a library and sitting room offering lovely communal spaces. Walls are lime washed and floors typically wooden floorboard or brushed concrete.
On my first day another driver arrives to take me on an exploration of the local fishing village, Negombo. We weave our way through the light industrial area and it soon becomes evident why no one is recommended to drive without a local guide. The road signs are sparse and of course illegible but more importantly are narrow and resemble a dodgem alley. Not only that but unless you know the local language and customs a guide goes a long way to ensuring your trip goes smoothly. So invest in a good one or you will miss the depth this country has to offer.
None of the fishing villages I see are particularly prosperous and many move up and down the coast. Many of the fishermen live in small shacks on the beach and then return home at the end of the season. There are children playing on the sand roads and dogs sunning themselves. Unfortunately there is rubbish and plastic bags littering much of the beachside.
In the distance you can see the catamarans returning after their day at sea. We follow the line and watch these amazing craft being beached, catch being sorted and nets packed away. The hulls of the boats are brightly coloured works of art in their own right. Many look as if they have been mended many times over. The sails are an amazing vivid rust colour contrasting very beautifully with the hulls.
We visit a beachside location where the locals come to relax and socialise in the evenings and weekends. As the day is closing there are families paddling in the water and spending time together. Couples are walking along the beach and sitting in tri-shaw’s. Scattered along the beach are barrows selling snacks and drinks but once again there is too much litter and the HIV AIDS warning sign has me thinking that the beaches are definitely not as clean or wholesome as perhaps they should be.
The next day my guide Sam and I meet and begin our nearly three week journey together. We agree that shopping is off the agenda and photography and understanding the culture are the reasons for my trip. Sam proves to be the perfect man for the job as he knows our locations very well and is able to offer insights into daily life.
We head off towards the cultural triangle and weave our way through plantations of coconut, rubber, tobacco, and rice. These crops provide a lifeline of food for the cities and with such high rainfall and fertility of the soil provide a good basic standard to living even in rural areas. There are hints of the traditional ways as the older men take to the fields in sarongs. The last thirty years has seen many changes to these rural areas as roads have improved, electricity provided and an increased number of schools.
Along the road we see areas where smaller businesses provide some of the materials needed for building. We see bricks being mixed and then packed by hand. These men work with a measured efficiency and a good brick maker can apparently make 1000 bricks a day. These bricks are packed aside and then slowly smoked in huts to harden. Also along this road we see a range in the size of the business cutting the wood for the houses. In one operation a man was cutting them by hand and another was a mini sawmill.
It appears that farmers are very well organised by selling their crops to vegetable co-operatives. These co-operatives provide centres for the farmers to take their produce 24 hours a day. By having these centres farmers are assured both a marketplace and also a fair price.
As you travel through Sri Lanka you can see examples of the writing developing. In very early times Buddhist teachings were passed down through writing in the sand. Sri Lankan writer Martin Wickrmasinghe describes his first writing classes in sand on a black board. Then writing on talipot leaf was discovered. In this process leaves were carefully selected for quality and then boiled then the teachings were written on the leaves and strung together. Great examples can be seen in the library in the Temple of the Tooth. Later stone etchings were used and then, of course, the books we know today. Some of the very early cave pictures can also be seen in Wessagiri in the Anuradhapura area.
Fishing is still a very important industry all along the coast of Sri Lanka. It’s interesting to go down and watch the colourful boats leaving or arriving after their catch. Many of the villagers fish by night and arrive back the next morning to sell their catch on the side of the road.
As a country this relatively small island has such a diverse offering with something for everyone. The countryside is amazingly lush with greens that seem to defy the colour spectrum. The lush soils and irrigation systems dating back to 1AD mean that there is a bountiful supply of fruit and vegetables. A unique climate also allows for tea to flourish and this industry remains important for the island’s economy today.
Sri Lanka is significant in the history of Buddhism and you can follow its path around the island. Even if you’re not a devotee you can’t help but marvel at the carloads of pilgrims dressed in white carrying lotus flowers. Temple life is very important in each community and you can see the amount of respect for the faith in a festival like the Kandy Perahera.