"Trip to Serendip" – by MJ Pramik

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Elephants in Sri Lanka ©MJ Pramik
Elephants in Sri Lanka ©MJ Pramik

“Trip to Serendip”

by MJ Pramik
 
Serendipity: the act of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
Horace Walpole created the word serendipity after an ancient name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. The drawing of my business card out of a glass bowl on a February afternoon last year was a supreme act of serendipity. The prize: a round-trip ticket, London-Colombo-London (airport taxes not included). To be used in one year. This proved a challenge: first lesson learned. In the third and emerging second world, things move much more slowly and tortuously than in the continental U.S. Processes must be followed or invented, and a 13-1/2 hour time difference can be surreal. Then there was the extra challenge of getting to London (airport taxes not included) and connecting to the SriLankan Airlines flight.
Sri Lanka offers up a cacophony of contrasts, the usual wealthy versus poor, urban versus “grass roots,” as my guide Shirly Fernando called the mud and wattle huts and open air classrooms (no windows, no doors for the upper classes) we visited in rural North Central Provence near the archeological heritage site of Anuradhapura (I now can now pronounce this glorious heritage with confidence). The Golden Rock Buddha temple with its rooms of 150 statues provides enough buddhas to bless a lifetime or 10 lifetimes.
A spiritual nature wafts across the rice fields and palms: Buddhism holds the majority numbers followed by a smattering of Hindus, Catholics and a growing Muslim population. The entire country celebrates all the religious holidays and, as a special bonus, all the new moons of the year, a holiday known as poya. Next poya is Jan. 26 at 11:39 p.m. It’s on my calendar.
Sri Lankans universally ask “where from” or “what country”? “UK?” They’re not used to North Americans visiting. A reply of California would stop them for a moment. “Ah, America.” Followed by: “Obama, you like?” They zip around on motor scooters and teeny three-wheelers called tuk-tuks (rhymes with put-puts). I often felt as if I had entered a human beehive.
In an initial step toward making amends (will take time) to the minority secessionist Tamils, as a gesture to heal the wounds of the decades long civil war, Sri Lankans now learn Sinhala, the major cursive language, Tamil, a language from South India, and an endearing English. An unwise government prohibited Tamil from being spoken about 50 years ago. I can now say thank you in all three languages. The Tamils in the tea plantation highlands insisted on my using “nandri.”
In 13 days, my dear guide Shirly drove safely, pulled over and stopped the car when speaking on his cell phone, and drove me to all the interviews requested. He tutored me on five centuries of Sri Lankan religious and archeological history. We shared great political and philosophical exchanges about the world situation today and hopes for tomorrow. We both have three adult children. And our share of personal woes. He did not climb with me to the top of the potential eighth wonder of the world, Sigiriya. He’d done it before during his 30 years as a guide. He patiently slept in the car while I visited dance schools and interviewed a well-known astrologer/palm reader, who presented me with his book in Sinhalese. The distinguished palm reader is working to have the text translated into English. I’m considering a post on Craigslist to speed up the process.
Climate change is everywhere: two weeks prior to my visit, Sri Lanka experienced major unseasonal flooding and loss of life from landslides. Monsoon rains greeted me in Kandy, the ancient-living previous capital of the kingdom. Lightening and thunder didn’t stop the tour, or the people: Umbrellas up and wade through the mini-lakes on the streets. The strange weather and rains precluded my spotting a leopard and the elephant gathering (the water tanks are full, no need to come out of the foliage) and blue whales (the churning rivers are pushing the krill out past the shipping lanes), so said the naturalist working for the John Keels agency.
Sri Lankan food is grand. Vegetarian curry for breakfast delighted my every morning. Egg hoppers (fried egg ladled into a crisp bowl of a pancake) have me planning my next trip to Serendip. Kanda, an herbal porridge of sorts, served with a nugget of very sweet jaggery (similar to brown sugar chunks but made from palm syrup) became my favorite. Water buffalo curd, chunky and thick in rural areas, covered with palm syrup is divine.
The Sri Lankan howdy and goodbye—ayubowan—hands pressed together and a slight nod, “long life,” was genuinely given everywhere. Hotels, shops, sites.
As a travel pro, I learned that developing nations cost a fortune to visit. The Sri Lankan government has decreed that the hotels must charge high, high prices to Western visitors. Rooms seem more expensive in Sri Lanka than in New York City. However, this year, 2013, the tour companies I spoke with said the tourist numbers have plummeted from 2010 and 2011 levels. The whale-watching boat company noted their volume was very low, five or six passengers, in contrast to full boats in previous years. China has invested billions and billions into the country, building a new airport inland, super (two lanes each way) highway toll roads, and a southern harbor (rumor has it the current president wants to move the capital to his hometown, goodbye Colombo). And coming in 2014, the Shangri-La Hotel to challenge the venerable Galle Face Hotel on the waterfront.
More contrasts on reentry: After the return flight to London for a two-day layover to visit a friend, it snowed four inches in the morning. It never snows in London, said my friend. In Scotland, perhaps. Climate change is everywhere. It’s cold in San Francisco.
…More later: must process the photos and the all the exceptional marvels of Sri Lanka.
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