A hard-headed Bhutanese monk once gave me some advice about rainbows: Don't trust them. Do not get conned by all that evanescent beauty into thinking of their existence as real. Images in mirrors and rain-refracted sunlight make an impression upon the mind, said the monk, but looked at closely, reveal themselves to be, in essence, not quite what they seem.
"Examine the world and you will see a magician's dream," remarked this man whom I met in surroundings that themselves were dreamlike—a cliff-hung temple founded by a lama supposed to have flown there on a tiger's back.
The monk, I later learned, was cribbing his philosophy from yet another sage, an 18th-century holy man known as the Seventh Dalai Lama. In any case, his advice had a familiar sound. The world is an illusion. Hadn't I heard that before—chapter two in Buddhism for Dummies, perhaps, or in a lyric from an old Tin Pan Alley tune?
Still, his words filtered through my thoughts in late November of 2004 as I picked up a car and began the drive upland from Colombo, the coastal capital of Sri Lanka, to the rain-misted interior of that gorgeous, benighted island. There are trips that you instinctively know will be important to you, somehow. This was one of them.
For starters, there were rainbows everywhere on that journey—singles and even a double, rainbows stretching from paddy fields to hilltops, arcs that bowed across the horizon. Their appearance was thrilling and also farcical, as if I were at play in some kind of celestial video game. Far from underscoring the contingent nature of reality, however, the rainbows seemed to me like auguries, solid proof that I was where I ought to be. This was a feeling, I should add, quite different from that of a day or two before.
Speaking by telephone then to a good friend in Mumbai, I had listened to her sharply voiced view that Sri Lanka was anything but a safe place to visit on the eve of national elections. She was alluding to the tenuous nature of an internationally brokered four-year-old cease-fire agreement between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebel group known abroad as the Tamil Tigers and locally as the L.T.T.E.
For decades, the small island—which, to borrow words from the Sri Lankan novelist Michael Ondaatje, falls on a map below India in an outline like the shape of a tear—has been racked by violence. Everyone knows about the armies of child soldiers, the explosions in busy markets, the suicide bombers dragging scores of civilians with them to eternity by detonating the panniers of gelignite strapped beneath their clothes. There was other violence, too—less dramatic but just as horrendous: psychological terror campaigns and random kidnappings. Then, in 2002, a negotiated cease-fire abruptly put an end to the festering civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the Tamil insurgents. For a time the country seemed poised to regain its rightful place among lawful nations and, as more than one observer noted, also to begin rebuilding the tourism industry that not a few seemed to relish as the endpoint of sustained peace. "In 2003 you couldn't get a hotel room," an owner of a U.S.-based tour operator chimed at the time. That was certainly a change from the years when hoteliers couldn't give a room away.
But booster talk sounded vaguely premature to me, so I decided to ignore my friend's warning and see for myself. I flew to Chennai from New Delhi and then to Colombo on a Sri Lankan Airlines flight that was almost entirely filled with shoeless pilgrims returning from Bodhgaya, a sacred Buddhist site in distant Bihar. I arrived to find a drowsy city far from overrun with holidaymakers and an island whose mood felt less hopeful than guarded and jittery.
The capital was eerily still in the run-up to the elections, soldiers stationed on special alert at government buildings and hotels, and its streets emptied of traffic. Yet from the window of the Taj Samudra, where I spent my first night, the view across Galle Face Green—of families having picnics, kids flying kites, a group of cricket players looking merry and antlike—was placid. Stretching away from the ribbon of shoreline, the bowing arc of the implacable Indian Ocean resembled a great gunmetal shield.
I did not stay very long in the city, stopping briefly at the National Museum, only to find it shuttered, and then at Barefoot, the café and shop run by the renowned textile designer Barbara Sansoni. Noted for the sophisticated crafts it sells, Barefoot also has a courtyard café that is among the more pleasant places in the capital in which to fritter away an hour or two and also pick up, from whatever ambient gossip is around, news of the country's mood. The only other patron that day was a local, sipping a cold Tiger beer, who advised me to head upcountry and remain there until after the polls closed. "It's safer," said this man, who failed to introduce himself. "The city will be a ghost town until then at any rate."