Return to Sri Lanka
This exotic island nation may have been forever altered by political unrest and natural disaster. But on two visits—one just before the tsunami, one a year later—Guy Trebay finds unyielding beauty softening the edges of recent history
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."
So I hired a car and driver the next morning and left Colombo, stopping first at a Buddhist temple I'd heard of where the monks shelter an elephant donated by the Maharajah of Mysore. Penned by the tidy stucco walls surrounding the temple garden, the animal was mountainous but certainly tractable enough, standing on three legs, its shackled fourth cocked, as a mahout hosed and scrubbed its freckled hide.
I hand-fed it from a stalk of bananas bought by the roadside and then, feeling virtuous, went on my way. Only afterward did the driver mention something the monk had told him out of my earshot. The seemingly gentle temple beast once killed two keepers. The first he had flailed and stomped. The second, he had waltzed against a wall at bath time, an old trick of captive elephants, then wedged and neatly squashed. "You really shouldn't have been that close," the driver said.
And, of course, he was right. But the easy assumptions we all tend to make of personal immortality are essential tools packed into every primate's genetic kit—a necessity, if one is to keep from dwelling on Fate's caprice. Accidents happen, as we all know. But on that beautiful afternoon, accidental death, of the sort that would soon overtake whole swaths of the region, was the last thing on my mind.
I was in the gorgeous land Swift disguised thinly as the fabled isle of Serendip. Through the open car window, I was sipping in cool air that arose from a dew-moistened road running from Colombo to Kandy, home of the celebrated Temple of the Tooth. As the grade steepened and the terrain changed, the coastal scrub gave way to stands of towering old hardwoods, mighty tropical patriarchs worth, in some cases, $100,000 a tree.
Here were some of the island's famous spice plantations, patchwork plots that were oddly underwhelming in person, each seemingly given over to a specific spice—pepper vines both white and black, shaggy cinnamon trees, clove bushes, and other specimens of the culinary aromatics that for centuries lured the world to this small rich spot in the faraway Indian Ocean. The roadside market villages along one stretch of road were named for their primary product: Pineapple Town and Coconut Town and Cashew Town. Young women stood on the verges, waving down motorists and offering pineapples freshly peeled and skewered or plastic bags stuffed with cashews salted, unsalted, or coated with a searing chile dust.
Somewhere near here began the absurd clustered rainbows, special effects so cheap it was like wandering onto a blue-screen stage at DreamWorks. Dissolving and forming again, they were like triumphal gateways marking the way to my destination, itself also like a theater set of sorts: a great hotel designed in the 1990's by the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and built near the ancient Buddhist-temple town of Dambulla.
Of all of Bawa's contributions to architecture, the most important is not the obligatory open-air lobby so often aped in pursuit of Asian Modernism or the equally inevitable infinity pool, but the deeply harmonious way his buildings relate to their settings. It is as if the architect kept always in consultation with the protective spirits of a given place, careful not to offend the genius loci. As a result, few structures and fewer hotels I have seen are more sensitively fitted to their setting than is the Kandalama, a building nestled against a cliff and roofed with sod. Built without the use of earth-moving equipment, the hotel eventually came to resemble something organically accreted—a multistory pendant honeycomb, say, canted along a hillside, with hundreds of windowed chambers oriented to the sunlight and to views across a vast lake dug manually some 800 years ago.
Vines cloak the façade of the building. Troupes of gray langur monkeys swing from the struts. Come nightfall, small harmless bats carom along the ceiling of a stucco entry corridor cut from the live stone of the cliff. Airy, large, and fitted with handsome simple furniture made from local mahogany and dense-grained padauk, the rooms are monastic and restful. I can imagine spending weeks at the Kandalama, or months. I can imagine sitting for a very long time on the terrace, watching hawks kiting in thermals above the lake and eruptions of herons, their wings unbending with the creaky mechanics of umbrella spokes. That early winter, at least, very few rooms were occupied at the Kandalama, and while this felt odd to me, it did not seem prophetic. The hordes, I assumed, would arrive very soon.
My goal was to pass some days visiting the monasteries and ancient Buddhist sites of the Golden Triangle, an area whose perimeter can be charted on a map with outlines connecting Kandy, the last precolonial capital of the Sinhalese kingdom in old Ceylon, to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. For decades, civil war had made these places too risky to visit—a discouraging thing, given that some of the greatest Buddhist sites in Asia are now off-limits, have degenerated badly, or else, in the case of Bamiyan, have been blown to smithereens.
Sri Lanka, of course, was the location of some of the earliest Buddhist kingdoms, and its shrines are correspondingly important. Whether or not because of the elections, I found them all unpopulated that season, when it sometimes seemed to me that I had the island to myself. Besides an occasional pilgrim, I was alone at sites like Dambulla, where stone steps rise 500 feet through rock face to five great cave temples dating back to the first century B.C., each ornamented with fresco cycles that depict episodes in the Buddha's life in serial sitcom form. And except for a handful of tourists and touts halfheartedly hawking overpriced guidebooks, the fifth-century fortress of Sigiriya was briefly my property.
Up close, the table rock that had been visible as a low hump from the terrace of my room at the Kandalama revealed itself to be a vertiginous outcrop rising 560 feet above swaths of manicured field and grove. Built as his redoubt by a fifth-century king called Kasyapa, Sigiriya had been abandoned and known only to locals for centuries before British colonial explorers hacked it from the jungle in the 19th century.
At the lowest level lay a series of cool, shaded gardens surrounding symmetrical water channels designed according to a complex system of hydraulics and later copied by the Moghuls in northern India. Climbing higher by stages along zigzagging stairs that are entered between the colossal sculptured paws of a lion (Sigiriya is thought to be a corruption of Simha-giri, or "lion mountain"), the path I followed snaked up to a midpoint spot where it diverged into a spiral stairway. There, a catwalk, bolted to the cave wall, was slung below a rock shelf and protected by a corrugated roof; beneath it, the walls were painted with ancient frescoes so evocative they more than merited the climb.
No one knows the meaning of this small grouping of elegant creatures sometimes deemed Apsaras, or celestial beings. Were they, in fact, temple maidens captured as they processed to a shrine nearby, as some suggest?Were the topless lovelies toting trays of fruit or delicately clutching lotus flowers prostitutes?Were they bosomy avatars of ancient triple-X porn?Whatever their meaning, the frescoes show clearly the influence of Hindu art from ancient south India, whose queens were often sent to Sri Lanka in strategic marriages to local noble families. Robust and frankly sensual, they are a relief to the eye, a break from the sexless ethereality of so much Buddhist art.
Up on top of Sigiriya rock are the ruins of the palace, less compelling somehow than the views of the horizon across viridescent jungle composed of a thousand greens. There are greens dense and somber and also exuberant or else virile or menacing or shockingly fresh or in places so irradiated-looking that they could set a Geiger counter humming. There are greens that seem manifestly poisonous or else are as glittering and gemlike as the legendary stones mined from the inexhaustible veins beneath Sri Lanka's soil. There are parrot greens and greens the color of the pythons that abound on the island, which grow to the diameter of a man's thigh.
Since I am afflicted, as a writer friend once said of herself, with a poor sense of historical perspective, I failed, when looking out at the immemorial landscape, to conjure up the machinations and horrors, the bloody revolts, the slave armies required to bring this sublime city, now lying in ruins, into being. It was no easier for me to dwell on an ugly and more present reality. Not 30 miles from where I stood, the dirt roads and emerald fields of the contested northeast region were pocked with rebel hideouts and studded, too, with the mines that have proved so effective at robbing the unsuspecting of their limbs.
It is often said of Sri Lanka that it is the size of Ireland and almost as often that its history is even bloodier than that other island's. Yet with the highest literacy rate in the region, generally high health standards, vast natural resources, and fairly evolved government conservation policies, there was reason then to buy into the belief that Sri Lanka was poised to become the next great destination. And as we rode along the backcountry roads that week, passing villagers whose fingers were dyed red to prevent voting fraud, there was even cause to discount some of the doomsayers' prophecies about the eroding peace process.
Still, it was pointless on that visit to try ignoring the signs of tension: armed roadblocks were posted along the tree-shaded highway from Kandy to Colombo, and troops surrounded the heavily fortified Temple of the Tooth. I had stopped there briefly while in Kandy, padding barefoot around the gilded antechambers to the sanctum sanctorum, where the Buddha's molar may or may not be enshrined.
But the atmosphere was creepy and I got out fast, preferring to spend some deliriously happy hours traipsing around in the loamy air of the nearby Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, a beautiful place with its improbable Hollywood avenues of Royal Palms, its specimen trees planted by 19th-century European nobility touring the colonies, its immense mangroves filled with racketing fruit bats, and its overall sense of paradise in the Persian root sense of that word—a glorious enclosure, a microcosm of tumultuous, hectic, unstoppable life.
The next day we took the coastal road south toward Galle Fort, and the great surprise of that leg of my journey, the unblemished coast southeast of suburban Mount Lavinia. The boom of cheap hotel buildings, tourist lodgings, even the gaudy luxury complexes I'd been told to expect were all there, but were offset by mile upon mile of unspoiled sugar-white beaches fringed with cinderblock houses, their walls sprouting wiry growths of bougainvillea. The white stupas that marked the coast road at regular intervals resembled blanched onions. Near Kosgoda, I impulsively asked the driver to follow a sign indicating a turnoff to the Victor Hasselblad Turtle Hatchery, a place that has inhabited my thoughts and dreams ever since.
This is surely the moment to note that, like almost everything else along that part of Sri Lanka's coastline, the Hasselblad hatchery was eradicated on the morning of December 26, 2004. Almost two years later, it has still not been rebuilt. That I was not in Sri Lanka, not on the beach, not in a cottage hotel by the shore when the waves came in is of significance mainly to me and to those I love; it would be grotesque to assert my luck in the face of an event in which more than 39,000 Sri Lankans alone are estimated to have died.
It is human enough, however, to replay in one's head the script of those blank days on which the calamity of the tsunami was not yet written. And it is forgivable, I hope, to wonder why it was that I decided to leave the country when I did and not stay on.
Before setting out on my second journey to Sri Lanka, I had been asked to give thought to the idea of a trip that had changed my life. I was not sure then that I had ever taken one that, in some way, had not. By this I mean nothing as banal as the overrated travel epiphany; I've never had one. Rather, at a certain point I came to see my travels as a series of errands, a kind of ongoing spiritual task whose purpose, as far as I can gather, is to mark out the gorgeousness of life and the world, and also the incontrovertible reality that it can all be closed out randomly and in barely an instant.
As it happened, an acquaintance of mine—someone I'd met a month before at a New York party—was on the beach near Hikkaduwa on the morning that the waves came, asleep with his partner in a beachside cottage.
Picked up by the Western press, his story was played again and again on television until it took on the aspect of a fable. The two men were asleep in their bed when the wave surged and flooding woke them. Swept out through what had been the roof of the cottage, they clung to a miraculously appearing telephone pole and promised to each other to hang on. The force of the water wrenched them apart, however. Only one survived the tsunami. The ocean swallowed the other, whose body was never found.
As seemingly everywhere else on that trip, I shared the hatchery with only a couple of visitors that benign morning. For $5, a local in frayed khaki trousers gave me a private tour through the small network of incubator tanks, plain concrete enclosures shaded with palm-thatched awnings. Each was dated according to when the eggs had been laid: leatherbacks, olive ridleys, green turtles, hawksbills, all collected from clutches on the nearby beach by the same fishermen who might once have pillaged the nests and sold the eggs or tangled the turtles themselves in drift nets and left them to drown.
Bare bulbs suspended at the corners of the tanks hung like tiny lunar beacons to guide hatchlings toward the safety of a small pool of water. As they matured, they would be moved to larger tanks and eventually returned to the sea. The profound effect on me of the young turtles was unnerving and not easy to comprehend. Was it their helplessness I found moving, something personally irresistible in the symbolism of a hard carapace armoring a vulnerable core?Was it the fabled longevity of these amphibious representatives of ancient life on the planet, the sense of them as links to the aeons before life emerged from the muck and the waters and onto land?I'm not sure.
I stayed several hours that day and visited again at the end of the week. In the meantime, I had been to Galle Fort. Built by the Portuguese, expanded by the Dutch and later the British, it was, when I visited it, a place of giddy excitement, as a variety of international hoteliers put final touches on restorations of structures like the fine 17th-century building that was soon to become the sleek new Amangalla resort. Brisk onshore winds cut the heat and made wandering the narrow lanes of the 90-acre walled city a pleasure. I stopped in to see Fort Printers, a five-room boutique hotel in a renovated 18th-century mansion. And I waved off the importuning of a scam artist with a tale of improbable hardship, the kind of hoked-up sob story that soon enough would come to seem like a thin joke. Then, just a short time before the tsunami, I boarded a plane and left the island for home.
It was to breezy fine weather that I returned, slightly more than one year later, partly to retrace the steps of my earlier journey and also to discover whether, as one journalist put it, the tsunami had brought together the island's population or driven it apart. Hotel operators, of course, were quick to reassert the belief that Sri Lanka was back in business. Nature colluded in this hope by blanketing the more grotesque public scars of the disaster with a deceiving mantle of green. As before, I found myself seduced by the island, and this time I was not alone. The Kandalama was now packed with honeymooners and British tour groups, those indomitable members of international travel's flying wedge. Although the coastal resorts were back in business, the upscale clientele they were built for seemed to be biding its time.
This was partly a result of the political situation, which was and remains, at this writing, more tenuous than ever. A great effort was being made, it seemed to me, to suppress the horrors of the recent past and get on with life, but the ghosts of the tsunami still made themselves felt, drifting into daily life and conversation as palpably as if ambling bodily into a room.
This became clear to me one afternoon when Walter Malgudi, the man I'd hired to drive me, earnestly shared with me his explanation for why it was that some had died in the tsunami and others had not.
It was karma, said Mr. Malgudi, a Buddhist, like most Sri Lankans. He himself had narrowly avoided becoming a victim, when the tourists who had hired him for a drive along the coast changed their plans on a whim. Mr. Malgudi drove down to the ocean anyway that afternoon, after the waters had begun to recede. He had seen the stranded and already bloating bodies of islanders who, as he claimed, ran out onto the sand flats when the ocean first drew back and staked the land that was newly exposed. "For 20 minutes, they were rich," he said flatly. "Then they were dead."
It was honey-gathering season when I returned to Sri Lanka. Bottles drained of arak, or country liquor, were now filled with mahogany-colored liquid robbed from wild hives and set out for sale on roadside tables. The honey gatherers, an aboriginal people known as the Veddahs, live deep in the northeastern forests. Or they did, Mr. Malgudi explained, until the rebels began mining these forests and appropriating large tracts to construct training camps.
The honey was strong and pungent; it tasted of wildness. As we bumped along back roads, I indulged myself in the hope that the coast would be rebuilt, the great sea turtles would return, and the cease-fire would hold, and that Sri Lanka would again become the peaceful paradise that was so obviously the Creator's intention. A fierce sun shower erupted then, pelting the car with rat-a-tat percussion and drenching the fields. As quickly as it started, it was gone. A rainbow formed across the hills nearby, as some government soldiers with bored expressions and machine guns waved us down at a checkpoint. Glancing indifferently at Mr. Malgudi's license, they sent us on our way.
To reach the Kandalama Hotel, one leaves the paved main road and cuts down a dirt track to bump along for several miles through agrarian scenes that cannot have changed much for centuries. Bucketing through cane fields, we made our way past small clusters of dwellings where blue smoke plumed from cooking fires, a farmer in a plaid sarong clucked at his bullock, and a clutch of cattle egrets, white as starched cloths, flapped up suddenly.
It was the time of day when banks of cool air drift down from the hills to ease the heat's tight grip. The setting sun struck and made mirror shards of the still paddy water, reflecting fragments of sky and cloud in a way that caused the world suddenly to seem more miraculous than ever; also more precious and fleeting.
WHAT TO KNOW
Since publication of this article, a travel advisory has been issued for Sri Lanka; stay updated on current events through the American State Department Web site, www.travel.state.gov.
Visas for most travelers are not required for non-business trips shorter than 30 days.
Immunizations for hepatitis A and B are recommended. Malaria and typhoid are also risks; protect yourself from mosquitoes, and drink only bottled water.
WHEN TO GO
From December to March, temperatures rise well into the eighties; June through October you'll find lower prices and quieter beaches—but also frequent monsoons.
From London, fly British Airways through Mumbai. Other nonstop flights arrive in Colombo from Dubai International Airport and the Maldives Airport in Malé.
WHERE TO STAY
- The 26 rooms at this two-year-old Aman resort include a 140- square-foot Garden House with a private butler and a traditional Ayurvedic spa.
- 10 Church St., Galle Fort; 94-91/ 223-3388; www.amanresorts.com; doubles from $500.
- Fort Printers
- Dutch and English influences abound at this 18th-century mansion, whose five suites are decorated in jewel-toned velvets.
- 39 Pedlar St., Galle Fort; 94-91/ 224-7977; www.thefortprinters.com; doubles from $145.
- Kandalama Hotel
- This luxury eco-property is certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.
- Sigiriya, Dambulla; 94-11/230-8408; www.aitkenspencehotels.com; doubles from $150.
- Taj Samudra
- Minutes by car from Colombo's city center, this 300-room hotel features a geometric pool that complements the property's modern suites.
- 25 Galle Face Centre Rd., Colombo; 94-11/244-6622; www.tajhotels.com; doubles from $120.
WHERE TO EAT
Barefoot Café & Shop
Textile designer Barbara Sansoni serves fresh seafood and pastas and just-squeezed, sweetened lime juice in a cool, inviting garden shaded by frangipani trees.
706 Galle Rd., Colombo; 94-11/ 258-0114; lunch for two $10.
WHAT TO SEE
Colombo National Museum
Antique furniture, Buddhist bronzes, and royal dress are all on display. There are live puppet shows on weekends in the first-floor Children's Museum.
Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo; 94-11/269-4366.
All five frescoed caves are located 330 to 500 feet above Dambulla's southern road, the Colombo-Trincomalee.
The UNESCO-preserved fort, built by the Dutch in 1663 on Galle's southern isthmus, completely surrounds the city's Old Town.
In Colombo, near Beira Lake; the resident elephant is a highlight.
61 Sri Jinarathana Rd.; 94-11/243-5169.
Peradeniya Botanic Gardens
Founded in the 16th century, the largest botanic garden in Sri Lanka is 21/2 miles from Kandy, the country's second-biggest city.
The ruins of Sri Lanka's medieval capital can be toured on foot or bicycle. Several buses make the trip from Kandy to Kaduruwela, the closest bus stop.
Alahana Piriwena; 94-27/222-2121.
The Mount of Remembrance, originally a king's fortress, sits atop a 560-foot-high rock. Buses depart hourly from Dambulla.
Sigiriya Project; 94-66/223-1815.
- Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa)
- Erected in the 18th century to guard the Buddha's sacred tooth, the pink temple is open 24 hours; there are daily prayer sessions, and a museum open to devotees and tourists.
- Palace Square, Kandy; 94-81/2234-22226; www.sridaladamaligawa.lk.
WHAT TO READ
Two books by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient: Anil's Ghost weaves a fictional tale of a young woman's return to war-ravaged Sri Lanka; Running in the Family is an autobiography that retraces the steps of Ondaatje's Dutch–Sri Lankan ancestors.