As written in the Mahavamsa, an Indian Princess traveled in a caravan. When they were attacked by a lion, her companions fled, but "when the lion had taken his prey ... he behelded her from afar. Love laid on him, and he came towards her with a waving tail and ears laid back. Seeing him, ... Without fear she caressed him, stroking his limbs. The lion, roused to the fiercest passion by her touch, too her upon his back and bore her ... to his cave, and there he was united with her" (Quoted after Thomas Garvin, click here). The princess received a boy and a girl, which married each other and had 16 children out of which the first one was Prince Vijaya. As a teenager, the prince must have been even worse than normal teenagers, so that people demanded him and 700 male companions to be punished by death. The king though, put them on a ship and sent them into exile. They landed in Sri Lanka in the 6th century BC and to straiten out the male/female ratio, they imported wives from India. The legend says that this is the origin of the people of Sri Lanka.
Elsewhere, people pay a lot of money to go on a roller coaster ride. In Sri Lanka you just take a public bus for 20 Rupees. Everybody is cheering and happy. The only difference is that you can actually fall off the bus, which you can’t on a roller coaster. But a bus ride is a team sports here. Everybody works together. Elderly, pregnant women and children are on the seats. Younger women on the centre positions and men close to the doors. When you feel you fall off, somebody will grab you and pull you back. Then everybody laughs and smiles and shakes the head in the way that you don’t know whether it means “yes”, “no” or something completely different. After the ride your new friends wave you goodbye and everybody is happy to have "won" the game called "go by bus to town".
Still not many foreign visitors come to Sri Lanka. Many don’t see it as a travel target and still have in mind 30 years of fierce war which ended in a "spectacular" victory of government troops in May 2009, by which most leaders of the so called Tamil Tigers were killed or captured. In the final campaign, the Tamil Tigers were pushed back into a narrow land strip, together with thousands of trapped civilians, which were said to be used as human shields. In the battles for Kilinochchi, the Elephant Pass and Mullaitivu also civilian targets were shelled with heavy artillery and air raids, including hospitals and schools, in which at least 7000 civilians were killed in less than 3 months. It is always striking for me that even in the most war torn countries in Asia, given all the trauma and tragedy, you find the most friendly and happy people. Even more so, specially in Sri Lanka, nearly everybody I met was just wonderful. Sure, you find the normal street scams, but somehow even the "little gangsters" are charming. But where I went I did not find many of them.
One day, I spotted a VW Beetle on a scrap yard. When I started repair works, people immediately came in with happy mood and suggestions, but mostly feeling a bit of pity that this strange foreigner wants to repair a piece of scrap, here where perhaps no foreigner ever appeared since World War II.
"It will never work, Sir"
"It will. It's a Volkswagen"
A lot of laughter, shrieking and cheering and finally applause when the old air cooled engine came to life again: tatatatatatat ....trtrtrtrtrtrtr!
One of the people around, took off his cap and approached me respectfully:
"How do you know how to do that, Sir?"
"Do and MBA in Hong Kong and I show you"
Cheering again: "Yes, let's all do an MBA! How much is it?"
"Perhaps you get a scholarship. We need some real diversity"
"Yes, by ship is much cheaper! Let's all go by ship to Hong Kong!"
“Which ship, Sir?”
“From Colombo, Sir?”
I guess the Hong Kong Immigration Department is afraid of nothing more than this idea. Already see the news on the South China Morning Post: “Professor suggests to increase diversity by boat people”. Sri Lankans are in Hong Kong more known as “imported workforce” for example to drill tunnels or do other jobs, while the local Kevins and Kitties are becoming the leaders of tomorrow. But many Sri Lankans also are lawyers in India and Singapore, as they are trained very well in the British Legal System. And the students I talked to at Colombo University were a really smart bunch.
The Beetle took me through the most beautiful landscapes of Central Sri Lanka until it died for ever. It was a short rebirth as a piston broke soon after. Our first family car was exactly a model like this. A white VW Beetle with a sunroof. I remember that my father let me drive it when I was just about 6 and could not even reach the paddles. Now, this might have been the last time I had the chance to drive one.
Another day, a walk through the villages ended in an invitation by a villager for a hunting stroll. As there were no hunting rifles, this became a cheerful competition in shooting ravens with Type 56 assault rifles (the Chinese copy of the AK 47), which is nearly impossible firing the short version of the 7.62 mm bullet. But if you hit one by chance, the bird bursts into a cloud of black feathers. Great fun. I wish I would have had this for the dogs on Lamma Island.
The whole country of Sri Lanka feels a bit like a movie set for a colonial romance. Everything is very charming and romantic, except the traffic in the cities. It starts with the train from Colombo Fort Station, the cake and tea, the Queens Hotel, the Kandy War Cemetery, The Mansion (www.mansionkandy.com) and the jungles of the last battles against the Tamil Tigers. Can't help starting to think back to the Eastern India Company and the time, when Lipton was not a tea bag, but a person who gave Ceylon (the colonial name of Sri Lanka) its fame for tea.
I hope more people will visit Sri Lanka, without distorting its culture. But a drunk white "mate" (that's how he called me), reminded me that the combination of cheap beer and open borders often attracts people which are not more than “seed financing” for emerging prostitution services. I hope Sri Lanka finds a way not to let in these kind of “business angles” in, while maintaining its openness. As for the mentioned drunk western "mate", he managed to break his nose by banging his head into a toilet. Well, what can I say? Perhaps: “Sorry mate, but actually Mother Theresa was my role model since childhood. I wanted to embrace you, but you slipped. I swear by my mother that this is true (and my mother will support this, because we share same values when it comes to people like you). I hope you will find back to the right path of life and to your country of residence soon. You did not find your wallet? Let me remind you that you donated its cash content to a local girls orphanage, as they need it most to be protected from people like you. Thank you for your contribution, which was very generous. Sorry, I lost the rest including your passport. I was just joking: Mother Theresa has never been my role model. Funny? There is nothing like German humor. How is your nose?”
People said at its time, "the sun never sets over the British Empire", but it does at the end of another day in Sri Lanka. My visit is short, but I will come back. It is a wonderful country.
When you travel a lot, you are reminded that "the global village" does not exist. The world becomes larger every day you really look at it. And I doubt it is getting flat, as some people start to believe it again (welcome back to the Middle Ages). Fast communication and fast travel have not made it smaller or changed its geometry at all. A year of world travel is too short, five years also, and even a lifetime is. But that's all we have.
In a tropical sunset, I remember some words of the Polish philosopher Jozef Maria Borchenski: "Life is only a flash of light between two infinities of darkness. And this flash is everything".