Sri Lanka 2016
Impressions of a recent trip to Sri Lanka the land of my birth, all my growing up and the first few years of adulthood.
I felt alone. The feeling was not starkly apparent at first, probably because of some mounting excitement about going there. But, I recall a nagging suspicion in the days leading to my departure from Bangkok where I was spending a few days with my partner and his family, that loneliness would dominate the ten days I spent in my home country. And, to a large extent, it proved to be the case, a self-fulfilling prophesy some might say. My fears sprang from memories of loneliness, inadequacy and being out of place as I trod the dusty Sri Lankan earth. I was never dysfunctional, but also never fulfilled. That is not to say I did not enjoy my most recent holiday, but I constantly felt that I could be having a better time. When people I had contacted did not ring back my feelings of loneliness and isolation were heightened. So, through my veil of loneliness what are my impressions of the home country, the land with which I still strongly identify?
Colombo has the same socio-economic components I remember from childhood. They still do not overlap. There is no egalitarianism whatsoever. The very rich and those who have joined their ranks through success and talent lead cocooned lives, having little or no contact with the majority of Sri Lankans. I felt out of place in their midst. I could not be at ease, and was unable to muster up my usual, quite voluble self. There was nothing anybody specifically said or did to trigger a retreat into my shell, but I felt that I had nothing that warranted their attention or interest let alone acceptance into the stratosphere they inhabited. What really pushed me back were archaic personal feelings that somehow bubbled to the surface.
Colombo itself is not without chaotic charm. True, the roads can be a nightmare to travel along. My most frequented mode of transport was the cheeky, versatile trishaw which weaved a path between bigger vehicles capable of crushing and flattening it together with its occupants. I found the rides quite exhilarating. The slightly acrid but tolerable smell and taste of exhaust fumes were constants, and I found myself often marvelling at the driver’s skill as he squeezed the vehicle, with me inside it, into the narrowest of gaps to get past cars, buses, trucks, taxis and other trishaws, while managing to also avoid cyclists and pedestrians who also claimed their right on the highway. Somehow I never felt we were ever going to be involved in a serious bingle. The traffic seemed to be a single, writhing, swirling, zig-zagging body moving as one, with all its component parts in chaotic equilibrium. I took in regular gulps of exhaust fumes, cheerfully accepting each one as part of the adventure. And my physical health was never better throughout my holiday.
I survived Colombo’s roads without incident or even narrow shaves, although I might add that what constitutes a narrow shave is relative to one’s environment. On Colombo roads high risk is the norm. The roads are a leveller. On them, everyone is playing the same game and more or less of single purpose. Driving methods appear similar, as if there is only one method that works in order to physically progress: defensive, opportunistic aggression; or one won’t get anywhere. Being out with the traffic, noise and people was exhilarating. There is a lot of dust, and one often encounters powerful, repellent smells. People still chew betel, and I saw people spitting or clearing their throats onto the road. It did not disgust me, but I made a note to avoid stepping onto those sorts of discharges. No disgust because I accepted that it is the way of these parts. Respect of public property is not part of the country’s psyche. The roads seemed to be always crowded, buses and trains usually packed, and trishaws could always be seen zig zagging about with or without passengers aboard. A lot of people were on the move at any given time. Where they were going, apart from those that appeared to be heading towards or leaving their workplaces, is anybody’s guess. There were lots of walkers too.
The beach was another leveller. Privilege was not obvious amongst the strollers, joggers or those in the ocean. It was also much cooler than inland. I spent some of my most enjoyable Sri Lankan moments on the beach. I don’t normally visit beaches, but the Dehiwela – Mount Lavinia beach is as familiar to me as the homes I lived in. Morning beach walks were always looked forward to. I enjoyed them for much more than the exercise they provided. I cannot single out anything particular thing about them that was special. It was just a feeling, of which nostalgia was a recognisable component. The beach was usually cool, breezy, the water cool without a cold edge, and it had its own regulars and inhabitants, including a canine population. It was during these walks that I was happiest and most relaxed. Maybe, I felt like this because it was an activity confined to Sri Lanka. I don’t do beach walks anywhere else.
Many Sri Lankans are inordinately thin. In Australia such thin people might be suspected of carrying dangerous, debilitating illnesses. Even the really skinny ones I saw appeared to be in good health. Apart from the beggars of course, who looked suitably dreadful. The relentless heat and humidity must keep people thin. A lot of carbohydrate is consumed by way of rice, and rice flour products like string hoppers and hoppers, but the energy produced is probably all utilised attending to just normal daily activities.
Colombo’s rich are largely insulated from the dusty, sweaty, energy sapping chaos of most people’s daily lives. Stepping from air conditioned homes into air conditioned cars they are driven to the air conditioned homes of their friends and relatives, or to air conditioned shops and restaurants. Their encounter with the heat and dust is mostly transient and brief, and only if it cannot be avoided. At a concert I saw people with easy nonchalance step out of chauffer driven, expensive cars and make their way into the theatre. The short, brief walk from car door to theatre door was the extent of their flirtation with the real Colombo, maybe even the real Sri Lanka. I found little in common with them, despite being sure I could hold my own amongst them on any level. The elitism was palpable, the born to rule, born to be admired, born to be respected air about them evident. People I know seemed to be very comfortable with them.
What about the ordinary folk? In many of them I saw resignation to their lot in life, submission to their circumstances, options limited by incomes, if there were any, that barely paid for essentials. Most patrons of supermarkets appeared to be foreigners. Life is still tough for the masses. The end of the civil war may have provided only one form of relief, warranting just a moment’s respite and possibly celebration, before the hardships of daily life would have quickly returned to assert themselves.
The local food was mostly delicious, particularly curries with rice or hoppers or string hoppers. Strangely, for me, a food lover, I was not interested in food. There were other things on my mind. Why was I reluctant to call people who promised to ring me but did not? I felt like an outsider with plenty of time on his hands trying to impose himself upon people for whom he was low on the pecking order. I had made the first move with most of them, and I took them at their word when they promised to call. Maybe there is something I am missing or have forgotten about Colombo life. Maybe promises to ring are not viewed as binding.
I felt like I did not belong in Sri Lanka. Maybe I have been away too long. Belonging to Sri Lanka is part of a young, immature me. My mature self belongs somewhere else even though an indelible part of me is still unquestionably Sri Lankan. I felt lonely, but never uncomfortable, never unsafe, even in the presence of members of the armed forces. When I lived there, my sense of belonging to Sri Lanka was reluctant, resigned. The land of my birth and heritage became a nostalgic indulgence, and it evoked pride only long after I emigrated. I wish the country well, I wish it success in all its endeavours, especially in cricket, but I really, truly do not belong there anymore. If I lived there today, my life would probably be one of continuing loneliness, and, I suspect, a building exasperation with the lack of order, structure and predictability accompanied by growing regret at the decision to leave Australia, which, with all its faults, is an easy country to live in.
Despite the melancholy undercurrent I derived enjoyment and a sense of adventure from a number of things I did. The possibility of encounters with new people was always present and always exciting. I wanted to meet new people and strike common ground with them. I did succeed on a few occasions. Maybe, if I lived there, I could develop some good friendships. But, there are many of the middle and upper classes who, like many people here, would shrink away from me, find me too deep and serious minded for them. I have come to terms with it. I don’t think I could stand their company for very long either. I guess they have no hope of being like me, and I, in turn, have no hope of ever being like them.
I was not repelled at all by the dust and dirt, the crowded streets, the mayhem on the roads, the opportunistic behaviour encountered all over. I was quite amused by the readiness with which sob stories emerged in first time conversations. Smiles and greetings gladdened my heart. I quite understood strangers’ attempts to make a few bucks from a foreigner with means. I would have done the same in some way, maybe not as blatantly as some, but with a degree of deviousness and trickery I could cope with. Incomes are meagre for most people, insufficient to support even the barest of necessities. A few extra bucks here and there could mean a meal on the table or the ability to pay an instalment on a bill. I believe the smiles and greetings were genuine. People like to be happy. A smile or friendly hello can make a difference to one’s day for both the giver and receiver. I never failed to return a greeting. It meant a lot to me. I initiated greetings many times. They were all reciprocated, some enthusiastically.
What also amused me was people’s automatic reply in the affirmative when there was opportunity to earn some money. Taxi drivers were always just 5 minutes away from arriving to pick up the caller who had engaged them a good hour earlier. And they always knew how to get to wherever the caller wanted to go. Equally amusing was the irritation of the caller, now a passenger, when he or she discovered, sooner or later, that the driver either had no clue or was taking a more lucrative route. Although I could understand a passenger’s irritation on account of being late for something, it was no less amusing hearing the irritated party’s expressed outrage at being “taken for a ride” so to speak and having a little more money than warranted extracted from them for taxi fare.
I wasn’t greatly affected by the palpable evidence of extreme poverty. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I guess I became accustomed, bordering on impervious, to rank disadvantage and abject poverty. Begging was commonplace then, and cannot be escaped even now, if one ventures out into public places.
The shops looked sad, maybe because I made unconscious comparisons with Bangkok and Singapore. I bought practically nothing. How do they make a living? The shoes were particularly poor, even the sports shoes. Unfamiliar Chinese brands festooned most of the footwear shops. Poor workmanship was the order of the day. Close scrutiny revealed poor finishes. The larger sizes like mine were sometimes grotesque in appearance.
In Sri Lanka thoughts about my family often surfaced. They were not good thoughts. I felt sad and depressed whenever I thought about my life there especially as a teenager and young adult. Impulsively I decided to pull up stumps in Colombo and go to Jaffna for a few days. I did not want to waste my holiday hanging around by myself in the Colombo area. Heading for the hill country was also an attractive prospect, but when I thought about going somewhere I had never seen, Jaffna entered the framework and in a matter of hours I had bought rail tickets and booked 2 nights’ accommodation. I felt good about giving myself the opportunity to find expression for my common touch and my cheerful willingness to mix it with the masses. In my next blog I will talk about my rough and tumble adventure in Jaffna.