We made for an odd pairing, the bald grandfather and the boyish travel agent
“Welcome to Sri Lanka Sir.” He trumpeted while holding the car door open in his spotless gingham shirt.
I soon learned that “sir’ would be attached to every phrase, like a punctuation mark. But at the time my immediate reaction was to let my thirsty ego drink in the compliment. He placed my luggage in the backseat and we were off to my private villa. Though the paring was new we slid into our familiar personas; he the driver happy to answer questions that weren’t personal, and me the luxury travel agent, happy to ask them, so long as the answer didn’t make me appear ignorant.
The first few days were itinerary by way of Instagram, snapping pictures evoking quirk, exoticism or envy: An elephant Crossing Sign, A man in a sarong walking his young daughter to school, a peacock cooing atop a concrete scaffold, a ocean swallowing the last moments of sunset. Mr. Sim’s laconic patience never eroded, kindly pulling over to the side of the road and holding my IPhone, neither as a trinket nor a burden, assisting me as I took ‘selfies’. After returning the phone, he would stare straight ahead perhaps imagining the next tourist and what moment they demanded to capture.
“Mr. Matthew, it is not on the way, but would you like to see an ancient temple Sir?
At this point, with almost 15 hours of driving (I was visiting Sri Lanka by car to better form a complete narrative) had seen many sarongs, peacocks and on my cellphone many angry birds. So, with slight trepidation at this element out of my control, a phone call was placed, an old army jeep was procured, and we set off, deep into The Jungle devoured ruins of Ritigala.
From the 7th to the 11th century to a devout sect of aesthetic monks, who purposely removed themselves from civilization to attempt enlightenment called Ritigala home. Mr. Sim told me this briefly. Then amongst the quiet as we trod on centuries of wisdom, he began sharing stories of his hometown. How he went to the local temple to pray. How he didn’t like to drink but would still have a cup of palm wine now and again. How his children lived and worked in the big city of Colombo. How he was happy the war was over.
This was what was sacred to him.
The next morning, as we drove deep into the mountains of Sri Lankan Tea country I sat in the front seat. Mr. Sim’s eyes focused intently on the winding curves of the single lane highway, but I continued traveling along his voice.
“Mr. Matthew it used to be the English who grew tea sir. But now they are all gone. It is all Sri Lankans.”
When we finally arrived to the central tea hills of Sri Lanka the temperature once balmy tropics had become that of a crisp New England Autumn, I found myself surrounded by broadleaf trees and tea bushes, with a mountainside lake. There in front of me, stood a 19th century English Church, here the colonialists lay buried. As we walked through the graveyard of ornate headstones, Mr. Sim offered no eulogy. Only remarking that they imported the Tamil Hindi to work this land. A single Christian caretaker stood in the background raking leaves against the silence. There was no voice for them here, just a reminder that they once spoke. We set off next to the former tea plantation turned villa where I would be staying.
I cycled those tea-covered hills, where crumbling Hindu temples remained sacred to the Tamil workers. Any land not used for tea was for worship, or filled with humble housing. But in one small village a field became the commons ground for cricket played in the altitude while parents labored in the fields. And rather than be embarrassed as I cycled past, it was considered a must that I take a couple swings of the cricket bat. Then, they wanted me to “Selfie, Selfie “with all of them. Its one of the few photos I have where every smile is genuine. I still don’t know why we made each other so happy.
Mr. Sim drove me down from those tea hills towards the giant Dutch fort of Galle city. Along the way passing gorgeous coastlines that had become hippie towns, filled with surfers and collective amnesia. My guide in Galle was a huge robin chested man, with a beard like a paintbrush, I shook his hands and we set off exploring the narrow alleys, gorgeous religious buildings and the peaceful atmosphere of Christians, Muslim and Buddhist families living side by side as they had for centuries.
He told me when we stopped for papadums, that he had become a guide for no particular reason, which to him was the best way to do things. He was always an odd duck; a high-status Hindu in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist dominated south, a lover of punk music at an early age, and someone who had higher principles than a job title.
“ I used to work for the ad agency Leo Burnett, actually, it was a big deal I was one of the first in the Sri Lankan Office. To celebrate one of their top managers flew over here to christen the ship, so to speak. Anyways the office had planned to take him to one of the best Western Restaurants in Colombo, but he insisted on dining as the locals do, he wanted to eat rice and curry.
So, okay we take him to one of the best curry in Sri Lanka, we are all in our suits and they bring the curry out, and he’s a westerner so they bring out silverware. But I’m a Sri Lankan, so I begin to roll up my sleeves… “
Roll up your selves? I interject.
“In Sri Lanka, when we eat rice and curry, we use our hands. Not a fork, not a spoon, not chopsticks. If you don’t want to eat that way that’s your choice, but do not come to my country and eat my food and tell me how to eat. Do not speak for me.”
Later that night we’ll eat at a family friend’s and I will dip my hands into lentils while a mother watches our mouths, to see if they smile and water. I will eat rice with this man as coconut milk drips off our fingers. And I will understand why he refused to let a stranger come between his food, and his country.
On my last day in Sri Lanka I had planned to sit on the famous promenade of the Galle Face Green hotel, stare off into the sunset with a Gin and Tonic, and wistfully journal. But looking around in the lounge, I only saw those who could afford to be there.
So, on legs weary from temple hikes, fort cycling and long car rides; I stretched them one final time as I walked the Galle Face Green. Muslim families in full veils ran with their daughters holding kites. The local fisherman floated steamed crabs in my face and pleaded for purchase. Regular businessmen in their Western suits and ties taking one last stroll before returning home to wives and children. Those voices, all of them speaking on their own for the first time, one nation made whole.
I can’t wait to hear what stories come next.
We can’t wait for you to discover the voices newly emerging from Sri Lanka on our PAST AND POST COLONIAL PHILOSOPHY TOUR . Here we will introduce you to those who speak for Sri Lanka in faith, in ideology on politics, through their art, and through trying to close the book on centuries of colonialism while finding a new voice all their own. Come discover the philsophy and voices in one of Asia’s most diverse and spiritually rich countries with Asia Art tours!