Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Sri Lanka, Chapter Nine

Here is Chapter Nine of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We'll publish each chapter over the course of the year (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book direct from EarthPhotos Publishing, or at Photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Sri Lanka Gallery at


There are certain things a guidebook ought to level with you about right up front, before gushing about the exotic culture, pristine sandy beaches and friendly people. Number one, page one, straight flat out:


Lurching into and out of potholes on the road from the airport to the beach, dim yellow headlights illuminated scrawny street dogs sneering from the road, teeth in road kill. Mirja and I took the diplomatic approach and decided, let’s see what it looks like in the morning.


The fishing fleet already trolled off the Negombo shore in the gray before dawn. The last tardy catamaran, sail full-billowed, flew out to join the rest.

Sheldon had already been out and back. A slight fellow, just chest high, with a broad smile under a tight-clipped mustache, Sheldon showed me his catch, in a crate, a few gross of five or six inch mackerels.

He took me to meet all the other guys and see their catches, too, stepping over nets they were busy untangling and setting right for the afternoon. He led me to his house, just alongside and between a couple of beach hotels, shoreside from the road, among a sprawl of a dozen thatch huts.

Sheldon built it himself. It was before the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and I don’t know if it, or Sheldon and his family, are there anymore. He took me inside, immensely proud, to show me how he had arranged two hundred woven palm-frond panels on top of one another to build the roof. He told me “two hundred” over and over.

A thatch wall divided Sheldon’s house into two rooms. The only furniture was a rough wooden bed with no linens.

Sheldon’s wife, a very young woman dressed in a long blue and white smock with her hair pulled back, rose with a smile to greet me, and their precocious four and six year old daughters danced around us all. Sheldon took his son, just one year old, into his lap as we talked.


Sheldon and his family, Negombo Beach.

We sat together near a crack in the wall where sunlight came through so they could look at postcards of where I was from. They served sweet tea. I drank it fearing I’d pay for drinking the water later that day.

Sheldon walked me back toward Hotel Royal Oceanic, two hundred meters and several worlds apart. On the way, he explained to me that he was 31, his brother was “41, 42 sometimes. Lives nearby, Mama too. Papa no.”


I’d plotted a Sri Lanka itinerary twice too ambitious. The roads were fine, really. There were just too many people trying to use them. The two lanes couldn’t cope with the mass of people and machines vying for them.

If you weren’t on a highway, or were at a sharp bend in one, you’d have to stop to let bigger vehicles squeeze by. And since there were no bypass roads for heavy trucks, and since most folks didn’t have private cars but instead rode big, fat inter-city buses, you were forever stopping and starting and squeezing between milk trucks and cement mixers and buses, and in Sri Lanka there were also tuk-tuks, those three-wheeled two stroke vehicles used from Bombay to Bangkok to Borneo.

So we stopped for every bus. Our driver Tyrone joked about having to stop for women drivers, too. Our air conditioner “work very good, sir.” That was a damn good thing on the coastal plain where, as we passed a cricket match at 10:15 in the morning, I thought them all positively fools, running around in long pants.


Provincial elections were to be held the next day. Election posters covered the buildings. Tyrone claimed 99% literacy in Sri Lanka (other sources suggest 90 per cent), but even so they used a system like in the much less literate Nepal. Each party was represented by a symbol, so that the illiterate could recognize their party and vote, in this case, for “chair” or “elephant” or “table” or “bell.”

The main parties were the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in power for the last five years and advertised by posters of the president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, holding her hand high in the air, and the opposition United National Party, which had held power the prior seventeen years.

Plastic flags flew over the road like over a used car lot. Blue marked the incumbent party’s territory, green the challengers’. By the plastic flag test, it would be the Freedom Party in a romp.

In a tradition of pre-election violence, a couple of weeks ago a woman blew herself up in Colombo. And a few years ago, days before a visit by Prince Charles, eight were killed near the Buddha’s tooth shrine in Kandy, the second city and seat of power under the ancient kings.

Tyrone offered that, “I will be gathering information,” about potential trouble. This morning’s news was that a candidate in the east had been shot overnight. Yesterday was the last day of electioneering, with no rallies allowed from then.

That kind of violence baffled him, Tyrone said, and anyway it doesn’t matter which party rules – they both promise the world until elected and then they don’t do anything.

Some things are the same the world over.

He was puzzled why people took it all so seriously, he told us, when the leaders themselves don’t; At the end of the day, he said, they sit down and “they have a drink together.”


The wealthier houses presented whitewashed concrete walls to the road. Those funny-looking pointy-nosed one-cylinder “rototiller” tractors like they use in China were here, too.

Coconut plantations dominated the road to the main Colombo-Kandy highway. Bicycle carts pedaled by, some with wooden baskets built on back and scales cradled inside. Rolling, mobile merchants. Tyrone showed us a motorcycle with a box of little fish and said the guy goes door to door. Banana trees along the road, underneath tall coconut palms.

Everything grew here, I guessed. Mangoes were in season now, and avocados. Durians were out of season but they grew here, too. Tyrone called them the fruit that tastes like heaven but smells like hell.

Tyrone had fifteen years in the business and looked for all the world like a wiry, Sri Lankan Jeff Goldblum. He was good. He wasn’t a young, adventurous boy-driver. He was comfortable in himself. He told us not too many Americans came here and we could see that.

Germans, Italians, Japanese and British came, but really it was mostly the Germans, with their big charter airline LTU discharging a crew at the hotel as we left, and copies of Bild, Bild Frau magazines and cheap German novels and crossword books lying around the lobby coffee tables.


We got the Kandy road and suddenly Tyrone got politics. He liked the Freedom party because they were pro-privatization. They one hundred percent privatized the tea plantations, for example. He couldn’t cite a lot of other differences except the opposition was more socialist.

He guided us through a tangled story of ruling families and power politics that left me way behind. Sometimes he lapsed into tour-guidism (“Excluding inland waters, area of Sri Lanka is 65,000 square kilometers.”).

The Kandy road was wide enough for two cars to pass side by side. As we began to bite off a little elevation en route to Kegalle, Tyrone returned to the matter of the elections. There would be a curfew, he thought, tomorrow night as the election results came in, and it would most likely last for 24 hours.

That suggested possible violence, I thought, but it seemed normal to Tyrone, and it came with a benefit. We could get a “special travel permit,” and with the road less busy, “we can go ninety hundred,” he laughed.

Kegalle was stifling hot and gridlocked with buses and tuk-tuks in both directions. Traffic police stood surrounded by the chaos and did no good that I could tell. It reminded me of the garrison town of Wangdi Phodrang in Bhutan, about which Barbara Crossette wrote, “welcoming, but exceptionally unappealing.”
Four kilometers past Kegalle stood a road sign: “A home for domesticated, disabled and elderly elephants.” We swung left into the elephant orphanage at P

All these elephants had become separated from their families in the national parks or in the wild; Maybe their families were shot for their tusks, for example. One had his right front foot blown off by a land mine.


The Pinnawala elephant orphanage.

Each elephant had his own individual trainer (there being no shortage of labor) and the trainers worked with their elephants all their lives. Asian elephants are trainable (we rode elephants in Nepal who would pick up logs, even trash, on their mahout’s command), but that doesn’t mean a trainer isn’t occasionally killed, especially during mating season.

You could get in quite close and mingle with the elephants. Kids petted a little one. It was humane that they cared for the elephants but, scruffy and indolent as all of the herd was, the whole scene was a little downbeat.


Seamlessly, spice country turned to tea country. Looking around, you could believe that Sri Lanka supplied the whole world. Boys played cricket in the road and they had to, because there were tea bushes utterly everywhere else.

Over the front seat, Tyrone was explaining how buffalo milk mixed with honey is the local equivalent of yogurt, when up came two signs, one explaining we’d achieved an elevation of 6187 feet, the other reading “Welcome to the Salubrious Climes of Nuwara Eliya.”

Straight through the scramble, at the far side of town stood the old British Grand Hotel. Nuwara Eliya (pronounced “Noo-relia”) is an old British hill station, full of well-tended proper English gardens and lingering British-built structures like the Grand Hotel – dark, wooden, rambling, musty and old.

It’s said that the Sinhalese preceded the Tamils to Ceylon and when the British arrived, the Sinhalese were unwilling to work for the slave wages the Brits wanted to pay. So the Brits recruited the Tamils and brought them up here to pick tea.

The good Tamils, as Tyrone called them, (not the trouble-causing Tamils agitating for independence) got housing, a stipend, a garden and a quota. After reaching quota they got a premium for the tea they picked, per kilo.


Six o’clock on election morning. Two loudspeakers chanted the call to Allah alongside a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, with birds and dew run riot.

At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a staging area for the bus station. People queued and a few stores lumbered open. At a milk bar (that’s a name they use for convenience stores from here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day.

Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”


Voters walked to polling stations. They got time off to vote, though voting wasn’t mandatory.

We wouldn’t find out about a prospective curfew until later, but Tyrone said all the drivers thought (they all stayed at a drivers’ compound next to the hotel, like they do on East African package trips) that when the announcement was made, they’d all go down to the police station in the Nuwara Eliya town center and get travel permits.


During a beer at the St. Andrews Inn (where there was no sign of guests), afternoon clouds closed over hills that had just been gleaming in the sun, and before you knew it mist creeped into Nuwara Eliya.

Walking back the length of town, we stopped and shopped for a mango and some tiny peanuts. Mirja decided they’re far better than the big ones back home, the way Roma tomatoes are tastier than the big round ones. The guy fashioned a bag from a folded sheet of newspaper. He scooped it full for thirty rupees.

A beaming boy, sleeves rolled up to his forearms, stood before a videotape and chocolate store chopping garlic and spring onions on an ancient stovetop. It smelled delicious.

This was a real vacation day, way out on a trip, not coming or going, no travel, no agenda, no problem. We fired up the heater in mid-afternoon. I turned on the shortwave, as just now was NATO’s thirteenth night of bombing Serbia. In 1999, the internet hadn’t quite yet supplanted the shortwave.


Grilling lunch in Nuwara Eliya.


Chair won. The ruling alliance represented by the chair symbol gained ground, although they lost seats in Colombo and its suburbs. Tyrone told us the results but I knew them because I saw an animated chair doing a little jig on morning TV. Later, the BBC World Service called it a muddle, no clear victor, no mandate for either side.

There was some violence in Matale, north of Kandy, but the curfew the drivers had expected was only from eleven last night to five a.m. Still, at a police checkpoint at the edge of Nuwara Eliya town, the cop wanted us to go way around the other way, but Tyrone lied that he didn’t know that way.

The vote: People’s Alliance 2,105,546, United National Party 1,979,546, making up 70 per cent of registered voters. “No deaths have been reported…. The majority of the complaints were of a minor nature, bordering on threats, abuse and cases of simple hurt….” as the paper put it.


Tyrone didn’t do bags. He’d call a bell boy. He’d let Mirja and me haul them. He wouldn’t touch ‘em. He’d spend fifteen minutes guarding them in the lobby instead of loading them up.

But what a gorgeous day! Tyrone in his British driving cap, the air crisp and fresh, we set off at 7:30 sharp, down from the highlands, and we drove five and a half hours to get 160 kilometers. Five and a half hours for 100 miles.

Mist filtered the sunlight way up in the hills outside Nuwara Eliya as we drove past orchids grown for export around Lake Gregory, alongside the old British horse racing track on the east side of town, and then down toward Bandarawela.


Mirja had a cold, started a week before. What better way to chase it than an herbal massage at the renowned Suwa Madhu Indigenous, Eight-fold Ayurvedic Treatment and Manufacturers of Herbal Medicine and Beauty Cream Institute of Sri Lanka, just on the far side of Bandarawela town?

Seemed to do the trick. She came out hair up, oily and grinning.

While the institute did its magic, I wandered down the street to a communal spring and watched babies being washed by laughing kids, scarcely older, everybody splashing and playing in the pool. The oldest girl invited me home for tea. They placed a tiny cup in my lap and the whole family of eight watched me drink from it. I showed them postcards of home and they showed me their pride and joy, the oldest boy, away at the police academy, as photographed in his class picture.

Green double doors with a tassel of string instead of a door knob led to an anteroom that may have begun as the color of peach, but the plaster had long ago cracked and smudged. Three framed photos, all askance, decorated the otherwise bare walls as mama, graying at the temples, in sandals and a print skirt, sat in a high, straight-backed chair with her hands clasped in her lap, smiling, surrounded by her brood.

The youngest, a precious brown-eyed beauty, took shy refuge behind an intricately hand-carved chair, only her head and hands visible. I may have been a stranger, but she offered a ready, open smile.


Big smile, safe behind the chair.

Rolling across the flats bound for the coast, buildings, painted all over, advertised Sunlight, Astra, Vim, Signal, Rinso and Lifebuoy household products, and “Curd & Hunny.”

In monastery towns monks climbed on and off the buses. There were branches of Peoples Bank – “The Bank with a Heart” – and here was Triple Star Services – “A New Meaning to Cleaning.” Once we found ourselves trapped for a while by the Chirpy Chip truck – “From the House of Uswatte.”

Bikes hauling bananas plied the roadway, now alongside cactus and sawgrass. Marsh and wetland, salt pans, lagoons and windmills covered the Sri Lankan south.

We beat a tour bus into the otherwise empty Oasis Hotel at a place called Hambantota, where they played bad disco at lunch, and the waiters tried proper, formal serving techniques, barefoot. They smiled sweet as the day is long, but couldn’t pour a non-foamy Carlsberg.

Walking into the lobby, Tyrone gleamed, “How do you like it?” We turned to look around and he said, “My father was project manager for this entire complex. But he died before grand opening.” We told him we liked it real well.

At 2:45 two guys named Nandiga and Chaminda showed up in what had formerly passed for a jeep, and away we went to look for elephants.

Nandiga smoked cigarettes like the French do in movies, forefinger and thumb, as he hurtled back across roads we’d crossed much more carefully earlier in the day.  At the park entrance, Chaminda moved from the front seat to stand upon the back benches, the canvas top now off.

We bumped along adjacent to the shore, sometimes coming right upon it, for maybe three hours and saw more elephants than you’d think, maybe six or seven, but all of them looked cornered by the inevitable convergence of several jeeps – except for a female and male our jeep found first. We gave them distance as they watered themselves, courted, nuzzled and played.

We saw iguanas and monkeys, but it was really all about birds – over 20,000 in the park at any given time, they say. So we saw migratory wild ducks from Siberia, and sandpipers, jungle fowl, peacocks, peahens, gulls, plovers, terns, a few green parrots, egrets, pelicans, herons and storks. And a crocodile. Chaminda knew where to look.

Nandiga knew the park, too. At 22, he’d been working here nine years, as a helper before he got his drivers license, since then as a safari master. He drove like 23 year olds do the world over, but we made it home. Hey, it wasn’t Africa but it was fun, and hey, this safari only cost $26.50.


“When does the monsoon come?” I asked Tyrone.

“End of April, sir.”

“Is it ever late?”

“It is always late, sir.”


The sun was out at first in the morning, but by mid-morning, a soft, silver cast covered the sky, and storm clouds scudded up in the west. Surf crashed against shore, so tall that there were no stilt fishermen at Talpe. Their stilts swayed naked in the surf.

We passed a truck labeled on each side, simply, “Retort.”


Matara, just by the lighthouse at Dondra Head, had a seething bus terminal, where people jumped on and off buses while they were still rolling. There was a massive tuk-tuk parking lot and a central market, and even one or two modern glass buildings. With all that, still, at the southern tip of Ceylon, bullock carts ruled.


At Galle, at the ramparts of the Portugese fort (finished by the Dutch) streets were still Dutch-named. Every town along the coast was just like the last, hardscrabble, vendors selling only the things you need to live, no luxury. People, bicycles, buses, tuk-tuks, bullock carts and us – all sharing the lane and a half of blacktop.

Famous mask factories make special masks for exorcisms at the town of Ambalangoda. If you’re Catholic they’re exorcisms. If not, it’s chasing out evil spirits or chasing off the evil eye. At the Ambalangoda mask museum ancient legends and fairy tales are explained, and you can see masks of each of the eighteen Sanni Demons.

“These demons are very powerful and dangerous. They can make people sick by looking at them.”

There they all were, one by one, causing diseases of the bile, stomach pain, measles, mumps, diarrhea, poison like cobra poison in the body, and blister. And there was Gedi Sanniya, who causes furuncles.


Ambalangoda mask factory.

Spice garden number 100 (“private but approved by the tourist board”), provided a complete regime of 22 remedies, with explanations, just like in Guilin, including, for example #3 cinnamon oil against tooth pain: “Put a drop into the cavity of the tooth, when saliva acumulates spite it out again put one drop into the cavity repeat four times.” Or #13 kamayogi bon-bon: “Indicated in pre-ejaculation, the 1/2 teaspoon ful paste of kamayogi bon-bon eat before sexual affinity to control the pre-ejaculation and other debilities. Better before twenty minutes the sex and have some milk more.”

A train blocked the road in Bentota town, where there was a man whose all-day job was to stand there and close the gates for the five trains a day.

An elephant that was due to work in a wedding ceremony blocked the narrow little road to the beach for a time, but by mid-afternoon we inhabited a beachfront bungalow at Kasgoda beach. The surf crashed hard forty meters away. I rented a fridge for $3 a day and six Heinekens were in there cooling.

Chipmunks, cows and coconut palms on shore. Southbound geese offshore. A day at the beach. I’d gotten into a little Glenfiddich the night before and woke slow, had a Thai chilli-laced omelet and retired to the porch to read The Teaching of Buddha, supplied along with the New Testament in French, English and German.

The sea sounded a dull roar, and palm fronds caused a wind-whipped tempest, but offshore blue sky peeked through here and there. Occasionally a manic low black cloud raked the manicured lawn with water-fire. We put on the Sri Lanka music channel and Mirja did a long walk and found a turtle hatchery down the beach, and lots of eager-to-be-your-friend Sri Lankans.

A chipmunk climbed down the palm tree beside the porch and stared at me from three feet away. The wind blew things around inside our room. I felt bad for the people who’d come to lie in the sun, but I loved it. The earth was vividly, furiously alive.

How many Sri Lankans did it take to change a lightbulb? In our case three, several trips to the shop and about thirty minutes. They had to change the whole fixture.


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