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 Amazon.com. Photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Sri Lanka Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.


9 SRI LANKA

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:

YOU ARE FLYING INTO A COUNTRY THAT CAN’T KEEP THE ROAD TO ITS ONE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT PAVED, AND LINES THE ROAD IN AND OUT WITH BOYS WITH NO FACIAL HAIR HOLDING MACHINE GUNS.

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.

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From the Eventual Book: Sri Lanka

As we continue
proofreading and polishing up the eventual book Common
Sense and Whiskey, 
we're posting the
chapters here. Last week's entry: Tasmania.
Before that:
Paraguay and Climbing
Mt. Kinabalu
. Today we're in Sri Lanka.

Sriboat

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

YOU ARE FLYING INTO A COUNTRY THAT CAN’T KEEP THE ROAD TO ITS ONE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT PAVED, AND LINES THE ROAD IN AND OUT WITH BOYS WITH NO FACIAL HAIR HOLDING MACHINE GUNS.

Lurching into and out of potholes on the road from the airport to the beach, dim yellow from the 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.

*****

In the pre-dawn gray the fishing fleet already trolled off the Negombo shore. 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 his 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.

He’d built it himself. It was before the 2004 tsunami and I don’t know if it, or Sheldon and his family, are there anymore. 

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The Colombo government is the first this century to defeat an insurgency

The words in the headline are a quote from NightWatch.

The momentous events in Sri Lanka give reason to reflect on the gentle humanity of the people we met there. Two quick stories:

*****

Sheldon In the pre-dawn gray, the fishing fleet already trolled off the Negombo shore. One last tardy catamaran, sail full-billowed, chugged out to join the rest.

Sheldon had already been out and back. A slight fellow, just chest high, with a broad smile under a 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, 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. It was in a community of a dozen thatch huts.

He’d built it himself and 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” several times. 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 smock with her hair pulled back, rose to smile and greet me, and his precocious four and six year old daughters danced around us all. He took his son, just one year old, into his lap as we talked.

We all 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 be dying of local 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.”

– Sheldon and his family lived a scant hundred yards from the ocean, before the tsunami of December 2004. I have no idea of their fate that day.

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Sri Lanka Tea Country

Sritea The Tamil Tigers invented the suicide belt. They are accused of being complicit in the May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at a campaign rally in India. In a harrowing attack for travelers, Tamil Tiger rebels armed with mortars stormed Sri Lanka's only international airport in July, 2001. Since 1976 the Tamils have vexed successive Sri Lankan governments – until now.

As the last days of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a regular fighting force may be upon us, we thought we'd revisit a bit of our stay in Sri Lanka's tea country during a national election campaign ten years ago:

    – 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 6187 feet, the next, over the road, read “Welcome to the Salubrious Climes of Nuwara Eliya.”

Straight through the scramble to the far side of town stood the old British Grand Hotel. You wonder what it was doing here. 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.

The story goes 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 ones agitating for independence in the north) got housing, a stipend, a garden and a quota. After that they got a premium for the tea they picked, per kilo.

*****

A little after six o’clock on election day morning, two loudspeakers chanted the call to Allah just beside 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, birds and dew run riot.

At this hour, the town 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 for convenience store used from here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day.

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

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