An American Abroad

Sri Lanka: Notes and Miscellany

I’m back in Tunisia now, tanned and relaxed after my vacation in South Asia. I’ve got notes to myself that I made during my travels that don’t fit into the posts I made about my travels. Here are some notes from Sri Lanka.

• I flew Emirates for the first time. The company pays a lot of attention to branding. The first classes stewardesses were arrayed in tan suits with crimson kepis and white scarves which covered one side of their head. Looks like a cross between Ottoman and Arab dress. The second class stewardesses wear tan knee-length skirts and white blouses.

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The stewards wear brown pinstriped suits. All the clothing has crimson piping and lining. The look is intended to convey richness and something faintly exotic. On the plane, the seatback videos display (upon request) the direction of Mecca relative to the plane via a graphic of the plane with an arrow pointing to a picture of the famous black stone.

• Saw this ungainly bird, an Antonov 225, at the Tunis airport. It’s supposedly the longest and heaviest commercial plane in the world. It looks like it was designed by a Soviet committee: six engines, twin tail, very low landing gear.

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• In Colombo, I stayed at the Colombo Beach Hostel. Spartan dorm-style accommodations. The travelers who spent nights in the room with me included three young American women traveling together. I came back to the room one night to see a tapestry draped over the edge of an upper bunk bed and a soft cheery light glowing from the bottom bunk. When I entered the room, a hand pulled the tapestry back and I saw all three women on the bunk below watching a movie together. They had strung Christmas lights around the lower bunk, giving it a cozy cave-like feel, like the kind of bedroom forts my friends and I created when we were eight. I give full props to anyone with the foresight to travel with tapestries and Christmas lights.

• One day I walked into our room and saw the three women’s books laying about. I’m a book snoop. One was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, another A Moveable Feast, and the third Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first two are travel classics that people in the hostels I stayed at in Europe thirty years ago were reading. I felt a certain kinship. The Dr. Jekyll reader obviously marched to the beat of a very different drummer.

Also met an Asian American woman who’d worked for an ad agency in New York but had gotten sick of it and was now traveling around South Asia. She had broken her foot in India while sitting between carriages on a train in India. She made the mistake of dangling her feet out to catch the breeze when the train passed by a concrete mile marker. The blow smashed her ankle. She was hobbling on crutches. I felt bad for her, though she didn’t seem particularly unhappy. I brought her food from the restaurants I visited.

Another hostel mate was Tim from Yorkshire, age 30, a sound technician who once worked aboard a ship in the Adriatic Sea that went from port to port giving performances of anarchist theater. The vessel was decked out like a pirate ship and the cast and crew aboard lived communally. He’d also done sound with another theater company that toured Qatar. He, too, was reading Zen and the Art.

Diego and Nadine, 19 and 20, were from northern Italy, near the Austrian border. They had been traveling together for five months with an open-return ticked on Ethiad. A sweet couple.

Kevin was from China, one of a growing number of independent young Chinese tourists I saw. Chinese people have generally travelled in tour groups, but I have seen more and more Chinese people in their twenties traveling solo, which I think is wonderful. He was lugging an enormous Nikon D800 and a substantial tripod. I dusted off what little Chinese I have while speaking with him.

• In Anuradhapura, I hired a guide to take me to the ancient Buddhist ruins. Avila drove a white Toyota HiLuxe and had been a guide for twenty years, starting off by driving tourists around in his father’s old Morris Minor.

• Trains in Sri Lanka have a Victorian British feel. Signs around the stations are written with polite British circumlocutions. When a train is about to leave, the stationmaster comes out of his office with a large triangle bell and strikes it three times. There are separate bathrooms for tourists, something that didn’t sit well with me. A portion of each carriage is reserved for monks and clergy.

• Over breakfast at a tiny cafe in Colombo, I met Frank from Buxton. He had long white hair and a beard, a Santa-ish look. He had retired at age 52 and has spent 17 years backpacking around the world. He maintains a flat in Buxton and has a long-term girlfriend; they live separately but travel together. I was somewhat in awe of how a guy living out of a backpack could have such an immaculate pressed white shirt, especially when he told such wonderful stories about riding through Lao in the back of a flatbed truck and hiking through the jungles of Malaysia.

Colombo: Sri Lankan Independence Day

As Sri Lanka prepared to celebrate its independence day, I wandered around the central city near a large public park. Sri Lanka is a multicultural country, a fact that was hard to miss. There were Hindu families dressed in bright pinks and greens, Muslim women dressed entirely in black, and Buddhist and Christian families looking pretty much indistinguishable from what you’d see on the streets of any American town.

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A dance troupe rehearsed on a stage set up by city hall, while across the street a large Buddha statue watched placidly over the proceedings.

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Further down the street was the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, a striking contemporary building.

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Someday I would like to live in a house with a front door like this.

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Looking for Arthur C. Clarke

I’m not a big science fiction reader. I average one sci-fi novel a year. But since I was in Colombo, I decided to make it my mission to find Arthur C. Clarke’s house. Clarke was the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood’s End, and other hugely influential sci-fi novels of the mid-twentieth century. He died in 2008, so I knew he was unlikely to be home, but I’d heard that his partner Hector Ekanayake still lived Clarke’s house. I thought there was at least a chance I could get in. I read Childhood’s End on the plane to Sri Lanka just in case I needed to back up my story about being a huge Clarke fan.

Clarke lived in Sri Lanka from 1956 until his death. Reportedly, he was attracted to the country because of his keen interest in scuba diving. He is credited with discovering the underwater ruins of the Koneswaram Temple in Trincomalee. Then too, at the time, Sri Lanka had far more tolerant laws about homosexuality than the UK did (as anyone who has seen the recent film The Imitation Game can understand).

My first job was to find the house, which wasn’t easy in a country (like many others in the region) where street names and numbers can be haphazard and difficult to locate. Michael, the wise and helpful owner/manager of the Colombo Beach Hostel, suggested that I try at the institute that bears Clarke’s name. A web search located the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies, so I hailed a tuktuk and off I went.

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Unfortunately, I had knowingly set out of my quest on the day of the full moon, which is a Buddhist holiday in Sri Lanka. The institute was closed. I talked with the security guards, though, and asked them where Clarke had lived. They made a few calls for me and presto, I had a street name, but no house number.

I took another tuktuk to the neighborhood near Colombo’s city hall and found the street. Then it was a matter of asking the neighbors and shopkeepers which house had been Clarke’s. My Sinhala being somewhat rusty, this was more difficult than it sounds. Finally, I found a woman who lived on the street who knew what I was talking about and directed me to the proper house.

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The house was surrounded by a wall with a gate at the driveway. There was a security guard nearby, presumably keeping watch on the whole street. He suggested that I ring the bell. Unfortunately, the Buddha foiled my plans again. Due to the festival, no one was home.

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Oh well. Even though I didn’t accomplish my ultimate goal, the process took me through more of Colombo than I would have seen otherwise and got me talking with lots of people. Maybe next trip I will see if i can be admitted to Clarke’s sanctum sanctorum.

Colombo: Mount Lavinia Beach

In the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, I stayed at a hostel near Mount Lavinia Beach. During my time there, I made the café at La Voile Blanche my home base. From its cool white interior I ate and drank and watched the ferocious swells of the Laccadive Sea pound the beach.

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The café backs up to the railroad tracks. Every fifteen minutes or so, the floor would tremble as a train sped by. At first I thought this would spoil the ambience of the beach experience, but I quickly grew to welcome the trains. Something about the contrast between other people traveling hopefully while I rested peacefully made me happy.

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I was here:

When I wasn’t in the café, I was camped out on a lounge chair in front of it. There I baked the Tunisian chill out of my body and watched the ebb and flow of beach society while sipping Lion Lager.

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Sometimes I would bestir myself to walk along the beach. These fishing boats intrigued me. They are so very narrow that no one could actually fit inside them. The boats themselves are made from milled lumber, but the outrigger is jerry-rigged from simple tree branches. I wish I had seen one of these in actual operation.

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I took my dinner at a beachside Chinese restaurant, the Loon Tao. Their corn crab soup was excellent.

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As I ate, I was entertained by a fire twirler who spun two flaming kerosene-soaked balls in elaborate patterns.

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After my trip to Anuradhapura, I returned to the beach in time for Sri Lankan independence day celebrations.

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The Sri Lankans don’t seem to go for a big rah-rah nationalistic independence celebration, though there were more than the usual number of flags in evidence. The Sri Lankan flag, by the way, is probably my favorite of all the nations.

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On the way back to the hostel, I would often see this tuktuk bread truck parked out in front of the hotels. When it was on the move, it played a computer-tone version of “It’s a Small World After All” from its loudspeakers to let everyone know that bread was here.

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I don’t usually go for beach vacations. I generally like to be more active. But the beach at Mount Lavinia, in its unpretentious down-home style, was just what I was looking for: a spot to relax, reconsider, and recharge.

The Buddha is NOT Down With Your Cargo Shorts

I took a four-hour train trip upcountry to the city of Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th Century BCE to the 11th Century CE.

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The Buddhist shrines, temples, monasteries, and other religious sites there comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was interested in seeing the ruins. I was here:

I started out at what had been a monastery. There were unusual rock formations at this site: giant boulders leaning against each other, creating keyholes and caves. Clearly the rocks there had been shaped by people, too, but the place was so old that I couldn’t tell where nature’s handiwork ended and human architecture began.

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In one of the natural keyholes, I found this monitor lizard looking like something out of prehistory.

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There wasn’t much by way of informative of descriptive signage — at least not much I could read. But I thought Sinhalese script was fascinating.

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I went to some of the temple complexes, which are still visited by the faithful. I was wearing cargo shorts that came just to the middle of my knees. Signs — in English this time — advised visitors that their clothing must be modest and respectful, that pants and skirts had to cover the knees, and that dark colors were frowned upon. I slid my shorts lower on my hips hoping I could pass muster, but no dice. The guards at the entrance gate stopped me. Fortunately, they have some sarongs available for stupid Americans to use, so I wrapped myself as best I could. I’ve seen Indian hippies looking cool and elegant in their batik sarongs. I looked neither. And why does this sarong make me look fat?

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Perhaps I was expecting another Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, but I came away from the ruins at Anuradhapura unmoved. What remained of the sites wasn’t particularly beautiful, nor was it displayed and preserved in a very artful way. You’ll have to take my word for that; photography was forbidden in some spots and discouraged in others. The sites obviously had great meaning to the many Buddhist pilgrims I saw gathered there, but as an outsider they left me disappointed.

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At one of the shrines, people had laid flowers on the altar as offerings to the Buddha. These were promptly devoured by a pair of macaques (tentatively identified by my zoologically-minded friends as macaca sinica sinica).

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After taking in the ruins, I went back to my hotel, a cozy little place on a rural/residential road, right next to this institution.

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Maybe I should have taken more time in Anuradhapura and the surrounding area to find some sites that really spoke to me. It didn’t happen on this trip — but there’s always next time.

The Gray Langurs of Anuradhapura

I was wandering around a park near a Buddhist temple in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Suddenly I sensed I was being watched. I looked around and saw nothing. Then I looked up.

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The first thought to crackle across my synapses was something like, “He must have escaped from a zoo; I need to tell someone!” Such is the reaction of a man who has rarely seen animals in the wild, especially without expecting to do so. I looked around and saw more, including this sweet little family. I almost missed the baby the first time I looked.

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They casually watched me apparent unconcern. Slowly I realized: this is real.

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Later I realized I had no idea what I had just seen. I posted a query to my Facebook friends, and crack researcher Lori Seubert ID’s them as gray langurs from an article on “Diurnal Primates of Sriu Lanka.” Apparently, they are an endangered species.


I was glad to have met these distant relatives of mine. It still fills me with a sense of amazement. But my own amazement saddens me a little too. It just shows how removed from the natural world I am.