Friday, April 16, 2010

A short, but memorable visit to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist heartland

15th April Wedndesday - Colombo

I have always wanted to visit Matara, which is Sri Lanka’s Southern-most town. It is off the beaten path of international travelers; not a frequent tourist destination. Its modest colonial-era rail station is the last stop on line than runs South from Colombo along the west coast. (When the Tsunami hit, it engulfed a train filled with holiday travelers, killing most of them). Rail travel, especially on less modern trains is one of my passions. The single-track line from popular-tourist-destination Galle to Matara, with its many local stops and 35 KPH speed limit fills the bill perfectly.

The first guidebook describing Sri Lanka I bought, had a picture of the British era lighthouse at Dondra, the tallest in Sri Lanka. If one travels due South from its promontory, there is no land until Antarctica. A mental picture of Dondra lighthouse is one I have always carried with me. Matara area is the home of one of my closest Sri Lankan friends, of President Mahinda Rajapakse and many influential political leaders. Assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa was raised in the Matara area, though he later represented one of Sri Lanka’s toughest urban constituencies, Colombo Central.

So why had I never visited Matara, in 23 year of visiting and working in Sri Lanka? The reason is that I experience guilt when I consider doing something for the pure pleasure of it. Who knows why? If it is not work-related, it rarely makes the cut. I am not touting this as a virtue. Clearly it is a shortcoming, especially since spending time with family members rarely makes the cut for the same reason. I had no work-related reason to visit Matara.

The mentor (via his writings) who is beginning to convince me that vacations are an important part of life is former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, a brilliant, disciplined and incredibly hard-working leader whom I have come to deeply admire. No matter how daunting the problems he faced, in leading Singapore ‘From Third World to First,’ (The title of his autobiography’s second volume) Lee took time for exercise almost every day and for regular vacations. He believed this was essential to maintain top effectiveness. Vacations were a means to an end as well as an end in themselves.

My Sri Lanka trip was in part a break from the intense pace of work in Singapore , in part to move two projects forward and assess the political situation, but in part simply to reconnect with some of my closest friends. And I decided to devote two days of my seven day sojourn to a Matara visit. My host was a new friend whom I met on my last trip to Sri Lanka. He gave up a lucrative US professional career to move back to Sri Lanka and further his children’s education - in Matara. He and his son spent the better part of two days with me. I took two meals with his wife and his two beautiful teen-agers, a son and a daughter.

Matara is like much of Sri Lanka was when my wife and I first moved here. I stayed in a “Class A” guest house overlooking overlooking one of the most gorgeous ocean views one could imagine. The amenities provided were just sufficient to meet one’s needs. The cost of my room: about $8.00. Dinner for my friend and myself was four different Sri Lankan vegetable curries plus freshly cooked Papidams. The cost was about $6.00. Breakfast was potato curry, string hoppers, plantans and tea; cost $2.25. During my short stay, we visited Buddhist temples and walked along the beach. I purchased cotton cloth for new sarongs at a busy market and we had many long conversations. Sitting on the balcony of my room, listening to the waves and looking out over the ocean, I felt almost completely disconnected from the intense pace of my life in Washington, and Singapore.

And we visited the Dondra lighthouse. The picture I had carried in my mind for twenty-three years became physical. After a brief conversation, my friend obtained permission for us to climb the many, many, many stairs to the top; to view Sri Lanka and the ocean from the exterior balcony. There was only one other family of visitors, including a grandmother, probably about my age, who was bravely girding herself for the final ascent up steep iron ladder-stairs, to the balcony.

Through my Matara trip, I have gotten back in touch with the things that first attracted me to Sri Lanka. They have little to do with politics, conflict or political economy. This short journey of only 36 hours has cast a most curious spell. I feel changed inside, and a need to reassess. What this all means and where it might lead it is too soon to tell. So far, I only know that I must fully engage with this new experience; not ignore it or put it aside. And I know that I will be returning to Matara before too long.

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Blogger Bry said...

Reading this has made me miss Sri Lanka more and more. I don't know if you remember me, but I met you at a film screening, as part of the ISLE program. I have been keeping up with your travels and am fascinated with your insights. Thank you for writing so wonderfully and often! I enjoy reading!

From, Bryanna

11:24 PM  
Blogger dormgrandpop said...

Dear Brianna, didn't we meet in Kandy at a film on peacebuilding at the ICES Kandy Office. Thanks for your thoughtful note. It is always good to know that some enjoys what I have written. I hope you are well.
JR (alias Dormgrandpop)

4:16 AM  

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