It’s only words (though difficult ones)
There are no points in guessing that we cannot understand the Sri Lankan languages, the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil. However, if you have often wandered on Youtube to watch South Indian movies, jam-packed with hearts flying automatically to transplant in a dying lover’s chest (google the clip); you can sense the familiarity. As my friend pointed out, the languages sound musical as if Bharatnattyam were a voice, redolent of some of A. R. Rahman’s best compositions. In the capital, a lot of people speak English. Barring the northern extreme of the country, you can at least have a basic conversation with many people in the international language. Some people also speak Hindi, and with the expression like, “tere ko yahen per utarnay ka hai?” our beautiful Urdu tongues often took affront at this molestation of our language by its distant cousin. However, the Lankans also have a peculiar accent with English. They smoothly do away with adverbs and prepositions, and clearly blurt out the essentials (You go Trincomalee? I drop bus stand). More importantly, the names of the places come with a special pronunciation. My ruling on this has been simple: if a place ends in ‘a’, the name would be divided into three syllables. The first one would be utterly emphasized, the voice of the middle one repressed, and the ending part replaced with ‘aay’ for ‘a’. People might not understand you if you say Dambulla; they’ll get you in a flash if you say “Daaaamm-bul-aay”. Many a time, you still cannot understand anything, and I just used to laugh and nod my head whenever that happened. Now, to think of how many objectionable commitments I might have made doing so! On a connecting note, I immensely enjoyed the local tracks the buses would be playing. Up-beat, melodious and plain incomprehensible, they added to the experience of the country. Another friend who visited Lanka later on exclaimed that the songs gave him migraine, but I’m diagnosing him as a snob.
Wild, wild east
A major attraction about Sri Lanka is that there’s something in the country for everyone. Besides the pristine beaches, remarkable heritage and serene greenery, there was a lot of adventure to be had. Topping up the fatigue with a relaxing massage at some Ayurvedic herbal center, where they practice this ancient, holistic approach of medicine (and which modern doctors blatantly write off as bull) is the way to do it. Getting around the country is very easy and cheap. Besides the public transport, that is clean and punctual, you can also hire your own. Like Thailand, they call their rickshaws “tuk-tuk” (there’s another cricket analogy there, wink!) and these can be hired for a day at nominal prices. National parks are scattered all around the tear-shaped island. In fact, in the central province, elephants are the new dogs: such a common commodity that they can often be spotted crossing roads. A tuk-tuk driver told us about foreigners being attacked and killed by the mammoth creatures. You just don’t rush when the animals are moving, and traveling at night time around such places is to be avoided at all costs (unless, of course, you’re suicidal). We had our fair share of the wrath of the elephants in Minneriya National Park, where our jeep escaped an elephant attack by seconds. We were busy having our pictures clicked against the animals, macho poses and all, when the creature decided a case of harassment against us and charged at us at full speed. I’m sure I said a parting prayer when I realised what was happening, and what was nothing less than aeons in effect. We escaped, but I soon reverted to my natural being when I later asked my guide if I could get down from the jeep to have a better scope. “Sir, one experience not enough?” he chided. A safer bet then is perhaps to feed the elephants in the government run Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Though the place has been consistently under fire for maltreatment of the animals, it’s still a good place to behold the animals closely. It’s not just elephants, though. If you’re a wildlife lover, there’s more. I got a chance to be up, close and personal with a python, salamander, monkeys, leeches, snakes, deer and peacocks among other things. Visiting the turtle hatchery en-route Galle was all the more special since a turtle almost hatched in my very hands. I got carried away and asked the caretaker if I could touch this giant turtle. “Sir, you want to donate a finger?” His reply made it to my list of “insults done right”. I also got a chance to hold a porcupine in my lap, and that was an eerie catharsis since my father often equates my hair with its thorns. The last part was probably too much information.
Past meets present
There was a list circulating on Facebook’s adventure pages a while ago, where every country was listed along with its most important tourist attraction. For Sri Lanka, it was the Sigiriya Lion Rock, and with good reason. It is basically an ancient fortress located atop a 660 feet high rock. An ancient Mauryan king had this built, and the reason for his choosing a lofty rock instead of the vast expanse of unused surrounding land is open to debate. Now a World Heritage Site, it is thronged by tourists. A never-ending stair-case leads you to the top which offers some spectacular views of the adjoining region. Though people with height phobia may want to escape this site, there’s another tribulation at play. There are boards planted along the ascent, telling you to be silent as this is a “wasp attack area”. If that isn’t intimidating enough, other boards tell you that in case of a wasp attack, you won’t be allowed to the summit and your ticket would also not be refunded. I mean, wasps can kill you! If there actually is a wasp attack, I’d do anything to save life dearest - asking for a refund would be the absolute last thing on my mind!
Another popular heritage site is the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. The choice was between choosing Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa - and we chose the latter since it is claimed to have a lesser number of mosquitoes. Polonnaruwa is a sprawling complex, with a multitude of archaeological and religious relics spread over a wide area. We got bicycles from the hotel we were staying in, and it was great skimming around the place on two wheels. There are a number of important places within the complex that I’ll name just for the sake of it: Royal Palace, Gal Vihara, Sacred Quadrangle and Rankot Vihara. It was great venturing through history in this ancient capital of the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms. It was even greater that no one stole our bicycles, which we had to park at any random place to enter the buildings. In the beautiful city of Kandy, there’s the Temple of Tooth Relic. Held in huge esteem by the Buddhists, it is said to host a tooth of the holy man. During the civil war, it was bombed by the militants - and pictures of that unfortunate incident are on ample display in the adjoining museum. Oh, and the tooth is tucked away safely from menacing public eye, and we never got to see it. But Kandy makes up for not showing some things by showing us other things: the neighbouring tea gardens and factories for one. Such is the aroma of pure Sri Lankan tea that we could have easily passed for opium addicts in the premises. The fourth largest exporter of tea in the world does its beverage right, just as it maintains its rich cultural history bubbling. Here’s it’s pertinent to mention that the most you’ll spend in Lanka will be on the entry tickets to various sites. By Pakistani standards, they’re quite expensive but there’s a silver lining here as well. If you consider SAARC only as an impotent organisation that everyone just loves making fun of, think again! Belonging to a SAARC country makes you eligible for huge discounts in almost all the places of the country. So where westerners would be paying sixty dollars for a ticket, you might be done in twenty. Fancy passports: 0, under-developed ones: 1. Could I be more proud? And petty?
As a Pakistani, let me admit that I do feel a certain sense of elation when it appears that it’s not only us having a monopoly on stupidity. The world is facing jingoism and hyper-nationalist propaganda at large, we are told; before we shake off our own problems like they’re just a fact of post-modern world. But to be drawn so much to a place and see the imminent cracks for yourself is unsettling also. Generally speaking, the tolerance in Lanka is something to be awed at. Mosques and monasteries blend along the same road in Kandy with no friction. Buddha and Ganesha inspire the same reverence from the passers-by in Nallathaniya. Burkas and bikinis (no sexist rant intended, I swear - can never be too cautious; Twitter is a cruel place) swirl across the streets of Galle just like that. Women pervade through the social sphere, in all forms and times, without attracting any sleazy eyeballs, so much so that you’re at times compelled to ask your fellow Lankan males, “Are you even South-Asian, bro?” On the national front, Lanka doesn’t have the paranoia and security dilemma one can expect from a country just having surfaced from the bloodiest civil war in contemporary history (I’ve faced more check-posts while visiting Swat than travelling through the length of Lanka). Religions, ethnicities, genders, nationalities - all live and let others live. Before I was sure of it, I was a little skeptical about my friend pressing too hard for halal food in unbecoming locations. We were in the middle of Nuwara Eliya’s mountains, you see, and more liable to be forcefully converted from our religion into halal tikkas than served our fancy cuisine - but nothing! All smiles and sunshines. Talking about food though, you better pack on some omeprazole in the country. The food is generally too spicy or too bland. Also, everything tastes like fish and coconut. They also offer biryani, and I’m sure it will make our local biryani aficionados homicidal. (We don’t even accept Islamabad’s biryani as real, what’s offered in Lanka is plain transgression). Coming back to the point, however, there’s an upsurge of Buddhist nationalism in Lanka of late, and going by the local newspapers - things don’t seem very pretty. There have been skirmishes along these lines recently, and one hopes things don’t get out of control. On the ethnic front, the tensions between the north and south do carry the potential of escalating, and the whole Tamil areas were up in strike just a few days after our return to motherland dearest. However, I’m not trying to be a pessimistic political commentator here. Sri Lanka has achieved so much; it has risen from the ashes like a phoenix and the previously no-go areas are a bustling tourist hub now. It will be very unfortunate if it lands into another conundrum after battling one for so long. The rest of the countries in the region are doing a pretty great job at being quintessentially South Asian. Lanka bro, you’re better off not trying to fit in!
Stutiyi, Ceylon! (Hint: Google translate again)
The state-run stores, Laksala, have sprouted throughout the country and offer the best of Lankan delicacies at one place to the swarming tourists. It’s only natural to end your trip of Lanka with a visit of these, and pack up on souvenirs, tea, antiques and their impressive stock of precious gemstones (to ward off the evil eye, rejuvenate your energy and kind, will tell you soon if they work). I was fundamentally human when I entered Sri Lanka. Upon leaving, I had been reduced to some eyeballs and intestines floating around in a pool of adrenaline and coconut water! I hadn’t really expected to find Lanka this exciting. There are way better places for sure, but this place has its way of growing upon you and becoming yours. For all the experiences, memories and endearing recollections of the same, I’m very grateful to the country and its people. And for all it’s worth, Ceylon will always be my special place! Also, I finally found Jacqueline Fernandez in the country and took her picture. That she was pasted to the counter on a tea-stall are only details!
Pictures by the writer