Travellers' Impressions
Stories & Articles from around the World

by William Starr Moake

The male baggage handlers at Colombo airport seemed to be wearing red lipstick. I noticed this while standing in line at the customs and immigration desk, mopping sweat from my face with a handkerchief. My plane had arrived from Singapore a short time earlier and the heat in Sri Lanka was just as sweltering as it had been in the other island nation to the east. Welcome to the real tropics. I lived in Hawaii, which most people considered tropical, but the climate was actually semi-tropical since the islands were barely within the Tropic of Cancer. I was following the equator on this trip and the weather down here was the kind that caused prickly heat rash even if you showered twice a day.

I had come to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) because it was the last home of the oldest form of Buddhism, a philosophical religion that intrigued me. Two western writers I admired had made the same journey before me. Herman Hesse' 1911 visit inspired him to write "Siddhartha," a fictionalized version of Buddha's life and one of my favourite novels. Much more recently R. D. Laing, one of the founders of an anti-psychiatry movement popularized by his book "The Politics of Experience," established a retreat on the island to study Buddhism.

Before I cleared customs and immigration, I learned that the baggage handlers were not wearing lipstick. Their lips were stained with the juice of red betel nut, which served a similar purpose in Sri Lanka as coffee in the U.S., coca leaves in South America and khat in the Middle East. It boosted energy, increased alertness and warded off hunger -- an addictive stop-gap remedy for personal and social ills. It was cheap, legal and widely used by the burgeoning poor population of Sri Lanka. I was no practising Buddhist myself, but I recalled that Buddha advised his followers never to use intoxicants of any kind. I wondered how far Sri Lankans had strayed from their Buddhist roots.

Sri Lanka was a divided country, a fact that became obvious on the bus ride from the airport to my hotel. It was nearly midnight and military vehicles patrolled ominously darkened streets in the capital city. In the northern part of the island a civil war raged between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindu minority. Both religions taught reverence for life, but thousands of people had been killed and there was no end in sight to the conflict.

After sleeping late the next day to recuperate from jet lag, I took a taxi ride to tour down town Colombo. It didn't look much better in the daylight. Throngs of gaunt-faced people crowded the streets. With bony rib cages protruding, many looked like they were starving. In ancient times Ceylon had been a prosperous kingdom known as the rice basket of southern Asia. Now it was an overpopulated island that couldn't feed its own people. The first western explorers who discovered Ceylon nicknamed it Serendib, meaning the land of serendipity, but the good fortune had obviously run out.picture1

When I asked the taxi driver about the civil war, he replied: "Our Tamil brothers won't listen to reason." He didn't elaborate, but the angry look on his face spoke volumes. Over the years Tamils from southern India had immigrated to Sri Lanka and now they wanted their own separate country in the northern part of the island. The Sinhalese-dominated government was determined to prevent this from ever happening. Strangely enough, the same government was sensitive to other cultural differences and trained mongoose to smell airport luggage belonging to Muslim travellers. Muslims consider dogs spiritually unclean animals and objected to having their baggage sniffed for drugs, guns  and explosives by canines.

I soon learned that two generations after two centuries of British rule, half the population couldn't speak a word of English and some only spoke a particular dialect of their own language. Ranji was a happy exception. In patronizing terms he was a beggar boy who looked about 10, but he could have been a few years older. It was difficult to tell if his growth had been stunted by malnutrition. Ranji waylayed me one day as I was walking down a street near my hotel. He asked what I wanted to buy.

I thought about it for a moment. "A tape recording of Sri Lankan music."

"I know where to find," he said, grabbing my hand.

I pulled my hand away as I followed him to a store, fearing how it might look. Sri Lankans were rightfully angry about their country being sullied by a reputation for pederasty by foreign tourists. There were even ugly rumours about a western celebrity who lived on the island, which I hoped were not true since I was a big fan of his work. A few months earlier Sri Lanka had its first case of AIDs -- an English tourist who became seriously ill at his hotel. The government took radical action, sterilizing the hotel room with disinfectant and burning all the contents. The tourist was sent back to England on a medical flight.

After a few days in crowded Colombo, I decided to rent a car and drive south into the countryside to find some breathing room. The rental car agent seemed reluctant to start the paperwork, asking me more than once if I was accustomed to driving conditions in Sri Lanka. I couldn't imagine what he meant. I had driven all kinds of vehicles for twenty-six years without a single accident or moving violation, some of it on rough unpaved roads.

The trip began well enough. At one point early on I stopped to watch a mahout lovingly bathe his elephant in a stream. However, the farther south I drove the more crowded the highway became -- not necessarily with cars, but with ox carts and masses of people who appeared to live on the pavement. They milled around the highway in a daze, paying no attention to car traffic. I was forced to slam on the brakes so often to avoid hitting people I developed a charley horse in my leg. These were not war refugees from the northern part of the island, they were homeless people who had no place else to go.

I was soon a nervous wreck from driving. Spotting a side road, I pulled off the highway and parked in a grove of coconut palm trees to recover my composure. I got out of the car and watched a man climb across the tops of the palm trees on a flimsy rope bridge. He was collecting coconuts to brew a form of vile-tasting liquor that I would sample a few days later. Before I knew what was happening, I was suddenly surrounded by a large group of people who jabbered loudly in a language I couldn't understand. I didn't know what they wanted and I felt threatened glancing from face to face. I spoke to them in English, but they obviously didn't comprehend a word. When they crowded very close to me, I panicked and tossed my pocket change on the ground. I jumped in the car and sped away as they dived on the money.

My destination was Galle on the south coast, but I only made it half way before my nerves gave out. I checked into a beach hotel, closed the drapes in my room to shut out the chaos, and ordered a pot of tea to clear my head. Ceylon black tea was widely considered to be the finest tea in the world and I drank my first cup local style, with plenty of cream and sugar. It was delicious and the caffeine worked its magic. I felt sane again by the time I ate my supper.

Back in Colombo the newspaper was full of horror stories: mothers drowning newborn infants in rivers because they couldn't feed another mouth, men laying down on railroad tracks to commit suicide, consumers poisoned by food preserved with epsom salt in lieu of refrigeration. After awhile, I stopped reading the newspaper because it was too depressing.

picture2One day I began a drive to the highland town of Kandy to see the tooth of Buddha. Buddha had been buried in India, but some time later parts of his skeleton had been removed from the grave and one tooth had been transported to Ceylon. Now the tooth was the centerpiece of a Buddhist festival in Kandy. I thought it was rather macabre to worship the bones of the dead and I was certain that Buddha himself wouldn't have approved, but I was curious to see the artefact for some reason.

Enroute to Kandy I stopped at a railroad station to stretch my legs and smoke a cigarette. An old man sitting on a bench motioned to me. He had a leathery face and wore wire-rimmed glasses.

"Give me a cigarette."

I grinned at his cheekiness, handed him a cigarette and cupped my hands to ignite it with my lighter. He took a long drag and looked at me.

"American cigarettes are very good. You are an American?"


"What are you doing in my country?"

"Well, today I'm going to see the tooth of Buddha." He spat on the ground. "It is all nonsense. I thought Americans were intelligent people."

"You're not a Buddhist?"

He glared at me. "I have seen too much misery to believe in anything."

Then he told me the story of a friend who had noticed a pack of cigarettes lying alongside the Kandy road. The package was booby trapped and exploded when the man picked it up, taking off his hand. I knew about occasional bombings in Colombo, but I had no idea the civil war had spread to this seemingly serene tea-growing area in the central part of the island. "Take my advice," the old man said. "Don't touch anything."

He crushed out his cigarette, stood up and hobbled away. I cut my drive short and returned to Colombo, too gloomy to care if I ever saw the tooth of Buddha. At the city zoo I took a video of a group of elephants chained to posts. It was only after I returned to my hotel room and ran the video in slow motion that I saw what the elephants had been doing. They were shaking and swaying in a vain effort to cool themselves in the unbearable heat. They needed to be soaked in water, but no mahouts were available to take care of them. I remembered how these animals were called the Elephant People by some Asian natives to bestow the same status as humans, but here in Sri Lanka there was only so much humanity to go around and it was spread too thin to waste on animals. In jungle villages elephants caused starvation by destroying farm crops and small children were dragged away and eaten by leopards, so it was understandable that Sri Lankans were not overly concerned about the fate of wildlife.

When I planned my trip to Sri Lanka, I intended to stay for a month or two. I lasted eleven days. On the way to the airport I felt as though I was fleeing a strange sort of hell on earth. The tropical scenery was beautiful, but I was nearly blind to it owing to the social conditions. I struck up a conversation with an Australian businessman in the airport bar while waiting to board my flight, telling him I couldn't stand Sri Lanka any longer and mentioning that I might go to India.

He broke out in a horse laugh. "Compared to India," he said, "Sri Lanka is a bloody garden spot." I went to Thailand instead of India.

In retrospect Sri Lanka reminds me of the infamous ratopolis experiment. In a laboratory an increasing number of rats were forced to live together in a limited space without enough food. Eventually, they turned on each other. When females came into heat, males attacked them rather than mating. The few females who gave birth ate their young. Overpopulation and lack of sufficient food completely changed the instinctive nature of rats.

I have come to think of Sri Lanka as a dire warning to the rest of the world. In my lifetime the human population has increased four fold. More people live in abject poverty now than the total population when my father was born. At the present rate of growth the nightmare I witnessed in Sri Lanka will become world wide in the foreseeable future. Some day wars will be fought over food, not oil or ideology, and the winners may envy the dead. I have a horrible fear that I saw the future of mankind in Sri Lanka and I'm relieved that I will be safely in my grave before it happens.

Story and Photos Copyright © William Starr Moake 2004