The kindness of Canadians

Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
Trip End Jul 11, 2012

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Where I stayed
McLeod Inn

Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Saturday, January 28, 2012

For our stay in Kandy, an urban spiritual and cultural centre, we scored a room with a floor-to-ceiling view of the lake and the gilded roof of the Temple of [Buddha’s] Sacred Tooth Relic. From this room we could enjoy the view of Kandy while in bed—resting and sightseeing at the same time—perfect! That was about the extent of the sightseeing we wanted to do—we had determined not to do anything especially touristic on this stop. The bus journey had been a grueling 2-hour-stand-all-the-way trip, with a driver who had a heavy foot on both the accelerator and the brake. (One bright moment occurred when we were standing in the back and saw a white van carrying the three Dutch women and their bicycles. We made eye contact, waved madly and they waved madly back and gave us the thumbs up.) We wanted to get a feel for urban Sri Lanka after the rural places we had been. For his part, Dan was looking forward to a reprieve from long and difficult place names: he was happy that Kandy was a name that finally he could pronounce.

We spent a couple of days, then, exploring the bustling streets of Kandy, walking around the lake, and stopping in to eat and have tea at various places. Anywhere you go in Sri Lanka, we have learned by now, you can get an excellent pot of tea that is so strong that it looks like coffee coming out of the teapot. The tea is brewed to perfection when it arrives on your table; no teabag or leaves linger in the pot to make it bitter. A pot of heated milk and coarse sugar complete the serving, which is always in teacups and saucers. I love being in a place where they know how to make tea. We are, after all, in tea country now, Sri Lanka’s "hill country."

We followed back alleys off the main downtown streets to check out the commerce there and found a busy hole-in-the-wall breakfast place where they make hoppers and string hoppers on a grill by the street. Hoppers are like small pancakes made with flour, and string hoppers are made of noodles. They come with a variety of curry dishes. After the hoppers and curries were plunked down on our table, we realized that there would be no concession here to Western sensibilities; we would finally have to use our hands—right hands, that is—to eat. And so we did, after looking around at the other diners to see how they squished the hoppers and curry in the fingers of their right hands and scooped the portion into their mouths. The jug of water and bowl on the table were evidently to wash your fingers before and after. The meal was delicious, we were able to report back to the cook, after our hesitant start.

In our wandering, we came across signs for an Education Expo. Dan wanted to check it out, although it sounded a bit like work to me. We inquired if there was a fee (none, just a registration) and entered the mall to see booths of schools, universities, and vocational training programs, with representatives of each organization ready to hand out promotional material and explain what they do. The scene was familiar to me from the exhibitors’ halls at ESL conferences, but the target audience was mainly older teens and their parents making decisions about next steps after school-leaving. We came to a stall advertising university transfer programs with American and Canadian universities, among others. As I approached the man sitting behind the booth, I could feel my persona shifting: my carefree traveler’s self gave reluctant way to my professional self as questions came to my mind—which universities were partners? How was the articulation managed? The man behind the booth listed a number of Canadian partner universities including York and UBC. On learning I was from Vancouver, he said that he had been at the NAFSA conference in June; I also attended that conference and made a presentation. I told him that my university is in North Vancouver, on the North Shore. It took a while to explain that, but I should have just mentioned “Capilano” from the first, because as soon as I did, across his face I could see a realization—“Capilano--you know Hans!” he said. Hans is English Department Head at American National College, which Ifthikar (we now exchanged business cards) represents. He was delighted to meet us and described how he found the friendliness of Canadians in Vancouver almost overwhelming—intimidating even—and how he wondered if this friendliness could be for real, but he wished for it not to stop. He told us he would like to repay the kindness he found in Canada by inviting us to dinner at his home in Colombo on our return there on the 15th. We gladly accepted.

Later that day, we were walking on a street filled with small shops selling everything from household knick knacks to rice to dried fish to electronics and jewellery, when a man asked us our country. Almost everyone who greets us asks us this, so it was not unusual, but as soon as we mentioned Canada, his eyes lit up and he whipped out from his shirt pocket a small piece of paper in plastic with his brother’s address in Markham, Ontario, penned on it. His name was Mohammad, and his brother had experienced much kindness from Canadians so he wanted Mohammad to show the same kindness to Canadians he met in Kandy. Mohammad was most concerned that we not pay too much for our souvenirs, and rapid-fire, told us where to buy the best and most fair-priced Ayurvedic medicines, tea, saris (I bought one), and gems—not in the city centre at all but 2 km away at a gem museum. “I just show you the shops and then come back my shop,” he said, although as our time at the sari shop turned into a sari-tying lesson, I wondered how his shop was faring without him. Eventually we wished each other well; he went back to his shop and we to our perch at the McLeod Inn to read the English version of the local newspaper.

The Jan 28, 2012 edition of Ceylon Today had some interesting stories. These included one headlined, “Countrywide ops to nab quacks”: “The police have commenced a countrywide operation to arrest 50,000 fake doctors who are currently operating in the country.” According to the story, legitimate doctors go overseas or die, and then opportunistic medical assistants step in and use their medical license numbers to set up their own medical clinic in which they diagnose and treat illnesses and prescribe drugs. In another story, the Boycott Sri Lanka Team (Tamil Nadu) in India is protesting the sale of Sri Lankan made products such as biscuits and chocolates “because of the genocide committed by Sri Lanka on Tamils.” At the same time, media activists challenge the government to prove that they are on the LTTE (Tamil Tiger) payroll as the government claims, even though the government claims to have eradicated the Tamil Tigers. And a letter to the editor lambasts a politician ignorant of Sri Lankan cricket wins, headlined, “Minister Dullas Alahapperuma’s cricket bloomer/howler.”

And so passed a pleasant sojourn in pronounceable Kandy, where the kindness of Canadians is amply repaid by the kindness of Sri Lankans.
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