Serendipity on the Tear of India
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
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"Here's your visa," said the smiling visa man at the airport. "This is so easy," I replied. "For India, I had to wait one week" (including hours in line).
Sri Lanka, previously known as Ceylon, historically known as Serendib, the Persian root of the word serendipity. Perhaps the Persian traders sailed into the Tear Drop of India in a fluke windstorm, realizing when they came ashore that within the lush green forests of the interior were hundreds of plant species to soothe, to flavor, to cure, to adorn, to fortify, and to enrich. They also realized, I would assume, the strategic position of Sri Lanka as well as its rich supply of gems and skilled craftsmen.
"You don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." ~ John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
Just as Shangri-la is a mountain utopia of myth and legend, so too does Serendib capture the human mind, only with a tropical twist.
Shangri-la myths involve crossing high, dangerous passes through snowstorms, braving cold, ice, hunger, and avalanches.
Serendib myths involve raging seas, crasing waves, pirates, shipwrecks, dense jungles, leopards, savage natives surrounded with a wealth of resources and clean fresh waterfalls, and tsunamis.
Paradise is dangerous. In 2004, thousands of people died in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, as a 9.0 magnitude oceanic earthquake sent powerful shockwaves towards the shores of south asia.
But it wasn't just the tsunami. Sri Lanka has the added factor of a quasi-war between the government Tamil Tigers. Depending on who is talking you get the following:
"I am Tamil," a house servant at a guest house, who was certain to let me know her ethnic background with pride in the few English words she knew.
"The Tamil have equal rights under the constitution. Most of them are no trouble. The ones the British brought from Tamil Nadu (India) to pick tea are the problem. Most have no land and claim one-sixth of the country." ~ a Ph. D student studying Buddhist art.
"Sri Lankan reputation is now bad [because of the clashes]." ~ tour operator.
"The Sri Lanka government is becoming more like a dictatorship. They are to blame for the war. They pretend that they are being progressive and want peace, but continue to fight. The government now has over 100 ministers. Each has their big cars and bodyguards. It's corrupt." ~ Sinhalese jeweler.
Indeed, tourism, the number one industry in Serendib, had suffered. Now, tea was tops. As one of few tourists in Sri Lanka, immediately, I have many friends as well as people who see me as hope or as a walking dollar bill, depending on how they view tourists.
The conflict is typically focused on the northern and northeast provinces, where the Tamil population is the majority, so I felt safe coming and still feel safe, despite today's small bombing of the commercial district in Colombo.
That person might say this: "Like your Boston Tea Party rebels, we are tired of our rights being taken away. We are tired of taxation without true rights. We want our own country. We are freedom fighters."
Another person with a slightly different view might say: "They are terrorists. They came from India and are destroying our country. We want peace. They want war. We must get rid of them."
Despite the war, if people didn't talk about it, no signs of conflict existed anywhere as my journey progressed.
"In the morning, I noticed the tides were different, but continued to work as usual. I didn't know anything about tsunamis. A fairly large wave came, then...the ocean disappeared. I told everyone to go, get in the van and head higher. I put on a lifevest. Then the tsunami came and hit me, pushing me back. It pulled me under many times. But the vest pulled me up. A door was forced shut, with an unconscious woman inside, underwater. I pulled her up and swam to safety."
After the tsunami, large amounts of aid arrived, with people wanting to volunteer rebuilding homes. The government, however, would not allow the rebuilding because that would mean continued risk within the tsunami and coastal zone. So people stayed in the temporary camps and temples. Nonetheless, homes were eventually rebuilt--some of them--with USAID signs or other logos posted on the weatherproof plastic or on nearby signs. With most of the land in Sri Lanka already settled, no options essentially existed for many of the homeless--they had to rebuild with the mentality that tsunamis and other disasters happen.
"My grandparents came here just like your family came to America," one Sri Lankan Moor told me as we sat in his house chatting. I met him taking his little daughter in her Sunday best back from Islam Sunday School.
So this is serendipity?
Well, I guess it depends on your point of view.