We visited Sri Lanka recently – an interesting, friendly place of impossibly long names, vast Buddhist temples, Hindu shrines, Mosques, Christian Churches and religious tolerance. Education and health care are free as the country embraces the modern world. Tradition does still exist and some places are little changed from British colonial times.
Future visitors may see a different country, however. Tea picking, largely done by women, is being rejected by the internet generation and soon rubber and spices will be the major exports, both requiring less labour than tea, with tourism ever more important.
We saw ‘toddy tappers’, agile men who scale coconut palms and walk on ropes between them to gather the nectar from flowers. This is used to make Arrack, a local spirit. But the skill is dying.
The production of handmade lace, intricate and delicate, raises little interest in the young. We bought small items and were glad the craft is supported by the Travel Foundation.
We heard about the iconic stilt fisherman of the south coast. Sadly, this means of catching fish, balanced on a pole with a fishing rod, has already disappeared. What you see today is a sham for the tourists, agents on the beaches charging for photos of men on poles fixed to the rocks where there are no fish.
But some changes are for the better. No longer can you ride on an elephant. These magnificent beasts are less commercialised than in the past. We took a trip in a jeep in Kadaula National Park and were able to approach wild elephant families. But there was no touching.
There are two elephant orphanages and our guide took us to one. These institutions have had a bad press, again because of ill-treatment and exploitation of the animals. We were satisfied that the only viewing each day, thirty minutes at feeding time, did not bother the elephants and the money we paid went towards their expensive special milk. When old enough, the animals are returned to the wild. Less than ten percent of male elephants have tusks in Sri Lanka. We were unable to discover why but it has served to protect them. Fewer tusks – fewer ivory hunters.
The local people made us welcome. They were happy to have help in hauling in their fishing nets and enthusiastic to support us up slippery steps or down uneven roads. Even though I didn’t want assistance, I found myself propelled down a sloping street with a lady on each elbow. (I think my hair attracted attention; Sri Lankans who have white hair are extremely old!) Yes, there were a few beggars, but also people who wanted to talk to us because we were speaking English. They proudly told us of relatives in Guildford and memories of when the Queen visited in 1954.
No-one minded if we visited their most sacred places as long as we respected their rules such as the removal of footwear and hats.
Some of the temples cover large areas with mounds and rocky heights within the religious area. I have never before climbed so much in bare feet! It gave us a good appetite and we loved the food. Rice and curry (always with rice listed first as the most important part of the meal) was a feast of many dishes including dhal, fish or chicken, chutneys and sambals. It was full of flavour and never too hot, one of the highlights of the holiday.
There is an old-fashioned modesty to behaviour in Sri Lanka. In the Botanical Gardens in Kandy, our guide introduced the official with the ‘hanky-panky’ whistle. He blows it if he sees any inappropriate behaviour and the offending couple are removed. We tried to find out exactly what constituted ‘hanky-panky’ but our guide (an educated, modern man who has lived in England and Sweden) was too embarrassed to give any details. Sex education is on the school curriculum but is apparently ignored by most teachers. Maybe that’s a change waiting to happen.
Sri Lanka is worth visiting – go soon!