Serendipity. Defined as: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. Such as: getting nailed by a car and turning it into a career as a jet-setting travel writer. Or: meeting a Dane in China and being advised to visit a magical little country called Sri Lanka. Further: Having the opportunity to act on such advice and visit this little-known country a few months later. And: bumping into one of the handful of foreigners in a 100,000 strong religious festival who just happens to know of an insane gonzo ritual involving knives, holy men and self-mutilation.
Serendipi-tea? Ceylon, renowned the world over for the world's best tea, and abovementioned Dane in China happens to be friends with someone who's family owns possibly the best (and certainly the most ethical) tea company in the world.
Serendipity: the warmest smile in a war zone, a bolt of lightning in a shoebox, a romantic kiss from a blood-sucking leech. Ancient Greeks called a lush island in the Indian Ocean Taprobane. The Portuguese had it, the Dutch took it from them, until the British moved in and called it Ceylon. When ancient maritime Arab traders discovered this fertile teardrop to the south of India, they gave it a different name. They called it Serendib, and we still use their word, and their meaning, to this day.
Travel advisories are like overbearing mothers. They tell you where you can't go, what you can't do, which food to eat, which clothes to wear, and which kids you really should stay away from. The travel advisory for Sri Lanka screams, in red letters: "Avoid non-essential travel unless you have critical business or family reasons to do so." Yes, a civil war has torn the country apart for decades, and bombs have a habit of exploding in the capital of Colombo. Yes, Sri Lankan presidents have the life expectancy of an opened milk carton. But lets be honest: it's cool to sit with the bad kids at the back of the bus. It's cool to eat too many chocolates. It's cool to wear weird clothes, open the door for authorized personnel only, and take calculated risks for the inevitable and thrilling rewards they bring. Admittedly, it's not cool to get maimed or killed, but the travel advisory notwithstanding, if you stay away from well known hot zones (which is easy enough to do) there's more chance you'll be attacked by an elephant than by a terrorist. Now Sri Lanka, an island of 20 million people, certainly has its hot zones, known to boil over. North, where Tamils rebels control an entire region. East, where they're prone to attack military bases. The capital, where they'll get the most column inches (and innocent bystander carnage) for an explosion. That's why I head south to learn more about a religious pilgrimage, and into the central highlands, to learn more about the far more civilized life of tea. Along the way, I meet some of the friendliest, most welcoming people on the planet. Sri Lanka is tropical, hot, and just a little wild, the way I like my adventures. There was a time when soldiers looked like brave hard men with a thousand yard stare. Now, I see frightened young boys with twitchy fingers on the triggers of their machine guns. Security is tight in Colombo. Road blocks, bag searches, trepidation blasting through the air-con. As tourists, we are waved through - Very Important Persons - for although my stubble and rat-red eyes fit the profile of trouble, most foreigners are anything but. They're most likely tourists with a taste for adventiure, or English tourists, reliving the glory days when Ceylon fed the coffers of the Empire. Sri Lanka's colonial hangover is evident all around me, from billboards promoting its cricketing superstars to the dusk smell in my room at the grand Hotel Lavinia - a former British governor's palace. School kids wear uniforms and education is prized, and judging by the signs and adverts in English, many here feel that even though the ink has faded, the British influence tattooed across the country still looks good. Since Ceylon's independence in 1948, and subsequent re-naming to Sri Lanka in 1972, the country has been battered by politics, storms, political storms and disbelief that it's bowlers are spinners and not throwers. (For non-cricket fans, you'll have to look that one up). With ancient kingdoms dating back before Christ, Sri Lanka is a holy land for Buddhists throughout Asia, with the ethnic majority of the population, the Sinhalese, still worshipping the words of Siddhartha. Tamil Hindus and Muslims make up the rest, and it's not my job to explain how it all fits together, only that for the most part it does, excluding the north where it doesn't. Hot climates breed hot tempers, and like the Middle East, South Africa and Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka is still paying for the aftertaste of British colonialism. In the meantime, I watch big waves crash against the rocks outside the Hotel Lavinia, the massive fruit bats lurking in the sky, and looked forward to the road trip south to the holy town of Kataragama.
Serendipity: Arriving somewhere just in time to catch an incredible festival. One day, I'll travel specifically for festivals, but as it stands, it's more a luck-of-the-draw kind of deal. The dealer hands me a pair of pocket aces when I arrive in Kataragama, a small town that nevertheless acts as an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and the Vedda communities of the sub-continent. Although it's only 228km from Colombo, driving Sri Lanka's rice-crispie roads is an all-day affair, blind corner after blind hill, and watch for the cows. Kataragama has holy shrines to these major religions, and we pulled in for the two-week long Esala festival, where 100,000 Hindus gather at the full moon to devote themselves to the gods, make oaths, prove their faith, and enjoy colourful evening parades. There's no thrill like walking into a mass of people in a country where you've been advised to avoid large crowds.
I write this report a few days after a pretty wild music festival in the mountains outside Whistler in Canada (less than a week after events in Sri Lanka took place, yeah I get around). 20,000 Canadians were camping for a couple days, the place looked like a hurricane sat on a tornado and exploded into a plane-crash of garbage. Surrounding the Hindu temple in Kataragama, I see more thousands more people crammed up against each other, yet quiet, respectful, a sea of human beings, wave after wave of faces. The festivities begin at night, under the bright LED-light of the full moon. I count three foreigners. We acknowledge each other, a nod to say: "You're brave," and "holy crap isn't this just this most amazing scene ever?" Locals react to our crew with curious smiles, or complete ambivalence, as if we're ghosts. Even as I crush up against the men in the male line to get in, nobody thinks it strange that a solitary pink gringo is slammed against a wall of brown faces. Security is tight. A soldier gives me a full body search, alarmingly checking my scrotum for weapons of mass destruction. This may or may not be acceptable in a country where it's completely normal for men to hold hands (apparently Sinhalese men were renowned by the British for their softer feminine qualities). Inside, I surf the wave of the crowd, cross a bridge over a sacred river, and emerge into the parade area, glowing with orange lights. A parade of fire dancers, performers, musicians, and elephants dressed like Mexican wrestlers make their way around the crowd towards the holy Kataragama shrine, which legend dates to the 2nd century BC. I squeeze into the crowd, amidst crescent white smiles, bright white eyes, and mesmerized kids. Thousands of people sleep here during the festival, some are sleeping right now, even as firecrackers and drums and horns blast into the warm, dusty night. The firecrackers are actually whips, snapped hard by a group of boys, leading the procession. I've seen my share of firedancers at raves and hippie parties, but nothing like the naturalness with flame I saw on display here. Then came the peacock costumes, and more elephants, shrouded in mystery and awe, and the man with the hooks in his back.
Continue reading Robin's report at his website: http://www.moderngonzo.com/reports/srilanka.html
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