The Long Sleep
A late night arrival in Sri Lanka makes us grateful for short immigration lines, and a recent governmental policy change that allows us to visit the island without visas. However, the time we make up at immigration we lose waiting for an Uber. We turn down cab after cab, and I get an in-app alert telling me my pick-up location ‘may not be secure.’ Two drivers accept my ride, then drop it after coming within a half-mile from the airport, so I can only assume there is some out-of-work cabbie with a baseball bat exacting his revenge at the front gate. When our third driver finally finds us and takes us from the airport, I notice nothing but empty streets for the half hour it takes to reach our destination in Colombo.
At our hostel, we pay in the large British Colonial foyer and quickly fall asleep in our dormitory beds. If our Male sleeping arrangements looked like caskets from the future, our Sri Lankan accommodations look like caskets from the past. Long, soft wooden planks line and support our beds like bookshelves in a gigantic log cabin. The air conditioning is strong, but bugs still find their way in, including tiny crawling insects which occasionally emerge from the wood that I pray are termites. I’d rather these insidious insects gnaw away at my bed, potentially causing me and my shelf to crush the person below me in the middle of the night, than have the bugs gnaw at me all night. Been there, done that, wrote about it in book one and in the prologue.
In the morning I awake groggily and we stroll to a hotel down the road that serves a Sri Lankan and Southern Indian buffet breakfast. It is expensive, but neither of us have eaten for nearly 12 hours so we vow to get our money’s worth. The food on offer is incredible, and I eat several plates of curries, kormas, and coconut juice-covered noodles. Though delightful, I cannot justify spending so much money on food that normal people here do not eat. I make a note to find a local spot the following morning and walk the block back to our hotel dousing myself in a humid island sweat before seeking refuge in our room.
Praying for Colombo
Last Easter, bombs erupted in several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, most within walking distance to our hotel, along the western coast. My dad spends the day exploring temples, and I decide to visit some of the sites of the attacks. Anti-western extremists chose the Kingsbury, Shangri-La, and Cinnamon Grand Hotels, along with St. Anthony’s church in Colombo, as they believed these to be sites of western influence. In these locations, and several others across the country, 259 people were killed and over 500 were injured on that day. Sri Lanka, like India and Nepal, exists in the growing world between East and West. Here, everyone has a cellphone and many people shop for designer clothes. Many speak English, and have family in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Democracy is an integral part of society, and social networking connects much of these people to the rest of the world with the push of a button, or the tap of a screen. However, most Sri Lankans are Buddhist, or Hindu and visiting suburban Sri Lanka can feel like the middle of nowhere. This was a battleground, for one day, between East and West, and I wanted to see the front lines.
As is the case in most wars, the soldiers on each side are typically indistinguishable from one another on the surface. Some will tell you that the Tamils and Sinhalese are two ethnic groups that have been fighting on this island for decades, but who is Tamil and who is Sinhalese is difficult to determine, and who is Catholic and who is, say, Muslim can be hard to distinguish as well. At St. Anthony’s, like in every other Catholic church, the Catholics are apparent. Those who stride to the front of the congregation, pray, or sit with heads bowed are Catholics. I, with generations of Catholics on either side, do a modified macarena, touching where a bindhi would be, each nipple, and my sternum. No one seems to suspect a thing.
In the back-left part of the surprisingly ornate congregation, the cement floor is pockmarked where less than six months ago a bomb took the lives of several congregants and visitors. My heart sinks to my stomach and tears come to my eyes. Why the hell does this keep happening? We are better, and stronger for being different, for having different values, and for believing in different Gods. Why are there crusades, jihads, holy wars? Why genocide? Why does my country have a mass-murder a month, and why does no one cry for them anymore, aside from the victims’ families and friends?
And why can no one see what I see? We are all brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles. Mothers. Fathers. We are children. And with that we certainly piss each other off sometimes but that should never mean killing our family. No matter which God you follow, or which ones you don’t, can’t we agree on that much?
Beaches and Buddhas
Here I officially start saying I’m from America, even though “the United States” or “the U.S.” are my preferred home names. I guess I just like to make it known we are still united in one way or another. I tell you this because tonight we visit a restaurant called “the Curry Pot, which is busy preparing orders for take-out, but we are the only ones seated while a heavy rain batters the capital. The manager decides to pull up a seat next to us, and tells us he is one of 16 kids, and he has brothers and sisters everywhere. Even “America.” We certainly didn’t invite him, but his presence is appreciated. He tells story after story as we finish our drinks and pay our bill. Wherever you are in this world, you can always find someone looking for someone to talk to, longing for a pair of ears to hear who he or she is, was, or wants to be. Finally, someone cutting the shit, not trying to talk us into his cab or tuk-tuk. This is the first time in weeks a local has just wanted to talk.
The rain clears overnight and my dad takes me to a Buddhist temple replete with… well, everything. Relics of human consciousness--cameras, figurines, watches, guns, and the like--adorn shelves while buddhas of every shape and size (including one the size of a deer tick) can be found sprinkled through the 13-stop self-guided temple tour. There is even a garage displaying old cars donated by visitors. The temple feels like some American roadside oddity that has been operational for several years and is beginning to get way out of hand.
On our last full day, we decide to take the bus to Mount Lavinia beach, half an hour south of our hostel accomodation in Colombo. This is the third cloudy day in a row, and we are the only adult people in bathing suits when we arrive. The children splash in the pool between the beach and the sandbar, but my dad and I go beyond where the waves crash. On the Connecticut Coast we do not have waves, and several years have passed since the last time the ocean could knock me down and spin me like a t-shirt set in the rinse cycle. My dad gets exhausted, and when I finally get bored and meet him a man is trying to sell him coconut milk. Instead, we walk up the beach to the road, then up the road to a small French bakery where the cashiers wear berets and don’t seem to understand when my dad and I start speaking grade-school French to one another. We drink limeades and wash our feet off in the bathroom before catching a bus to the hostel.
From Colombo to Negombo
On our last day in Sri Lanka, on the fringe of monsoon season, we elect to catch a bus to Negombo, the largest town near the airport, for a change of scenery. It begins pouring before we leave the tiny breakfast spot where we eat piles of idly, jalebi, and other pastries for a few bucks, and doesn’t stop the entire ride to the bus station where the storm intensifies. Thankfully, Negombo is dry and sunny and our soaked clothing dries quickly as we walk from the bus station to the city’s fish market, which happens to be closed that day. It is Sunday, so all we can do is buy a couple of sodas from a hotel cafe and witness the women out front selling mangled sun-dried bait fish that look like they would have made a nice tuna melt several weeks before. Negombo is also known for the remains of an old colonial Dutch fort which has been reduced to just a vine-covered bell tower over the years.
Several liters of sweat eastward, we visit a monastery with murals and statues detailing various chronological events in Buddha’s life. My dad and I learn a great deal about Buddhism, and are welcomed by the monks and caretakers. There, a separate building also houses several displays detailing Sri Lankan history, presumably for the young monks’ benefit. Atop this museum, a stupa sits largely neglected, but provides for a solemn space to witness the monastery grounds. Before we leave, we visit an ice cream truck and are turned away as the truck is only there for the students. For modesty, it also only has vanilla ice cream, which we happily would have bought on this tropical day.
Our final Sri Lankan pilgrimage is to St. Sebastian’s Church still two blocks further east, past a video store that specializes in Sinhalese- and Tamil-dubbed movies. Men and women with guns smile and brush us in at the entrance. Chock it up to white privilege, as everyone else gets searched in this entrance to the site of another Easter bombing. The entire congregation inside is renovated, save a few square feet where shrapnel has torn into the drywall, and Catholics of every skin tone pray, cry, or look around like tourists with virtuous purpose. The sunlight makes this a more joyous place than St. Anthony’s, but I still feel like a child after a funeral when we visit Dinemore several blocks away. The Sri Lankan Friendly’s help us shield the ugly parts of this world. Sure, there is death, discrimination, and mass-murder. But there’s also hot fudge and ice cream.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.