Serendipity on the Tear of India

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Welcome," a beautiful Sri Lanka Airline stewardess with her hair pulled back tightly said with her hands pressed neatly together.

"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.

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.

As I traveled by bus south down Sri Lanka's west coast to the Kosgada Turtle Hatchery, the previous devastation was apparent, though subtle, as life continued. At Kosgata, I met a couple--tailors--whose business had foundered after the Tsunami; tourists were no longer coming to the beach resort.

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.

Over one week ago, I had walked through this district, heavily militarized and full of checkpoints. Examing the situation, everything seems relative: to one person, for example, the Tigers of Tamil Eelam might be akin to the American Continental Army over 200 years ago.

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.

Back at the Kosgada Turtle Factory, I had the spine tingling opportunity to meet thousands of baby Green Turtles and Olive Ridley Turtles about to be released into the ocean. There I met Kansiriyapin Abren, the loving manager, who released millions of baby turtles into the Indian Ocean and rebuilt the hatchery following the tsunami. He talked about the tsunami, the tragedy, and the wave itself:

"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.

Then we talked about the turtles. Before, locals ate the turtle eggs in large numbers, which was probably fine before 95% of the world's coastline was settled with hungry egg-eaters, beach-goers, urban dwellers, and more, leaving the turtles with hardly any beach to lay their eggs. Now, the only way to keep the five species of sea turtles--Green, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Olive Ridley, and Loggerhead viable was to take action--through hatcheries, through predator exclusion cages (as is done on the east coast of the US and elsewhere, where suburban skunk and racoon populations have soared).

So Kansiriyapin purchases eggs from the egg collectors for a few rupees above the 7 rupee market price, buries the eggs in sand at the hatchery, and places the newly-hatched turtles in water tanks to await the right moment.

The right moment comes when the sun sets and predators lose their sight advantage. Kansiriyapin took a bucket full of turtles to the beach, and we watched as they made their way to the sea in the faint light of dusk.

Kansiriyapin gave me a ride into nearby Ambalangoda, introducing me to his neighbors, Ranjith and Naline who ran the Sunudu Guest House. We sat together on the Victorian-style verandah as they talked about their life and were curious about mine. In town, I visited the windy beach and fierce surf pounding a nearby rocky islet covered in a Greater Crested Tern colony. A soaring White-breasted Sea Eagle stirred the colony to life in a panic as the salt spray whipped from the waves onto my face.

Back in town, I visited a couple of mask stores. Traditionally, the masks were designed for ceremonial and shamanic dances, which could heal disease or bring good luck, depending on the need and the mask used. The masks and dances also told local myths, legends, and stories.

I took another packed bus complete with Jesus, Buddha, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and other icons with flashing trance-inducing lights above the driver--truly a pantheistic bus. Soon, we were in Galle, an old fort with Dutch, English, and Portugese histories. Most of them had left, except for the absentee landlords who saw a good investment when they came to this colonial World Heritage site. Still, however, the traders of Morocco, the Moors, remained:

"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.

On this sunny Sunday morning, I walked through the town and on the ramparts, enjoying the views of the red-tiled rooftops, churches, and sea. Meals at the Rampart View and elsewhere around town were amazing, full of fresh papayas, pineapple, curries, aubergines, okra, chutney, and more. The people smiled along with me.

So this is serendipity?

Well, I guess it depends on your point of view.
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