Sri Lanka Revisited – part one

One always runs the risk of upsetting someone when recounting a visit to the old country, especially when viewing it through the eyes of a westerner. My visit back to Sri Lanka this Christmas, after eight years, was a pleasant surprise, especially since my last one after a longer 21 year-gap had been during the height of the civil war when movement had been somewhat restricted. This time the country was finally in motion, going in the right direction for a change. And everyone was engaged, even if it was in criticizing the government (which is a national pastime, no matter which government is in power).

There are still two Sri Lankas, I realized: one for the tourist and one for the local; and for people like me, I get a pass to both, for I speak the vernacular; I am a product of the “Sinhala only” days of the Bandaranaike dynasty. In the tourist world, the experience is top notch: great hotels, vast arrays of food served by world renowned Sri Lankan cooks with signature Sri Lankan cuisine now totally outshining standard western fare, ancient cities, fantastic beaches, wild life, night life and a gentle climate. The tourist wishing to experience this Sri Lanka has to commute in air conditioned cars along new highways or in private airplanes between city centres, and on prescribed routes and itineraries. Step off this path and you wind up in the other Sri Lanka where the now well-paved roads, especially in the southern half of the country are clogged with traffic and the air is stifling in leaded exhaust fumes, where the teeming hordes spill over sidewalks, where the tuk-tuks appear to be on hara-kiri missions, where every town is a garish parade of shop signs lining narrow main streets, making them all look the same, except for the size and age of the bo tree that sits in the middle of the main intersection. The contrast between these two extremes is evident in the Colombo Fort, where York Street acts as the physical and metaphorical divide between West and East: the West heads towards developed, touristy city blocks with shopping centres like the Dutch Hospital complex, hotels and restaurants like the Kingsbury, the Stuart and the Ministry of Crab, and office towers like the Trade Centre and the Bank of Ceylon; the East draws in the sprawl of the local bazaar crawling in from the nearby Pettah replete with the detritus and smells of night dwellers who squat in prohibited places, hollowed out structures like the Ghaffoor Building, and motorcycle parking lots on Lotus Road where once I used to catch the bus home from work. The country will have “arrived” when these two worlds coalesce. And help is around the corner, for a huge land reclamation project, almost the size of the present Fort, is underway on the western end of the city to ease congestion. Hopefully, it will also bring prosperity in the way of jobs to the man on the street, so that he too can enjoy the pleasures currently affordable only by the tourist and the local 1%.

The hills of Nuwara Eliya were a welcome respite from the heat and the pollution but the switch-back roads through beautiful vistas looked perilous to the older me. The town itself was just another crowded, sign-plasted warren of narrow streets, although colonial bastions like the Hill Club, the Grand Hotel and the Golf Club still communicated grace and genteelness. I recalled fondly how I had travelled down the Ranboda Pass in a rainstorm on my scooter with a madcap CTB bus driver on my tail all the way down to Kandy back in the ‘70’s. Now being in a car, in dry weather, with no such mad bus driver to distract me, the journey looked far more dangerous – age makes one cautious! The tea estates were in good repair – a national treasure not to be squandered in wartime or peace, and the estate workers’ dwellings had improved, some were even two-storey concrete structures now. The Kandyan lass who sang out her commentary on the workings of the tea estate reminded me how much English had deteriorated in the country over the intervening years. There is an attempt to introduce English in the schools at present and students must study all three national languages now, but an entire generation has lost its opportunity for global advancement due to political expediency. This gave me the added impetus to practice my Sinhala on the locals, an effort that paid off handsomely – I didn’t get charged tourist prices when I frequented local dives and chimed “Keeyada? (How much?)”

Descending to Kandy threw us into an unbroken circle of traffic whizzing around the lake and I wondered why the authorities could not divert motorists elsewhere like they had around the Dalada Maligawa area which is now a security controlled pedestrian zone. I took in a cultural show next door to the palace and watched the Kandyan dancers exert gymnastically to the drums; then the fire-walkers trod on hot coals before my eyes and I felt the heat – this was pretty serious stuff, not an illusion. The water level was low in the Kandy lake – drought, said my driver – and I couldn’t see the fish or the myriad of coins that used to lurk below in the old days as the remaining water was murky. But a drive along Upper Lake Drive at night for dinner in one of the many cosy restaurants overlooking the lake gave us a break from the pollution and offered a bird’s eye view of this picturesque city. Arrack had become my staple drink by now, one I hadn’t tasted in years – it was cheap, available in different flavours and strengths and had even infiltrated new fangled cocktails. And a good rice and curry was always welcome, three times a day if necessary.

The stop at Sifani Jewellers was a no-pressure visit, unlike the one in Colombo where the salesman had pressed me to buy a precious stone lest his family starve for the lack of him earning a commission. The Sifani lady was gracious, giving us a history of the gem industry in the country and letting us loose in the showroom where we were free to browse and/or buy, or not; the sheer variety of stones only made me gasp. The same no-pressure approach held true at the Batik factory where we got the run down on that garment’s 8-stage creation process, and at the Ayurveda farm where we got to sample various native treatments and received a massage to boot. The no-pressure tactics worked, for we bought from these places.

Walking around the lake one evening I saw a middle-aged gentleman with brief case in hand standing for his bus. As the crowded vehicle roared by with no intention of stopping, he deftly ran into the middle of traffic and jumped onto the footboard and pushed his way inside. I used to do that in my youth, and it came to me as a shock that I could have been that man, one who had decided to stay and not roam the world like me.

The deeper I went, the safer I felt. Yes there were warts and everything was not perfect but this was an imperfection I had been raised with and come to expect as normal. Maybe it was the imperfection that made the journey comfortable and familiar. ( to be continued…)

Inhabiting Alternative Universes

There is much being written about Quantum Theory, and the Alternative Universe that exists “just out there,” that only some of us who see ghosts are privileged to peep into. I have wondered however, whether we have always inhabited these other-worlds in many ways, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes for short spells, and sometimes making the journey with never the possibility of returning to our known worlds.

The most obvious example of travelling to the alternative universe is via dreams. The people and events that we encounter in dreams alternately please, frighten and confuse; back in our familiar universe they then make their way into stories and novels we write, plays we produce, and songs we sing. There are periods in our lives when we dream heavy and other times when we dream light. Some correlate to the stress in our lives, but I seem to be most dream-intensive when I am goofing off and not working hard.

Then there are the other alternative universes we inhabit only in our waking lives: for example, the corporate executive, celebrity movie star, or politician who has to project an image congruent with their respective product or platform. Never mind that they may be closet drunks, neurotics or sex maniacs, the media image has always got to project confidence, trust, and inspire followership. Then there are the video gamers who live in their game universes under pseudonyms for most of their leisure time, who find more validation and purpose in their alternative universe than in the cold world of harsh reality. Writers are no different; they are the masters of their fictive universes, killing off the bad guys at whim, having their heroes overcome challenges under the most harrowing circumstances, creating situations of love, pain, sorrow, or action as the mood demands.

What about the movies or theatre? Why do we pay to go into a dark auditorium with a similarly motivated bunch of souls, armed with coke and popcorn, to lose ourselves in another world for a couple of hours? Or in a fantasy novel far removed from our current world. The circus, theme parks and bungee jumps are other escape valves into temporary alternative worlds. How about the alcoholic or the drug addict who hops onto his next drink or needle just to vanish from this place? Or the party organizer who creates a happy environment so that a bunch of friends and family could eat, drink and be merry and forget about their cares for awhile. Or the tour organizers and travel agents who send their clients to holiday destinations to be cocooned in an artificial oasis of hedonistic pleasure. And the adventure seeker who pursues difficult terrain just to experience life on the wild side. And then there is, of course, Facebook, where most of us congregate for a few minutes (or hours) a day to interact with the alternate universes of friends.

There are also the universes that you travel to and can never return from again without being changed: the bank robber or terrorist who transforms your world the moment he holds a gun to your face, the tractor-trailer that loses control on the highway and rams into your car, the doctor who looks up from your most recent medical report and says, “We have a small problem here…,” or the other doctor who comes out of the maternity ward and says, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

We are already creatures of alternative universes in our daily lives. Time and circumstance periodically invite, or force, us into alternative universes. And while Quantum Theory has brought the debate to the forefront, it does not change the fact that humans have always been privy to alternative universes, if we expand that definition. They provide us with the experience and enlightenment to grow. In fact, it would be difficult to take those universes away without downscaling our world into an unfamiliar, dull and somewhat frightening place.

Flogging is a nuisance and a looming economic disaster

I use the term “Flogging” loosely as it was coined by one of my writer-friends. And this refers to the parasitic practice of attaching links to other people’s posts on the internet to deflect traffic to one’s own peddling, moral or immoral.

I stumbled on this phenomenon when I began to receive an unusually high volume of comments to a post titled “Travel is Education” that I had posted on a public blog site. The initial comments to my post were complementary and interesting, but after awhile they started to deteriorate into statements that were totally out of context. However, at the end of each of these nonsensical musings were tags like ” dissertation writing services available – contact (web hyperlink)” Out of curiosity, I clicked on these links and was taken to sites offering to write exams, dissertations and essays for students taking their undergraduate and post-graduate programs. I was incensed for two reasons: (a) how could these squatters be sitting on my stomping ground like pavement hawkers peddling their wares under the awnings of official tourist shops in Venice, and (b) how could people blatantly sell (or buy) educational credentials in the first world when this was a practice once relegated only to third world countries by snobby academics in the west?   Would I ever hire a college grad again without subjugating them to a handwritten, closed-computer essay to test their independent writing and thinking abilities?

I then posed my dilemma to my fellow authors on this blog site and discovered that I was not alone – they were all being flogged! Many hadn’t complained for fear of reprisal, it seemed. Sure, it’s easy to attract the wrath of these anonymous bloodsuckers in the form of ugly comments and negative votes that play havoc with one’s Google rankings and Klout scores and other meritocracies that claim to measure our self-worth. However, I felt it worth speaking out, despite the potential fallout, because writers live and die by their words and if their words are to be subverted without protest, then what is left, why participate at all in this endeavour that does not feed the belly but only feeds the soul?

Now to my other source of distress: the buying and selling of credentials. This is a plea to those students out there who are supposed to pay for my retirement through their diligent work to keep the economy humming:  If you are going to cheat with your education, it leaves me little doubt that you will not cheat at other things, like shareholder investments and taxes; and if you don’t pay your taxes we will end up a beggar nation, and the streets will be littered with senior citizens with their bowls tipped upward; and the first world would have fallen into third place.

And my plea to fellow writers who have been flogged: Take up your pen and flog these pests in return, expose their sins in the most brilliant and technicolored prose that you can muster. Inspire those students looking for help with dissertations to become like you and develop their art of insightful and incisive writing that will make them successful on their own steam. We  do not taste freedom until we lose it, and complaisance is the first steps towards that loss.

And God bless the Flogged !

Travel is Education

Someone told me that with Google Earth, Wikipedia and other instant information tools readily at our fingertips these days, there was no longer a need to travel to foreign places to get a sense of culture, language, food, geography and all the other elements that a trip outside of one’s physical boundaries provide. While armchair travelling has never had it better, I beg to differ with these pundits of inertia.

I recently wrote a novel set in a part of France I had never visited (my travels in that country up to that point had been limited to Paris and environs). With the assistance of all the online tools and data repositories available to me, I wrote copiously about Strasbourg and Metz, and not in our present day either, but around the time of the French Revolution. Something irked me on completing the book. I had not captured the soul of these places. So I travelled to those two cities and spent some time soaking in their atmospheres.

The first thing I noticed was how poorly I had estimated distance, especially if travelling by horse and carriage, and how differently the shadows fell on old buildings at certain times of the day; and the variance in colour of the Vosges Mountain range in the distance, for online photographs create their own hue and are never like the real thing. Dwellings had added an extra floor with each passing century and the ones I had to hunt down were the crumbling three•storey structures with wide doorways for carriages – these were the ones that harked back to the period depicted in my novel. I had to blot out the sound of motorized traffic and imagine the clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestone streets that still paved the inner cores of these cities. I sat on canal banks and watched swans whose ancestors had floated on those same waters three hundred years ago, waters carrying the blood of citoyen killed in the mass upheavals of those times. I was so absorbed in the scene that I thought I heard voices. Was I finally communing with the soul of this place?

From a young age I have always travelled abroad. I even set an ambitious goal for myself once, of visiting one new country for every year of my life. I am probably running two countries shy of that target, not brought about by a diminishing of interest but because there are not many new “safe” places to explore anymore, given that the world is caught up in a war between the haves and the have•nots, and “equalization” methods such as kidnapping and terrorism now extend to tourists as well. Even Mother Nature has been angry, unleashing temperamental outbursts at the most inconvenient times: I escaped the tsunami in Japan in 2011 by a couple of weeks, and was rocked and rolled by an earthquake in Costa Rica last year, then stranded due to a flood in Nicaragua on that same trip.

But I continue my pursuit, and to stretch my goals, I have just completed a novel set in Cape Town, circa 1794. Even though I used my trusty online tools to the maximum once again, visited the reference library several times, and had two South African friends fact•check my work, I know what is missing. Needless to say, when funds and time permit, I will be heading off for a date with the Soul of South Africa.