From Colombo to Galle.
An overnight flight from wintery Heathrow found us tumbling into, then out of, our coach, setting us down in front of an elegant waterfront hotel. Greeted by hot towels and cold drinks, our holiday began. Strangers together, we started to meet and cohese, a friendly group intent on enjoying a relaxing fortnight visiting and learning about the historic sights of Sri Lanka.
Glowing lights around the pool and restaurant welcomed us towards our evening meal and we shared names and history around communal tables, struggling to stay awake. We were warned of an early rise, but this was more than compensated for on the morning drive through the nearby town of Negombo where we disembarked beside a panoramic display at the fish market. The smell was nearly as overwhelming as the view. Acres of fish drying in the sun, netloads of fish being washed in the sea turned red with fish blood and clusters of diligent fishermen and women, the men with heads wrapped in scarves and bare chested, the women more modestly clad, all working rapidly to sort, clean, pack and preserve the catch.
Around the street corners were Christian, probably Catholic, shrines. White or pink faced Madonnas, their pale faces framed with yellow hair, bearing no resemblance to either their own native race or to the faithful in Negombo.
The next day, having driven through coconut groves and verdant forests, we are en-route to Dumballa, to visit the famous four hundred year old Buddhist shrines carved into the rockface.
Our comfortable, air-conditioned coach purrs quietly as we drive past billboards advertising agencies which place girls/women in jobs in the Middle East/ Saudi Arabia because, we are told, it is not the Arab culture for women to work, so local village girls now go to Saudi to carry out jobs of a domestic nature, sending money back to village families.
We hear a sad story: One seventeen year old forged her passport, claiming to be twenty-one. She obtained a job childminding, which she really wasn’t capable of and unfortunately the child was ‘accidently killed.’ The unfortunate childminder was executed.
This does not deter the women, who continue to leave the villages and towns, working abroad, sending money back. Sometimes husbands have very little to do in their absence and turn to drink. It is no surprise to learn that when the women come back they find ‘many problems’. We all know that story.
Somewhat self-conscious of both the similarities and the differences between our lifestyles and those of the people outside the cool glass windows, we progress to the sacred caves of Dambulla. Hats off, shoes removed, I wrap a sarong around my waist to obscure my offensive knees. I walk carefully and, wearing my temple socks, my poor tired temple-socked feet step gingerly around the hot harsh uneven ground.
The heat overwhelms us, we jostle for a space beneath a coconut tree. Not permitted to delay further I pick my way across the shade-less courtyard, I find my eyes fixed on the heels of the man in front. His brown skinned feet must be heat resistant . They stride beneath a white sarong, which flutters as he moves. A rim of thick white callous edges his soles and cracks, like rivulets, run from ankle to heel; this man doesn’t sit in front of a computer all day.
All thirty something of us take turns to enter the sacred caves, ornate painted patterns cover the curved ceiling, giving the impression of a cave interior bedecked with carpet and the colours – all gold and shimmering red beauty. Such opulence, we are spellbound, cameras clicking,ignoring the fine red dust which covers every surface. There are groups of immaculately uniformed school children everywhere. They out sparkle the gold of the Buddha, the younger ones waving and venturing a ‘hi!’,greeting us strange-looking tourists. The older children gravely ignore us, and we respect their distance, reminding ourselves that to be cool is the essential prerequisite of young people everywhere.
Inside the caves it is sticky, humid and imbibed with the scent of crowded humans. Our indefatigable guide, sweat pouring downs his face, patiently repeats information for us twice, three times, and dates, 1800, 1400, swirl around my tired brain. Nothing can diminish the awe and grandeur of this place and I leave with a sense of hands, feet, postcards for sale- some of us buy even tho’ we don’t want to; reminding ourselves that a man has to eat. And everywhere there are skinny monkeys offering playful relief. I need a cold drink and am humbled to be so conscious of my physical needs in this holy ancient place.
‘Dedicated Economic Center of Dambulla’ and ‘Always on the Cutting Edge’ advertising which we see through the coach windows on billboards, cause us to wonder. Optimistic perhaps, we reckon, as we look behind the billboards to the corrugated iron structures whose purpose is difficult to discern.
We must, of course, experience the towering rock of Sirigia and visit elephants, tea, glorious beaches and bag a leopard with our cameras. For me, the bright green bee-eater and the oversized- compared-with-ours kingfishers epitomise the jewel bright colours of Sri Lanka and it is the gently respectful and industrious personality of the people we encountered that moves us most.
We learned that many arranged marriages are initiated, if not consummated, between the sheets of the Sunday Observer, whose bride-and-groom-seeking adverts illustrate the importance of Sri Lankan family ties and the maintenance of ongoing financial security. Horoscopes, government pensions and good morals are prerequisites for a satisfactory union. I encounter the expressed requirement for ‘slim, pretty, fair’ in nearly every bride’s trousseau, whilst grooms are required to be prepared to migrate.
Somehow the holiday is, regretfully, over. A farewell dinner in a resplendent dining room, the food, although delicious, comes second now to the sharing of experiences, confidences and the warmth we feel for each other, although we know it is unlikely we will ever meet again.
I settle into my aeroplane seat, ruefully admiring the cabin crew hostess, attractively dressed in traditional, peacock designed sari, who helps me load my cabinbag overhead. Thanking her, I shake open my Sunday Observer and read.
“About our 1979 October born pretty fair slim 5’4”,virtuous daughter with unblemished excellent character, working in leading international airline as cabin crew senior supervisor drawing attractive salary and owning assets with modern house and car. We parents, Colombo suburbs seek suitable decent son professionally qualified and well employed here and abroad, never married. No differences. Willing to migrate. Please reply with horoscope.”
The hostess was certainly slim, pretty and fair. And I wonder whether I have just been assisted by the virtuous woman from the Sunday Observer. Life, as we all know, is never quite what it seems.
From Colombo to Galle.