Last night, whilst enjoying another fabulous Sri Lankan feast for dinner, another British couple arrived. They sat at a table nearby and, hearing the familiar accent I introduced myself. And so it was that I met Joff and Cinda from Petersfield. Of similar age and humour, we hit if off straight away and, having told them of my plans for the coming Sunday, they asked to join me. Isn’t it funny that you can meet people thousands of miles away from home and just know you will become firm friends straight away?
That is the beauty of moving away from your comfort zone and being open to anything and anyone that may cross your path. It seems to me that travel is a great way of finding answers to life’s questions that are not always clear at home. It is also handy that back in the UK Joff, Cinda and I only live a quick sprint down the M4 from each other which has made us all vow to stay in touch when we return.
First thing on Sunday morning I rushed off with Lucky to one of the nearby ‘shack’ shops and stocked up on hundreds of sweets and toffees. Collecting Joff and Cinda on our way back we then headed off to the Manakura Buddhist temple to meet the children who were attending Sunday school.
As we entered the compound we were met by the venerable Mangala and venerable Dipankar Bhikkhu (that’s how you refer to Buddhist monks, venerable – much as we would use the word father for a priest) and were able to interrogate them about what Buddhism is exactly (72% of the 21 million Sri Lankan population are Buddhists).
Buddhism and finding answers
In a nutshell, I learnt Buddhism shouldn’t be viewed as a religion, it is really a philosophy on the way of life. They teach that no-one can provide you with answers to your fundamental questions regarding your own life, the answers lie within yourself. So, maybe you don’t need to leave home when finding answers? In pursuit of this ‘enlightenment’ Buddhists meditate deeply, achieving an inner peace while at the same time doing good for others, the community, the environment and teaching the same to their young pupils.
Interestingly the monks earn no money. Their entire compound was built and is maintained by the surrounding community. If a wall needs decorating or a roof mending it is the villagers who volunteer to take care of it. Every day, on a round robin basis, food is cooked fresh and given to the monks. Everything that the monks need to sustain themselves comes from the community and in return they teach, advise and give blessings.
After our chat we were then introduced to the 375 children who had all given up their Sunday morning to attend. They ranged in age from 5 all the way up to 16 and were separated into classes according to age. Every single one of them wore pristinely laundered white uniforms and most of the girls had their beautiful black hair braided into 2 pigtails. They were very well behaved, were squeaky clean and had huge white smiles. All were curious at the strangers in their midst and wanted to practice their English with us as we doled out our sweet goodies to each and every one of them. Joff especially showed himself to be a veritable pied piper when it came to the children (maybe because he is tall, white and very jolly) and they squealed with delight whilst shouting ‘bye’ over and over again and waving wildly as we departed.
Connecting with the locals and shopping
After a brief break back at the hotel Joff, Cinda, Lucky and myself then ran off again to ‘jump’ on a bus to attend a local bazaar/market. We happily wandered around for a while in the vast array of stalls selling a huge amount of fresh produce and clothing. Lucky bought vegetables for that night’s dinner, Cinda bought some loose-fitting cotton clothes (which cost mere pennies) and I was snapping away taking pictures and generally getting in everyone’s way. Joff, astonishingly, was being beeped and waved at by passing motorcycles and tuk-tuks that conveyed the children, now with their parents, who had attended the Sunday school earlier. He had obviously become quite a talking point and celebrity within the community as even the teenagers on bikes and motorcycles were honking their horns at him. Lucky decided that Joff was a “magnetic personality” and got Joff to choose his lottery ticket for him. We will have to wait and see if it worked.
That evening over dinner, consisting mainly of the vegetables we had helped to buy, all of us chatted excitedly about the whole day’s experience. It was with a hint of sadness we headed off towards our rooms as both of us would be leaving for the next stage of our respective trips in the morning.
On an aside I had the chance during the day to chat to various local people and ask a bit more about Sri Lankan life. I can’t state that these are definitive facts as they may be coloured by their personal perspectives. I am a naturally curious person, always trying to find out more than just the tourist trail to build a picture of where I am. You also never know what ideas might be sparked by one of these conversations.
Finding answers about Sri Lanka – locals personal view
Sri Lankan’s consider 50,000 rupees per month is a decent enough salary to provide for a home and family (which is roughly £300 pcm). Anything more gets them luxuries of which a car is considered one. Civil servants fare even better and get a decent pension after age 55 though there is pension provision from some of the larger private companies. If you are unemployed there is absolutely no government support or benefit system however, the family structure is such that they help out and beyond them the community looks out for each other. Once you get to 60 you do get a pass from the government which allows you things such as free travel, and other senior citizen benefits.
Education is mandatory and free and includes university. School uniforms and books are provided free of charge as is medical care for everyone. It is not approved of for couples to live together before marriage though arranged marriages have faded away and love matches are now the norm. The gay community is tolerated but not state sanctioned so is still very much at the ‘behind the scenes’ stage and at the moment marriage for same sex couples is not legal though I am led to believe that this is changing.
The country as a whole enjoys high employment though the younger generation are finding it harder to find the jobs they want. The rural ‘hill country’ areas are the poorest and if you are born into this it is difficult to break out of poverty unless you are one of the more gifted children. There is a fairly even balance of men and women in work though the highest paid jobs do still tend to go to men.
With no state help it is the military who have special units for the disabled or mentally ill and many charities are relied upon to help out in this area too.
During the conflict with the Tamils the country practically shut down. Everyone was scared all the time, terrorism and bombs were rife, so no-one felt safe. The Tamil were defeated in 2007 but it took another 2 years before things improved dramatically for the better and tourism is now on the rise, in fact it is sky-rocketing at the moment.
Moving on and finding answers but sad to leave new friends behind
Monday morning dawned, and I prepared to leave. Lucky had kindly taken my laundry from me previously and, with his own hands washed and ironed everything for me though I must admit some of my whites have a vague pink tinge – probably from my red shirt. It was with a little heaviness of heart that I partook of my last breakfast at the Notary’s House and waved goodbye to Joff and Cinda as they departed before me.
Bhodi arrived and I turned to the staff team who I now considered to be friends. We all hugged and kissed with profuse promises to stay in touch via email and there were a few tears shed. Apart from the obligatory ‘I will not forget you’ photograph there were quite a few selfies taken by the staff, so I’d like to think they considered me a friend too. Lucky was so moved he took off the necklace he we wearing and hung it around my neck – it is a momento I will treasure.
The trip from Notary’s House to the Weir House in the Kandy Hills, Gampala Dsitrict is usually about 4 hours from Manukura. However, this would be by way of the express way which is still being completed. As there was no hurry and I’ve seen quite enough roadworks in the UK I asked Bhodi to take me via their older roads which would be the equivalent of some of our smaller A-roads. It meandered around through various towns and villages and would afford me a nicer experience I felt. I have heard it said that the roads in Sri Lanka are atrocious. I am pleased to put this misconception right. OK the dirt tracks and single tracks roads when you turn off the main arteries are pretty basic, but the main roads are very well maintained and would put to shame some of our pot-holed, utility work scarred roads at home.
We careered off down these smaller roads and the countryside unfolded before me. Lined with king coconut palms, roadside lean-to stores, paddy fields and crossing various streams and rivers it had an unforgettable charm. Every now and then we’d pass through a sizeable town where the hustle, bustle and noise would again assail me. As we passed through the town of Kegalle, the hills and mountains began to loom ahead of us. The roads began to climb upwards and the 6-way overtaking reduced down to 4 way overtaking but some of those were on hairpin bends when there was no way the driver could see any on-coming traffic. Getting stuck behind a slow lorry, grinding through its gears and lumbering up the hillside would cause a cacophony of horn blasting and some riskier overtaking than usual. In amongst all this the most unusual traffic of all appeared now and then – an elephant!
(Sri Lankan’s no longer use elephants for work. They are in the wild or, particularly with orphaned ones, cared for and tourists can interact with them)
About halfway into the journey Bhodi stopped at Ambepussa junction at a restaurant called the First Rest House. Having taken over occupation from the Dutch in 1815 the British had built this place in 1822 and the restaurant staff proudly informed me that the Queen had visited in her younger days. The place does still reek of colonial influences and I half expected cucumber sandwiches to be served with my cup of tea. By the way, as you would expect, the tea here is delicious. No need to pack PG Tips.
On through Gampala, which has a railway museum consisting of 4 very ancient British locomotives from past British occupation days. 6 & a bit hours after leaving Manakura a very tired and dusty Pam was deposited on the step of my next stop The Weir House.
I am finding all sorts of perception challenges and answers as to how I view my world at every step of this journey and cannot wait to see what else I discover.
If you have missed them here are my previous articles about my Sri Lanka adventure