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Sri Lanka: fantasy island

You may feel like you know Sri Lanka from films, books and songs, but a first visit there may prove the reality even more beguiling.
Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, is famous for its shopping, but its temples are also well worth a visit. iStockphoto
Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, is famous for its shopping, but its temples are also well worth a visit. iStockphoto

There are some places that seem familiar even though you haven’t actually visited them. Paris is like that for Europeans and Sri Lanka is like that for me. Thanks to myths, movies, politics, geographical proximity and a shared language, Sri Lanka was part of my mindset while growing up in Chennai in the 1980s.

Lanka-puri was the golden land described in the Hindu epic Ramayana, where the demon Ravana spirited away Princess Sita. An army of monkeys built a stone bridge, waged a war and rescued the princess. Some Hindus, my relatives among them, believe the bridge still exists, submerged under the ocean. I can’t help but look for it from the plane – Flight UL 122 – but the water is as grey as a turtle’s back.

There was the Eelam depicted in the phenomenal 2002 Tamil movie, Kannathil Muthamittal, in which an Indian couple adopts a girl whose biological mother is part of the Tamil Tigers – a terrorist group. The family sets out to find the birth mother, leading to a climactic scene where the mother must choose between her biological daughter or staying with her secessionist cause.

A lush, tropical island shaped like a teardrop, this is a land of many names: Serendib, Taprobane, Ceylon, Eelam and finally, the official Sri Lanka. Smaller than the Australian state of Tasmania, Sri Lanka is both fertile and prosperous. Its annual per capita income of US$6,531 (Dh24,000) is higher than neighbouring India’s $4,077 (Dh15,000). The flash of its gems blue sapphire and moonstone are as well known as the flush of its teas. Also known are its internal conflicts. For 25 years, since Black July in 1983, Sri Lanka was caught in a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 lives. Since 2009, the country has been rebuilding and tourism is on the verge of taking off.

Locals are optimistic. “Things have changed in the past five years,” says the France-educated diplomat Saroja Siresena. “While retaining old-world values, we have modernised. Compared to Bangkok or Mumbai, our cities are liveable and cosmopolitan. Nobody stares at you if you dress differently.”

I am taking two children – my daughter, 12 and nephew, 13 – on a trip to a land that I “know” but have never visited. This is their first visit, too; one that is unclouded by history and known only through cricket players such as Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, both of whom are partners in the popular Ministry of Crab restaurant. Its celebrity chef, Dharshan Munidasa, opened Kaema Sutra last year, serving contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine (Kaema means food in Sinhalese). “We all grew up with the war. We didn’t know a different life,” he says when we visit him. “Now that we have peace, I worry less about sending my child to school. I take more risks.”

The trick to travelling with kids is to keep moving. This we do after checking into the aptly named Taj Samudra (meaning sea in Sanskrit) and scarfing down the complimentary chocolates and a pasta lunch.

Colombo, everyone says, is a business city, known for shopping but not much else. The kids have lists from friends back home and are quite chuffed about shopping. I take them to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple instead. I want them to engage with a clean slate, unpolluted by Sri Lanka’s politics and bloody history, but I am not sure how to engineer it.

We hire a hotel car. Our driver, Hussein, shows us layers of Sri Lanka’s colonial history: the Dutch hospital; Cargill’s, an English department store, now leased by an Indian bank; Portuguese outcrops; and the mosque where he worships along the way. He accompanies us into the temple, pointing out the Buddha’s mudras or hand gestures that depict various moods. He explains the murals on the ceiling. I grin at the serendipity of having a Muslim explaining Buddhism to us Hindus. We stand before an ancient Bodhi tree and fold our hands. Finally, we go to the museum inside the temple: a kitschy assortment of watches, swords, combs, jewellery and seemingly everything that the temple has received as a gift.

We visit a few other religious sites during our stay in Colombo: the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, designed by the acclaimed architect Geoffrey Bawa; the Dutch-style St Anthony’s church; and the colourful Hindu temple across the street. The children like the Gangaramaya temple best, mostly because there is a lifelike elephant that they can hug, and a Buddha image painted in such a way that the eyes stare at you wherever you go. We spend a giddy 10 minutes trying to escape Buddha’s eyes but to no avail. The golden Buddha’s eyes resolutely stare at us. We can run but we cannot hide.

Temple visits should always be alternated with chocolate. We go to Paradise Road Café for coffee and a nut-filled chocolate cake. The well-proportioned space used to be the office of the renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and is now where Colombo’s swish set comes for lunch or sundowners. I eye the paintings by Sri Lankan artists along the walls; the children read Sumitha Publishers’ illustrated children’s books that retell Sinhalese myths in English. The Great Flood and the Gourd is one title. Opposite is a store called Rithihi, which to my surprise has a colourful selection of silk saris from across India. We end the day with a swim at the hotel. Counterintuitive as it seems for a tropical country, Taj Samudra’s heated pool is heavenly and removes all the knots from my shoulders.

Breakfast is the usual sumptuous spread. I choose red string hoppers with the famous trio of sambal powders: pol sambal which is mostly coconut, seeni sambal made of caramelised onions and katta sambal made of ground red chillies. I douse the fiery powders with a stew made of coconut milk. The children stick to pancakes and eggs. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” I chide, right before my eyes start watering.

On day two, we hire a tuk-tuk and go to Barefoot Gallery and Café (for me) where I buy a colourful cotton dress; and A&M cupcakes across the street (for them); to Saskia Fernando Gallery (for me); and to Odel department store where they buy yellow sandals, muffins decorated with SpongeBob icing, string necklaces and souvenirs. As the sun climbs, we duck into The National Museum and wander through fifth-­century Buddha images. The children protest at the sameness of the old statues, but are engaged by accounts of prehistoric Sri Lanka beginning with Balangoda Man. Wall plaques neatly describe how Prince Vijaya journeyed through the seas from North India in the third century, married a local princess and founded Sri Lanka.

On the way back, we spot a procession of protesting monks, who want the freedom to pursue Buddhist education. So says Hussein, even though I don’t understand why ordained monks who presumably have had a Buddhist education would have that particular demand. Discontent, it seems, simmers under the island’s placid facade. Even though Buddhism is the majority religion, Sri Lankans are warriors by nature, says a veteran journalist whom I meet. “Look at their names. Simha means lion and Raja means king. This is a country with robust warrior-names.”

The next day goes by in a blur. I try to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. We ride tuk-tuks, chatting with the English-speaking locals. We go in and out of temples, “just for you”, as the kids say. We eat rice and curry like the locals. We try out the spare but charming local trains, less crowded than in India. We go to Pettah Market and haggle for umbrellas. Soon it is time to go to Bentota, our next stop.

The best way to go from Colombo to Bentota and farther down to Galle is by train, which hugs the coastline all the way. Not having the foresight or knowledge to buy train tickets, we arrive at the Taj Samudra’s sister property, Vivanta by Taj, by car.

The pleasures of Bentota are more rural. There are turtle hatcheries where leatherback, green, loggerhead, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles are rescued and rehabilitated. Funded by donors, these hatcheries buy turtle eggs from fishermen, hatch them and release them back to sea, where they can mate and hopefully thrive. The children get to carry a 10-kilogram green turtle, which can live for 300 years, according to Amarasena Fernando, the owner of Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. In the evening, we join a boisterous game of cricket in the hotel grounds, followed by a swim in the sea under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard.

On day four, we drive to Galle, stopping at a mask factory and a moonstone mine along the way. The wares may be real but the place reeks of tourist trap. Our boat ride through the mangroves is better. It costs 5,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Dh140) for two hours on the water. We spot giant squirrels and three monitor lizards swimming after prey, and spend half an hour at a fish farm dipping our feet into a tank and enjoying the nip of hundreds of fish. We hold a baby crocodile and sea snake, and tap some river crabs. We walk through cinnamon trees on an island, where an elderly man shows us how to smell and cut fragrant cinnamon bark. It is 2pm when we reach Galle. I am eager to explore Galle Fort, but the children want none of it. A bribe of limp French fries at Rampart View Guest House (our driver insists on taking us there perhaps because drivers get a free lunch) buys me some time to buy locally crocheted lace on Galle’s streets. It would have been charming were it not for the blazing heat. The best is saved for our last day. We visit Sri Sunshine Divers, owned by a strapping windsurfing champion, Thusal Gunawardena. We scream through a banana boat ride and take ­waterskiing lessons – much harder than I thought.

After lunching on wild mango curry and red rice, we leave for the airport. The children discuss high points (waterskiing, turtles, snakes, fish, crocodiles) and low points (temples, museums, more temples). “But what about the war that everyone keeps talking about?” asks my 12-year-old daughter. “It’s like this,” replies her cousin. “The Tamils wanted a separate state from the Sinhalese. They kept fighting for years and finally the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he adds: “I read it in my history book.”

That’s all it is to these young ones: history.

theweekend@thenational.ae

Updated: January 22, 2015 04:00 AM

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