Tiny island in need of love
THIS article began life as an informative, light-hearted travel piece, outlining the many pleasures of exploring fascinating and multifaceted Sri Lanka.
There were details about its great food - the fish curries and accompanying coconut sambol - and the treasure troves of gems and textiles; of the joy of safari rides deep into national parks to see elephants, jackals and crocodiles in the wild, while eagles, herons, pelicans and another 400 or so bird varieties patrol the skies. Of observing sacred Buddhist ceremonies and visiting tea factories set on gleaming green hillsides, of climbing steep paths to highly decorated cave temples and the mountain-top ruins of ancient empires, of strolling around colonial fort cities and chilling in the limpid waters of its golden coastline.
But today Sri Lankans are mourning - and the world with them - following the murderous hate crimes on Easter Sunday.
Very recently I enjoyed a 15-day tour of the southwest of the country, and I am with the Sinhalese in their grief and shock. The scale of the suffering and loss - the pointlessness of it - are scarcely comprehensible. Travel seems a trivial pursuit in the face of it.
But the rewards of travel extend beyond sightseeing, cuisine and some beachside relaxation. They come, almost predominantly, from meeting and interacting with the people: simple, human connections made across the racial divide, in markets and museums, on buses, or walking along a red-dirt road.
I talked to Hindu Tamil students and Buddhist bus drivers; ate at Muslim restaurants; visited a Dutch-era church.
People of every religion and ethnicity were friendly, courteous, authentic. Even the tuk-tuk drivers were genuinely affable, slightly apologetic in their attempts at overcharging. Together, they made me fall in love with their homeland. The literacy rate in Sri Lanka is remarkably high, and the incidence of majority Sinhalese learning to speak Tamil, and vice-versa, is on the increase.
This is a developing country - evolving following 26 years of civil war and a tsunami that wiped out entire villages.
Tourism has been on the rise, and people want to practise their English. Schoolchildren in brilliant white uniforms shout greetings; adults routinely ask: "where are you from?”. But the connections go deeper than words.
They are made through eye contact, gestures and smiles - like music, a universal language.
Sri Lankans of every persuasion have suffered enough, and after nearly a decade of peace were starting to enjoy a previously unknown peace and prosperity.
They are resilient - and like the people of Christchurch, with whom they are now linked in tragedy, both naturally occurring and the product of fanaticism - they know how to rebuild.
All the joys of travelling in Sri Lanka remain: nature, culture, the gentleness and vibrancy of the people.
They will survive the bombers and whatever else is thrown at them. Within the geopolitical climate of fear and hatred - fostered by new, outside forces - there are a million small stories of courage, hope and humanity. Northern Rivers businesses are doing some great things here, running innovative tours and ecologically responsible resorts that provide employment for scores of local people.
Travel in such cases is not meaningless. Tourism is Sri Lanka's life-blood. As with Bali after the devastating bombings of 2002, the country needs our support, not our turning away in fear. That would only mean the terrorists have succeeded.