Real Sri Lanka
By: Cindy Patten, Nanaimo, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
I hate to admit that this summer I traversed the
line separating the mature, sensitive 'traveler' from the demanding,
cranky ' tourist' on a paradisiacal day in Sri Lanka. Perhaps
it was the aftermath of four weeks in India spent negotiating my
every morsel, movement and purchase in the absence of a visible,
validating husband that had considerably shortened my fuse.
Perhaps my cool Canadian patience and good nature had melted away
in the three digit steamy heat. Perhaps, like the Grinch,
my heart was simply two sizes too small to begin with that day.
I was unreasonably chagrined at paying 30 Sri Lankan
Rupees for a second class train ticket seat, only to discover that
all the seats were taken by the time I boarded a full 45 minutes
before departure. It was a one hour train ride from Kandy
to Rambutana, and another half hour or so by bus to the Pinnewala
Elephant Orphanage: far too long for me to stand, especially
at the unreasonable hour of 7 am. I had paid for a seat.
Surely there was another second class car? I plopped down
on a third class bench and angled out of the window until I caught
the eye of an agreeable Sri Lankan rail staff worker. He inspected
my ticket, listened thoughtfully while I earnestly explained my
predicament, and cheerily beckoned me along back to the second class
car. “Come, come!”
It was early; I was fatigued, sweltering, and peevish.
For all its magnificent splendors, there is no sufficient cappuccino
equivalent in Kandy town and I was wrathfully into a week of full-blown
caffeine withdrawal. The day ahead already seemed insurmountably
stacked against my enjoyment of it, and I was not going to naively
give up my space to go back to a carriage I knew was full.
It could be a scam: I might not only lose my seat and have to stand
for a whole hour, but possibly have to pay for another
ticket (in my defense, this has actually happened to me in China).
I snatched my ticket back with a petulant exhalation, slumped against
the open window and sulked into the tropical scenery, determined
to commandeer as much space possible along the blue cracked vinyl
The jungle canopy was luxuriant in the bright face
of a new brilliant morning. The verdant tangle of vines and
fronds whispered ancient Sinhalese paean in the sweet sultry zephyr
while fantastical fruit exploded, seemingly right before my eyes,
from the earth in all manner of fertile seeds and fearsome spikes.
Unhurried waterfalls streamed over smooth-shouldered chocolate
boulders, easing into pacific pools which mirrored the sapphire
sky and raw-silk clouds. Inside, multi-generational families
of five and six unconcernedly alternated between sitting and standing
for the hour-long journey. Adults and children sang out together
with pleasure, white teeth glinting delightedly in the splintered
light, in a rising crescendo as the train shot through short black
tunnels. A variety of exotic snacks were eagerly consumed
at the frequent stops: baskets of crunchy fried bundles laced
with whole dried peppers, mammoth cobs of golden steamed corn, and
bunches of enigmatic fragrant fruit. Grudgingly, I felt my
irritations begin to sublimate into renewed appreciation for budget
Several people in my carriage ensured I disembarked
at the correct Rambutana station. I stalked through it to
the main road, past the sinewy barrier of auto-rickshaw and taxi
drivers and friendly touts wishing to help me on for a small price.
I needed to make a city bus connection to Pinnewala, but there was
no bus or station or stop in sight. Asking two different people
and receiving convincing gestures in two completely opposite directions
ratcheted my anxiety up a few notches. Hungry for business
and undoubtedly smelling the sweaty desperation and foreign currency
emanating from my incandescent white skin, a line of auto rickshaw
drivers commenced vigorous animation of their green and yellow tin
“Can I help you?” I looked up with suspect
from the gritty ground at my dirty feet to see pressed trousers,
a casual pinstripe shirt, and finally a welcoming smile.
I hesitated, realizing that as independent as I
wanted to be, I probably could not find the bus stop on my own.
I hated to admit that I was vulnerable and did, in fact, need some
help. Through clenched teeth, I ungraciously replied that
I needed to get to the Pinnewala bus but that I did not want to
have to pay him to show me where it was.
The warm smile wavered somewhat, like a cloud passing
through a sunny afternoon. I am not a beggar! I don'
t want your money! I am a real Sri Lankan!
I will help you - come!” And my day-long lesson in humility
The self-assured fellow walked me to the bus, secured
me a window seat, and then waited on the bus until the driver boarded
and he could confirm that it was, indeed, headed for the Elephant
Orphanage. I am busy, but I need to make sure I put you on
the right bus. Do not worry; I will do this for you.”
Twenty minutes later, no fewer than five passengers and the driver
cheerfully pointed out my stop. The driver waved goodbye to
me as he pulled away.
I spent a wonderfully quiescent afternoon at Pinnewala,
satiating and exceeding all my elephant expectations. I was
delighted that the enormous prune-skinned mammals seemed genuinely
sanguine and that their handlers, the mahouts, treated them with
care. The pinnacle of the afternoon was bath time in the serene
red river, where each day the 80 or so parched pachyderms have the
opportunity to frolick. Grinning mischievously from tusk to
tusk and winking long lashed, wisdom-filled eyes in the cool spray,
they become surprisingly playful, splashing and wrestling and pushing
and slapping at one another like a gaggle of junior high school
students during a loosely supervised lunch hour. At times
small groups would sneak to the far bank of the river for a vigorous
dust bath, or trot downstream a ways into dense bush to foray for
a leafy treat. Several reclined completely into the river,
snorkeling for air in bubbly gusts from their brawny yet incredibly
Wandering back towards the main road for the inevitable
drive home, I paused to admire some cinnamon dishware at a small
shop. Striking up an easy conversation with the store clerk,
Sarath, I bargained heartily and made several purchases before asking
for precise directions back to the bus stop. I found my way
there shortly, weighted down under a backpack, a ridiculously large
camera, and now two souvenir tables and a set of plates. I
recognized Sarath waiting for the same bus; he said he would help
me make the necessary connections back to Kandy. I found myself
sharing my frustrations about continually having to be on my guard
as a traveler and how tiresome I had found the train journey that
morning. Sarath spoke compassionately. “That'
s how it is with Sri Lankans also, we do not always get a seat,
but there was room for your to stand, wasn' t it? ”Oh.
When the medieval bus ground to a tortured halt
Sarath helped me wedge into the now standing-room only vehicle.
Before we had lurched a further two blocks, a young student smilingly
nodded at me and surrendered his seat. Sarath grinned at me
warmly: “Because you are a foreigner! I felt a
strange little tap on my heart as I recognized just how unselfish
and truly loving the small gesture had been. Bus fare clenched
in my fist along with my purchases, I waited for the conductor to
collect. It never happened, and I suspected that Sarath had
paid for me. When I tried to reimburse him he just chuckled
merrily and waved the money aside, ushering me onto the connecting
bus. Another tap stroked my heartstrings. Again with
standing room only, we had hardly proceeded five minutes before
a young schoolgirl in a white blouse and blue jumper sunnily volunteered
her seat to me and all my formidable packages. Tap.
She braced herself against the maniacal careen of
the bus which clung to the road only by virtue of gravity, the singular
saving grace of a prodigious passenger load. Knotted mercilessly
into a mass of standees, she pitched defenselessly like seaweed
in a tidal rip for nearly an hour so that I could repose with convenience.
Tap. As if that was not enough, the elderly gentleman
sitting beside me held her large book-filled backpack so that she
could better grip the overhead rails. Tap tap. He
then took the responsibility to sincerely apologize to me for his
country' s political tensions. It was not real Sri Lankans
who were at war, he remonstrated. Real Sri Lankans
are peaceful and revile the bloody battle which has internationally
defined their small nation in recent decades. He was very
sorry for me, and hoped I would return to experience the good side
of his country in the future. Tap tap tap.
En route to Kandy my conscience gnawed away noisily
at my ego, working overtime to reconcile the selfish, narrow-minded
fiend who had inhabited my body and possessed my sensibilities some
twelve hours before. In the wake of such overwhelming hospitality
it was humbling to admit that hyperactive conjecture had triggered
my early morning wash of negativity. The difference in ticket
price between a second class and a third class train ticket, regardless
of whether or not one arrived early enough to secure a seat - was
6 Sri Lankan Rupees for locals and foreigners alike. In other
words, I had allowed the equivalent of a whole 6.5 Canadian cents,
less than 6 cents US – induce me into an irritate, whiny state
of Western infantilism.
I should be so lucky as to one day possess the spontaneous
charity and character of a real Sri Lankan, and to tap
the hearts of others with such caring, selfless acts of respect