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The 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 bench. 

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 travel.

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 chariots.

“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 began.

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 expressive trunks.

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 and kindness!

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