Letter from Sri Lanka
Eyes and ears

ear C.,

I hope all is and has been going well in London. I arrived last night and am writing primarily to communicate the above to you and to update you on my current situation. But really, it is just an excuse to write, as it has been a while since my last letter and we have not spoken recently besides.

I am sure you will be glad to hear that Sri Lanka was a success, but not so much as I suspect some might have feared. That is, those who still called it Ceylon and wryly warned me not to ‘become native’ or something to that effect.

It will come as no, unpleasant, surprise to you that I had some spiritual ambitions for my travels, but really I have come back with no firmer faith. For a country with a fantastically threaded religious landscape, Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, a far cry from the dwindling congregation of our parishes, Sri Lanka did have what I had been seeking. Beyond widespread religious sincerity, I found there something very close to what can still be found among the ruins of our religions, a practice rooted in ritual worship, lacking the philosophical mysticism that so drew my Western mind away from the dogma of Home.

                               Pilgrims gathered on Sri Pada, from the author

Only through Nature did I feel the true force of the island faith. As with any spiritual feeling, awe easily slips into feeling close to God. Meditating alongside robed devotees before the majestic Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree or trudging up the holy mountain Sri Pada, shoulder to shoulder with a mass of pilgrims waiting for the chance to prostrate themselves before the footprint of the Buddha, I found myself swept into the ecstasy of a spirited state.
  As I stood, one in a hundred atop the mountain, watching the red sun break over the horizon, it was clear that it is not the mysterious footprint that inspired every faith on the island to believe it holy, but the awe at the summit; Nature free of doctrine. No temple I visited, impressive as they were, or religious practitioner I spoke to, was able to inspire me as I was then.
  Sure too had been the disillusionment of one Dutch pilgrim I met at the base of this earthly Eden, who having read volumes of western writing on Buddhism, could not understand why the locals prayed as if to God and forced him to cover up the large tattoo of the Buddha’s face emblazoned across his calf.

This is not to say I was, on the whole, dissatisfied with my travels. I simply left an Englishman and returned the same. Faith aside (sorry, I know it bores you), my trip did make me question the ‘native’ idea. It is not the first time the sentiment has been put to me.

There was surely no shortage of was interesting characters. It was also a social trip and I found that Sri Lankans are some of the kindest, most obliging people. They are particularly fond of the English, as you might–or might not–expect. There seems to exist a lingering solidarity and appreciation for the history of our countries. Many Sri Lankans would come to me on the street, curious about my travels. Upon learning of my being English, their enthusiasm would grow; we would talk about the cricket and they would open up, allowing for some back and forth on the state of both countries and our lives.

Though, when I refer to ‘interesting characters’, I am alluding to the many European travellers making their way across the island. Like our pilgrim, there seems to be a host of wealthy Dutch, French, Germans, Belgians, who feel most at home in a travellers’ hostel. Some tourists, some almost indistinguishable from the hippies of the 60s and 70s. Some more easily suffered than others.

From the brief time I spent at one of these hostels, in Nuwara Eliya (sometimes affectionately nicknamed ‘Little England’ in a way much like Shimla), I was struck by a small group of Parisian and Dutch travellers sitting around a dining table, engrossed in curry. Clean spoons on the table, they were shovelling the greasy food into their mouthes with their bare hands. Almost all Sri Lankans (and I believe Indians) eat this way and I had not till then though anything of it. However, this scene caught unnerved me; I found it truly offensive to be honest.
  I spoke to one of the Parisians, he had lived in India for five years and had adopted the custom. I think the others were following his lead. You more than most know that I have, at times, shown myself a keen Orientalist, but I wanted no part in this. How far can one go? This episode was a lone violation of good taste for any traveller but this proudly bohemian class of continentals (I never saw a Brit do it). The scene afflicted me with a set of doubting thoughts, should one drink Chinese tea from a handless cup (as I have always done by the way) or have it in one’s ‘native’ fashion? This display, for it was a display, made me not even want to pick up chopsticks again (even though, as you have seen me, I am probably even better at using them than our cutlery).

Would it have been more suspect had they been wearing sarongs and turbans? If this were Japan and they had been gracefully kneeling, would I instead have seen this adoption as a sign of sophistication?
  Although these may seem like trivialities, this for the first time set a distance from which I might appreciate culture, but I fear I am becoming too academic.

I hope you will forgive my perhaps bitter ramblings. Since you have formerly pulled me up on my brevity in letter-writing, I felt more at liberty to use this as an outlet for some thoughts during the rather long and uncomfortable homeward journey. Rest assured that not all my recollections of travel have been so morose.

In any case it would be good to hear from you; please call to arrange a date. Don’t feel the need to write back; I know you haven’t the time.

The Ancient Fortress of Sigiriya, from the author

Chargé d'affaires - Depuis 2020