When we left Sri Lanka at the end of January, after a month of ambling about the Pearl Isle, we felt extremely grateful for the experience. Lonely Planet had named the country its ‘top destination’ for 2019 and, even though the tourism season had been quiet (a brief period of political instability at the end of 2018 seemingly the cause), there was a real sense of positive change occurring.
We encountered a country full of the kind of restless energy you might expect from somewhere plagued for so long by civil war, now emergent, and looking forward with boundless optimism. And, as I documented over that month, people aside, we found a country of immense natural beauty, staggering historical riches, and gastronomic jewels that left us enriched and energised.
More recently, we met an Indian/Dutch couple from England, who had been travelling in Sri Lanka at about the same time. Like us, they’d had a most fabulous time. In Kandy, where we spent a wonderful few days, they had befriended an enterprising young local determined to open a guesthouse, seeing it as a viable path to self sufficiency, to being his own boss. He had been saving and saving and saving. He had recently emailed them to announce that he had finally achieved his dream.
This was at the beginning of April.
When I heard the news, about the terror once again rained down upon this beautiful but scarred landscape, my first thoughts were about people. Before I remembered that we’d stood in some of those churches, passed by those hotels with perhaps a slight tinge of accommodation envy, I thought of people.
I thought about the tourism professionals we encountered, whose industry is now wounded. Much backpacker and mid-range accommodation in Sri Lanka is provided by family-owned guesthouses, and all over the island we were welcomed into family compounds and shown wonderfully warm hospitality.
I thought about the wild young Russian who married a local, moved to his home country, opened up a hostel in Galle, and now helps travellers to navigate their journeys. The father in Polonnaruwa, who spoke so passionately about wanting his children to know the past but to also be free of it, and to reap the benefits that peace was now bringing (and whose wife cooks some of the best food we ate, and this in a country full of spellbindingly good home cooking!). Or the young entrepreneurs in Jaffna, so keen to show visitors a different face of the formerly civil war-ravaged Tamil north.
I also thought about the many other locals we shared a moment with, nameless, anonymous, who were only too happy to point a couple of hapless backpackers towards right bus or train platform; the Muslim family who indicated we should stand by them so we could take their seats when they alighted off the overcrowded bus; or the many young checkout operators at Cargill’s who’d look at us bemused but smiling when we’d stop in for bottles of cool soda water and packets of ginger biscuits.
And I also thought about an old school friend who was holidaying in Sri Lanka as this unfolded, and was a good source of firsthand information. Fortunately she was safely away from the locations targeted and, while plans had to be changed – Negombo was off the itinerary – essentially, her trip continued. There was an increased security presence, of course, but otherwise her group of friends were able to continue moving about and enjoying the island.
I suppose that could read as a bit tasteless, continuing to holiday in the shadow of a terrorising national tragedy, but sometimes circumstance puts you in impossible situations. And whatever one feels about when the time is right, Sri Lanka will rely on tourists returning, and quickly, to help it move passed this attempt to destabilise its still nascent peacetime.
It has already been reported that mass cancellations are being predicted, as you would expect. How quickly the country recovers will depend on how successfully the government is seen to be responding effectively, in both bringing those responsible to justice and also to reassuring the broader public that the country is safe.
I hope a blame game does not ignite. A couple of learned Sri Lankan friends on Facebook have been quick to point out that the country does not have a history of either Islamic extremism or targeting of its Christian communities. This kind of radicalism has been imported, and we should not jump to any conclusions and assume it relates to any wider malaise or brewing of instability.
We spent our last day in Sri Lanka in Negombo. In the morning we walked passed St. Sebastian’s church and observed frenetic preparations taking place; a fancy wedding we assumed. Later that evening, returning to our guesthouse, we came upon a multi-coloured archway of lights that stretched down the street for literally kilometres, leading us back to the church and one of the most wonderful, bizarre sights I’ve ever seen.
Unbeknownst to us, it was the day of the feast of St. Sebastian, and we had stumbled upon the festival and special service in full flight. It was loud, it was musical, and a visual feast of colour and decoration. It’s an enduring memory of an unforgettable month; a celebration of living and the wonderfully diverse place that Sri Lanka is.
Just as in Christchurch (and, sadly, too many other places), time will heal these latest wounds and colour will seep back into life. There will be time again for festivals. I hope it is soon, and I hope it is shared with many visitors.