It was 2002 when I traveled to Sri Lanka for the second time. I had first visited rather spontaneously in 1998 on the backside of my study abroad in Kerala, India. That visit was astoundingly wonderful. I landed in a geography and a group of cultures where, for no rational reason, I truly felt at home. I can only describe the feeling of a life reprieve – I could relax my muscles, I breathed easier, I knew the place in my body. Was that even possible?
Four years later, at the end of my graduate studies, I longed to escape the academic ivory tower of studying international conflict transformation and gain some experience in a place that had lived conflict. It was a moment of celebration in much of Sri Lanka, with a freshly brokered ceasefire after nearly 20 years of civil war. I worked at the country’s largest NGO and basked in the – what turned out to be – fleeting moment of levity, while witnessing the embittered consequences of decades-long strife, the insidious remnants of a colonial legacy that pitted ethnic groups against one another, and the ways religion and politics can have a nasty way of co-mingling. I left the country for the first time truly in love with a place, complexity and wrinkles and blind spots and beauty, as with any place and any group of humans.
I can’t believe how old I am when I say it’s been twenty plus years since then and am now taking my kids to see this place. It is so different here now, but some things remain. The sweet smells of burning trash, curry and coconut, the thick, humid air, bikes carrying 1-2-3 people grinning as they pass, students in their white uniforms strolling to and from school, cows wandering, an openness to talk about the war, the more recent economic struggles and the corruption of the government, and a real feeling of welcome.
We started our three-week journey in Sigiriya and its environs – a well-trodden path – so my kids could get their Sri Lankan land legs and begin readying their mouths for Sri Lankan curries (for me, the most spicy curries I have ever tasted). We climbed Pidurangala, a mammoth rock adjacent to the famous Sigiriya, that had been occupied by Buddhist monks who lived in the caves around the rock for over 2,500 years. The climb began at a temple and then traveled straight upwards. It was utterly wondrous.
Of course, we had to get a tuk tuk back to our lodging because...
And then the well-known trek up Sigiriya/Lion Rock. I have now done this climb four times and each time I bury the utterly terrifying stairs to the top of this rock somewhere way deep in the crevices of my consciousness (watching your three kids and just hoping they don’t fall through the stairs – what a test of faith!). But we made it, marvelling at the wall frescoes and views at the top. On the steepest descent, wobbly knees, two sprightly monkeys jeered at us; we coaxed each other to ignore them and just continue the descent. Focus, one foot in front of the other.
A few more day trips:
Dambulla – 153 ancient carved Buddhas (and a few Hindu gods and Sri Lankan kings) in caves. Quiet, hollow, so many memories of my first sightings of these.
Wilpattu – a national park that was closed during the war as it was used to transport wartime supplies. We went on a safari here, as well as a night and morning bird walk. It was much less traveled than some of the safaris down south, so we really felt on our own during much of the four-hour, bumpy, video game-like, dodge-the-bushes jeep ride (poor Chris got whacked in the nose by a rogue branch!). We saw mongooses, crocodiles, birds of so many gorgeous varieties, spotted deer, bathing water buffalos, peacocks doing their mating dances, snakes, and then a gorgeous lightning storm that lit up the sky at dinner. No leopards or sloth bears, sadly!
Where's Waldo!!! Can you find the snake in this picture?
We are now in Jaffna, in the very north of the country. In 2002, I was able to come to Jaffna as part of the NGO – through many security checkpoints with threatening officials wielding guns. A region besieged, bullet holes and bombed-out buildings. More than a decade after the end of the war, I so wanted to visit and show my kids this place. Also, as some of you know, Asa loves Hindu mythology; he really wanted to see the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, and visit a part of this country awash in Hindu temples and Tamil food. Here we are!
It’s definitely off the beaten path, particularly because the train line connecting it to cities in the south is currently being upgraded. Seven months of travel have readied our kids for this - unpaved roads, finding ourselves in places without restaurants so they had to survive on biscuits instead of meals, long car rides, sweaty walks and boat rides, cultural practices that require them to quickly adapt, dodging rickshaws and scooters and bikes, not to mention cows, goats, duelling gangs of dogs, and today, a surprising donkey.
That said, this place is a total wonder. Gorgeous temples, long lagoons, sand dunes, coastlines, incredible food, ancient forts. I am so glad we did the work to make it out here. And it's been so sweet to watch Asa bond with our Sinhalese Buddhist driver by walking him through Hindu temples - showing him the gods and explaining to him their stories.
Driving around to the northern-most point of Jaffna and around the coast to Casuarina Beach
Bumpy roads, island hopping, sitting on the roof of a slightly sketchy boat, exploring Hindu and Buddhist temples (and all of their animal inhabitants) in Nainativu
Of course, no off-the-beaten-path trip would be complete without driving adventures.
In the middle of sand dunes and washed out roads, working with Tamil villagers with whom we cannot communicate to figure out how to get our van through a washed-out road
Onwards, to the east of Sri Lanka!