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An Official Celebrity in Sri Lanka

A round trip is a permanent farewell and at the same times a constant arrival. This form of travel combines pleasure with sadness; it pleases curiosity and makes the known seem pleasant. The old Ceylon, spiritual places and confusing roads. Encounters everywhere, Sri Lanka turns you in a philosophic mood. By Jennifer Latuperisa

Visiting the garden. Her eyes are sparkling. It is a mixture of curiosity and joy. Her smile is big and broad and adapts to her nose, which indeed has turned out too big for her pretty face. Her name is Dishie. Its her garden. It is Spartan but green. She touches my hand lightly, serves tea with biscuits and bananas. Apart from that, she says nothing. She only giggles hardly audibly in a little ashamed way. Fernando, my driver, translates the few words. My mere presence makes him proud. A journalist from Germany, he says proudly. Yes, she does not look typically German; her father is from Indonesia, he explains, as if I was not present. Then, he waves with a letter that I will never be shown during the entire trip. It must be something official, with important stamps and my name. I take another picture of her with her husband, whose golden elephant ring I find very impressive. It is from Indonesia too, he says, and points to the jewellery. I see, I say somewhat clumsily. On our departure, he says that their dog is a German Shepard from Germany. Well, I say.

In the glass floor boat. His teeth are not complete anymore and his expression is not the friendliest. My feet are in a sea soup that has probably been gathering in the glass floor of the boat since some weeks. The motor rattles. I have to avoid turning my eyes to the milky glass of the boat floor in order not to become seasick. Therefore, I look straight ahead to the open sea and the dramatic sky, which is filled with clouds just at this moment. Hikkaduwa used to be once the centre of hippies of the island. Back then, the bearded and libertine danced at the beaches. Then, in 2004, came the ranging tsunami and devastated the entire place. Even though the hotels have been rebuild—right at the beach, of course—a slight melancholic air is still palpable.

Two minutes in the rickety boat and the engine goes off. Look, says the man in English, I look through the glass and see dead corals. A splendour that was once and is buried in the sea as colourless fossil. On the way back to the beach, I am asked to feed some fishes with toast and give a tip for the maintenance of the boat. What a pity—is Sri Lanka not said to be a snorkelling paradise? Not off the coast of Hikkaduwa anymore. However, the beaches are picturesque. The branches of palm trees are moving over the gold-yellow sand. “Do not swim,” warns me Fernando. The sea is unpredictable, currents arise that even the locals do not always know. By saying this, he is not too cautious. “For sea bathing you better go to the eastern coast,” says Fernando. There are a few safe bays. Back from the boat to the car. The pride of Fernando: a Toyota. The official letter is behind the windscreen. It serves apparently also as a kind of parking permit. 

At the Dutch. The colour of the sky is changing to orange-red. It is time for a Mango Bellini and the wicker chair in the third floor of the Amangalia Hotel. My look moves from the crocked roofs over the yellow bricks towards the sea. A crocked church embellishes the view. Nothing except the tropical wind reminds me of Asia. Galle Fort is also located on Sri Lanka’s west coast. The several metres thick walls of the fortress protected the 300 to 400 years old houses against the deadly tidal wave. They preserved the unique atmosphere of colonial times. Narrow little streets lead past small and white painted houses. Snail charmers, jewellery sellers, tourists and monks bustle around the walls of the fortress. It is a colourful chaos.

Fernando takes me to the roundel from which one can see the Meera Mosque and the lighthouse of Galle Fort, by the way, a place with Portuguese and Dutch origins (Galle means cock in Dutch), while young chaps with wild grown hair take a run-up to dive into the depths. Fernando praises them as the world’s best cliff divers—he has probably never heard something about Acapulco—when the most beautiful boy asks me whether he should jump for me (and for a few dollars) down from the 15 metres high wall.

I want to stay here for on the fortification a while to watch the people as they pass by. Women dressed in Saris and men in white shirts with parted and gelled hair.

The colonial beauty is indeed the paradise on earth: cordial politeness, shining floorboards, polished pomegranate, the private butler and a spa physician. Fernando is also visibly delighted and tries to sneak a room in the hotel. He is a charming chiseller. Here, however, the official letter in his hand is not even causing the hotel staff to raise an eyebrow.

Through winding road to the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Fernando is the driver and guide. He is not the typical Singhalese. This is probably the reason why we liked each other from the start, even though his first sentence was already a lie. “My name is Fernando.” It is his surname, however, it is a lot easier for “his German tourists” to remember than his first name Pryantha. However, it is not so original.  

Names, however, are nothing like smoke and mirrors. Moreover, his with great effort acquired language skills would be irrelevant compared to the ability, which is vital in Sri Lanka: driving. Many can handle a brake and change gears. However, who can overtake an overcrowded tuk-tuk on the counter track while keeping an eye on the colourful bus that drives down the hill without even considering using its brakes. Hardly anyone overtakes with such skilfulness as Fernando. Nevertheless, I close my eyes. Better safe than sorry, I think. “Hey, Ms. Jeniffer, no accident in all these years. Therefore, I am travelling with you officially.” It is good to know that the official letter also helps against the oncoming traffic.

After the serpentines comes Kandy, a city at the heart of Sri Lanka’s central mountain region. The former capital of the Singhalese kingdom, the  heart of the island, is the pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Here a relic is preserved that sounds hard, I admit, to believe for non-believers: an eyetooth of Lord Buddha. Fernando explains in detail how the tooth, which was smuggled by a beautiful Indian princess in her hair, came to Kandy. Yes, that’s right, in her hair. Today, the tooth is hidden from the eyes of visitors in a golden shrine behind thick wooden doors in an unpretentious temple compared by the importance it has for Buddhists. However, the city is great, Fernando says while fibbing also a little bit. For Kandy’s highlights can be counted with two fingers: the Temple of the Tooth Relics and the mild climate.

Dancing trunks in the sunset. The fittings of the vehicle consist of rusty holes and buttons. I look sceptically at the pickup area of the van that is to drive me through the Kaudulla National Park. I wait for Fernando, however, he does not come. He wants to wait and not see any elephants if possible. He is scared of them.

As we drive through the green thicket, I become aware of Sri Lanka’s national wonders. In no other country of the world, there are as many elephants as on this island in the Indian Ocean. Only a fraction of the population lives in national parks, the largest part roams freely through the countryside at their own pleasure, creating havoc on traffic from time to time. But also the surrounding fauna is breathtaking. Six hundred leopards live on the island, toque macaques, mugger crocodiles, monitor lizards and frogmouths.

An diving eagel welcomes me in the savannah of the highlands. The sun disappears slowly from the horizon, as we walk through the bushes to get finally to the lake. There many elephants of all kinds of shape and sizes can be seen standing or lying down. It is a touching idyl; a very special moment. It is just here that Sri Lanka gets anchored into the heart of everyone. I could continue to rest my eyes on the elephants for ever, and it is a painful farwell when we move towards the exit. Fernando waits there for me, reliable as he is. He smiles and waves towards me with enthusiasm. In his hand, once again, the official letter, which by this time is beginning to show signs of use. The entire neigbhourhood looks at me, all know my name.

Damsels. He is older than my grandfather, at least he looks so. His German is hardly understandable. He sounds a little as if he would recite from an already written travel guide. Asking questions, impossible. The brave old chap, however, is my saviour. To get to the top of Sigiriya is one thing, but to leave Sigiriya another, especially if one wears slippery slippers as I do. Why is that? Because I am simply silly. It looked so harmless at the beginning in the former pleasure gardens of King Kassapa I, who unlawfully got the throne by deceit and out of fear had his palace built with monliths on a rock 200 metres high above the ground. Sigirya is the Singhalese equivalent to Australia’s Ayers Rock. In order to be able to marvel at the ruins of the place today—it was made of wood and as therefore not survived the centuries—you have to claim up 2000 steps. Sounds strenous and is indeed strenous. Above all, it is high and the construction does not inspire much confidence. But it is worth it. Nevertheless, it is recommended to have a head for heights.

Sigiriya means lion’s rock. Of the former entrance to the last steps to the palace, which ones went through a lion, only the lion’s paws have survived historic decay. 

But what is this? Silicon breasts from the 1st century AD? The frescos on the rock located on the first stop on the way to the plateau, show so-called damsels. Once the king had a collection of pretty and bodily women. They came from all over the world. And they had one thing in common: unatural breats. Perhaps there was only some cheating during their restauration. What is true is that 20 wonderful drawings were preserved; the ascent is worth only to see them.

Then only the descent through small but slippery stone steps with not so solid shoes lies ahead. My compagnon has to hold my hands even though I am the spring chicken. But the heights makes my knies go soft. I am always touched by the attention paid towards me by the people here. Always a smile and a nice gesture. No bad word. It seems almost natural to think that people here might have some little ulterior motives. I am very sure about it. For the guide of the rock it was the attention he got from his colleagues when he stepped over the water ditch with the VIP lady. For Fernando it is to be mentioned in this story. Never mind, after this beautiful trip I will also return with an ulterior motive: to feel again like a VIP at last.

Source:Jennifer Latuperisa, reisen exclusiv, spring/summer 2013, p. 87-91