Guest Post by Graham Rankin
I just returned from a two week trip to Sri Lanka conducting a workshop for some of the forensic chemists at their Government Analysts Bureau. It is part of a international program funded by our USAID. The point of this essay is not what I taught but about my observations about the Sri Lanka, its people and, because I am a foodie, its food. This is the first of several blog posts.
Sri Lanka is an island just east of the southern tip of India in the Indian Ocean. I was told that Sri Lanka means “Pearl of the Ocean”. When it was a British colony it became known as Ceylon and was most famous for its tea, spices and sapphires. My Sri Lankan guide told me that “Ceylon,” a corruption of “Sea Land,” named so because of its importance as a port for early sailors.
Not many Americans visit there mostly because of the distance (12,000+ miles) and long flight times. It took me about 25 hours total travel time each way. This is a shame because it is a beautiful tropical island with a diversity of geography and some of the most friendly people I have met.
My work kept me in the capital city of Colombo most of the time. Since I had the weekend free I enjoyed a guided day trip into the mountains to the city of Kandy. More about that trip in a later blog.
The island was inhabited for over 10,000 years by a wide diversity of people, resulting in a series of kingdoms and territorial wars for centuries before Europeans arrived. Portuguese Jesuits set up a trading center in Colombo in the 1500s. Of course they also began to work at converting the islanders from Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions to Christianity. The Dutch came later in the late 17th and early 18th century, establishing a fort at the city of Galle (pronounce Gaul) on the southern end as part of the Dutch East Indies company. The British made their appearance in the early 19th century when it looked like France would conquer the Netherlands and its colonies would become French.
Ceylon became part of the British Empire in 1815. Independence from Great Britain occurred at the same time as India in 1948, but remained a member of the Commonwealth until 1972. There have been a series of governments in Sri Lanka including a Communist leaning one in the late 70s and 80s.
There are currently two major ethnic groups, the Singhalese and the Tamils. Each group has its own language and alphabet. I was told that because each refuses to learn the other, English is the common language. In fact at the local universities all classes are taught in English and theses and all papers must be written in English.
The upper is Singhalese; the middle is Tamil
Most recently there has been a very bloody uprising by a faction (ILTE or Tamil Tigers) of the Tamil minority that lasted from 1983 until 2009 when the Singhalese dominated military was able to crush the rebellion. Numerous bombings were commonplace during this time. Several top officials of the government and parliament were assassinated.
Although Colombo is quiet and relatively safe, a number of bombings occur in the Tamil dominated northern and eastern sections of the country each month. Land mines planted during the insurrection are still discovered in rural areas; unfortunately when elephants or people step on them. There are soldiers at key positions around Colombo with Chinese made AK-47s and numerous police (mostly unarmed) throughout the city. Directing traffic seems to be the main occupation of many police.
I considered taking a picture of one of the soldiers but thought it might not be a good idea.
I thought this boat was just a fishing vessel when I took the picture until I blew it up and could see the deck guns. It was patrolling off shore opposite my hotel.
Since 2009, there has been a resurgence of foreign capital coming into Sri Lanka with a building boom in Colombo. There is a goal of constructing 3000 new hotel rooms over the next couple of years. A new toll road to the airport was just opened. A cab driver told me it is an election year so the current president is seen a lot cutting ribbons on projects.
Galle Face Hotel
The hotel where I stayed (Galle Face Hotel), originally built in 1864 is undergoing the second phase of restoration to be completed next year.
This was my residence for the two weeks in Sri Lanka. A historic hotel with hardwood floors, ceiling fans and an ocean view where I could watch the sun set from either my room or from the patio bar and pool below. As most guests stay only for a few days, my two week stay may have resulted in some of the comps (bottle of wine, fresh fruit and candies) I received, and the service was excellent.
After a full week there I had laundry done…it was return perfectly folded in a rattan basket.
I had the feeling of being in a Victorian novel where the elite made the Grand Tour of the Indies, staying at hotels like the Galle Face. The room had all the standard accouterments with a very modern bath. In addition to central air conditioning there was a ceiling fan in the room which I much appreciated especially coming in from the 90 degree 90% humidity that reminded me of summers in Houston, Texas. The hotel had a library, (yes it was that yellow!) gym and spa.
Carved wood trim everywhere including the dining room
Lots of staff available (more it seemed that in a typical Hilton) willing to take care of any need. The bar had photos of famous people who had stayed there including Nehru, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Alex Guinness and Sir Lawrence Olivier. The general manager told me that during the filming of Bridge over the River Kwai, much of which was shot in Sri Lanka, several of the cast stayed there. He also told me a visitor commented to him that any hotel that hosted both Che’ Guevara and Richard Nixon (not at the same time!) was his kind of place!