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Sri Lanka - The author’s take
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‘Warm, friendly people.’ The hackneyed phrase flows easily from the travel writer’s pen when describing Sri Lanka. So, too, does ‘tropical paradise’ and, I must confess, those were words I used when I visited the country first in 1980.
I was on my way to Sarawak where I planned to write a novel about the white rajah, James Brooke. Somehow, Sri Lanka’s spell enchanted me, as it does most visitors. I wanted to stay, and I did. I never wrote the novel but was soon ensconced in a cottage attached to a guesthouse in Bentota writing other novels, travel guides and magazine articles, and living the carefree life of my dreams. After 20 years I decided to stay and bought my own colonial cottage on a small hill overlooking the railway line, road and sea.
Fortunately, the dream has not become a nightmare, despite Sri Lanka’s troubles that frequently erupted to turn this ‘tropical paradise’ into a festering hell.
Neither has it become impossibly expensive as a place for the perfect holiday. For foreign visitors, by a quirk of the world’s economy, many things in Sri Lanka are actually cheaper now than 30 years ago. The Sri Lankan rupee floats against major foreign currencies. In the 1980s, a rice and curry lunch cost 35 rupees, which was the equivalent then of about £1 sterling. In 2013, a rice and curry lunch could still be had for the equivalent of £1 and it was possible to stay in a room in some guesthouses near the beach or in the interior for the equivalent of around £10 a night.
However, I do not want to imply that Sri Lanka is the place for a cheap holiday. It isn’t. In addition to the high room rates of boutique and mainstream hotels and on lower-priced guesthouse room rates, a guest must pay the service charge and various taxes, which add a further 25% or more to the quoted room rate. My advice is to regard Sri Lanka as a country where a holiday can bring unexpected bonuses, not as a low-budget destination.
The slogan chosen by the Tourist Authority to promote Sri Lanka as a destination to appeal to all visitors was ‘Sri Lanka: a land like no other’. It was apt, perhaps in a way not originally intended. For where else is there a country – so blessed with nature’s bounties – seemingly so intent on destroying itself?
The slogan was obviously intended to present Sri Lanka as a holiday destination that would suit everyone. It is. Whatever the visitor seeks in Sri Lanka can be found there. This book, although the outcome of my having resided in Sri Lanka for three decades, necessarily reveals only a little of this ‘land like no other’. You will get a sense of the country after a few days, but a deep understanding would take a lifetime. No wonder that the Tourist Authority now bills Sri Lanka as ‘The Wonder of Asia’.
‘But don’t you ever go back to England?’
When visitors ask me that, I wonder what they have sensed about me that strikes them as odd. I’m content in my cottage in a coconut and papaya garden overlooking the Indian Ocean, but they seem uncertain. ‘Don’t you miss the theatre? Marmite?’ They really mean ‘Life in the West as we are accustomed to it’.
I tighten my sarong and shake my head. I tell them that I get Marmite (it’s actually produced in Sri Lanka too), as well as jolly good New World wines, and all the culture I want from books, films and CDs ordered through the internet. My old friends and relatives from England visit me from time to time, and my new friends are Sri Lankans. Perhaps it’s my serenity as I relax on my veranda with legs hooked over the extended arms of a planter’s chair, a cup of tea to hand and a smile of bliss as I watch the sunset, that worries them.
They give me the impression that my living in the tropics is somehow disreputable, or perhaps they are simply envious and wonder how they could adapt too. This guide might help. In spite of the setbacks (tsunami, terrorism) many people who visit Sri Lanka as tourists long to spend more time here, even settling down as I have. When you discover Sri Lanka you’ll understand why.