Originally published in Ladies of Leisure, April 2016
When my mother first moved to coastal Victoria in the early ‘90s, the well meaning ladies at the local milk bar asked her which part of Africa she was from. While their confusion might seem incomprehensible considering ~exotic and untapped~ Sri Lanka’s newfound popularity as a tourist destination for Australians, lest we forget that I spent a large part of my primary school years explaining to my peers that I am actually not from India and thus bear no direct relation to Apu from The Simpsons. If I met the adult incarnations of those impossibly white haired kids today – all of whom were named either James or Stephanie – I’m sure they’d make a point of telling me how much they enjoyed the food, the surf and the hospitable locals on their recent visit to my ethnic homeland.
The reason no one vacationed in Sri Lanka until a few years ago isn’t that the tourism board’s PR company weren’t doing their job. From the early ‘80s until 2009, the country was devastated by a horrific civil war between the ruling Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority. Then ruling President Mahinda Rajapaksa ended the war with a military offensive that included the massacre of many innocent Tamils. While it’s not exactly a humanitarian victory worth toasting, war is over and it’s done great things for tourism.
This actually isn’t the first time Sri Lanka has trended as a bourgeois vacation hotspot. Before the war, my then teenage Mum recalls watching European couples walk the streets of Galle; it was then that she realised there was a big, wide world out there where young people were allowed to do scandalous things like hold hands in public. And she did leave Sri Lanka, just as the shelling got worse and war was officially declared. For the next few years she heard of the degradation of her home only through letters from family members and snippets of a now unrecognisable war zone on the evening news.
To me, Sri Lanka will always be about more than really fresh coconuts, pristine sand, and local people still naïve enough not to screw tourists too hard for their money. It’s waiting roadside for the kothtu roti man to expertly chop our evening meal before taking it back to devour in the lounge room of my Grandma’s house, my sister and I sprinting through the imposing Galle Face Hotel feeling just like little Eloise at the Plaza, the frustration of not being able to speak a word of Sinhala, and longing to visit Jaffna where my grandparents once lived peacefully amongst Tamils. Most importantly, Sri Lanka is where I remember I have a family and feel connected in a way I have never experienced in Australia.
While the evening curfews and soldiers wielding imposing guns on every street corner are no more, the after effects of war run deep. Hearing my Grandma recount the horror of seeing dead bodies paraded through the streets during the worst of the conflict provides some context as to why so many Sri Lankans remain blindly reverent to Rajapaksa for ending the war, despite his violent and barbaric tactics. This common unwillingness to engage with challenging realities is just one of many less endearing aspects of Sri Lankan culture, including but not limited to: widespread corruption, deeply entrenched gender norms, and stifling social conservatism. As much as I love Sri Lanka, I am forever grateful for the option of returning to Australia.
I’m not surprised that the average wave chasing, cocktail sippin’ tourist has never heard of Rajapaksa, or even the Tamil Tigers. I am similarly guilty of using the desire to discover a country on my own terms as an excuse to barely skim over a Lonely Planet guide before touching down, but I wouldn’t advocate this approach to travel. Visiting a country without bothering to take in even a very abridged version of its history isn’t adventurous and whimsical; it’s lazy, disrespectful and ignorant. So please do take advantage of those Air Asia flights to Sri Lanka, because the beaches are beautiful and the people are friendly… and I really am happy that you are as passionate about egg hoppers and coconut sambol as I am. If you’re looking for a place to stay, my Uncle runs a guesthouse in Colombo. Just be sure to read the Wikipedia page before you travel, and remember it’s not really that much like India.