‘But why do you want to go to Sri Lanka?”
If I had a penny for each time I got asked this question, I would have been able to make a couple of trips back and forth to the country that elicited such scepticism from so many.
“Why do you want to go there? It’s just like East Pakistan,” said my mother (who spent several years in East Pakistan — now Bangladesh), turning her nose up before suggesting more exotic locations. “France? Switzerland? Anywhere in Europe?”
“No thank you, you can go alone,” said my husband, who suddenly had some very important meetings to attend and hence couldn’t accompany me.
“Really? Sri Lanka?” my best friend scoffed. “I won’t go there if you paid me.”
And he’s Sri Lankan.
But I wanted to go and am ever so glad that I did.
I found a tiny country with a big heart. People with smiles that don’t stop and with a sense of time probably even more lax than that of the Middle East. I went on many, many 10-minute journeys that took half an hour and two-hour road trips that stretched well over four hours. But there was not much to complain about. If anything, it felt surprisingly like home.
The streets were lined with a jumble of shops, hoardings piled on top of each other, children in colourful clothes running all over the road that was teeming with rickshaws and buses. I may as well have been back in Karachi, except for the fact that everything was so clean. The streets were completely litter-free.
“It’s for Chogm,” said my guide referring to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. “The streets have been polished specially for the visiting delegates.”
The answer didn’t come as much of a surprise. Most of the traffic jams (and there were lots) during my stay had been attributed to Chogm as well. The biennial meeting moves to a different country each time and this year it was in Colombo – the first time it has been held in Asia in 24 years. The city was abuzz with Chogm excitement.
As I moved out of Colombo, I realised that it wasn’t just the city, but the whole country that was caught up in Chogm fever. The national flag adorned every shop front and if the lack of litter was indeed a Chogm stunt, then the government had done a pretty good job of making sure every single street right from the main roads of Colombo down to the tiny alleys of Dambulla were up to the same standards of cleanliness.
This cleanliness and the heartwarming friendliness are my keepsake. As are some extra inches around my waist. The food is spectacular. Spicy, yes, but sinfully lip-smacking.
It surprises me that these fiery curries come from these gentle people. If you are what you eat, these people should be fire-breathing dragons. Instead, they put their hands together with a gentle bow and softly greet you with “ayubowan” (the Sinhalese welcome greeting that is used as a hello but also means have a long life).
It would seem that they save the heat and intensity for their cooking and calmness for their manners. If you’re still wondering “Why Sri Lanka?”, now you have an answer.
The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi living in Dubai
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