Johnny's Journeys: Exploring Sri Lanka
Written by Johnny Fugitt
Sri Lanka rang in the new year with much hope. 2019 was to be a celebratory time marking the 10-year anniversary of the end of a bloody, 26-year civil war. Tourism on the Indian Ocean nation grew exponentially in recent years and, just months ago, Lonely Planet named it the world’s top tourist destination for 2019.
The appeal is easy to see. The surf is world class. The people are friendly and English is widely spoken, making it easy to interact with locals. By some measures the infrastructure is adequate, by other measures the transportation is a destination itself: the vintage, colorful trains cutting through mountainous tea plantations and meandering along coasts follow some of the most scenic tracks in the world. Sri Lankan cuisine offers bountiful seafood and curries distinct from Indian dishes to the north. Exploration into the mountains, whether tracking jungle wildlife or visiting ancient religious shrines, is easily accessible, as is the buzz of a South Asian city in Colombo. Finally, there is an array of new luxury accommodations from eco-resorts to updated colonial villas to beachfront bungalows.
All this was shattered in April, just a few weeks after my visit, when Easter bombings devastated churches and luxury hotels, killing more than 250 persons. The loss of life is, of course, the greatest tragedy and one with which the families of those killed will grapple for many years. Many other Sri Lankans were impacted by the drop in tourism. By some estimates, tourism is down 85% following the attacks and many hotels, restaurants and tourist-related businesses have laid off more than half of their employees.
As Americans, all of our lives were changed after 9/11. Some lost loved ones that day. Many more sent family members overseas in the subsequent military campaigns. All were impacted as our culture was indelibly marked by those attacks. Yet, on that day and the weeks thereafter, we resolved not to allow terrorists to change the fabric of American life.
I hope we will stand with our friends in Sri Lanka following their 9/11. Had I not traveled to the country shortly before these attacks, met a number of kind locals and truly enjoyed the little island nation, I would not go out of my way to encourage anyone to visit. Now I think it important we visit and, with our tourism dollars, support this country as the victim of violence, hate and injustice. In most of my Johnny’s Journeys entries, I highlight upscale lodgings, world-class sights and must-try foods. All of this can be found in Sri Lanka, but, for this entry, I prefer to share a pair of simple, everyday interactions with kind Sri Lankans.
Galle is an old Portuguese and Dutch colonial town on the southwest corner of the island. Just outside the fort lies a sunny cricket field, one of the more famous fields for Sri Lanka’s favorite sport. I happened by one afternoon while two local teams prepared for a match, so I purchased a fresh coconut to sip, entered the stadium and found a seat. An older man sat nearby and we started chatting. First he explained the rules of cricket, which I sorely needed, and then he proudly shared details of his family and gem polishing business. He offered helpful local tips, and, after a couple hours of sport and conversation, wished me well on my travels.
The next day, while still in Galle, I wanted to visit a tea plantation. A local tuk-tuk driver met me early for the winding trek into the dense hills. Once on our way, his first question was the standard “Where are you from?” He was happy to meet an American because he traveled to Saudi Arabia in the early 1990’s to cook at a makeshift American military camp supporting the Gulf War. I wouldn’t have thought the stress and conditions of that experience would have allowed us to put our most hospitable foot forward, but he spoke fondly of his time working with Americans. I’m not worried about the financial footing of my cricket buddy, but this tuk-tuk driver may be on hard times now that tourism dollars are rare in Galle.
There are many reasons why you should visit Sri Lanka, but the primary reason to visit now is to support these beautiful, smiling people.
Visit @srilanka and #srilanka for more pictures.