The contradictions of Sri Lanka are a beautiful country with warm friendly people, a good health service but human rights problems caused by lack of democracy.
Two weeks biking around Sri Lanka gives one a year’s worth of beautiful views and experiences. By the end of the holiday I was also aware of the darker side of Sri Lanka which relates to its political history and way the government has evaded questions about the military end to the civil war. I wrote about the journey every day on my blog and this is a post travel reflection.
I was on a biking holiday organized by Exodus and we had a lovely route that took us over the central and western part of the island. There were 14 of us from Australia (6), Ireland (4), UK(3) and one Canadian. We biked around 70 km a day, doing 102 km on one day. Being a cyclist really opens up a country, everywhere children shouted out to us. Our tea stops were in small cafes where they rarely see white people. Bananas fuelled my cycling, bought in the small shops with at least seven different varieties. I feasted on the ripe pineapples and water melons.
Sri Lankans are warm, open people, very welcoming. They also eat wonderful food. Their main dish is so- called “rice and curry”, this dull name does not capture the feast one has of rice and about six other dishes of spiced spinach, dahl, beetroot, jackfruit, aubergine, ladies fingers, fish. Every cook prepares the dishes in their own way and for me the spices were a treat.
Buddhism is very visible, we saw the ancient vast white stupas at Polonnaruwa, exuding a quietude that I appreciated. As we biked towards the south we saw many small temples beside the road with a seated Buddha. We often saw monks walking along with their begging bowls; many Sri Lankan families send a son to be a monk, and they they are celibate and study the scriptures. But we also saw the Buddhists enjoying a Hindu festival and worshipping Hindu gods enthusiastically. The festival had an Indian exuberance with crowds pressing forward to have their offerings blessed under garish pictures of the Hindu gods. huge Temple elephants, devotees carrying fire, colourful dancers and drummers were all part of the festival . Sri Lanka has a 10% Muslim population and I saw mosques in the commercial areas such as Colombo and Galle. People spoke disparagingly about the Muslims saying that Sri Lanka would have 100% literacy rates if it were not for the Muslims. They apparently drop out of school early to help in the family business. Nobody seemed to be asking what should we do to keep these kids in education. Christianity is a minority religion and I saw only few churches, in Colombo and Galle. However the Dutch reformed church in Galle was a vast building with a huge pulpit and organ, clearly built by colonists who thought they were in for a long stay but they only lasted for about 100 years before being displaced by the Brits.
I enjoyed comparing India and Sri Lanka, having visited India regularly over the last 38 years and Sri Lanka twice about 30 years ago. Sri Lanka is visibly better off and appears to have less inequality. The absence of beggars in Sri Lanka is very noticeable. The Sri Lankans have a health and social security system. The health service is free to everyone at the point of care, there are small divisional hospitals in villages which are staffed by two doctors, patients needing operations are transferred in ambulances and do not have to pay for their treatment or drugs. Another important difference is that this system works, India has a free government health service but is often non-functional. I also experienced the health service myself, I was bitten by a dog in a temple in Kandy and needed rabies booster jabs. I had immediate helpful advice from my doctor friend Indira so I attended the base hospital in Nuwara Eliya for a rabies booster jab. It was a Saturday night, quiet in the casualty and I was quickly seen by a young doctor, bobble hatted because of the cool temperatures in Nuwara Eliya. who put me on the rabies injection protocol., I was given my rabies card with clear instructions about when I needed my next injection. The base hospitals are giving 250 courses of rabies injections per month. The vaccine was Indian made, in an Indian hospital the protocol might have been available but the vaccine would not be stocked and would have to purchased outside. The success of the Sri Lankan system are also visible in the statistics, Sri Lankans are more likely than Indians to survive childhood, their women are less likely to die giving birth and they live longer( 71 vs 64) , Sri Lankan also ranks above India in the world hunger rankings.
I was invited to Sri Lanka to speak at a dermatology conference , Sri Lanka still has a significant leprosy problem with over 2000 new cases being diagnosed each year, despite its better health system. The new cases rates have been stable for the last 20 years leprosy will be a problem in Sri Lanka for a long time yet.
Surprisingly, Sri Lanka’s IT is not as advanced as India’s, mobile phones arrived later on the island and through Indian technology. There are no call centres yet.;although they could do very well in this sector because many people are well educated and speak English.
We also experienced the plight of the tea pickers through the personal story of the bright intelligent young woman who was showing us around tea factory. She had hoped to go to university but had not got good enough grades in her A levels, retaking was not an option. Her mother was sick and she had younger siblings, so at 18 she had to start as a tea picker and pick 16 kg of tea leaves a day. It is a precarious life, they are only paid for what they pick and are permanent labourers employed on casual conditions. It seemed very difficult to escape being a tea picker. I also suspect that many of the families are in debt. It felt a very Asian scenario of limited opportunity and the needs of the family trumping everything.
I read Gordon Weiss's book “The Cage” about the civil war and the last days of the Tamil fight when the Tigers and thousands of civilians were stranded in the Nandikadal lagoon with the Sri Lankan army bombarding them. This was a war crime but the current government has avoided censure. Both Canada and UK had questioned whether Sri Lanka should host the commonwealth Heads of government meeting (COHOGM) in Nov 2013 because of the genocide in 2009, but the meeting is going ahead. Weiss notes the absence of journalistic freedom in Sri Lanka., this is a striking contrast with India with its lively opposition and a active media. I could see this, few people read newspapers despite the high literacy rate, the news papers that are available all support the government.
In Sri Lanka the absence of concern for human rights has also mirrors the absence of democracy. There is no effective opposition so the president and his family rule and enrich themselves. In the presidents home area there were huge billboards with his portrait and that of his son and brother celebrating his achievements and reminding us of the ability running in the family. When someone in power demands a place for a party it has to be surrendered.
I was sorry that I did not go up to Jaffna, the capital of the Tamil area, especially as I had discovered a tomb-stone there with my Dutch family name “Mom” in 1982. Stacey, a Canadian girl in our group had been there and had seen both the war destruction and the active rebuilding programme. She visited a hospital filled with people with post traumatic stress disorder. Because the government has not acknowledged the tragedies that occurred recently and because journalism is so weak there I fear that the resentments of the Tamils and others will grow and that there will again be racial strife. There seemed to be no equivalent of the South African Peace and Reconciliation commission, and yet for a like that are very important for acknowledging wrongs and moving forward. The Uk Ngo Freedom from Torture have also reported that Tamils who returned after the war were being totorured even in 2012.
I also read a novel about the civil war, “Mosquito “ by Roma Tearne, it is a love story between an older writer and a young girl who has artistic talent. The war tears them apart, he is tortured by Singhalas and then Tamils, but eventually they are reunited. The novel celebrates the power of love to overcome problems and also the importance of art. The author is also an artist and the novel is full of beautiful images. It was good to have a fictional contrast to the serious Weiss report.
The scenery in Sri Lanka is beautiful. The paddy fields were full of ripe paddy, with palm trees everywhere. The scenery also changed quite rapidly which is nice for a cyclist. On the day we biked up to NuwaraEliya we started in lush green paddy fields and half way through the morning the scenery changed to tea bushes and pine trees. On our descent from Ella we biked through the hills and then came down to the flat plains with huge lakes. The bird life is also spectacular , flashes of iridescent blue as kingfishers dived for lunch, spoonbill cranes and other waders in the paddy fields.
So I left Sri Lanka having enjoyed the holiday, I loved the scenery and the people. I would be happily return to bird-spot and snorkel and continue searching for the perfect rice and curry. But it also reminded me of how important democracy and human rights are and how important it is to protect them.
1. India vs Sri Lanka statsDying under 5 12 versus 61/10 000; the maternal mortality rate is 35 vs 200 /10 000 compared with India.
2. The CageGordon Weiss. Vintage 2011
3.The Mosquito Roma Tearne Harper Perennial 2007