Through a combination of not being permitted to enter the classroom during exams and the extended break Indonesian high schools have in between semesters, ETAs end up with a lot of free time during the month of December. While during last year’s grant I stayed in Indonesia and hopped along Bali, Flores, and Komodo, this year I headed out of the country that has become my temporary home, and headed to Sri Lanka for ten days, in part to attend a friend’s wedding, in part to explore an entirely new place I’m only lucky enough to be able to visit because I’m on this side of the world.
After having lived in Southeast Asia for a little over a year now, there was much in Sri Lanka that felt familiar—the bustling traffic, the winding mountain roads lacking guardrails more often than is comfortable, the way the steam from the road smells after rain—but there was no denying that this was not Indonesia, and I loved trying to tease out just what makes this incredible country tick during my short time there. The tuk-tuks selling bread, the signs in three languages, the puppies playing in the street… I soaked it all in.
Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, and there were temples of all shapes and sizes to be seen whenever we made our way around a turn in the trusty van that took us everywhere. While we were in Kandy, we were even able to tour Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This temple houses a tooth of the Buddha, and is one of the most significant temples in all of Sri Lanka. At one point, Kandy was the capital of Sri Lanka, and the king ruled from a palace very close to the temple; though the capital is now Colombo, the new president of Sri Lanka must still give a speech from one of the balconies, recognizing the cultural significance of Kandy and the temple itself. We visited Sri Dalada Maligawa the night of the full moon, which is a Buddhist holiday, and so the temple was overflowing with people, from tourists carrying cameras to believers carrying offerings of flowers. Being there on such a night was so, so special.
Sri Lanka boasts the some of the greatest consecrated biodiversity on the planet, second only to Costa Rica, and this was evident wherever we turned. Tiny lizards, giant lizards, birds of every shape and size and color (including the peacock that decided the perfect place to attract peahens was right outside of our hotel room)… it was all there.
One of the friends with whom I was visiting in Sri Lanka studies the behavioral patterns of various monkeys (to grossly oversimplify the brilliance in which she regularly engages), so it was always particularly special when we came across some primates. With her help we were able to far better understand what we were seeing than we would have been able to on our own.
The flora, of course, was every bit as beautiful and varied as the wildlife. I really don’t think that I will ever get past just how different, and somehow the same, the jungle is from the forests back home in Central New York.
Nowhere was this diversity made more apparent than at Horton Plains, a national park in the central-ish part of Sri Lanka. The plains reminded me far more of the hills of Scotland than they did anything I might have expected from Southern Asia (but then, I should know better than to make any assumptions, because the world will always prove to me just how little I know). They day we hiked in the park itself it was raining steadily and the mist was so thick you practically had to swim through it, but that only added to the mystery and beauty of the place. Part of the Horton Plains trek is a place called World’s End, a huge cliff with a 2,854 foot (870 meter) drop. On a clear day, World’s End promises beautiful vistas, but honestly I was almost thankful for the fog when we finally reached it, because standing on the edge of a precipice and seeing nothing but cloud is exactly what I would picture the edge of the earth to feel like. There was the solid but slippery ground beneath my feet, and then… nothing but white.
And while we spent plenty of time in the jungle, we also spent a considerable time at the beach. One of our stops was in Mirissa, in the southernmost part of the island. There were rocks to climb on, fish to chase, coconuts to sip from, and endless sunshine to soak in.
The architecture of Sri Lanka offers a powerful story as well: while there is plenty of Sri Lankan architecture to be seen, the mark of colonialism is strong as well. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Galle, a fort close to Mirissa. Originally built by the Portuguese in 1588, it was maintained by the Dutch from 1649 until the British took it over in 1796, and the British maintained control until Sri Lanka’s independence. I have never felt fully comfortable with the strength of colonialism’s presence in South and Southeast Asia, whether in the form of looming buildings or in the more dangerous ways it subtly but powerfully has changed entire cultures and mindsets. But Galle is an undeniable reminder of our world’s history that should not be forgotten.
Of course, the real reason I went was for my friends’ wedding, and that in and of itself was marvelous. It was full of traditions: the two families lighting a lamp together, breaking a coconut to predict the success of the marriage (if it breaks perfectly in half, the marriage is said to be lucky—fortunately for my friends, it did), the singing and the chanting. The wedding party entered via a procession that was truly grand, with an elephant in the lead and traditional Kandian dancers leading all of the people in their wedding finery. I am sure I will never again attend a wedding quite like this one, and I cannot reiterate enough just how blessed I felt to be there.
And, really, the best part of the trip was the people along for the ride. There were friends from university, and family members of my friends’ from the U.S. and from Sri Lanka. Everyone was wonderful. We giggled in the back seats of vans, walked silently through forests, and splashed one another mercilessly in the sea. My friend’s family graciously took us everywhere, and gave us insights into every place that we saw which we probably never would have learned from a more traditional tour. Sri Lanka was amazing, but it would not have been quite as unforgettable if the people I created these memories with had not been there.
My time in Sri Lanka was far too short, and I can only hope that someday I might be able to return, hopefully alongside folks just as wonderful.
 This was the night of the 24th, which meant it was a holiday for at least three major religions this year: Christmas Eve for Christians, Mohammad’s birthday for Muslims, and the full moon for Buddhists.