“One day I went to the Vijitha Yapa store for a book on the conflict.
‘I’m sorry’, said the salesman, ‘but they’re still being written.'”
Those words sum up the story of Sri Lanka, a proud country recovering from a devastating civil war…but they could just as easily be describing the current political situation in America…example: this was a picture of a White House barricaded against its citizens, as an attempted coup unfolded in Washington DC in January…
Sri Lanka – A Magical Country And A Wake Up Call…
I held off sharing this edition of my “Wednesday Bookmobile”, as the events of the past three months in the US reminded me far too much of a penetrating and sobering travel book about the country of Sri Lanka.
I have read several of Author John Gimlette’s travel books, and will remind you of them at the end of this story – but first, here is his trip to a small country that tore itself apart…
“Elephant Complex: Travels In Sri Lanka!”
I love travel books: not those that tell you how late the bars stay open, and the best party beaches, but books that explore an area and let you meet the people who live there – and sometimes, what they have gone through due to the politics of their country.
This terrific new memoir by Writer John Gimlette takes us to an incredible country that has beautiful beaches and terrible tragedy in equal measure…
First, a moment to appreciate this incredible island nation, which is located just southeast of India…as the map shows, you can almost walk between them!
Sri Lanka is a land of natural beauty – surrounded by water, but home to majestic mountains as well.
Then there is this:
Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress located in the country’s Central Province. It is a site of historical and archaeological significance, dominated by a massive column of rock more than 650 high.
According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, this site was selected by King Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) for his new capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes.
In addition, the country is surrounded by water, which means it has this to offer visitors:
You can type in the name of the country and magnificent pictures abound, as the island is indeed magnificent, with a dense interior, incredible beaches and bluffs that look out at it all:
Now, The Sobering Reality Of A Country Torn Apart…
Amid all of this natural beauty, Sri Lanka has been perhaps the most “cursed” country in the world in the past few decades as well…as one faction of the country tried to take over the other – launching a bloody battle that the country is still rec erring from…
The Sri Lankan Civil War was fought from 1983 to 2009. There is so much more depth to this story, but in a nutshell, the Civil War was the result of ongoing political rancor between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.
Author Gimlette describes the history of the conflict, which was brutal and deadly. After a 26-year military campaign, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, bringing the civil war to an end.
With this knowledge the Author headed to the country to explore its present, future and past.
The book is divided into sections of the country, beginning in the northwest corner, where the land softly drops below the waterline, with India sitting close by. He then goes south along the coast to see the country’s most populous city of Colombo.
Next, Gimlette heads out to explore the rest of the island.
“I was given lots of advice on what I might need, or how I’d die. Out in the bush, there’d be scorpions, landmines, rabies, marauding elephants and – of course – the serpents. If there is one thing they love tell you in Colombo it’s that, out there, more people die of snakebite than anywhere else in the world. With hundreds of miles ahead, none of this was particularly encouraging.”
Yes, the island has many elephants, and there are fascinating stories to share about their role in everyday life. So too, the island has a series of huge manmade reservoirs, which have survived for thousands of years…as the Author notes:
“Sometimes, I swam in the reservoir, paddling amongst the lilies and huge bleach trunks of mara and kumbuk.”
However, his guide Mahathum’s wife Maulie wasn’t eager to join him:
“Mahathum was no great swimmer, although he’d usually splash around the edge, with an enormous cake of soap. But Maulie never came in. At first, I thought it had something to do with temperature.
‘No’, she said, ‘too many crocodiles for me.”
As for the title of the book – yes, he saw many many Elephants as well:
“They came in couples, family groups, troupes, circuses and armies. It felt like all the elephants in the world were here, in a ritual so regular and massive it’s known as ‘the gathering.’…it’s ridiculous to describe animals as looking happy or sad, but these beasts were overjoyed.”
A trip into the interior of the country reveals the fascinating story of Kandy:
“Looking back, I now realize that nowhere else do Sri Lankans experience veneration quite like old Kandy. It’s a good place to have been a King, or have lost one’s head in a noble cause.”
Every area reveals another layer of the country’s rich history…a history of invasion from countries like Great Britain and Portugal. Gimlette details the history, good and bad, while he moves around the island.
Near the end of the book, Giimlette travels to the most remote, and for many, the most dangerous part of the island: the south-east, where it didn’t rain, there were few roads, and the land was barren…oh, and this:
“It seemed that anything could be out there, lurking in the bush. In 1924, it was a man-eating leopard, but more recently it’s been bands of guerrillas, hiding out in caves. Then there were all the creatures of local mythology. One, called the Gawara, was said to have the head of a buffalo and a tongue so rough it could lick away flesh. Worse, perhaps, were the Nittaewo, a race of miniature cannibals, who attacked in huge numbers, filleting the locals with their long fingernails. To those planning a visit, none of this was particularly encouraging.”
Yes, the Author meets descendants of this tribe, just another fascinating chapter in a book filled with them.
His vivid writing captures a country that has an incredibly rich history, but was also subjected to civil war and the 2004 Tsunami that killed ten of thousands…
Gimlette tells the story of the civil war, which didn’t impact many parts of the country, as it was centered a few hundred miles north…it’s hard to imagine living in the midst of a civil war, but the Author articulates that reality well, through the lives of people of all social classes he interviews.
It reminds me that we could have insurrection at our nation’s capital, and we only know because of the live TV images, similar to how the Sri Lankans went on with life while a Civil War raged a few hundred miles away. Further terrorist activity by a small minority of our people here in the US could lead us to something similar…
It’s a country worth exploring and understanding, and once again Gimlette tells the story superbly.
While there is a sobering message to this book, it is also a celebration of a proud people, and is rich with history as well as a fresh take on the people who live there. Highly recommended!
I have read other travel books by Gimlette as well:
A Real Fish Story!
“Theater Of Fish” is his terrific story of Newfoundland and Labrador, located at the northeast corner f North America…it’s the fascinating history of how one fish made this region great, and ultimately destroyed it as well. You can click here to find out more about this fascinating story:
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Let me know if you decide to read this great book!