Dawn and dusk, the cusp of day and night. The cusp of a song. I embrace cusps, I guess it’s the anticipation. My partner, Ben, and I had just arrived in Colombo. We were on the cusp of a Sri Lankan holiday, albeit with a 3 hour drive from Colombo to Galle ahead of us. I was feeling Carmen Sandiego vibes — seventies and eighties babies will understand.
We had hired a driver for the trip, as recommended. We were on the tail end of thirty-six hours of flight delays, pithy food vouchers, bench-sleeping, and flight-board cursing. I don’t like tail ends, finishings, winding downs. They are too reliably deflating. I get to the end of a film and I want to un-watch it so I can absorb it all again. I was excited yet a little apprehensive about this trip. Just prior to entering the country, there was a brief nationwide curfew due to a killing between the Sinhalese and Tamils. This was my first time in Sri Lanka and the people and atmosphere were unfamiliar. In addition to civil conflicts around the globe, resentment for Westerners often runs deep, and at times rightly so. Tourists who treat locals like servants, or perhaps it’s also from a general brewed bitterness. As a local bar-owner in Quito once told me, many locals will never have the opportunity to travel to other lands no matter how desperately they desire it or how hard they work. Sometimes the animosity is a thin-film formed on the surface, sometimes it’s a volatile gushing.
The song Downtown by Petula Clark came onto the car radio, her sunny voice breaking my deep ponderings on international conflicts. I think I was pre-teen the last time I heard Petula Clark… and Nana Mouskouri. Mum singing along as the needle skated smoothly across the spinning vinyl platter. Had this not occurred, it would have been a moment forgotten in the congestion of everyday life. As the melodic audio was soothing my desaturated senses, our driver, Rohan, took us on a route that offered lush scenery and showcased some stunning Sri Lankan architecture. Downtown and Sri Lankan countryside — not a combination I was ever expecting but it worked.
Galle is on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka and features the Galle Fort, which was built as a fortification by the Portuguese during the 16–17th century. Galle is saturated with precious landmarks spanning numerous nationalities and religions including Dutch and British, Islamic and Buddhist. The city was at the mercy of the ocean when it was ransacked by a tsunami, an after effect from an Indonesian earthquake in 2004. The local ethnicity in Galle is primarily the Sri Lankan ‘Moors’, but the area is also dotted with Arabs, Indians, Malays and of course a Dutch flavour from historical occupation, attracting many European tourists who visit or vacate. The Moors predominately follow Islamic beliefs, thought by some to trace back to the days of Arabs trading at the port. The Moors comprise of Sinhalese, Tamils and Indian Moors amongst others.
We arrived at The Stairway in Galle Fort. At the top of a unique outdoor stairway flush against the exterior wall (hence the name), we were greeted by three Sri Lankan men. Standing on an open outdoor expanse with a few tables and deconstructed cathedral-like wooden chairs, a desk in the corner became evident as a makeshift office. I was acutely aware of my sweat-rag feeling. The heat in Sri Lanka feels unorthodox and rebellious. Heat and humidity like this is foreign to some, exotic to others. Me, I remain conflicted; I embrace the feel of heat but detest my sweaty physical response to the whole liaison.
The owner led us through a wooden door into our room. It was reminiscent of a deconstructed church. My monkey mind dissipating as I absorbed the beautiful decor of the room; shabby chic meets Mondrian meets the Pope — the cathedral windows were breathtaking. Lazarus and Jesus would be impressed. I suddenly felt deeply aware of the presence of irony reflecting back onto myself. To some I would be a prude, to others a hedonist. To me, I’m normal, and so it is perhaps for many. My soul feels more akin to Judas at times, and sometimes I want to take the blue pill and devour the steak. The church-like interior wasn’t scorching me for my potentially sinful ways, this interior brought back memories of a whole landscape of life lived that began with institutionalised churches, followed by internal rebellion and today exists as simple contentment and clarity. My parents have always nurtured my sister and I with nothing but unconditional love. Their intent with taking us as children into a ‘Church of God’ (I will keep the name generic to avoid being burned at a stake) would have been borne from nothing else but that they believed it was the most appropriate way to raise us at the time.
This church featured all the side orders you would expect of a classic congregation in the eighties. We would all stride into the hall in our Sunday bestest, the adults exchanging niceties with anyone you caught eyeline with. Plaid suits, pearls and scarves. Ill-fitting pants. Dresses worn with socks and sandals. All colours and too many frills. Bits of flesh strung like Sunday hams. Thick headbands, the hard plastic over-the-head variety that served no functional purpose. The eighties were saturated with character that current day replicas just cannot capture. The First Testament of my life was true kitsch, and hallelujah to that. Then came the church trimmings; unnaturally splayed out floral arrangements on the carved wooden pulpit. The reverend pacing the chancel with exaggerated arm and eyebrow movements as he dished out addictive auditory snuff to the believers. Our church thankfully wasn’t the arms-in-the air kind, although it was at times the happy clapping kind and, like many, bordered on a religious aerobics class. Also, percussion wasn’t, but always was, essential with a triangle or maracas a feature, played by a guy who always looked like his name should be Herman, who was probably a tax man by day. Harmonicas seemed to also be a staple. The triple threat that was Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit was confusing enough as a child but I always found it particularly odd that our God, or the humanised version in Jesus was so specifically defined, his tangible self reading like a Tinder ad, ‘male, bearded, slender, Caucasian, strong of faith’ that has led to so much prejudice from people who believe all those worthy of his ‘love’ should be born into the same colour and race, even favouring the gender. As children, we would lay around on blankets on the floor between the pews. We were expected to stand for the hymns. Most of the time, my sister and I happily obliged to go to church, we weren’t consciously absorbing anything anyway. It gave me a chance to play with my Barbies and Lego. Girl, uninterrupted. At times, though, it just felt draining and so, on those days, Dad would bribe us with a promise of McDonalds afterwards. At the drive-through he would ask for ‘ships’ with his German accent. We reminded him each time for the next order to say ‘french fries’, but it happened on repeat, adorably. These days my parents believe in a source, a ‘God’, but they are happy to leave religion undefined and simply live honest, loving, caring lives. And I am thankful for this internal evolution.
The open plan bathroom of The Stairway was slathered in rustic concrete, thoughtfully placed floral tiles that surprisingly weren’t garish, and a rustic ceiling, so rustic in fact there was a hole in the roof about the size of a fist. Evidently Sri Lanka don’t have a fly problem, a huge respite for an Australian. My first shower proved to be a cultural and religious experience. I washed away my sweat-rag feeling with gusto and the ceiling hole allowed exotic bird noises to float in. I lathered with a soap whose factory I wanted to hold up so I could haul away a truckload. And then Ben and I slept for a time-frame that matched our transit time to arrive there.
Eyes wide shut. Eyes wide open. Ben’s eyes pointing lasers at the ceiling like mine had been a moment ago. I checked the time, 5am. A male voice was projecting Arabic-sounding prayer throughout the streets of Galle Fort. It was clearly audible and my initial feeling was a Black Hawk Down kind of panic. A few ticks of the second hand of a proverbial clock and the panic feeling melted away to an awe and wonderment. Fear subsiding, I didn’t want to shift out of this unexpected yet pleasant feeling the audio was evoking. In any other setting we would, and have, found sounds of that nature alienating and even haunting. Perhaps we were just uninitiated. The derision, the prejudice, the eye for an eye, the commandments, the suffering in the name of, the obsessive desire to indoctrinate, the enforced moralising — they can all be burnt to ashes. But traditions, in their purist form, can be blissful, both for those who carry them innately from childhood and those who are introduced to them as an outsider looking in. All religion can be dividing or unifying, just as a human can be. But within beliefs can lie beautiful traditions, an experience that can be foreign to some, exotic to others. Some may kiss floors, others shuffle side to side with abandon, there can be statue worshipping, kissing of rosary beads and crosses, jamborees, hijabs, speaking in tongues, possession by a spirit, toothy grins, cloaking in black, ‘holy’ books and pointing at parchments. All religions have extremists, some who believe God is a Republican or Democrat, others who believe Allah will provide them with virgins. Some are arcane and some are preached.
But then there are traditions that are to be shared. Kinship in food, hospitable welcomings, ritualistic conversations over warm beverages, ceremonies and understanding. All cultures, religions and belief networks share in gatherings to celebrate a coming together. Some food is congregational, some can be ‘all hands in’ with dishes in the middle, some involve mums who pull out their best Wedgwood crockery in the hope that Vogue Living will come knocking, with glasses chinking and toasts made. People’s life doctrines may differ but gatherings are a sharing of time and a sharing of company. East or West, hot chilli or hot black coffee, zealot-judging Aunties, Grandpas who are a little intoxicated on alcohol-free punch or just the atmosphere, bad DJs and flyaway comments (‘you’re next’). Gotta love it all.
Today, my rituals still involve the breaking of bread, quaffing of wine and hand gestures, but not of the institutionalised variety. I don’t subscribe to any religion, but admire all who do or who do not; there’s no judgement and there never was. Today, my life is a slathering of olive oil on food and at times myself, hands by my side to commence meditation, small sips of high-calibre wine and relishing in each mindful moment of these things. Relishing in the knowing that we are all in this together. It is no longer a tango between rebellious guzzling of alcohol, yo-yo-ing food, cry laughing and laugh crying. It was not rebellion against my parents or any institution, it was rebellion towards life and the coarseness of it all. Seeking escapism. Today, I am tuned to a different frequency; I find beauty in the contrast and what I focus on grows. Love alone is my Deity, love for people, places, experiences, emotions, food, Saturday night wine, welfare for others, dignity for all things, good hair days, plants and a love for helping and understanding, wherever and whenever. The final chronicle of the world should be a communal affair.
As morning light arrived, we sat on the open terrace of The Stairway and, in the absence of jetlag, it was an area I now viewed with soft eyes. Staying here rejuvenated me. The blissful decor of The Stairway and the attentiveness of the owners and staff made me feel less crucified and more consecrated. We were served moreish traditional Sri-Lankan coffee and loved every moment as we simultaneously sweated it out of each pore, intricate egg-hoppers — Sri Lankan edible artworks that we desecrated — two stunningly complex and delicious curries, rice and a platter of tropical fruits and bread. We were brought dish after dish up the stairway to our table on the balcony by attentive innkeepers. While eating, Ben and I took a moment to view the quaint laneways below framed with Dutch Provincial buildings on all sides. We noticed various stunning baroque pieces of architecture with Islamic detailing, some mosques, one of which would have been the source of the 5am prayer call.
Breakfast was done and our driver, Rohan, enviably absent of sweat, greeted us at the top of the stairway with a beaming smile. As we relished the day that was to become, Rohan shared with us how Sri Lankans tend to embrace a primitive and free lifestyle. This resonated strongly with me and my current allergies to corporate life and societal shackles. Buddhism makes up the chosen philosophy of around 80% of the country (primarily the Sinhalese). There has been significant conflict and unrest, with civil wars only formally ceasing in 2009. Undoubtedly, tension still exists but no country gets an A+ for its history and its dealings. Beneath the religious layer cake of Sri Lankan history lies its people, who are primarily happy and gentle. Our stay was enveloped with smiling faces, amiable gestures and a refreshing love for the modest and the traditional — the B side to the unrest that is broadcast to the world. Sri Lanka, arising from the rubble as a paragon of virtue — here’s hoping. A genesis this tear drop island deeply deserves.