Novel & Reality: Sri Lanka, where we met

Ashok Silwal

Maybe you remember last days, I left here some reflections about travelling as ‘the best school of life’, as an opportunity for growth, for discovery, for knowledge, for inside enrichment. Perhaps it was a little too abstract and theoretical writing; actually, travelling puts you in touch with a very concrete reality. So today, I would like you to accompany me in Sri Lanka.

Why ? Because it has been a great step in my life; it was the ‘first time’ of many things: the first time for an international flight, the first time I was travelling alone abroad quite far, the first time I saw the Ocean, the first time I had been invited in an International Journalist Meeting. (and I will be the only journalist from Nepal, great responsibility.)

But let’s start the story from the beginning, between novel and reality.
I’m in Colombo Bandaranaike International Airport, comfortably seated in a space that serves as a waiting room. Waiting what ? My flight back to Kathmandu . From where ? Where is Colombo ? Some will ask. It is not in South America as the name sounds; it ii the real and economic capital of a beautiful island, 50 km from the Indian South East coast. (the administrative capital really has an ‘unpronounceable’ name: SRI JAYAWARDENAPURA KOTE.

The island is called ‘A tear of India’ due to its shape but in Sanskrit the name means ‘A resplendent and venerable island.’ It is an independent country from 1948, really fascinating for landscapes, history, culture, variety, people.and more . The surface is a little less than half the size of Nepal.
Then, throughout our story, we will see that Sri Lanka and Nepal have many similar aspects.

But remember now: I’m in Colombo Airport in the waiting room. In the chair next to mine, there is a lovely ‘girl’ – maybe not exactly a ‘girl’ but very youthful in appearance and bright, with rather Nordic features. I smile at her (as good Nepali ! We are famous for our smiles in the whole world and in every guide book!). She answers me. She had a sweet and intelligent face, a very sporty natural and elegant look: jeans, cotton t-shirt, sneakers- ‘Are you flying to Kathmandu ?’ I asked.’Yes’ she replies, ‘I’m coming from Bangkok. I’m a volunteer in an NGO. Now my time in Thailand is over . I have been there 3 months in the South of the country. I worked with rural women with projects for the creation of cooperatives. I studied French literature at the University and now I am a professor there in my country. I am from Paris in France.

My life has a little ‘stopped’ with my two sons away from home now. They are graduated and they are independent. I wanted to do something concrete, less about books. I took a little ‘break’ with an opportunity of Political Science University Exchange. I’m travelling alone. It was quite difficult to convince my husband but that it is another story. I had been in Thailand years ago with my husband and group of friends. It was very nice to me. I had found Bangkok an incredible city of contrasts: temples, floating markets but also large modern skyscrapers… a little like a poor and disordered certain India and the rich New York! Then I had been at the seaside in an island Phuket which was very fashionable in Europe. It was part of a tourist package offers by Travel Agencies: wonderful endless beaches but too much ‘touristized.’

Now, I’m going back home. I have had good experiences in these 3 months but now I wonder if I have been useful to the others. And I am also sorry not to have seen the country.I was always in that village and around in a ‘special’ area of the country which did not seem like the Thailand of the Tour guides! I was on the border with Malaysia, an area with ethnic and religious conflicts.

Oh ! I’m sorry now. Maybe you are not very interested in this. I have a flaw !!!! I like talking, listening and telling, sharing…I hope I have not bother you. Tell me about you now. You are backing home ? You seem so a nice person to me, very patient listening to me !’

‘Yes, I am a journalist and I have been here for an International meeting and we also visit Sri Lanka as tourists. My fellow Sri Lankan journalists had prepared a beautiful and very interesting tourist Tour. We were a nice group too, so I have lived very beautiful and funny moments.’

We have now 3 hours waiting for the boarding. (in International flights you have always to arrive very early and then wait for hours sometimes .. I have understood that with my first flight ten days before.. and it will happen other times later.)

So, I look around and I see that there is not a place for a romantic candle light dinner but there is a rather big restaurant-bar in front of large glass windows overlooking the planes arriving and departing.. an ideal place for dreams and this woman was fascinating me. I felt a little in awe… bigger than me, University teacher… She seemed cheerful, optimistic, energetic, curious. And in the same time, so sweet, tender, smiling I silently regretted not having met her on the way when I arrived… my imagination was galloping on the waves of the Ocean and on the paths of Everest region. I did not feel like wooing her but I was feeling ‘in tune.’

OK ! I said to myself…. Back on the earth ! Just enjoy this moment !

‘Let’s go get some tea there?’, I suggested.

Her eyes filled with a surprised joy.

‘Yes’, she replies.

And in a few minutes we find ourselves facing each other at a small somewhat secluded table with airplanes outline. We felt like we were in a bubble ! A strange ‘couple’. She was tall, slender, with long blond hair and a tanned but fair skin; I was short, maybe a little stocky with dark skin and black hair ! But there are immediately spontaneous listening and talking, understanding and kindness, like the desire to please each other, to feel good.

And so she said: ‘Please, tell me now about Sri Lanka, about your experience here. I have never been here . For me it is just a stopover.. I will stop just two days in Kathmandu that I never saw and to me it sounds like a ‘mythical’ city. So backing home, I chose to stop. And from Bangkok, I had first to fly too Colombo. WOW ! Coincidence we met, I’m happy! And it is said that ‘there always a reason. No one accidentally crosses our path and we don’t enter a person’s life without a reason…’

‘Yes’, I added .. ‘The best things that happens are always unexpected’, we say.

So, I began to tell about my Sri Lanka experience as tourist, as journalist, as friend.

And I started with a little funny episode that remained inside me. In my first evening in Colombo, I was waiting my colleagues (some have to arrive the day after) in the hotel lobby near the bar, when a man approaches and says: ‘Please, can you serve us two fries eggs ?’ I looked at him smiling… ‘I’m sorry- I reply- I’m a guest like you here !’

‘Oh ! Scuse me, scuse me, scuse me … I saw the white shirt and I thought you were a waiter. Apologize again !’

We both laughed a lot and then became good friends still now.

A new friend, a nice lesson… don’t take yourself too seriously !

‘Oh ! What a nice lesson really ! I will always remember!’, she said.

‘Now, I don’t want to bother you with the story of all my trip day by day ..but first, I will remember as ‘tourist’: the lush vegetation, the chaotic traffic in Colombo with tuk-tuk everywhere, the lotus flower shape building in Colombo, unmistakable emblem, the Indian Ocean seaside in the sunset with families enjoying last moments of light, eating something bought at the kiosks and children flying kites, the hills covered with swaying tea plantations, the smiling faces, the ancient royal cities and forteresses, the monasteries full of Story and stories, the omnipresent Buddha, the palms and the banana trees, Bodhi tree, the elephants, the monkeys, the great variety of religions, the pilgrimage places, the colorful Hindu temples, the scent of curry, cinnamon and turmeric, the lotus flowers, the water flowers, the lakes, the bright color of the sari, the paddies and the oxen… It is impossible to summarize this island in one word … really beautiful !’

‘I am imagining through your enthusiastic words. And I would like to add that, in my trips, I always noticed that ‘Buddhist countries’ are happier, more serene, less ‘angry’.. even if often poor countries, people know how to accept better’

‘So, I would like to add something me too..’, I said smiling, ‘Siri Lanka and Nepal are two little countries: on one side very different (mountain and sea), on the other side very similar: many different landscapes, many religions,many ethnicities, many historical places, a rich past, smiling and kind people… and they suffered due the recent very serious natural event ( earthquake- tsunami) and Civil War too. And both have a particular relationship with India.’

‘You are teaching me a lot of things really. Your story makes me want to visit this island’

‘I’m happy for this and now I would like just to tell you about two special places that, if you come here, you cannot miss.

One is ANURADHAPURA with the sumptuous ruins of the first royal city and palace, with a great monastery too with the tree of Bodhi. One of the most spiritual places in Sri Lanka.

The second one is SIGIRIYA. The name means ‘the rocks of the lions’ and you have to climb 1300 steps to arrive on the top. There are a lot of beautiful things and paintings to see when climbing and you arrive on the top with breathtaking views of the landscapes and the huge ancient ruins of the palace… 200 meters from the ground ! ‘

‘WOW !’, she said, ‘I think you have been more a tourist than a journalist in these days ! Meetings often are so … like a little ‘excuse’ .. it is the same at the University !’

‘Yes, you are right ! But I talked also with my colleagues about the new forms of journalism for example; we had many ‘celebrations’. As in Nepal, here they like celebrating with flower necklaces, music, dances… I have made many good friends. ‘

The cup of tea was finished …

Oh ! talking, talking, listening, exchanging glances and smiles… it was time to get in line for boarding.

I didn’t even know her name and she mine !

We went and she said to me : ‘Call me Dahlia, I love this meaningful flower for me…’

‘I am Ashok’ I said.

They called us at two different times because of the seat number: she was at row n.31… I was at number n.13.

I saw her disappear.. I was sad that our meeting was over in that way but I was sure to find her on the plane.

It had been a very special and unexpected moment that made me ‘forget’ a little about my wonderful week in Sri Lanka .. no ! It was unforgettable !

I was backing home… the same but changed.

And now, dear reader, what do you think about the following … ?

They found themselves in the plane and later, days after….??

Remember the title : between novel and reality.

It is up to you now to be creative !

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