On the 21st of April 2019, several locations across Sri Lanka were bombed by extremists targeting Christians celebrating Easter and tourists staying in luxury hotels. The terrorists murdered approximately 300 people and devastated countless lives. (The Guardian). Two days after the attacks I flew to Sri Lanka to spend a month travelling a country my partner and I had always been drawn to.
Having been so touched by my experiences I have created this post hoping to share a view beyond terror and reach out to people wanting to visit Sri Lanka.
I hope for a peaceful and sustainable future for Sri Lanka; one of the most beautiful countries I have ever been to.
We left on the 23rd of April, with a natural sense of trepidation but also with a mind-set that if we changed our plans and gave up, then terrorism would win. There are atrocities all over the World and I was deeply moved by what I saw before we left but I will not live in fear. A few days after we arrived I saw that the UK Government had advised against all non-essential travel and to be honest I found this step far too severe. When we arrived, the airport was quiet and heavily protected by the armed forces. It felt sad and very unlike the zesty Asia I knew. We were soon informed that social media had been banned to stop the spread of false news reports and violence and all taxis and private hire drivers had been stopped from entering the Airport as a safety precaution. (BBC News).
It was daunting but I was impressed and it made sense, it was firm but fair and Sri Lanka had clearly acted quickly and effectively. I felt safe. Soon, beyond the airport, assisted by some troops we found a sea of drivers with smiles and signs, waved goodbye to the army and entered a new culture.
Over the course of a month we travelled parts of the West, South, East and Central Province, took many Tuk Tuk journeys and the World famous train journey between Ella and Kandy. Not at any point did I feel threatened or unsafe and the journeys were stunning. The landscapes reached up to the clouds, the coasts went on forever and I saw countless bridges, ridges and ravines, people working on tea plantations, elephants and lizards. Like in anything, you can focus on the bad if you want but that will be all you see. If you look beyond the minorities of doom, with hope, you will find so much splendour.
Along the journey we passed roadblocks and checkpoints, we were stopped and searched by the army and had many conversations. Often they thanked us for visiting and we thanked them for taking care of us, we shook hands and smiled. It makes me emotional to remember their faces, they were so caring and their dedication to protect their country, their people and their much loved visitors was remarkable. They are people just trying to get on with life and so must we all. I felt nothing but welcomed, reassured and blessed. Sri Lanka has been through so much, after being devastated by the 2004 Tsunami and having come so far since the deadly Civil War ending in 2009. It doesn’t want to return to these dark places. (Fair Observer.) I met a man who said;
‘We have had war, we don’t want that, this is different, the extremists don’t want to see our peace, our many cultures, but they are few and we are many and we will find a way through.’
Deep words and positive energy born from tragedy is very powerful.
I was privileged to visit coasts, countryside, towns, cities and villages. I ate delicious home produced food, jostled in markets, supported local tradespeople, learnt to cook, went on Safari, surfed and explored hand built Temples. I saw no trouble but knew if I did I would be fine and in truth, if I wasn't then that is life. I met some amazing people with whom I have shared special moments that I will treasure forever. Like any travelling experience, you move through communities with respect for new cultures, but Sri Lanka is different, it is a very special place.
In Arugam Bay, on the East Coast, I felt particularly at home and stayed in a hostel just steps from the beach. (Beach Wave) It was the perfect location for surfing and swimming and I made good friends with our hosts, who we spent much time with. I come from a tourist town and have worked in hospitality in the past so can appreciate the importance of seasons and the expectations and joy these should bring. Sadly, the accommodation providers I met had seen huge drops in bookings and many cancellations, Tuk Tuk drivers waited for fares that weren’t coming and restaurants displaying the freshest foods were empty.
I met a driver and his words still ring in my ears; ‘I am a tour guide, everyone has cancelled, no one is coming, we are in real trouble, please share the goodness of our country and I hope your country will help us.’ I promised I would do something, so I am writing this blog.
I saw truly empowering moments of Sri Lanka rising up with peace and love against hate and I believe the World can learn so much. To see a county reacting so passionately and positively against terror is inspiring and I would like to see Governments support the actions of Sri Lanka, see beyond the hate and update their websites to enable travel. (Gov.UK.) Here’s a thought, put the UK in Sri Lanka’s shoes. If London, Bristol and Birmingham were attacked, should tourists be stopped coming to the whole country? Should we let a minority so clearly lost in themselves affect the lives of the wondrous and good? And my answer to that, is definitely no. I appreciate safety but sometimes it goes too far.
The last evening was Vesak Day (Lonely Planet). It is one of the biggest Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka, taking place on the full moon and celebrating Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. The country is lit up with lanterns, lights and adorned with flags and this year people lit extra lights in memory of all those killed in the Easter Bombings and for all religions to show solidarity together.
Leaving was a breath-taking sight and very emotional. On the way to the airport we were stopped by roadblocks, but this time it was local communities coming out into the streets offering food and drink to share in the celebrations.
I hope for a peaceful and a sustainable future for Sri Lanka. ‘The Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ is an amazingly diverse place where a sense of freedom, kindness and beauty awaits you.
This post is dedicated to all those lost in the Easter Bombings and my heart goes out to all those affected.
UPDATE: Gov.UK @ 22/07/2019