Sri Lanka surprised me. I left London without really considering the fact that I was going to an Asian country, a place a cultural world away. I didn’t think about how I might perceive cultural differences or how people there might perceive me.
I’m not sure why I didn’t contextualise Sri Lanka on a cultural map. Maybe it was because I have Sri Lankan friends in London, so subconsciously I imagined a country full of them, London-type people. Although, saying that, I also worked on a start-up green energy business in London, which set up projects in Sri Lanka. So I had seen images and read country reports… Perhaps it was simply because I was too focused on the idea of spending Christmas on a beautiful sandy beach to think about where this paradise resided – on an island completely foreign to me. An island with its own history and people (just like every other), but in this instance with people, generally speaking, who have lived lives that, in both superficial and profound ways, have been very different to my own.
(Listen to the BBCWorldservice’s Forum of ideas: After Shock: The Lingering Legacy of Civil Warat The Galle Literary Festival. Broadcast: 6 & 13/02/2011. )
These differences have made me ask questions about the relations that emerge between the divide – us: tourists/foreigners and them: local Sri Lankan residents.
What does it mean to be guest? How do people negotiate cultural difference and everyday interactions?
Here are some notes on my observations and experiences along with the questions I feel they pose. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t think they make for ready answers.
It has been a group of Russian tourists who have proved the most controversial guests on Mirissa beach. Leaving little to the imagination in their bikini-thongs, appearing like exotic dancers, wiggling their bare-bottoms down the beach with hula necklaces draped over suspiciously their pert breasts. This group of people have erected raucous beach parties for themselves with loudspeakers blasting out tunes, which reverberate along the entire bay, starting at midday.
Kissing mouth-to-mouth, the girls have drawn more than one eye. Entertaining each other and their fat old men, whilst others watch on in disgust, a raw mix of embarrassment and erotic ecstasy. Waiters at nearby shacks fail to hide their delight, a sparkle of appreciation evident in their youthful eyes.
And so it continues, the girls sprawl themselves over rocks, set picturesquely a little out to sea, breaking the waves. They pout from their poses through the twilight at a large-lens camera, which clicks at them, capturing their moment.
The show goes on off the beach too. Couples wandering through the local streets in little more than their swimwear, occasionally with the addition of a transparent sarong, which billows open as they walk, sometimes revealing unsightly abdominal rolls.
Are these people oblivious to the shock their tailoring inspires? Are they intentionally imposing their nude values onto those around them? Are they being disrespectful? Or is this simply an act of “freedom of expression”? People trying to ignite desire, just like the advertising world that showers us with the same all over the world?
Can we argue that their comportment is an example of a cultural exchange, people “baring all” for cultural difference?
To paint a contrast in relation to these barely clad exhibitionists, on the weekend Sri Lankan beaches fill with locals – men, women and children – wading into the sea fully-clothed. A sight that satirically seems to turn the evolutionary tables on Civilisation: the traditionally civilised folk transformed, via comparison, into the naked savages… as going native here doesn’t seem to involve going naked.
In Martin Wickramasinghe’s book of short essays, Buddhism and Culture (1964), which I picked up at The Galle Literary Festival, he cites a quote, which poignantly touches on the relationship between notions of savage and civilised in colonial Sri Lanka (previously known as Ceylon). “G.K. Chesterton, an arrogant English Catholic once said ‘The conversion of the savage to Christianity is conversion of Christianity into savagery.’” Unintentionally, I think, he could be elaborating on my point!
Anyhow, back to the conception of people on busy local beaches, last Sunday evening, I had an unexpected encounter. I was walking along the crowded Weligama bay, a little before dusk with a sarong tied around my waste, leaving my footprints in the in the sand, wet from the rising tide. I walked past colourful fishing boats and stray mangy dogs scratching themselves raw, then past smiling families and youngsters gambolling in the setting sun, their feet in the surf.
Approaching the local crowds I started, feeling a little overexposed myself, or at least underdressed, a feeling that has become increasingly common as the weeks have gone by. This is mainly due to the fact that both male and female eyes have a tendency bore into any area of visible flesh, such unsubtle stares over time leave a sort of psychological burn. How quickly one can embody a norm.
So, reacting to my intuition I pulled a dress over my head and tied a scarf around my neck. Comfortably covered up, I continued my stroll. Then, almost as if confirming my discomfort, a teenage boy who had moments earlier approached me to say hello (a little predatorily), sidled up to my side again, this time pushing a bicycle beside him. I noted it, his method of chase, before, without saying a word, he grabbed my wrist. Then pulling me away from the sea, he said, violently, “Come fuck me,” gesturing to undergrowth by the road.
Shocked. Furious. In a state of disbelief, I let rip.
“Fuck off. Get off me. Do not touch me…” Then I began to lecture him, “You do not talk to girls like that. Do you understand? Now apologise. Say sorry.”
He backed off and said sorry. He looked a little surprised even a little bit meek, but still, his friends parroted “Don’t touch me,” as I walked away glaring at them.
Was my white skin a provocation? Is the gender divide a violent one here?
In public, at least, the young love I’ve seen here appears essentially innocent – young couples holding hands along coastal paths, others kissing against ancient trees, hiding behind umbrellas in Kandy’s Botanic gardens. Then there are the flings between Sri Lankan surf-dudes and Western babes.
Who knows how such romances relate back to specific local relations and young lovers affairs…?
How do private pictures develop behind the public displays?
I am only just beginning to establish friendships here, relationships that are doorways to other people’s worlds, as I leave Mirissa tomorrow, I will depart on their threshold.
(For a discussion of Love and arranged marriage – Sri Lankan style from a more legal-religious perspective see BBC Worldservice’s Forum of Ideas broadcast at The Galle Literary Festival. Broadcast: 01/03/2011.)