Personal Journey: Sri Lanka, mystical and yet modern

Sri Lanka.

Even the name sounds exotic, conjuring images of mystical journeys, long-ago kingdoms, and towering temples. But the country, where I recently spent four weeks on vacation and business, is also very much of our modern age. That contrast is at the heart of Sri Lanka's charm and rhythm, and can be felt everywhere in this island nation of 20 million.

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The author and his driver, Janaka, with refreshing roadside coconut drinks in Sri Lanka.

Take Sigiriya. On a glorious mid-June morning, I walked the 1,200-or-so steps to the top of this ancient rock palace and fortress and surveyed the surrounding countryside in awed contemplation. Mere hours later, I was enjoying the 21st-century amenities of the five-star Heritance Kandalama hotel as Sigiriya loomed in the distance like some majestic sentry.

Other examples of Sri Lanka's split personality abound. One evening in Kandy, I sought refuge from the crush of devotees who had descended on the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, a Buddhist temple where a tooth of the Buddha is preserved. Two days later, I snorkeled in blissful solitude off Pigeon Island as reef sharks, turtles, and tropical fish swam below.

During my visit to Nuwara Eliya, I toured a working tea factory, struck by the sight of barefoot women operating massive (and, no doubt, dangerous) machinery. The following week, I cavorted with injured street dogs at a hospital supervised by Embark, an animal welfare organization founded by one of Sri Lanka's best-known successful female entrepreneurs.

I'll never forget the tuk-tuk rides I survived in Colombo (imagine sitting in the back of a three-wheeled golf cart driven by Mario Andretti in the latest Mad Max movie and you'll begin to understand the experience). When I compare these exercises in raw terror to the tranquil dinner I enjoyed one evening in the coastal town of Mirissa - accompanied by the sound of waves breaking on the rocks a few yards away - the contrast is so stark I have to laugh.

I also conducted leadership-development workshops at three venues in Colombo and was struck by the audiences' sophistication and savvy. Dressed in Western-style business attire, the participants asked pointed questions and took reams of notes. They were as passionate and driven as any American audience I've worked with.

A few days after my final workshop, I was heading for a much-needed mini-vacation with my driver, Janaka. It was an unbearably hot day, and I asked Janaka to stop at one of the ubiquitous roadside fruit stands for thambili (the juice of the king coconut, of which I became quite fond).

An elderly, shirtless, near-toothless man approached the car. Janaka engaged in a short conversation in Sinhalese, and the man stepped away to prepare the order. With a sharp knife, he hacked at the orange fruit, creating a small hole in the top through which he inserted a straw. He then handed the coconut to me as I opened the window.

With the scorching air now searing my face, and eager to enjoy my sweet drink in air-conditioned comfort, I hastily asked, "How much?"

"One hundred rupees," Janaka replied. About 75 cents.

I handed the man three 100 rupee bills. "Too much," he said to my driver in Sinhalese.

"It's OK," I said. "Tell him to keep it."

I offered this small tip in appreciation of the man's efforts, knowing that tipping is not customary. But as his face broke into a grateful smile, I felt a palpable twinge of unease rather than pleasure. In those fleeting seconds, Sri Lanka's venerable past and bright future came together - and I felt awkwardly, uncomfortably, at the center.

Thousands of miles from home, I had become an American bridge between two equally vibrant yet contradictory Asian worlds. I let the peculiar feeling wash over me.

Janaka's eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. "Are you ready?" he asked.

"Let's go," I said. The car pulled away, and I sat quietly sipping my thambili as Sri Lanka - quixotic, seductive, inscrutable - rolled by outside my window.


Michael Brenner writes from Jeffersonville.

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