The beginning of my trip coincided with a religious holiday known as Vesak, which falls on the night of a full moon during the month of May. Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country, and this year the country was the global epicenter of a UN-sanctioned celebration commemorating the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha. The holiday kicked off in Colombo and the ceremony came to a close in Kandy. At night, the streets of Kandy were aglow with fantastically ornate lanterns called Vesak koodu. Their lighting represents an offering to Buddha. Some came in colors while others rotated on contraptions made of bicycle wheels. Of particular note was the gigantic electric neon display from which Buddhist chants echoed into the damp night. In addition, people lined the side of the roads to give away free food and drink to those passing through in accordance with the practice of alms giving. However, alcohol is not permitted during this occasion. The artisanship and generosity observed during Vesak were truly something to behold.
It was Sunday and a national religious holiday. While national museums and government offices were closed, souvenir shops largely remained open for business, which afforded me the opportunity to pick up some traditional Sri Lankan goods before I left the country on Tuesday. My first stop was The Cricket Shop, a one-stop sporting goods store for all things cricket. Having failed in my previous attempt to secure both white and red cricket balls, this was truly my last chance for redemption. Determined to right the ship for the sake of my friend Robert, who had requested the purchase, I zoomed down Galle Road and made a left turn at St. Anthony's Mawartha. Half expecting the place to be closed for the holiday, The Cricket Shop was brimming with excitement as a team of young cricketers from the UK tried on pads and swung cricket bats of varying sizes and weights. A teenaged blonde girl, likely the girlfriend of one of the enthused patrons, sat on a bench in the middle of the store looking dejected, unamused. I searched for the section where I could find cricket balls and, wouldn't you know it, there was a beautiful display shelf where both white and red cricket balls all sat ensconced in perfect concave dimples like sporty Fabergé eggs. I purchased the elusive white ball (the cost was 1050 LKR but they only charged me 1000 LKR, probably because I was so well behaved in comparison to the rambunctious team running amok in the tiny space) and left the scene, which was gradually devolving into a madhouse as older cricket players began to pour in. I was clearly out of my element.
En route to my next destination, I stopped off at The Commons, another facially unassuming coffee shop identified by Western signage. It was right across the street from the Ladies' College, where men stared like wild dogs into the gate opening up to the campus, anxiously awaiting the exit of their daughters, sisters, and girlfriends. I ordered an iced coffee, as if that would have any lasting effect on my internal temperature, and checked over the impressively eclectic menu. With 20 different types of specialty burgers alone, I knew I would be back.
I continued down Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, also known as Alfred Crescent, a road that bowed underneath the expanse of government property that housed the National Museum, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, and Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre. Upon reaching the penultimate perpendicular intersection of the smiling road, I turned right onto Independence Avenue. After bearing right on Philip Gunewardena Mawatha, about 1/4 mile later I arrived at a place that was rated by Lonely Planet as the #1 shopping attraction and #1 thing to do in Sri Lanka- Lakpahana. If you are looking for local artwork and handicrafts, your trip to Sri Lanka would not be complete without a visit to Lakpahana. Located in two main buildings, this small campus of local artistry offers seemingly everything under the blazing sun. Here you can purchase or simply admire carefully detailed and vibrantly colored works such as masks, batik clothing and wall hangings, wood carved elephants, jewelry, drums, clay pottery, and woven goods of all sizes. Because of the holiday, I practically had the place to myself. Needless to say, I try to support local art when possible, so I did not walk away empty handed.
I started back up Philip Gunewardena Mawatha, and then north on Independence Avenue. My stomach was calling for my attention, and I promised to heed its constant nagging by returning to The Commons for some midday sustenance. The restaurant was considerably busier than before, likely because school had let out and students filed in for lunch. When I came up to the cash register I ordered the Sesame Chicken Burger and a mango juice. The cashier urged me to reconsider, as apparently the stock of mango juice was "kind of rotten." I appreciated his candor, and opted for the chocolate milkshake instead (I can't explain my recent inclination to order milkshakes other than to say that it's so hot all the time I simply want a cold beverage whatever time of day or night it may be, and fruit juices are not always available for the reason stated above). I waited about 40 minutes to receive my meal. Diabetics must have it rough in Sri Lanka if my experiences with customer service are any indication. Had I been drowning, I would have died three times over while I waited for someone to pay attention to my frantic flailing. Fortunately, this was less of a life-or-death situation and more of a hunger game. Politely I inquired about the status of my meal. My chocolate shake, which had been delivered to me only a few minutes after placing my order, stood empty at the edge of my table, an ancient relic of a time when I was in lactose love and the burger of my dreams seemed only moments away from resting in my swollen, trembling hands. Fairly soon after my inquiry the waiter arrived at my small square of solitude with the burger king and its sad regiment of scattered fries. The taste of the burger was remarkable. The description on the placard accurately told of the burger's inner secrets- ginger, soy, and onions were all present and accounted for in generous capacity. The Asian slaw resting orderly atop the patty added a fresh and crispy countervailing force to the surprisingly savory sensation conveyed by the chicken burger. Overall the symphony sounded superb even if the musicians had arrived late to the orchestra. No longer a prisoner to my hunger, I opened the door to the outside world, which spared no time in reminding me it had not similarly cooled off, and returned to my hotel.
On my way back to the Cinnamon Grand I decided to keep an eye out for members of Sri Lanka's Environmental Protection Unit, a division of the police charged with the enforcement of environmental laws (although one interviewee referred to the EPU as a glorified neighborhood watch for illegal dumping activities). I had seen one such green vested officer earlier in the day, and I hoped that my luck might continue. At one point on my walk, I turned into an alley where I could see the ocean and its twinkling white caps seemingly a stone's throw away. No sooner had I hypnotically migrated toward the sea than I was confronted, to my delight, by two officers clad in moss green EPU vests. Excited and in full social science researcher mode, I asked if I could take a photo of the two gentlemen. I handed them my UC Irvine business card and attempted to explain the nature of my research without appearing like an awestruck tourist. If anything, I seemed to have confused them more. Eventually, and with some pleading, I convinced the men to let me take one photo. Pleased that serendipity or perhaps karma had dealt me a good hand, I continued up Galle Road in a state of geeky elation.
That night, César had extended an invitation for me to join him for Easter dinner at the home of Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda, a constitutional scholar and Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo. I happily agreed. I left my hotel by cab and arrived at Dr. Uyangoda's house around 7:30pm. There I reunited with César, and met Dr. Uyangoda, his wife, two young professional couples, and a little boy. One of the guests, Mrs. Dinesha Samararatne, had been a lawyer and Fulbright Scholar at Harvard Law, where she earned her LL.M. She is currently a lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo and a doctoral student working on her dissertation. Together our party chatted about primary schooling in Sri Lanka, eating habits in Spain, weather in Florida, and social contract theory. One couple told an interesting story illustrative of the inadequacy of the Sri Lankan legal system. Basically, their neighbors became embroiled in a legal battle over a parcel of land. The issue remained unresolved in the court system for 15 years. Then, one day a judgment was rendered that was favorable to their neighbors. Dissatisfied with outcome, the opposing side murdered the entire family of victors the very next day. Justice here in Sri Lanka has a flavor unlike any other place I have visited thus far.
Thousands of miles away from my place of birth, I found myself strangely at home in the company of otherwise complete strangers and their mild mannered dogs. The food itself was also wonderful, a spread of regional dishes fit for an Easter Sunday meal ("My mom will be happy to know I had at least one home cooked meal while I was out here," I quipped.). Upon having the various items explained to me, I assured the hostess that the pork chops would be no problem for this non-observant Jew, as I believe that the kosher laws essentially functioned as the first food safety laws, now rendered obsolete by the advent of curing and refrigeration. Outside the house on a post just beyond the doorway hung a tile that read "Shalom" in both English and Hebrew. Surely the Angel of Death would have seen fit to pass over this house back in Biblical times. For dessert we raced to finish bowls of green mint ice cream before the glacial chunks turned to emerald soup. Dinesha, her husband, and her adorable son bade us all good evening, and soon César and I decided it was our turn to depart. Our hostess's first couple attempts to call a taxi failed to produce, so I suggested Kangaroo Cabs, which I had used when leaving Dr. Dhanapala's home in the thunder and rain several days ago. Sure enough, we were able to reserve a taxi. After a week in Sri Lanka I was now suggesting which cabs to take. The taxi, a Toyota Prius which César and I shared, dropped my new friend off at his apartment and then continued on into the agonizing abyss of the spring Sri Lankan night.