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The spicy taste of life in Sri Lanka
On Reconciliation, Head Waggles and Local Hospitality
A little over a month ago, I arrived in Sri Lanka with the sole objective of working for a couple of months at the United Nations. The goal: Contribute to the peacebuilding strategy in the country. It’s not my idea here, to write about the socio-political situation of the country, nor an economic analysis. On the contrary, in these following lines I’d like to share a bit about Sri Lanka, based on the eight weeks I’ve been living here. I will first talk about my professional experience, and then, move onto a more personal approach, as a “long-term” tourist.
On Conflict and Resilience
I came to Sri Lanka with a contract letter from the United Nations Development Programme, in order to work for the Peace Fund Pre-Secretariat, which is housed in the Office of the Resident Coordinator of the UN. This is the office in charge of coordinating the work of the 22 different agencies of the United Nations in the country, seeking to channel their individual actions in attention to a broader and strategic framework, previously agreed with the national government, and oriented towards the development of the country.
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, became a UN Member State in 1955. Since then, over the last 60 years, the specialized agencies have provided technical expertise and financial assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka to assist the people during times of war, strife, natural disasters[i], and now on post-conflict reconciliation and peacebuilding.
Sri Lanka was embroiled in a civil war for 26 years. For 26 years the country was deeply affected by an ethnic-territorial conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils, which left an estimated balance of 70.000 to 90.000 deaths[ii]. Sadly, as a by-product of any war, there were scores of exiled people, displaced communities, and refugees – most of whom are nowadays resettled. As of today, the country still appears to be recovering from the ruins of devastated cities, crushed families and the remembrance of fear; not forgetting the fact that this has also led to a wounded social fabric and generalized distrust in public services and institutions.
It has been 7 years since the end of the war. It was not a victory for “alternative dispute resolution” or for negotiated agreements. What prevailed, instead, were the strength of the weapons and the partial elimination of the adversary. The milestone was not a peace agreement but the mass killing of those from the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam; not to mention the death toll of the Government led forces and of the civilian casualties. On Tuesday 19th of May, 2009, the former President delivered a victory address to parliament, formally declaring the end of the war.
The following day, it seemed that a lot had changed in the country. Since then, Sri Lanka is picking up the pieces, rebuilding and restoring all what was lost. I will not dare to say it is the beginning of a peaceful era, but maybe an era of a significantly lower impact of armed violence. For those of us who study and work on the dynamics of social conflict, this was the kick-off of a new stage for “intervention”: a Peace-Building phase. What does this mean? I will say it is an organized, multidimensional, and slow movement towards the reconstruction of the social fabric – the strengthening of institutions, and the recovery of the economy in a wide sense, with the hope and endeavor that this will unfold an improvement on the living conditions of the citizens, their opportunities, security, and development factors
This is what I am working on. My previous work experience was mainly focused on Peace Making, i.e., the prevention and mitigation of conflicts through multiple tracks, where Peace Education, Negotiation, the Facilitation of Dialogues, and Mediation are some of the technical tools. Here, I am contributing and learning from the other side of the conflict curve, in the Peace and State-Building processes aimed at the development the country. This is materialized in projects on reconciliation, transitional justice, and governance with a conflict transformation approach. It is a model that attempts to set in motion processes to mend relations through the combination of national ground-based reconstruction programs and citizen mobilization in discussions and participatory planning. The idea is to shorten the distance between the different communities, and between people and the state, in order to eliminate mutual distrust and leverage a better response from the institutions.
It has so far been an incredible experience for me, challenging and enriching in equal parts. I’m surrounded by marvelous people, who are also very bright professionals. I am happy and grateful.
Living in Colombo
In a very different tone, I would like to tell a bit about my post-office and weekend life. Although I would like to talk about Sri Lanka in general, the shorts trips that I’ve done so far are not enough to have a holistic view, hence I cannot speak with legitimacy about the country as a whole. I have been able to explore many of the most important cities, but I understand that my thoughts are mainly based on what I have seen so far, which is not much. Also my travels have so far been limited to the South and West of the country. Here are some of the things I would like to share:
Colombo, to me, is a faithful reflection of the diversity of the country. For example, talking about religion; even though 80% of the people are Buddhist, while you walk around the city it is very easy to come on Christian Churches, Hindu Temples and Mosques of different shapes and colors. This is explained by the history of the country, as the reign of Ceylon was a Portuguese, Dutch and British colony. I was lucky to arrive on a Poya Sunday[iii], on a weekend in which people were celebrating Vesak, which is the annual celebration of the main events of Buddha’s life[iv]. Streets were covered in colors, with hanging flags and paper lanterns. On the side of some of the main avenues, worship stations where families would show mock-ups made from different materials, and remembering the life of Siddhartha Gautama. As if embellishing the city were not enough, they would also cook food and tea in great proportions, which they would later share with the random walker, regardless of the religion (this is called “Dhansal”). It was an impressive welcome which, for what I have been told, was much smaller compared to previous years because many people were still mourning or putting their energy in flood relief efforts in the aftermath of the floods that stroked a large part of the country during April, affecting more than 200.000 families.
There is plenty of life in public places, the reason why the streets of Colombo -and every other city I’ve visited- are packed with Tuk Tuk (also known as Rickshaws). These three-wheeled, covered vehicles are the cheapest transport after the public buses. Their big plus? Their capacity to maneuver between other cars and narrow streets during the traffic hours…. which are many and long.
Since I arrived, it was a self-imposed challenge to get used to spicy food. Rice is everywhere and it is generally served with different curries, being a very traditional dish of local cuisine. Generally mixed with eggs, fish or chicken; it is prepared in a way in which all people can easily eat with their fingers, without wasting anything, and mixing the different flavors in a display of nimbleness that I lack, but that I’m trying to achieve. Other very tasty specialties are the spicy scraped coconut (Pol Sambol), lentil curry (Dhal), rice noodles (String Hoppers), eggs served in a pancake (Egg Hoppers) and, one of my favorites, Kothu Roti, which is chopped flatbread mixed with whatever the person who is cooking wants to add.
Sri Lanka’s tropical climate, with mean temperatures of 30°C and a heavy rainy season, provides the country with crazy flora and fauna. Sri Lanka has the highest density of biodiversity of Asia, including a great amount of Asian Elephants, Leopards, Monkeys, and Whales. Nevertheless, what I personally like the most are the trees. I know, that is super boring. But let me tell you that these impressive, very old, specimens are spread not only in remote areas or national parks but also in downtown Colombo, painting in bright green and curvy shapes a landscape which otherwise, will be dominated by whitish houses.
Finally, a special mention of the Sri Lankan people. During the first few days in the island I wandered around the city with classic –but moderated- tourist distrust. Like an Argentinean from Buenos Aires, always aware of the surroundings and security. As weeks went by, and with more and more interaction with people, this “precaution mode” started to disappear up to the point in which I currently walk in very random places during late hours, looking for hidden places of the city. When I do this, 9 out of 10 times the result is the same: I meet WELCOMING and HAPPY people. This is one of my favorite “features” of the country. People I’ve met where I am living, as well as my colleagues at work, are a constant reminder of this. Generosity, hospitality and smiles everywhere. I must mentioned that, in a country where people live and breathe Cricket, Messi and football seem to be the first triggering topics to initiate a conversation with an Argentinian. For this reason, I have taken it upon myself to learn about Sangakkara and Mahela, the biggest stars in local cricket. Loved by everyone, they helped Sri Lanka win, in 2014, their first world cup in the T20 modality. Now you know too.
Some other colorful info
Last but not least, here is some curious data about Sri Lanka. There is a still a lot to be written:
- In Sri Lanka, when someone shakes their head from side to side with a slight wiggle, it generally means YES. I have to say this is very catchy. Watch this short and fun video so you can better understand the “Head Waggle”: https://youtu.be/zjsDSQURekc.
- Before Sri Lanka became famous for tea, it was famous for coffee – but the coffee fields of Sri Lanka were wiped out by leaf blight in the 1870s. Lipton Tea was originated here.
- There are more than 7,000 wild elephants in the country. The great elephant migration, which takes place during the dry season, is usually known as “the big gathering”, and it is considered one of the greatest natural events worldwide.
- If you go for drinks in Sri Lanka, you have to try Arrack. This is one of the typical drinks, which can be drunk with ice, or mixed with coke, gin or different fruits juice.
- Sri Lanka has had many names, one of which was Serendip, given by the Persians. The term Serendipity, which means a fortunate and unexpected discovery, was coined after a traditional Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”, in which the protagonists were always solving their problems by accidental discoveries.
[i] The most recent being the Tsunami in 2004, and huge floods in 2010 and 2016.
[ii] It is important to clarify that, as it usually happens, this is still a disputed number, not accepted by everybody.
[iii] Term that derives from Sanskrit and means “fasting day”. In Sri Lanka, it implies a rite in which devotes celebrate and visit temples as a sign of worship. More information here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/kariyawasam/wheel402.html#ch3