A not-so-distant-land

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So it’s mid-afternoon and Emily and I are chugging along on this rickety little passenger train through the Sri Lankan Hill Country. It’s a windy route that’s taken us through countless and ever-astounding changes of scenery, from rambling, brilliantly green tea and spice plantations carved into steep mountainsides to low, soggy rice paddies nurturing brand new sprouts to dusty little workaday towns and villages busy with their mid-week duties.

I must have taken like 300 photos in the past four hours. I’m doublefisting it, in fact, with the Canon SLR in one hand and the Canon point-and-shoot in the other because there’s just too much goodness out there. I’ll post the results soonish.

Everybody stops and waves and smiles and holds their babies up for us to admire when we pass them working in tea fields or waiting at a train crossing. Sounds very off-the-mappy and authentic, hey?

Weeeeell … Full disclosure: it’s kinda not. They wave probably because we Westerners are seated in our very own Observation Car, which, as it turns out, is really just exactly like the second- and third-class cars, except with a few large, cracked panes of glass replacing the caboose’s back wall. Yes, we are part of a we. A large, amorphous mass of blue-green eyes and sandy hair, traveling along at a slow and jerky clip.

Awhile back, on account of some kind of problem with the train tracks, we stalled out for some minutes at the edge of a little hill town called Hatton. The event of our minor breakdown drew out half the town to the edges of the tracks, from wadi and betel vendors eager to capitalize on the delay to a few tiny gangs of Sri Lankan kids still dressed in school uniform and tie to the perfunctory swathes of curious, barefoot men on break from working and wanting to put in their two cents about the cause of the gum-up. To help out and maybe catch a little gossip.

I took advantage of the occasion to hop off the car and have a quick smoke (I’m on vacation, so piss off!) and while I smoked, I exchanged a few easy words with one of the vendors, who begged me for a cigarette with a rather destitute look about his eyes, despite the fact that we’d seen a French passenger hand him one a mere minute before. He pulled out wads of rupees from his breast pocket to prove that the smoke in question was long gone, I sassily told him to go buy his own cigarettes with said giant wad of money, and we both laughed, and he went on his merry way.

The train track problem was duly solved with the assistance of about 10 local guys, who squatted around staring at the problem track and hitting at it with one very rusty-looking hammer, and now we’re back on the road again.

We started out our day in the hill town of Ella, a small but bustling kind of place overrun with monkeys and rotti shops and cluttered conveniences and many, many buildings in various stages of construction. Judging from the reactions of the locals, who were all very friendly and sort of bemused, tourism is only just recently kicked into high gear in these parts. But humans are nothing if not masters of their domains, – that is to say, quick to adapt – so we also spent time brushing off the ministrations of countless randoms hawking “Rose Quartz” through car windows (obviously just hunks of agate they’d picked up off the ground 20 feet away, but you can’t blame a person for trying, I suppose), shrieking at the pinched-faced monkeys swinging through the trees and swooping in among us in search of mangoes and bananas, and turning down countless offers to “take photos” of local women whose arms were full of bundles of sticks, which they promptly threw to the ground upon our polite refusals. Very authentic, indeed?

Thing about traveling is, it’s mighty tough to sort out when your experiences and impressions are authentic and when they are complete bunk. And we crave a genuine and irreplicable experience, like most backpackers do, and we look for it everywhere, so the temptation is to perpetuate the ruse instead of unmasking it when you realize you’ve been taken in, or that you’re not nearly so far off the map as you’d been prepared to imagine.

Cases in point: Erin compulsively deleting any trip photos that have other Westerners in their frame, because that makes them not nearly so cool and friends at home might not be impressed by your train journey through the Sri Lankan Hill Country if they knew that you made it in the company of like 50 high-heeled Russians on some kind of group tour. Erin asking the Indian chai walla to pour the cup of tea just one more time because she didn’t quite get the photo just right the first go-round. Erin sneaking photos of monks on the bus in Colombo because it’s just too irresistibly cool a picture, even though it’s kind of rude and the lady next to expresses her disapproval with a low cluck of her tongue. Erin paying 100rs to some random Indian dude dressed in local garb and toting an ornately bejeweled cow with headdress around Vagator so she can take a picture. Erin paying another random Sri Lankan dude 100rs to let her hold his boa constrictor, Layla, around her neck, to the shrieking delight of a crowd of fascinated and horrified locals, none of whom were shaken down for cash at the end of the spectacle.

As a trained journalist, I feel conflicted by these indiscretions, even though I’m copping to them, even though it’s just vacation. I am somehow compelled to disclose the inauthenticities of my time away from the U.S. as well as to share the deeply genuine and intimate ones. And there have been many of those, too: meeting a man named Abdulla at the Carnakata Railway Station one Midnight and being invited to attend his upcoming wedding to the woman of his dreams, who will be presented to him in an overwhelmingly fetching show of splendor. (“She will wear so many ornaments! She will look like an advertisement!”) Talking with a Sri Lankan women of similar age in a tour outfit shop about her life, her husband, the benefits of love-marriages versus arranged-marriages, and the proper age to marry and settle down. (“Women your age have no husband, they must seek help to find a proposal!”) Strolling along the Arabian Sea boardwalk at dusk and making friends with all the sweet little families splashing down in the water, fully clothed, the whooping groups of teenaged boys shyly asking to have their photos taken with us so they can post them on Facebook and earn a bit of cachet with their friends for the feat of boldness.

It’s all beautiful. But it’s not the whole story, and the secret, often unspoken other half of any trip is this: everybody’s been there before you. No, really. Everybody. Yes, there are faraway places full of strange and wonderful and baffling customs, and you will visit them and eat strange and wonderful and baffling foods, and encounter people so shockingly different from you that there’s nothing to do but stand at the edge of a malfunctioning train tack together and giggle into each other’s eyes. Yes, there are countless hordes of people across this planet who have never spoken directly to an American, there are a lifetime’s worth of amazing and exotic corners to turn down in every new and dusty town. But no truly untried lands, or at least, few enough that I haven’t yet hit on one in 31 years and 33 countries. It is an incredible and humbling thought, and making peace with it is just a part of the longer journey I’m on as a traveler.

Maybe it’s the hardest part. And, sometimes, also the most important part.

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3 thoughts on “A not-so-distant-land

  1. Shelley says:

    You are so right about there no longer being untried lands…and equally right about traveling being about an individual journey and experience. Though others have been in the same places, they will not have experienced it from your unique perspective.

    We were in Sri Lanka right after the war ended a few years ago, and wow…it sure sounds like things have changed since we were there. The locals hadn’t seen tourists for so long, that they had a genuine interest in just talking to us. Amazing how tourist dollars can change the landscape of a country…

    • erinjbernard says:

      Yes, I must admit that Sri Lanka is not at all what I expected based on what I heard from friends who visited a few years back. Prices of everything come in an astonishing range, which is the surest clue that things are changing fast here. But it is beautiful and 99% of people are so so friendly and curious to know what we think. What a place!

      • Shelley says:

        Yeah, we loved our time there. Did you make it to the North? Because we were there right after the war, we weren’t allowed to head to “Tamil Tigers” territory, but I’ve heard that it’s absolutely stunning!

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