Oh hello! I’m in Sri Lanka! This is a work trip that came together relatively last minute, but I thought I’d put up a couple posts along the way. I’m primarily here to participate in a workshop on the preservation of South Asian art and audio, but I was able to bake in a couple days to explore on my own. I’m staying in Kandy, the self-anointed cultural center of the country, which is in the mountains in the middle of the country. Getting here was a bit of a trek – via Chicago and Doha, with a three-hour late-night taxi ride to get to Kandy. The high point was a splurge (only $100!) upgrade to business class on the Doha-Colombo leg. Turns out business class on a Qatar Airways flight is pretty night – who’d have thought?
I made it to my hotel around 6 in the morning, and immediately crashed. Around 8am, the front desk called, concerned that I hadn’t yet come to breakfast, but I was able to go back to sleep for another few hours.
Around 11, I made my way down to the city (about 2km) to meet up with a guide for a food tour. He turned out to an employee of a local university who does food tours on the side. We did a wander of the market, had some fruits and sweets, then got some food at a Muslim cafe. It was a good chance to ask questions about the city and life in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka had a double whammy of Covid and a brutal financial crisis (and political unrest), but things seem to be going a little better.
After my tour, I wandered to the main temple complex in Kandy, which houses the most important relic in Sri Lanka – one of the Buddha’s teeth. Though the tooth isn’t visible, the complex is interesting to explore, intermixing the religious and political history of Sri Lanka. Interpretive materials are a bit sparse, but it was still enjoyable.
Behind the temple is the Kandy Museum, which mixes more artifacts and signage to tell the story of the last dynasty of the kingdom of Kandy, before it finally fell to the British (having outlasted the Portuguese and the Dutch).
Kandy is centered around the cleverly named Kandy Lake, which makes it a great destination for strolling a people watching. There are loads of birds, especially ducks, and friendly look-but-don’t-touch dogs. I did a lap of the lake before popping into the Hideout Lounge, the kind of cafe/bar/hostel/hangout you find around the world in places like this. Friendly dogs, Australians, and a menu mixing local and global hipster. I got an americano and some fried cashews and enjoyed reading while rain came down.
After waiting out the rain, I grabbed some groceries and an early dinner of string hoppers – little rice noodle nests with curry. Then it was back to the hotel to crash. The front desk called again around 8:30pm to ask if I was coming to dinner, but fortunately I was able to get a good night’s sleep after that.
Feeling a bit more put together on Thursday morning, I actually made it to breakfast, then wandered into town for a hike at the Udawatta Kele sanctuary, a forest preserve on the edge of town. There are a few paths, but the main one winds through the park with a few great views of town. Some friendly (but thankfully not too friendly) monkeys came and went. At one point, I wandered down a branch of the path and came to a clearing with an old hermitage. Out came two Buddhist monks, in their orange robes. One waved hello and asked where I was from. Then he said “you have leeches on your feet”. This was not, unfortunately, a deeply philosophical reflection on the extractive nature of western capitalism, but rather a factual observation.
The reviews on google of the hike were mixed – some said “way too many leeches to be enjoyable” while others said “not really that many leeches” which does leave things open to interpretation. I’ve decided that there should instead be a quantitative measure – steps per leech, or SPL. I think an enjoyable hike would be in the 50+ range, but portions of this trail were well under 5. Eek!
Anyways, all’s well that ends well. I made it back into town, seemingly leech-free, and popped into a cafe just as the clouds opened. I had my first proper curry rice at a tiny place tucked away behind a shopping center, and then did another lap of the lake and caught up on some more reading at the Hideout.
In the evening, I finally met up with all of the workshop attendees for our kickoff conversations – there are about 30 folks from all around the world, scholars interested in audio and visual preservation in the Indian subcontinent. I’m really excited about the days ahead!