Buddha Statue

By Brian Spencer

Tip too much and I’ll feel like a clueless, imperialist white globetrotter blithely handing out bills like penny candy to the little people in an exotic land who “need it more than you do.” I’ll feel like a walking piggy bank, this oft-romanticized experience of having “met the locals” reduced to a sterile monetary transaction as the gardener walks away chuckling to himself, another fish hooked right through his fat Western wallet.

Of course, tip too little and I’ll simply feel like the overly smug, know-it-all imperialist globetrotter — and a cheap one at that. “Look, I get what’s going on here, but you have to understand that I’m a real traveler here to see the real Sri Lanka, not some wealthy amateur tourist, okay? So I’ll just tip you what we both know is the right amount and we’ll both feel great about it. The money isn’t as important, for both of us, as the cross-cultural interaction we’ve just shared.”

Or something like that.

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As a former nexus point of Sri Lanka’s painful 26-year civil war that ended with one last wave of bloodshed in 2009, Colombo is still little more than a launching pad into the rest of the country for the relative trickle of tourists who’ve slowly but surely begun visiting this island nation again. In fact, that’s mostly all it was for me, too, when I visited barely a year after President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared the war was over. We were to spend just  two days and two nights there before moving on to Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, and the beaches on the southern coast, and at first blush that felt like plenty of time in Colombo.

Sri Lanka’s largest city wasn’t nearly as developed or as wonderfully chaotic as I’d hoped and imagined it would be. Even the standard beacons of a stable, sustainable tourism infrastructure — that is, an abundance of central convenience stores, restaurants, bars, and mid-range to upscale hotels — were still somewhat lacking. That will all change soon enough, for better or worse. Many parts of central Colombo were dotted with construction sites and plastered with posters advertising posh condominium developments. As we sipped cocktails on the Galle Face Hotel’s checkerboard patio, watching the tide roll in from the Laccadive Sea, a freighter ship slowly cruised up the city’s western coast, a huge sign hung over its port that simply read  “Visit Sri Lanka 2011.”

The commercial spirit of Sri Lanka is, indeed, willing and ready to embrace mass tourism in all of its conflicting glory, a sense I felt strongly throughout my travels in the country. Considering everything these people have been through, I can’t blame them. Clouded by a selfish longing for escapism in this faraway island, however, I admittedly found it comforting to see the country hadn’t yet succumbed to the domineering Western crunch of consumerism and consumption that’s engulfed so many other parts of South Asia, though of course it was war that left Sri Lanka behind in that regard, not conscientious choice.

You didn’t have to go too far in Colombo to be reminded of that war. Soldiers in army fatigues and uniformed policemen stood vigilant (and bored) on what felt like every other street corner, semi-automatic machine guns slung over their shoulders or casually cradled in their arms like a sack of potatoes. Security checkpoints were set up throughout the city. Keep in mind that, just a few years ago, the electricity plug was temporarily pulled on the entire city during the evening to make it more difficult for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam aircraft bombers to zero in on potential targets. I’m not necessarily saying the LTTE were the only bad guys here — both sides of the country’s civil war had blood-stained hands, and I’m hardly an expert on the conflict or its politics –but simply that while the war might have been over, the scars were still scabbed in Colombo.

A Walk in the Park

The dusty residential side streets off Galle Road were fairly empty as we zig-zagged towards Colombo’s posh Cinnamon Gardens suburb. A few locals on their way to work shuffled by as we reached Lesser Beira, the smaller half of the two bodies of water that make up Beira Lake. Giant gulls sat along the still water’s shore. Like deathly, high-pitched machine gun pops, the incessant caw! caw! caw! of the city’s omniscient population of ravens was the only sound breaking the quiet of this humid Colombo morning.

Viharamahadevi Park, the oldest and largest public park in Colombo, is just across the street from the world-class National Museum. We walked towards the middle of it in search of the seated golden Buddha, stepping over rusted-through train tracks that ran along the edge of the park. It was near the Buddha that we were approached by Chival, who had been bent over a patch of bushes just off the main path, pulling weeds. Short and stocky — the crown of his head maybe reached my shoulders — he was dressed in loose-fitting khaki pants and a plain, navy blue shirt soaked in sweat and buttoned up over a solid little paunch. He wore flips flops on his feet and a tan sports cap on his head, and his bushy, all-white goatee gave him a loose resemblance to Captain Lou Albano in his prime.

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Chival didn’t really ask us if we wanted a tour of Viharamahadevi Park — he just sort of it started it, first leading us over to a towering banyan tree nearby, then pointing out a small army of long-necked birds stalking through a shallow swamp area, patiently hunting for breakfast. He picked up and named a few fairly common tropical flowers that had fallen to the ground. Chival may have looked like Captain Lou, but at this point in the tour he was simply playing the role of Captain Obvious. My then-girlfriend and I were gamely playing along, but after 10 minutes or so we shared that quick eye contact that silently said “let’s pay him and move on.”

Without saying a word Chival suddenly walked away, back towards the bushes from which he approached us. We thought he’d simply lost interest (or gave up), but he soon returned dragging a large palm. Still silent, he swung the palm over his head and beat it against the ground, like a circus strongman pounding a high striker’s spring-loaded lever with a mallet. A scene straight out of Jurassic Park, hordes of massive fruit bats with frightening wingspans flapped through the sky just above us, their shielded daytime slumber in the treetops disturbed by Chival’s beating palm. He couldn’t hide his delight over the shocked looks on our faces.

Chival’s tour of Viharamahadevi Park picked up some steam from there. He crushed the leaves from one plant in his hands and asked us to smell them — cardamom — and shaved a small slice of bark off a nearby tree — cinnamon. (You could see where he’d done this a few times already.) He collected a handful of tiny, tough little red seeds for us that are used to make necklaces. He led us to a beautiful oversized palm, like an opened Chinese fan for giants. He revealed layers of the park we wouldn’t have discovered on our own.

At the hand fan for giants, Chival’s tour just sort of ended, just as it had just sort of begun.

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A big smile spread across the gardener’s face as my then-girlfriend reached into her purse and pulled out a single US dollar bill, which at the time was about 115 Sri Lankan rupees. He wrinkled his nose, like David Brent distastefully biting into a piece of Neil Godwin’s too-sweet, too-rich cake (“I prefer a flan”), and in a Brent-like tone said “Ohhhh, very little money… from America, so…”

She didn’t have anything less than a US$20 on her; he pointed at my back pocket. I had a US$1 and a US$5. He actually offered to give me change for the five; I offered him the two dollar bills and another 100 rupees I had in my pocket; his Sri Lankan head wobble indicated that would be sufficient compensation.

I wish I had just given him the five.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.