Spiritual Explorer: Sri Lanka’s Cash Culture
Editors Note: This article is part of a series. Follow along as Jacob explores widely different cultures and places and delves into the spirituality, history, and people that make these places unique.
A thick cloud of red dust swirls under the tires of a jeep equipped to quite possibly drive straight through the thick underbrush that lines the tiny dirt road we’re riding through. It’s built for the rugged terrain we jostle through, one hand gripping the metal railing that lines the interior and another clutching an odd assortment of cameras and binoculars. The driver knows the land well, swerves past an errantly large hole in the ground and honks off a small gathering of peacocks. He spends most of his working days transporting tourists through Sri Lanka’s most visited wildlife sanctuary — Yala National Park.
Annually the 378 sq. mile park is a massively popular draw touting a wide range of biodiversity. Species such as the Sri Lankan wild water buffalo, leopard, elephant, and sloth bear are threatened domestically by poaching and shrinking natural habitation are harbored in the park.
Large swathes of the park are inaccessible to tourists but the millions of rupees in entrance and lodging fees for the park are a huge boon to the Sri Lankan tourist industry. I understand it, I see the need for it as their economy attempts to rebuild itself after a long and difficult civil war.
The culture, history, geography and people of Sri Lanka are undoubtedly fascinating. This tiny island has been the site of ancient kingdoms whose relics and reputation survive, religious sites of great significance, and an idyllic natural landscape from the stunning mountaintops to white sand beaches stretching into the crystal sea.
In the colonial era, its location has made ports along the country’s coast strategic to different seafaring empires, countries, and kingdoms from the Portuguese, to the Dutch, and British. The Sri Lankan people are proud of their history. Near the well documented points of interest it isn’t uncommon to hear the locals speak of their heritage in reverential tones.
There is a genuine interest in sharing their culture with the wealth of foreign visitors who come to the island, but I can’t shake the feeling that important elements of their culture and even religion seem to become secondary in comparison their ability to generate revenue.
The fact that the Buddhist laity is supported by charitable donations in a large way, makes for the encouragement or necessity of donations. Many if not most of the temples, statues, and shrines cannot be visited by foreigners without a donation. Some are built specifically for the tourist industry and can’t be visited by locals unless they work there.
I recognize the reality of need. In the capitalist-driven world we live in, not much can exist without the proper funds. Not even the variety of endangered species that I was fortunate to see in Yala National Park would likely survive without the rupees collected from entrance and lodging fees at the park. As recent as 2007 and 2008 park visitors were attacked by the guerrilla faction involved in the Sri Lankan civil war killing army soldiers and visitors. Illegal mining, logging, and the cultivation of marijuana in remote locations of the park disrupts the efforts at conservation.
I am not so idealistic to think that all of those issues could be solved on the strength of donations and volunteerism in a country whose annual GDP per capita is $6500.00. The people of Sri Lanka need the revenue generated by tourism. It creates jobs, tax revenue, infrastructure, and a dedicated wing of the educational system that fosters qualified hospitality employees to staff the myriad resorts, hotels, restaurants, and tours.
Still, for me having traveled enough places in which I’ve felt the distinct indifference from people who are in no need of the tourist revenue generated from my being there, it allows you to develop relationships with people more openly. They don’t read from a prepared script learnt from daily dealings with tourists they know by country, and perception of wealth. The exchange of culture even is different — not tempered by any need.
I began this series in Dubai, in which the economic conditions are on a completely different scale. Wealth is visible, poverty is not. Yet in conversation and dealings with people in that city of great and very apparent opulence there was often a similar glass panel through which we spoke as here.
There, it was a kind of stiff decorum that is perhaps common in the service and hospitality industries but intensified by the fact that it was hard to tell there if the person next to you might possibly be a billionaire.
Here, in Sri Lanka, I spoke last of trust. And now I feel that I was perhaps naïve in the sense that the niceties extended do come at a cost. I did feel genuinely welcomed by that man into his home for lunch and meeting his family, but he did later expect me to pay for the services of his driving to a next city, or book a tour, or bungee jumping. Our every conversation since mention was made of something I could possibly purchase at his offering — to trust a smile indeed.
It isn’t something I can’t relate to on a personal level. My own culture in so many ways has offered up some of its most precious elements for sale. The soul of a people expresses itself in so many ways, and I can’t say that money doesn’t irreparably taint this. My people invented hip-hop, for so many generations it spoke to the political, social, and personal identities of African American people from a variety of walks of life. If it still does, after creating a self-supportive globe spanning industry, it is difficult to say.
Some of the pureness of that element of my culture that has been wrested from its soul has not been given but taken. Similarly, with the effect of colonialism so evident in this place and the majority European tourists here who have historically exoticized cultures apart from their own lends itself to a marginalization of the Sri Lankan identity as some pet culture. It wasn’t incredibly long ago (inside of a 150 years) that Europeans and White Americans subjected East Asian, African, and Native Americans to display in “human zoos”.
You only have to look to the fact that tea was introduced here by the British and Sri Lanka is still the third largest producer of tea in the world. The tea plantations here span acres and are sought by tourists but colonialism, slavery, and the virulent eradication of many indigenous civilizations to me have far too many similarities for me to take any pleasure from their lasting effects.
It’s difficult to be aware of such elements of the relatively recent past and not have them dramatically sway your perception of country in its modern state. It’s not at all an uncommon suggestion that to create a sense of self we build on a knowledge of our history. When you hear the way some tourists speak of the local population you wonder if they genuinely consider themselves as being better. Personally, I don’t think your country having exploited another in the past makes you any better than them — then or now.
Yet, the Sri Lankan people I’ve spoken to are incredibly good natured about the recent past of their country. I’ve still as much as I’ve asked heard them speak no ill against any other people. At the time of Vikings in much of Europe dynastic kingdoms ruled Sri Lanka building temples, monuments, and castles of which some are still standing. Yet from 1505-1948 it was ruled by varying colonial powers, and I haven’t heard a single person yet express any resentment over that period of time.
Whether them viewing me as an outsider disallows them to speak plainly, or they are fearful of a negative perception as their tourism industry rebuilds after a long civil war I can’t be sure.
I do realize people explore for different reasons and I feel there is validity in most if not all of them. I don’t travel a country for the sake of personal entertainment. I want to know the people, I want to appreciate our differences and understand our similarities. I’m not sure now if this comes at a cost of dollars, dedication, effort, or a mixture of all and perhaps more, but I can only keep trying.
Follow Jacob’s series “Spiritual Explorer” as he delves into unique cultures, spirituality, history, and people of the places he travels. Let us know whether you agree with his impressions.
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