I Will Return to Sri Lanka

Survivor’s guilt and processing tragedy from afar.

On a recent episode of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah commented on the self-centered way in which Americans process international news. While discussing a story of an American woman and her guide who were kidnapped in Uganda, he made light of our narcissistic inclination to relate tragedies back to ourselves. “I’m American, that could be me!”

I was confused by my initial reaction upon hearing news of the April 2019 terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, which left over 350 dead and another 500 wounded.

I felt heartbroken and chills ran through my body. It was an eerie and unfamiliar sensation to learn that a horrific terrorist act had been carried out in a specific place I had visited so recently. There are 195 countries in the world, and over 20,000 hotels in Sri Lanka. My friend and I had spent a week at the Cinnamon Grand in Colombo, one of three hotels that was targeted, just a few months prior.

I realize this does not make the tragedy mine, and no words can describe the pain and suffering of those who were directly affected. Perhaps what I felt, and still do today, was survivor’s guilt. Why did I get to enjoy the lovely breakfast, the rooftop pool and the spa amenities and walk out scot-free, when the unfortunate travelers and hotel employees who were there on Easter Sunday suffered a different fate?

Cameras set up in Cinnamon Grand’s Taprobane restaurant show Inshaf Ibrahim, 35, awkwardly hovering around diners just after 9am on Sunday as they ate breakfast. https://www.news.com.au/

We traveled to Sri Lanka after spending a week at a yoga retreat in India. Many “Eat, Pray, Love” jokes were made along the way. I had researched the country extensively and was fascinated by the culture, natural beauty, wildlife and political history. We decided it would be worth the extra flight and planned on visiting an elephant retreat in the jungle. According to TripAdvisor and other online sources, Sri Lanka has made huge strides in safety and accessibility since its decades-long civil war ended in 2009, not to mention it was exotic and affordable.

Upon arrival at the Bandaranaike International Airport, we were greeted by a Buddha enclosed in a glass case as well as a large sign bluntly stating that anyone in possession of drugs would be punished by death. This struck me as an incongruous message. “We are peaceful Buddhists who uphold the death penalty.”

According to The Week Magazine, 70 % of Sri Lanka’s residents are Buddhist, with the rest Hindu, Christian and Muslim. I am an agnostic with Buddhist leanings, having studied the philosophy throughout college and my adulthood, and was excited to be surrounded by this culture.

After a week in the wild terrain of Goa, we were relieved to arrive at our lovely hotel. The hotel staff were kind and friendly, with hands which seemed to be permanently clasped in the “namaste” gesture. They escorted us to our rooms, equipped with modern amenities and a view of stunning Colombo.

Our original plan was to stay in the city for a night or two and then head to a remote area to visit an elephant retreat, but after an arduous trip and a week without hot water at the yoga retreat, we preferred to relax at the hotel instead. I wanted to see the elephants, but a few days of “real” vacation was too tempting to pass up.

We reveled somewhat smugly in the affordable room rates, food and spa amenities, which were about one/fifth the price that they would have been back home. The highlight of each day was a visit to the dining room for an incredible breakfast of fresh local fruit, pastries, Sri Lankan fish curry and stringers. Lingering over coffee, tea and many small plates in the peaceful atmosphere, I never wanted to leave. I envisioned myself packing up my apartment, grabbing my laptop and permanently decamping back to the island formerly known as Ceylon. I was ready to become an ex-pat.

The 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka is well documented and ended less than a decade ago, however our exploration revealed a peaceful and spiritual city. We traversed the on foot and by tuk-tuk, and Colombo felt safe, cosmopolitan and very much like an urban center on the rise. New construction was visible throughout, and the streets were a hectic and contradictory blend of traditional rikshaws and European luxury cars. There were Buddhist statues around every corner, in addition to Christian Churches and Mosques.

During our visit to the stunning Gangaramaya Temple, we were greeted warmly by monks, asked to remove our shoes and set free to explore the property. The statues, offering stations and other artifacts were beautiful and fascinating, and I took a few peaceful moments to meditate and pray on the temple floor. I felt relaxed, warm and a growing sense of personal spirituality.

It seemed a bit sacrilegious to take so many pictures of the beautiful statues and offering stations, but I was a tourist after all and did not want to forget the experience.

When people ask about the trip, I reply without hesitation that Sri Lanka is my favorite country I have ever visited.

It was a beautiful and fascinating blend of cultures, and felt very safe for female travelers. The food was delicious and unique, the prices were right and the spirituality was tangible.

A tragedy can happen anywhere, and I hope that Sri Lankans can heal and find peace again soon. I filled with sorry for the staff members at the Cinnamon Grand, their families and all who were effected by this act of hatred and violence.

As a self-centered American, I am processing this tragedy in my own way, and feel compelled to share my positive experience in Colombo with any interested reader. I will absolutely go back to Sri Lanka as soon as I am able and would encourage others to do the same. After all, I still need to visit the elephants.

Writer, Empath, Observer of the Human Condition @instagram/vivien_grace vivgrace.com

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