We are just back from holiday in Sri Lanka, where we had a wonderful time. Tourism is sharply down this year, so it's a very good time to go; nothing is as impossible to sell as a room that's been empty all night, so you can get amazing bargains at some of the most beautiful hotels in Asia.
The reason tourism is down is because of the continuing fight between the government and the Tamil Tigers of the north, who have acquired an air force, or at least a plane, and this year bombed the airport. No doubt that was why there was an anti-aircraft gun on a tower next to our hotel in Colombo, though admittedly it is also near the presidential palace. However, the place is, for visitors, entirely safe. Avoiding it is as pointless as skipping southern Ireland because of the troubles in the north.
Luckily some of the shortfall is made up by people of Sri Lankan origin who return for holidays. Checking out of one hotel in an especially beautiful setting, a young man asked if I was from England. When I said I was, he said that he lived in England too, and had returned to marry. He and his bride, who had never left Sri Lanka - she was smiling shyly next to him - were on honeymoon. I asked where they were going to live, and he said Slough. It was difficult to find a really enthusiastic way to wish them well in their new lives.
As everyone tells you, the problems in the country are political and not religious.
In fact, the toleration is remarkable - to some extent because the main religion, Buddhism, with two-thirds of the population, is just about as unmilitant as a religion can be. Buddhism, of course, is about the search for truth, rather than telling everyone else that you have found the truth and they had better jump into line.
At the famous Dambulla temple caves they have signs from the "venerable trustee" asking you to take your shoes off before going inside, adding: "Whether any religionist, mannerly person behaves gently," which I suppose means, "whatever your religion, show some respect", though it sounds so much nicer put the other way.
Before we left, we airily told the tourism chap that we would rent a car at the airport. He looked very worried. "I really wouldn't do that. You must have a driver," he said. "You would have great difficulties." And we would. For a start, road signage is in its infancy in Sri Lanka. Many villages don't appear even on large-scale maps, so you could be lost very easily indeed. And drivers abide by quite different rules.
In the west, we work on the assumption that the car coming towards us will keep its direction, and we must adjust accordingly. In Sri Lanka, it's the opposite: you drive straight at him because he will undoubtedly swerve at the last minute. Luckily it's hard to get up to a speed above 25mph, so these heart-stopping moments occur in slow motion.
But the roadsides present a fascinating, miles-long panorama, like a strip cartoon or a tapestry. Peacocks lurk in the woods and kingfishers perch on telegraph poles; mongooses look balefully up at you, and fruit bats hang in their hundreds from the trees.
Schoolchildren are dressed in immaculate white uniforms, a relic of colonial days, I suppose. We never saw a pair of trousers or a dress that was even slightly smudged; mothers must scrub the clothes every night. A few Morris Oxfords and Austin Cambridges bump along. The stalls cluster together, so you will get a dozen fruit stands in the same spot. On the road inland to Kandy, we passed a kilometre of wooden shelving, devoted entirely to displaying inflatable toys - sharks, elephants, bears, Scooby Doos and Disney dalmatians from 101 Dalmatians.
You wondered why they were there, 30 or 40 miles from the capital. Do dads wake up at weekends and say, "hey gang, what say we all drive out for several hours and buy an inflatable giraffe? Sound fun to you?" If you want practical details, I'll be writing at much greater length on the Guardian website soon.
While I was there I bought a fascinating book, The Museum Of Hoaxes, by an American, Alex Boese (Penguin). It's an account of great hoaxes, from medieval relics to the famous fake Tourist Guy picture of the man in an anorak posing on top of the World Trade Centre as an airliner flies towards it.
Newspapers, with their short deadlines and need for sensation, are hoaxed more than anyone else, as the Cornish shark reminds us. The New York Times, the great grey lady, is a particular victim, possibly because they know that if it is in the New York Times it must be true. In 1874, its editor fell for the New York Herald's hoax about wild animals escaping from the zoo. In 1934 it lovingly reprinted hoax stories about a sea serpent which pursued the Mauretania.
In 1999 it fell for "Ron's Angels" a website that allegedly offered childless couples the chance to buy eggs from supermodels. In 1992, it published a glossary of "grunge speak" from Seattle, all carefully invented by a magazine called The Baffler. There are many other instances.
The Guardian has been caught once or twice, though nothing like as often as our own dear Times. In 1972 the Times believed that Thomas Cook was offering round the world trips at 1872 prices. Back in 1856, it reported that a train travelling from Macon to Augusta, Georgia, had been halted six times so that passengers could fight fatal duels with "Monte Christo pistols". The slaughter had left six people dead before the journey ended. The paper stuck to its story for a year, until a reporter discovered that "Monte Christo pistols" was local slang for champagne bottles, and that empty bottles were referred to as "dead men".
Labels: Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Holiday, Travel Info