My husband David, working with Bob Rae, has visited Sri Lanka many times in the last three years to assist in the effort to build a lasting peace in this beautiful and troubled country. They are there under the auspices of the Forum of Federations, an international organization based in Ottawa; Bob is the President of the Forum and David is a board member. This time their plan was to run a two-day seminar on federalism and hold meetings with officials but the trip developed into something more when they brought Arlene and me. We wanted to see the country, something Bob and David hadn't really done before as tourists. Their previous trips had been all business.
What an astonishing country it proved to be for all of us. The hotels were spectacular and beautifully run with some of the nicest people I have ever met making sure the rooms, the service and the food were perfect. Except for almost non-existent internet service at most places - probably just as well for a group of internet junkies - we couldn't have been happier.
Our guide and driver, Rex Samarawira, was the single person who made the trip work for us. He was erudite, funny, proud of his country's history, easy-going but at the same time a demanding slave-driver, flogging us along hot sandy temple paths in our bare feet and pushing us through two-hour walks in the steaming heat before we got our suppers. Rex educated us, entertained us, turned out to be a master magician, found us the best food in the country, the best shops, the best of everything. He's been at this for about forty years and he retains the enthusiasm of a beginner.
Everyone knows Rex and when you're with him the best seat in the house, the best table, the best view are yours. He packed his big, air-conditioned van with cold water and fruit; he stopped often for fresh treats, he explained every animal, bird, flower or bug we could find. Rex knew the wages of the tea pickers, their benefits, their troubles.
A devout Roman Catholic, Rex had great respect for the Buddhist sites we toured and I think he knew their histories as well as any of the monks.
Now when you travel a guide like this, and most people do, you wonder where they spend their nights. Rex explained that the hotels had guest houses for the drivers. It wasn't until the end of our trip that we discovered - on pressing him - the guest houses often had thirty men to a room. He wasn't complaining; it was just the way it was.
Arlene and I asked him, at the end of our tour, to take us to Galle - and you will see more about this towards the bottom of the Sri Lanka pictures. This trip was, in many ways, the one we will most remember. Rex brought his wonderful wife and we stopped to see the SOS Children's Village near the Samarawiras' house south of Colombo. Thanks to a suggestion from Michael Ondaatje, money from the World Literacy of Canada goes to these Sri Lankan branches of the SOS villages.
The four of us stayed in the same hotel in Galle; of course, Rex knows everyone and had arranged special dinners beforehand.
If any of you ever want to go to Sri Lanka - and I urge you, with all my heart to go - call Rex and he will make your trip one of the most memorable of your life. (E-mail me and I will send you phone number and e-mail address.)
This country desperately needs tourists. People have cancelled their trips since the tsunami and the country is reeling. It depends on tourists and we didn't go into one shop or one hotel or one restauarant where the message wasn't clear: please tell your friends to come.
For us, seeing Galle was more important than anything else we saw. We saw a gallant people struggling in the aftermath of tragedy and setting an example to the world of courage and dignity.