May 20, 1996
I spent a month teaching gymnastics & leading coaching clinics in the fabled Serendib. Great food, great beaches and some wonderful people.
Marco Polo considered Sri Lanka the finest island of its size in all the world. I’d agree. It should be a paradise on Earth. Anything will grow here.
But in 1996 when I was there it was still wounded by the previous 25 years of civil war. The majority Buddhist indigenous population told me they were under terrorist attack by the minority (15%) Hindu population.
The capital of Sri Lanka, is not popular with tourists. Most flee as quickly as they can to higher, cooler territory.
I spent some weeks in Colombo but never really got a handle on the largest city on the island.
Breakdowns, snarled traffic and power cuts characterize the town.
Security was tight in 1996.
Highlights of Colombo include colonial buildings, the clock tower, a former lighthouse & the president’s residence (known by incorrigible traditionalists asQueen’s House).
Perhaps I learned so little about Colombo because I spent most of my free time at my Hotel, the Hilton!
There was hardly any need to enter Sri Lanka. Private Hilton cabs were at our beck and call.
Staying in a 5 Star hotel in a developing country is novel for a while. But Darcy (track coach roommate from Saskatoon) and I eventually tired of the imported buffet meals/Fitness Centre/Outdoor Pool/Tennis/Squash 6 Specialty Restaurants/Bars/Discotheque — even if the Canadian taxpayer was shouting our tab.
We mostly drank in the karaoke bar (singing Springstein when other patrons insisted).
On arrival in Sri Lanka I was sent immediately to a meeting at Robinson Club beach resort reputed to have the best food on the island. Free booze!
One night there it was rumoured that Michael Jackson would stay at the resort. Staff hinted that he might play a free concert by the pool. Indeed, he did! A terrific impersonator.
The resort was a big step up from my accommodation of the last couple of months on the backpacker trail through Asia. I wasn’t complaining.
In jeans! is Michel Gagne (CSDP organizer) who arranged our coaching sessions and deep sea fishing.
The beaches south of Colombo are gorgeous, packed with resorts. Sri Lanka was a favourite destination for East Germans.
I was in Sri Lanka as replacement volunteer for Mr. K Russell and his wife Judy who had started a gymnastics coach training the year prior. I was following up with part 2 of those sessions.
The coaches were wonderful, polite and much more concerned with happiness than worldly goods. I was impressed by the solo Muslim coach in my class who ran to and from Friday prayers in a full suit through stifling heat, humidity and pollution. His devotion was inspiring.
The courses went great, I thought. I played a larger-than-life cartoon character of a teacher, which helped minimize the language barrier.
Negombo, a fishing village not far from the International Airport was a lovely spot. I was taken there by an enthusiastic coach who wanted me to see his home gym.
The entire school turned out to greet me, a visiting dignitary in their village.
I had been emphasizing coaching ethics — quite a western concept not easily grasped in this culture. The coach clarified a point, How could he teach if he was not to hit the students? To illustrate the point he cuffed the head of one of the boys standing at attention in the parade ground!
It was his son.
This is one of my favourite travel photos. I took it with a disposable camera.
Cows incongruously lounging on the beach like tourists. There was nothing to eat or drink here.
On our day off, my students piled in a van and took me on a tour of sites near Colombo.
My strongest memory is a perverse petting zoo for dangerous animals! Unable to escape my excited hosts, I petted drugged lions, tigers, leopards, hedge hogs, various alligators, raptors and snakes.
A big Boa constrictor was loaded on to the shoulders of 3 tourists. A German woman in a bright yellow dress was in the middle, I on one end.
I learned that pythons defecate infrequently — but when they go, it’s a shit rain. The German woman was drenched. But when I inspected myself, I did not get a drop.
Milroy was my main Sri Lankan host. A wonderful guy, I visited his house, met his wife and his brother, a Christian priest.
He was proud of his new Toyota van with which he delivered me to my various engagements. Here we stopped to enjoy the elephant orphanage.
Milroy is an excellent but terrifying driver, always pushing the limit of safety. Unfortunately for me, one day we travelled was Buddha Day, a celebration where communities provide free food and drink. Drivers are flagged down by drunks who insist we stop and join the party, every few hundred meters. Milroy simply tried to run them down as we were on a tight schedule.
Kandy is the charming name of this town, very popular with tourists.
Buddhist pilgrims come here to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, reportedly one of the Buddha’s teeth.
When I was here in 1996 Kandy was especially popular because terrorists had never attacked the holy town. It was later a target of terrorists.
The highlight of my time in Sri Lanka was the week spent at Sri Pada Teacher’s College near Adam’s peak, 1800m high in the tea plantations.
Tea workers are mostly Tamil as are employees of the school. I had a personal servant who delivered me bed tea each morning — 2 cups of hot chai as a wake up call. What a terrific tradition.
I saw the tea pickers every day. At 7:30 AM we started class and the ladies left for the fields. There they are poor, but healthy; smiling & laughing all day. The climate is fantastic up here.
My students were handpicked PE teachers from across Sri Lanka who did not necessarily have a strong gymnastics background. Lovely people.
Sri Lanka is far more British than Indian. Old school traditions persist. I did everything I could to shatter the class system traditions which were illogical & comic.
My only problem came when I did evaluation of the coaches. Of course I wanted to give students fair and impartial feedback on how they were doing. That’s a no go in Sri Lanka! Firstly, everyone must pass every test. Cheating is tacitly allowed. Secondly, it is impossible for a lower class student to get a higher mark than an upper class student. There was some grief over my evaluation scheme.
On our one day off my students took me to the local waterfall. We had trouble scrambling the jungle. I learned that bamboo is impenetrable. At one point my guides told me to climb like a tiger, on hands and knees. I got irked for the first time on this trip when the guide later told me to wiggle like a snake, on my stomach.
Somehow we eventually found a route to the Falls.
This day was the first I ever got leached. I was lucky only to get 3 of the small bloodsuckers. Sri Lankans go bare foot so they can see and remove them quickly. I wore shoes which are a comfy refuge for leaches.
Milroy drove me to Galle, on the south end of the island, a World Heritage site.
I worked with gymnasts and goats at an outdoor gymnastics club. The baby goat in my arms was most skilled on beam!
Sri Lankan kids are natural gymnasts, of course. They are lean, light and seemingly never have ankle injury. Coaches told me that walking barefoot your entire life made your ankles strong!
Many of the top coaches in Colombo wanted to develop gymnasts to compete in the Commonwealth Games, a goal I cautioned them on. To me it seemed unrealistic.
For one thing, the girls (and their families) were uncomfortable with girls wearing a traditional gymnastics leotard.
Instead of Commonwealth Games I insisted they teach every child in Sri Lanka a cartwheel.
I was astonished (much later) to hear that Sri Lanka had a full team at the 2003 World Gymnastics Championships. Imagine that!
As complete underdogs, they were fan favourites. 🙂
I must return to Sri Lanka one day as I missed the famous Buddhist sites in the North. One day I got a chance to chat with a Buddhist priest at a Colombo retreat.