Friday, April 4, 2008

i am forced to write in the dark

I can’t read under the light of the kerosene lamp, and the petromax lamp does not work, so I sit by the kohomba dum muttiya (the margosa smoke pot to keep the mosquitoes away) typing into the computer, which thanks to my touch-typing skills, I don’t require light to enter. So I now type in pitch dark except for the light on the screen being reflected on to the keyboard.

You the reader can therefore deduce from my writings, that I have time to think and therefore dissect a point of interest and write a short essay for the blog, without being distracted by television. Sometimes a neighbor drops in for a chat, but most of the time I am alone in the verandah. My staff have their own agendas, with Ranga watching TV at a neighbor, Sagara off on a stroll and Sudath spending time with his new wife in the kitchen. Everyone is asleep by 9.30pm for the morning 5am start.

It is interesting to note that most of the households around me (they all have electricity except me) spend the evening behind locked doors watching TV, sometimes well into the night. Some of the men gather near where the moonshine is sold and drink, and then go home and sleep. One thing I noticed in the village is how the homes are locked in for the evening. The doors and windows are all closed. I don’t know if they are afraid of intruders, but that seems the practice.

It therefore must seem very strange to the people around that my home cannot be locked, with all my furniture outside, in the verandah, which acts as my bedroom, living room and study and the separate kitchen, which includes the dining room, is also open. I have never broached this issue, with anyone, but I hope I give the people around me the impression that I am not afraid of anyone and my place is open to all comers and I have nothing to hide. In an emergency neighbors prefer to stay here than their own homes, so we can leave it and go without having to lock it with a willing caretaker.

I plan one day to build an open bedroom for myself in a separate place down river, so that I can see the water flow from my bed, the plan is to build it with 4 open pillars, covered by the roof of thatched coconut. Mosquito netting will encircle the room instead of walls, so there will be a free flow of air throughout. It is this multi building open space concept that I prefer to adopt in the dry zone where it rains only for a few days a year, instead of one house with all the rooms. Keeping mosquitoes out is the only necessity.

community based tourism that is not intrusive

I was having a discussion with a friend in the tourism industry about how best I can introduce the best of Sri Lanka to a tourist without adversely affecting the social fabric and balance. This, especially in a place, where tourism has not made an impact, which is just the type of tourist I would like to attract, wants to go to. Actually I will also include the Sri Lankan expatriate who wants to be introduced to a segment of Sri Lanka he or she has hitherto not being exposed to.

This is of particular interest, not just academically, but also practically as I am in the process of allowing the use of my home in the jungle, almost at the borders of a National Park for tourists who really want to experience both remote village life as well as being introduced to the wild.

It is a delicate balance and I am sure I am going to offend someone, who may not like what I want to do. I cannot get into social engineering and I cannot predict how the villagers will react or tolerate intrusion into their lives and accordingly I will have to test the waters as I go into this.

The first thing one must be made aware of is that despite my living there for a while and photographing a lot of activity there, I am very sensitive to what I photograph and how I do it. The tourist may not have those qualms, as they may not even appreciate the sensitivity with which that is viewed. By way of example, the village tank where everyone goes to bathe adjoins my property. So if a tourist attempts to photograph the females in bathing attire, which is quite an unusual sight, it has to be done either with permission or in a way that is acceptable and non-threatening.

The other aspect is, if by the behavior of the tourist the village or people there get spoilt, offered money for obtaining illegal things like moonshine, weed, wild boar meat, then what is my responsibility and duty both to the tourist and also to the locality, to which I now belong.

I am very much part of the community, living there, buying produce, and trying to balance some commercial activity in order to survive, as it is not really a money making proposition, just one of loss reduction, as I have sunk so much money I don’t have. I require some return just to live. How can I perform this with minimal intrusion, while exposing the outsider to a unique if dying way of life, due to natural if timely exposure to development?

What is acceptable?

What is acceptable? Who determines? Will it change the environment?

Today, Ratmale is just a village the tourist passes on the way back to the hotel or tour bus from Kaudulla Park at about 6pm on days, between June and November, when elephants inhabit the lake shores in herds sometimes exceeding 300. The villagers are used to seeing both foreign and local tourists whiz by in jeeps, but that is all. Some of the village boys, who work in the park, act as trackers, so have more exposure.

Eighty percent of the village is related to one another by blood or marriage and is one of the few places that are like this due to its status as one of the original villages in the district prior to being discovered and colonized.

It is a matter of time before someone puts up a hotel as it is only 4 km from the park entrance. A restaurant is more likely to built sooner.

If I am honest about it, I like the village the way it is, but it is for the villagers to decide what is going to be their fate, and I am sure they will permit progress and development. I also want to market my lodge, the way it is, unspoilt, but then that is short-term, if the mere intrusion spoils it.

I know the mere sight of a woman in a bikini or bathing suit could freak out people in the village, and I may have to explain if not prevent such attire. So it is to that degree, that the tourist must also have some sensitivity and behave accordingly. There is the village temple almost next door, but hidden by the forest and undergrowth. However noise travels especially at night, and loud music and shouting drinking etc. can upset the monks and set of a firestorm of protests.

I don’t know the answer to the questions I have raised above, and will have to tread carefully knowing this is an untested aspect. Local tourists are sometimes more insensitive than overseas tourists in respecting village customs so it is all about how the outsider behaves inside.

As the numbers expected are small and the concept is to preserve the environment as much as is possible, I don’t expect a major change in the short term arising from this enterprise, but I will just have to be extra careful that any sensitive instances are dealt with promptly and to be fair, resolved in the villages favor in order to get the maximum cooperation from the locals. After all it is their territory I am intruding for my benefit.

scams give a bad name and leave a bad taste

In my international travels I have been scammed in many countries and the unwitting tourist can get scammed anywhere. I was mugged three times in two days in Rome and that must be a record, and also when in the Czech Republic, we found out first hand to our great cost, how preying the Czech police can be on an unsuspecting tourist, targeting them for a minor offence, and fining for a parking offence, even before stopping the engine for the first time in the country.

It is therefore not unusual that it happens in Sri Lanka too. I believe, leaving a very good impression of the country is the best we can do if we are to attract tourists by word of mouth, to this beautiful country and be able to genuinely show our very real and unmatched hospitality. In a time when the press is so full of the violence in Sri Lanka, let us not forget tourists have never been targeted and their experiences have rarely included the face of terrorism, however, they have faced scams that have left an indelible mark.

In the interests of future tourism, encouraging more repeat and recommendation tourists, it is essential we take positive steps to minimize these experiences. The instances are many, and would not bore you on every type of scam, but they fall into two main categories, telling lies, and taking more money than is necessary for a product or service.

Many tourist service providers, like guides, drivers, and concierges who are the face of the person that a tourist comes in direct contact with, often by lying and charging excessively compromises a wonderful vacation, and clouds one’s experience. Often inadequate pay, which they hope to supplement by fleecing a tourist, whether he goes to a shop from which a guide receives an excessive commission, or charge a rate for a journey that is outrageous is not a good enough reason to permit it. The tour operators are either complicit or turn a blind eye, because they are the cause sometimes of inadequate compensation. In a period where the tour operator or hotel is struggling, low pay results and good staff with professional ethics leave to go overseas, leaving unscrupulous operators to fill the void.

The industry must first understand there is a problem, and then tackle it by means such as awareness, by publishing rates for distances traveled, or shops that offer reasonable pricing. I have been given prices in tourist resorts that are considerably higher than even Odel in Colombo for the same item.