Dirty and grimy after a day traveling on bumpy roads, and dressed in jeans and sneakers, I stood outside the imposing portals of the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, about 70 miles east of the coastal capital of Colombo. Summoning up the courage to seek admittance, I looked at the forbidding sign that said "MEMBERS ONLY" and was reminded of Groucho Marx's line: "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member."
It was reassuring and ego-massaging to be escorted by the club secretary to one of the master bedrooms on the first floor without my credentials being challenged. The cozy traditions of London clubland were evoked by the English plumbing in the bathroom, the lace curtains, the bouncy, well-sprung beds (complimentary hot-water bottles supplied by the management), and the fire blazing in the grate.
Clearly, I told myself proudly, my wife and I have been recognized as people of quality. Once a gentleman, always a gentleman, no matter how disheveled your appearance.
My initial reservations flooded back, however, when, wearing a tie rented for 10 rupees (about 40 cents) from the club bursar, I came downstairs for dinner and met the other residents. I had been expecting to rub shoulders with crusty army colonels, expatriate tea planters, the odd diplomat escaping to the cooler climate of the "hill country" in the middle of Sri Lanka from the steamy hothouse of Colombo. What I found were tourists like myself.
Dozens and dozens of them from America, Germany, France and England all hastily admitted as "temporary members" of this once-exclusive institution. A party of loud Italians on a package tour were swapping jokes in the "Ladies' Room" -- once reserved for the wives of members but now, apparently, open to anyone. In the "mixed bar," a South African dentist was boring the assembled company with tales of a day spent game-watching.
Someone once said that the point of a club is not whom it allows in but whom it keeps out. If that is the case, then obviously the Hill Club has strayed a long way from its original purpose. The club that the tourists see today bears only an outward resemblance to the club that was founded by British colonialists over a 100 years ago as a sanctum of Englishness in the middle of Asia. You get a whiff of what the place was once like -- but that's about all.
And that, in a way, sums up the problem of traveling as a tourist to a country as exotic as Sri Lanka. You get picture-post-card impressions of a place that is billed in the travel brochures as "the island of paradise -- a teardrop in the Indian ocean." But you also come away with the disturbing feeling of having visited a country that bears only slight resemblance to the one inhabited by ordinary Sri Lankans.
The more backward a nation, the more one is aware of the phenomenon of the dual economy. The American tourist who takes a package tour through Asia runs the risk of experiencing a society that is more like an overseas appendage of the United States than the countries he is ostensibly visiting. Hotels, meals, evening entertainment, the goods on sale in tourist shops are all tailored to western standards and western tastes.
These caveats aside, Sri Lanka is quite a sensible choice for the adventurous traveler who wants a taste of Asia without being overwhelmed by the poverty, the dust and the crowds. A tiny country just 270 miles long and 140 miles wide, it has a strangeness more easily encompassed by the western mind than is India's, with its hundreds of different languages and cultures and teeming millions of people.
To get the most out of Sri Lanka, you should try to avoid the new hotels for tourists springing up along the coast as the package tour companies discover the island. The Sri Lanka Tourist Board can supply you with a list of small hotels and boardinghouses where, for reasonable prices, you are assured of a warm welcome and are treated as honored guests. You can also arrange to stay with local families.
The best way of seeing the island is to hire a car and strike out on your own. This is a part of the world where the comparative earnings of men and machines can be such that it is cheaper to hire a car with a driver than without. We paid less than $130 for a four-day tour of the southern part of Sri Lanka in a mini-bus with two drivers, their board and lodging included.
We made the trip at a time when the newspapers in Europe were full of stories about racial strife between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. The reports scared many foreign tourists away and made us think twice about going to Sri Lanka at all. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about since the trouble was confined to the northern tip of the island. (The U.S. State Department late last month issued a travel advisory listing the Northern Province, the Trincomalee area on the northeast coast and the Eastern Province from Batticaloa south to Arugam Bay as areas that should be avoided by travelers.)
We flew from Paris to Colombo on Air Lanka, a friendly little airline that offers one of the best deals for traveling to the Far East from Europe. Round-trip tickets Paris-Colombo-Hong Kong-Paris cost us $700 each -- with an optional stopover in Bangkok as well. Punctuality, unfortunately, is not one of Air Lanka's virtues: Our outward journey was fine but we were six hours late getting back to France.
On the advice of friends who had been to Sri Lanka before, we decided to skip Colombo altogether -- and go straight to the 18th-century Dutch seaport of Galle on the southern tip of the island. (If you do stop over in the capital, several people recommended the Galleface, one of the oldest hotels in Asia, where you will be treated like visiting royalty.) Tired from our overnight flight, we went by taxi. For the more adventurous, there is regular bus and train service.
To be transported overnight from the gloomy winter to a sparkling morning in the tropics must be one of the minor miracles of modern civilization. The contrast is so startling that it can leave you momentarily stunned as you soak up the the sight of the palm-fringed beaches, the warmth of the sun's rays against your unprotected body, the lush landscape, the brightness of the colors, the sauna-like humidity, the exotic incense in the air.
Equally disorientating are the strange new sights: the "working elephant" at the building site by the side of the road, the fishermen perched precariously on spindly sticks in the sea (it's called "stickfishing"), the Sri Lanka traffic jam -- a chaotic mixture of bicyclists, cows, goats, lorries and pedestrians.
In Galle, we stayed at the Closenberg Hotel -- an old sea captain's house built on a promontory overlooking the harbor on one side and a moon-shaped bay on the other. The present owner, a Sinhalese businessman married to an Australian, has added a tastefully designed modern wing onto the simple original design of eight bedrooms built around a huge open-plan sitting room and terrace. The rising sun emblem of the British P&O steamship company, which ferried generations of English colonial families back and forth from the Orient, can still be seen above the doors.
The Closenberg was recommended to us by my brother, who had come ashore in Sri Lanka while making a trip by Arab dhow from the Persian Gulf to China. After several months at sea, he felt he had struck paradise -- a feeling shared by a retired American military couple from Michigan we met one evening who were in the middle of a round-the-world yacht trip.
Urban sophisticates might well complain of the temperamental hot-water system (which did not seem to be working at all when we were there), and the lack of any organized entertainment or sporting activiy. For us, the long days on the deserted nearby beach disturbed only by rag-clad children trying to sell us fruit and handmade clothing and idle evenings listening to the chatter of crickets were the ideal tonic to the frenzy of big-city life.
One day, we drove over to the nearby tourist resort of Hikkaduwa, where we were instantly besieged by dozens of teen-agers offering to show us the coral reefs. The usual round of bargaining accomplished, we clambered aboard Sri Lanka's version of a "catamaran" -- a hollowed-out mango tree trunk with a counterbalancing wooden weight -- and were regaled with stories of fat German tourists who could not fit into the boat as we headed out to the mouth of the bay.
The coral off Sri Lanka is not particularly spectacular -- at least compared to the Caribbean or Australia's Great Barrier Reef. But it is certainly worth seeing. After showing us the reef, our self-appointed guide took us on a tour of local handicraft factories, which contained equipment that looked like hand-me-downs from England's first industrial revolution in the early 19th century.
One of the most interesting of Sri Lankan artistic techniques is that of "batik" -- a method of decorating a fine cotton fabric by the successive application of hot wax and colored dye. Reversing the normal process of painting, women paint intricate designs of wax onto those areas of the cloth that they do not want to color immediately. When the wax dries, the cloth is dipped in the dye and the exposed parts colored. The wax is then melted and the process repeated half a dozen or so times until an intricate design emerges.
After several days in Galle, we decided to see some other parts of the island. Entrusting ourselves to the owner of a ramshackle mini-van labeled "Kaushalya Travels," we headed east to the Yala National Park for a day of animal watching, Sri Lanka style.
The organized "safari," which was supposed to leave at the break of dawn, was an hour late getting started. But we still managed to see several dozen different species of wildlife ranging from numerous elephant to the rear quarters of a leopard disappearing into the bush. There is something majestic about seeing animals in their natural habitat that no zoo in the world can possibly match.
Next stop on our itinerary, after repairing a front shock absorber that had finally succumbed to the potholed roads, was Nuwara Eliya -- 6,000 feet above sea level and a good 30 degrees cooler than the coastal plains. Founded by British colonialists over 100 years ago, Nuwara Eliya (pronounced Nur-eli-ya) could easily be mistaken for a country village in England -- right down to the Anglican church, the British-style telephone boxes and the continuously damp weather.
Over a candlelit dinner at the Hill Club, we were rewarded by the sight of waiters dressed in the bizarre combination of immaculate black tuxedo jackets, immaculate white gloves, sarongs and bare feet. My wife, who is developing into something of a wine snob after a couple of years in Paris, helped preserve club standards by sending back a bottle of vinegary 1978 Bordeaux.
The next day, the mists cleared miraculously to reveal a stunning view of undulating hills covered with carefully manicured tea plantations stretching into the distance. In between the rows of tea plants moved brightly dressed pickers, weighed down with wicker baskets full of the day's harvest. These women commonly earn less than a dollar a day.
We were shown around the local Katukalle plantation, founded by the British in the last century and now nationalized by the Sri Lanka government. Much to the disgust of Sri Lankans who visit the plantation, only foreign passport-holders are allowed to buy the pure tea manufactured on the premises. Practically all the tea is taken to Colombo, where it fetches top world prices and represents a sizable chunk of the island's export earnings.
We made the mistake of buying only two packets of tea from the plantation -- and have been trying unsuccessfully to get hold of more of the stuff ever since. Real Ceylonese tea is so superior to the blends available in the West that, once you taste it, it is difficult to go back to store-bought tea. We have named it "sleepy tea," as its effect is to make you drowsy.
Sri Lanka contains much that we did not see: ancient cities, Buddhist temples, some of the finest mineral and jewel reserves in Asia. Half an hour's flight away are the Maldives -- the perfect destination for anyone who dreams of being washed up on an idyllic tropical beach.
All in all, sufficient variety to satisfy the most demanding of holiday-makers. We certainly intend going back.