Award-winning journalist John Gimlette’s exuberant travelogues have entertained and informed readers about far-flung places, from Suriname to Labrador. In his new book Elephant Complex, he turns his attention to Sri Lanka, discussing everything from its startling landscapes to traumatic recent history.
Longitude. You’ve written about countries as diverse as Paraguay, Newfoundland and French Guiana, but your travels to Sri Lanka begin in your own backyard of Tooting, England, with the Tamil diaspora who are your neighbors. What typically draws you to write about a destination, and what in particular captured you about Sri Lanka?
Gimlette. The catalyst for each book has been different; At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig grew out of a long relationship with Paraguay, beginning with my arrival as a refugee from Argentina; Theatre of Fish was inspired by my great-grandfather’s adventures in Labrador and Newfoundland in 1893; Panther Soup began with a chance encounter with a US war veteran, who agreed to return to Europe after 60 years; Wild Coast also grew out of an ancestral connection. In some ways, Elephant Complex was more immediate; there are 8,000 Tamil refugees living close to me—a highly introspective, traumatized community. I was intrigued by their world, and my interest became this journey.
Longitude. Window seat or aisle?
Gimlette. Ideally, I’d rather be on a train. But, actually, I do enjoy the view from the plane, and landscapes like Guyana (90% forest) can only be understood from the air. So, yes, window.
Longitude. The teardrop nation hosts a variety of landscapes, from highlands to plains to dense jungle to sandy shoreline. Which topography do you prefer and why?
Gimlette. It’s the highlands that make Sri Lanka unique. Although this island is only the size of Ireland, it rises to over 2,500m. When weather systems crossing the Indian Ocean hit this lump of rock, they burst, creating a land that’s both Africa-dry and fabulously lush. The highlands themselves are like a garden in the sky.
Longitude. Did you find Sri Lankans open to conversation about the recent Civil War? How can a traveler best respond to the trauma of a painful past with empathy and understanding?
Gimlette. Sri Lankans often talk about tragedy in a very different way to that which we’re used to in the West. Often, you can know someone for some time before they reveal that their wife and children were all killed in the tsunami. It’s the same with the war. Many people have been through terrible things but they’re not encouraged to parade their trauma. So, listen carefully, and never offer strong opinions of your own. You’ll be astonished and occasionally horrified by what you’re told. As one war veteran told me, ‘We killed people because we were frightened.’
Longitude. While you explore paradisiacal highlands, reservoirs and tea estates, your travels also take you off the tourist track, across bombed-out battle grounds and even to the last of the demilitarized zones where the Tamil Tigers took their last stand against government troops, usually forbidden to journalists. Did you ever feel unsafe traveling in Sri Lanka?
Gimlette. No, everywhere I went I was treated with the utmost kindness and curiosity. Only occasionally would that mask of serenity slip, revealing the rage. It’s easy to forget what this country’s been through. As for the war zone, it was far from threatening; it was almost inert. For weeks afterwards, I’d wake up thinking about what I’d seen: the cooking pots scattered in the sand, the sandbags made out of valuable saris, and the suitcases, now gaping open, the clothes all bleached white in the sun.
Longitude. While the island appears small on a map, there is much to see, with layers of history to excavate. What itinerary would you advise for a traveler with a week in the country?
Gimlette. If you only have a fortnight, take the standard trip through the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, down through Kandy and on to Galle. If you have longer, go to the fabulous natural harbour of Trincomalee. But if you want to understand the war, and the country’s links with India, head for Jaffna and stay in one of the old merchant’s mansions. And don’t neglect Colombo; it’s a wonderfully easy Asian city, if a little eccentric.
Gimlette. If you’re going to Kandy, read a book written in 1680 called An Historical Relation of Ceylon. The author, Robert Knox, spent nearly 20 years as a hostage of the Kandyan king, and his description of the kingdom has never been surpassed. Although what he described has long gone, the book still informs our understanding of the Sri Lankan character. For a review of the island’s modern history, I particularly enjoyed a photographic collection called Paradise in Tears by Victor Ivan.
Longitude. Where to next?
Gimlette. The next book may be a composite of different places, linked by a common theme, and may include—amongst other places—Hawaii and Ukraine.