Statues, images, and holly smoke are as unimportant as the latest pop idol but temples are marvelous places, full of life. Often, especially with the Hindu gods, people go because they have some sort of family problem, or they want someone to be "sorted out." This can be done by throwing coconuts around or making a ‘promise’ to a god, in exchange for a favour. Usually the promise is sealed with a coin wrapped in a piece of cloth which is then attached to an upstanding oil lamp. The promise can be anything from; "a promise to dance" – which often has hilarious results, to a gift or painting. The most vicious Goddess is probably Kali and dealing with her is like the mafia and involves blood (she likes it) but now we are getting into the land of make belief.
In the temples, it is OK to offer flowers or fruit (must be clean) depending where you are. What you should do is; hold in both hands, place on table/alter, put hands together , touch flowers, put hands together in praying motion bowing head slightly, step back. Best to just have a look around to see what others are doing or just observe. I write this because I remember an American girl who started dancing in the Kandy temple when the drums sounded to announce the opening of the inner chamber; she said "wow this is good." I was standing close to her so I felt a bit of a walley. Shoes are not allowed in temples, or short skirts etc. I think tourist should throw away their socks when they arrive in Colombo (like Fonda, his watch in "Easy Rider"). Must remember them on the way back though.
It’s good to meditate in temples. Like this; sit down, cross legged if possible. Hands on top of each other on lap, sit extremely still, empty head of all thought, should be easy, and drift into land of nod, only joking! No, drift into extremely diligent state of awareness, non state, being, no thought and ultimate enlightenment. Start of with being aware of breathing; in, out, in, out, in, out. The locals will be really impressed, but do it quietly and unobtrusively. I like to find a place which is inconspicuous, preferably with people I know.
Family values are given high preference and often large families live together. Everything is based on innocence and an interpretation of living the "perfect" life. Therefore most people spend a good deal of time washing themselves, changing clothes, promoting their importance. Men (boys) tend to take preference and any relationships with the opposite sex are not only frowned upon but seen as the worst "sin." Therefore women have the worst of it; washing clothes and arranged marriage to emotionally infantile, spoilt boys, who will still live with their parents after the marriage.
While parents live they will always be consulted on everything in the family and children (up to 55 years) will always tell their parents, where they went, are going, what they do and ask advice about everything. The parents then supervise all, control all, and take all into there own hands. I know I sound a bit bitter about this; it’s just something that annoys me. But, like I wrote earlier, it won’t do to criticize the culture; it would change nothing and even the most suppressed Sinhalese woman will adamantly defend it. I have a book by James Cordiner (the first principal of Sri Lankan schools) written in 1807 and his descriptions of "Cingalese" character are uncannily close to the way of today.
Queues; You will notice that in temples, people will queue for hours. This I think, in itself, proves that they know how it’s done. The rest of the time you just have to whistle in your mind and be extremely tolerant, as they push in, barge past, lean over your shoulder, shout from behind, push you over. I plant my feet solidly (like a rock) so they can’t move me and wait until someone else points out how ignorant people here are. What I suggest is that when you do get served be very polite, this way the shop assistants get to know you, like you, and you make friends. I have tried the other way (especially when driving) and they really do want to fight. This is ok because I picked a country of very small people, but for international relations I think my ‘saintly’ approach is better.
All of Sri Lanka is getting more and more crowded. I don’t know if there was a population explosion. Kandy used to be very calm and quiet. A nice walk around the town, easy shopping. Now, there is hardly room to walk on the pavement. I know a lot of people moved from Colombo to Kandy, maybe to avoid the troubles or to get there children into ‘good’ schools.
Saturdays are impossible and also days before the New Year, and Sri Lankan New Year and during the perahera. Authority; DON’T READ THIS; After traveling around a while you may realize that Sri Lankan drivers have there own rules. This is because most people are too important to take the proper course of learning to drive and anything, especially licenses, can be acquired with bribe money. Traffic police may stand by a pedestrian crossing day after day and never know what it is for and then others will wait by unmarked hazards, waiting to book drivers who go over a double line that disappeared years before. Generally, drivers refuse to look before they leap. Other contacts with Authority are improving.
Not so long ago, it was impossible for a foreigner to have a job, unless government certified or have a bank account. Money had to be shown at the airport before entry and appearance also counted; i.e. men with long hair were not allowed in. Any amount of money could be sent to Sri Lanka but no amount allowed out and there was a 100% tax on anything bought in. I think these things are improving. The airport is now bigger and used more by Sri Lankans; it used to be just foreigners, and there are more women drivers, who prefer to learn how to drive and are more careful. Also more people are traveling abroad and so learning that there are other, more sensible ways of doing things. If you need a visa; All the staff at the immigration department has changed recently, no need to mention why.
In the past it was solely in the hands of the controller, although what they call "p.m’s" actually run everything in Sri Lanka offices. (They generally are uneducated and carry the file’s for the clerks, ;clerks being too important) Being able to hold the files is a powerful and profitable post. The new controller is very efficient and is big enough to bully the clerks. Nevertheless, it still may take anything from 2 hours to 2 days to get a visa. The last I heard was that 3 months duration is the limit for a holiday visa, although I think that is not always so. Now they hate volunteers at the immigration department, so they charge more and tsunami volunteers also have to pay government tax. The story is that so called "volunteers" have been staying in hotels. All these things happen because Sri Lanka is developing. It is a kind of price we have to pay. Either an unspoilt natural country with corruption and bureaucratic non sense, or, an organized bureaucracy like the ones we take holidays from. Perhaps this is the Buddhist karma.
Although everything seems to be improving in Sri Lanka I don’t like to see the changes. The big trend is for, what are advertised as "townships" The big ones are called "millennium cities." These are small, block like housing schemes, every house just the same with a wall around the scheme, no gardens, and a security guard. The adverts are with "beautiful people" in beautiful cars, beautiful clothes all smiles and nice weather. It’s horrible and Sri Lankan people love it at any price.