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From the Land of Smiles

Sri Lankan Swoon

Ben Malcolm

f all the images from my recent honeymoon trip to Sri Lanka, one stands out like a keening voice amidst pleasant conversation.

It's an image of me sitting glumly on a waterless toilet in the "Remarko Rest" guesthouse in Sri Lanka, toward the end of our trip, evacuating my bowels, distraught, bowing my head and thinking to myself: "Is this what a honeymoon is supposed to be?"

Why this image? Wasn't I supposed to be thinking about the soaring romance of our trip? Shouldn't my head be filled with angelic pictures of me and Tan, my wife, in some quixotic setting? And yet - there I am, on that toilet, in the middle of the night in a nondescript guesthouse, staring hatefully at mosquitoes.

Strange what our mind chooses to invest with symbolism, especially on these "perfect journeys" of ours. And there seems to be a bit we can learn from this, for mixed in with the souvenir color glossies of wonderful moments and prized ticket stubs are the reminders of other less beautiful things, in their own way carrying their own messages, pungent with their own meaning.

I wanted perfection with our honeymoon, or a "trip that we could always remember."

During our initial planning, I had come to refer to Sri Lanka as "South Asia Lite" (Less filling? Tastes great?) because it seemed to offer a hassle-free option. A bit politically incorrect perhaps, but Sri Lanka did seem to meet all criteria. We wanted to fly free, using only frequent flier miles, and we wanted a romantic destination. And, most of all, we wanted to go someplace more exotic than Thailand, our home of several years. Vietnam seemed too close (and was in the throes of the regional chicken flu crisis), Singapore and Malaysia were not exotic enough (too similar to Bangkok and Southern Thailand, respectively), we had been to Laos and Nepal, and flights to India were full.

Ah, India. The motherland of South Asia, the great bubbling mass of humanity that provoked the following reaction from friends:

"You're thinking of going to India for your honeymoon? Really? That's more of a working vacation." And then the stories would start: tales of major intestinal problems, aggressive beggars, intense heat and dust, filthy conditions, and crowds of people (not surprising, as India has sprinted past the 1 billion population club. Did you know that 42,434 Indians are born every day?).

However, when I mentioned that we were also considering Sri Lanka, the response was far different:

"Sri Lanka! I've heard that's beautiful. I've always wanted to go there. It has beautiful beaches."

And thus our tickets were booked for Sri Lanka. Beauty, beaches. South Asia with fewer problems: "South Asia Lite." But perhaps I was only setting us both up for what would prove to be my dénouement.

When we boarded the plane for Sri Lanka, we were already sensing foreboding clouds of things to come. Tan had picked up a stomach virus in Chiang Mai, carried it to Bangkok (having her own night of hell on the overnight train) and was in a miserable state as we boarded the plane for Sri Lanka at midnight.

As I half-watched "Shattered Glass," a movie detailing the unsettling world of corrupted journalism, I worried about her and wondered aloud whether it would have been wiser to have delayed the flight until she felt better.

That day's Bangkok Post had more strange news. The Tamil Tigers, the supposedly newly complacent revolutionaries, were having a split in the ranks and there was talk of fresh fighting, with the main northern faction facing down an upstart east coast leader.

This certainly was no way to start a "perfect" honeymoon.

We landed and looked about for water, so that she could take some medicine, and found none. Tan soldiered through, urging me to take the lead, and we made our way through immigration and out to a waiting taxi. Our vehicle raced through quiet streets and after finding a bed and relatively clean room at the YWCA, of all places, in the main city of Colombo at 3 a.m., we were able to rest.

In the morning Tan was a new person, the picture of happiness and health. She asked me to take a picture of her first Sri Lankan meal (a very simple spread of poached egg, toast, and coffee) before gobbling it down.

Things were excellent for some days after that and the perfect honeymoon I had envisioned seemed to be playing out. After a day in the main city, we boarded a train and headed inland, into the green mountains of Kandy, pursuing our own agenda, away from the beaches and toward the tea fields. We found a boutique hotel buried in the forest, spent restful days there listening to crows and other birdlife, climbed the 200-meter Sigiriya Fortress Rock, or Lion's Rock, and spent lavish money on food and souvenirs. Even the Tamil Tigers seemed to be moving slowly to confrontation. The newspapers carried more ominous overtones than actual violence and Tan's initial bout with sickness faded from memory as an unsettling, temporary episode.

We traveled to the former British hill station of Nuwara Eliya, a place filled with English-style houses, gardens, and cool weather. We were almost a week into our honeymoon at that point, had found what we thought was the perfect area, and then found something even better on a foggy day on a drive out to the town of Kandapola: "The Tea Factory," a hotel tucked amid the rolling hills of the tea country.

The Tea Factory was originally just that, an English tea factory erected in the mid-1930's, during the waning days of colonialism. It has since been converted into a high-end hotel, a giant silver cigar-box shaped aluminum-sided reminder of "the good old days." As we sat enjoying our buffet lunch amid the glorious copper piping and tea paraphernalia, we decided we'd rather stay here than travel on to the beaches.

Tan was captivated at first glance and she easily convinced me to talk to the front desk and find an available room for as many nights as we could manage.

The Tea Factory is one of the best hotels I've ever seen. It is romantically and historically a dream - old pipes, rotors and fans still exist, side by side with fine china, white linen, and polished wood. White-gloved waiters bring trays of food or tea sets in the dining room or garden. And surrounding all are acres and acres of tea fields, a panorama of endless green. For me, it was a shining example of the reclamation that could come out of colonial history.

Isolation adds to the hotel's aura. The Tea Factory is on the tourist circuit, but these groups come in for one night and then depart early the next morning. We had found our honeymoon nirvana. This, I thought, was what a honeymoon should, hidden away in a high-end resort, watching the days float by.

Since Tan and I disdained any attempt to join a group tour, we were free to enjoy the factory as much as we could. In the mornings, after the fog had lifted from the previous night's rain, we headed out into the tea fields to walk along the trails, following dirt, rock-strewn paths until the heat of the day forced us back indoors. There were also a group of peculiarly loud insects in the highland tea fields. Out in the fields, underneath the green and backed by wind and rain, we would listen to their reverberating undertone, a solemn groan to the earth, primal and natural. I would like to report exactly what kind of insect it was, but it was our honeymoon and I didn't get around to finding out.

Then the sickness started. In the midst of all this beauty I felt a churning in my gut, some food poisoning or bad-water-induced stomach upset that began draining the air out of our nirvana. I had found paradise and it had spiders.

During our first breakfast morning at the Tea Factory, amid the shining copper and efficient waiters, I had my first taste of things to come. After a filling buffet breakfast, I felt a sudden cramp. And then an explosion. I knew at once that I had (and there's no other way I can put this) soiled myself. I raced to our bedroom. Tan didn't know a thing until she came up to check on me a while later, finding me sprawled on the bed, cleaned up and mortified.

The stomach pains continued and every meal after that was a guessing game. Eventually, I began to avoid eating altogether. Surrounded by the best of the country, full buffets amid a dazzling setting, I was reduced to a bystander, guarding myself from a repeat performance of that first breakfast. I forced myself to head out into the tea fields with Tan, in part to get all I could from the place, and also to get some fresh air. This became our favorite activity, looking back at the tea factory, following dirt paths up and down with local schoolchildren volunteering as guides.

Tan continued to enjoy the buffet meals and the lavishness of it all, but worried over me as I described my rebellious stomach. Every time she volunteered to go out on the dirt paths or to the dining room alone ("do you want to rest instead?"), I refused, not wanting to tarnish our perfect getaway.

The General Manager of the Tea Factory found out that it was our honeymoon and sent chocolates and champagne to our room on our final night, both of which I tried and barely consumed. I preferred to sit and listen to the insects droning on in the fields. Tan, who usually doesn't drink alcohol, sipped a little, tasted the chocolates, and leaned over for a sweet kiss to celebrate. The cool air of the countryside and a passing shower eventually lulled us both to sleep.

We then moved to "The Remarko Rest," a smaller guest house in the town of Nuwara Eliya. I tried to fight my stomach condition with antacids and anti-diarrheal tablets and had limited success.

My sickness was at its peak, rendering me exhausted and helpless. I implored Tan to use her final day in the Sri Lankan countryside to explore the town of Nuwara Eliya and she acquiesced, heading out in the early afternoon. I slept on and off, turning on the TV periodically to watch the Australian cricket team (which was visiting on a week-long test series) beat the spit out of the Sri Lankans. I've always loved watching live sports, even if I know little about them and it helped me to connect myself to Sri Lanka without having to move from my bed.

I rallied at dusk, and walked slowly into town to meet Tan. Her face was crestfallen, her mood affected by something palpable.

"I just had the worst experience of my life," she said. "Some dirty-looking crazy guy walked up to me and hit me with a stick in the middle of the street and then ran off."

I was horrified as I looked over her small but salient bruises. It was the middle of the day, in a relatively crime-free area of the country. How could this happen? Even more unsettling was that I had not been there to help, after I had refused to let her walk about alone around the Tea Factory. I vowed not to leave her side for the rest of the trip. But nothing could stop the nagging questions that began forming in my head, "Is this our honeymoon? Surely India couldn't be any worse than this? South Asia Lite?"

I found some ginger ale (believing all my mother had ever said about its calming effects), and we went back to Remarko Rest to settle in for the night. The diarrhea, which had abated only a little, roared back to life and reached a crescendo by evening. I was running every half hour to a toilet that hardly worked. I found out from the manager that the outside water tank was at an all time low, due to drought, and there would be little water to wash away my mess. We were reduced to filling the toilet water tank with the shower head, sticking it in, praying for some semblance of water, and letting it fill slowly before flushing.

And so this became one of my sharpest memories of the trip, a man trapped in a toilet in what should be an island paradise, during what should be one of the most special trips of his lifetime.

And yet, when I look back on it, I loved this trip. How is this possible?

I've always been fascinated by the Japanese concept, "Wabi-sabi," the aesthetic belief in the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the beauty that can still be found in a cracked vase. Why shouldn't we celebrate the imperfection of the moment as much as or even more than perfection? To seek perfection is to chase windmills. Finding beauty in the flawed is a gift.

The movie "Good Will Hunting" touches on this. In one scene, Robin Williams tells Matt Damon about the absurd memories he has of his long deceased wife, about her farting in the middle of the night loud enough to wake the dog, invoking the secret, less beautiful, yet very human side that only he could see. These memories, he intones to his counselee, are "the good stuff." We are not perfect creatures, we will never be, but we are bound to each other in relationships that can, with love and commitment, reach perfection.

On that honeymoon night, in the Remarko Rest guesthouse in Sri Lanka, amid my medical nightmares, I found this to be true.

For I would leave the bathroom and find Tan again in the bedroom. And I remember no look of sadness in her tired eyes, no question of why this was happening, recrimination, even blame for the part I was playing in this "downfall" to our honeymoon. There was simply the concern of my wife. A desire to comfort, to nurse, to assuage my pain. The imperfections of that moment were only fuel to our greater intimacy.

I lay down on the bed, tired, exhausted, and felt her hand on my stomach, rubbing it, trying to make me feel better, and the balm of her words: "Try to rest. Try to get some sleep," she said. "You'll feel better in the morning."

And by the next morning, luckily, I did.


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