An island of learning - and elephants - Smiling Sri Lanka - CycleBlaze

February 19, 2020

An island of learning - and elephants

More bus-shelter art
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KANTALE - Sri Lanka is keen on learning. A university maths student hoping for a government job - a prize - told us Sri Lankans were second only to the Chinese in intelligence. It's impossible to know what that means but the fact that he said it shows the enthusiasm that the island shows for education.

(There's the argument, of course, and a true one, that intelligence has nothing to do with education, but let that pass for the moment...)

Every town has abundant advertisements for private tutoring, usually related to a specific exam. English is most popular, with a choice of written or spoken, but economics, maths and physics are right behind.

The frequency of rural libraries shows the emphasis on education
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Steph quickly observed that many villages have libraries, which suggests that towns have more than one. The pages of matrimonial ads in papers, placed usually by the parents, emphasise the son or daughter's qualifications and international university experience and demand at least as good from a suitor.

Marriage ads often stress the educational qualifications offered and demanded
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That a hotel has a website in English, though, is no guarantee that anyone there speaks it. It was by enlisting help with a phone call that we met the wing-tester yesterday. Even he had trouble because he spoke English and Sinhala while the hotel-keeper spoke Tamil. The notion of bilingual education seems not to have caught on.

Steph had called the hotel twice and been called back twice with no progress. The wing-tester took over in a mixture of Sinhala and English and brought us the news that "we cannot tell you on the phone if we have rooms; why not come along and see?"

A hotel run by the navy could tell us that it was full. It later called back to say it wasn't, but by then we had arranged somewhere else. And so here we are in Kantale, a busy if uninspiring place chosen only because it is on the way to an elephant park that we want to visit tomorrow.

Again we were warned to be off the road by five o'clock, when the elephants would again regard the  highway as their own.

"An elephant will suffer enormous cruelty because it is powerless," we learned at a refuge for broken elephants in Cambodia. "It has few ways to fight back but if it feels threatened it will run at you to scare you with its size."

And if you don't move, it will flatten you. Or if you're in a car, it will turn it over. And then flatten you.

"Why," I asked, "should Sri Lankan elephants be so bad-tempered?"

"Normally they're not," was the answer. "But an elephant that can't find a mate can be in a bad mood, and if you end up between the adults and their young, you'll be a threat even if you're not doing anything."

Quiet roads through lush countryside
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We spent a long time today in lush countryside perfect for elephants but without seeing any. A narrow canalised stream ran at the road's edge, with sliced tree trunks across the water as bridges. The houses beyond them were square and neat, well kept and always with a tiled surround shaded by a low roof supported by pillars. Brushing away dust is a national preoccupation.

Between and beyond the houses were thick, green plants or bushes edged by the ragged waywardness of banana trees. Above, towering and gazing down disdainfully, were self-aware coconut trees longing for all who saw them to admire their gentle faultlessness.

The understated good taste of Trincomalee's temple
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It took an hour to be free of Trincomalee. From there we rode narrow country roads and unmade rural tracks of pale pink sand. The questions we are asked every few minutes are how we are and where we are from. There is always a hesitation when we say "France" because it's not what people want. They hope we'll say Britain, so they can tell us about a friend or relative.

The next most popular question is where we're going, and on these sandy roads that always prompts the observation that we are going the wrong way. Who would want an unmade path through nowhere in particular when there was a smooth road, albeit longer, elsewhere?

The usual reason is that it was "all jungle." That didn't stop whoever told us going exactly the same way, of course. But some things can't be explained, by them or by us.

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