Ambongadada, Sri Lanka - There's a certain clarity to life at sea level. The ocean pounds on the shore, fishing boats bob on the horizon, palm fronds rustle in the salty gusts. To race into the waves is to be smacked in the face by a force of nature, now benign and refreshing, at other times destructive and totally impersonal. Sitting in the shade of a towering coconut palm-a shadow that marches imperiously over the sands at the whim of the equatorial sun-you find yourself thinking, as ever, about the impact of people upon people.
Sri Lanka has embraced the global tourism boom with gusto. Nor is it a newcomer. The long strips of beach, almost clich?d in their beauty, have been drawing pasty, puffy northerners for decades. Even in the worst years of violence here, the package tours from D?sseldorf, G?teborg, and Birmingham have filled the concrete waterfront hotels. Travel industry balance sheets rarely turn as red as the backs of the light-skinned sun-seekers on their heavily rota-ed two weeks of tropical bliss. On the plus side, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans benefit directly from this. The fisher folk fill the buffet tables to groaning point with lobster, tuna and prawns. Young lads facing the alternative of joining the army, or scraping rust on a Liberian-registered tramp steamer, become cooks, cleaners and guides. Drivers, travel agents, maids, musicians, Bill Gates-wannabes running internet caf?s, all these people earn wages are materially better off than if the coast had been left pristine, untouched by northern feet in flip-flops.
Palm tree shadow shifts yet again, and my northern back has had enough, so I grab book, water bottle and personal CD player and follow the shade before resuming my reverie. No point in asking "at what cost" for that's the universal point to ponder about economic and social change. And a waste of time, because you can never go back. But it's easy to deplore what's been lost. Not just folk culture, village tradition and the easy rhythms of life close to nature. These are lost to us all, perhaps to be
re-discovered if one is fortunate enough to make the middle class in the new dispensation. No, as in Nepal, I find myself thinking how that it's my side that's losing the most: dignity, face, opportunities to things rights, even as we blame the locals for responding as they do.
On the trekking trails of the Annapurna sanctuary, we hand out pens and sweets, reinforcing perceptions of vast wealth and a willingness to distribute trifling bits of it. In Sri Lanka, we cavort semi-naked and move in pasty packs. We insist on food more appropriate for Viking raiding parties in the north sea. We deplore local "indolence" yet react with distaste when approached by hawkers, flogging coconuts or batik shawls, or touts, offering accommodation and travel advice. Many say this odd, post-modern tourism, this cavorting amongst the poor, is "the new colonialism". Once, I was sceptical. Now, shifting to catch the shade once again, I fear this is true. Whether we flock abroad to see beaches, mountains, medieval cityscapes or wildlife, we rarely ponder the effects of mass movements. We just follow trends blindly, blundering abroad for a number of reasons. Certain travel guides that have turned places from Pokhara to Bali to San Cristobal in southern Mexico into playgrounds for suburban, semi-sophisticates in search of, Identikit experiences and comfort food from home. Television and newspapers that romanticise travel and ignore its deleterious effects (check out the advertising from the travel industry)-social prosperity in Europe that allows workers vast amounts of time off, so they can pursue exotica abroad and discuss it at home. Our mindless yet wildly successful consumer ethic, and so on.
And here I am, on the beach in Sri Lanka, reading my travel guide, spending my surplus income, ordering cocktails in coconut shells, surrounded by dozens, hundreds like me. Ke garne, at least for now. But as they say all the time in American movies, "we need to talk about it, we really do". That's a good place to