Happiness is an eight-letter word

Back in the mists of time, a fellow traveller asked me if there was any particular country from which I had difficulty dragging myself away. One that I was simply gutted to leave? I am sure I must have answered, everywhere. Because who doesn’t wish they could extend their holiday by even a few days, rather than fly back to the cold, wind and rain, not to mention work and other stresses? Who actually delights in that final trip to the airport, casting one last glance over the glittering sea as they swap flip flops for boots? That’s not what he really meant, though, I realised years later, the first time I truly felt it: That tug from somewhere deep in the stomach; that prick behind the eyes, and the bittersweet knowledge that nothing would ever truly be the same again; that from this moment on, I would spend my life just counting down days until I could be there again.

Nowadays people ask me: Why Sri Lanka? Sometimes I’m surprised at the question. Isn’t it obvious? But of course, it isn’t, to someone without the affliction. Or who feels that way about somewhere else. The reason is both easy and impossible to articulate, and I often wonder myself why the burden of this obsession landed upon me the way it did, precisely fourteen years and two months ago.

I have fought it – oh, yes! I have not lost the desire to see new places, nor the dream of living in some of them. But I knew it was hopeless on a return visit to Langkawi – a place I love, where I wanted and tried to settle – around eight years ago. In the airport, as I approached the departure gate, I happened to look into the rainy darkness and notice a Sri Lankan airlines plane pulling up next to my Malaysian airlines one. An involuntary noise, somewhere between a growl and a whimper, escaped from deep in my throat as I was overcome with a longing that was almost physical. I moved across to the adjoining gate and sat down as if that where I belonged, somehow compelled to be among the oblivious Sri Lankans. It was ridiculous, I knew. But I couldn’t help it. Would anyone notice, I mused for an instant, if I boarded that plane instead?

There are many reasons to love Sri Lanka, most of which don’t need pointing out. Though rather than a list of tourist tick-boxes, for me it’s more about how I feel when I’m there. Too hot, mostly. Sweaty; sticky. But also just comfortable; peaceful. Relaxed, content. At home. Of course, there are things that annoy me, too; some of them can’t be changed and others must be. I dream I might one day play a part, however small, in helping things along. But nowhere is perfect, or ever could be, once humans have their hands all over it.

When I flew out on January 7th it had been four long years since my last visit. On the beach in January 2020, the word ‘Corona’ was just starting to mean something other than beer. Then came a crippling economic crisis causing shortages of everything from fuel to medicines, followed by astronomical price rises and widespread hardship. Yet despite everything it’s been through, and all the terrible things going on in the rest of the world, rural Sri Lanka appears (at least to the casual visitor) to retain an air of timeless simplicity. Life continues the way it always has, the rhythms uninterrupted. When I leave I am not missed; when I return I am barely noticed. Perhaps this is the biggest attraction of all: Sri Lanka, it seems to me, just is.