Here’s Arji writing about Sri Lanka and the ethics of tourism. It comes with the poem, “because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit”
“Three years ago, Lonely Planet made Sri Lanka its number one holiday destination. Tourism exploded over night. With it, Sri Lankans across the world began to be engaged in conversations with white people about everything from beach package breaks to jungle safaris, suddenly everyone adored Sri Lanka. Who can blame them, especially if you are white. Lanka still carries around that colonial charm that means white foreigners get special perks at restaurants and bars, as well as that special British accent from my aunties and uncles.
I was on an Indian train when this poem dropped in my lap. A Californian couple in their thirties were reeling off how their time together in Sri Lanka was magical. In moments like this I do feel a slight sense of pride, mixed with a disconnection, which is topped up by a sprinkling of anger. After listening for a good 35 minutes I decided to drop in a light anecdote about mass murder, you know, to heavy the mood a bit. It went down, as you might imagine, like a lead mortar.
I told them about the war and the problems for the Tamils, at which point she was surprised as she had spoken to a Sinhalese man and he had said it was the Tamils who started the war. And so, as the beautiful Indian outback flashed past the window I became more and more wound up by the self-righteous Californians ahead of me. But who was I to be annoyed? I don’t live there, it isn’t my home and they were only being honest. I did what any poet would do, say very little and write a poem which they would probably never read.
One thing really stood out that day, was when the gentleman adorned in shorts too short for his knees said ‘well, at the end of the day how were we meant to know.’ It made me feel sick to think of this lack of willingness to learn or become part of a solution. It also made me reflect on my own ignorance. In today’s climate, responsible tourism goes way beyond putting your rubbish in the dustbin. Travelling, for me, has become a moral and ethical minefield, asking us to not only question and research, but also to make sure we spend our money in the correct places. These days, it’s important to know where the county stands politically, learn the customs, measure the carbon footprint and perhaps even take a few language lessons. As our Great British Empire begins to disappear into the abyss, we find ourselves in an important position of fading power. How will we British respond? How will we deal with this change in dynamics? How will we accept our history and still create positivity in our future?
Countries are constantly chased by their histories. Every international closet is rammed full of persecution and war and often there isn’t that much we can do about it. However, now, in this time of free information, in this era of limitless online data, perhaps it is time for us all to learn more about the countries we visit. Perhaps our guidebooks have to go beyond the tourist sites and closer to the real people with real lives. Perhaps this is something we can all do to make sure we are supporting the grassroots organisations, fighting for positive change across the world.”
Arji Manuelpillai is a poet, performer and creative facilitator based in London. For over 15 years Arji has worked with community arts projects nationally and internationally. Recently, his poetry has been published by magazines including Prole, Cannon’s Mouth, Strix, Perverse, The Rialto and The Lighthouse Journal. He has also been shortlisted for the 2019 Oxford Brookes Prize, The BAME Burning Eye pamphlet prize 2018, The Robert Graves Prize 2018, and The Live Canon Prize 2017. Arji is a member of Wayne Holloway Smith’s poetry group, Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and London Stanza. His debut pamphlet is called Mutton Rolls and is published with Outspoken Press.
*(More info on Robin Lane-Roberts’ artwork and animation can be viewed here)
because it’s in the Lonely Planet top five places to visit
she is telling me how he asked her at sunset as the sun licked the sea red and the birds punched shrapnel in the sky she suspected something as he disappeared just as their song sang from the beach hut how he knelt into a sandy dune where Tigers once rested their rifles and metallic shells were plucked like poppies in the wake how tears swallowed his words will you – I used to march to make change but since then I march just to sleep at night that country changed me she says the bars the sea-views biryani kothu roti plus the people are so generous they don’t hassle like Indians they’d drop a bomb wait five minutes drop another to kill the rescue party they spent that whole evening staring out to sea she says it’s their paradise they made a pact to go back every ten years to that bar in that country where bombs rained in no fire zones where bodies are hidden sixty to a hole it’s hard to put into words he says as their fingers weave together it’s somewhere we could call our second home the soldiers were spread across Tamil land few tried for war crimes I don’t know why you don’t move back there