Of 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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.