Friday, July 27, 2007

Pinnawala - Profiteering or Progress?

In the last few years I have developed a feeling of resentment every time I have visited this world renowned elephant orphanage. I've discussed this with people and encountered many different reactions, many differing opinions and a plethora of charged emotions.

I remember when I was a kid. We used to go there on the way to Kandy from Colombo. It was a routine, one of those nice ones, not an unpleasant one like having to pick grey hairs from my Dad's head for 1/2 p per hair. We'd stop there, watch the elephants having their bath, have some lunch and a drink, then continue on to Kandy, to be greeted by a gaggle of Aunts and cousins, all good and fun stuff. This would have been in the late seventies and during the early eighties. The orphanage had moved to its present site and the volume of people that passed through it wasn't anywhere near its current level.

In those days most of my thoughts were centred around Debbie Harry and breasts. There would be occasional outbursts of other ruminations. In fact my life has changed little over the years. Debbie Harry has indeed got older and ropier. It's more likely that she'll be fantasising over me than me thinking of her. We went our separate ways at some point during the nineties, as she started to sag and I started to rise. But, my fondness for a breast or two has remained, as has my occasional ponder on something like those elephants and the orphanage, whether it's good, bad or both.

In many ways it represents one of the much bigger dichotomies about Sri Lanka. We all know about the intense beauty of Sri Lanka, about the way it captures people of any race or nationality, the way chaps like me who are born and bred in other countries can fall in love with its charms and get addicted to its lure. Many say that Sri Lanka is a massive opportunity waiting to happen, that all it needs is peace and it will become one of the economically booming Asian countries, with a queue of potential investors as long as, well the queue at Parliament for the toilet marked "Cabinet members only", two hours after that lager tasting event last year.

One of the most physically attractive aspects of Sri Lanka is its "unspoiltness", the way that it has managed to retain so much of its charm and personality. Herein lies the dilemna, the crux of the problem. Countries, towns and places can retain their charm and character and they'll attract a finite number of visitors, but it's only when they start to invest in facilities, infrastructure and East European prostitutes that they really start to attract many more visitors and the proper filthy lucre starts to roll in. If the foreign currency is required then this investment must be done. If the investment is done then the tourists will increase. If the tourists increase then the amount of trash and rubbish increases too, in every way.

When I was leaving Colombo in February this year I sat at the airport after checking in and was momentarily filled with a sense of sadness. This isn't unusual for me on leaving Sri Lanka, but this particular strain of sadness was. It was the first time I had left BIA since its refurbishment and extension and massive "improvements" and the feel of it has changed. For the last thirty years I had got used to it feeling like one of those airports that James Bond lands at, on a Carribean island. There was a quaintness to it and the James Bond analogy is completed on the trip from the airport into Colombo. The cab driver always tries to kill 007 on the journey, and every Sri Lankan taxi driver is highly trained to make a tourist experience that very same adrenalin rush.

One of my cruel yet enjoyable pastimes is to watch the expressions of horror on the white faces of the tourists as my car overtakes them on the way into town from the airport. They've had a long flight, they're tired and smelly and all they want to do is check into their hotel and relax. Instead they have to endure a drive in a Sri Lankan taxi, or worse, a mini bus. I laugh at their looks of panic and terror, at their wide staring eyes and their open mouths as they try to admire the scenery but struggle because of the car in front that actually overtook on the left, and tooted its horn at the same time.

But the airport had changed. Instead of that seventies feel and the Felix Leiter types hanging around it now has the atmosphere, a term I use loosely, of just about any international airport. I could have been at Gatwick, although Gatwick has far more Sri Lankans working there. BIA is big, it's efficient (well, you know what I mean!), it's impersonal and it smells of planes, air conditioning and over made up women selling duty free perfume. The strain of sadness I felt was for the old airport, the one that served its purpose, had some character and a definite Sri Lankanness to it. The one that wasn't big enough, efficient enough or "International" enough to satisfy needs of the plane loads of yellow wristband wearing tourists who land there. The tourists whose dole money, or whatever it's called these days, is needed to pay for the improvements at the airport.

It's just like Pinnawala. I must apologise here as I know that Pinnawala is a place in its own right, not just the elephant orphanage, but I use the P word to mean the orphanage in this post.

It used to be quaint, it used to have a feel of genuine care for the welfare of its elephants, as if money didn't matter and was only needed to care for the inhabitants. Although it's always been well known it was as if it was a well kept secret. But now it's permanently swarming with people. There's an air of commercialism and a cynical smell of profiteering about it. There's probably a witty "jumbo" joke in there somewhere but I can't quite get it out.

As a child I remember watching the mahouts and admiring the bond that they had with their charges, the way that they'd communicate with the great pachyderms and all else would be a distraction. Now I watch these mahouts and it's like watching a busker in Covent Garden. They let tourists pose with the elephants, splash about with them and video their frolics to show their friends back home. Then, when all that is done, the mahout holds his hand out and asks for a couple of hundred rupees. The average tourist, thinking that 200 SLR is only about a quid, gives much more. The cycle continues.

My discomfort is mostly in the fact that the mahouts look more concerned with lining their pockets than looking after their charges. It's becoming like one of those scrawny donkey rides on Galle Face Green. How long before they start doing those awful weddings at Pinnawala? Maybe for a hundred dollars extra you can ride on the elephant with one leg missing. Then, after the wedding, you can have a table set up in the middle of the river and watch the elephants bathe as you are served dinner, surrounded by floating pachyderm dung. All for a mere $1000 US. Bargain!!

The crowds of people at Pinnawala are too much for me. Last year I went with the girls. Every single time we have been to Sri Lanka we've done this, and we've gone more times than I can count. We would make a day of it, going from Kandy, having some lunch while watching the bathing and absorbing the ambience. But last year it was too crass, too poor quality and simply too crowded. The restaurant was only interested in serving the four hundred coachloads of tourists that were there, the mahouts were busily making more money than even the waiters in the restaurant and the elephants were as happy as the mahouts.

We did our watching and, on the way home, the girls decided that they didn't want to go there next time. It just "wasn't the same anymore". The saddest thing is that we probably aren't wanted there anymore either. We don't come in a coach with "Kuoni" written on the side of it and we don't strut around as if we're God's gift to Sri Lanka because we have some foreign currency on our pockets.

When I was a kid I thought that the elephants there were wild and that it was so much better than seeing them in the "cruel" environment of a zoo, where these majestic beasts always look as if they just shouldn't be. Then, as I got a bit older and started to go to Yala, Minneriya and the like I realised what it really is like to see animals in their natural habitat. I'm not saying that Pinnawala is cruel to its charges at all, just that I think it's closer on the scale to being a zoo than it is to the "wild" end.

I also see that it does an invaluable job. It, and its people, cares for elephants that would almost certainly die were it not for the help given. There is a definite view that these people should be able to make some money out of it too. It's not as if the mahouts are exactly rolling in the green stuff either. It's not as if they finish their day's work, take off their sarong and jump into a pair of Levis, some Nike trainers and drive home in a Merc. That's what the tourists do, except they don't wear sarongs and probably don't look after elephants.

Sri Lanka and Pinnawala needs these tourists though no? Their cash is required and their friends and family's cash is needed next year and the year after. But at what price? Is Pinnawala going to become the Disneyland of Sri Lanka? Or should all this "development" be encouraged, to attract even more tourists and foreign currency? Does it really matter if those bees at Sigiriya get disturbed by Germans? After all they're only Germans and bees. Mind you, many people are fond of bees.

If you live in Sri Lanka what do you think? I'd love to know, is it natural development of a beautiful country with beautiful people, is it prostitution in its most cynical form?


Lady divine said...

i went to Pinnawela on saturday... it was sad actually.. when i heard stories about what they do to the elephants and how they're actually treated and the fact that it's all planned.. i felt awful..

i posted 2 pics on my blog at the end of the post..

L said...

I confess, with a sense of guilt (since I don't live there and realise people there have to make a living) I have a similar feeling when people talk about increasing tourism to Sri Lanka.

An example would be ruins of Anuradhapura etc. Would they be more susceptible to vandalism, theft etc. if too much publicity was given to them? Would we be able to contemplate on the spiritual and aesthetic beauty of the temples when they are flooded with tourists?

Re: Katunayake airport, that seventies feel is back in vogue in the west!