Sri Lanka Notes 2015

26 April 2015

As I write from my study in Cambridge, with grey skies outside, still languishing from jetlag and a bout of flu, my reflections on the past week in Sri Lanka are sunny and positive.

Upon arrival in Colombo on Sunday, we were driven about 5 hours to an eco-hotel in the north called Kandalama, compliments of Aitken Spence. Set in a tropical forest and overlooking a lake, the hotel is an inspiration in sustainability. The hotel windows are literally draped with jungle vines and families of monkeys are regular visitors to the balconies. The hotel has been designed for minimal environmental impact (already achieving zero waste to landfill, for example) and maximum social benefit, working with the community and local interest groups to overcome initial resistance to the project. After sunset, as we swam in the pool sculpted out of natural rock, with bats swooping and insects warming up their nocturnal voices, it felt heavenly. This was followed by a relaxing massage before we collapsed into our beds.

As it happened, we had slept even less than normal on the 11-hour flight, as a man in the seat in front of us on the plane had some sort of seizure. Indira’s nursing instincts kicked in and she was very helpful to a doctor who was on board, as he set up an impromptu ER station and treated the man (Sam), hooking him up to a drip, oxygen and heart-rate monitor. Fortunately, by the end of the flight, he seemed to have revived fully and was extremely grateful to Indira for her quick thinking response, telling me, ‘She saved my life’.

The following day, Monday, we left around 9 am for the journey back to Colombo. En route, we visited the ancient cave temples of Dumbulla, which are adorned with Buddha sculptures large and small and paintings on the cave walls depicting the life of the Buddha. On the walk up to the caves, Indira sat with a flower vendor and learned how to fold open the lotus petals. Further up the path, a cheeky monkey then stole one of the blooms right out of her hand. The rest she left as an offering in front of the giant reclining Buddha, as a symbol that as the flowers fad and die, so our physical bodies are in an impermanent state of being.

Somehow, these ancient caves, said to date back over 2,000 years, felt far more sacred and special than the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which we visited later that day in Kandy. According to legend, the actual tooth of the Buddha is housed here; and it is ‘revealed’ daily during a religious ceremony, where hundreds queue to get a few seconds glimpse of the vessel holding the tooth. I can’t help but think that this fixation on a physical relic is completely contrary to the Buddha’s teachings about the impermanence and insignificance of the body as a vessel for the soul, and his discouragement for worshiping anyone or anything. But I guess human beings like to have something to cling to, a crutch for their beliefs, or a symbol of their aspirations.

We also stopped at a spice farm along the way to see the plants from which we get cinnamon, cloves, lemon grass, curry, pepper, vanilla and so on. One surprise was to see how the cashew nut grows, attached to the bottom of the fruit. Another was to see how curry powder is made by crushing various spices together, of which the curry plant is only one. The aroma is a sensual delight.

The next three days were taken up by the programme of CSR Sri Lanka, which had me talking to CEOs, senior government leaders, CSR managers and business teams about ‘transformative CSR’. I also spent time with the board of CSR Sri Lanka discussing their strategy, and attended Indira’s talk on social enterprise, which was extremely well received by an audience of young change-makers. The attendance and feedback from my sessions was all good and there seems to be enthusiasm to work more with both of us in the future.

On our final afternoon, Friday, we drove about 2 hours out of the city to visit the Bodyline factory, where they make almost all of Nike’s sports bras, as well as supplying Victoria’s Secret. The scale of these factories is immense, with one work area housing around 1,500 women. A few things impressed me about the operation. First, they have located the factories in rural areas, rather than centralising them in the cities. Second, they have a strong programme for supporting the opportunities of women, called Go Beyond. We spoke to two beneficiaries of this empowerment process and were encouraged by what we heard. Third, they are starting to integrate sustainability, with carbon footprinting and a sustainability index KPI, although I sensed a lack of strategic focus. Finally, they have shown that it is possible for an emerging economy facility to be world-class in their manufacturing techniques and innovation.

I am so pleased that Indira shared the trip with me. She is realising her own power to inspire, and the worldwide opportunities to work with leaders in fascinating cultural contexts. I was also glad to be addressing non-CSR specialist audiences – CEOs and government leaders – and to see more of Sri Lanka’s beautiful country and people. I foresee us being involved in making a documentary film here, perhaps centred on the story of Kandalama, or post war progress.