“When the attacks took place in Sri Lanka, my wife Natalie, and I were in Jordan. We felt great sadness and could not believe what just happened. Sri Lanka is a country that has gone through 26 years of civil war when the Tamil Tigers decided to try to take over the north of the country to declare it as an independent state. The war ended in 2009 when the government defeated the rebels and regained control of the country.”
Nowadays, it is a country inhabited by people coming from different cultures. It is quite common to find a Buddhist and Hindu temple, a mosque and a Catholic church, all while walking down the same street in one of the major cities. When we first visited the island, this gave us the impression that they were very able to live together as one.”
Tonio likes to take his time when he travels. He has been to Sri Lanka more than once and although he’s a photographer by profession, the photos he takes during his travels are a means to document his journey and life in the countries he visits.
For Tonio, Sri Lanka was an introduction to Asia. He continued to say that he prefers to spend time in the same spots in order to be able to absorb the culture and way of life of the locals.
Tonio visited Sri Lanka 3 times and even used the country as a base to explore other countries in Asia. Sri Lanka is an ecologically diverse island. In the south, it’s dry season in winter, while the north tends to be drier in the summer. The highlands towards the centre of the island are wet all year round and is lush with vegetation
They made many friends along their stays. Tonio has great admiration for this country, and although the cultural differences exist, harmony prevails and people are inherently happy. While in some parts there are predominant groups, people still seem to go about their lives in peace. Sri Lankans are very respectful and spiritual people. Temples, mosques and churches are very heavily frequented.
“We were shocked when we heard about the attacks. It was not something we expected.” Tonio was also shocked by the comments made by people on social media. He recalls the dismay of people at the lack of coverage of the attacks on social media compared to
the demise of the Notre Dame in paris where no one was hurt. Some people attributed that to Sri Lanka being a third world country. He insists that Sri Lanka, like other countries in Asia, are developing countries.
They are not classified as least developed countries and economies are growing at a very fast rate. People are eager for opportunities. The Sri Lankan people have been through a lot, the war, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. People are just trying to rebuild their lives.
These attacks are an unwanted surprise to all especially as the country gains momentum as a tourist destination.
Tonio believes in balance and that any form of extremism is wrong, no matter how extreme it is. Covering the attacks in the media, helps to fuel extremism. Banning travel to countries affected by terrorism is effectively giving a helping hand to the terrorists.
From a photographers’ point of view, Tonio said that the first time he travelled to Sri Lanka he took two digital cameras. Before his second visit to Sri Lanka, Tonio was experimenting with analogue photography and he decided to experiment with shooting only film on his second visit. He took along two cameras: a Hasselblad 500c which he had just bought (a medium format camera manufactured in Sweden in the 60s and used professionally till this day) and a Nikon F3 which he borrowed from a friend. He shot predominantly on black and white Ilford and Fomapan film. He felt that the feeling of nostalgia he left with after his first visit would look good on black and white film. He also painstakingly developed around 15 rolls of black and white film himself.
He explained that when you travel (especially when you’re visiting countries which host cultures which you are not accustomed to) you see the most beautiful things because they are new to you. You see things in a different way from the locals. That is a power to be
harnessed as a photographer. He continues saying that Sri Lanka and countries with a similar climate are lush with vegetation. Among other photos, Tonio showed us photos of the Sigiriya rock, which is an ancient fortress located close to Dambulla. He said that after
pondering if they should walk up the 1200 steps to the temple and asking a few locals, they decided to climb another hill a few kilometers away to see the view of Sigirya rock from a distance. It was breathtaking!
Tonio also spoke to us about the importance of tea within their culture. In fact, we learnt that Sri Lanka is one of the largest exporters in tea, which mostly grows in the wet highlands in central Sri Lanka which boasts vast fields of tea plantations. Tea is an integral part of Sri Lanka’s culture Many women find jobs as tea leave collectors which are then dried them to make tea. He also explained that Sri Lanka was once an English colony and it was originally known as ‘Ceylon’.
Sri Lanka is also very well known for cinnamon which is endemic to the region. Cinnamon, along with a range of other spices and coconut milk are the basis of Sri Lankan curries
which are mostly vegetarian dishes served with rice (which is also grown abundantly in the region).
“We still use the homemade curry powder kindly given to use by the wife of a friend we made there. It’s unlike any other ground spice you find commercially and every time I open it I smell Sri Lanka”.
It’s a joy to eat their tasty and colourful curry dishes with your hands like the locals. It’s also ok to use cutlery if you ask politely.
Above all, Tonio remarks about the beauty of the respect that is shown towards nature. He recounted how once he was visiting a local family, and saw ants crawling over the kitchen
cabinets. Not one person tried to kill or remove the ants. Nature in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries is so powerful and abundant that it is very difficult for mankind to win over
it. Even with all the development going on in the country, it seems that nature always prevails and the people embrace it around their settlements and developments. It’s difficult not to experience it while you are there and he thinks that we have a lot to learn from this.
© 2019 – VIDA Magazine