It was early March, 1983, and Kathleen and I were in Rome. I was working for CIT Tours then, as Rail Coordinator for the Midwest office. CIT (Compagnia Italiana Turismo) was the official agent for the Italian State Railways, and I was on a familiarization trip. I had been allowed to bring Kathleen along, and to arrive a week ahead of time so we could do some exploring on our own.
We were in a little trattoria one night. The place was fairly busy, and a well-dressed man, who looked to be South Asian, asked if he could sit with us. We said yes, and we introduced ourselves. I don't remember his name, but he was an official at the Sri Lankan embassy. He was surprised that we, as Americans, even knew where Sri Lanka was, and that it was formerly known as Ceylon.
He was intensely proud of his country. Sri Lanka, he said, had the highest literacy rate in South Asia. Sri Lankans enjoyed a higher standard of living than Indians. It was literally the sacred island: "Sri" is a Sanskrit title meaning sacred, and "Lanka" is Sanskrit for island.
We may have talked only for half an hour or so, but all three of us enjoyed the conversation. It sounded like a wonderful country. And perhaps it was. But while Sri Lankans were more educated and prosperous than their other South Asian neighbors, they still harbored the ethnic prejudices that would tear that beautiful, sacred island apart.
Only a few months after our conversation with the Sri Lankan diplomat, the civil war began between the majority Sinhalese speakers and the Tamil speakers, who lived mainly in the north and east. After more than a quarter century the war is over, with the total defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil speakers remain in refugee camps. The nation is in desperate need of help in a time of worldwide recession.
We can only hope and pray that Sri Lanka will become what our friend in Rome proclaimed it to be.