Encounters with souvenir sellers: scene I

“Tell me,” he says, “why is it that the Germans and the Americans will buy from us, but you British always say ‘no thank you’?”

Anaradhapura: A serene and shaded park conceals the ruins of a vast ancient city, which was a centre for Buddhist learning and civilisation, a thousand years ago. For centuries the city lay hidden beneath the jungle, but the foundation walls peek above the grassy banks, like milk-teeth breaking through a baby’s gum. We see stores for rice, plenty of areas for meditation and prayer, and some swimming pools in which monks would bathe.

We lean on some modern iron railings to view a moonstone. These are semi-circular floor sculptures, which lie at the entrance to temples – a kind of door mat for the soul. Our guide tells us that this is one of the finest examples in all of Sri Lanka, and explains that the four layers to the pattern symbolise the obstacles on the path to nirvana. One set of animals represent cravings, and another set symbolise desires. We have a short semantic debate about the difference between craving and desire, and decide that one is physical, the other cerebral.

Strolling back to our bus, we are approached by two young men in grubby T-shirts. They each have a tray of souvenirs, and I cannot help but steal a glance at their merchandise. They have an interesting selection of brass trinkets and bangles, but nothing that I crave or desire.

I try to walk on. “No thank you.”

“You are British?” I know they want to engage me in a sales pitch, but I owe them the courtesy of answering.

I nod, and smile. “Yes, I live in Scotland.”

“Tell me,” he says, “why is it that the Germans and the Americans will buy from us, but you British always say ‘no thank you’? Then you always go and buy the same things from the shops in Columbo!”

I am taken aback. This is not an effective method of endearing oneself to the customer.

“I’m not going to buy anything from the shop in Columbo,” I retort.

He looks at me with scorn. “You say this, but then you will buy somewhere else for a higher price. You won’t get these prices in the hotel shops.”

Now I am quite agitated at this effrontery. He is missing the point. “I realise that, I really do. But please understand that I don’t actually want any of those things.” I almost say, I have enough tat in my house already, but I bite my tongue. “Even if you offered me these things for one rupee only, I wouldn’t take them.” I also do not mention that the Buddha suggests we relinquish, not accumulate, worldly goods.

He shakes his head in disgust, turns his back on me, and wanders off to greet the next tour bus that has pulled up to view the moonstone. His silent companion follows a few steps behind. A few Japanese in wide brimmed hats and big sun-glasses step off the bus and into his path. Perhaps he will have more luck with them.

Rejoining our group, we find that Jude our tour guide is getting excited. “Now,” he gushes, “Who wants to see a well in the shape of a key?”

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