A visit to Sri Lanka sometimes feels like a vacation at the circus. Sitting along the road at the famous Kandy perahera (parade), we watched bare-chested men crack whips, boys on stilts juggle torches and crimson-robed elephants lumber along beside their mahouts. And the carnival atmosphere doesn't evaporate after the parade ends. Sri Lankans smile constantly -- perhaps amused, perhaps joyous -- at the spectacles that surround their daily lives: stilt fisherman reeling in mullet along the south coast; teenaged couples walking the walls of the 17th-century Dutch fort in Galle; kids searing their tongues with a fiery curry meal. For the traveler, it all starts to feel like a never-ending perahera. Sri Lankans sweep you into their circus so persuasively that you're soon moving with the show, instead of watching it.
Sadly, the island nation's spirit was dampened by the tragic impact of the tsunamis that struck Southeast Asia in December 2004. The giant waves caused widespread damage to the south and eastern coast of Sri Lanka, especially around the resort city of Galle. More than 46,000 people lost their lives, including at least 1,000 passengers on a train that was thrown from its tracks by the force of the wave.