Category Archives: Sri Lanka

Sir, Sir!…Don’t be afraid!

Stefan Quinth holding cobra, 1982
It took awhile before I was comfortable holding a cobra in my hands, but I learned a great lesson; fear is our greatest enemy in any situation.

My first visit to Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as it is also called, was in 1980 when I was 23 years old. It was, and is, a fabulous island with amazing wildlife, scenery and history. One day, when I was sitting in my hotel room, I saw two young boys squatting by the side of the road. They didn’t seem to be local boys. They carried cloth bags and a box that they had placed on the road in front of them. Curious, I watched them for a while and discovered that they had snakes crawling out of their pockets and around their feet. Not just your garden-variety snakes, these were cobras, the snake they say kills more people than all other snakes combined!

When I was four years old my father told me, “Son, be careful in the forest and never go near the stone walls because there are snakes there.” That admonition served only to spike my interest in the animals that I was supposed to avoid. Now, when I had a chance to study the king of all snakes, I just had to go out and get a closer look and talk to the boys. They told me, in broken English, who they were and where they came from. I was impressed by the way they handled their animals. As a filmmaker, who had produced and sold a few of my first wildlife documentaries to television, the temptation was just too great. I would have to go home, get my camera and then return, as soon as possible, to Sri Lanka.

One year later I was back again and produced the first documentary about the snake people for Swedish Television. They are actually called Ahikuntake, which, in Sanskrit, means, “people who catch spear bodies,” or rather, “snake catchers.” They are nomads, traveling around the island collecting poisonous snakes from rice paddies, plantations, homes and gardens.

As the rice ripens it attracts rats and mice, and the snakes follow in their wake to feast on rodents. When it is time to harvest there are plenty of poisonous reptiles lurking in the knee-high rice. Before the reapers can step out into the paddy they call on the Ahikuntake to come and gather the snakes. When their bags are full, they’ll walk around to another field and release the snakes. That might sound strange, but if they killed the snakes, the rats and mice would destroy every harvest for years to come. The snakes, especially the cobra, are essential for the economic survival of the rice farmers.

When I returned to Sri Lanka to produce my first film about the Ahikuntake, I followed the children out to the fields to gather poisonous snakes. The children, only 8-10 years old, picked up those dangerous animals as if they were toys. It looked kind of fun and I, who had been interested in snakes since I was a small boy, also wanted to try. Understandably a bit nervous, I tried approaching the serpents from behind, but every time I got close enough to grab the least dangerous end, the snake turned around, hissed and lunged at me. After umpteen attempts that all failed, one of the children tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, sir! Don’t be afraid! DON’T BE AFRAID!” These children who had been playing with snakes since before they could walk, saw nothing dangerous in their task.

You could compare those children in the field with our own children who have learned to walk on the sidewalk along a heavily trafficked street in the city. We’ve also taught them how to safely cross that same street. As long as we follow the rules, we are not particularly concerned about the cars, but one false move, a thoughtless mistake, could be catastrophic. The same applies in the field and since snakes can also sense or smell fear, it is important to remain calm when working with poisonous snakes.

The children in the rice field taught me an important lesson that day. “Sir, don’t be afraid!” Fear is, in itself, the most dangerous thing we carry with us wherever we go. Fear causes us to make foolish decisions, whether it is when we confront a bear in the forest or our boss when we are asking for a raise. It took awhile before I was comfortable holding a cobra in my hands, but I learned a great lesson; fear is our greatest enemy in any situation.

Sri Lanka – My first visit

Two Ahikuntaka boys
Two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. (Photo: Per Wester)

My teacher in elementary school had a sister living on the island of Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, off the southern tip of India. Sometimes her sister sent letters. It was a special treat when our teacher read the letters out loud for the class. While she was reading, the envelope was passed around the class so that we could see the beautiful stamps with exotic animals and flowers that were glued in the corner. From the letters came exciting stories about elephants, jungles, endless beaches and about tea that grew on bushes. For me, Ceylon was a country sprung from the pages of storybooks.

In November-December, 1980, when I was 23 years old, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Ceylon. By that time the country had officially reverted to its original name, Sri Lanka, which means “the shining or glimmering island.” When I arrived on Sri Lanka the first time, the International airport, located just north of the capital, Colombo, was only a small, inconspicuous building surrounded by palm trees that seemed to bow down as the plane came in for a landing. When the doors of the plane opened and I took my first steps down the stairs out into a tropical world it felt like walking into a soft wall of warm, moist air – a totally new experience for me.

All the stories my teacher had read from her sister’s letter came to life, but the sound of the waves, the intense song of the tropical birds and the smell of the flowers and burning grass in the warm, humid air was something that could not be portrayed on paper. Sri Lanka was so much more. Still, the colorful stories springing from those letters telling about a tropical island, far off in the great big world, had left an indelible impression on me as a child.

My first encounter with the people and sights of Sri Lanka had been so intense. Every day was full of new experiences. I had walked on warm, empty beaches, seen elephants and met people who welcomed me as a friend. It was impossible not to fall in love with this tropical paradise. There was only one thing missing on my list of things to experience, and that was to see a cobra. But one morning, just before Christmas, 1980, looking out of the window of my bungalow, I saw two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. At first I paid them little heed, but when I discovered that the boy’s cloth bags were full of snakes I was intrigued. I went right out to talk to the boys and was able to become acquainted with their extraordinary pets. Finally, I was able to hold a real-live cobra! Little did I know, meeting those young boys would lead to a deep, life-long friendship with an exciting culture.

That first visit to Sri Lanka was followed by many more and over the years my teacher’s sister, Inga-Lisa Fairweather, who has lived on Sri Lanka for many decades, became a very close friend. I have returned to the island almost once a year since 1980. It’s fascinating how the stories we’ve heard as a child can have a lasting influence on our lives. I never dreamt that Sri Lanka, my childhood paradise, would one day be like a second home to me. Throughout the years I have made some extended visits and produced many films about the people, nature and animals on the island.

Sri Lanka – A Paradise to Return To

LaVonne and a Blue Whale
Swimming with a Blue Whale – We were only yards away!

There are some countries in the world that have that little extra something, that appeal that draws you back like a super magnet. Sri Lanka is one of the countries I find difficult to be away from for very long. They have everything – jungles, wild animals, history, fascinating people, long beaches and exciting underwater scenery. It’s never hard for me, as a filmmaker, to find a story on this paradise island.

My latest trip, in March-April, was my 30th visit to Sri Lanka. I have often been there over extended periods, maybe 2-4 months at a time, working on various film projects. My first visit to this paradise island was in 1980. Sri Lanka was, at that time, a somewhat primitive country with rough, narrow roads and people doing hard labor with simple tools. A country not yet industrialized but still maintaining the unique culture of a fading colonial era.

Now, in 2017, Sri Lanka is a modern country with well-developed roads and transportation. People live much like we do in Europe, for better or for worse. For me, one of the more disturbing “modernizations” is the ever-present television that can now be found even in the simplest homes in rural Sri Lanka. People have succumbed to the same social paralysis that affected us in the 1960’s, staring at a moving picture on the screen rather than visiting and talking with each other. Even if they don’t have time to sit down and watch, the television is left on as some sort of artificial companion or status symbol. Of course, television, correctly used, can be a great source of entertainment and information.

This spring I and my wife and colleague, LaVonne, were in Sri Lanka to film the final scenes for our new film, a story about the Ahikuntaka people, and to gather more material for our new book about Sri Lanka. First we visited Kudagama, a small village about 30 minutes drive south of Anuradhapura. When I came to Kudagama the first time to film in 1982, the village was little more than a cluster of huts made from mud, sticks and leaves. Most alarming, however, was the obvious alcohol problems in the village. Virtually 100% of the people from the age of 10 years old were alcoholics, drinking large quantities of the cheapest alcohol called Kasippu. Terrible violence and riots broke out daily. I think it could best be described as “Hell on Earth.” In our coming book and the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” I’ll describe more about working in the village at that time.

Since that first visit in 1982, I have followed the Ahikuntaka people throughout the years and seen the village develop and change. This spring we spent several days in the village, interviewing the elders and visiting with friends. No longer a hell on earth, it is now closer to paradise. What brought this change? I’ll tell you more about that later.

After our visit in Kudagama we traveled to Sri Lanka’s east coast to film and photograph the marine national park, Pigeon Island. The national park is a popular destination and the coral reefs surrounding the island have been damaged and destroyed by the many tourists walking in the bay, breaking off the delicate corals. Although Pigeon Island is worth a visit, the real excitement is to be found just outside the national park in the deeper water where the Sperm whales and Blue whales feed. We dove at several beautiful sites that week, but one day we were snorkeling in deep water when a Blue whale swam straight towards me. (The Blue whale is the largest creature to ever live on earth.) His enormous body was just a few yards in front of me when he slowly dove into the bottomless depths. The intensely blue water, laced with rays of sunlight, engulfed the whale as it was slowly sunk into the depths. It was magical. Swimming with that gentle giant in his own environment is an experience I’ll never forget.

Coming this fall, 2017, the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” and a book about my favorite places on the paradise island, Sri Lanka.