Adam Firestone, our man in Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), turns his unique perspective to guns, history and romance. Searching for an interesting setting for your next book? Look no further!
Events have an interesting way of working themselves out. For the last week, I’ve been contemplating this column with a bit of dismay. I really wasn’t sure what tidbits of an interesting and useful nature pertaining to things that apply kinetic or exothermic solutions to extraordinarily pressing problems I should relate. Of course for the last week, I’ve also been living and working halfway around the world – literally – in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and that’s had a bit of an impact on both my mindset and productivity. However, it’s also provided the germ of an idea, and with your indulgence, I’m going to take you on a little tour of south Asia – and the perspective on firearms here – through my eyes.
I’m sitting at the poolside patio of the Park Street Hotel, which centers around a 250-year-old colonial bungalow that forms the lobby and the office spaces. The periphery of the building is composed of a U-shaped series of rooms that were once and adjoining stores and warehouses, covering almost two acres in the heart of downtown Colombo – a city as vibrant, busy, throbbing and thriving as London, New York, Mumbai or Tokyo. Thanks to the hotel’s architecture, it’s both quiet and relaxed, with the glass-like surface of the landscaped pool set setting off the terra cotta roof tiles and whitewashed colonnade. There are only twelve rooms, and I quickly forget that outside, it’s 2012 and rather frenetic – and am transported back to the days when Sri Lanka was Ceylon, and a jewel in Britain’s imperial crown. (Except for the fact that I’m banging away on a two week old laptop and have two phones and a Kindle within arm’s reach.)
By now you should have been asking yourself the obvious question, namely: “Well gee, Adam, that sounds lovely, but what are you doing in Sri Lanka in the first place?” I’m glad you asked! By way of explanation, you should know that writing for Romance University, as rewarding as it is, neither pays the mortgage nor keeps the lights on. By day, I’m the Director of Defense and Government Solutions for a small, agile and global software company. Seriously global. Our CEO is here in Sri Lanka (as are most of our frankly brilliant engineers), our CTO is in the UK, the lady who oversees product management is in Spain, the gentlemen who craft the strategic vision for the company and evangelize its technology are in northern California and Florida and then there’s me, inside the Washington Beltway. Once or twice a year, I make the nineteen hour trek from Washington Dulles International Airport to Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport to meet and work with folks over here.
A word or two about Colombo is in order. It’s a fascinating city. It’s thought that the city’s name, introduced by the Portuguese in 1505, is believed to be derived from the either the classical Sinhalese (about 70% of Sri Lankans are ethnically Sinhalese; other prominent ethnic groups are the Tamils, the Burghers and the Moors) name Kolon thota, which means “port on the river Kelani” or Kola-amba-thota which means “Harbour with leafy mango trees.
The 13th century Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava includes a category of words that exclusively belonged to early Sinhalese, including. kolamba (ford or habor)
Colombo possesses a natural harbor, and was known to Greeks, Persians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese traders over 2,000 years ago. Traveller Ibn Batuta who visited the island in the 14th century, referred to it as Kalanpu. Muslim traders began to settle in Colombo around the 8th century AD because the port controlled much of the trade between the Sinhalese kingdoms and the outside world.
So much for the etymology and history lesson. Let me tell you a bit about modern Colombo. It is alive with the kind of vibrancy that I don’t see much of in the United States. One gets a sense from the urban professionals here that they are all CEOs waiting to happen, or as John Steinbeck put it, temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Everyone is on a mission – and single mindedly pursues that goal. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a banker, a programmer, a salesman or the driver of the tuk-tuk that ferries me between my company’s three offices. Execution is everything, and progress happens in spite of itself. The bustling commerce, traffic worthy of New York and plethora of ongoing construction projects are a testament to this.
I hope I’ve not bored you with the travelogue thus far, and I hope that by now you’re asking “What does this have to do with guns, Adam?” I’m glad you asked! (Even if I had to prompt you! <grin>)
Between July 1983 and May 2009, Sri Lanka suffered through a horrific thirty-year civil war that saw, among other things, a veritable invasion of the country by the Indian Army and the invention of the female suicide bomber. The Army was, literally on the streets. It’s only in the last year or so that the military checkpoints between the airport and Colombo proper have been dismantled. Despite the end of the war, Sri Lanka keeps nearly one percent of its population under arms – and that’s just the Army, not including the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. How significant is this? Well, let’s look at the numbers. The United States, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, had an army that was less than 0.4% of its total population.
As a result, the country was literally awash in guns. Every corner of the city, and all across the countryside, there were soldiers armed with Chinese Type 56 and 81 AKM rifles, special forces with Heckler & Koch MP5, Israeli Uzi or British Sterling submachine guns or, more rarely, German G3, Belgian FNC, US M16 , Singaporean SAR-80 or Chinese Type 95 rifles. And that’s just the shoulder weapons – never mind the pistols, the machine guns and heavier arms.
But here’s the fascinating thing. Despite being in a state of open warfare that persisted for the better part of thirty years, and exposure to all sorts of exotic weaponry, the average Sri Lankan has very little exposure to firearms. Not that there isn’t an interest – but that interest is more along the lines of curiosity than the passion with which one sees people approach firearms in the United States. People here are fascinated by the idea that I voluntarily own guns. The fascination and curiosity are genuine and innocuous; there’s no political agenda. They are as fascinated by the idea that I have a FAL or an AK variant in my closet, and the legal right to carry a concealed pistol as I am by the fact that stone grinding platforms are an indispensable part of Sri Lankan cooking and are more desirable – by far – than food processors. But it’s not the fascination that gets me. It’s the acceptance. There’s no associated judgment. They ask questions, and I answer honestly. I show them my brag coins (nickels with .30 caliber holes punched in them at 100m), and they’re duly impressed. But no judgment. It’s a nice change from home. How nice a change? Let me put it this way – there’s only so many times you can be introduced by your friends as “Adam the Gun Guy” before it gets old. Here, I’m just Adam, with an interesting set of skills and knowledge. Just like Prabath is just Prabath, with his own set of skills and knowledge. (My buddy Prabath, by the way is a globally recognized computer security expert.)
Hey, I’m not a sociologist. I’m a former soldier turned engineer with a knack for explaining why technology matters to program managers, generals, admirals and senior executives, so I’m not going to try to explain how or why Sri Lankans seem to take what would be a politically or socially charged issue at home and turn it into just another friendly topic of conversation. But I will say that the attitude – and the tolerance is something from which we in the west could learn a lot.
So, what does this have to do with romance writing? That’s a good question. As a start, Sri Lanka is a fascinating setting for any sort of romance novel. I mentioned earlier that it was once called Ceylon. During that time, it was an imperial crossroads, coming under the control of the Portuguese (1505 – 1656), the Dutch (1656 – 1803) and British (1803 – 1948) respectively. Add to this the more recent post- independence history that includes the nearly thirty year civil war, toss in the fact that the locales are exotic and beautiful (you’ve not seen beautiful beaches until you’ve been to Galle and Trincomalee), that the food is an amazing, fiery amalgam of native, Portuguese, Dutch and English influences and add a few elephants into the mix, and you have the ingredients for a wonderful historical or thriller romance.
Two quick examples of Sri Lanka’s promise as a venue for your novel:
Sri Lankan author Nihal de Silva’s 2003 novel, The Road from Elephant Pass, capitalized on the tensions between Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans during the civil war to craft an unusual and engaging romance wrapped within an adventure.
Between 1805 and 1811, British Ceylon was governed by Sir Thomas Maitland. He acquired land at Galkissa, just south of Colombo, and built a palatial mansion there. During this time, legend has it that he fell in love with a dancing girl named Lovina who had been born to Portuguese and Sinhalese parents. As the relationship would have ruined his career, Maitland had a secret tunnel built during the mansion’s construction. One end was inside Lovina’s house and the other inside his wine cellar, allowing the lovers to meet in secret. Incidentally, Maitland’s house is still there, only now it’s known as the Mount Lavinia Hotel. I’ve stayed there, and if ever there was a magical setting for a novel – any novel – it’s there.
Hopefully by now, you’ve become just a little fascinated with Sri Lanka, its people, history, locales and wisdom – and you’re thinking about your next plot line!
Coming to you live, from the Park Street Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this is Adam the Not-So-Gun-Guy.
Oh, and, Ayubowan!
Do you enjoy reading books set in exotic locales? Have you traveled abroad to research any of your stories?
Literary Agent Sara Megibow joins us Wednesday with her regular column, “Sara Megibow Sells Romance.” And check back on Friday for a special post from one of our Romance University founding members.
Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.
Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.
Check out Adam’s blog here: http://adamfirestoneconsultant.blogspot.com/
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