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updated 8/31/2005 9:00:38 PM ET 2005-09-01T01:00:38

My parents, all four of them, have just arrived in Asia. The Sri Lankan summer heat has wrapped around them like a wet, woolen blanket during the hour-long drive from Bandaranaike International Airport. Perspiration still drips from their foreheads and drenches their T-shirts as they stand in the cool marble lobby of the Mount Lavinia Hotel, just south of Colombo.

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All of them -- my mother, father, stepmother and stepfather -- were born and raised in Western Pennsylvania. Mom is from Penn Hills; Dad was raised in Mt. Lebanon. None but my father has had a passport for longer than a year. The others obtained passports and have come to Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as the country was called until 1972, for my wedding.

On the other hand, my future father-in-law was born in a tiny Muslim village just south of Galle, which is itself about 40 miles south of Colombo, near the southern tip of the island. When he left for England in 1962, he could not have thought that 40 years later such a conglomeration of foreigners would be imported to his homeland to celebrate his daughter's marriage, nor that at least three of them would have to obtain passports just to do it.

The building in which my parents now stand, the Mount Lavinia Hotel, is on the southwest coast of the island known as the "tear of India," a description that as much reflects Sri Lanka's recent history as its shape and location off India's southeast coast.

The Mount Lavinia is famous, at least in this part of the world. It was built in 1805 for the British governor, Thomas Maitland, who called the 27-room mansion "a small but comfortable house." The building alternately became a holiday residence, then a hospital. Turned into a hotel in 1877, it quickly gained a reputation as one of Ceylon's finest. It has hosted the likes of Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, King Leopold of Belgium and D.H. Lawrence. It also served as the hospital set in the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai." The Mount Lavinia maintains tradition. Eggshell columns, dark, wood-trimmed verandas and pith-helmeted doormen evoke the country's Colonial past.

Slideshow: Alluring Asia From behind a potted palm across the lobby, my brother and I secretly observe our parents, who flew in two days after we did, and we remark sarcastically that they seem to be handling the cultural adjustment well. Mom looks wide-eyed with panic, while Dad is in near-frantic conversation with a Sinhala-speaking bellhop. "... But I know my sons are staying here," he says.

We walk toward them, and Mom looks relieved to see us until she notices that Matthew's hair, which is long and curly, has recently been dyed orange. We speak almost in unison: "Welcome to Sri Lanka."

The strange thing about this day is not my four parents arriving together. The strange thing is that they are here at all, given that until two months ago, it was uncertain that any of them would be on hand to witness me heading down the aisle.

Until recently, Sri Lanka has been wracked by a vicious civil war. Then there's the fact that, except for Dad's trip to visit relatives in Germany, they haven't ever been outside the United States.

Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, United Airlines Flight 93 made an 80-foot crater in the ground about 30 miles from the house where I grew up and where my mother and stepfather still live. It was all a little too much for Mom, who felt compelled in the months leading up to the wedding to say to me, repeatedly, "If the wedding is in Sri Lanka, I just wouldn't count on us being there." I think it broke both our hearts.

TOURING COLOMBO
"Sure, they shot our elephants," says Saminda, driver of our tuk-tuk -- half motorcycle, half golf cart. "But they did some good things, too."

Matthew and I are trying to get from Mount Lavinia into the center of Colombo to buy our wedding clothes, look around, maybe shoot a game of pool. Saminda is driving us through the smoke- and traffic-choked streets and telling us about the British.

It's three o'clock in the afternoon, which didn't really mean anything to us half an hour ago, before we started our journey, but now we know it means that school has just let out. Traffic is at a standstill as any of the hundreds of white-and-blue-uniformed children who are not walking down the side of the street are being driven by their parents through the middle of it. There's little to do but sit and talk politics.

"They were just trying to make money from the ivory," Saminda says of the British, his flip-flop dangling off one toe. He operates the tuk-tuk with a pair of handlebars, scooting into any open space he can find in the chaotic traffic. "Anyone else would do the same thing. But they also built this road, and many others, all the railroads, and many of our big buildings."

Although Saminda doesn't point it out, the British were the last in a succession of Ceylon's outside rulers, which began with the Portuguese in 1505 and lasted for the next 443 years. The Portuguese and the Dutch fought over the island between 1641 and 1658, the Dutch eventually winning out. They expanded and improved the massive stone fort at Galle. When the British and Dutch, allies before 1791, took opposite sides during the Napoleonic Wars, the British responded by taking over the Dutch possessions in the east, including those in Ceylon. The British remained until granting independence to the country in 1948, which polished up its historic title, Lanka, by adding Sri or "resplendent," in 1972.

The 19-year civil war between the Tamil minority, based primarily in the north, and the Sinhalese majority, located everywhere else, began in 1983 and claimed 64,000 lives. The six percent Muslim population has largely stayed out of the conflict, though at times both the Tamils and the Sinhalese have eyed it with mistrust.

In July 2001, Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil Tigers attacked Bandaranaike International Airport, and 21 people were killed. In June 1996, 21/2 years after the first New York World Trade Center bombing, Sri Lanka's own World Trade Center in Colombo, also composed of twin towers, was bombed, killing 88 people and wounding more than 1,400. Government forces are known to have extracted confessions and information by throwing and threatening to throw people out of helicopters. The blood-covered atrocities go back two decades and soak both sides of the conflict.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government began its war on terrorism by designating scores of regional separatist groups as terrorist organizations, including the Tamil Tigers, which had previously been categorized as refugees. That move helped push the Tigers to a Norwegian-sponsored negotiating table in the winter of 2001-'02, a year and a half before our wedding. Despite some bumps, a tenuous peace has held, giving hope to the tourism-dependent economy.

Prior to the civil war, its stunning beauty, functional infrastructure and incredibly hospitable residents made Sri Lanka one of the top vacation destinations in the entire world. (The country's literacy rate is the second-highest in Asia, and English is spoken nearly everywhere.) In fact, thanks to both the scenic splendor and relaxed marital laws, so many Europeans traveled to Sri Lanka to be married that nearly every hotel offers the kind of all-inclusive wedding packages usually seen in Las Vegas or Hawaii.

The tourism numbers are beginning to come back but have been hampered somewhat by security concerns and the terrorism-stoked fall-off in travel generally.

None of which seems to be lost on Saminda. "Tell your friends," he says, as he drops us off outside the Majestic City shopping mall on the north side of the city -- home, we are told, to one of Colombo's few pool halls -- "Go home and tell everyone, 'Come to Sri Lanka.'"

MAKING THE DECISION
My brother seldom shies away from provocative statements or difficult questions. So no one is too surprised when, still standing in the Mount Lavinia lobby, he asks the shaky travelers: "Did you guys see Baghdad on the map in the plane?"

"See it!" says Mom. "We couldn't take our eyes off it!"

I try to picture the scene in the cabin as the in-flight map shows the white airplane silhouette moving across Turkey, threading its way between Iran and Iraq, swerving east to stay out of Iraqi airspace, Tehran on the right, Baghdad on the left, before heading out over the Persian Gulf. That map resembled the one most Americans see every night during CNN's Middle East coverage, except that now these four non-traveling Pennsylvanians were flying over the middle of it. Unfairly maybe, we hadn't told them about that part of the trip, about their routing through the middle of the "axis of evil," and they didn't ask about the path the plane would be taking. It wasn't as if their trip was really any more dangerous than any other air travel, and besides, we didn't want to alarm them.

At some point -- and I don't know exactly when this happened -- they confronted their fear. We pushed them, to be sure. We reassured them about how beautiful Sri Lanka is and that I would be getting married only once.


But they ultimately confronted the same pervasive emotion that gives us metal detectors and guardrails, spell-checkers and insurance policies, hedge funds and prenuptial agreements. They confronted their fears: of flying, of foreign shores, of unfamiliar cultures, of nightly news reports, of maps of the Middle East.

And they called a travel agent.

Two days after they arrive in Sri Lanka, we travel an hour south from Colombo's Mount Lavinia Hotel to the wedding location, the Taj Exotica Hotel in Bentota, where we all sit around a table in the hotel's five-star restaurant.

Claudia, my half-Sri Lankan fiancee, her brother, her English grandfather, my four parents, their three children and assorted cousins eat goat-cheese-and-spinach-stuffed ravioli, lobster and shrimp cocktail and drink several bottles of Australian zinfandel. The food is delicious; the waiters are gracious, if a little curious about the origin of such a large and amalgamated gaggle of travelers.

"I have to admit," says Mom, "I'm a little embarrassed that I was as scared as I was." She is, no doubt, thinking, among other things, of the six rolls of toilet paper still packed away in her luggage, just in case. She looks around at the expansive, wood-paneled dining room, out the huge picture windows overlooking the palm-lined swimming pool, at the rolling surf beyond, and at all her children sitting around the table.

"This is very nice," she says, and she smiles.

RIDING ELEPHANTS
"Its skin is rough and leathery," observes Dad, "and it has these little hairs that prickle you when you touch it."

The wedding party and guests are split among Bentota's three main hotels. The Bentota Beach Hotel, where my dad and sister have been riding elephants, is the least expensive and serves an eclectic mix of families and European students away for school-break trips. Its placement next to the Bentota River allows it access to the waterskiing, banana-boat riding and jet skiing demanded by the most discriminating spring-breakers. The Taj Exotica is a massive white-marble palace just up the white sand beach and built around a crystal-clear pool and lush gardens. The Saman Villas is a chic smaller property on a rock outcropping about a mile farther up the beach and home to deluxe spa facilities and isolated luxury.

For about $5 at the Bentota Beach Hotel, each of the hotel's two elephants, Mandy or Bruno, will kneel down so guests can climb aboard, and then they will sashay the 100 yards or so across the hotel compound, dragging their inch-thick chain leads.

Every morning at about 11, their handlers take them down to the Bentota River running next to the hotel to bathe. They slide under the brown water, almost completely submerged, with only the tips of their trunks sticking out to signal the presence of these two-ton animals. They seem to delight in occasionally spraying a well-aimed trunk-load of water in the direction of any unsuspecting passers-by on the shore, evoking rolls of laughter from everyone who didn't get wet.

The first time I saw an elephant here, I was sitting in the back of a tuk-tuk, stuck, as usual, in traffic, when I turned my head to the left and saw a small black eye staring down at me from about six feet up. I was startled at first, but have since come to appreciate that this is just the way it is here with elephants, 3-foot-long lizards, 3-inch-long cockroaches, wild dogs, water buffalo and several species of monkey. In addition to acting as tourist attractions, elephants in Sri Lanka are bulldozers, cranes, backhoes, tractors. It's quite common to see work elephants walking down the road, trucking a tree in their trunks. It's difficult to see these magnificent animals with thick chains around their necks, but it's preferable to the slaughter that prevailed until a decade or two ago. I find myself wondering whether the elephants prefer the trees in their trunks or the tourists on their backs. As I think of my Dad perched atop Mandy, I hope it's tourists.

A TROPICAL TEMPLE
The morning before the wedding day I awaken at dawn to the sound of kingfishers and distant surf. In an hour the tropical sun, rising like a rocket this close to the equator, will turn the island into a sauna. But a cool breeze still blows as I meet Claudia on the beach. Overloaded with wedding obligations, guests of a strict Muslim family, we are alone for the first time in a week. We wander down the beach for 15 minutes before coming to a set of stone steps disappearing up into the dense foliage of a small, rocky outcropping jutting into the Indian Ocean. A large wooden sign explains in three languages that we have arrived at Panchkapaduwa, a Buddhist sanctuary established in the early 1970s.

Courtesy dictates that we remove our sandals before ascending through layers of lush greenery and fragrant flowers to the top of the rough stone steps, where a red-robed monk meets us and bows welcome, palms pressed together in front of his chest. He offers us tea, which we drink while sitting beside a small pool filled with lily pads and lotus flowers. Goldfish swim under the lily pads; a small brown dog observes us from where he lies in the shade of a stone house; and a red-faced macaque swings gracefully through the trees overhead.

When we finish our tea, the monk leads us up more steps and into the dense jungle, down twisting gravel paths, past stone shrines, coming at last to an open circle of stone chairs with straight stone backs. We sit cross-legged, and in a singsong voice the monk guides us through a long, soothing meditation. The goal of it, essentially, is to relax and smile more. He blesses us and our marriage, wishes us peace, and ties a white string around Claudia's wrist, a simple Buddhist blessing. Afterward, he bids us to explore the sanctuary.

We wander through the jungle, down paths, past more little stone temples and tropical flowers of all varieties, until, suddenly, we step out onto a huge rock precipice overlooking the Indian Ocean. Below us the towering surf crashes onto the rocks, and a strong wind blows, warm now in the midmorning sun.

So much still lies ahead: the official sent to marry us will not speak much English; several in our party will get sick from the food or water; the string that has just been tied around Claudia's wrist will cause a minor scandal.

But that's all in the future.

For now, we stand on the rocks on the Sri Lankan coast, and we look out at the ocean. For now there is the sun, the wind, the sky and the surf. For now, there is the island itself, and we are at peace.

Sri Lanka Directory
* Getting there: It's difficult to book direct flights to Sri Lanka. We traveled by booking the Sri Lanka leg from London through Kuoni Travel Inc. (www.kuoni.co.uk), a British travel company, and then booking separate flights to London.

Visas: Visas are not required for U.S. citizens staying less than three months.

Accommodations: All prices quoted include breakfast, and most include airport transfers. Credit cards are accepted throughout.

COLOMBO
The Mount Lavinia Hotel: Historic hotel just south of Colombo, about an hour's drive from the airport, has just undergone major renovations, which included upgrading all rooms. Prices run between $70-$120 per night, which usually includes breakfast and airport transfers. www.mountlaviniahotel.com.

BENTOTA
Bentota is a small resort town about two hours south of Colombo.

Bentota Beach Hotel: An activity focused hotel with a large pool, games area and access to a wide variety of water sports and river-touring outfits. Prices range from $85 to $150 for double occupancy depending on the season. www.asiatravel.com.

The Taj Exotica Hotel: This is part of the Taj Hotel Group, a holding company with high-end resort properties all through Asia and the Middle East. Rooms are priced from $110 to $370, including breakfast. www.tajexoticasrilanka.com.

Shopping: Colombo boasts a number of fairly modern shopping malls, including Liberty Plaza and Majestic City. Any tuk-tuk or taxi driver will know where they are. The entire main street through Colombo, the Galle Road, is lined with shops and markets. Don't miss Barefoot, 706 Galle Road, Colombo 3, which is full of fabric products and crafts manufactured by a co-op of local artisans using environmentally friendly, sustainable processes.

Money: The local currency is the rupee, which currently trades at about 100 rupees to the dollar. It's best to exchange money at the airport, since money changers there are held by law to a fixed exchange rate, which is more favorable for travelers. Credit cards are widely accepted.

Language: The majority of people in the south speak Sinhala. About 17 percent of the population speak Tamil, more in the north than in the south. English is widely spoken, and Arabic is used among the Muslim minority.

Dress: Most of the people you will see walking down the street in Colombo dress better than their American counterparts. Slacks and button-down shirts are standard. Shorts are occasionally seen but will mark you as a tourist.

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