Reflections on Sri Lanka
Travelling to a new country for the first time is always a great experience. This Christmas I travelled to Sri Lanka for 10 days and it didn't disappoint. I'm not sure I knew what to expect, having heard only anecdotes from friends who had been, but I was amazed by what I found.
This is a simple set of observations of things I saw in this great country.
- Traffic that rivals anywhere else in the subcontinent for madness. Two lanes in the road may as well be four, bikes and tuktuks darting all over the place and risking their lives in the process.
- The airport is not well-placed if you want to go anywhere other than Colombo. Apparently they're building a new international airport in the South which will go a long way to improving their tourist industry. But at what cost?
- Tuktuk and taxi drivers are no less scrupulous here than anywhere else. The trick we encountered most? “Oh, you want to go to that side of the neighbourhood? That'll be 500 extra.”… once you're under way.
- Trains are full-on, no-holes-barred, chicken coop experiences. However, the Sri Lankans, unlike their “as long as you don't make eye-contact anything goes”-style Tokyo counterparts, are actually aware of you and are courteous under circumstances that are difficult for everyone. A kind smile goes a long way.
- Sri Lankans are proud of their country. And rightly so. Whereas the “I Love Qatar” sported by immigrants in Doha on National Day the other week rang slightly hollow, the proud looks of tuktuk drivers as they whisk you past golden beaches and swaying palm trees leave you not needing any further persuading.
- The monkeys are big and they can jump far. They move in troops and the males will approach you and stare you down if you look at them. Don't get too close!
- Sri Lankan coffee is as good as Bali coffee, just without the nutty zest.
- Trees are so dense and lush that you discover a new shade of green every time you look at them.
- People are inherently honest. Whether it's the taxi-driver asking you for more money or the waiter apologising for dropping your jumbo prawns on the sand (!), it's all done with an undeniable integrity.
- Mosquitoes are plentiful and they mean business. Luckily, Tiger Balm flows like water and is a life-saver.
- Like in India, people eat curry with their hands. I tried it, but regretted it for a couple of days. I guess I'm too Western for some things.
- Beach bums are the same wherever you go in the world. Long hair, instant familiarity with strangers, unquestioning good nature, tattoos, insane tans, shorts that can't hang any lower, and a submissive relationship with time.
- It's hard to image these people engaged in a 25-year civil war.
- The food is good! Pumpkin curry, jumbo prawns (when they stay on your plate), vegetable roti… wow!
- TV is one messy collection of noisy in-your-face adverts on continuous loop. Like on the roads, whoever shouts loudest gets heard.
- The written language is beautiful. If you asked your 6-year-old to design a new alphabet from scratch, it would look like this!
- Sri Lankan beaches are popular with large groups Russians with a penchant for booze. With that comes electronic music… even at breakfast. The next Phuket?
- There's a tendency, which I've noticed before in people from the subcontinent living in Doha, for people to always give you an answer to your question, whether they know the answer or not. There seems to be some kind of taboo around saying “I don't know”.
- Religions and spiritual diversity seems like the natural state of affairs. Muslims filtering out of prayer next door to a church. A giant Buddha looking out over people performing a Hindu ritual. Why can't the rest of the world get on like this?
- Many people view the departure of the British in 1948 as a disaster. Productivity in the fields collapsed. Corruption from politicians rocketed. Deforestation exploded, resulting in natural forests covering only 22% of the country in 1999, compared to an estimated 75% in the past. So said the guide who lead us on a stunning mountain trek.
- “You're from, Sir?” is the standard greeting/conversation opening. You hear it so much, I wonder just how interested they really are.
- Cricket is huge. Coming from the UK, this gives me a curious affinity for the country, a sense of connection or belonging. Cricket is not something widely understood! I remember trying to explain Cricket to a bunch of Japanese high school students, telling them it was like baseball but the matches lasted up to 5 days. It was a tough sell!
- The smell of a tea factory is overwhelming. Too much. It starts off as fragrant at the entrance, but when you pass by the heat of the fermenting room and the pungency of the area when the tea is heated and dried, the smell moves to overwhelm you.
- A strong military presence decorates Sri Lanka. Where it's not military, it's security. A sign of a shaky peace? A warning of what might be?
I only got to see a tiny fraction of the country on my trip, but I loved the place, the people, the weather and the food. I'll definitely be going back!
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Have you been to Sri Lanka? What stuck with you from your trip? Let me know in the comments below!
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