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Personal thoughts on Sri Lanka

Returning from my short visit to Sri Lanka, I’ve been asked on numerous occasions my perceptions and thoughts of the country. I find this relatively difficult to respond, as every observer notices different things. Even though Claire and I travelled together, I’d bet my last euro that what she thinks of the trip would be quite different from mine, plus some common points of course.

While knowing the fact that Buddhism is practiced by the majority of Sri Lankans, until my arrival, I simply had not realised just how significant its presence is. Everywhere we went, we would come across a Bo tree which under sat a statue of Buddha, or a simple shrine at the edge of a road, or a large temple overlooking the turn of a bend, or magnificent (and historic) complexes attended by many for prayers and ceremonies.

It also served to remind me that the root of Buddhism lies in South Asia, despite the main practising strongholds of Buddhism and its related/linked religions being East and South-East Asia. The iconographic representations of Buddha are noticeably rather distinct here from those of other parts of Asia. It also highlights how prayers are conducted quite differently from these fractions of Buddhism, yet at the same time hold through the practice of calm meditations. I find them all quite fascinating, but to discuss them in details would merit long articles in their own rights.

Gimme some thirst quencher!

It was hot. I’m no stranger to heat – I grew up in Malaysia and I have spent a summer in the UAE – but then I’d been lucky; it was easy to escape the soaring temperatures of the day by staying indoors and in places with air-conditioning. Or at least with a fan running at high speed. Moreover, I also did little to no outdoor activities at the hottest hours during the day, and travelling in air-conditioned vehicles were the norm. I did all that I could to keep myself comfortable.

In Sri Lanka, these are luxuries that many can’t afford. When available, they came at a premium that mostly only foreign visitors would pay for. Plus, with all the out and about, activities + heat just didn’t gel too well together. Huffing and puffing up a large pilgrimage rock and the likes meant any shades and cooling breezes were most welcomed. Luckily, travelling in the hill countries was a lot more pleasant with lower temperatures as the altitude increased.

Sunset in Colombo

Day and Night
Sri Lanka lies 7° north of equator, which means the days and nights are nearly equal in length. However, at 81° east of Meridian, they transition at around 6am and 6pm. The concept of “night” at 6.30pm made me think it as European winter time, but when the sunrise took place at 5.30am next morning, suddenly it was European summer time. Quite confusing, that…

Life here is adapted to reflect this natural cycle of daylight. By 8pm in the evening (notable exception Colombo), it was bedtime just about anywhere. There were not much else to do, and the streets out there were quiet too. We also became the unlikely morning birds, already on the road at 6-7am for our next leg of our travel. My poor jet-lagged body wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, and still somehow managed to readjust itself, so I think I can call victory on that. ;)

Colours seem to dictate life in this island. Everywhere we went, there were always an explosion of colours, often against a backdrop of either white (while we were visiting temple complexes) or green (the lushness of the land was just incredible). Tuk-tuks in black, green, blue, red and so forth; lorries and buses painted in all kind of colour combination possible; signboards each trying to attract attention; even the robes of the monks come in different hues of red, yellow and orange! I believe it’s joyful to see such spectrum at all time, for colours take away gloominess of what’s negative and lurking around the dark corners.

“Derelict” dwellings
Many times when we passed by the countryside and small villages (some medium sized towns even), we noticed houses and shacks that were incompletely built. They would be missing windows and/or doors, and in cases of buildings taller than a single storey, the upper storeys could be without walls and the highest without roof. But there were people living in them!

I don’t know if I can truly categorised them as derelict dwellings. Perhaps some. In tsunami-hit areas, many of these were remnants of destruction which the owners could not afford to repair; otherwise, often they were unfinished constructions and somehow they came to be occupied on a as-it basis. Forget about owning anything valuable which could be stolen or even complete privacy. Without windows or doors, these are akin to open invitations for all time.

Seeing this made me appreciate just how lucky I’ve had it in life. And I wish some day soon, these people would have a real roof over their head and their possessions secured within their homes.

Telco facilities
If any telecommunication company wants to learn how to provide best service coverage, they could learn from Sri Lanka. Big cities, small villages, even remote hillsides and natural parks, we were always with mobile phone connections. Everywhere we went, there would be plenty who were practically attached to their mobile phone – even a groom on his wedding day! Our driver was no exception, constantly on his phones (yes, plural, sometimes simultaneously) regardless which nooks and corners we asked him to drive us to. When behind the wheels, his “hands free kit” was basically his t-shirt: he would slipped the phone under his t-shirt on his shoulder and balanced it there. Initially we told him it was alright to stop by the roadside to take a call but soon realised if we did this every time, we would never get anywhere…

We bought a local sim card on arrival and found the phone rates were very reasonable (to us foreign visitors anyway) so that could be one explanation why one could afford to be on the mobile phone all the time. On the other hand, I’ve never quite managed to get my mobile internet to work despite having pre-paid for a single day internet charge. Maybe it was just me not getting the settings correct. In any case, I didn’t need to have internet all the time anyway. It was good to escape from the constant barrage of emails, social networks, web news and whats not.

On different roads in different countries, honkings have different connotations. Some are rather universal, others, a little less so. In Sri Lanka, I’ve seen it used for:
– Hey, pay attention!
– Get out of my way!
– I’m here.
– Hello.
– Thank you.
– Good bye.
– Please move to the side so I can overtake.
– I’m overtaking (anyway).
– Move faster!
– Move slower!
– Do you want (to hire) a ride? (Usually by taxi/tuk-tuk drivers)
– Look over here / look at me.
– Look, foreign chicks!

I may still be missing some other interpretations for this list…

While on the roadtrip (and once in Colombo), I had had requests from people for me to take a photo of them or their friend or their child(ren). Their joy laid in looking at the digital display of how the photos turned out. They then politely thanked me and walked away. That was it. It was a little disconcerting and bemusing at first, but it was nice to be able to keep these portraits as my own souvenirs afterwards. The occasional times I’ve approached some people if I could take their photos, my requests were always accepted with friendliness, so that was awesome too.

The only time I felt somewhat threatened was when I was photographing the stilt fishermen on our way to Galle. I had not realised it then that payment was expected and my two naive clicks were met with a determined man stalking towards our van and banging the window! Our driver gave him some money so he would go away, but frankly I was a little stunned to react at that point. (Yes, we tipped our driver very generously at the end for taking us out of tight spot like this and for not wanting him to be out of pocket because of us.)

There are debates online if this practice should be encouraged or not. Some opined that given the poverty in the area, this is one of the few ways the fishermen could make some supplementary income so it is acceptable. On the other hand, when they stalked over with such aggression… I’m not sure if I was wrong for not paying my due, or (indirectly) accepting the coercion they handed to me? Vicious cycle.

Being foreign
Claire and I received enough attention for being a pair of foreign girls, and even more so when we were out exploring on our own without our driver (it happened occasionally that we would walk to see certain sights and giving Nilan the time off for him to do his own thing, then to meet us again later). Mostly we were stared at a lot, often we would be honked at, and sometimes we would be chatted to. In the countryside, what I appreciate most was the welcoming smiles by adults and children alike. Especially the children.

However, in the bigger cities, I think we were mostly seen as walking ATMs. People were trying to sell us things, take us on guided tour (they are not free!), quoting us anything and everything possible with the “foreigners rate”. Even menus at many restaurants were categorised for either the locals or the foreigners. I felt a little wary sometimes and could well have came across as being aloof?

Foreigners’ prices
At most places of interest, we were being charged “foreigners prices”, often quoted in USD but they would take the equivalent amount in LKR. In fact, some accepted only LKR. I understand that the money charged would go a long way in paying for maintenance, wages etc, but it still felt like we were being ripped off when the differences were huge magnitudes in fold.

I admit, for anyone who could get all the way there, chances are we could afford them. However, not everyone could afford them as easily. It took many months of savings to ensure I would have enough to cover my expenses. I’m not poor, but I’m not super rich either. This practice may well put some people off from travelling to the country.

Unfortunate desserts
On the surface, it appears desserts have been relegated to, umm, nowhere? Trying to look for sweets wasn’t easy, at least not in the menus that we’ve been given anyway except for one staple – fruit salad. I hesitate somewhat to really label it fruit salad. They seemed to have come from cans (think Del Monte but usually of inferior quality) and came in tiny cubes, usually served together with the syrup and at room temperature. In Sri Lanka, that means a very warm small bowl of sticky yet mushy fruit cubes. In the end, it means we nearly never ordered desserts (hence, no photos!).

Then we got to our friends’ wedding and suddenly, wahey, new possibilities! There are local sweets afterall – if only I could get away with trying every single one of them without looking like the extremely hungry wedding guest. Sorry, since it would be rude to pull any other guests to tell me what they were one by one, I can’t exactly tell you what I tried that evening…

Most people (exception being the scary fishermen, remember?) we’ve came across were warm and courteous, and they also spoke some English so it wasn’t too difficult to communicate at a basic level. We were often asked the following questions: where were we from, what had we seen of Sri Lanka, how did we like their country, have we tried such and such dish. Courteously, of course.

What I find most admirable though are their resilience and their sense of entrepreneurship. Those who had faced tragedy not long ago work hard to pick the pieces up and putting them back together. Life may be a series of hardship for some but they set out for each of their days with purpose.

Pushy merchants aside, many are setting up roadside stalls quite in the middle of nowhere. I did wonder if they got much trade from passengers of passing vehicles… While a large percentage of them are selling food and drinks, some sell rather odd products, such as swimming floats in the hills, with no sea nor lake anywhere nearby. Surely someone must have had reasonable success to inspire more of similar small businesses. I find it admirable to have such firm self-belief that their products would sell regardless of location.

Even in the case of our driver who was constantly on the phone; that was not random chit chat with his friends. Instead, he was juggling another side of his business – organising his other drivers for jobs, trouble shooting for any of his team. When a little stressed out from things going wrong (like our minor air-conditioning problem) he was always on the search for alternative solutions, still with a smile and assuring us that it would all be taken care of.

If only I persevere half as well as the Ceylonese…

Category: Asia, Musing, People, Sri Lanka, Travel

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5 scribbles & notes

  1. Ann Mah says:

    Lovely post! I felt like I was traveling with you, facing in equal measure the beauty and the challenges. I’ve read so many novels set in Colombo — I hope to make it there one day.

    • Lil says:

      thanks ann! colombo is lovely but i would definitely recommend heading elsewhere on the island too. i really enjoy the hill countries part of my travel :)

  2. medca says:

    hmmm…the foreigner price seems to be very steep…so yeah, may just turned potential tourist off….4 times!!! wow

    • Lil says:

      that’s actually the least difference in prices! there were places where we were charged 25 USD (3,310 LKR) and locals for 200-300 LKR…

  3. medca says:

    whaoooo….okies ;)

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