Pro: Preferential Treatment
Today I was stopped by the notoriously corrupt Sri Lankan police. My heart sank, as I have seen them many times on the side of the road, issuing fines to bikes, cars, and trucks. I chatted with the officer for a while, playing dumb and looking up at him with blank, blue eyes. After some lecturing, and talk of the fact that “Sri Lankan licence costs 50, 00 R”, he said “Since this is your first time in Sri Lanka, this is a warning” and I was free to go.
A few hours later I ran into the back of a bus, which stopped short in front of me. Jumping off to inspect the damage, I saw large red scratches of paint from the bus. Soon a crowd of elderly men had gathered around me to inspect the damage, after some discussion one of them disappeared, and returned with some polish, black paint and a cloth. Moments later there was no sign of the red bus on my bike. “Ok , No problems for you now Madame”
Some of my nicest experiences in Sri Lanka have been staying with local families. You do not need to know people in Sri Lanka for this to be possible, but you do need to choose your accommodation carefully.
Firstly, I would suggest bypassing big hotels and staying at locally run guesthouses, some of the ones suggested in Lonely Planet are great, but there ARE others! In my experience some of the guesthouses ( particularly those who have MADE it into Lonely Planet), have become more like small hotels.
I stayed with a family who rents just one room, in the beach side town of Mirissa, and had a delightful time. Throughout the day and evening one of the family members would appear at my door offering tea or biscuits. On my first evening they were very concerned that I was alone, “So sad for you! No husband. No friend.” I appeased them with assurance that I had some lovely friends and family in Australia, and soon the whole family was sitting on my bed, as I trawled through facebook pictures of my nephew, sisters, parents and friends.
Things I loved and didn’t love about Sri Lanka
Things in Sri Lanka that make me smile:
1. THE FOOD! String hoppers to mop up delicious curries. A table laden with eight different delicacies for dinner. Roti bread. Coconut sambal, soft cashew nut chilli dish, delicious fried short eats, fresh cuttlefish, curries so spicy they make even MY eyes water!
2. Crazy buses that don’t so much stop, as slow down to allow passengers to jump on and off, bus boys hollering the name of the destination drumming up business for a full ride.
3. Family relationships. Generations living under the same roof, everyone must be home for a hefty lunch and dinner, which has been slaved over for hours. A few days ago I was lucky enough to participate in such a family feast, and it is true string hoppers and curry do taste better when eaten with your hands ( providing they are clean)!
4. Open carriage trains speeding through rice fields and along coastline, plunging through hill country jungle while buskers hop on to earn some cash and men selling snacks board at each station. 5. The fact that unlike places like Thailand, Cambodia and even Laos these days, Sri Lanka is not overcrowded with tourists. Despite some resort towns , overall it has retained it’s very unique culture.
Things in Sri Lanka that definitely do NOT make me smile.
1. Sexual harassment( Refer to the first paragraph).
2. Racism/classism: Having lunch with two local friends and being treated with a definitive air of coldness and hostility by the Italian run restaurant. Having my friend’s brother come to visit me in my guesthouse, a remarkable well spoken, well dressed young gentleman who was made to wait outside while they interrogated first him and then me on why he was there.
3. Poverty: The desperation in the three wheeler man’s eyes, the fisherman shanty town, just a stones throw from the majestic Mt Lavinia Hotel.
4. Foreign Pricing: I actually agree that foreigners should pay more than locals, particularly for religious sites, where locals regularly come to worship on a regular basis, BUT 500-900% more is a bit steep. We are not all package tourists Sri Lanka, stop living in the 80’s tourist market.
5. Military and police presence always makes me feel a little nervous. Young men carrying big guns, military checkpoints and high security zones. As I overheard one Sri Lankan man at a party say, in lowered voice : “Off the record, Sri Lanka IS a police state”.
Jhania Pearson is hugely passionate about travel, exploring other cultures, eating different food and celebrating local customs. When she is not traveling, she teaches refugees and migrants English in Melbourne.She blogs about her experiences @ Jhania Ruby