This super long blogpost recounts the stories and many tiny details of our trip to Sri Lanka in January this year. It’s inspired by the two vastly different responses we got when we told people where we were going: “Why??” and “Oh, I really want to go there too!”.
Darkness is quickly falling in Polonnaruwa, and we’re looking for food. We’ve been looking for a while actually and a mangy dog has been following us for more than a kilometre and the call to prayer is reverberating off every surface. The loudspeakers may as well be in our heads — all we want is a nice, warm dinner!
Eventually, we cut our losses and go back to the supermarket we spotted early. Then, we take our Milo cereal, yoghurt and bananas back to our guesthouse and eat in a huff. They don’t have cooking facilities here, they haven’t given us sheets or towels yet, they’ve cut off the Wi-Fi, and the owner is still gone. He never explained why, either. Needless to say, we’re not very impressed.
We want to change to stay at another place, and we’re trying to convince Mika, our new Japanese friend, to come with us. It’s not too late, we say, we know we’ve already paid but we really don’t feel comfortable here. And we don’t owe him any courtesies when he’s given us such bad service.
Mika finally agrees to a walk around the neighbourhood to see what’s out there, and the first place we find is Rock Cascade Homestay. Incredibly, it’s perfect. They have one remaining free room with two big beds fitted with clean sheets, ensuite, hot water, A/C. They also offer breakfast and dinner (extra). Nishanti, the owner, is only too happy to let us sleep three to the room, just for tonight, and she won’t even charge us extra for the third person. We convince Mika once again before finally committing to the move.
Nishanti helps us put our clothes up to dry and cooks our two-minute noodles, completing our makeshift dinner. We’re so grateful for her hospitality and tell her we’re okay to do it all ourselves but, in her pink night dress, she tells us we remind her of the children she never had, and she’s happy to do it. Admittedly, Maushmi and I see a lot of our own mothers in her, and we hang around and chat with her about life, work, dreams, and her love for Aishwarya Rai, whose picture is hanging on the wall. “Aishwarya”, she tells us, sounds a lot like the Sinhala word for miracle, and that’s one extra reason why she’s so fond of her.
She tells us about her family. Her father was a good man, she remembers, he worked very hard to keep their family afloat — literally — he was a fishmonger. He went out to sea at Batticaloa and transported his catch inland to Polonnaruwa to sell. We used to worry everyday about him, she exclaims animatedly, every time we heard there was bombing on the train line we worried he wouldn’t come home! Batticaloa, we learned, was north enough to be affected by the civil war.
Even though Nishanti is still quite young, her parents married late and had her late, and now she is alone — no siblings, no husband, it’s just her. She used to work as an accountant but after her parents passed, she converted the family home into a guesthouse, which now pays all her bills including her diabetes medication. Can you imagine living like that? When your home is your workplace and your workplace is your home? I wouldn’t be able to switch off!
In the morning, Nishanti gets up at 4:30 to cook individual omelettes and coconut roti from scratch for her guests, and arranges for a guy to bring around a selection of bicycles for us to use that day. We’re blown away. As far as we’re concerned, Nishanti is our miracle.
But her labour isn’t appreciated by everyone. Mika complains about the price of breakfast (less than five Australian dollars, less than 400 Japanese yen). And, when we get back from our full day of riding around the ancient city, we find that the other guests have cleared out and we’re the only ones left. Maushmi and I are keen to move into our own room and even start transferring our belongings before Mika pipes up. She can’t afford to pay for a room to herself, she says. We’re disappointed. We’ve really appreciated Nishanti’s hospitality by this stage and want to follow the rules so she can have three full-paying guests and continue to support herself. But we also feel bad for dragging Mika into the situation, so we ask Nishanti if we can all stay in the twin room again. She agrees, and we leave a sizeable tip instead.
Look, I know what you’re probably thinking… that she duped us. And I admit, we would prefer to believe that she doesn’t have to lie everyday just to put food on the table. But we got duped earlier in Dambulla and this feels different. We feel in our hearts that Nishanti is genuine. And with all due respect to Mika and her financial situation, we believe Nishanti’s labour is well worth what she charges, anyway.
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Our eyes are wide with hope and expectation as we crawl through Kumana National Park on the back of a Jeep. A handful of endangered Sri Lankan leopards live in this massive reserve, and we want to spot one! Our companions today are an Italian couple. The first thing you notice about them is their zany eyewear and we later learn he owns an online sunglasses shop while she is a wedding planner. Fit, fashionable and still without kids, they look like they’re enjoying their late-30s.
They tell us they’ve travelled quite a lot together, but they’re really enjoying Sri Lanka. We love the people here, they say, they’re so friendly and helpful. And even though there are quite a lot of Muslims here, it’s nice that they can live so peacefully alongside the rest of the population, not like in Malaysia where we felt a lot more tension. Hmm… You might be focusing on the wrong ethnic group, we venture, Sri Lanka only came out of a 26-year-long civil war in 2009, and it was fought between the Theravada Buddhist majority and the Tamil Tigers, who were predominantly Hindus. This doesn’t seem to convince or concern the Italian couple much and soon we’re back to discussing our jobs and their ongoing attempt to adopt a child.
Admittedly, we’re no experts on the politics of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka either. Maybe there has also been a history of tension involving Muslim communities there as well, we don’t know. But the couple make it clear their opinions aren’t really based in facts; they’re more than happy to make judgements based on their own experiences and expectations rather than observe and learn about what people actually live through here on a daily basis. In their bubble, they gloss over entire intersections of both privilege and struggle, which really aren’t difficult to notice.
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It will take eight hours to get to Matara from Pottuvil today. We’re bracing ourselves for what could be a very uncomfortable ride. Waiting for the bus to leave in the morning cold, we start talking to the white woman sitting next to us. The conversation starts awkwardly, almost cautiously, but it’s better to talk than to pretend that we can’t see each other, fellow travellers. We go through the usual introductory questions before I seem to pick a lock when I correctly diagnose her very subtle South African accent. What gave it away? The way you say “ya” instead of “yes”. Ah, you got me! From there, the conversation flows.
Jill’s in her mid 40s and grew up in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). She lives to travel, and travels to see as many animals as possible before they die. She’s been to Komodo to see Komodo dragons in the wild. She’s crisscrossed Madagascar looking for all the varieties of lemur. She’s done big fives, little fives, alternate little fives. Once, she spent her uni summer holidays working at a guesthouse in a remote part of Zambia. So for three months, she got to live next to a wild cheetah. They were holding it captive at the time until they could arrange to return it to the wild. That’s because cheetahs are considered vulnerable to extinction and you’re not allowed to kill them, even if they’re endangering human life.
She’s also working in her dream job: designing travel books. And previously she designed travel magazines. And she’s also a big cricket fan! She used to curate a cricket magazine, an opportunity that fell into her lap by coincidence, and she absolutely loved it. She loved trolling everyone by putting photos of Kevin Pietersen into the magazine as often as possible when he toured South Africa, his homeland, representing his adopted England (she clearly respects a talent and hard work regardless of allegiances).
But somehow, and inexplicably — even to her, she’s fallen in love with a Sri Lankan man almost half her age. That’s why she’s back here for the third time in two years. On more than one occasion she asks out loud, why?! And she doesn’t hide the fact that she’s talking to herself. You’re happy with your life, you’ve got a great job, you don’t need a man, Jill! Especially one that’s so much work. You should be travelling to the next destination, not coming back to Sri Lanka all the time. But the heart wants what the heart wants…
It’s tough for her because a lot of his family don’t trust her. They don’t like the idea of him being with a foreigner. Her boyfriend makes her dress and act extra modestly for them to show respect. But why do I have to do all the work, she asks, when it’s them who have the problem? But even as she says this, she recognises that it is different for women in Sri Lanka compared to other countries. You can see a clear division along gender lines everywhere you go here. In other parts of the world, women are seen; they decide what they wear, how they do their hair, where they go. But the women here all style themselves the same, either very childlike or very motherly or very traditionally… hardly ever fashionably. You even see this pattern in their advertising. There are big billboards of the Sri Lankan men’s cricket team in tight dress shirts all over the place, but hardly any advertising for trendy new women’s clothing. Hmm, she might have a point, we concede. After all, we had already noticed how segregated Sri Lankan society can be in terms of gender. In places like Colombo and Polonnaruwa, for example, we rarely saw women in public spaces like restaurants and parks or even walking on the street.
Somewhere in this conversation, we become aware of three young men on the bus who seem intent on proving Jill’s point. They’re all dressed in fitted button-up shirts and distressed slim-cut jeans and have the same, carefully tousled hair. In Sri Lanka, you’re meant to get on at the back of the bus and, as passengers get off at the front door, you move forwards to let in more people. But these boys make their own rules. They’re not moving forwards. In fact, they’re moving backwards towards us on the back seat. And we quickly realise why… they’re intensely staring at Maushmi, very obviously checking her out. And this carries on for hours. Hours!
This actually affects me a hell of a lot more than it does Maushmi. It makes my blood boil, but she does really well avoiding accidental eye contact, and she’s calm. I stare them down. Two of them acknowledge me, attempt a smirk, realise I don’t find it funny, and look away for good. But the third never meets my gaze and continues staring at Maushmi until they finally get off the bus another hour later. I think about giving him a beating. They’re so close to us I could smack him without even really having to move. What’s his problem anyway? Are Sri Lankan men not taught to respect women? But I don’t… because what would that really achieve? And Maushmi doesn’t want me to. I often joke that Sri Lanka forced me to cram Maushmi’s twenty-plus years of lessons on being a woman into two and a half short weeks. Never before had I experienced such constant and overt sexism. Never before had I felt it as almost my own experience.
The thing is, I don’t want to start making generalisations about Sri Lanka. I don’t want to start thinking things like “this is so typical of them”, or “why do they act this way? It’s not right!”. What I really want is to try and learn and understand their society better, not dismiss it based on my own values. But if I’m being honest, I’m finding it hard to avoid this trap when I’m personally affected. So, I empathise with Jill’s inner conflict about her situation with her boyfriend’s family, with how she can acknowledge the fact that things are different for women in Sri Lanka, but at the same time feel frustrated with having to curb herself to show respect.
Anyway, during the episode with the fuckboys, Jill tells us about the difficulties her boyfriend faces working in the tourism. Just the other day, she recounts, a young French guy came and ate at her boyfriend’s restaurant. He was very friendly and before long he and her boyfriend were talking and drinking together. The Frenchman said he loved the service and would be back. The next day, he did come back but he brought his own food — he came just to hang out over some beers. Jill’s boyfriend was unhappy with the situation but didn’t know how to handle the situation as he didn’t want to lose clientele. So Jill went over and told the guy off herself!
Another time, a woman ordered coconut juice at the restaurant. Jill’s boyfriend didn’t have any in stock (in fact, it wasn’t even on the menu) but he said sure and bought some from down the road. He charged her the same amount he got it for. When Jill asked him why he didn’t mark it up, he shrugged and said “well, she would’ve gotten it for that price if she went to the other shop”. He doesn’t understand that he’s got to factor his labour and his rent into his prices, she tells us. He isn’t savvy enough with these foreign tourists and gets himself into these sorts of situations. And worries that, with time, these little frustrations will turn into a deep resentment towards tourists. She laments that some Sri Lankans who work in tourism are already becoming more unfriendly, more cut-throat. She says some parts are on their way to becoming just like Bali.
When we arrive in Matara, Jill’s words ring in our ears. At one point, Ratna (the owner of the hotel we stay at) apologises for overcharging me on the snorkel equipment which he rented from a place down the road to rent to us. He was so, so thankful when we insisted he keep the change. How long will that last if tourists keep walking all over him?
A few days later, we get the first inkling of what Jill means when we arrive in Galle and come across the first truly aggressive tuk-tuk drivers and hoteliers of our trip. They harass you to give them your business. And on our final stop, in Hikkaduwa, we finally see the Bali on training wheels Jill was talking about. In Hikkaduwa, packaged day-trips, yoga retreats and safaris in faraway national parks are advertised everywhere, there’s a professional diving schools, and the Sri Lankan food is all completely bastardised with egg and bacon rotis and westernised seating arrangements.
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Maushmi and I went to Sri Lanka for two and a half weeks just after Christmas. So, how was it? The short answer is it was lots of fun. We really enjoyed eating our way around the country, spotting elephants, flying peacocks and even a leopard, people watching, simply being able to get away from Sydney for a while, learning about the island’s history through visiting historical sites and reading all the plaques.
What spurred on this super long answer were the many conversations we had before we even left Sydney. When we told people we were going to Sri Lanka, we got two types of responses (from people of non-Sri Lankan heritage). The first was curious, sometimes even a little incredulous. “What’s in Sri Lanka? Why do you want to go there?”. If we’re being honest, we didn’t really know why. We were mainly driven by curiosity and the promise of delicious food. We wanted to go to a warm place and liked that Sri Lanka is a smallish country you could see a lot of in a short space of time.
The second type of reaction was a lot more excited, something along the lines of: “I’m so jealous, I really want to go there too!” This puzzled me in particular. “Why do you really want to go there?” I’d ask them back, hoping they knew something we didn’t. “I dunno, just to walk around and eat the food? It just seems like a cool place…” Well, there you go, I guess.
If you can’t tell from the self-conscious tone of my writing, making statements about Sri Lanka — a place I barely know — makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. But there’s one observation I’m happy to defend: Visitors come in expecting a certain level of service for a certain price and get frustrated when they don’t get what they want. Meanwhile, local vendors don’t always know their worth and, sometimes, don’t seem to know what tourists want at all. A real lack of knowledge defines Sri Lankan tourism today. And it’s so interesting to see the vastly differing perspectives and reactions on both sides play out.