Numerous sources can be found on the internet displaying an array of wonderous attractions to be found Sri Lanka, whilst they do contribute greatly to the breathtaking beauty of the island...there are numerous yet significant little details which are often dismissed. It's a shame since it is the little intricacies that add to the true spirit of Sri Lanka. I hope in reading this, I let you all experience aspects of Sri Lanka that many tourists may miss out on simply because they are tourists. Enjoy a true taste of home :) Kim
Words. They feels so harsh. Impersonal. Methodical. Structured. They could never reflect the hazy feeling of returning to one’s homeland. Nostalgia is exactly what it is. The word, Nostalgia itself stems from the marriage of two greek words, “nostos” meaning suffering and “algos” meaning suffering. The suffering of return. An oxymoronic feeling.
Meeting a country you left years ago….It’s like meeting an old friend again, you hug, you kiss and in that minute, the love rushes. For a moment you feel engulfed by that old safety blanket, the warm fuzziness of childhood memories wrap you up, for a moment there’s peace within you. Then the sweet haze settles.
You take in each other, hold each other at arm’s length, take a long hard look at each other. Scan in all the little details, eyes shining a little as you spot the remnants of yesterday. Yet, there are differences. Nothing seems the same. There is sophistication now, where before there was simplicity and innocence. Perhaps, it’s these eyes which I’m looking through. The last time I had looked at this country was through the 7 year old windows of my soul. The windows had changed since then, each year, a different set of windows, it was inevitable that my view would have changed…
My adventures were yet to begin…
In Sri Lanka, the day starts early and jet lag doesn’t really have a chance to set in despite an arduous 8 hour journey halfway across the world, to this tiny teardrop island. The land of smiles. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
The Simple Life
For the first time in four years, I got to experience the waking soundtrack of the island which I had yearned for years. The chirp of exotic tropical birds, the faint hum of voices drifting in the atmosphere mingling with the call of bread and fish vendors as they cycle by every morning, the sharp trill of their bicycle bells and the tic tic of the wheels. It’s a chaotic cacophony, but a welcoming buzz of sounds all the same. It gave the surrounding a certain character, almost like a boisterous and jovial personality to the island. The sweet simplicities of life made the island come alive.
The temptation to remain cocooned in my cool cotton bed sheet was often too great. The mosquito net tucked tightly underneath the mattress posed a challenge that I didn’t want to face on a lazy Saturday morning yet I squeezed myself out of the net through a tiny gap in the net every morning. It’s impossible to stay in bed in Sri Lanka as there is always something to do. Idleness doesn’t exist.
For the first few days, I indulged in the laid back Sri Lankan life. The culture shock was strangely enjoyable as I was reabsorbing all the little details that seemed to have seeped out of my young mind. From the housing to the trees, the people, the way they dress, interact, I had never paid attention to the intricacies of life but once you start, it’s an addictive spiral of constant analysis.
The giggling of children is always heard, from dawn til dusk as they frolic around in their spacious courtyards which to the imagination of a child is equivalent to the lush amazonian forests. Young boys play ninja using branches of coconut leaves to fashion samurai swords, roaring and tumbling around as they battle with their arch enemies. The whiff of nostalgia becomes imminent as young girls sing classic playground chants and play "house"- mimicking a typical Sri Lankan household with great accuracy. Inevitably, there is always at least one piercing wail for all the neigbours to hear as one child gets whacked in the face with a branch or perhaps, a frustrated child who doesn't want to play the dull role of the "baby" in "house". I would know since that was always me.
In the background, scruffy "pariah" dogs roam the streets, parrots chirp against the caws of ravens and the teenagers can be heard as they "ooh" and "aah" at their revered game of cricket. The Sri Lankans do indeed take their cricket quite seriously. In fact, "quite seriously" is an understatement.
From dawn til dusk, the children play and the haze of the evening settles as the voices of the mothers can be heard,coaxing the unwilling children indoors.There is much homework to be done and tea to be drunk.
Amidst all of this intense observation from the balcony of the little suburban house we had rented,I took the opportunity to leave my mark in this little suburban world. Scraping all the leftover food from every afternoon meal we had, I laid it on a banana leaf with a coconut shell of water outside my gate for the stray dogs.
These innocent dogs are sometimes harassed by careless people and seen as pests. Some are beaten horribly and are forced to scavenge for food. They may be unwanted by some but as my Grandmother has taught me,"we all need a little love", no matter what we are, a dog or a human. The message behind her words is of great value and importance to myself as it relates to a saying of Buddha who once said, "happiness never decreases by sharing it". These words could not be truer. So, perhaps next time you visit a country, spread a little love. Value the feeling of sharing happiness as there is no point in doing charity with an empty heart to fill a CV out. Pure happiness will come from within and happiness in it's purest form will be a phenomenal experience,even if you see it through a little stray puppy's eyes with a scrappy wagging tail.
As a thick cloak of darkness descends upon the peaceful suburbs, the crickets take their queue to commence their nightly orchestra and the stars begin to peak out,one by one. Mothers hastily shoo their children and slather them up from head to toe with strong smelling eucalyptus or citronella oil in desperate efforts to ward off the malaria carrying mosquitoes away from their little treasures. My observations for the day were halted as my own mother dragged me in from my station (the front balcony) to slather me in eucalyptus oil too. Here, the day draws to a close as everyone settles into their mosquito net cocoons and dozes off for an early wake up call from the cockerels of the town.
Traditionally, most old homes will have a well and a tap outside as well an indoor bathroom. Being the adventurous little whippersnapper I was, I took the plunge to have an early morning outdoor shower. Not completely starkers of course. Don’t want to shock the neighbours who 9 times out of 10 have a full view of your back yard. Indeed, it’s quite a surreal experience to shower outside; besides the fact that it’s socially accepted to shower outside, the feeling itself is worth the awkwardness. The cool water acts as a momentary escape from the balmy humid atmosphere and prevents you from collapsing from the constant sweltering heat which hardly ever dips below 30 degrees.
Unless you want to be fried alive, I strongly advise against venturing outside between 12 and 1 pm. If you must, try to stay in the shade, wear a good layer of high SPF suncream and light coloured cotton clothes (p.s you will sweat like no tomorrow), wear a hat and/or carry an umbrella.
That is probably the reason why rain is so welcomed, the British complain about the constant showers but they’ve obviously not experienced the wrath of the tropical downpours. Simply put, it feels as if a huge vat of water has just been tipped upside down directly above your head. The force of each raindrop feels like mini pellets, each one making a muffled thwack noise upon impact with your head and ricocheting off in all directions. This rain isn’t the kind of rain that perhaps leaves the top of your head and shoulders a bit damp. No. This is the kid of torrential rain that soaks you right down to your underwear in less than a minute. Being the right pillock I am, I thought it was impossible for the Saharan weather of Sri Lanka to switch so quickly. I was horribly mistaken. So arm yourself with a sturdy umbrella and definitely avoid flip flops for the day if rain is forecast. I learned this lesson the hard way so now, you won’t have to.
Assuming you’ve survived the scorching heat and unexpected showers, you’ve probably worked up an appetite. I know I certainly did. Fortunately, Sri Lankans worship their food. Dieting might as well be a sin, one does not dare utter the wicked word when in Sri Lanka. It explains why 80% of the elders in my family have diabetes and/or high cholesterol levels. Surprisingly, most native Lankans could shame a rabbit when it comes to eating greens and has vitamin c levels higher than a lemon in their bodies from all the fresh tropical fruits on offer. Since the sea is within close proximity to most areas of the island, seafood and fresh fish is available in abundance and the natives have developed somewhat of an expertise when it comes to preparing fish in the most scrumptious way possible. However the heavy use of coconut milk in nearly every single dish as well as eating rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner really does take it’s toll on the less active aging body and meals can often leave you sluggish.
For breakfast there was usually rice with “kiri hodi” (a lightly spiced coconut milk gravy) or kiribath (- a traditional dish where rice is cooked in creamy coconut milk and eaten sweet, with treacle or with a spicy twist with some seeni sambol). Sri Lankans are massive fans of kiribath and eat it at every occasional imaginable, new year, religious occasions, breakfasts, birth days, any thing. The idea of having rice and curry for breakfast followed by rice with even more curries didn’t sit well with me at first however over the 6 weeks I spent in the country, my stomach became accustomed to digesting what seemed like lunch at 8 am in the morning. Dinner usually consisted of other delicious tummy fillers such as traditional “hoppers”. Over the six weeks, my tolerance for spice also improved dramatically, although at first, Sri Lankan food just felt like I had shoved a flame torch into my alimentary canal. Not to fret, as there are always milder options of food for tourists and newbies alike.
Ceylon tea is legendary so not being a huge tea fan really did make me feel like an outcast, especially since most Sri Lankans drink tea more frequently than water.
Alongside the traditional day to day food, I discovered a plethora of tantalising street foods such as soya flavoured ice cream and the ever popular “short eats”, which ironically, aren’t short eats at all. In fact they’re a variety of fried starchy goodness in the form of jumbo sized spring rolls, egg rolls, patties and more. I ended up eating every single Sri Lankan delight under the sun. I highly recommend you do the same, perhaps take some advice from locals for trusted street food vendors to avoid food poisoning.
More on SL food:
Aside from the complete overhaul in diet,the cultural differences can be quite a shock, especially to those totally unfamiliar to them. It’s a country where compliments revolve around the phrases “I see your mother has been feeding you well” and “you’re looking chubby lately” accompanied by the classic ritual of Asian sniff kisses and general clucking that all female relatives over the age of 50 seem to feel obligated to do every time they catch sight of you. After much cheek squishing, you may be subject to other compliments such as “You’ve become beautiful” but does that not imply I was a hideous hot mess before? According to my parents, Sinhalese compliments don't tend to translate well into English so a few words of advice:Always try to deduce the positive message behind unusual comments and don’t be hurt, chances are it's a compliment!
Getting around in Sri Lanka,although viewed as a hassle by many of the locals, I view as a thrilling experience. The lack of health and safety really does bring the inner adrenalin junkie out in you. First there are the tuc tucs, better known as the “three wheelers”, the flimsy vehicles are mini mobile hazard factories. This mini motor moves at lightning speed and passenger seat belts are certainly not up for grabs. Whilst holding on to dear life as your tuc tuc whizzes past, you can indulge in the cooling gust of air alongside a face full of dust if you decide to sit on the edges. The buses by far are my favourite. Bus drivers take it upon themselves to convert their buses into a personal shrine, fairy lights and all. As the buses trundle their way through the potholed roads of the city, the buses sway from side to side, the dangling decorations of the bus following in the same motion as if a mini earthquake is occurring within the bus. All the while, the passengers remain straight faced whilst the bus driver casually blasts out ancient Sinhalese songs from his stereo. Imagine if bus drivers did that in London? The thought alone amused me greatly. It's evident that the tuc tuc drivers also fancy a bit of DIY except let just say that not all tuc tuc drivers are cut out to be interior designers. It’s not exactly vogue to stick a random poster of a baby on the back of your tuc tuc whilst draping a chain of tacky plastic daisies on the dashboard. Each to their own.
Towards the end of my stay, I got to utilise the tuc tuc rides to various places, one particular place being the temple. Sri Lanka has been a centre of Buddhism since the very beginnings of Buddhism, it was from this island that Buddhism was spread to the rest of South East Asia so it’s no wonder that Buddhism is so deeply enrooted into every aspect of culture within the country. Every time a full moon occurs, the day is know as Poya day, which in the Buddhist lunar calendar is a day dedicated to paying respects to Gautama Buddha, reflection and meditation. These days are national holidays and a lot of shops close for the day. The delicate aroma of the temples on Poya instils an instant sense of peace in the atmosphere. The fragrance of burning incense diffuses out into the streets and even the busy roads filled with rushing tuc tucs, smell sweet. Outside the Bellanwilla temple, vendors sell lotus flowers and offerings of jasmine flowers to place at the multiple Buddhist statues as well as wicks for oil lamps which symbolize the light of Buddha’s wisdom. Inside, the intricacy of the temple wall art is breathtaking, ancient murals painted in vibrant hues depicting various mythical creatures, Buddha and his numerous teachings come alive on the vast paintings spanning from the ceiling , all the way to the floor.
It was when I was meditating, I fully appreciated the little wonders of my home land. There is poverty and suffering, yet the people still smile. Everyone united, grateful for the beauty of the stars in the sky, appreciative of the food and the lovely environment we’ve been blessed with. It was a humbling experience to be in the presence of those who didn’t have much but were still hospitable, caring and eager to give directions to someone such as myself, who wasn't always sure where to go. Many were prepared to go to great lengths to help me and although it may seem slightly irrational, I teared up at the fact everyone referred to children as "duwa" (daughter) or "putha" (son), "akki" (older sister),"nangi" (younger sister),"malli" (younger brother or "ayya" (older brother), even if we weren't biologically related at all. It reminded me of the close caring attitude people in Sri Lanka have for one another, which I know will be difficult to find anywhere else.
Make the most of everything. Go to the temples, visit the beaches, eat all kinds of food from the posh nosh at Cinnamon Grand Hotel to the regular street food, be open to anything and immerse yourself with every aspect of the culture, learn the lingo and simply enjoy it with the people. Indulge all of your senses because the country will never disappoint.
The best thing about Sri Lanka is that most of the little activities I’ve shared with you are virtually free or cost next to nothing. Obviously if you plan to do things primarily aimed at tourists such as snorkelling or spend a week at a luxury spa or hotel, expect to spend a lot for a somewhat sheltered experience of the country. If you plan to travel well with city accommodation (a flat in Colombo) as well as eating out, expect to live with £350 - 500 a week. Air fares fluctuate depending on season but keep a lookout for seasonal offers that can drop to around £400.
Pack sunscreen and a smile and you’re good to go.
Hopefully you’ll love the good ol’ kiribath, wacky tuc tuc rides and the impossible night sky.