If visiting Myanmar is like 2 old lovers running into each other again years after the relationship ended on good terms, then Sri Lanka is a new couple leaving the infatuation phase and realizing those small things that started out cute are on the verge of becoming annoying. You still really really like the person, but them leaving their dirty underwear around your apartment is just WRONG! In Sri Lanka’s defense, I’d just come from Myanmar which definitely might have jaded me a bit.
As in Myanmar, I had 8 days to explore Sri Lanka. Before this trip I unfairly associated Sri Lanka as the little sister of India. It’s history and culture share similarities, but it has a very distinct culture and personality that is very much its own. The personal interactions weren’t felt as deeply in Sri Lanka, nonetheless, I did experience moments that moved me to tears from the raw emotions they exposed.
If I compare Myanmar to Sri Lanka I apologize. Myanmar was still glistening on my skin like I’d just stepped out of a cool shower when I landed at Colombo airport. My first personal interaction occurred buying a local sim card. At Yangon Airport, I’m sure the saleswoman sold and installed 100’s of sim cards that day but still was friendly and professional. In Sri Lanka, the interaction was much more brusk with a good dose of open disdain. It wasn’t only the salesman helping me, but also salesmen at other kiosks. Perhaps that’s normal Colombo city folk attitude, but it immediately put me on edge. Other thing I noticed is how many people approach you in the airport hawking taxi rides and cheap hotels. For god’s sake man I just had a 4 hour flight with shitty food and a SINGLE small plastic cup of water and you’re in my face about a hotel with a private bathroom? Chiiiiill homie! The hotel in Yangon had someone waiting with a sign at the arrivals lounge. I tried to arrange the same in Colombo, which the hotel advertised on their website. I repeatedly sent emails but received no reply. In the end had to wade through all of the taxi hawkers to the official taxi stand for a ride to the hotel. Other observation? Berlin SPOILED me! I’m used to being maximum 40 minute public transportation ride to the airport. In Kuala Lumpur and Colombo there are only taxis and it’s an hour at least to the city center. Luckily it’s cheap because an hour long taxi ride in Berlin would break the bank!
Arrived at the hotel and to be 100% honest, I wasn’t impressed. That was a consistent theme in Sri Lanka, how accommodation or restaurants are promoted online doesn’t always fit the reality. Yes that happens the world over, but Sri Lankans are expert level Harry Potter how they turn sh!tty accommodations into Hogwarts. In few cases the reality surpassed the online description. Pull up to the hotel and it’s in the HOOD! Hood doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is if you advertise your hotel as being in the business district with all of the amenities of a business hotel and I pull up and there’s a bunch of drunk men sitting on the steps rolling dice on the outside steps smelling like West Virginia moonshine that’s hood and advertise it as such. Hotel looked like a UFO abducted a hotel from another era and dropped it on top of a strip mall, WHICH I mean, technically could qualify as a “business” district… then again no. Walking through the group, who refused to move aside, I felt like accidentally stepping on fingers and putting my knee into eye sockets. But I refrained from doing so. Yeah, my first 12 hours in Sri Lanka weren’t exactly the best. Now that the trip is over, I feel as if I got all the most annoying things out of the way during that short stretch and it was smooth sailing from then on, except for a few bumps attributed to a difference in culture.
As in Yangon, I didn’t stay in Colombo long, wanted to spend as much time as possible outside of major cities. There’s good and bad to that I believe. Large cities are often where the best and brightest go to live. They are often more cosmopolitan and the residents much more likely to engage in conversation with ignorant tourists asking stupid questions. On the flip side, big city people are definitely not as impressed with wide eyed tourists. They have places to go and people to see and will let you know if you’re preventing them from doing that. So, caught a train to Kandy early the next morning.
In all seriousness, a train ride is my favorite mode of transportation. It’s more comfortable than a car, bus is debatable after that A M A Z I N G experience on a VIP bus in Myanmar! Planes are faster, but you have more opportunity to take photos and connect with people on a train. Why, I’m not sure, but the train conductor on the Colombo to Kandy line took a shine to me. He would come into the cabin to tell me when especially nice views were coming up, he let me go into the engine room and hang out and take photos, it was, I can’t explain it properly, it just was needed. Yeah, it was needed. I’m in a train car full of Western European tourists and the conductor comes and singles me out to share something he considers special. Yes I could very well be making it more than it was, but it was very touching. And of course I enjoyed the looks on the German faces when they realized I was getting special treatment! Talk about eating lemons! Bye Felicia!
As a black American who travels extensively, I often add a second layer of research before I travel. Who wants a bunch of racist encounters to ruin your vacation plans? It’s unfortunate that I seem to be adding countries to my avoid list and not removing but it’s the times we live in. In Sri Lanka, I can undoubtedly confirm my race was never an issue during the entire trip, but my skin color definitely was a factor. In a totally positive way Sri Lankans were fascinated with my skin color. Sri Lankans come in all shades like black people, and I have no idea if Sri Lanka has a history of skin whitening like Jamaica, India and certain countries in Africa. However, more than a few times Sri Lankan men would come up to me and put their arm next to me to compare our color and their responses were always funny. If they were darker than me, “HEY, you need more sun brutha!” if they were lighter than me, “I’m almost there! Give me a week!”. In my personal experience, it was lovely, simply lovely to be surrounded by people who appreciated brown skin. Does it have something to do with the history of Sri Lanka? I’m sure. It’s a poor country and poor people with dark skin never have it easy, especially if they have to go abroad for work opportunities. The one factor that tends to mitigate racism I encounter is my US passport. White people, 9 out of 10 times, assume I’m African and sadly treat me less. When I speak in English and they hear the educated US accent they physically take a step back they are so astonished. That’s a post for another day. With Sri Lankan people though, no such issues or concerns. It was obvious I wasn’t from around those parts, but as far as they were concerned, I was good people and left it at that. It made them a little TOO comfortable at times, but it was all good.
Oh, something else I noticed in Sri Lanka, attractive men. Not that I don’t consider women in Sri Lanka attractive, it only felt like there were an unusually high number of well dressed attractive men. I can’t give you any reasons for it. In Malaysia I was astounded at the sheer number of beautiful women, but I just noticed the men presented more competition in Sri Lanka if we were vying for the same female’s attention. Not that I was vying! Just sayin..
Another thing I observed, and I’ll file it under difference in culture, is how it felt like being courteous in Sri Lanka is used as a stealth mode to deceive you into buying. Visit a “museum” and offered a seat to relax in an air conditioned building before braving the heat and BAM! Five trays of jewelry in front of you with three people pressuring you to buy gifts for your momma and daddy and dem.
Trying to find the path to Ella’s rock through the unmarked jungle and ask which way to go and BAM! A guide for the day even if you don’t want one AND who has the nerve to get salty when you don’t pay the “FULL guide rate” when you come down! KNEE GROW PLEASE! Nobody asked you to climb your skinny brown behind up Ella’s rock in flip flops! I only asked left or right! Ask to be taken to a restaurant locals go to and yes, BAM! Get taken to restaurant full of the same tourists you saw on the train from Colombo AND MF sits down at your table and eats enough for THREE people and expects you to pay! Happened. All. The. Damn. Time. By the end, if someone was nice I automatically calculated the value of the niceness and weighed it against the amount of rupees I had . I get it, I do, poor country, “wealthy” tourist, what’s a few rupees to me? In retrospect, when someone was genuinely nice I appreciated it much more and felt inclined to let them know how much I appreciated it. Looking back, were all of the “genuine” Sri Lankans economically in a position to be generous with their time because they lacked the immediate necessity of feeding and clothing themselves or loved ones? Would I be any different? Would I at least be humane enough to wear the make of politeness or go directly to dash and grab or worse? I didn’t think of it this way until now. A mile in another mans’s shows I guess…
I completely enjoyed my time in Sri Lanka and would do it again in a heartbeat. Now that I am aware of a few things I’m convinced I would appreciate the people and country even more. The land is breathtaking with moments that provide authentic heartfelt experiences, you just need to scratch below the surface.. and have a few rupees in your pocket if you expect a paper towel after you wash your hands.