Sri Lanka: Part One: carribean-style beaches, 6 foot monitor lizards, and tourists
Part Two: Hills, Tea, and free women.
Where to begin....
Upon arriving in Sri Lanka around 10pm on December 10th, things looked quite similar to India. At night, with all the shops already closed, we drove past clothing stores, mobile phone stores, small restaurants, and everything had a very "India" feel to it. With a plane ride that lasted no more than one hour, I didn't expect a stark difference. Just some time away from work, the apartment, and a busy city.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Sri Lanka, once day broke, is a world away from India in terms of culture, government, and society.
Let's start with the government. Everywhere in Sri Lanka are pictures of the current president. A fair skinned man, he adorns himself with a burly, yet conservative mustache and has a wide smile. In many pictures he is wearing all white with a red scarf/shawl wrapped around his neck. For whatever reason, the more I see a politician on posters, the less I trust him. But I was too quick to judge this man - he's done a lot of good, but some bad comes along with it.
Let's start with the good. If he never became president, I would never have been able to visit Sri Lanka. One picture of him, decked out in military uniform, giving a salute, explains why. He was the president that increased the Sri Lankan army's morale and fighting power and put a stop to the Tamil Tigers. Apparently he just kept pressing, shooting and bombarding the last of the Tamil Tigers' strongholds until it fell. Now Sri Lanka lives in a peace where tourists and locals alike can roam the streets without any fear. Don't let the strong military presence in the streets put a stop to you feeling safe - if it weren't for those young men standing around with AKs, a bomb could have gone off anywhere.
As for the bad though, he's not very good with the economy. Before him, the Sri Lankan rupee was about equal to the Indian Rupee. As compared to the USD, they were almost even (between Rs. 40 and Rs. 50 to the dollar). Now however, one USD equals Rs. 112. Comparatively, that's pretty bad... he s made the Sri Lankan rupee terribly weak. So why did I end up spending so much money in a country where (technically) I'm so much richer?
Prices are extravagantly higher. Here in India, I can go out onto the street and pay between Rs. 5-10 for a cup of coffee or chai. When I asked the lady who exchanged the money what the value of the Sri Lankan rupee is (using that example) she simply laughed and said "this is not India". If I want a cup of tea at a small tea joint, I pay around Rs. 60. If I want a nice espresso at an upscale coffee shop, I pay Rs. 220. Sure, compared to a dollar its still nothing - but I've stopped thinking like that ages ago. I'm making rupees, and I have to think in rupees. Therefore, I'm spending a lot more money in Sri Lanka than I would for the same things in India.
When we reached the hill town of Kandy (which we were told is dirty and overcrowded) I had no idea what to expect. Instead, to my surprise, Kandy, another hill city was exquisite and beautiful. Somewhat crowded, but extremely worth it when it comes to the bustling markets all over the city. Was it dirty? I laugh in the face of the fool that tried to fool us. Kandy is beyond clean. At least compared to India it was closer to a New York than Bangalore. Everyday in the morning garbage trucks came and picked up the trash, street sweepers moved debris off the to side, and people used the appropriate receptacles (which speaks a lot for the culture/society as well!)
And not a pothole in the ground. Traffic ran smoothly, with equal honking as India, but with an efficiency that I have yet to see in any Indian city. There were lines on the road to designate lanes, crosswalks, and stop lights. How is this different from India? Well for one, you can have stop lights all over India, but you still better look both ways even if it's green - many, or most from what I've seen, simply don't pay attention to the stop lights. What about crosswalks? I'll illustrate this with a small example:
Let's say I'm in Bangalore and I want to cross a busy Indian street. I look both ways and wait for the first three feet or so to have no traffic. I step out and notice the next three feet has traffic, so I wait a distance (some inches) where I won't be clothes lined by a side-view mirror, and then when I have enough space again, I move into the next three feet. Think of it like a giant game of frogger where you are the frog. Only this time the cars are real. And if you get hit, you don't get to start on the side of the road again. When doing this, you aren't watching the cars or the drivers, but instead looking right behind the car about to pass you to see if you can walk as soon as it passes. Make sense?
Here's Sri Lanka: Look both ways. Walk out onto the street when it's somewhat clear. I see a car coming so I position myself just far enough away to not get clothes lined and look beyond the car to see if there are more behind it. Only this time something strange happens. I look beyond the car, but my view is blocked. By the car. The car that was coming stopped. I was so astounded, I actually stood in the middle of the street like a fool not really sure of what was going on. "Why would you stop?" I wanted to ask the driver. I was amazed, before my foot even touched the street, people began to stop to let pedestrians pass. As we traveled more and more, my opinion of Sri Lanka improved.
Society was just efficient there. I'm not sure where they put the garbage on such a small island, but when the ugly isn't as apparent (as it is in India) it's way more beautiful and appealing. Society worked, government was working (to my knowledge), and people were friendly. This all translated to the culture....
Sri Lankan culture. Nothing what I expected. No head-nods, no staring, and women didn't cast down their eyes when they saw you. It was again, a world away from India. The only thing that got annoying (as what I expect in any country where you stick out like a sore thumb) was the question, "your country?" I ended up saying India most of the time (being that I'm living here) and some people sort of accepted and walked away, others asked me again "no no, you're country" to which I repeated "India". Some people laughed and didn't believe me, to which I acted outraged, raising my voice saying, "What, India can't have any white residents? I was born in Bangalore!" etc, etc. If you aren't laughing, don't worry about it, it was funny in the moment.
Next having to do with culture that was a stark difference to me were the women. Women didn't all dress in sarees. They didn't cast down or cover their eyes when they saw me, and they openly embraced their significant others. One day, myself, Jodi, and a friend of ours that we met (Paddy Screech), went to visit a botanical garden. Quite possibly the most beautiful botanical garden I have ever seen, the area was huge, covered in trees, vines and places to hide. It was a common site to see young couples arm in arm, sneaking kisses behind trees or in the shadows. Something that you rarely see in most of India (I stress the most, it's not impossible to see, just no common practice).
Men and women walked hand in hand. Many, many women wore shirts that might be a little low-cut or showed their shoulders. Overall, when observing the way women acted in Sri Lanka, they just appeared.... happier, I suppose. But it's more than that. It's a combination of confidence, happiness, and feeling more free (I don't want to impose this feeling on them, but this is what I gathered from my trip). And it was a great thing to see. I can also understand why they might have felt more free. Even as tourists, the stares I received from people were mostly kept at a minimum. It's like people didn't really care if I was there or not - and that was a wonderful feeling. In India, even in my neighborhood where I am frequently seen, people still stare and gaze. In Sri Lanka - barely. I felt more free knowing that they really didn't care if I was there or not. What a wonderful country.
Next post, I'll post where we landed, where we started, where we ended up, and how we traveled. We went to three major places, and they were all wonderful. In the mean time, enjoy some pictures. Just click on the Sri Lanka album once you get to the page. The other pictures of India are from my last time (in 2008) and not my current trip in India.