Posted on January 28 2015
As you descend from the clouds and glimpse the edge of this vast island, you are struck by the greenness of the place. In fact, up until the moment you drop onto the Tarmac, lush, tropical green dominates every little hamlet, village and yard.
Sri Lanka, once called 'Sarendip' (like 'sarendipity'), curiously fitting into the side of India's Southeastern groove on maps, is most certainly a tropical island, offering unique flora and fauna, dating back epochs to the early shifting of tectonic plates. It is also thrusting forward in development, with the last strangleholds of Tamil resistance brought to order, and a decades long civil war hopefully a thing of the past. Construction is everywhere, and you sense expectations are high for the future.
The Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, has not moved as fast as its neighbors in the Internet age, despite signs abounding at every guest house and coffee shop offering 'free wi-fi."
No, the crawl credit must be given to the word "socialist" in the official name of the republic.
Only 30 years ago, nearly half the world called themselves Communists, and Karl Marx ranked slightly behind Jesus as the "100 Most Influential People of All Time." With economic progress replacing ideologies as the more important tenant in people's lives [was it ever really different?], socialism has taken a back seat to that capitalist but necessary 'evil' of market economics, and people dream about Nike cross-trainers and less about being a Youth Purge cadet.
Mostly that is, except in places still clinging to the Socialist ideal, like France and Sri Lanka, where the middle class is hard to find and maybe harder to sustain.
Take our driver for the week. He is in his fifties, three boys around college age, and an intelligent, informed, fluent English speaker, that spoke intelligently from the get go.
It was not long before he showed us his photo album chronicling his journey, from driver for the American Ambassador nearly thirty years earlier, to working in logistics, then management, and finally choosing once again to be a driver in the tourism business.
As my wife Niki said: "it didn't pay to stand out," and later, James, the driver, confirmed it.
"People just want more money but don't want to give more service for it," said James about his former staff, numbering about 20 in the album photo.
The Sri Lankans are wonderfully friendly, and children and adults wave when they see you pass in jalopy or train window, on the street, and in the pool. They ask where you are from, asking if I was from 'Minnesota' when I said 'USA.'
The men are quite handsome, tall and masculine, few sporting mustaches that used to be the hallowed ground of the Indian male. The women with rounded faces and considerably more rounded bodies than the Sri Lankan male, dress quite conservatively, in long dresses or jeans, shoulders and elbows covered.
Alcohol is highly regulated, and was not permitted to be sold anywhere during the Buddhist new year! (Thankfully, our hotel would provide us the elixir but not on the first day of the Festival).
While still socialist in name and training, the average Sri Lankan understands how to earn extra rupees though.
After exiting immigration, the newly upgraded airport channels you through 100m of duty free shops, selling the usual duty free items like liquor and smoke, and the not so usual, refrigerators, rice cookers and TV sets.
And then at every opportunity money changes hands, you are expected to pay more. At the Sacred Tooth Relic temple, where locals go free, tourists are pulled aside and asked to pay 1000 RS, about $8.50, and double that to enter national parks, presumably set up by the British, Dutch or Portuguese who each colonized Sri Lanka for over a 100 years.
The safari was similar. While I did not see a foreign couple in anything but their own jeep, we spotted many Sri Lankan jeeps creaking from the families poured inside. One converted truck packed 16, including a lap sitter wedged in with the driver up front (the jeeps are designed for 6 seats in the back and a flat seat up front, sharing space for a stick shift). We shared the same watering holes, and as my wife pointed out from dozens of jeeps careening around the park with no apparent protocol for passing (left, right, between two others), it was really a "people watching safari" (although we did see a leapard sleeping in a tree, elephants, Touchans, peacocks, buffaloes, a wild hog, two crocs, and a few colorful birds).
At our fancy hotel where all food is served under gleaming silver-plated domes, we were served bottled water, and when I pointed out that our Sri Lankan neighbors miraculously had water in their glasses without bottles nearby, the waiter answered my inquiry with 'jug water,' the implication that our species could not, or that their species knows water should be free [side note: all the roadside items we bought have a little 'maximum retail price' on them, and vendors appear to stick to the 50 Rp a bottle ($0.40)], even in train stations where theirs was the only source, the temperature was sizzling and we had a two hour wait...
But this is really no different than most of Southeast Asia actually, where bargaining from a high price is par for the course, and tourist places the world over try to extract what they can get away with.
That noted, I've never seen a Thai vendor get incensed when I offered the same money as the Sri Lankan before me paid for his corn, who then dumped my corns back in the pot, angrily clicking his tongue as though I had committed the mother of faux pas, when it was he who asked for 3 times the going price.
Then there are the cultural differences which add in the end to cultural understanding of value systems and culture .
The buffet was swept like a typhoon, from left to right at the same time, with small children pressing in between the trunk legs of the bigger patrons, like wind ripping through swaying palm trees; it was a 'free for all.'
There was ample food to go around, but Sri Lankans don't linger; the buffet opened at 7:30 and I was the last one sipping tea at 8:30.
Most had cleared out within minutes of finishing their second course, and I saw only one single man playing with his phone. Eating was business, and too many systems and rules too fussy, like those Europeans without humor at the buffet, to timid to snatch plates, or dart in for trays that interest them.
Dessert was mixture of beautifully shaped circuses rings but with the consistency of tortilla chips left to stale for several days. And a baked sweet triangle with barely enough flavor to identify it as a sweet. The grey color did not help the appetizing factor, and perhaps dessert is really a silly practice anyway, everyone knowing dessert has no vitamin value.
The Sri Lankans try though, and their intentions pure, which is some consolation as my lunch appeared different from my actual order three lunches in a row. (Yes, I blew my calm on lunch #2, where all my 'I wanna talk to the chef' resulting in my bill being 'slashed' by Rp 200 ($1.50)
After learning the beach was merely two kilometers from our 'safari hotel,' we discovered they had a 'tented camp' set up on a private beach, and could arrange dinner and camp fire, which proved to be the most magical evening of our trip. After playing in the surf, we enjoyed dinner from a driftwood-assembled viewing platform two stories high, a full tangerine moon lighting up the shoreline (unbeknown to us, the moon suffered an eclipse making it a 'Blood Moon'.)
There we took turns making up chapters in an imaginary story, giggling at the imagination of children. We were the only guests on an untouched beach, looking like it must have a million years ago. The Cost: Rs 2000 ($15); Experience: priceless.
Sri Lanka has a bright tourism future. Few places in the world can offer the variety of micro-climates and activities reachable in a day. Before lunchtime, you can traverse from fog-hugged tea plantations to 'African' bush land safaris, and empty beaches pounded by the Indian sea.
The people are friendly, the food tasty, and prices wallet friendly; the roads drivable, train journeys memorable. Come quick.