Surviving Sri Lanka


Unawatuna beach in early morning

When I returned from Sri Lanka a couple of weeks ago, I got the typical question from friends, family, and coworkers: How was it? I’ve never been more baffled providing an answer. I managed to deduce it to this: Beautiful. Scary. And sometimes, pretty gross (which in my case, is mostly attributable to the thriving insect population).

I kept being struck by conflicting feelings everywhere I went. In the south, in Polhena, palm trees curve outward over the ocean like a scene from a postcard and stick fishermen are perched on poles for hours with the blue sky as a backdrop. But if you continue along the sand you’ll find a stretch that’s a virtual graveyard, strewn with remnants of the 2004 tsunami – brick walls, toilets, and sculptures lay battered and broken on the beach. Now the water that was once so violent and destructive to these homes and guesthouses only gently prods at their remains.

Rubble from the tsunami scattered on Polhena’s beaches

In Unawatuna, which was also wiped out by the tsunami but rebuilt successfully, the contrast is a peaceful-looking half moon of shoreline that gets pummeled with unpredictable, thunderous waves. You might be walking ankle deep in the surf or have laid a towel far from the water and suddenly find yourself thigh-deep or chasing after the towel as it gets sucked away by an erratic surge.

I found people everywhere who were so hospitable, and thought how hard it will be to adjust to being back in New York, where you could walk past someone with a smile and just be ignored. In Sri Lanka, their smiles beam back at you, a hardened, weathered face will soften and transform when they see you grin. But at the same time, there is a lingering cloud left by a long civil war between the government and a separatist group in the north, and my heart just about stopped when a bus ride was interrupted by machine-gun-firing, camouflage-clad military. (I later learned this was just an exercise, the shots were blanks.) Still, with such a violent conflict that ended just over a year ago, you still sit on the edge of your seat when something like that happens.

So when people asked me how my trip was, it was hard to sum it up in a short, socially acceptable answer. This wasn’t a vacation. It was a journey. The peaks of the hill country town Ella and the temples of Kandy were hard-won victories, trudging through torrential rain or up some of the steepest inclines to savor them. The stories of family members lost in the tsunami and the sight of concrete walls built to block any future wall of water evoke solemnity, but is tempered by the vibrant spirit of the people and their awe-inspiring landscape. You’ll feel dirty, exhausted, elated, and serene.

There is no short answer, there’s actually no answer but to go experience it for yourself.

The dagoba near Jungle Beach in Unawatuna

The main form of local transport is bus or tuktuk, which is basically a covered three wheeler. Buses are super inexpensive, but while a ride may cost pennies take note that 1) it may be standing room only (and you’ll be part of the crush wherever you may be sitting or standing) 2) they do not have air conditioning and 3) you never know how well it’s maintained (I.e. a flat tire). Tuktuks, on the other hands, are little taxis that again have no air-conditioning, but are a bit more expensive, reliable, and daring as they zip in and out of traffic. With a tuktuk driver, always make sure to negotiate the rate before you get in. Trains are often wonderfully scenic (go south from Colombo to Galle and you’ll have the ocean to your right a good portion of the ride) but also get packed, so make sure you get tickets early and board early. A kind of irritating phenomenon is the fact that Sri Lankans don’t tend to wait in line, they’ll cut you at the ticket counter or while you’re boarding, so be quick and guard your place.

While most Sri Lankans eat with their hands, you’ll most likely be provided with utensils anywhere you eat. I did hear that it’s considered rude to eat with your left hand, and that it’s also rude to blow or wipe your nose at the table – which can be quite a feat to avoid considering the spicy dishes and curries the country favors. Also, don’t forget to remove your shoes at any temples you may visit. Yes, your feet are going to get very, very dirty. Save the pedicures for after your return home, and toss some wet wipes in your bag to help clean up before slipping your shoes back on.

Dutch architectural remnants can still be seen in Galle

The currency in Sri Lanka is the rupee, and you will never have too many small bills. The ATMs will spit out 2,000 rupee bills, which many tuktuk drivers, store clerks, and guesthouses may have a hard time breaking. Whenever possible, keep your small bills on you. That will also help with tuktuk negotiations. Tipping is generally

Many of the guesthouses I stayed in didn’t have window screens to keep bugs out, and both bug repellants I bought (a natural-based one and a deep-woods super DEET) failed miserably. Find something super strength to bring, and coat yourself everywhere and often. Mosquitoes are numerous, and though rare, there are pockets of malaria and dengue fever in the country (you can also get anti-malarial drugs before you leave if you’re really concerned). Bring some calamine too – I neglected to do so, and could’ve used it on the 48 bites I tallied one evening. You may also encounter a host of other colorful insects, some beautiful (dragonflies and unique butterflies) and some not so beautiful (terrestrial leeches in the rainforest, stinging caterpillars in Polhena). Be prepared, mentally at the very least.

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