Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sri Lanka: Impossibly Beautiful

I was under a decade old when I was given my very first globe. I distinctly recall playing my favorite past-time one afternoon, spinning the globe and seeing what remote place my finger would land on, when I was introduced to the small island nation in the Indian Ocean: Sri Lanka. I remember picking my mother's brain for information and learning to pronounce this faraway land with an "sh" emphasis - Shri Lanka.

Having not yet developed my insatiable travel curiosity, Sri Lanka was placed into a filing cabinet in the back of my mind and remained a remote place that only existed in books and movies. Never did I imagine that I'd find myself 15 years later in the very place my little finger touched on the globe.

I was initially attracted to Sri Lanka because tourism has not yet hit here as it has exploded in Southeast Asia. Word among travelers was it's an ideal time to visit before the masses discover Sri Lanka's impossible beauty.
By the shore in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Since the travel path remains relatively unbeaten, the country lacks an abundance of tourist infrastructure and an ideal route is still being paved. Along with the nature of a less touristic place comes many challenges,which can be more rewarding once overcome. With so many wonderful places to visit, public transportation tending to only go certain way and without much up-to-date transit information, we found it initially hard to devise a logical route in Sri Lanka.

Many tourists opt to spend more cash and hire a driver to take them around the island. But, the public transportation is enticingly cheap. As long-term travelers, we were sold on the local transit at a meager thirty cent per hour being the average cost. (For example, a 4-hour bus was about $1.25. Hugely cheaper than even Southeast Asia!)
Emily and I after visiting one of many tea plantations & factories
 Sri Lanka is a huge exporter of tea!
That being said, you get what you pay for. I've experienced more cramped, awkward and uncomfortable vehicles over the past 14 months in SE Asia than I could count on my fingers, but the buses of Sri Lanka take the lead. The buses are extremely small, including seats that can barely squeeze even my petite bottom. Every inch and aisle has people packed like sardines. If you're taking a public bus in Sri Lanka, prepare to be handed a child or two to sit on your lap. Brave the heat and gasoline stench, and try to direct your vision forward only, away from the child puking on your right side and the man's crotch view standing in the aisle on your left (true story).

Trains are definitely the better options as usual, and can actually be extremely enjoyable if not over-crowded. The open-aired rickety trains chugging through the scenic mountains and tea plantations of Sri Lanka reminded us of a toy train set. 
Always making friends on the trains!
Though it was not meant to rain in December, I've been explained that in Sri Lanka it rains when it's not supposed to and doesn't rain when it's supposed to, and thus, it was raining. Most things to do and places to visit are heavily outdoor related (bummer!)

As the weather was gloomy and our wardrobes were not adequate for the cold front, we were unable to do much of anything we'd hoped to do. We made the mistake of traveling too often the first few days in the hopes of clearer weather (though the scenic train rides made the time spent worthwhile).Turns out, Sri Lanka deserves more pre-planning, including a back-up plan for the unpredictable weather.

The number one thing we'd hoped to do in Sri Lanka we were forced to give up on: hiking the sacred site Sri Pada (Adam's Peak) that Buddhists hold to be Buddha's footprint, Hindus believe is Shiva, and Muslims and Christians regard as Adam's footprint.. Adam's Peak is a revered site for many religions and draws pilgrims from all over the world during the December-February season to hike all night in order to arrive by sunrise. We were so excited to experience what is described as a magical pilgrimage, but the conditions forced us to resign hope.

Wet, cold and frustrated about our poor luck, we decided to evacuate for warmer weather as quickly as we could (surely my tolerance is distorted from living in SE Asia, but it was frigid!) An awful 7 hour bus later, we made it to a little peace of heaven:  Mirissa Beach.
Ahhh, that's better!
Mirissa Beach, Sri Lanka
The family running Shehan Guesthouse made us feel right at home and their guest log filled with claims that Momma was the greatest cook in Sri Lanka was not false. Even though the 300 rupee meal ($2.30 USD) was double what we were often paying elsewhere, both dinners I had from Momma were some of the most incredible meals I've ever had. The popular Sri Lankan dish “rice and curry" is a generic term to describe a plate of rice with heaping portions of 5-6 fresh “curries” of the daily special. With such complex, intricate flavoring, it's hard to believe she can just whip up six different dishes in under an hour.
My other favorite experience of the week was staying with a local family in Colombo , who was Emily's friend's friend, Chinthuka. After spending time on the public transportation, witnessing and speaking with the common-folk majority in Sri Lanka, we understood instantly that our host family was part of the extremely wealthy and elite one percent of Sri Lanka. While the life Chinthaka showed us arguably wasn't the "real" majority of Sri Lanka, it added an interesting perspective and we learned a lot from our welcoming hosts.
We gave these local girls in the train station
Emily's "Chicago" magnet
We attended their friend's Christmas cocktail party as the token backpackers in not-fancy enough beach dresses, shmoozing with the socialites and most influential business people of Sri Lanka. This particular crowd was educated at international schools, spent years living abroad and communicate in English as their primary language (I was shocked some of them were able to get by living in Sri Lanka without knowing Sinhala). Afterward, we were taken to the hottest night club, where I continuously had to remind myself - I'm in Sri Lanka!
Chinthuka and Emily
Kottu (with melted cheese!)
What a treat it was to stay in a home, and a lovely home at that! After a solid sleep and the best shower I've had in the year of being away, we were awakened by the live-in housekeeper for an incredible Western breakfast. Chinthuka played tour guide around Colombo, teaching us a lot about the culture, history and his life. The day was ended with another memorable Sri Lankan dish, Kottu (chopped up roti stir-fried with meat or vegetables - spicy!)

Sri Lanka is beautiful. Because the rain put us off the mountain areas, none of the pictures I have begin to do it justice. I tried to capture the beauty whilst hanging off the train, but it was definitely one of those experiences better enjoyed with the five senses. In addition to the breathtaking scenery, I enjoyed learning about the rich culture and history - and maybe you will be interested in a brief overview, too.

Toy train fun!
In short, Sri Lanka, known until 1972 as Ceylon, has a democratic government despite the official name "Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka." Once colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. Sri Lanka is a 70% Buddhist country with plenty of Muslims, Hindus and even Christians around. The official language is Sinhala of the Sinhalese people, but Tamil is another official language of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and Southern India. Tamil and Sinhala are unrelated, each with their own written script. Most street signs in Colombo are displayed in Tamil, Sinhala and English. Tamil and Sinhalese people have long fought for peace, recently ending a civil war only just a few years ago. Another point of note - Sri Lanka was hit hard by the 2004 South Asian tsunami, killing over 35,000 people.
Sri Lankan men commonly wear a sarong/skirt out and about!
Train station friends (note the mom forcing the embrace!)
Dolphin spotting in Mirissa, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Inside this room is said to lie Buddha's tooth which is secured in gold casing. The door to the locked and guarded room is only open for thirty minutes per day during a daily ceremony, and this is the closest you can get to it.
View of Colombo from Chinthaka's friend's apartment
I happily spent Christmas morning scuba diving in the Indian Ocean off of Negombo, Sri Lanka. I can hardly believe that I will finally be in India tonight!


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