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Sri Lanka- where are the other tourists?!

SRI LANKA | Monday, 15 March 2010 | Views [3400]

Colombo- the Crazy Capital…

I wound up in Sri Lanka after Borneo. Its one of the most interesting places I‘ve been to. Its not wonderful, but its not horrible either. I guess it’s a bit of a roller coaster here, with ups and downs as frequent as the tuk tuks pull over to ask you to take a ride.. Which is at a rate of about 3-5 tuk tuk solicitations per minute- literally, because there are over 300,000 tuk tuks in the tiny sized city of Colombo! It has cows in the street, tons of mangy wild dogs, and a ridiculously huge population of ear piercing crows. It’s the type of place where you see “Happy New Year and Merry X-mas” written in fake snow in the window of a lamp store in the middle of March! And elephants living in temples and parks.

I met some really cool people and I'm having fun.... but the tourism thing hasn’t quite gotten off the ground yet, and so going places and doing things is a bit of a hassle. Actually everything is a hassle. From ordering food, to finding an address, buying groceries, crossing the street and bargaining prices. Convenience is just not a way of life here, but the locals accept it and have a funny way of bobbling their heads and saying it is what it is and then doing the famous Indian yes, no, maybe wobble with a huge smile. The war is over, but this was only as of May 2009, so there’s virtually no tourists, and there’s men with machine guns all over Colombo! They are guards, so while they make Colombo safer, they also seem kind of scary, because… why do they have to have such big dramatic guns? Is there a reason so many soldiers carry them that I don’t know about?

The streets of Colombo are crazy. Very hot, lots of funky smells, loud horn beeping cars, busses, and tuk tuks, crumbled sidewalks, beggars, touts, armed guards, and no traffic lights, so its always a dash for your life. Its exhausting to walk 3 blocks! But Shawn, the woman I’m staying with has a beautiful apartment that is like a sanctuary to come “home” to after the outside craziness. And the atmosphere of Colombo is definitely exotic and exciting! The transition from high to low, rich to poor, feeling uncomfortable and then feeling like royalty is a constant here.

I turned vegetarian, not by choice but out of necessity. I’m so skeeved out by the meat, even in nice restaurants, its funky. I nearly threw up in the aisle of the “nicer” Keel’s supermarket when I looked into and smelled the meat counter! Sri Lankan food is one of the spiciest in the world. Apparently, it makes Indian food seem bland and Thai spicy taste watered down. But, I love spicy food, and there’s tons of creative vegetable dishes, so I’m loving it. I ate different kinds of vegetable curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner on the same day! The supermarkets have few choices of brands and everything I bought the other day was rotten or tampered with! The instant coffee forms a thick pile of chunky white stuff at the bottom of my cup (and the expiry date isn't til Dec. 2012) and the soy milk I bought was sealed on the outside, but the inner seal was broken and it smells like rotten cow milk. So I can't drink either of them! But, the 5-star hotels serve ridiculously nice meals from about $5-10 US. The irony is that the food at the supermarket is more expensive than eating at 5-star hotels for most stuff. I saw a box of cereal for $16!!!! The cost of living in Sri Lanka is phenomenal compared to the wages most people earn. Minimum wage is about $60 per month.

I went for afternoon tea with Shawn at the Galle Face hotel (big, nice, fancy, famous aristocratic place), and one of the staff dropped a glass behind me, and a shard cut my leg open and I was bleeding a bit. I wasn’t too concerned, but Shawn made a point to tell the staff that I was bleeding. Their response was, “so?“ Shawn: “um, she is BLEEDING. You cut her!“ Staff: “yes, ok.“ Lots of things just don't make sense here...

I saw some interesting deformities. A guy at the train station had 6 toes. And I rented a room from an old man in Hikkaduwa with a pregnant lady’s belly button- it was bigger than a marshmallow! And a man with a freaking cobra in a basket spied me and Shawn from across Victoria park, and proceeded to start playing his flute to get the snake to come out of the basket and dance for him. When he saw the horrified look on our faces and us start to head out the opposite gate he was in charming his snake in front of, he shoved the snake (a freaking COBRA!) back into the basket and proceeded to chase us! The horrified look on our faces turned to terror as we dashed across the major street to get away from snake man, dodging busses and cars instead of his deadly basket.

Another day, Shawn and I rented a tuk tuk with a wild driver named Cristo took us on a nerve shattering ride all over Colombo. Whenever we almost crashed, he would erupt in song and then laugh like a goat! We went in a Hindu temple with beggars, rats, cats and filthy floors. They made us take off our shoes at the front, then pay to enter. Then pay extra to take photos, then the “guide” of the temple begged us for money, then the guy who “watched” our shoes asked us for a ridiculous amount of money to get them back! Cristo rode up in his red tuk tuk like a Singhala speaking hero, and got us back our shoes for only $1 each pair. There’s lots of people waiting around for opportunities to make money from whatever few tourists there are here. And foreigners are definitely charged a higher rate than the locals for almost everything: tuk tuks, museums, retail goods, and admission prices to temples.

I got an aruvedic massage at Siddahlepa, one of the most renowned massage centers in Sri Lanka. That was interesting. First, I had to meet with the doctor, who took my pulse and asked me if I had any ailments. I said, “Yes, my cellulite thighs!” So she prescribed a special blend of oils for my massage. And they use the oil in higher quantities than a fast food restaurant. This was the first massage where I was ordered (very firmly) to “strip off EVERYTHING”, and get on the table. By the end of the massage, I was sliding all around, embarrassed and naked. It was a good massage, but I kept freaking out about how I was fully naked and uncovered in front of the lady who was oiling me up. Then, she gave me a glass of some crazy tasting elixir, and made me walk around on a path where huge rocks were sticking out of the floor. Think hot coal walking, minus the heat! It was a nice place, clean and better value than most. Even though it was my first treatment, I think it was also my last here.

I went to a place called Sari Kingdom in Majestic City that makes custom saris and shovars (tunics). I had 2 tunics made for $25. The cotton material cost $19, yet the labor to sew both customized tunics and a scarf was only $6. Another case where the pricing on stuff seems off. A family of 8 women all work in a store the size of a shoe box. And they are very hard to bargain with. Their materials cost anywhere from $10 for ugly crap, up to $900 for sequined, jeweled works of art. I got some funny pictures of being bossed around by Farina, and shrewd seamstress. But my tunics came out great, and although it was an overwhelming and grueling 2 hour selection, negotiation and fitting process, I’m happy.

I discovered that the Hash Hound Harriers has an active chapter in Colombo. No, they are not drug runners, they are a running club that drinks beer after they run, and call each other silly names and have elaborate ceremonies. I went on a run, and got a ride with someone who works at the embassy. I didn’t realize it, but he was the ring leader, and the dude in the circle who conducted the festivies afterwards. I felt like I arrived in a hornet’s nest after I found this out, because they make sure to call attention to the visitors and the newcomers. If you’re ever joined them for a run, you’ll know what I mean. It was fun to run through a Sri Lankan village outside of Colombo. We ran through a rice paddy, and although I was scared of snakes in the tall, dry grass, I couldn’t help but feel energized by the countryside. A herd of cows crossed the road, and we got to glimpse villagers’ daily afternoon routine. The hash run is $6, which includes all you can drink beer, soda and water, and dinner afterwards. Can’t beat the price, the exercise or the laughs at a hash run!

Yes, Sri Lanka is all very interesting. And it is a bit like a nicer, cleaner, less hectic version of India, which I am skipping on this trip because I’m too freaked out to try to travel there alone! Its got colorful sari’s, Hindu temples, nice scenic countryside, Indian-like food, and wild things living in the streets.

Tags: colombo, culture, sri lanka, temples, tuk tuks

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