This country has surely been an interesting start to our journey. While often it has not been as we expected, it is a land of small surprises. To finish Sri Lanka I thought I would share a few quirks that have made Sri Lanka a unique experience for us.
I have never been to a country so obsessed with cleaning. Every morning the entire country seems to get up and with broom in hand attack anything that is not nailed down. It is to the point that a walk through a national park was along a path that had been swept clear of leaves (which seem to be a mortal enemy of the clean-living people). The flip side of this obsession is that once said leaves are piled up they are burnt with vengeance so the air is constantly smoky and haze is ever-present.
Houses here vary greatly. The very poor live in little more than elaborate thatched shacks but still maintain the no leaves anywhere policy. Those who are doing better have houses of rendered brick that often seem to be in a constant state of being built. People here do not borrow to build so as the money comes in the house improves. Grass seems to be a big no no, with every house surrounded by swept dirt right up to the walls. That said even the poorest home has some sort of flower garden to brighten the scene.
Richer houses are painted in surprisingly gaudy colours with pinks, purples and shades of orange being big favourites. Every house is fenced with fencing being anything from simple wire between sticks in the ground to great big brick walls to keep out prying eyes. From what I have seen a big gate is a sign of wealth and even the simplest fence might have a massive gate. The rich live in huge multi-storey homes with all manner of elaborate additions. If the chandeliers we have seen in Colombo lighting shops are anything to go by I suspect the inside lacks for nothing.
Traveling on public transport has certainly been an experience. Local buses have signs across the front window listing the start and finish point and as long as you know which route your destination lies on it is pretty straight forward. The bus conductors (and by this I mean the guys that take the money by roaming up and down the aisle) have proven to be brilliant. As tourists and the only white people on the bus they tend to look after us and will tell us when we should get off. Now getting on and off buses can be a bit tricky for 2 reasons. Reason 1 – the bus only slows down just enough to be legally considered stopped so you have to be ready. On the bus time is money so having bags ready and being quick on the feet is a must. The other reason is that the buses can be beyond packed. They squeeze as many people on as they can and we have hopped on one bus where I managed to get through the back door into the aisle whereas Dave was literally hanging on in the doorway. An exciting way to travel as long as the journey is not too long.
I think the most squeezed we have been though was on the train. Local trains are terrific. They range in ‘luxury’ from airconditioned (which was freezing and very expensive) to the kind of seating we would see on any train at home to bench seats along the side with standing room through the middle which is generally pretty good and super cheap. We caught a train on a Saturday afternoon in Colombo out to a beachside suburb where we were planning on staying. We had all of our gear and when we got on it was already standing room only so we tucked our bags between our feet and grabbed a hand hold. There were only 4 stops but I think at each stop at least another 20 people got on. It got to the point where they were hanging out of the train doors and we were in a very close and personal crush. I can honestly say that I have never been that close to so many strangers anywhere. I was more intense than any music concert I have ever been to. The problem of course then becomes, how the hell do we get our bags up off the floor and get off the train. Thankfully it was pretty easy with a lot of others also getting out at our stop. Made for quite an experience.
Local beach goers here are very different from home. No one just lies on the beach. Whole families come down and everyone is either in the water or playing a game on the beach or making some kind of sandcastles (and yes I mean adults making sandcastles). The gents wear swimming costumes while the ladies are all fully clothed. It seemed a bit weird to see a bloke in speedos walking into the water hand-in-hand with his lady in her jeans, belt and pretty top. Most of the tourist towns along the coast have no local bathers but at Matara in the south and Mount Lavinia on the outskirts of Colombo they come in their hundreds. And again, unlike swimmers at home, they stay in the water until after dusk. It is only when it starts to get truly dark that they pack up and head home.
The local people are very friendly with many people waving and calling hello as we pass. Often we will be sitting at a train station and someone will come up and just practice their English on us, which can be both a good thing and a hard job. Usually the conversation dries up pretty fast when they run out of English questions to ask and they smile, thank us and wander off. In Kandy we had 4 school boys approach and ask if we spoke English (there are a lot of Russian and French travelers here) and when they found out we did they asked if they could talk to us. Their English was terrific but like all Sinhalese they spoke so quickly that we still had difficulty keeping up. It is moments like that that make travel so worthwhile 🙂