The thing about going somewhere you know nothing about is that everything is a surprise. But not all surprises are good.
The inspiration/guide for our Sri Lankan adventure was the in-flight magazine provided by Sri Lankan Airlines. Not a method I would recommend! After scouring the articles for substance, we came away with one direction. Get to Yala National Park for baby leopard season which was perfectly timed for our arrival. The hard part, how do we get there? It was only 300km away from the Colombo airport, which should be more accurately called the Negombo airport since it was an hour or more from the capital…it’s like if we called an airport in Vacaville, SFO. Slightly misleading. So we’ll just rent a car! Oh wait…bad idea.
The tourism kiosk at the airport recommended the seemingly perfect 6 day Sri Lanka route while sneakily passing us off to a “helpful” associate who could give us more information about car rental and driver services. Had we not been so unprepared, we may have realized this was the first of many “what’s going on?” moments we would incur over the next 6 days. The car rental guy immediately showed us that to rent a car was about $60 US per day plus gasoline. Lucky for us (sarcastically), he had a deal where we could get a driver to take us around and pay for the gas, all for the same price. The price didn’t sound crazy, but we were planning to spend a maximum of $60 US per day while in Sri Lanka. Joshua began to ask around, got the guy down to $45 per day and just bit the bullet. Perhaps we would enjoy the scenery more as passengers—no more maps in my lap or time wasted asking for directions.
The wait for our driver was outrageous. The salesman told us that the price was so low they were having trouble finding a driver to accept it. Seriously?!? So now we would spend 6 days with the most desperate driver they could find as a reward for Joshua’s negotiations. In addition, we were told we could locate our own cheap accommodations (as opposed to taking his suggestions), but the driver may have to sleep in the car and skip meals. So now we were the bad guy if we didn’t stay where they got commission wanted us to. They also told us to budget another $250 in entrance fees for the attractions we hadn’t planned on visiting. It was all too much to take in at 6AM. And later we pieced together the company does not even have cars to rent…the drivers use their own cars! It seems we haven’t learned as much as we thought on the road. We should have gone to the Maldives.
Opting for free-spirited adventure, we decided to go with the flow and hope for the best…all while running through the possible ways we were about to get screwed. This is the paradox that we deal with on a daily basis. We want to be open, to converse, to trust everyone we meet, but more often than not, there is a catch. What’s your name? Where are you from? Can I show you what I’m selling? In countries where English is not prevalent, we may get a visual cue of a hand out or simply the word “money.” Just writing this makes me feel a little heartless, but we are seriously becoming immune to it. If a random person wants to give you a present (ie a special rock or a flower), don’t take it—it’s not a gift.
Here’s an example: our first stop was Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. When one of the uniformed boys working by the river offered to take our picture with one of the elephants we said, “sure.” Before handing the camera back, he said, “money.” Joshua said, “what?” “Money,” he repeated. Effff. For us, that was Sri Lanka in a nutshell.
I don’t usually offer too much actual information about the places we visit, but since we had to look at a map after purchasing the airline tickets just to locate the country, it would probably help. Sri Lanka is an island off the Southeast coast of India. They just finished a 26 year civil war in May 2009. They are a democratic, socialist republic…whatever that means, but no one talks about politics. The country is primarily Buddhist. The food is a mix of Indian and Caribbean. Favorite pastime is cricket. The national language is Sinhalese but English is relatively common. They have a 92% literacy rate. Main exports are cinnamon, tea and rubber. It is expected that tourism will contribute heavily to the much needed infrastructure projects. For example, there is only one highway in Sri Lanka and it was completed within the last year.
It’s clear tourism would benefit Sri Lanka. I’d love to help them with their branding. I can just see it. A tropical island, rich in heritage and culture with pristine beaches, natural beauty and exotic animals, located off the beaten track, yet still full of all the comforts you’d desire while on holiday. A destination for everyone and every budget.
Everything I just wrote is true. The problem is the “yeah, but” that should follow. The island is tropical and with that comes a ton of mosquitoes (outside of the highlands), the potential for monsoon-type conditions in almost any season (which we endured) and sweltering heat.
The history is old (as much as 2500 years) and some sites like Sigriya are breathtaking, but the entrance fees are exorbitant (like $30 each!) and they lack general information to give important context. So you have to pay for an additional tour guide or find some way to play the CD “gift” that is included in the ticket price. If only we had brought our discman!
The culture is authentic…for sure. Men wear sarongs, women saris. Everyone drinks out of the same cup by the hand-washing station at restaurants, most eat with their hands and some spit unwanted morsels of food back onto the floor. It was new for us!
Although Sri Lanka is an island, there were fewer beaches than we expected. To find soft sand was difficult, but to spot a beach covered in garbage was easy. The fancy resorts could hide some of the unattractive qualities, but not the locals peeing anywhere (and everywhere) they wanted.
The animals were exotic when you could spot them. And the not so exotic animals (like dogs) were treated poorly (I’ve never seen so many flea-infested hairless dogs.
Yala National Park has so much potential. Peacocks roam freely. We saw elephants, a leopard and a tail (but no babies), monitor lizards, a plethora of beautiful birds, wild boar, water buffalo, spotted deer, and lotus covered lakes. The downside was the dense vegetation that made it hard to see animals. When a spotter would locate a leopard, all the jeeps would converge on the attraction. The dirt road was only wide enough for two jeeps, but 3 or 4 would try to inch closer to get the best photo opportunity for their clients. The traffic jams were horrible. Drivers would yell at each other, bump cars, etc. Not serene or peaceful. Sadly, every jeep was only carrying 2 passengers in their 8 open seats. It just didn’t add up. Too many jeeps, not enough road. All of this was momentarily forgotten, however, once we got to see a peacock dance!
In the highlands, we hiked to waterfalls, visited tea plantations and temples and attended a traditional Sinhala dance, complete with fire walking.
We spent Thanksgiving eating rice and curry which was no match for the food I dreamt about all year. I felt sad, missing family and friends…and turkey. Overall, we were disappointed by the food in Sri Lanka…I love curry, but only once would I say we had a good meal (the cruise pounds are melting away). Usually the curry was served cold to luke warm. The only bright spot, Home Grown, was just off the main drag in Hikkaduwa and well worth the $2.50 US for unlimited dishes. Joshua said any place decorated in Christmas lights was bound to be good, and he was right. And now Christmas is coming…how am I going to make it!?!
Sri Lanka: Exposed may be a little misleading. We still don’t actually know what happened while we were in Sri Lanka. What we do know is that we saw way more than we ever intended, including the interesting stops at spice gardens and gem stores (which they still dig for by hand). We definitely did not take the most authentic path, just the one they wanted us to see. It almost felt like The Wizard of Oz. If there’s ever a next time, we’ll be sure to pull back the curtain.