Yeah, yeah. I realize that that's probably the most offensive title I could have picked. "Sri Lanka: It's Not India." Of course it's not India! It's not even in India! It just happens to be close to India, and in my simpleton brain I just assumed that it would be Indian by approximation. So, yes, I realize how uneducated and ignorant that title makes me sound. But here's the awesome thing about travel -- the very reason to travel is to dispel all your misconceptions! So you can walk away and inform everyone that, duh, Sri Lanka is not India. Besides, it's better than "Sri Lanka: Love at First Sight," which is the other thing I wanted to title this post and is also very cheesy and obvious-sounding.
So. Sri Lanka. First of all, there are some similarities to India. Women in saris. Red, green, yellow and blue tuk tuks driving like madmen everywhere. People who speak with that lovely, lilting Indian (Sri Lankan?) English accent. Curry. Lots and lots of curry. But aside from some of these, Sri Lanka is its whole own entity. For one thing, it's not insanely overpopulated. Nor is it insanely poor. There are not roaming bands of desperate children banging on your windows for money, or hobbled, crippled, lost souls crying out for money and help on the street corners. It's way less dusty and dirty and crazy, basically. It's like if you took the best parts of India out of India and put them on a tropical island filled with palm trees and yummy fruit. Don't get me wrong -- I really love India and am so lucky I had the chance to visit there. It's a beast to contend with. It throws upside down every notion you've ever had about how the world works, or should work, and it forces you to confront a lot of ugliness about humanity, some of which you might be playing a role in without even knowing it. Corruption that runs deep into the nation's marrow, and despair that knows no bounds, but such incredible beauty and joy and awe to be had in all that never-ending chaos.
In other words, nothing like Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is like an online date you're really excited about who turns out to be better than you imagined. And unlike real life, where this doesn't actually happen, it happened to me, with Sri Lanka! I didn't even have this country on my original itinerary; I happened to see an ad for a food writing contest that had a trip to Sri Lanka as a grand prize. I forwarded the ad to a co-worker who I thought should enter and thought, "Wow! Sri Lanka. That would be so cool if she won and could visit. I'd love to go there!" Then I saw advertisements at the metro in Bangkok. Again, I saw the ad and felt jealous of people going there. "I want to go to Sri Lanka!" I thought. "Why didn't I plan to go there?"
The idea rumbled around my head until one day I realized, wait, I can do whatever I want on this trip! I'm not locked into some exact itinerary! I can go to Sri Lanka! So, I booked a ticket, and here I am now.
I arrived on a flight from Bangkok, flying the fabulous SriLankan Airlines which served us delicious curries for lunch and had a plethora of movies to choose from. Also all the flight attendants wear beautiful purple saris with magenta peacock feathers printed on them, which rekindled my childhood dream of being a flight attendant (a career I wanted basically for the uniform ... now I wanted to be a gorgeous Sri Lanka beauty in a purple sari). In the airport, things were a bit ... confused. No signs instructing people where to go; some countries can get their visa on arrival, but some of us had e-visas. I stood in the wrong line for a while, then went to use the bathroom, then stood in the right line for forever, and finally got to the passport control desk -- at this point I was the last person left in the room.
I walked up to the desk and the passport control officer flashed me a giant grin, revealing a huge wide mouth filled with gleaming evenly space teeth, so evenly spaced you could fit an emery board between each one. He was very happy ad chatty, then frowned when he scanned my passport.
"Oh, no, Madam, something is wrong with your wisa. You have incorrect number on your e-wisa," he said.
I showed him the e-visa number on my phone.
"No, no, Madam, see you entered 'USA' as part of your passport number and that is an incorrect number. We need only the numbers in the system," he said.
I distinctly remembered applying for the e-visa and the system refusing to accept my application without the 'USA' code. He smiled and waved me to the Chief Immigration Office, which had a handful of other people in it.
I showed my passport and e-visa number to the Chief Immigration Officer. "Oh yes, you have entered your passport number incorrectly and therefore there is a problem with your e-wisa, madam," he said. He banged on his keyboard for a while and handed my passport back to me and waved me back in line. I handed it back to the officer at the passport control desk who scanned it and stamped my passport, handing it to me with a giant smile. "Welcome to Sri Lanka, madam!"
Since it had taken so long to go through passport control, my bag was sitting on the floor near the baggage claim, so I scooped it up and braced myself for the exit into the arrivals hall. I remembered arriving in Mumbai at 2 am to a sea of shouting people, mostly men, and felt totally overwhelmed by the sheer number of people held back by metal poles separating the calm of the airport from India. But here, there were maybe ten taxi drivers holding up signs and a handful of families hanging around.
I spotted my name ("Jenna Raub") on a sign held by a friendly-looking young Sri Lankan woman.
"Are you Jenna Raub?" she asked. "Sometimes Raub can be a Muslim name. I didn't know, like, who to expect. Would she be, like, a European girl or, like, a Muslim guy!" she said, her London accent shining through instantly. I learned immediately that she'd grown up in the UK, had lived in London for a long time, had had a job where she had to work and travel all the time, often to India, and she had come back to Sri Lanka to study and work a bit and chill out while she figured out what she wanted to do next. "In London is everyone knows how to work, but no one knows how to live."
We drove through Colombo suburbs to the hotel; through one suburb we were greeted with an enormous statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched, a dazzling silver halo above his head, and a silver cross behind him. My driver told me we were in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. Minutes later, she pointed out that we were now in a Muslim neighborhood, and it was very quiet since everyone had just been celebrating the end of Ramadan.
We finally got to the hostel and I lay down for a bit (I'd gotten up really early to get to the airport in Bangkok in time), then I headed out to see some sights and buy a train ticket to Kandy the next day. Mostly I was just impressed that the city was so ... not India. There were sidewalks, and they were sparsely populated. There were tons of people out, but they were mostly in Galle Face Green and another park I walked through, all families together playing and picnicing in the late afternoon. I went to Pettah, the famous shopping district, just as the shops were beginning to shutter. A bit dirty, and bit cluttered, but in no way an assault on the senses.
The next day, I had a coffee and went to check out the National Museum, which had an interesting amount of archeological stuff on display, and, most interestingly, pieces of traditional dress from the 18th century on display, including costumes from the Tamils, Muslims, Malays, and Dutch. Let's just say that out of all the costumes, in this heat, wearing the Dutch outfit would be the least fun.
I headed down to Independence Monument and grabbed a bite to eat at a little air conditioned café before hopping in a tuk tuk back to the hostel. I stepped on to the road outside the hostel with my big backpack, looking for a tuk tuk to hail down and about three slowed down. Suddenly, one tuk tuk came barreling down the road, made a sharp turn and squealed to a halt right at my feet. "Where you go, Madam?" he said, flashing me a giant grin.
"Colombo Fort. Train station."
He looked confused. I pulled out my map and showed him.
"Colombo Fort. Train station. You know it?"
"Yes, yes, Madam. I know it. Colombo Fort."
We negotiated on a price, and I hopped in. All seemed to be going well, until I realized we were driving along the road where Colombo dead-ends into the ocean. I guess he knows what he's doing? I thought. Maybe a different way to the train station?
He pulled up at a small train station right next to the water, which I was pretty sure was not the train station I needed to be at (after all, I'd bought my ticket there the day before). So what proceeded was me saying, "no," and "take me to Colombo Fort" and the driver saying "No, this is Colombo Four! You said Colombo Four!" which I have not researched to see if that's a real thing, but I looked at a few different maps and it does not seem to be a real thing. Then he said that I hadn't paid him enough to go where I wanted to, and I said -- whatever, what we argued about is beside the point. I concluded my side of the argument with telling him he was dishonest and not a good person, and he semi-apologized and tried to restart his tuk tuk, which now would not start. I got fed up and stepped out of the tuk tuk on the side of the road.
I should add that it had started raining a bit just as we started our roadside fight, and when I stepped out of the tuk tuk, the heavens opened up and it began to pour. Within a second of standing outside of the tuk tuk, I was drenched. I kept trying to hail new tuk tuks, but none stopped -- they probably could barely seem me. I was now wet and also nervous about missing the train. Finally a tuk tuk pulled over, and I got in and we sped off to the train station. Oh yeah -- tuk tuk driver #1 magically got his tuk tuk to start and sped off while I was in the process of trying to hail a new one. Thanks, dude.
I made it to the train station in time, and was thrilled when the train pulled into the station and I saw the old-fashioned first class carriage where I'd be sitting -- the Observation Saloon! I had read about it on this train blog I've been using for a lot of the train travels, and while I hadn't planned to splurge on it, when I went to buy a ticket the day before, it was all the guy at the ticket counter said was available. And it was only $8 for a ticket, so why not? I got a great seat at the window, only one row back from the giant observation windows that look out back along the tracks as the train moves through gorgeous scenery -- flourescent green fields, jungle dotted with brightly painted houses deep within, gently sloping hills rising and falling before giving way to more and more dramatic mountains. And the train was bumpy and jostling (it could have given the Myanmar Mandalay-Yangon train a run for its money) but my seat was soft and cushioned and I felt lucky that I had such an awesome seat.
The track narrowed from two to one as we made our way higher and higher into the mountains, going throguh tiny little tunnels in the rocks before emerging out into the stunning scenery, often we were perched up quite high looking down at valleys filled with fields and little jewel-colored houses surrounded by thick foliage. As the train made its way along all the curves of the mountain's edge, I felt sure that if Disney had taken a ride on this train, there would have been a ride at Disneyland to emulate it, The Ceylon Express Adventure Ride, or something.
We arrived in Kandy and I made my way to my hostel, where I've been for the past couple nights. Magically -- and this is really, truly another travel miracle -- at both my hostel in Colombo and so far in Kandy, no other guests have been in my room so I've had the whole room to myself! Bliss! Joy! (This never happens.) So I have been feeling incredibly grateful about that, and glad that Sri Lanka has turned out to be such a manageable, delightful place,
Ah, yes, back to my metaphor. That Sri Lanka is like that dreamy, perfect guy you see on an online dating site, who astoundingly turns out to be better than you expected. And, like having a hostel room to yourself for four consecutive nights, this never happens. Except it did. To me! And I can now proclaim my new deep, abiding love for the lovely country that is Sri Lanka.