Sri Lanka

[Disclaimer: This post is just my opinion and I don’t intend to disparage Sri Lanka or its culture. If, however, you feel you must let out your rage over something in this post, feel free to insult me in the comments section, or you could just pass this off as the views of a ‘smelly Indian’, if that helps :P]

I’ve just returned from a two-week backpacking getaway in Sri Lanka, and it’s a fascinating country. Here’s the breakdown

Food

John lennon might as well have sang, “Imagine all the people, eating rice in peace”.

Sri Lankans seem to love rice more than South Indians. Hopper is a bowl-shaped bread made of rice that’s quite bland to taste though seemingly adored by everyone, while string hoppers are noodles [also made of rice], optionally mixed with egg, chicken or fish. String hoppers are often served with noodles finely chopped. The chopping process itself is a spectacle – The distinct bursts of metallic sounds as someone chops the noodles announces the place to anyone in a hundred metre radius as one that serves string hoppers.

For those averse to rice as I am, there are less exotic things to eat: Sri Lanka seem to have appropriated the term “roti” to refer to white bread with potato or fish filling stuffed inside it. There are also rolls, vada and parotas. Then there’s the extremist way – eating only raw fruits and vegetables, which is something I found myself doing for five days as an experiment, along with a fellow traveller from Sweden. There’s no better place than Sri Lanka to live on fruits, I suppose – There’s a wide variety of fruits, including several kinds of bananas and avocados, all of them very affordable, though haggling is necessary.

Infrastructure and transportation

Coming from the land of potholes and roads with no asphalt, I was pleasantly surprised to find that India’s diminutive neighbour has near-perfect roads. Though most roads have only two lanes, they are pothole-free and impressive. Traffic density is quite low and most cities have flat roads, which explain the hordes of bicycling locals and tourists.

I was also impressed by the efforts made by city councils to discourage littering. Dustbins are never too far away, and there are signs in public places requesting people not to litter. These initiatives seem to be working – The railway stations and footpaths were pristine.

Buses are the fastest mode of public transportation. There is no concept of reservation of tickets in the bustling private buses: You just hop into one heading to your destination, and hope to find an empty seat. More often than not, things don’t work out well, and you may end up standing all through your journey. If that is unacceptable, trains are a good bet. Though they usually take a couple of hours longer than buses, second-class compartments are quite comfortable. Reservation for first and second class coaches ends two hours before the time of departure [if they haven’t already sold out by then, which is usually the case], and tickets for the third class are made available an hour before the time of departure. Third class coaches can become very crowded, as I had the pleasure of discovering while travelling from Colombo to Kandy. Railway schedules are quite approximate – Delays of 15 to 30 minutes are quite normal. The only time I faced a delay more than that [of about two hours] was on my journey from Hatton to Badulla, but apparently the train was delayed because of a landslide, so it is quite understandable, I think. Besides, while waiting at the railway station, I spoke to an elderly British couple who informed me that I was about to embark on a train journey considered one of the most scenic in the world. It was, indeed – Spectacular views of the sun setting over endless mist-laden tea estates in deep valleys, glimmering ponds in the distance and a feeling of surrealism [the fact that I was slipping in and out of sleep probably helped] as the view looks too beautiful to be real! Whew.

Sri Lanka seems to be in the midst of an infrastructure upheaval. There are signs of construction everywhere – Roads being widened, bridges being replaced, mounds of fresh earth, new highways and so on. I can only hope that this development is not at the cost of the sacrifice of Sri Lanka’s lush greenery and diverse wildlife. India may have jumped the shark, but I hope Sri Lanka doesn’t. I don’t know where else in the world I can find a deer sitting by a busy market, unmindful of the people, and the people of it, or crossing a main street.

People

Once I learnt to tune out the multitude of people clamouring to sell their things or services [and I do mean services too] to me, it was easy going. The Sri Lankan people are curious and eager to help or initiate conversations with “foreigners”. I can’t recall a single bus or train journey [and there were many of both] in which people around me kept to themselves. Most would suggest places to visit, sometimes going to the extent of writing down their address or phone number and offering to show me their town when I visit. When I needed directions and asked people in the streets, many would literally go out of their way and walk with me in the right direction. Maybe I just got lucky, but when I asked another passenger getting down at the same railway station if he would suggest a hotel for my friends and me, he offered to let us stay at his house [He turned out to be a former member of the Sri Lankan Parliament, but that’s another story :)].

I made a conscious effort to stay away from the usual tourist-bait locations like Galle and Hikkaduwa, instead venturing into the central region as well as the eastern towns, which are virtually tourist-free and much nicer. The Eastern Province is home to Tamil people and was an LTTE-army battleground for years and was cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka until two or three years ago. The violence may have ended, but the scars remain – Looking at house after house charred black by fire was certainly eerie for me. The psychological scars too are evident – People would become visibly uncomfortable while hesitantly asking me if I spoke Tamil. Terms like ‘LTTE’ and ‘war’ are always spoken of in whispers. I don’t want to talk about the LTTE movement, but I do believe the Eastern Province has some catching up to do in terms of development. From the little I’ve gathered in my conversations with the locals, most Sri Lankans are eager to put the past behind them, but I think the well has been poisoned. There’s a deep mental divide and resentment between the Sinhala-speaking people and the Tamil-speaking people that will take decades to mend. I spoke to a man on a train who disturbingly referred to the Tamil and the Sinhala people in conversation as “us and the Sri Lankans”. He also ominously claimed that there would be “changes” in the Eastern Province soon because of the upcoming elections in that region.

Politics

Whew! When you’re in Sri Lanka, you are never more than fifty metres away from Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s face – There are huge posters everywhere of him waving, walking or inaugurating something. It reminded me of Omsk, Russia, where every light/electric pole has the Russian flag painted on it, lending a “Big Brother is always watching” vibe to the city. But I suppose “out of sight, out of mind” being the political mantra, plastering the country with posters is the cost of staying in power.

My visit coincided with the ongoing resolution discussions in the UN over human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Incorrigible news junkie that I am, I gave in and purchased a newspaper called the “Sunday Observer” on one of the last days of my trip. My first impression was that the paper might as well have come with an “Approved by the Government” seal on the front page – scathing articles against politicians of the Opposition party, softball questions in an interview with a minister, aligned with the position of the government with regard to the UN resolution. My head hurt when I was done devouring the articles. It almost made me feel glad about the presence of such beacons of journalistic integrity in India as NDTV and Times of India.

***

Going to the top [well, nearly] of Adam’s Peak on a raw food diet, meeting an eccentric set of travellers from all over the world, walking in the lovely town of Anuradhapura, fleeing Colombo because of the humidity on the next available train regardless of its destination, visiting the non-tourist towns of Sri Lanka and discovering an empty stretch of the beach in Trincomalee are among the highlights of the trip for me. I’d definitely love to go back again.

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