Monday, November 14, 2011

If you get lost, they'll show you where to go...

I admit that before we landed at the Colombo airport that I was a little leery about Sri Lanka. Mostly it was the fact that more than a few times, our guidebook goes out of the way to detail all the different ways, shapes and forms that the people here go about trying to rip foreigners off. Not only is the constant fight with tuk tuks, hotel owners, waiters, touts and bus drivers trying to squeeze you for an extra quarter really, really annoying, its also exhausting. After 13 months on the road I no longer (not that I had much to begin with) have neither the patience nor the energy for these sort of shenanigans. Of course, being the staunch budget traveler that one needs to be, traveling for so long, I was still prepared to put up a bit of a stand for my extra fifty cents of hard earned (ok, earned) money, but I was really, really not looking forward to it.

In total contrast to all my fears, Sri Lanka has been probably one of the easiest, friendliest, most hassel-free places that we have been to in all of Asia. Even more surprising was that it all started on the Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Delhi to Colombo. We were seated in the emergency aisle and the aisle seat was free. Before we took off one of the smile-y flight attendants sat beside us for take-off and struck up a conversation. She was about our age and genuinely interested, and interesting. Oshadi told us about her flights to Paris and London and then invited us to stay with her and her family.

At immigration the visa we had been fretting about (we were worried it would be really big and need its whole passport page- J has a total of 1.5 free pages in his passport and we have a whole bunch more stamps to cram in) turned out to be the tiniest of stamps (and free!) And the officer even smiled at us! The friendly tourist info stand was open 24 hours, and the first taxi we asked agreed to take us into town at the government fixed rate! (This is more impressive in Asia than it sounds).

Since then, Sri Lanka has been a wonderfully surprising series of super friendly, honest, genuine, happy-to-see-us locals. So refreshing! After discovering what a local restaurant looked like from the outside and when it was open, eating in Sri Lanka has become one of our favourite experiences. The owners in the little eateries are enthusiastic to show us everything that they have on offer, load our plates full and then happily charge us the local price. We have yet to be charged more than a local for a bus ticket and can count on one hand the number of time people have hassled us in any way.

People, in general are some of the friendliest and most genuine people we have met. Many speak at least a little English and are excited about practicing it on us. They all want to know, usually in this order, where we are from, how old we are, if we are married, why we don't have kids yet (we've been married THREE whole years already, afterall), how we like Sri Lanka and what our next stop on the island is. There are very few North Americans here. (Actually we haven't met any). There are very few independent travelers at all. Most tourists are middle-aged Europeans in tour groups. Because of this (we think) people know very little (re:nothing) about Canada. Sometimes I think that people haven't even heard of Canada before. They just repeat the name, rolling it around in their mouth like its a completely new, foreign word with no meaning or reference to them. 'Is that in the West?' one guy asked us. 'You mean America?' confirmed another. 'Germany?' a woman wondered. 'Is everyone rich there?' yet another person wanted to know. This is as new and interesting of a reaction for us as it is a country for them. People who have never heard of the second largest country in the world? Where are we? There has been a very odd exception. When we told the kid at our guesthoue in Kandy that we were from Canada his immediate response was 'Ohhh Niagara Falls!' He was quite excited about it. He followed up his first comment with, 'You know, the big waterfalls...' We laughed. We'd heard about it. 'We live there,' we told him. 'Yes, in Canada,' he said. 'No, in Niagara Falls,' we confirmed. His eyes grew wider. He was shocked. We were shocked because he is the first person we have ever met who had not followed up the fact that we live in Canada with 'Toronto or Vancouver?' or 'English Canada or French?' In fact, he was one of the very few people who had ever even heard of Niagara Falls. Most Europeans we meet have no idea what we're talking about when we say we live in Niagara. Just to get even a little more odd, the iron fence of our favourite open-air eatery in the next town was adorned with a massive panorama of the Falls sweeing from Rainbow Bridge all the way across both falls and up to the Sheraton, Embassy Suites and the Fallsview Casino (Cachino in Asia)!

Another wonderful thing about the people of Sri Lanka are their smiles. They don't just stare at us, wondering what sort of strange planet we fell off of. Almost every single person we pass, young, old or somewhere in between, smiles, waves and says hello. Especially friendly are the children. They aren't timid around us at all. They run up singing and dancing and yelling 'come! come!' in their miniature voices. (We think 'come' means welcome. Sometimes they say 'come in' too. Maybe they just all want to have us over for dinner?) They run in circles around us, giddy with excitement. They don't ask for anything like sweets or school pens, they are just genuinely happy to greet us. One particular little girl, a little more serous than the other children her age wasn't satisfied with just the waving, singing and dancing. She broke away from her parents and ran towards us. She was about 5 years old, super cute with short black hair and a poofy be-dazzled dress. She flung her arm behind her like she was about to throw a baseball and then flicked it straight forward at us, holding her hand out limp at our waists. She wanted a handshake! haha She waited patiently for us to clue in and then smiled professionally at us as she shook our hands, in turn. When we had been greeted to her satisfaction she turned proudly and ran back to her giggling parents. It was hilarious.

Being up in the tea hills, as we are now, we have the opportunity to pass many tea pickers either in the fields or on their way to or from the fields with huge bulging sacks of leaves strapped to their backs and secured around their foreheads. You would think that all this carrying of heavy loads would make them cranky and tired. Not so. They are, perhaps, even the friendliest of all. Without fail, whether they be high up in the fields, almost out of sight, or passing us on the uneven dirt path that curves through the tea plantations, they smile widely and say hello brightly. When we pass them while they are on breaks from picking and sitting on the edge of the path eating their lunches of rice and curry- they offer us their food! Its a wonderful, overwhelming experience just to go on a stroll here!

I really could go on and on with examples of just how wonderful the people are here in Sri Lanka, but I think you get the picture. Plus, we need to have some stories left to tell when we get home... which is fast approaching, by the way....

ps. Our title is from the Great Big Sea song, 'Good People.' Download it: it will make you smile like you're a Sri Lankan!

p.p.s. In Haputale we are staying at SriLak View Holiday Guesthouse, and its simply perfect.. in case any of you happen to find yourself here....

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
Congratulations on your super description of Shi Lanka It seems the guide book needs to be rewriten. From all the places you have visited, it would seem that it gets ten out of 10. It is a good note to finish your travels on. We are ticking off the days until you arive in Ireland and that won't be long now. I am just off the phone speaking to David
and he was in good form.
Best wishes.
Pappy.

Parentals said...

Maybe Niagara Tourism should have sponsored your trip to promote Niagara in Asia - for more than the Casino that is...
and Pappy is right - some guide books will need to be rewritten and you just may be the people to do it!

Sonia said...

soooo happy you are in a place where people aren't constantly scamming you looking to make an extra ten cents or something like that! sounds like you are having a great time! Enjoy the last few wks there before flying out....it is quickly coming to an end but try and stay "present" as much as possible!! Safe journeys!! :)

andie28 said...

nice write up! well detailed and great pics..congrats!