Saturday, February 23, 2013

Early Impressions of Sri Lanka

It is nice here in the "undiscovered kingdom."

Lodging is comparably priced to India, but food is about twice as expensive.  Taxis and tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws) are slightly more expensive as well.  The food is very good, but they're keen on over-sized portions, which usually ends in us ordering two menu items for $5 each and then lamenting that we could have just split one.  Yet we never learn.

(Colombo seaside)

Colombo is a nice city.  It probably wouldn't be very fun to stay as a tourist for more than a couple nights, but it is a very livable city--the air is fresh and the sea breeze very nice, it has a beautiful, long coastline, a very nice sea walk, good roads, clean streets, lots of restaurants, etc.

(Colombo sea walk and pier, with the Sri Lankan flag flying above)

Another big factor in its favor is that the people are extremely nice.  We were helped by any number of people who went out of their way to assist us, without any thought of recompense.  (One woman in particular, an employee at a travel agency that we had not booked with and were not interested in booking with, spent 20 minutes making phone calls for us so we could find where we needed to go to validate a train ticket. She then made another employee accompany us to the place so we didn't get lost.  And not once did she try to sell a flight or bus pass or tour.  She just smiled and said she hoped we had a wonderful journey.)

(Lani's Place, a seaside restaurant in Dehiwala, Colombo)

In our experience, this kind of thing does not happen elsewhere in the world (and certainly not in India, where any request for assistance is either ignored or followed by an immediate appeal to a quorum of passersby until a small crowd has collected to discuss; the crowd will usually decide that it is unimportant, but occasionally they will provide conflicting instructions).

As it turns out, that kind of thing doesn't seem to happen elsewhere in Sri Lanka, either, for that matter.

Kandy is a lovely, hilly town overlooking a lake. It has a great climate, and even better views.  It also has one of the most sacred sights in all of Buddhism, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.  But it is clearly a town that has grown accustomed to moneyed tourists. Every person we've run into who has wanted to talk to us has tried to convince us to go to a different hotel, or a different restaurant, or to a cultural show, or to buy something. 

For example, we met on the sidewalk a toothless old man who recommended we go see a cultural show (fire dancers, baby elephants, the President of Sri Lanka would be in attendance!).  It was $5 a piece, and we walked away thinking about it.  He caught up to us, told us if we bought tickets early we could get very good seats, and weren't we lucky the president would be there today of all days?  We followed him to a school (was it a school for teaching dancing?  a school for children?  a workhouse for children?  it might have been all of the above).  The man claimed to be a firedancing instructor, showed us an album of photos featuring a man who looked nothing like himself.  He saw Nora had allergies and found some green menthol stuff the consistency of glue (think of a really potent, soupy Vicks rub) and massaged it into her temples. For good measure, he put some on his fingertips and stuck it into her ears.  This, he claimed, would cure her allergies.  After all, his hand was very lucky, he assured us.  Then he began a 30 minute sell of the dyed wall hangings covering his office (made by schoolchildren, half the price of the tourist places, all the money goes back into the school, he can give us a very good price, how are Nora's allergies and would she like him to rub some more green stuff?).  He was very disappointed when we told him we just wanted the tickets to the cultural show and did not buy any $30 wall hangings.  Needless to say, the president was not in attendance at the show (nor were there any baby elephants).  

Many of the people who we pass by on the streets have the familiar staring/pointing/laughing complex we remember all too well from India. It's not as ubiquitous, and it's not as aggressive, but it's still uncomfortable and completely unnecessary. From what we have observed, older white people don't get this treatment here, either (they do attract the touts in droves, though).

Our hotel in Kandy is great, however.  It's outside of town, across the lake, on the hillside, and has a balcony that looks over the town.  The room is large, the hot water in the shower actually hot (too hot, as it turns out, but that's a small problem compared to the icy showers of India).  It gets noisy early, and we have to be up by 7:30 to get our included breakfast, but it is a large breakfast (plate of fruit each, choice of style of eggs, toast, a pot of Ceylon tea to share), and it is pleasantly cool on the terrace.  Walking down into town and around the lake is nice, but walking back up the hill is not very enjoyable.  Then there is the unfortunate problem that Nora is allergic to something in the room (we suspect dust; there is a horizontal concrete support beam that, when I stood on the bed to get a look, displayed several years worth of accumulated dust).

We have discovered there are two pubs in town (100,000 people live here) and both close at 11.  There is also one shop to buy beer/wine/liquor to take home.  Apparently a few restaurants also serve beer, but that's about it for nightlife.  We're not big drinkers, but after a long, hot day of walking up hills, a nice, cold lager can really hit the spot--it's just a rather difficult to actually find one.  It is the little things that count, as they say, and the difficulty to find a drink has joined the touts and the stairs and the midday sun in a cloudless sky to knock Kandy down from our list of must-visit places.  

We'll be here a few more days, then we're heading higher into the hills to a smaller town where, hopefully, there will be fewer people preying on tourists, less traffic, less noise, and a little more peace.  If we want to be really hopeful, there might even be a terrace with a frosted mug containing an ice-cold lager.  Keep your fingers crossed.

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