I asked for your questions on Sri Lanka to help me get the blog started! Here’s the answers…
What was the most beautiful thing you saw in Sri Lanka?
My sons, willingly and independently, giving cuddles to my mum. Without instruction from me, they both totally understood how she could be sad after Ray’s death. Many times I caught them reaching out for her hand or cuddling into the cool softness of her upper arms.
What surprised you the most?
I picked a place for lunch using TripAdvisor. I expected it to be in town, but we were driven along dusty back roads through the forest, stopping at a homestead where our hosts welcomed us. We sat in an outside/inside room with a tall table in the middle and a bench overlooking the open fields. We ordered ginger beer and, with no forthcoming menu, just waited and enjoyed the view.
In a rush of activity, the table behind us was filled with dish upon dish of Sri Lankan curry and rice: brown rice, white rice, coconut sambal, dahl, mango curry, lentil patties, fried fish and chicken, chapatis, onion and pineapple sambal. And more that I can’t remember. We were left to help ourselves. I went up three times for the sweet, fresh mango curry.
The dishes were then whipped off the table and replaced by a simple but delicious pudding of claypot buffalo curd and rivers of honey.
It dawned on me that the dishes were being replenished before being moved to other rooms for other diners. On exploring, I found the open kitchen where each dish was kept warm over small wood fires, stacked like miniature caves on a mountainside.
Our lunch really surprised me. Stopping myself from making assumptions or forming expectations is the most liberating and helpful thing I can do.
What is the land mass and population of Sri Lanka?
The island is 65,610km2 and, from the 2012 census, has a population of 20,277,597.
Did you have any cultural expectations which were untrue?
We plumped for Sri Lanka in the hope it might be India-lite because taking the kids to India seemed like a huge challenge – the size of the country, the sanitation and the train travel was too much. I’ve never been to India, so I can’t say if Sri Lanka is a miniature version, but I found lots of what I thought might be there! Think tuks tuks (rhymes with book books, not duck ducks), curries, the yes-no-head-wobble, crazy trains and beautiful beaches.
What’s the main language?
The main language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala, spoken by the Sinhalese people who comprise 75% of the population. It uses the Sinhala abugida script, which is derived from the ancient Indian Brahmi script. Many signs are given in the three most common languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English.
The Sinhala alphabet is completely curvy. That’s because, in ancient times, people wrote on dried palm leaves which would split along the veins on writing straight lines. Each letter is rounded and curlicue, without a single straight line in sight. I love it, do you?
What’s the main religion?
70% of the Sri Lankan population are Theravada Buddhists. There are Buddhist temples everywhere, always with massive white stupas and Buddhas in various positions, sometimes with a bodhi tree. Most temples had rows of many smaller Buddhas, each separated and placed behind glass. To visit, you have to be decently dressed (thighs and shoulders covered) and you have to remove your shoes, which was fine apart from when you have soft European soles like me or when the sun bakes the ground to such a heat you have to dash between shadows.
How did jam-packed commuting make you feel?
From Kandy in the Central Province we needed to get 165 miles to the south coast. The temptation was to go door-to-door by air-conditioned minivan which is relatively affordable and not unusual transport for tourists. But the same journey could be done by train for just a twentieth of the price and would take 7 hours – about the same time as a minivan. We plumped for the train.
We arrived at Kandy train station at 4.15am. Seat61.com had already told us that the reservable seats in the air-conditioned tourist-class carriage were minging, so we bought second-class tickets. We watched in mild horror as everyone around us starting running for the train. It wasn’t due to depart until 5am.
We employed a very British brisk walk, past all the third-class carriages, to second-class. We boarded the dark train, too early for the lights to be on, which meant it took us a while to realize that the seats were already taken, many being bagged with bags. I’m not averse to moving bags from bagged seats, but it was made clear to me that it was not the done thing to do. Slightly panicked by the prospect of standing for 4 hours, I declared to everyone that I ‘just didn’t understand’ and, with my tail between my legs, we made our way back down the train toward third-class. We just hadn’t got there early enough.
I could smell, but couldn’t see, the toilets as we passed through the carriages. There was no way I was going to eat or drink anything for the next 7 hours. I was super-pleased to find four seats in third-class: Fraser and Thomas facing each other on one side of the aisle with me and Robert on the other.
At last the train departed. At each stop out of town, more people got on and stood in the aisles. With a man’s crotch brushing across my shoulder every few seconds, I was not a happy bunny. Fraser tried to raise a smile from me but I glared him down. More people got on. The aisles and doorways were crammed, so people stood between our knees. The carriage was now so full I couldn’t even see Fraser or Thomas just a foot from me, but I was able to move the sleepy Robert to my lap. I tucked in my feet, held my arms to my side and dipped my head to reduce contact with the people beside and above me. I may have got a few glimpses of the green mountain scenery, but I lost the feeling in my feet.
My mood lightened with the sky and I began to watch with fascination as the local people took turns to stand and sit. How they squashed in around each other with necessary abandon and no apology. How they’d pass each other their bags, sometimes passing them out through the window at stations. How they’d stop the food sellers on behalf of a friend, pass the money, share some chapati and beakers of water. How some people would get off through the windows at small stations.
People cooed over Robert as he slept through the throng, oblivious under the woman’s sari covering his face. When he woke, he took in the crush of people with a glance and continued to read.
Eventually we pulled into Colombo. The train emptied and 3 hours later we arrived at the seaside town of Matara. We were tired, dirty and dehydrated. But we’d travelled like locals and earned some stripes.
What had started as a horribly uncomfortable situation had morphed into something fun, unmissable and educational. It was an essential Sri Lankan experience.
Any epiphanies/general vibe? Any funny/challenging/interesting kid stories?
The whole of Sri Lanka had a relaxed vibe, especially after my mum arrived and the boys turned into angels (near enough).
The beach at Hiriketiya was a dream. Called Horseshoe Bay because of its deep cove, it was almost undiscovered. With just one beach cafe, a handful of sun loungers, fishing boats lined up on the sand, a beach break and reef break for the surfers, I played like a kid with the boys in the waves. We let ourselves get tumbled in the surf, always watching for the next big un and heading for the ‘drop zone’. I forgot to be mum. Magic.
Why do monks wear saffron? What does it signify and what dye is used?
Theravada Buddhist monks wrap themselves in cloth because Buddha himself wrapped his body to protect himself from cold, sun and insects. The saffron colour is traditional, based on the dye obtained from the heartwood of the prevalent jackfruit tree found in South East Asia, and has carried through to the modern age with synthetic dyes. The robe, which is long and flowing and repeatedly thrown over one shoulder, symbolises simplicity and the rejection of materialism.
Are there any civil war memorials?
We didn’t see any memorials dedicated to the lives lost during the 25-year civil war that ended in 2009. Perhaps it is too soon. Jaffna, in the north of the country where the fighting was most concentrated, is now making its way back onto the tourist trail.
Tell me about the food!
Oh man! The food in Sri Lanka was divine. I loved tucking into noodle hoppers and dahl for breakfast. Frances – I promise to dedicate a whole blog to Sri Lankan food! I also took a cooking lesson, so you can come and try some when I get home.
What are the police uniforms like? And the police cars?
The police uniform is a yellowy-brown-green colour. The uniforms of the traffic officers looked hot and heavy with big boots, full-length trousers, a white belt, collared shirts with pockets, a white helmet and white gloves. What struck me most were the bizarre, white sleeves that went from their wrists, over the top of their shirt to the shoulder. I think these detachable sleeves were worn only when directing traffic, probably to increase visibility. Sometimes, they’d only be wearing one white sleeve which meant they’d do funny dances in the middle of an intersection to make sure they were pointing with the sleeved arm only!
I spotted some police tuk tuks! I can’t imagine they’d chase down any speeding cars, but they’re super zippy.
What are the people like?
The people of Sri Lanka are incredibly friendly. Oodles of smiles came our way. Everyone was keen to say hello and practice their English on us. They were so lovely and calm to be around. In a strange way, they had an honourable sense about them.
Tell me about the elephants and the dogs!
Keen to see elephants in the wild like Kruger in South Africa and not wanting to perpetuate the cruel treatment of elephants for the tourist industry, we politely declined many offers to go to elephant orphanages.
Instead we took a safari in an open-top jeep where we could stand and, with much hilarity, duck-dodge the lower branches of the trees that lined the dust road to the open plain.
We saw hundreds of elephants, just doing their thang. I had a precious moment (think quiet tears of appreciation) where I imagined we were in the Jehovah’s Witness version of paradise from my childhood, of grasslands festooned with bountiful wildlife and water.
I wasn’t so happy among the half wild/half domesticated dogs of Sri Lanka. I ran a gauntlet of snarling dogs during my one run there. Although, to be fair, dogs did facilitate us meeting some lovely people when, during a quiet riverside walk in the outskirts of Galle, their barking alerted some homeowners to our presence and, on seeing us and waving hello, the women invited us in for tea and bananas.
I hear there are two monsoon seasons. What’s the best side (east/west) in July/August?
There are two wet seasons in Sri Lanka: the Yala monsoon brings rain to the south and west coast and the Hill Country during May to August; the Maha monsoon brings rain to the east, north and central ancient cities from October to January. July-September is known as the inter-monsoon season – there might be the odd shower, but the weather is supposed to be great across the country.
Would you recommend I go there?
Sri Lanka is noisy, dusty, dirty, hectic, busy and antiquated. It’s also incredibly welcoming, friendly, colourful, jolly, hard-working, committed to family, abundant with culture and bursting with wildlife. It’s so different from the UK, I highly recommend going there to explore.
Question to myself – how proud were you of your mum?
One quiet day, me and mum took a short tuk tuk trip to the local department store for a spot of ‘just looking’. We could hardly move around the shop without every assistant saying hello, shaking our hands and wishing us a Happy New Year. I would say ‘this is my mum’. If their English had been better, I would’ve added that she’d travelled all they way from the UK by herself, took a 5-hour taxi to Galle by herself, arrived with a teeny bag and had thrown herself into tuk tuk travels and Sri Lankan life just a few months after losing her husband. So proud.