Exploring Sri Lanka, the raw diamond of the Indian Ocean

After traveling the little island of Sri Lanka for 3 weeks in April, I returned to Berlin with mixed feelings.
8 Jul ’17 by Sara Travel

For the best guesthouses and best food in Sri Lanka, check out my Sri Lanka vacation guide.

Although it’s hot like the desert, a moist cocoon of sweat, sunscreen and mosquito spray keeps me happy company for the whole duration of our stay. I try move as little as possible. When we finally board the plane back, I check my body for radical human fungus. Having moist and sticky skin for more than 21 days is the price you have to pay for paradise.

And Sri Lanka is, by all standards, a tropical issue of paradise: pristine, golden beaches set in front of a lush, fertile rainforest; palm trees as far as the eye can see; a magnificent jungle that magically transforms into mountains full of rice and tea plantages; an eclectic mix of South Asian heritage and colonial scarring.

Not to forget the whole buffet of gourmet fruit. I have one rule: it’s only a real holiday if you get to pick fruit from a tree, so that’s all I do. Bananas, papayas, mangos, avocados, starfruit, I pick it all up and eat it right there.

The coffee is better than in most places in Berlin, the food varying from spectacular to horrible (depending on where we eat). My mornings are spent inhaling Sambol, the spicy and tangy concoction of chili and lime and coconut that has been missing from my life. I ran out of adjectives for “oh my God this is beautiful I want to stay here forever” before we even depart from our first stop, Beruwala.

 

Sri Lanka’s fast and crazy development

But I didn’t need any more adjectives. Paradise may aptly describe the natural landscapes of the island, but less so the reality of life.

Due to the horrible devastation of the Tsunami in 2004 and the civil war that continued until 2009, Sri Lankas tourism industry was set back by a decade. While the country is currently still in the process of healing, tourism is growing fast. It’s a big chance for the Sri Lankans to rebuild the country with new infrastructure, better business opportunities and sustainable tourism projects.

But like everywhere else in the world, everyone’s in a real hurry to make a quick buck. That made our life in Sri Lanka more difficult than we’d expected. Sweating, disgusting concrete hotels are dominating the horizon among the Eastern coast. Main traffic roads are constructed merely 2 meters away from important beaches. Trash, oil and plastic are funneled straight into the ocean while even the crappiest little hut is now offering rooms with A/C units for 15 € a night.

This is the first time I’m old enough to care about these things, and the whole subject of quasi-sustainable development becomes our travel theme. So what’s a tourist to do?

Not participating in the destruction of an emerging tourist destination is a challenge. You don’t want to be sitting on your high, white and privileged horse, judging the locals for trying their best in a globalized world. But you also don’t want to partake in the destruction of someone else’s society and someone else’s natural landscapes.

We feel stuck.

So we do some researching. But most locals don’t talk to us. We notice that two women without male company are rarely taken seriously. We get frustrated easily. Planning any excursion or overnight stay – something that should be so easy for travelers like us – becomes a tedious task. We overblow our budget within the first 7 days. We aren’t stingy, but when a Tuk Tuk driver quotes you a price that is 3 times the equivalent of a cab ride in Berlin (and is not willing to haggle with a woman about it), you start considering your role in all of this.

It takes effort and a lot of internet-ing, and in the end, our route through the country is guided by what we find worthy of our money.

I learn, in Sri Lanka, that tourism isn’t an altogether a narcissistic project for self-entitled Millenials. Tourism is a chance. But many of those business-savvy locals that we end up meeting explain regretfully that their country might not be ready yet; that the transformation into a tourist destination often feels like broken bones healing the wrong way.

 

 

A woman’s gaze on Sri Lanka

So we end up skipping a lot of the tourist stuff. We hide in beautiful but modest guest houses with private pools or access to the beach, read our books and drink our coconuts. We talk to the locals who are willing to talk to us. They tell us about the nonchalant Buddhist way of living life after catastrophes; they explain to us how most men in Sri Lanka have a very tight-knit, homosexual relationship with an ‘uncle’ until they get married; that women really aren’t in charge of anything here except for family and kids.

We endure a crazy thunderstorm – it could have killed us – and fought cockroaches with our Birkenstocks. We went on a 5 AM whale watching trip in Mirissa and ended up seeing 50 other boats, pestering the whales in an aggressive and heart-breaking way. With these experiences on our backs, we skip the safari tours through the national parks and the hikes through the rain forests. We go back into hiding – back to the homemade jackfruit curries and avocado salads and mango juices. Back to the other women who welcome us with open arms.

The beaches are pure violence. We jump into the waves like mad women, and it’s all fun and games until the current takes us away and we both have an existential panic attack while drowning. Meanwhile, the cool European and American surfers seem to be coping just fine with the brutality of the ocean.

And so we move inland from the South Coast at Tallala, into the mountains to Ella and Kandy, although the public bus ride was nothing short of a near-death experience. You either get lucky and don’t die on the public bus, or you spend a lot of money on a private shuttle. In the end, we spend that money because we can’t stand the men ogling us and hollering at us and touching us. It doesn’t feel light and fun like in Italy, it feels aggressive and repressive. Meanwhile, the straight couples we meet seem to do just fine. I can’t help but eye-roll at this conclusion.

We realize that there’s still a lot of discovering to do in Sri Lanka – but that’s not what we wanted to do on this trip. Feeling relieved of this duty, we packed our things yet again and spent our last nights with a local woman on her fantastic estate near Negombo. She explains that Sri Lanka isn’t the kind of place to wing your vacation. “If you come to Sri Lanka, you must know someone. You must be prepared. We are too greedy right now, everything is going too fast, so if you don’t come prepared, you will be disappointed”. She’s not wrong.

But she’s not the only intriguing woman we meet on our way. The 3 German ladies of Amuura, who run a very strictly sustainable and DIY cinnamon farm and guesthouse, come to mind. They moved here in 2012 and tell us stories about self-entitled men, about a very unproductive working environment and the difficulties of finding a good and reliable cook for their guesthouse. “You have to teach them how to work”, says Claire, the mother who runs the show. Her daughters Paulina and Carlotta live in Sri Lanka with her. They are responsible for the permaculture garden, the guests and the cooking. “It’s really hard to get anything done here. Nothing is fair or ecological in Sri Lanka, not the water, not the buildings, not the people. And as a woman? It took a lot of time to build up authority.”

 

 

These women are hidden figures. Their whispers drown in the booming noise of male dominance, and so we drown with them. We end up communicating via eye contact, a shy smile here, a nod of appreciation there. I remember our beautiful young host in Tallala. Everyday for 3 consecutive days I told Nisansala how great her cooking was, and that her curries were the goddamn best anyone could expect to eat anywhere (the absolute, utter truth), but she hardly shrugs. Sure, whatever. What’s a compliment from a woman worth? And what’s a compliment to a woman’s work worth?

In the end, we return to Berlin with a heightened sense for female impotence. Daily now I recognize the subtle needle pricks of male condescension and aggression, even here. I come to the conclusion that Eve picked that apple from the tree because she fucking hated Adams version of paradise. And so did I.

Other opinions

  1. […] I may have had mixed feelings about my holidays in Sri Lanka, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have fantastic recommendations. I decided to jot down all of the great places that we visited and the trips that we took as Sri Lanka is becoming more and more popular by the minute, but it can be difficult to find high quality in an emerging destination. […]