When I told people in India that the next stop on my journey would be Sri Lanka, I received big eyes, gasps, and stark warnings to avoid their southern neighbor.
“Don’t go there!” they said. “It’s a mess. They are on the verge of financial collapse. Watch out.”
However, when I landed in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, what I experienced was the exact opposite of what the Indians had warned me about.
I walked off the plane into a quiet, tidy airport, where my surf bag, which is normally a hassle to find in the baggage claim, was unassumingly awaiting me at the carousel along with my backpack.
I left the airport and ordered an uber that took me down a smooth expressway into the city center. I stayed at a budget hostel where staff and guests were passionately watching world cup matches. The hostel had fast wifi and a comfy bed. No complaints yet.
In the morning I ventured into the streets of downtown Colombo to search for food. And again, no riots, no wreaking havoc, no mobs. People hurried along the sidewalks in suits and ties to their corporate jobs. Others queued at cafes for coffee and pastries. The traffic was noticeably more organized than what I had experienced in the previous five months between Indonesia and India.
Next, I hopped on a bus that took me to my final destination, Matara, on the country’s south coast. I hopped off the bus, flagged down a tuk-tuk, and settled into the beach neighborhood of Madiha. Narrow streets wound around the sandy coast, kids played cricket in the grassy fields, and fishermen stood on the roadside to turn today’s catch into cash.
Had these Indians that warned me about Sri Lanka ever been here? Or had they been leaning a bit too hard into sensationalized news that stirs fear of the unknown?
To be fair, Sri Lanka has experienced its fair share of struggles.
From 1983-2009 the country suffered from a racial/religious fueled civil war. And more recently, the pandemic exacerbated a mismanaged economy that was already teetering on the edge of a meltdown. As a result, the country’s currency lost more than half its value, inflation surged, imports were restricted to only essential items, and daily power outages were implemented to save resources.
Despite all the aforementioned issues, the average tourist on the ground visiting Sri Lanka would be hard-pressed to notice any of it. It’s business as usual.
My life in Sri Lanka has been rather serene. It has consisted of lots of relaxing and surfing, getting a feel for the community that I am living in. If behind the scenes the locals are living in the doomsday horror film that my Indian acquaintances described to me, they are damn good at hiding it behind their wide, perpetual smiles.
There are moments when you are reminded of the looming economic crisis — mainly when buying certain specialty items that are not typical imports for Sri Lanka. My eyes bulged out of my skull when I saw bars of wax going for USD $9 a pop at a surf shop. And I questioned my addiction to granola breakfasts when I saw the price of a small carton of almond milk was the equivalent of USD $10. Anyway, if you can adapt to the local lifestyle and cuisine, weening off the imported goods, life is actually ultra-affordable.
Sri Lanka itself naturally reminds me a bit of my previous destination, India. There are some similarities. There is overlap in the cuisine, like roti bread and curries. Both countries share the characteristic side-to-side head bobble used for an array of body language. Both show the effects of British colonization that left behind their language and railways, for example.
But despite their proximity, they are two very different countries as well. India’s population of 1 billion+ is majority Hindu, while Sri Lanka’s minuscule island of 22 million is majority Buddhist. They speak different languages. Sri Lanka’s tourism sector is much more well-equipped to receive foreigners, and it shows by the hordes of Europeans, Israelis, and Russians that flock to the country in search of tropical weather. Also, interestingly enough, I have seen motorists stop for pedestrians at crosswalks in Sri Lanka, something you would rarely see in India.
All in all, Sri Lanka has been an amazing destination and a perfect stop on my trip around the globe. Life here is very relaxed; there is good food, good surfing, warm water, lots of sun, and gentle, gregarious people who are quite curious about the foreigners that vacation here.
It’s funny, if you were to blindfold me and drop me off in India and Sri Lanka without me knowing which was in a state of crisis, I would be inclined to point the finger at India as the country under financial and social duress. Of course, each country has its own unique set of problems and they cannot be compared apples to apples. However, life here in Sri Lanka has been pretty … nice … and normal. The sensationalized news and warnings of my Indian friends really hold little water once you are here. It’s a beautiful country and I wouldn’t hesitate to come back one bit.
5 thoughts on “Settling in Sri Lanka”
Hello Evan, quiet reader from Southern California here. Just wanted to say Happy New Year and thanks for sharing your adventures on your blog with the world, they’re always great to read.
Thanks for reading!
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Happy New Year, Evan! I was wondering when we would hear about Sri Lanka. You’re the first person I’ve known who’s been there and it’s interesting that you find it so peaceful since the economic upheaval (shortages esp of fuel) has spurred riots and terrorists attacks but mostly, I imagine, in Colombo. Glad you have had a beautiful and peaceful time in the surfing community.
We just had a welcome visit from Cait, Carlos, Saad and Ali. Violent storms here (and in CA too) have left us without electricity for days on end. We would love to get out of here but Dan’s hernia surgery has trapped us for now. We plan a trip to CA and Colombia in March.
Where do you go next?
Hugs to you!
Hey Shelley, hope you guys and Dan are all doing well and enjoying the New England winter. Colombia in March sounds great.
Yeah life here doesn’t look as chaotic as one would imagine, even in Colombo. That’s not to say those issues don’t exist, but by no means is it a dangerous place to be.