What I’ve learned about Sri Lanka

When I bought a one-way flight from Delhi to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, I didn’t know much about the country that I was heading to. I could point Sri Lanka out on a map, I had heard about the country’s unprecedented financial crisis, and I, like all surfers, knew it is home to some of the longest right point breaks in the Indian Ocean. But other than that, it was just an abstract idea.

Now, after spending two months in Sri Lanka and traveling from its tropical beaches to the top of its inland mountains, different things come to mind when I think of Sri Lanka. That void of knowledge has been filled with people, places, smells, tastes, and experiences.

I’ve collected a jumbled bag of memories and have gained a new appreciation for the country — its beautiful landscapes, friendly people, and relaxed lifestyle.

Here are a few of the things that I have learned about Sri Lanka.

1. Sri Lanka is safe

As I alluded to in my previous post, many foreigners warned me about visiting Sri Lanka due to the financial crisis and civil unrest. While the financial crisis (more on that later) is happening, of course, by no means is Sri Lanka a dangerous place (unless your standard for safety is a gated country club in Palm Springs).

Sri Lanka’s per capita rates of violent crime are dwarfed by those of the United States and the eye test matches the statistics. The worst crime that I experienced in Sri Lanka was a pair of my ragged sandals disappearing while I was surfing.

When you come to Sri Lanka and see people who don’t think twice to walk home at night, kids playing pick-up cricket in the streets, and friendly locals flashing big grins as you walk by, you feel silly for ever considering it a dangerous place.

This ding repair shop leaves dozens of boards in the yard drying, just meters away from the main road in town. I guess it says something about the level of petty crime in the area.

2. Ethnicities, language, and religion

You might assume that a small country, like Sri Lanka, which is in close proximity to a massive country, like India, would be similar to its influential, big neighbor, but Sri Lanka is quite unique.

The major ethnic group of Sri Lanka is the Sinhalese, accounting for 70% of the country’s population. They are mainly Buddhists and speak their own language, Sinhala. I’ve had fun learning the basic phrases of Sinhala, always enjoying the smile I get when I surprise a local with “subha dawasak” (have a good day) or “Karunakala veggie roti ekak denna” (Give me a veggie roti please).

The main minority ethnic group of Sri Lanka is the Tamils, which are mainly found in north and east Sri Lanka and have cultural ties to the Tamil people of southeast India. They speak Tamil, from a completely different language family than Sinhala, and are majority Hindu.

When speaking with Sinhalese, a “kohomoda machan?” goes a long way. (What’s up, dude?)
Classic Sri Lankan breakfast of coconut rice, roti, and dahl.

3. Geographic diversity

For such a small island, Sri Lanka is stunningly diverse in its ecosystems. The coastal areas feature postcard-worthy tropical beaches with turtles roaming the teal-colored water. The central highlands are a much cooler climate with pine forests and peaks that soar over a mile and a half high. Additionally, there are wet rainforests, dry savannah plains where elephants and leopards roam, and everything in between.

Lowlands of Yala National Park on the south coast.
Sri Lanka is a great place to observe elephants in the wild and not in captivity.
A half-day safari was very reasonably priced at about $30 for three people.
Foothills near the town of Ella.
Hiking in the mountains.
Snorkeling with turtles on the southwest coast.

4. Full moon holidays

If you stay in Sri Lanka for more than a month, you’ll inevitably be in the country during a full moon. And when you leave the house on your first full moon and realize that all the stores are closed, you’ll have experienced your first Poya.

Poya is a Buddhist celebration that occurs every full moon. Each one is a national holiday in Sri Lanka. You’ll notice much more activity at the Buddhist temples scattered around town during Poya and hear their prayers over loudspeakers.

Plan accordingly if you need to do some type of shopping during the full moon. Everything except the essentials is closed.

5. The elephant in the room: The financial/political crisis

Finally, time to address the big elephant in the room. Sri Lanka has been in the spotlight in recent years as it has gone through a disastrous financial and political crisis.

I don’t claim to be an economist or political scientist, but living here, speaking with locals, and becoming a part of the local economy (to an extent) has given me a better understanding of the situation.

The oversimplified explanation: Sri Lanka terribly mismanaged its economy and foreign currency reserves, rendering the country unable to import sufficient commodities for its population. Non-essential imports were halted, gas was rationed, foreign currency was restricted from leaving the country, and protests ensued.

So, how does this translate to day-to-day life in Sri Lanka? It depends.

For the average tourist, they may never even notice that there is a financial crisis. Some imported items, like cereal and peanut butter in my experience, are moderately expensive. And the power gets cut for an hour each afternoon. But tourist life has gone on. The grocery stores are stocked with food, the parties are still raging on weekends, and the tropical beaches are right where they always have been.

Obviously, the locals have gone through more hardship, particularly when tourism, which makes up a significant 12% of the nation’s GDP, dried up due to the double-whammy of a pandemic and financial crisis.

I got my first small dose of what the locals are feeling when my brother and his fiancé visited and we decided to rent a car. Gas is still being rationed, so each person is given a QR code that allows 20 liters (5.2 gallons) per week, renewable every Monday. 20 liters in Sri Lanka goes much farther than what we are used to in the US given that the small Japanese cars and scooters are exponentially more gas efficient, but it’s still not enough to do a road trip around the country. We were able to purchase a special tourist gas card loaded with USD $55, which was usually denied by gas station attendants. Still, we were able to wheel and deal between our tourist card and QR code, at times driving to four gas stations before we’d get a hit.

I interviewed the owner of an upscale surf shop and restaurant (story to be released soon!) about the effects on his business. He told me stories of desperate searches for scarce power generators, the egg supply vanishing overnight, and some absurdly priced surf items at his shop that had to be specially approved and shipped to skirt around the import ban on non-essential goods.

It sounded like a nightmare to run a business with the day-to-day uncertainty, but tourism is returning and things do seem relatively optimistic compared to last year.

This photo has nothing to do with the gas shortage. Just a dead battery.

A perfect place to visit

I came to Sri Lanka with little expectations, and after having had a glorious time in Indonesia and India, the bar was set high as far as being impressed by a new country. But Sri Lanka outdid itself.

I have grown so comfortable living in the sleepy city suburb of Madiha. I go surf in the warm water every morning, get some work done at home, and fill up on scrumptious food.

Life here is safe, slow, and very affordable. Europeans, Israelis, and Russians have already figured this out, as they are by far the lion’s share of tourism. However, every now and then I bump into a fellow American who has gotten lost and stumbled upon this country on the other side of the globe, like myself.

I have nothing but positive memories of Sri Lanka and already know that I will fondly remember the people and places that have been my home for the past 10 weeks.

Some extra shots I thought deserved to be used. Male peacock trying to woo the females in Yala National Park.
Leopards are rare in Sri Lanka, but we were lucky and saw one in a tree on our safari.
I do not recommend swimming in murky bodies of fresh water in Sri Lanka.
Half the fun of safaris is the people-watching.
Classic Sri Lanka railroad shot.
Just purchased our own locally-made Sri Lanka style shirts.
I’ll miss these views.

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