After deciding to go to Sri Lanka, I knew that I was entering a region of which I had no experience and no idea what to expect. From shocking to entertaining to amazing, here are some things I have noticed.
The Head Bobble
I went into a little shop to buy a water after walking around in 35 degree blazing Colombo heat. The shopkeeper wrote on a piece of paper the price and I gave him the exact change. He then looked at me and vigorously shook his head yes and no in a figure 8 pattern. I didn’t quite know what to do. Did I not give him the right change? Was he angry with me? Was he saying thank you? I walked away slowly thinking he’d stop me of I didn’t give him enough money and exited the shop.
Over time, I’ve discovered the head bobble meaning really depends on context. It can mean yes, no, maybe, thank you, you’re welcome, I’m not quite satisfied with that, and I agree. If I’m haggling a price, and the person head bobbles, it’s usually an agreement. If they come back with a counter price while head bobbling, they aren’t satisfied with my initial price.
The head bobble has grown on me, and I find myself bobbling instead of saying thank you. Initially, it can feel like you’re being rude not verbalizing thanks or you’re welcome, but it’s just physically saying thanks instead.
Transportation & Traffic
Tuktuks are basically 3-wheel overpowered golf carts you drive like a motorcycle. They have quite a bit of speed to them, and (speaking from experience) can be a bit complicated to drive if you don't know how to gear shift like a motorcycle. These things are everywhere. Every 10 seconds you get asked if you need a tuktuk somewhere, and sometimes the drivers can get quite aggressive in yelling at you to see where you are going and follow you as you walk for a while. I once preferred to walk 2km with my pack instead of paying for a tuktuk and the guy yelled at me saying I was bad for his business. Also, you negotiate the price up front, and they’ll still try to ask for more when you’re getting out.
One really strange thing is it seems in each town there is a tuktuk that delivers bread. As it’s delivering, it plays this sort of ice cream truck jingle to the tune of Fur Elise. I was once woken up at 6:30AM by this and thought ‘well, at least it’s sort of classical music.’
Buses are an adventure in themselves. Always packed full of people with loud music blasting, you’ll find lots of Buddhist or Hindu posters and statues all around the driver. Maybe they think they can drive faster if they have their religion on their side, because boy do they drive fast. Everyone is jammed inside, falling asleep on each other, sweating on each other, and either bobbing their head to the music or watching a Bollywood movie playing at the front.
A tuktuk or bus horn is constantly a sound you can hear while anywhere populated. As they pass each other on the road, the horn is used to say ‘hey, I’m here’. But they still do this even when sitting in traffic... so it’s just constant horn noise. While speeding along in a bus, they honk at anything on the road or even if they see another bus on the other side.
Trains have 3 different classes, with 1st class being sold out by foreigners and air conditioned, and 2nd and 3rd class being for mostly the normal people. There are benches facing each other, but a lot of people stand, or sit in the open doors. I’ve loved being able to throw my pack down between carts and sit in the door, with the best view of the countryside going by.
All public transportation is very cheap, often with a fresh mango costing more (80 cents) than a 3 hour ride on the train (60 cents.)
Haggling & Negotiating
All prices are negotiable. It’s become a bit of a game, haggling the price of a taxi/tuktuk then asking at the hostel to see how close to local price I actually got. Whatever you are buying, you can haggle the price and you have to be pretty aggressive about it. If I don’t agree with a price (usually half of what they initially offer) I start walking away and 99% of the time the shopkeeper or driver will change their mind about my price. It’s hardened me a little bit, since I like to assuming that people have my best interests at heart... but here, rupee is king.
Spice & Hands
There's nothing I love more in Sri Lanka than meal time. You can haggle the price if somewhere in the off-season which usually means I eat and have a fruit drink or tea for less than $5 a meal. Food ranges from mildly spicy to burn your face off spicy, and what you’re going to get you never quite know. A range of vegetables, rice, noodles, curry, chicken, flat breads, and fish is usually what’s available. Yes, I eat curry for breakfast now. One thing that I absolutely love about mealtime is eating with my hands. Everywhere has a sink for you to wash up, and there’s something I absolutely adore about mixing my food and eating it with my hands. If you have rice and curry, you put everything on your plate separately, then decide what to blend together with your fingers. Shaping your hand into a claw, you pick up a bit of food then push it into your mouth with your thumb. Since you blend everything yourself, you choose the flavours of spices and herbs you like best together. I usually just put everything together for this amazing melody of flavours. Definitely something I will miss when I leave.
To be honest, I'm not really surprised about the issues I've encountered as a woman. I just want to point them out since it has been something I've been dealing with each day.
First, everyone you interact with will be male. It is very rare to meet a local female willing to talk to you. I’m pretty used to traveling on my own, but here in Sri Lanka as a western female with blonde hair you get all sorts of unwanted attention and questions you don’t think are appropriate for a stranger to ask. You constantly get asked your name, where you are from, where are you going, where is your boyfriend, or is it your husband, are you married, do you have children, and where are you staying so they can come visit you. I either ignore them if it’s a random person from the street, or I say yes I’m married and I’m going to meet my husband now okay thanks bye.
Walking down the road, scooters or motorcycles will drive past and young boys will yell obscene things at me. Basically anywhere I go I get stared at or have photos taken of me. Up in the northern part of the country, entire families wanted pictures and selfies and a few shots short of a photoshoot. I initially thought it was quite strange, but then rolled with it and posed with them, looking like old friends hanging out together.
For temples, I cover up my legs and my shoulders, but in this weather and while out and about I prefer to wear shorts and tank tops. Sometimes when walking around I feel like I would get less unwanted attention if I was completely covered up, like all of the local women. Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim, and Christian are the top 4 religions, and regardless of which one you are, women are pretty much covered from head to toe. Even on the beach women don't swim and are completely covered. Given all the blatant staring I’ve received, I wonder if covering up is more than just for religious reasons and also to deter men from leering creepily. Despite covering up, it's perfectly normal to take your shoes off and walk barefoot in stores and restaurants. I wonder if foot fetishes are a thing since it’s the only part a man can really see.
Alcohol & Tobacco
Alcohol and tobacco are forbidden unless in a private home. Except most men drink and smoke, especially tuktuk drivers. It’s very, very expensive, with the prices being about the same as Canada. Foreigners seem to get away with purchasing these items, but they’re difficult to find. When you go to buy alcohol, it’s behind a barred window usually on the edge of town, and only men are there. When I approach the window, it’s as if the world stops, they serve me first, all staring at me, then resume their usual business as soon as I leave.
There seems to be this underground male culture of drinking and smoking in dark basements in towns and cities, where alcoholism is still very much a problem despite it being forbidden. I’m curious to learn more about why this is the case, but as a female it’s not usually a topic the locals talk to me about.
There’s also this other leaf (betal) combined with a nut and tobacco that is chewed that makes people’s teeth and mouth completely red. It’s supposed to be a stimulant of sorts and can be rather shocking to have someone smile a big blood red smile at you.
Friend or Not
I've been fortunate to meet some very friendly locals on my travels. Unfortunately, I had to judge them right from the beginning, because I wasn't sure if they were just trying to get money from me. Sri Lankan people are very smiley, friendly, and open people willing to help. However, there are some that will only help you for a fee. It gets pretty exhausting and you feel like a jerk for second-guessing what could be someone's good intentions.
All prices are different for foreigners. And I'm not talking about a foreigner menu with a few bucks difference. All major temples, ruins, sites, mountain hikes, gardens, national parks, etc. are all north of $20 an entrance for a tourist and free for locals. The cost of visiting cultural and historical sites along with guesthouse/hotel prices ranging from $15 to luxury prices ($200+) per night has made Sri Lanka significantly more expensive to travel in than I had budgeted for.
I feel like other backpackers in Sri Lanka can relate to the above, but do let me know if I’ve missed something! Coming up will be a bit more about places I’ve visited and some other random quirks of this beautiful country.