We must be the only people on earth who did not fall in love with Sri Lanka from the word go. Everyone who had visited this tear shaped island nation had raved about it but for us it was a slow burn. However one of the purposes of extensive travel is to experience places unlike your home. And our arrival at The Hotel Clingendael revealed promise about what the future of Sri Lanka could be. The view of the lush jungle from our room was magnificent; the food was divine; and the service was first rate.
But as it is a rural country the lengths many citizens must go to financially survive take some getting used to. Temple touring, for instance, is de rigueur here and so is taking off your shoes before entering a buddhist shrine. Out of respect, of course. Or, so I thought.
Upon exiting the caves of Dambulla, a world heritage site, we looked at the space where we had left our shoes. It was empty. But there was a curious line of people standing outside a rickety shack where we discovered not only our shoes but a toothless, bony entrepreneur demanding 25 Sri Lankan rupees ($.50) to get them back.
Perhaps it is understandable. Although Sri Lanka’s unemployment rate hovers around 4 to 7 percent the monthly average income is only about $350.00 versus Bermuda’s and America’s which is over $4500.00 or Switzerland’s which sees its citizens earning on average $6000.00 per month.
Whether it is offering rides on the local livestock or “requisitioning” shoes for ransom earning options are limited here so one must be creative.
Like on a golf course we visited. Normally during play you repair any marks left by the impact of your ball striking the green. But that activity was left to an army of Sri Lankan women whose job it was to do it for you. I don’t actually know if it was an actual “job” but their assistance, along with their big smiles did illicit appreciative tips from each player on the course. Elsewhere, along the shore line in Colombo, the capital, an old man had placed a common bathroom scale next to a handwritten sign offering reasonable rates for open air weigh-ins. That is not a number I am anxious to reveal especially considering the ample amounts of exotic meals including breakfasts of roti, curry and apple lasagne we had consumed, but both incidents did symbolize the struggle of many Sri Lankans to find employment.
Unusual entrepreneurial endeavors continued as we made our way to a spice and herbal center where we got more than I had bargained for. First an adept salesman showed me a glorious array of natural oils and herbal concoctions that he had for sale. He insisted that I try them… by way of massage. I nervously looked around. There was no enclosure for privacy. My husband offered no visable sign of resistance so I reluctantly agreed. Instantly the two male therapists lifted my arms and then the shirt right off my back.
My worst fears, of kidnappings and sexual slavery, never materialized. And when the massage-which was very nice despite feeling unnerved by my display of immodesty -was over, I asked “How much do I owe you”?
“It is voluntary” he said which I took to mean “complimentary.” But tip worthy as well I somehow understood.
After paying the gratuity I caught sight of the exit which lay just beyond the homeopathic boutique. My intrepid salesman blocked my way.
“You need this Madame,” he announced. “This cream will last a year. Maybe two. Make your skin so soft.”
I looked at the price and shook my head.
Recognizing the culture of bargaining for what it was and not to be thought a fool, which I am sure I was, I refused his beauty advice.
“Okay, this one then, which is smaller,” he encouragingly suggested.
“No, still too much,” I said.
Then just like in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears where she tries two beds which were unsatisfactory but then settles upon the third which was “just right” I too finally acquiesced to the salesman’s sales pitch and bought the third bottle of oil and finally, my freedom.
A roadside tea factory held more delights in the practice of commerce. As my husband and I entered the establishment a young woman announced that she would escort us around. At the end of the ten minute tour my husband did what had become perfunctory in Sri Lanka and tried to tip her. But labor, whether it is a massage or service can be trumped by the potential sale of a product.
“No you must buy tea, “she told us. “That would be good for me,” she added.
So instead of giving tips we bought tea which presumably amounted to a gold star or sheer profit for our guide. Now we have enough tea for a year and very little room in our suitcases for much else.
Although I never notice it at home, when you travel, tourists become targets especially in places where incomes are low and opportunities scarce.
“Your restaurant is down here “ a random man on the street from whom my husband had asked directions tells us. He seemed so kind and had even offered to hail us a tuk tuk for our journey which was so short we refused. So instead he escorted us to our destination which was only 30 seconds away. I thought he was charming and thanked him profusely. But my husband recognized a hustle when he saw one and offered him a tip.
“That is not enough,” he angrily complained. I was shocked by the sheer audacity of his expectation. He had walked only moments out of his way and that was of his own volition. It was shameful, inhospitable behavior confirmed by a nearby merchant who rolled his eyes and assured us that that gentleman tried that tactic on all the tourists.
After dinner, more drama as we grabbed a cab.
“ How much,” we asked.
“Ah, $1000.00 “ (Sri Lankan Rupees) he said.
“ What? It was only $350.00 to get to the restaurant,” I countered.
“It’s raining,” he challenged.
It takes all kinds but luckily the disappointing people we met on this leg of our journey were the exception rather than the rule. But it did remind us how comparatively easy life was in the US.
Although Sri Lanka has been described as more second world than third world, at times we did wonder if we were too spoiled to fully appreciate other, less developed parts of the planet. And one conversation with our driver Mohan did nothing to inspire confidence.
“We are like India,” he said, “but much cleaner.”
But Sri Lanka is a country on the move. For 30 years it was embroiled in a civil war. The fighting, which only ended in 2009, decimated the tourism industry which Sri Lankans are now trying to rebuild. The roads here, where a one hour journey may take five, are awful but Mohan tells us a new highway will soon be built and everyone is happy about that. The airport is only open before 8:30 in the morning or after 4:30 in the afternoon which means you are on the road at 3:30 to make a morning flight. But the good news is the airport closures have come amidst efforts to modernize it.
Back at our lovely oasis of luxury in The CLINGENDAEL we found a great sanctuary away from the culture of commerce and a glowing example of high level Sri Lankan hospitality . Nothing was too much of an effort for the staff there. “Madam, is there anything ELSE I can do for you, madam?” was the most frequently repeated question during our stay there. With only 5 guest rooms, there is exquisite, if not unusual services provided.
”Just relax..relax…relax…” murmured our personal Yogi who visited daily for private instruction. While he calmed us the rest of the staff made us laugh by changing the character of our towel displays every day.
There is natural beauty and a gentleness of spirit in Sri Lanka which is what many visitors we talked to enjoyed most about this country. Perhaps it has something to do with religion. 70% of Sri Lankans are practicing Buddhists who are taught that “suffering is inherent in life and that one can be liberated from it by cultivating wisdom, virtue, and concentration.”
After 3 decades of political turmoil this belief system may be the thing that helps move this country forward. Certainly it has provided an irresistible allure to people who have created businesses here like the owner of our hotel who says his venture has not yet yielded the profits he had hoped for, but there is always tomorrow. For his hotel and his adopted nation.
“It’s a labor of love,” he told us.