Earlier this year, I was scheduled to volunteer in Thailand as a guesthouse host. I mapped out a plan that would allow me to stay in Ranong Province for 4 months and hit other countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia afterwards just to keep my feet moving without having to spend so much on transportation. A week before I was set to leave, I received an email from the head of the organization informing me of the cancellation of all foreign volunteer jobs. I didn’t bother to question the organization’s decision, which was probably influenced by Thailand’s then political mess.
I felt devastated, of course, because I was more than prepared. But after a week of discernment and deep prayer, it dawned on me that I simply wasn’t ready to volunteer. A few days after receiving the sad news, I found myself holding a roundtrip ticket to Sri Lanka and that’s when it all made sense.
I’ve always wanted to visit Sri Lanka but it was only this year when I finally found a way to make it happen thanks to the sudden cancellation of my so-called “perfect travel plan” (that’s why right now, I’m all about WHATEVER HAPPENS, HAPPENS. Screw plans – because they usually don’t work out anyway!).
The first budget itinerary I made included my old friend Lyle who unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute as well. So in the end, it was just me and my little rucksack.
I arrived on a Friday and started my journey in Mount Lavinia, which is about 10km from the capital Colombo. I then traveled to Kandy, Dambulla, Sigiriya, Nuwara Eliya, Haputale, and Horton Plains. Though I’m used to traveling alone, I did feel the apprehension at one point when I realized that the country is way off the banana pancake grid, a travel route that seldom requires a big adjustment on the part of the foreigner when it comes to haggling or dealing with locals.
Sri Lanka’s distinctive charm is apparent. Like Myanmar, it embraces antiquity and eavesdrops on modernity. Though Sri Lanka has already tapped a few Western outlets such as Burger King and KFC to liven streets that usually sell hoppers and samosa, other areas remain in solitude and simplicity.
Cricket: the sport that every Sri Lankan worships. When the Sri Lankan national cricket team plays, everything in the country stops…similar to what happens in the Philippines when Manny Pacquiao gets in the ring. The sport occupies the afternoons of restless young men in every corner of the country. It’s embedded in history along with the vast tea plantations, the sound of clanging railways, the sight of women in saris, and the scent of spices brewing.
I saw Sri Lanka as a gateway to a new world. Others, meanwhile, made it a base to seek love or deny it. There’s Afzal, the 25-year old Pakistani who left Karachi for Colombo to be with the object of his 2-year virtual desire – a Canadian based in Malaysia whom he met through Facebook. He thought Sri Lanka was the perfect place to finally seal their relationship witnessed only by Mark Zuckerberg and co. The photo of a 30 somewhat year old lass has never left his wallet until the day he met her at the Bandaranaike International Airport where he, in his own words, “nearly fainted after seeing the soggy skin of a very old woman who wanted to kiss me so badly”. More than a week later, I came back to Colombo and had a chance to talk to the Canadian who was, in my opinion, quite charming despite her old age. She told me that her relationship with Afzal ended (surprise!) but not without a little drama. I then asked her if she felt any regret and she said, “No way. He was an asshole”.
I heard the same words from a young and beautiful Spaniard with a global soul. I would like to call her “Conchita” and she came to Sri Lanka after a failed marriage with a famous personality. She and I met in a hostel where we exchanged stories about our sucky love life that surprisingly became the bridge to our friendship.
I thought Sri Lanka was the perfect place for her to heal. And with a view like this, you can’t go wrong even if you have divorce papers to sign…
As for my “Sri Lankan” story…it’s far from love. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about India’s brutal treatment towards women. Let’s just say that Sri Lanka is not exactly like India despite its close proximity to the motherland. In fact, women have a good place in Sri Lankan society even if the male gender still dominates the working scene. This doesn’t mean however that I’m denying the existence of ASSHOLES because they practically are everywhere. Here’s my story:
It happened in Haputale, when the sun was still up. I was walking alone on a winding road, heading back to my guesthouse, when a man riding a tuktuk followed my tracks. He said something in Sinhalese which I obviously did not understand. To keep him away, I gave a “no” gesture to show that I was not interested in anything including a ride. He left soon but turned around when he “probably” saw that there was nobody in the area but me, him and his male passenger. In full speed, he headed towards my direction and attempted to run me over. I froze on my tracks and tried to run but his tuktuk blocked my way. Somehow, my panic allowed me to think that if I take the right side of the road, I could easily be attacked by the male passenger. So with my clenched fists, I ran as fast as I could, taking the left lane, and headed towards the guesthouse which was, fortunately for me, only about 200 meters away.
I hurriedly climbed up the steep staircase and called the owner’s name for help. Then I noticed that the tuktuk driver and his passenger stopped at the foot of the staircase and scanned the area, as if planning a break-in. When they saw the owner running down the stairs, they left. As for me, I wept like a child. I’ve never been so scared in my life, but I’m thankful for every prayer that stormed the heavens that day for my safety.
Despite the scare, Sri Lanka remains on my list as one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to. Seriously, the tuktuk harassment was just one dreadful experience and I’ve had too many meaningful encounters and awesome adventures to even give a shit. Just to let you know, some of my best memories include chatting with a tea picker, trekking World’s End, climbing Sigiriya (45 minutes), and riding the country’s CRAZY (crazier than Manila!!) buses. I’ve also witnessed the rebirth of beauty 10 years after the tsunami disaster. Screw the tuktuk!
I went home with only one memento – a postcard of Baker’s Falls with a line that says, “A Land Like No Other” – a perfect description indeed of what this country is all about.
PS: I was told that I’m the first Filipino to trek World’s End and enter Dambatenne Tea Factory. I don’t want to believe.
Check out my post How Much Did I Spend in Sri Lanka?