It had been 18 months since I had been outside of India. That’s a long time, and to be honest I didn’t think going to Sri Lanka was really going to be a big change from what had become normality to me, after all at some points there is only 30 kilomtres separating Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka, as I discovered when visiting Rameswaram.
How wrong was I?
From the minute we got off the plane I knew I was in a different country. It wasn’t just a case of a “same same but different”, it was a competely new and refreshing experience. So exactly how is Sri Lanka different from India?
The first thing I noticed was the people. They are polite, respectful and considerate of others. I was astonished at the airport as a car slowed down to let us cross the road. I have become accustomed to being defensive when trying to pass a car, it took a while for me to get used to trusting that someone wasn’t going to try and run me over when I went near a road. The only exception would have to be buses, which hurtle down the narrow roads at a breakneck pace to catch their next passenger, taking no prisoners along the way. You have to be quick and on your guard to stay out of their way.
One of the disadvantages with dealing with such a polite race is that it was a challenge getting them to tell us what they wanted. Our driver was too shy to ask us for an advance payment. It took him four days to work up the courage to subtly ask us for some money, something that would have been no issue at all.
Whilst I didn’t feel “stared at” as much as I do in India, I have never been flashed at at home, and unfortunately I was on my first day in Sri Lanka. That said, I still think I would feel quite safe travelling around Sri Lanka on my own if I were to come again. There is a gentleness to the race that makes me believe it would be alright for a solo female traveller (however on this trip I travelled with my parents and cousin).
I have always known that India is not the cleanest of places, but I think after 18 months I am becoming a little bit desensitised to the filth that covers the streets. Sri Lanka certainly reminded how beautiful the world can look.
Even though this country does not have as much wealth as India, its people appear to have a much better standard of living. I only saw one small slum in my travels, unlike the hundreds (or thousands) I have seen all over India. Yes Sri Lanka is much smaller than India, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of resources or extravagance that I have seen either.
Somehow, this small country has found a way to provide a reasonable standard of living for its population, despite being in a state of war for so long. The streets are relatively clean, there are few make-shift houses and I had almost forgotten what fresh, unadulterated air smelt like! Walking along the seaside promenade in the centre of Colombo I couldn’t help but wonder why Bandra Bandstand or Marine Drive couldn’t be so pristine. There was no rubbish littering the sand, no one relieving themselves on the beach and no fear that the water was contaminated with god knows what.
Looking around Sri Lanka made me feel a bit sad that India, this country that I love and call home, can’t find a way to provide a minimum standard of living to so many, or even just have some pride in the environment. In this regard, Sri Lanka really does put India to shame.
The hardest part of the trip would have to have been the lack of variety in the food, particularly for vegetarians. Whilst I am not vegetarian my mother is and I really felt for her whenever we stopped somewhere for a meal. At almost every town and restaurant we visited we were greeted with exactly the same menu. Whilst Sri Lankan rice and curry is fabulous, there was no other variety for a vegetarian. I found this really odd, particularly since it is a predominantly buddhist country.
In India I was vegetarian for the 9 months I backpacked and never had an issue, it is such an accepted part of the culture that it makes travelling the country a joy. For any vegetarian thinking of going to Sri Lanka, I would suggest they should be prepared to have little variety and just stick to the local rice and curry (without the meat).
Leaving Sri Lanka, did make me think a little about why I was choosing to return to India. Now I am back here I see the opportunity and diversity that this country has, but I do long for the crystal blue waters of Sri Lanka. I am sure I will return to this neighbouring country sometime soon.