Sri Lanka #1: The First 2 Days - Meeting Dr. Sus

OK, let's get one thing straight right from the get-go, Sri Lanka is simply the greatest place I've ever visited! After a delay of over 7 weeks I'm finally going to start writing about our time here. And what a time it's been so far. I've been too busy up till now (simply having fun) to write, but I've now made some time and, man, do I ever have a lot to tell. How will I remember all the details from so many weeks ago? Don't worry. I have hundreds of pages of notes. Enough, in fact, to write a whole book just about these past 7 and a half weeks. We had a great 10 months in Nepal and India, but in just the first month here we'd already had more amazing experiences than during our entire time in those 2 countries. Seriously! A month after arriving here it was as if we'd already been living here for years, with our own soccer friends, basketball friends, drinking friends, Beach Club friends and "come stay at our place" friends too. And not to forget Bunny and Dr Seuss.

In our first 19 days in the country we'd already been invited into the homes of 6 different local families. And since then we've been in too many other homes to count. Before coming here we'd heard from quite a few friends and other travelers that the Sri Lankan people were really warm and friendly; so we were expecting to meet some nice friendly people here, but we never expected THIS. THIS is ridiculous! The only place that comes close to here is Xinjiang. And, as I'm sure you'll all remember, our time in Xinjiang was so amazing that it became downright silly.

Sri Lanka is the land of perfect beaches, Lion Lager, string hoppers, sea baths, lush green jungles, tea plantations, more Lion Lager (and Goldbrew Lager too), Magnificent Mickey, millions of coconut trees, elephants, sweet Kandy and, most importantly, incredibly friendly people. In fact, of the 30-odd countries I've visited so far Sri Lanka, as I've already said, has got to be my favorite. And the reason is simple. Yes, the beaches and lush green jungles are spectacular, but it's been the unbelievably friendly people who have really blown me away here. "How can you get any friendlier than the people in Xinjiang?" you may ask. And you'd be right. I can't say the people here are friendlier, but they're just as friendly, or, maybe I should say, we've been just as lucky here as we were up there in meeting so many wonderful people. However, throw in those beaches and jungles that we've been enjoying here so much and you've definitely got one of the nicest places on the planet. Paradise!

But, first, a warning: for those of you who find your joy in the day-to-day challenges of traveling, you should definitely avoid coming to Sri Lanka. For daily challenges, struggles, etc. try India, but don't come here. It's not that you don't face challenges here, it's just that they're of a very different nature: there's the challenge of deciding whose house to stay at; whose place to have dinner at; whether to play soccer or basketball or both; which beer to drink; and, of course, which beach to lie on. And then there's that one very big and special challenge which you find in all countries where people don't use deodorant: the challenge/struggle of standing in the middle of a packed bus on which everyone's got their arms raised up holding onto the overhead railing. Besides that, however, there aren't many other challenges here.

Oh, and one other warning: for those of you who enjoy reading about the challenge of traveling/backpacking, you might as well forget about reading all these coming Sri Lankan letters. For you, more Indian letters will be coming soon... in November.

The first thing you have to do before I start writing about our experiences here is get rid of any mistaken notions you may have, as I had myself before coming here, that Sri Lanka is just some sort of extension of India. Though the food is similar and the people generally look alike, the two countries are very different in many ways. One of the most obvious differences is the fact that the vast majority of the people here are Buddhists, while India is, of course, a majority Hindu country. Also, overall, Sri Lanka feels like a much more advanced/modern country than India, which has a lot to do with 50 years of free universal education and literacy rates of 90%. There are many other differences, which I'll touch on in future letters, but basically it'd be fair to say that thinking of India and Sri Lanka as having one culture would be akin to saying that Japan and China share one culture. And just as Japan is an island nation off the coast of a huge neighbor (China), Sri Lanka is also a small island nation dwarfed by its gigantic neighbor (India). Of course, as with the Japanese example, there has been great cultural influence from the giant neighbor over the centuries, but it's still very much a different culture and different country.

OK, so we're sitting in Dr. Sus' house on our 4th day in the country... But, wait, maybe I should start at the very beginning.

We flew from Chennai into Colombo (the capital and, by far, the largest city in Sri Lanka) on July 29th, arriving at 2PM local time, which is 30 minutes later than Indian Standard Time (not to be confused with "Indian Time"!). Our flight was good and even though it was only one hour long we were still served a full lunch, which included a great dessert called "Aluwa". It was so good, in fact, that I was left with no choice but to ask for another. She offered me 2! Thus, I entered Sri Lanka feeling pretty happy.

After changing money at possibly the only airport in the world in which you can get better exchange rates than those offered in town (something we didn't realize until a few days later when we needed to change more money) we headed over to the Sri Lankan Tourist office desk where we encountered 2 zombie-like women who seemed to know absolutely nothing about anything. Not exactly the best people to have representing the country and giving visitors their first impressions of the place! We asked where/how to catch the bus into town - the bus we'd recently been told about by our friends Jo and Yuko, who had been here only a few months earlier. The 2 zombies told us there was no bus and the only option was to take a taxi. So, ignoring them, we walked up the road 500 meters, caught the local bus we knew existed and headed into town. It's as simple as this: Never listen to, or trust, zombies. But you probably already knew that, didn't you?

On the bus into central Colombo I noticed 3 things of interest: 1) Our bus driver had both a Pikachu doll and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle doll hanging next to him in the front window; 2) Unlike in India, almost all the women were dressed in modern Western clothing; and 3) Also unlike India, women would actually sit down next to men on the bus. I also noticed one interesting thing outside the bus: While driving into town we passed a sign for a company called "Anis and Co." Yes, Anis! I didn't want to be too critical or anything on my first day in the country, but I couldn't help but think that that may not be the best sounding name for a company, at least not if they're exporting to an English-speaking country.

We found out almost immediately that Colombo is simply not set up for budget travelers and there's only one cheap place to stay, which is the YMCA. The Colombo YMCA was founded in 1882 and I don't know if they've been using the same building all these 121 years or not, but it sure felt like it. What a dump! And what a step down from the type of accommodation we'd become used to in India. In most places in India we had been staying in relative luxury, in clean rooms with clean sheets and towels, with a TV and all the cable channels and with our own private bathroom - all usually for only about $3 or $4! Not in Colombo. Here, for $5, we got a dirty room with horrible mattresses and not much else besides the joy of sharing the filthy, disgusting showers and toilets (something we haven't had to do in a long long while). Oh yeah, then there was the scabies. Not to forget the scabies. However, at least there was a balcony, which was nice. But for $5 it sure felt like a rip-off. This was Sri Lanka though - not India - and the reality is Sri Lanka, especially Colombo, is a lot more expensive than India. The key is to get out of Colombo. Or at least to get out of the YMCA! Everybody sing it: "It's NO fun to stay at the Y M C A. It's NO fun to stay at the Y M C A. But you know it's fun to leave the Y M C A..."

At the airport we had both received a 30-day visa. We were yet to realize that even a 3-month visa would be way too short, but we both clearly knew that we wanted to stay longer than a month, so on our second day here we headed down to Immigration in the southern district of the city known as Bambalapitiya. Later on we met another traveler who got a 3-month visa at the airport for free - just by asking. We had been told that the most you could get at the airport was 30 days, so we didn't even bother asking for longer. A relatively costly mistake, especially for me. For Canadians it costs US$50 to extend by an extra 60 days, but for Japanese it costs just half of that; it's always more - or much more - for Canadians. So I threw away $50, but it was definitely worth it. If we hadn't gone to Immigration that day we never would have met Dr. Sus ( pronounced "Seuss") and our whole time here would have been different - as in "nowhere near as good". So throw away the $50 (happily!), say hello to Dr. Sus and get ready to sing, as the old KISS song (almost) goes: "Shout it, shout it, shout it out loud: I LOVE SRI LANKA!!"

It took just one hour to extend our visas and, unlike in most countries, the immigration people were really friendly and laid-back. How laid-back? Well, the woman knowingly gave us, with a "What the heck?" type of attitude, 92 days for our 90-day visas. You rarely get flexibility like that from bureaucrats anywhere. At least not without paying a bribe.

So we walked out of there with our 90-plus-2-bonus-days visas and headed up the road 100 meters or so to the "Majestic City Plaza". We didn't know it yet, but our whole Sri Lankan experience was about to change. For the better. Quite the aptly-named plaza - Majestic indeed! The place itself felt like being in a big shopping mall in Canada, complete with a food court down in the basement. For lunch I had Malaysian and Son opted for a meal from the "Mongolian Seafood Restaurant." Yes, "Mongolian Seafood"! Now, anyone who even remotely knows their geography will understand just how ludicrous the idea of a "Mongolian seafood restaurant" actually is. Right up there with Alaskan tropical fruits, Sri Lankan ice hockey players and bad Van Morrison albums.

After lunch we bought a few bags of groceries at the big Cargill's Food City supermarket on the first floor. Then it was up to the 4th floor for the 7:30 PM showing of "Catch Me If You Can" - a good, fun movie. Afterwards, at 10PM, as we were walking out, we stopped and asked a group of 3 people who had also just seen the movie whether the trains were still running at that time. This is where our trip took a dramatic turn for the better because this group of 3 people included our now good friend, Dr. Sus. If we had asked someone else our whole trip would've been different, very different. And, most tragically of all, we never would have met A Man Named Bunny! In response to our question they told us it would be better to take a bus at that time of night since it would be full of people and, therefore, safer. "But, on second thought", the man (Dr. Sus) said, "We'll drive you back. Where are you going?" Well, they not only drove us back to the YMCA, they stopped into Pizza Hut for dinner on the way and then took us on a tour of part of the city, including the beachfront.

These 3 people, who we had at first thought were a mother-father-daughter family, were actually 2 cousins, Dr. Sus and Mercy, and Mercy's 19 year old niece, Vijani. Mercy, who's in her late-40's, works for the country's largest telecom company, now owned by a Japanese corporation. Vijani is working for HSBC bank, but is hoping for a scholarship to study overseas (perhaps at a university on the coast of Mongolia?).

Dr Sus' full name, by the way, is Susanta and he told us to call him "Sus" (once again, pronounced "Seuss"), but everyone else always calls him "Doctor", so we ended up calling him "Dr. Sus," or sometimes, like others, just "Doctor". No green eggs and ham, no cat in the hat, just some pizza at the Hut and a great new friend. He's 69, but seems much younger; he's a dental surgeon with his own private "surgery" (as they call a dental office or clinic over here); and, whatever you want to call him ("Susanta"; "Sus"; "Doctor"; or "Dr. Sus"), he's an extremely nice man who has been incredibly kind to us ever since we first met him that Majestic night nearly 8 weeks ago.

At the Pizza Hut, which is relatively quite expensive over here, we tried and tried but simply were not allowed to pay even one rupee. I was trying to force some money into Dr. Sus' hand, then pocket, but his cousin Mercy said "Let him pay. He's a rich doctor." These are people we'd just met a few minutes earlier who were driving us back to our hotel (which turned out to be in the opposite direction from their homes) and they're paying for us??!! Sri Lanka sure seemed pretty fantastic after the first 2 days in the country. I never thought I'd be (mis)quoting KISS in any context, but, hey, Sri Lanka will make you do things you never thought possible. Come here someday and check it out. Then maybe you too will be singing: "Shout it, shout it, shout it out loud: I LOVE SRI LANKA!"

To be continued...

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Sunday, September 21st, 2003

P.S. Last Friday (September 12th) was a sad day. One of my musical heroes, Johnny Cash, died at age 71. He had an amazing career, rarely following trends or fashions - just making great music decade after decade. Anyone who hasn't already should definitely check out his last 4 albums since 1994 (all on the American label) - classic stuff! Few artists end up making 4 of their best albums while in their 60's and 70's. One of the greats is gone!