Sri Lanka: countless coconut trees, tuktuks dashing between buses and cars, fruit hanging from small shops… Make it to the coast and the picture is complete with vast white sand beaches and turquoise water. From crowded markets to tranquil suburbs, rolling tea-plantations to crashing waves and light-houses, it seems this country as got something for everyone.
So much happened during my first week here! I find it impossibly difficult to look back now and write about my experiences. Many feelings and emotions ran through me those first few days, from solitude and confusion to sheer excitement and joy. I’ve met incredible people who shared their warmth and words of advice, assisting me in moving forward and dealing with my concerns. With each passing day I sought equanimity and peace of mind.
As I watch an Audi weaving through traffic between old cars and makeshift tractors, or look up to the massive Hilton hotel with the slums in its shadows, I’m reminded that the postcard Sri Lanka appeals to many but conceals the reality of so many Sri Lankans.
What I can give you now are some snapshots:
After checking into my hotel and eating a light breakfast, I began exploring the Colombo 03. Following no particular path and with no destination in mind, I soon found myself in Pettah — a massive market that sprawls for blocks and blocks with countless fabric stores, eateries, vegetable and fruit stalls, vendors pushing their merchandise — belts, hats, underwear, videos, shoes — into the passerbys. After a couple hours of wandering around and taking care of minute tasks (“bookstore, where is?”) I realized how hungry I was. I found this one restaurant where the owner spoke some English (“I don’t eat meat!” “Vegetables?” “yes!”). Sitting at the table with these two Sri Lankans, I was given a large plate of rice with a variety of curries. Potatoes, lentils, green beans, spinach and onion curries topped and mixed into my rice as I dug in furiously (not bad for 100 rupees, or about 85 cents). I shared my first real Sri Lankan meal with this newly engaged couple. Through fractured English and many laughs, we both enjoyed each others company and stories.
The views around Colombo are magnificent. I was too overwhelmed in Pettah to even take a photo of the busy street life, but making it out to the outskirts gave me more opportunities. Some of the buildings probably date back to British colonial rule — the discoloration is particularly telling. Though I stayed near the market for two days, I didn’t visit any of the mainstream attractions. Colombo, I quickly found out, is huge. Where I’m currently staying feels like worlds apart from the Colombo I first encountered, though it is still Colombo…
As I watch an Audi weaving through traffic between old cars and makeshift tractors, or look up to the massive Hilton hotel with the slums in its shadows, I’m reminded that the postcard Sri Lanka appeals to many but conceals the reality of so many Sri Lankans. The tourism industry has really taken off in Sri Lanka, resulting in luxurious high-rise hotels and resorts that cater to upper-class Sri Lankans and foreign tourists. I must admit that I wasn’t too surprised when I saw this roadside advertisement marketing ‘enlightenment’.
For the Sabbath I stayed with the Colombo Chabad — the only Chabad in Sri Lanka, and proudly representing Sri Lanka’s [more] permanent Jewish population. A score of Israelis came to stay with us, and together we had a lively Shabbat (including a minyan!). Come Sunday at 5AM, a friend and I drove down to Galle along the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The adventures had there will have to wait till next time.