It is not as easy as I imagined to cross over from southeast Asia to sub-Saharan Africa. Flight paths tend to follow tourism and commerce, and judging by the dearth between where we were and where we were going, not much of either is exchanged between Asia and Africa. But in the words of Winston Churchill, "an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
The cheapest flight path I was able to find wound conveniently through Sri Lanka, a country I had been eager to visit, based on the strong recommendations of other backpackers we met on the road. With stopovers in Kuala Lumpur and Doha, neither of which I had yet seen, I decided to forego a week of sleep and pack five countries into one week (Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Qatar, South Africa.)
I touched down in Colombo at midnight, and was happy to see how smoothly the airport ran, with a shuttle into the city for only $1.30. One recurring observation that has struck me in southeast Asia is that tuk tuk drivers consistently do not 'do' maps. Whenever I (or a group I'm in) is trying to explain where to go to a driver, they'll look at our phone maps, zoom in and out of the image, change the perspective, consult a group of other drivers, and then go to the wrong place. This isn't a condescending critique of their smartphone abilities - it just must not be how they work with information. I imagine tuk tuk drivers have mental maps built up in their heads of each street in the city they drive, the major landmarks, and their spacial relationship - and this mental map doesn't necessarily translate to a neat Google maps widget. If that's the case, the way we approach getting from point A to point B is a completely different method of reference from local drivers.
On this leg of the trip, I traveled alone (with Dan visiting a friend in Malaysia and Sarah already in South Africa), and really began to appreciate the joy of solo travel. There is an immediate liberty in being the only determinant of your plans, and a mix of fear and excitement once you have no friends to act as safety lines if you need anything. It makes me agree with Dan that, once I get back to the real world, I want to prioritize new places over 'finding the right group,' and to invite friends to join in new trips, but not to let a lack of travel companions prevent me from making those trips myself.
I expected Sri Lanka to strongly mirror India, but was surprised to find how much, in spite of their similarities, the two countries truly differed from each other. Some similarities in travel persisted. For instance, to ask a question, it has to be open-ended: if you'd like to know which train to get on, you have to ask, "where does this train go?" rather than "does this train go to Hikkaduwa?" The need to have an answer, instead of saying "I don't know," may lead locals to answer in the affirmative, even if the real answer is "no."
One similarity I was happy to see was how colorful the trucks and buses were in Sri Lanka, just as in India (such as in the cover photo here.) I found myself asking why bus drivers decorate their buses so much in Sri Lanka - but then realized that it was equally valid to ask why bus drivers don't decorate their buses at all back home. Looking for the answer, I found that many decorations are meant for good luck and safe passage - visible from the shrines present in most Sri Lankan buses. On top of the shrines, most paint the outside, deck out the ceilings and seats with designs, and add fur and LED lights to the front interior. As one Quora user put it:
it is how they differentiate their workplace/desk from the others. How they want their wife to be better than the others. Trophy wife, if you will.
The horns, the glitter, the paint becomes a necessity in poorly lit, strangely habited roads where animals, people and other strange vehicles are going to surprise you. So, they watch out for you.
In India, the trucking business is still not organised. Therefore, a brand identity like Fedex, Maersk etc hasn't *yet* evolved in a larger sense. When that happens, trucks will (may) be much different looking.
To get around the country, a backpacker needs to get comfortable with the bus or train systems. Cars and taxis are prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, all the buses are clearly marked, in Latin script. And, unlike in the Indian heartland, Sri Lankans always approach westerners looking to help, with advice and answers for confused travelers, and no expectation of compensation in return.
I assumed that Sri Lanka would be Hindu because of its proximity to India, but was surprised to find that it is majority Buddhist instead.
Another notable difference between Sri Lanka and India that became immediately apparent: the airport and train stations were full of backpackers in Colombo, whereas we had been some of the only westerners on our trips into Delhi. Maybe this is the sign of traveling somewhere new, with much to offer, still cheap and relatively unexplored, only 8 years out of the shadow of a 30-year civil war.
Sri Lanka really is a backpacker's paradise in many ways. The people are amazingly friendly, the country is still undeveloped and 'raw,' yet public transportation is plentiful and easy to understand (a significant improvement on the Indian heartland.) The nature boasts beautiful beaches with great surfing, tropical rain forests, tall mountains, and everything in between.
And, most accommodating to backpackers, it is still inexpensive. A three hour train ride from Colombo to the surf town of Hikkaduwa cost only $1; breakfast at the train station was $0.60; four buses over 6 hours into the interior of the country cost $2 total. The coastal train goes along miles and miles of untouched tropical beach on the way down, for a beautiful ride. (Note: If you take the train and want to enjoy the views, find out where the 2nd class car is and line up early to get a good seat; you'll have to push your way in a bit.)
I was surprised to see such untouched, unspoiled coastline along the Indian Ocean beaches that should have been overdeveloped. It was only after visiting the tsunami museum in Hikkaduwa that I realized it was because of the 2004 tsunami that killed 40,000 Sri Lankans and destroyed their beachfront property, even reaching far inland in some areas. One of the curators at the museum told my friend Nasjara and I how, when the waves hit, he took his family up to a temple on the hilltop to survive. Many locals just climbed on top of a train, halted on the coastal tracks. When the 2nd wave came 40 minutes later, it wiped out the train and everyone on it.
For all its beauty and the hospitality of the locals, Sri Lanka's recent history is tragic.
Though it was given more self-determination than most colonies, Sri lanka changed hands from Portuguese to Dutch to British rule, a history that left it not without scars. Conflicts since the end of British hegemony between the majority Sinhalese and the ethnic Tamils in the north led to a 30-year civil war, with continuous terrorism from both sides, that only ended in 2009. Now, beaches like Trincomalee in the north are just starting to open up to tourists. Now, grade school children learn to draw their tsunami evacuation routes at an early age, to be prepared should tragedy strike again, and the government is shoring up beaches to better withstand large waves.
My first stop in the country was Hikkaduwa, a small beach town on the west coast, because of the surfing and snorkeling it offered. I was surprised to find that the town was primarily a Russian vacation destination, on the pricier side, with plentiful beach-front sand bars. A friend and I spent the day riding around on a scooter, visiting the Tsunami Museum and Turtle Hatchery, where baby turtles are bred and raised to be released into the wild. When we snorkeled out to a reef, only to find little wildlife other than big fish, we were surprised to find two docile giant turtles close to the beach (each larger and more heavy than we were) happy to let us swim right next to them. When I left Hikkaduwa to travel to Udawalawe, I found the town of Marissa, further down the coast, offered even more of a backpacker destination with much better surf.
In spite of the wealth of budget travelers in Sri Lanka, the country still does not have much of a backpacker culture built up, as compared to southeast Asia. There are no standard tours between tourist hotspots, no bargaining on many prices, and many homogeneous goods are relatively more expensive (water, snorkeling, surfing, food.) In southeast Asia, it feels like a giant industry has been built up around backpacking and hosteling, to make the process almost turnkey in its comfort. Sri Lanka is still working its way there. It makes me wonder how different and how much more challenging backpacking will be in Africa.
One small surprise that took me a while to adjust to: the western head shake for "no" actually means "yes" in Sri Lanka. That is a great way to get tripped up in ordinary interactions for the first few days.
Sri Lanka is also still a conservative culture. I received a $20 ticket for not wearing a shirt while biking in Hikkaduwa. In the local movies shown on buses, the characters lapsed from Sinhalese to English at weird moments ("ok, bye then," "no you didn't!") and the movies cut to dance sequences whenever there was about to be kissing between two unmarried protagonists (something I noticed as well while watching Indian soap operas with an old woman on a lazy day in Ho Chi Minh City.) You can see the output of this taboo in young mixed-gender Sri Lankans in their 20's who line the beaches early in the morning just hugging, presumably to get out of the public eye.
For my second, and last, leg of the Sri Lankan journey, I traveled to Udawalawe, a jungle more interior to the island, from Hikkaduwa. En route, I learned a valuable lesson about the bus system: take buses in the morning or at night - air conditioning is a blessing. Also, by day the bus drivers tend to wait until their buses fill up to go. And that means no standing room left, as evidenced in the photo above.
Though I am sure it may be easily eclipsed in Africa, the Sri Lankan safari was amazing. Udawalawe is also home to an elephant orphanage, or "transit center," where baby elephants are raised until they are self-reliant enough to enter the wild, at which point they are released into the nature preserve. At the orphanage, we were able to come by for one of the daily feedings, in which the baby elephants line up to drink milk and eat leafy branches pulled down by the staff.
Some animal highlights from our safari, which began in the dark at 6am:
- Water buffaloes
- Dragon lizards
- And birds: tucans, peacocks, serpent eagles, birds of paradise, spoonbills, herons, fish eagles, kingfishers, pelicans, jungle fowls, woodpeckers, storks, and Indian rolla birds.
The park had leopards too, but they are elusive creatures and only rarely spotted on the safaris.
The above photos are mine. The below were taken by my friend Petr Popov, on the safari with us. Note the difference that a good camera, but really when we get down to it, a good cameraman, make in a photoshoot.
As with most countries, Sri Lanka is a place that deserves its own month of travel and exploration. I received great recommendations from friends, and left still wanting to visit Ella (on what looks to be a beautiful train ride), climb Adam's Peak for sunrise, surf at Arugam Bay, visit Trincolamee, the cultural center of Kandy, Minneriya Nature Preserve, and the larger Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage... For this reason, Sri Lanka quickly made its way to the top of the list of countries I plan to return to, before it becomes more discovered and overrun with tourism. It was a fitting and blissful last stop to bookend five months of travel in Asia.
Nik / 3.20.17
Note: A huge thank you to Guy and Idah Riddihough for taking in and feeding me, a stranger, on my last night in Sri Lanka in transit to a 5am flight to Doha.