As I sat on my return flight to England, next to the rudest and grumpiest old couple you could ever have the misfortune of sitting next to, I thought about the last three months and wondered what I’d learnt from being immersed in a different culture.
The first thing that struck me was how friendly Sri Lankans are. Despite the English being known for their politeness, that politeness doesn’t seem to extend to being friendly. The easiest way to illustrate my point is the example of walking down the road. As you walk about in Sri Lanka, if you make eye contact with anyone they automatically smile which is lovely, the universal good feeling generator. However, if you wander about back home the only people that will smile at you seem to be dog walkers and old people.
Another thing that I noticed, almost straight away, was the head ‘wobble’. A cross between a nod and a shake that just meant ‘okay’ or ‘yes’, it was my favourite cultural quirk and always put a smile on my face. I found it incredibly interesting as to who did it to whom. It seemed that if an elder or more senior person was being spoken to, then the ‘wobble’ was pronounced, and if people of a similar age or level chatted it would only occur if one started it. At home we’re just rigid.
Once again a mention must go out to the driving skills over there; it’s confusing and ridiculous, unless of course, you’re in a tuk-tuk then it’s fun being a multi-coloured irritating demon of the road (I seriously need to import one!). Although going anywhere near buses, unless you’re on one, is a no-no. I think they’re driven by the angriest people in the world. I know that horns are insanely over-used in Sri Lanka but buses are the worst culprits: I was once on one for over 2 hours and, honestly, there wasn’t a period longer than 5 minutes when the driver wasn’t beating the hell out of it. I’m sure the drivers must have some sort of bet each morning on how many times they can sound their horn, and also how many other vehicles they can ram off the road. In comparison English buses are slow, cumbersome, irritating and benign.
Something fabulous I learnt was that ANYTHING can be curried and it will be glorious!
I could see certain aspects of the culture that were a legacy from the days of the British Empire but some things, such as queueing and time keeping, clearly never took. There is nothing more infuriating than thinking you’ve been queueing for 10 minutes only to find you’re apparently just standing in a random spot for no reason, as the locals walk straight by you and to the front of your imaginary queue. Time keeping was amazingly variable, as in, it varied from bad to ridiculously bad. Twenty minutes late was good. The worst example I encountered was someone being just over 2 hours late. Maybe it’s because Sri Lankans are just much more laid back than the English? Practically horizontal in my opinion. Though I must admit the longer I was there the more I got used to it – but only up to a certain point.
As an enthusiastic aquarist I took quite an interest in the local hobby, and was surprised to discover the different number of everyday vessels that could be converted into a makeshift pond for tropical fish. Literally any container that could hold a few inches of water was turned into a mini-pond, the oddest I saw were a bathtub and a concrete flower pot. Another thing that I initially found difficult to come to terms with was the lack of tank heaters. In good old chilly England, I’m used to people using a heater for indoor fish tanks with abject terror setting in if the thing ever breaks and the temperature begins to drop. With such a fabulously warm climate it shouldn’t really have been such a surprise to see that this vital piece of equipment wasn’t needed, either inside or out. I soon learnt to have a quick nosey in anything that looked as if it could hold even the smallest guppy.
Sri Lankan ants are mean; every freaking species seems to bite.
As well as being incredibly friendly Sri Lankans will also go out of their way to help you, which is lovely, except when they have about as much of a clue as you do. No one will admit to not knowing , especially the men, but they will bimble on regardless which can be incredibly frustrating as you know they don’t know, but you don’t want to be rude and say something that will upset them. The most infuriating situation I came across, regularly, was tuk drivers who had no idea where they were headed but pretended they did. I completely understood that my pronunciation and accent probably sounded like a cat attempting to wretch up a hair ball but, even if I had it written down (in clear capital letters and not my usual scrawl, before you mention it) or called Anya to give them directions it would still be a mission – one guy even put the phone down on her midway through explaining the route. The moral of the story is basically, always have a map on you and be prepared to go the long way round.
Another thing I learnt was that all the food has copious amounts of sugar in but it will still not be sweet enough for the locals– even the tea! *shudder*.
Humidity is knackering. I’m assuming it’s not just because, being English, I don’t truly understand heat. I learnt that no matter what colour clothing you’re wearing you’ll always come home a different shade. Yep, being a sweaty Betty is guaranteed. Multi-coloured or patterned clothes are fine but, unfortunately, they’re not exactly inconspicuous in the field. Oh, and with humidity you can only apply sun-cream 2 ½ times a day. The third attempt is like trying to desperately push your foot into a gorgeous shoe that’s reduced in a sale, but is one size too small. You can get a most of it in but no matter how hard you try, the rest will stubbornly just squeeze out.
The amazing wildlife aside, my favourite thing about Sri Lanka was definitely the people. I know I’ve already mentioned how friendly and helpful they are but their general hospitality and kindness was touching. I thoroughly recommend a long trip to this amazing country. See all you can see, eat all you can eat and mix with the locals rather than being a boring, stand-offish tourist. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough and can’t wait to go back there.