It’s been 3 years since we left this quirky little island nation. A lot has happened in those 3 years. In our lives, we’ve moved back to Canada and then to Malaysia. In Sri Lanka, post-war growth has continued and in January 2015, the seemingly impossible happened, the longstanding president Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in a peaceful, democratic and monumental election.
In our recent week long visit, change was noticeable. Yet things have remained the same, like we never left, like it has remained frozen in time. How do I even begin to describe it all? Well, I’ll attempt as best as I can.
- People still stare. The Sri Lankan ability to unabashedly gawk, ogle, peer, and gape is parallel to none. Since I love people watching, I quickly defaulted back to embracing this license to stare. * Note: Creepy stares also still exist and fortunately in my week visit I didn’t encounter many, but these stares are still not cool Sri Lanka – not cool.*
- Although not everyone felt the need to comment on my weight with the obligatory “You’ve gone up a bit” or “You’ve gone down a bit”, I did have one memorable encounter. Trying to save face for his friend and thinking he was paying me a compliment, a Sri Lankan I just met told me with a huge smile on his face that his friend didn’t recognise me because I’d gotten very fat. Who knew that “fat beyond recognition” could be a compliment!
- Infrastructure has improved yet the traffic is just as chaotic. More cars means widening the paved roads, more traffic lights, and a few more “expressways”. However, there are still people, bikes, cows, elephants, water buffalo, tuk-tuks, etc. on the roads and the newest highway in the South has had it’s share of problems including elephants breaking through the barriers, and farmers drying their rice and grazing their cattle on the road.
- Prices have risen and tourism seems to be booming. Luxury items are heavily taxed so this is felt when you are a tourist. Most of this is to recoup high amounts of debt incurred post-war in projects such as an airport, a convention centre, a highway and a hospital all in the South that remain empty and unused. But I can live with this because the price of a rice packet and a sweaty ride on the 174 bus have remained affordable.
- Business appears to be booming. Government laws are more transparent in their operations, but people are suspicious of the transparency. Ironically, people aren’t sure how to operate in a world with less bribery and under the table dealings. In the words of a local businessman we met, “You need a bit of corruption for things to run smoothly, but not too much – around 10% corruption is perfect.”
- The food remains delicious. Some of the hotels we stayed at were dumbing down the spice a bit, until they saw us eating with our hands and heard us commenting about the lack of spice making it less delicious. The chef at one guest house went out of his way to make my favourite dish of string hoppers, dahl curry and extra spicy coconut sambol and brought it to us the next morning. He was delighted when he could see for his own eyes that we really could handle the spice.
- Most importantly the friendly faces and visits we had with old friends made us truly feel like we were back at home.
The visit made me realise just how special this place and it’s people will always be to us. We are so lucky to have formed lasting friendships and now that we live only a 3 hour flight away can truly leave saying “Gihin ennam!” (the Sinhalese phrase for goodbye that literally translates as “I will go and come”).