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Friend-Friends and Other Observations

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Confusing slang, seat-snatching monks, bizarre Spanish phrases, indecipherable head bobbles… all just part of learning to live with a new culture! These are some of our favorite quirks and misunderstandings from three months in Sri Lanka.

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Friend-Friends

“You and you, you are brothers, no?” No, we’re not brothers. “Ah, you are friends?” Yes, that’s right! “But you are Germany and you are USA?” Yes. “Strange. You are friends for much time?” Yes, almost ten years now. “Ah.”

“AH!” Sudden understanding floods her eyes, which now take on a slightly mischievous glint. “I see. You are friend-friends.” Haha, yes. That’s exactly right. We’re friend-friends.

We’ve heard the term three separate times now, arrived at in exactly the same roundabout way, and always delivered with the same knowing, conspiratorial tone. “Friend-friends”. I suppose I like it better than “life partners”.

Calling Rosa Parks

Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous orange-robed Buddhist monks play an important role in the island’s cultural, political and social life. But they’re not always as peaceful as you might expect — the monks are the most virulently nationalistic faction in Sri Lanka, and directly responsible for much of the ethnic strife that’s long plagued the island.

Still, they’re highly venerated members of Sri Lankan society. So much so, that they’re given priority seating on any bus. The first two seats, right behind the driver, are reserved for clergy. Anyone seated there will immediately stand up when a monk boards the bus. We’ve been dumbfounded by this obligatory show of reverence ever since our arrival. Once, I saw a hobbled old man stand up for a child monk of around fifteen years. Without a thought, the kid sat down with that beatific expression of holy serenity, while the bent old man grasped in vain for the overhead bar.

Note to any Sri Lankan monks visiting the USA: Don’t try this in America! Expecting someone to relinquish their bus seat, because (according to your beliefs) they’re supposed to respect you… yeah, we don’t go for that.

Packing Light

We’ve taken loads of local transport during our months in Sri Lanka. Long-distance buses and trains which are almost always full with people traveling between cities over five hours apart. But always, always we are the only ones with any sort of luggage. It’s absolutely baffling. Nobody brings anything larger than a half-full rucksack … and if so, it’s just a bag of onions or coconuts.

Once, after we had traveled from Jaffna to Trincomalee, the woman seated in front of me asked for help with her burlap sack of onions. She disembarked and signaled that she wanted me to hoist the sack out the bus door and onto the top of her head. After feeling the weight of that giant sack — at least 30 kilos — I said “nope”. No way was I going to be responsible for breaking this old lady’s neck! But she was adamant, and I had to concede that her neck did look curiously powerful. So, I gathered my strength and swung the sack out the bus door, [plop] onto the top of her head. And off she trotted.

Hello?

If you’re white, walking down the streets of any Sri Lankan city can be a real hassle. “Hello! Sir? Tuk-tuk sir? Hello? Where are you going?” The barrage of questions is relentless and you can either ignore them, or respond politely ad nauseum. But eventually, you’re going to get frustrated.

So it’s unfortunate that “Hello?” is the standard telephone greeting here. More than once, I’ve heard a pointed “Hello?” behind me on the street, and spun around with a frustrated sigh, “What?! What do you want?! Leave me al… oh. You’re just answering your cell phone. Sorry! Please, proceed”.

Disculpen!

Yes, the word “sorry” is one we’ve had to learn in every country! “Entschuldigung” in Germany, “scusa” in Italy, and: “disculpen” in Spain. I was surprised to hear that last word frequently here in Sri Lanka. Little kids would spot us on the street and run up with palms outstretched, then bizarrely shout out “Disculpen!” What?! “Bon-bons? Money? The foreign coin? Disculpen?”

It took us at least three weeks to realize that the greedy brats weren’t just suddenly being polite in Spanish. That would be cute and unexpected. What they actually want is “the school pen”.

The Head Bobble

“Could I have a bottle of water?” Head-bobble. “Oh, you don’t have any water?” Head-bobble. “You do?” Head-bobble. “Ah, you’re already trying to hand me the water?” Head-bobble. “Okay, thank you! Goodbye!” Head-bobble.

Oh, the Sri Lanka head bobble. This confounded me for at least a week after our arrival. It means “yes”, or “I agree”, or “I understand what you’re saying”. They do it in India, too, and it’s basically used to convey positivity. But to us, it looks like “no” — though it’s not really a shake of the head. More, a swivel from side to side.

We’ve gotten accustomed to it, and Jürgen has actually caught me bobbling my own head when talking with people. I can’t help it; I’m a sponge.

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April 30, 2012 at 11:50 am Comments (7)

The Tanks of Anuradhapura

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Without the presence of its three artificial lakes near the city center, Anuradhapura would never have flourished. Tissa Wewa, Nuwara Wewa and Basawakkulama ensured that the people would always have rice and fresh water, even during the long months between monsoons. At the time of their construction, over two millennia ago, they were among the world’s greatest feats of engineering, and continue to amaze today.

Bathing-Anuradhapura

The Kingdom of Anuradhapura was one of the most technologically advanced civilizations of its day, and the creation of three enormous tanks was a singular accomplishment. The reservoirs were designed to capture the rains of the monsoon and then slowly distribute the water among the kingdom’s farms, using a complicated and highly advanced irrigation system.

Today, the city draws its water from larger tanks further afield. But the three city lakes remain an integral part of Anuradhapura’s landscape. Locals swim here and wash their clothes. They provide a perfect place for amorous couples to take evening strolls and smooch under trees. When we were walking along the Tissa Wewa, Sri Lankan kids prodded us to swim with them. Along the raised banks of Nuwara Wewa, we had an incredible view of the city’s stupas, sticking out above the forest. At Basawakkulama, we walked out west, where the lake slowly turns into rice fields, and watched the city change color with the sunset.

Other tanks, smaller and larger, are found throughout the lowlands of Sri Lanka. They’re some of the oldest existing examples of man’s ability to mold the earth to suit his needs.

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March 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm Comment (1)

Horton Plains and World’s End

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Twenty miles south of Nuwara Elyia is the Horton Plains National Park, which is most well-known for its amazing viewpoint called World’s End. The relatively cool temperatures of the park, steady precipitation, high altitude, and the convergence of three rivers create a rare and fragile ecosystem in which a unique biosystem flourishes. Some of the birds found in Horton Plains are only found here.

Das Ende Der Welt

Clouds and haze are a constant presence at Horton Plains, and the only window of opportunity for a clear view at World’s End is in the early morning. So we climbed into a van leaving Nuwara Eliya at 5:30am. This was our first encounter with Sri Lanka’s national park system, and we were shocked at the fees levied on foreign visitors. Between the transport, the entrance, a “vehicle fee”, a ticket for our driver, taxes, and an undefined “service charge”, our excursion cost around $50 apiece. Perhaps at a later date, we’ll get into the shameless chicanery of Sri Lanka’s tourism efforts, but for now suffice to say that we started our adventure at Horton Plains in sour spirits.

The optimal hour for arriving at Horton Plains is no secret and, upon leaving the van, we found ourselves in an long line of hikers. Luckily, the loop walk through the park is long and we could eventually space ourselves out from others. Besides, the nature is strange and beautiful, and we soon forgot about the human presence. While walking, we saw a jungle fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, and herds of sambar deer grazing on the plains — one of these confident, hulking beasts would approach our van window on the way out.

Sri Lanka Deer

Baker’s Falls was the first stop during our three-hour walk around Horton Plains. Fed by the Belihul Oya river, this wide waterfall drops about 20 meters. A bit further up the path, we arrived at the World’s End, one of the most famous sights in all Sri Lanka. The highlands come to an abrupt end here, as though God suddenly ran out of “mountain”. The land plummets straight down for nearly a kilometer, and standing on the cliff looking down on the land below, I felt like I was in an airplane. Amazing.

Small World’s End, another twenty-minutes up the path, might have a smaller vertical drop but boasts the lovelier view (and actually, neither could compare to the view of Mini World’s End at Knuckles).

World's End Sri Lanka

The rest of the track, through cloud forest, was beautiful if unmemorable, and we were done with Horton Plains at around 10am. It’s a big park, and there are other trails to be explored, but that would have required more coordination with our driver (read: “$$”) and we couldn’t justify spending another cent. Overall, it was a cool day trip, but not worth the price. Regardless of how filthy rich you are, I can’t imagine a viewpoint which is worth $50 to peer over.

Location of World’s End on our Map
Spices From Sri Lanka

Here’s one scheme to look out for, which might be specific to Nuwara Eliya. Our van fit six people, and we had found another couple to split the journey with us. We would have saved on transport, and various charges at the park. But, outrageously, our driver demanded twice the amount for four people as for two. Later, a guy would tell us that at his hotel, three separate vans came to pick up three separate groups of two tourists. It’s all a swindle, coordinated to line the pockets of as many locals as possible, and the hotels are in on it too. Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do, except play along or refuse to go.
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Me and My Hiking Boots
National Park Sri Lanka
Hiking Path
Pine Drops
Perfect Picnic Spot
Sri Lanka Dew
World's End Waterfall Sri Lanka
Lakes in Sri Lanka
Expensive View Sri Lanka

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March 5, 2012 at 10:55 am Comments (3)
Friend-Friends and Other Observations
Confusing slang, seat-snatching monks, bizarre Spanish phrases, indecipherable head bobbles... all just part of learning to live with a new culture! These are some of our favorite quirks and misunderstandings from three months in Sri Lanka.
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