Friend-Friends and Other Observations

Great Books To Read Before Visiting Sri Lanka

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.


“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.


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”.


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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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. lara de silva

    really funny guys! and quite insightful! Regarding the seating for the clergy! I find that highly annoying too and once pointedly refused to give my seat in a crowded bus to a monk who got in while i had vacated my seat just then to another saffron robed angel! After standing and getting crushed, shoved and pushed for a good half an hour before… for having offered my seat (reserved for clergy) also to a monk! Was so tired of it all.. though to hell with it and kept my seat without offering to the second monk who got in soon after!! Yeah i got a look from him and i gave him one back too!! Like ur not gonna get this seat buster!! I was so tired and traumatised from standing for so long..emotionally and physically drained. but felt good after i got down.. quite victorious too.. for having stood upto him!! This was like 10 yrs ago.. But great write up guys..thank you!! Happy Traversing!

  2. kkarunan

    About that monk comment, they are not responsible for the ethnic problems, its the politicians who messed things up for everyone. Don’t worry the monks in US or any other western country know that no one is going to give them a seat if they are on the bus and they won’t ask either. Sri Lankans not only give seats to monks but also to pregnant mothers and elders, this might not happen in some western countries. 

  3. lara de silva

    Good bye, sayonara, bon voyage and “gihilla enna” – Good luck guys and may you have an amazing adventure next and continue to have many such adventures! Hope you do drop in once again sometime in the future… and don’t be a stranger!

  4. Priya Raju

    The comment about the monks made me smile. Its common in India too, at least when I was a kid. We would offer our seats to Hindu/Christian clergy – though old men/women are not expected to do that. 

  5. damithah

    Buddhists monks do not have any connection to the ethnic conflict although most of them are quite nationalistic like any other Sri Lankan. Although many visitors might find it strange Sri Lankans do offer their bus or train seat to any member of the clergy may them be Buddhist, Hindu or Christian and also to old, pregnant, feeble passengers and women carrying children. 

  6. Dylan

    “They’re( Monks) not always as peaceful as you might expect” Lol..the comment made my day. Anyway, One  must be really lucky to meet such a monk. Good 99% are very kind, even the citizens. They respect ’em so much. A pregnant women, an older man and a physically disabled person hardly get a chance to stand. Having said that there is that 1%. I just started enjoying that 1% same as that 99%. Happy travells fellaas.

  7. Petra

    “The school pen” – we have heard kids say the same to us, but I still can’t gather from your text what they mean. Can you explain?

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