Thursday, September 10, 2009

A few of my favourite things…

In the weeks since I landed in Sri Lanka, I have been writing about my various observations of what I considered different and/or eccentric. I think it’s time I also shared some of my favourite things about Sri Lanka, the thoughts of which normally just make me smile.

1. This really is Smiling Lanka

A few days before I traveled here, a friend sent me an article about Sri Lanka being rated as one of the happier countries in the world. I’m not sure yet if the population here would agree, but I have chosen to take on the article’s phrase of ‘Smiling Lanka’ – people here have some of the brightest and sweetest smiles. And the smiles always come as something of a surprise, contrasting a previously staid/serious expression. Let me also add something that may seem racist in our new-age realm of political correctness, but let me emphasize that it is truly being expressed in admiration: most Sri Lankans I have met, especially up here in Jaffna, have a dark chocolaty brown complexion, and when they smile, it shines through, and their eyes just sparkle. It really is a happy smile.

2. Helmets, handbags and high heels

It seems that, in a country where there is still much gender discrimination, women have picked some battles, and won. Women, young and old(er), can be seen decked out in their finest saris, whizzing around town on their motorbikes. They may be subjected to harsher social rules and such in their daily lives (gender based violence being somewhat prevalent), but I love that this doesn’t come in the way of their bright red motorbikes, and there is no question about women having access to this basic practical transportation solution. You go girlfriends!!!

3. Poverty has bred good manners

I have already been to a few activities with children from areas that are underserved/underprivileged (insert euphemism for poverty here), and I love that these children are always perfectly combed, that they find ways to entertain themselves as they wait for things to happen that might interest them, and that when the ‘Cookie Lady’ comes out with her tray of cookies, they only ever take one.

It is highly possible that these children barely have two meals a day, and they only ever take one cookie, and never come back for more. Those kind of good manners humble me.

4. This place is clean, clean, clean!

When I told a Sri Lankan I’d met at the office in Colombo that I was coming to Jaffna, the only thing he said to distinguish them from others on the island was that they were very clean. He was right. Just to give you an idea: we provide water to the IDP camps in Jaffna, and had to actually cut the supply off for a few hours a day because people were running through the water at twice the speed… because they were showering three times a day. In the interest of having enough water to last through the days, we had to cut it off for a few hours each day, restricting their showers to just two a day.

In the villages, you walk barefoot into homes and some offices, and you do so with some comfort knowing (and feeling) that the floors are constantly being swept, because here everything has an air of having just been cleaned, and for the all the heat and humidity, people smell sweet throughout the day.

5. Things happen in one day… well, most things.

Picture this: I’m walking to work in the morning and I notice a house’s outside wall has had its colour worn out, which is especially noticeable on the posts of the gate and the little statuettes on top. As I walk back from work at the end of the day, the wall has been painted and decorated (the halves leading up to the gate are painted green and white in large checkered boxes) and the gate posts have been manicured back into their original design. This was all one coat, I suspect it might be worn out again by the same time next year, but I loved the one day transformation.

6. Poya day

I have now learned all about Poya day, the one day a month of the full moon, which the Buddhist tradition signifies as a day of celebration and worship. (If you want to learn more about it, check out: This also translates into the simple fact that we get a day off every month. If you’re wondering how our organisation agreed to such a thing, apparently a very smart deal was struck: staff agreed to work 15 minutes extra every day to be able to be granted their Poya days. In Jaffna, where practically nobody is Buddhist and the days have no particular religious or other significance, they do the same and take the day off. These are people after my own heart… And even though, as expats, we still need to have some presence in the office on that day to ‘hold down the fort’, I bring you back to the basic point: one day off every month! Score!!

7. The food!

Sri Lankan food has been described as the hottest food of the South East Asian cuisines. I will happily confirm that, although I am constantly told that the food I am being offered has been tamed to a fraction of the usual spices. I would also like to go on record as saying that this is one of the more delectable cuisines I have had the pleasure to explore. My main problem is that I cannot describe any of the dishes to you as I frequently don’t know what I’m eating. I can usually make out that it’s vegetable, meat, chicken or fish, but that’s about it. I won’t know what to order at a restaurant from just the menu, I won’t know what to say to another Sri Lankan when praising their cuisine (or asking for a recipe), and one of the reasons why this doesn’t really bother me is because I have liked everything I have tried so far. And since I hardly expect to be able to cook any of my dishes here (where olive oil is sold in 250gr. Bottles – enough said!) it is such a comfort to know that I can blindly spend the year trying out a continuous array of dishes.

8. The calm… the calm…

I say this without a hint of irony or sarcasm: the slow pace, the lack of public activity, the quiet, it is all just so… calming! The heat no doubt contributes to this as well, and it contributes to the ease with which I transition into sweet afternoon naps while reading a good book, underneath a softly lapping fan and a cooling air-conditioner. And since there’s nothing else happening anywhere, nothing I need to consider or feel guilty about missing, these naps are ever so sweeter.

And the earlier the days end (and they wind down quickly after the sun sets), the earlier they start. So you slowly crawl into bed close to 10pm without a hint of the stress that used to keep me alert till midnight, feeling you’ve lived a full, long day, and that there was nothing else you could have done today but didn’t. That alone is a pretty calming thought.

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