Sri Lanka, the gentler cousin of India

Sri Lankan Monks
Sri Lankan Monks

Happy to change clothes because of…? ūüėČ

I am waiting to board the plane. I may be running a slight fever, but I’d say that this trip, no matter how inconvenient it may be, was quite worth it.

Having travelled and stayed in India for long, it is not difficult to detect the similarities between the India and Sri Lanka. Landscape wise, both are quite similar. There are tall coconut trees that line the horizon, combined with a lush sprawl of greenery. It reminds me of Chennai.

The hill station, Nuwara Eliya, makes me think that I was back in Shimla, a hill station in India colonized by the British. Even the shops along the roads make me think of India. In the cities, it’s the familiar jasmine fragrance that fills the air in the morning, and the bus drivers who rely heavily on the three most important factors in driving – good brakes, good horn, and good luck.

But there’s a significant difference, and I think it’s got to do with the people. In India, I was always on the guard – is this auto wallah going to rip me off, or worst kidnap me? Why are you asking where am I going? Are you a tout, devising ways in how to cheat me? Why is he staring at me? Am I a target of his somewhat dirty thoughts?

I survived 6 months of India by employing these defensive tactics, and they’d never failed me. Of course I did get “touched” once or twice, but it’s inevitable and not that big an issue.

As you know, I fell in love with India, because despite so many things that could go and are wrong, there are these moments of kindness and love that show up when you don’t expect it, and it touches you in such a profound way that I can’t describe with words.

I had many firsts with India too. My first hill station, my first river, my first river with burning funeral pyres, my first 16 hour overland trip and my first time seeing snow.

India turned me to a fighter, I learnt to look into people’s eyes – and decide if I could trust them in a split second. And boy, it did feel good when I, a small sized Chinese girl told off a cheating bus conductor to piss off and try and cheat somebody else. (Of course I wasn’t alone, my guy friend T was there and we had to take another bus in the end.)

So when I went to Sri Lanka, I was comforted to know that men were not staring at me all the time like I was a sex goddess. In fact, the first time a bus conductor (from another bus) asked me where I was going, I ignored him – only after giving in a few more times did I realize that he sincerely wanted to help.. he actually walked me to where the bus was! On a bus to the elephant orphanage, I actually requested the bus conductor to tell me where to alight, which he willingly did.

Along the way, the auto wallahs did not try to rip you off that much, (not like 3 or 4 times the price), and were respectful enough. Today, I took an auto to the elephant orphanage in Pinnewalla, and the auto wallah deviously brought me to some place that offered elephant rides.

He said  that it made much more sense to take the elephant ride that see the orphanage and all I needed to do was to tell him firmly ( thank goodness as the place was quite deserted.) In India I might have to raise my voice, or use the soft approach (it sometimes work too!).

But I think, what I like about Sri Lanka is there doesn’t seem to be a visible class divide like in India. Today, I met some condescending Indian rich tourists telling the ticket collector off, and I was sorely reminded how some of these folks seem to think that having money gives them to right to treat other “lesser people like security guards and maids” without respect.

Perhaps I haven’t been in Sri Lanka that long, but on my first class train ride to Nuwara Eliya from Colombo, the locals do not show a disparity in their dressing. They were deck out in cotton shirts and slippers – one even offered me some rambutans. Now trust me I looked nothing like a “chio” Japanese or Korean traveller – my face was oily, pimples were bursting from beneath and I was wearing my faded baggy pair of berms and slippers. In India, these “big shots” often give me a strange look – like my dressing was not presentable enough to be dining in the same place as them.

I am glad that I went to India first before visiting Sri Lanka. It’s only after experiencing all the problems, pollution and anger did I realize, that kindness cannot be taken from granted. And the Sri Lankan people leaves me feeling warm and cozy, like a thick blanket in a Nuwara Eliya’s winter night.

Which do I prefer now, you may ask. Well I’d say, if I wanted a peaceful relaxing trip to calm my stressed up soul, I’ll go to Sri Lanka. But if I was in the search for some meaning in life or a good story to tell, it will have to be India. Because there will never be a place that could make you so sad, furious and elated at the same time.

But more importantly than not, It will depend on the preference of my travelling companions – and that is for another blogpost.