I step outside Sharjah airport to catch the last rays of the evening sun and view Dubai’s glittering skyscrapers in the distance. I don’t feel any regret for not staying a night or two before getting my connecting flight to Sri Lanka – Dubai is an overpriced, cultureless wasteland. This wasn’t part of my original plan of going overland all the way to China. I’m forced, due to visa problems and the almost impassible land borders of Pakistan, to fly to Sri Lanka to get the hassle of obtaining my India visa over with. Back inside Sharjah airport, I try to hunt down internet access without any luck. I board the plane with absolutely nothing planed for Sri Lanka. On the runway, one of the many Russians (who knows why there’s so many of them) on board decides he wants to gain access to the cockpit and we’re forced back to the airport for a few hours while he’s taken off the plane by security. I don’t sleep a wink on the plane and when we touch down again at 4.00 am, I wonder around Colombo airport (actually about 30 km from Colombo) in a daze, unsuccessfully trying to get internet access and any useful information I can find for a cheap place to stay nearby. The terminal is swarming with touts for lu xury hotels – it seems the place is geared towards rich tourists. I ask at a counter marked “tourist information” if there are any hostels nearby. The guy behind the counter looks at me as if I’d asked him where I could find some Tamil Tigers. I repeat the simple question only to be dismissively told, “no, only hotels”. “Yeah, that’s great tourist information”, I scowl and he responds “you’re welcome” before continuing his chit-chat with his mate beside him who’s browsing Facebook or something online. After aimlessly wondering around and venturing briefly outside into the strange tropical air to be faced by an army of tuk-tuk drivers, I retreat back inside and fall asleep in a corner of the terminal for a couple of hours in the hope my brain will be better functioning after a nap. When I awake, I’ve just about enough mental capacity to jump in a tuk-tuk and get myself to the nearby beech resort of Negombo and into the cheapest accommodation I can find.
Coming from the Middle East, Sri Lanka is an absolute culture shock. In Negombo, pasty white people fresh from Europe and America, mostly older couples, float around in the humidity between desperate tuk-tuk drivers, shop keepers and Western-style restaurant waiters hungry for the tourist dollar. “What the fuck am I doing here?”, I ponder as I get to grips with this unfolding nightmare. I don’t have a conversation with a s ingle soul in a place that is supposed to be paradise (long white-sand beeches with warm water, palm trees, etc) but more closely resembles hell. The situation doesn’t improve much when I get to Colombo – the cheapest accommodation I can find is a European-priced dorm bed in a hostel outside the city. My mission is to get the Indian visa and spend my two weeks on this island lying low and avoiding getting ripped off too much by just about every Sri Lankan I come into contact with. This doesn’t prove easy, as the whole time I feel like I’m nothing more than a walking Western wallet.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose image is everywhere. Needless to say, an absolute scumbag.
After dropping my passport in the Indian visa office, I take a bus inland to Kandy. It’s just another tourist destination but it’s a tad more relaxed than Negombo and Colombo. If I had more time, I would’ve gone north to the Tamil area. I would’ve talked to Tamils who survived the genocidal government onslaught a few years ago, when the Sri Lankan army murdered, tortured and rounded up thousands of Tamil civilians. Instead I just lie around and try to acclimatize to the tropical conditions. After a couple of days in Kandy I get the train back to Colombo to collect my passport and finally get my 6 month Indian visa. I read in a Lonely Planet that was lying in one of the hostels that there’s a monastery visitors can just turn up to and live for a few weeks on a donation only basis. The place is 25 km outside Colombo so I get a bus late one evening to the sounds of dreamy Singhalese music, in the hope they’ll take me in. After about half an hour of searching for it outside the village, I am questioned by one of the staff as to why I even bothered to go there. “We have a procedure here – you can’t just turn up like this”, he scolds me. I doubt the word ‘procedure’ was in the Buddha’s repertoire. He tells me I need to fill out an application form and then it will be assessed after a few days. I explain that it’s late and I don’t have anywhere else to go for the night, so he goes off and talks to some monks about this idiot Westerner who’s just landed at their monastery. When he comes back after 5 minutes, I’m told the chief monk has taken pity on my and will allow me to stay for one night. As soon as I’m shown to my bedroom, I fall straight asleep on the bed. I get up at 6 am for breakfast and as I sit in silence in the open canteen, surrounded by monks and the peaceful jungle, I wish I was staying here for a few weeks. No insane traffic, no tuk-tuk drivers, no bus horns that sound like they should belong on a ship, no being treated like a cash cow instead of a human being…no, none of that. Just me and my mind, meditating in peace. It would’ve been fucking bliss but I’m forced to move back to Colombo again and into the cheapest dorm I can find, while I wait out the time for my flight to South India.
For a Buddhist country, it sure is a greedy one. I can’t really blame many of the people for their dollar hungry view of rich white people who splash money around (the tourist market here is geared towards the higher-end, luxurious package holiday), but they fail to distinguish between those who can spend a lot and those who are backpacking on a shoe string. When all you want to do is live and eat like a local in local places and you’re treated with disdain for not spending lots and lots of money, it’s disheartening. That’s the sad reality of tourism in poor countries though – the rich Westerners who jet off from home for a couple of weeks, think nothing of living in the lap of luxury (next door to dirt poor people who work for a pittance) and then jet back to their bland, empty existence in whatever rat-race they’ve spawned from. The locals clamber for their every tourist rupee, while their indigenous culture and dignity is prostituted; money is made their religion. I’m sure there are places in Sri Lanka that are not yet spoiled by this ‘development’ but unfortunately I didn’t see it during my short time there.