People vs. Paradise: Sri Lanka and the Maldives

31 12 2016


It’s been a whirlwind three weeks of seemingly nonstop travel, and I am just getting caught up on my journaling. One of my favorite parts of traveling is that it affords me the luxury of ‘wasted time,’ which I use to write more frequently. Without fail, the depth and detail of my journal writing is a direct correlation to the gap in writing sessions. It is only by making time to journal daily that I am able to be truly introspective, and do some deeper thinking about my experiences.


img_1988Recently, while reflecting on my first two weeks of travel in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, I was surprised to find that my feelings about these two countries had evolved quite dramatically. At first blush, in comparison with the glimmering topaz beaches and enchanting resort settings in the Maldives, Sri Lanka seemed like a dirty, dark, run down nightmare.


15420856_1388760507873236_4067276668538122352_nWe arrived in Colombo after dark, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for the whirling fervor of a big city. We rode down dimly lit alleys filled with sewer stench in order to reach our AirBnB accommodation, which I immediately regretted. The empty lot next door was littered with trash, and the house itself was built like a fortress from its surroundings, with a giant metal rolling door that slammed shut after our late arrival.


15492411_1388759991206621_5157154244157888884_nThe house was austere, in a LeCorbusier sort of interpretation. There was no AC, just a mosquito net and a ceiling fan, but we were already clammy from our travels. “It’s just for one night,” I told myself, knowing that we would be leaving there at 6am the next morning to catch the train to Kandy. The housekeeper greeted us kindly, and woke up early to fix us breakfast before we left- which consisted of dry toast and a jam assortment, since we don’t eat eggs.


img_3014As we continued to travel, Each progressively smaller and smaller city still felt the same. No matter how many beautiful temples they worshipped, the remaining fabric of the cities appeared tattered, torn, and lumped into a heap waiting to be burned. Men stood by their storefronts watching trucks swerve around slower tuk-tuks, past endless strings of colorful, inflatable toys for sale. Junkyards next door cut up scrap parts, swirling into a strange perfume of hot metal and freshly baked coconut rotis.

Every building looks as if they have run out of money halfway through construction, leaving columns with no roof, with rebar jutting up into the sky begging for protection from the rain. The sides of the buildings are mostly left exposed, like the mason had just left for lunch and forgot where he was working that day. The fronts of the buildings more than make up for the drab conditions elsewhere, plastered with innumerable advertisements that made even the smallest streets feel louder than the Las Vegas strip.

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15439960_1392597637489523_298957147455130134_nAt first, I thought I had made a mistake by choosing to speak at this conference on sustainability in Kandy. The entire country burns its trash in heaps by the side of the road, after all, what could they possibly know about environmentally friendly development? I thought my work was cut out for me in Indiana, but this was a whole different ball game.


As our journey continued, time and again, we were confronted with challenges due to the language barrier. My Sinhalese is appalling, no matter how many times I play the sounds on my free language app, and, despite english being the official language in Sri Lanka, it is barely spoken outside of Colombo, universities, or expensive hotels. As savvy travelers, we are usually prepared for getting scammed, and are generally skeptical of strangers offering to help the clearly struggling tourists.  I have no fewer than a dozen stories of how strangers offered help to us, and each time, their offer was genuine. Not once did we discover that we were being swindled or upcharged or lied to. The Sri Lankan people are generous, kind, and truly helpful. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so able to trust strangers in a foreign country.


img_2302The cultures in the Maldives and Sri Lanka are extremely different, partially due to religions. One of the most fascinating things about Sri Lanka, is that there was a Buddhist King, long ago, who married a Hindu queen. As a result, their religions married as well, so that every Buddhist temple was built with a Hindu Stupa and protective figures that guard Buddha. I believe that this unique union has created a culture of extreme acceptance today, now that the Sinhali-Tamil civil war has ended and the country has reunited.



In Sri Lanka, people SMILE, and it’s warmly welcomed for you to smile back. People are so friendly and kind, that, even though same-sex marriage is still illegal there, and same-sex couples are not very commonly known, people still welcomed us with open arms. I never once felt unsafe or threatened (of course, we abided by local cultural norms, in which even heterosexual couples do not normally hold hands or kiss in public). Even the common greeting is affectionate, though, as you grasp the other person’s shoulders, lean in, and gently touch cheeks, first on one side, then the other. It felt so nice to have that kind of personal interaction.

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Although my first impression of the Maldives was painted with intoxicating luxury, I started to reflect on my actual social encounters there. It is a 100% muslim country, but it felt very different than the islam I know in the U.S. In the Maldives, women are not supposed to smile at men, as this is interpreted as in invitation for sexual advance. Women are also not supposed to touch men, which means no hugs, no shaking hands, no physical contact at all. Indeed, I was a second class citizen there, in undeniable ways. While simply standing in a queue, men would cut in front of me, and I was not allowed to object. This happened more than once. 15492374_10211698205240864_618719089333424075_nThe resorts are staffed with international employees, and feel as though each island is its own tribal nation, but once you step back into the real Maldives, the culture shock for women is very real.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d still want to step foot in the Maldives, simply to see the natural beauty first hand, but for a truly memorable and enjoyable cultural experience, I’d pick Sri Lanka every time. It’s the people that truly make our experiences great, and Sri Lankans have won over my heart.img_2919



2 responses

1 01 2017
Jason Byrd

Looks beautiful Kelly. Enjoy


7 11 2017
How to Choose Your Own Adventure: 6 Valuable Tips! | Travel Grrrls

[…] at international conferences. This strategy has taken me to Split, Croatia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Kandy, Sri Lanka! I go on my own dime, using vacation time, but now I can proudly list on my resume […]


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