Dear Kendra, Culture Shock in Colombo

Dear Kendra,

Oh, sis! Do I have lots to share with you.

First: DO go to Sri Lanka. Go for the culture shock, the colors, the temples, the markets, the food. Go for the sheer pleasure of completely immersing in a land unlike your own.

DON’T expect to be treated like a local. Expect to stand out and be conspicuous wherever you go. You can dress in long garbs, or even cover your head. But if your face shines as our does, you will stand out. Though my skin’s been ruddied by the African sun for several weeks, it (literally!) pales in comparison to some extraordinarily high percentage of the people here.

Our height, too–that’s another thing. Both men and women here often stand a whole head shorter than you and I, at our 6-feet proud. Can you imagine how much my dad stands out? There have been a few spontaneous photo ops with local men, at their request–”wow wow wow! Too tall! You’re too tall!” They smile and laugh.

I have found the people here very friendly and kind, approachable and curious. Unlike everywhere else we’ve traveled, where tourism makes up a large share of their economy, it’s very hard to find locals who speak English. There’s little need. When people do speak to us, it often feels like they’re delighted to have a chance to practice the few English phrases they know: “how are you how are you how are you!” crowed a chorus of kids, as they ran down the street on a Sunday afternoon. They were leaving some form of Muslim Sunday School, dressed in robes of all white, the little girls with full head coverings and the boys with white caps. Others we pass–almost always men–say “hi!” or “wow!” or “how’s it going?” or “where are you going?” Always with big smiles. And though walking alone yielded a somewhat questionable situation for me (more on that in tomorrow’s letter!), I never once felt in danger. I chose the word curious carefully (and goddess knows you know I mean what I say!): that’s the spirit that I feel among Sri Lankans.

Interesting, though: as I write to you, I realize that these curious folks I describe have literally all been men. We’ve been approached and engaged in some way by dozens of people, but never once have they been women. Even the people shouting from the store fronts, demanding our ears (occasionally they even speak through a loudspeaker, to draw more attention to themselves) and trying to get us to shop from them, have all been male. All the tuk tuk drivers, all the bus drivers, everyone on the “front end” of business here–men, men, men. (And boys, boys, boys. Maybe it’s just because many Sri Lankans are slight in size, but I swear there are many people working who seem barely of age!)

I read in one of the guide books that most Sri Lankan women never drink; thus, bars are establishments reserved for men and tourists. I don’t know much about the subculture, but I do know that this indicates to me some expectation of behavior and public persona. Does the expectation of subservience inevitably follow? Hard to know. My educated guess would be yes. Especially because the population here seems fairly traditional, and many come from cultures that are male-dominated (the population here is made up mostly of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims).

Suffice to say: you, and many of the women I know and admire most, wouldn’t fit in here. I don’t really, either–I’m too tall, and my stature’s too strong. There’s a way I walk, with purpose and my head held high, that I don’t see from the women here. There’s a way I engage, with confidence and playfulness and a hint of aggression, that also feels somehow discordant with the cultural expectation. And I do think there are just enough tourists that come through these parts (especially in Colombo, where we are, which is the biggest city in Sri Lanka) that locals will allow a generous dose of yes, curiosity, rather than straight-out judgment. But I imagine the looks you’d get when ordering a beer–I wish I could be here with you, share a wry and triumphant smile, share a moment of subtly eschewing the cultural expectation that women suppress their desires, be meek and submissive.

It does make me wonder what it is like to be a Sri Lankan woman. I know it must vary greatly based on ethnicity and religious background, but from my brief glimpse at the culture, I don’t trust myself to make many specific posits. I will tell you this, if you and I were traveling together in Sri Lanka, sister:

We would be approached by many men. They would, in general, not be threatening, though they would get a bit aggressive when trying to sell us something, or trying to convince us to ride in their tuk tuk. We would also have people constantly try to upsell us, or flat-out rip us off. (Once again, read tomorrow’s story for a detailed explanation of one particularly arresting scenario I experienced.) They would think they could convince us to spend far more money than we should, probably because they have convinced many other Westerners to do the same. I also guess that their disregard or flippancy for being dishonest, or ripping us off, has something to with the fact that we are female. In my exchanges with local men, I have felt hints of lack of respect, and slight scorn, and also objectification. To some locals, it seems we are good for ogling, and making money off of, but not much more.

I hope I’m not coming off as reductionist. I trust there are many fabulous and impeccably respectful men here. And remember how I started the letter, saying you should travel here? I stand behind those words, with an important addendum: we should travel here! I have never been to India, but there are flavors and colors and sounds and smells that are incredibly reminiscent of all I know of Indian culture. (Which makes sense–as if the map tells me correctly, at its closest point Sri Lanka is only about 50km from the Southernmost part of India.) The pace of the city is frenetic, but not extraordinarily so; crowded, but not excessive; the driving is wild, but unlike in Myanmar, they stop for pedestrians at crosswalks! Tuk Tuks are a cheap and amazingly easy way to make your way around–they are parked along every street, and whiz by constantly honking their horns if you walk or stand at a street corner. And the food? Oh, sis. The fooooood. (That’s me swooning.) I wish we were here to eat together! Most of the dishes of their staple cuisine are rice-flour and coconut-milk based, meaning they are not only extraordinarily delicious, but also naturally gluten and dairy-free. Little dried fish and chilis seem to make their way into pretty much every main dish, side, or condiment, meaning the umami level of pretty much everything served is extraordinarily high. And the iddi appa (pulled thin rice noodles, a la vermicelli but slightly different in texture) and “hoppers” (super-thin rice crepes made of rice flour, often with an egg baked inside) are heavenly. We had a full traditional Sri Lankan feast last night, with rice and noodles and crepes and curries, and greens with explosive heat (think: whole dry red chilis, tiny fierce Thai green peppers, and sliced banana peppers–with a few sauteed greens added to the mix, seemingly as an afterthought!) and stir-fried prawns that tasted like sea kisses, and sweet sweet chutney and “wholemeal country rice”–and wow, what an utterly satisfying meal.

There’s so much more I could share–and so much more I WILL share, darling Kendra. You have been with me on so much of this journey; as I browse through a street market where something reminds me of you, as I smell or eat something particularly mouthwatering, as I do yoga in my room to unwind after the long days. I am so incredibly blessed to have you as my sister, my bestie, my kindred. Mom and I are headed to a rooftop bar to watch sunset tonight, and we’ll cheers to YOU, sweet one.

I love you!

PS Today’s cover photo was taken on our whirlwind self-guided tour of Colombo. Whew, did we cover ground! Temples, markets, sea shore, and so many sights in between. This picture is of–yes, you guessed it, #myfavorite–dozens of varieties of tiny dried fish. Nommmm.

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