A place where you can “sleep with the fishes.” Where you literally sleep with fishes darting all around you. Except, if you’re like me, you won’t be “sleeping with fishes” at all because the whole experience of watching fish swim around your room all night while lying in bed makes sleep completely impossible.
I’m talking about the underwater room on Pemba Island, one of the islands that make up Zanzibar right off the coast of Tanzania.
Let me start by telling you a bit about Pemba Island. It is lush and green. It is surrounded by impossibly clear aqua waters, teaming with coral and fish. Pemba is also the leading producer of cloves, according to Brittanica.com.
Pemba is very, very off-the-beaten path. According to one tourism source, Pemba’s sister island, Zanzibar has 150 hotels. Pemba has just seven (including a couple that may be more B&B style lodging)
It is very remote – you can take a small plane from Dar Salaam on the mainland to tiny Karume airport in Pemba’s main town of Chake-Chake. Then you’ll need a driver to take you on the hour-and-a-half drive through Ngezi Forest Reserve and up to the Manta Resort on the far northern part of the island.
Along the way, you’ll pass by thatched huts, the only other traffic on the road is the insistent mosquito-like drone of a scooter or two.
Manta Resort is pretty remote. You won’t be venturing out to any neighboring villages to grab a drink or dine in an area restaurant. There aren’t any. Nor are there any TVs, telephones, gym. Wi-fi is only really available at the lobby/reception area and it is spotty at best. I pretty much gave up on checking email or Instagram after the first afternoon.
The accommodations are spartan – small, private stucco villas with open bathrooms and no air conditioning but stunning ocean views. It’s an all-inclusive setup and there is no menu. You’re server (or “fundi”) gives you two options at each meal and you pick one. But it’s all very fresh and healthy, and there’s almost always a fish option.
The entire vibe at Manta Resort is unpretentious, laid back and friendly. It’s clear that the resort is community-focused and gives back in many ways – jobs, schooling, fishing and coral conservation. Their foundation, the Kwwanini Foundation, has several initiatives aimed at sustainable economic development with an eye towards preserving what makes the island unique.
But what really makes Manta Resort unique and is, quite honestly, the main draw is its’ underwater room.
Oh, hello there. I realize I left you all on a bit of a cliffhanger. Not about the Mad Pooper. I mean, we’re all waiting for bated breath on that one, but alas, I’m not sure we’ll ever really find out who she is or why she does what she did. And the Colorado police want us all to just flush it and forget it.
No, I left you hanging over our visit to the St. Regis Maldives. Which, honestly, is not a bad place to just hang. And, because really, that’s kind of all there is to do there is…..hang.
Let me tell you a little something about the Maldives, which is sometimes pronounced “Maldiiives” with a long “i” (if you are American) and sometimes pronounced “Maldeeeves” with a long and pronounced “e” (if you are British). Somehow along the way, XFE and I had taken to pronouncing it the British way. That’s fine, too. Nobody at the very fine and expensive St. Regis Maldeeeeves ever corrected us while they were taking our credit card information. No harm. No foul. Or “foal,” however you want to pronounce it.
Anyway, about the Maldives.
Here are 5 things to know about the Maldives.
They are incredibly remote. – The Maldives – all 1,000 coral islands that make up the tiny 26 ring-shaped atolls of this adorable little tropical paradise – are just floating along in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far, far from just about anywhere. This island nation is just under 9,000 miles (or 19 hours by plane) from our home base of Washington, D.C.
Sri Lanka is probably the closest gateway country to the Maldives at just 642 miles away (it’s a one-and-a-half hour flight from Colombo to the Maldives largest city, Male).
So it’s got that whole Robinson-family-shipwrecked-far-from-civilization vibe to it, which, I’ve got to say, freaked me out a tiny bit.
They are unbelievably beautiful. — Lonely Planet calls it “nature’s sunken garden” and XFE commented that being there was “like living above an aquarium.” The water is an impossible clear, light aqua blue that literally makes your eyes hurt and the sand on the beaches was so soft and white it reminded us of the sand you find in those fancy stamped ashtrays in Las Vegas.
The reefs we explored – both around the St. Regis property itself and during a day of exploring other reefs by private boat – were exceptional. Crystal clear waters teaming with all kinds of sea life and underwater cliffs covered in coral that just went on forever. The reefs were so exceptional, in fact, that we didn’t even go scuba diving. We felt we could see everything we wanted to see just snorkeling, including sharks, octopus, rays, turtles, and all the colorful small fish you can possible imagine.
They are amazingly expensive. – I already spoke a little bit about the room prices at the St. Regis, which we were lucky enough to not have to pay. But those multiple dollar signs pop up in all the other stuff, too.
Hey, you know what grows in coral? Nothing. Not a damn thing. The lack of arable land makes agriculture a no-go, which is why just about every food item (besides fish, and in particular, tuna) has to be brought in. And it’s also why everything in the Maldives (at least in my resort-laden experience) was incredibly expensive (think: $45 burgers, $36 margherita pizza).
(Disclaimer: Apparently, there are a few things that can be grown in the Maldives – hello, coconuts — but even this website notes it’s mostly grown in homestead gardens, not enough to consider marketable. And if these Maldives farmers did sell them, I’m sure they’d be really, really expensive.)
They seriously rely on tourism. — The overall population of all 26 atolls is just over 425,000 and pretty much everybody is involved in the tourism industry. More than 1.2 million tourists visited the Maldives in in 2016, shacking up in one of the 126 resorts located on the atolls. Local laws require a certain percentage of the staff to be Maldives citizens (I think it was something like 51%) so it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Maldivians are somehow involved in travel and tourism.
So these guys are total pros—very service oriented, always smiling, very professional. The staff at the St. Regis was top notch all the way. Even when there were glitches (and yes, there were a couple), they bent over backwards to fix things, no questions asked. In fact, if anything, managers and servers wanted to dwell on those glitches: we were asked about and apologized to for service snafus by multiple people throughout the staff multiple times, which sometimes bordered on uncomfortable.
They are all about relaxation. – I don’t want to say there’s nothing to do in the Maldives, because there probably are lots of things to do, if you are not a pasty-delicate-white flower who burns when she even sees a picture of a sun.
And certainly the St. Regis had all kinds of different buildings with a ton of different activities (a gorgeous round library stocked with books, magazines and even Kindles for guest use, another building fully stocked with games—everything from video game areas to ping-pong and foosball tables, a yoga studio with those hanging ribbons ala Pink, a cooking kitchen designed for kids, a ridiculously cool, futuristic-looking spa). They have a movie night on the beach (I think it was on Thursdays) and a very cool DJ spinning at the Whale Bar every night.
But most of the times we went in those buildings, they were entirely empty. We strolled by the movie night and it was playing to empty bean bags. When we went to the Whale Bar for after dinner drinks, it was usually just us, the staff and the very cool DJ.
Maybe it was the time of year. Who knows? We’d been to resorts on an island before, but this was entirely different. This was an island resort – not a resort on an island. It often felt (other than at breakfast time) that we were the only people in the entire place, which again, made me a wee bit angsty.
The one thing that felt slightly odd to me is that every day felt identical. They were all beautiful picture-perfect days. The sun was always shining, the sky was always blue, it was always warm and humid — there seemed no variation to the days at all. I think that could make someone go crazy. You don’t even have the weather to talk about!
In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about the St. Regis specifically and our overwater bungalow.
As mentioned previously, my main man for life, XFE and I went to Sri Lanka for my birthday trip earlier this year, which was culturally enriching yet also challenging (for all the reasons I’ve gone over in previous posts). Which, since this wasn’t exactly our first Southeast Asian rodeo, we kind of figured it might be. And even though we had set aside a few days for some beach time in Sri Lanka, we knew we might want to go seriously luxe out somewhere else.
So, we put our little heads together and thought: “What was the most luxurious, most customer-centric island-retreat-type Starwood property we’ve ever stayed at?” It was actually a no-brainer – The St. Regis Bali. Not only were they very generous with the suite upgrade (an amazing little house with private pool) but the staff were just phenomenal. We could not have been treated better. We booked our room for a weeklong stay, fully confident that we’d have a similar experience again and went on planning the rest of our trip.
About a month before our trip, we got an email from the St. Regis Bali. XFE opened it, thinking that maybe it was the concierge wanting to see if we needed anything special or (even better) informing us of a suite upgrade. But no. The hotel was informing us that the Government of Bali had rented the whole place out so we could not stay there (nor could anybody else), but the St. Regis would be happy to put us up at any other hotel in Bali (including the W in Seminyak, which we’ve stayed at and really enjoyed).
I gotta admit: My spoilt butt was a little bit crushed. Sure, I liked Bali and maybe would even want to return there at some point in the future because, heck, it’s Bali! But the main reason we were going at this particular time was for that amazing St. Regis experience. I wasn’t even thinking about how we were going to Bali again….I was thinking about how we were going to the St. Regis Bali again.
Plus, how rude! Do they not remember that we stayed at the St. Regis back in 2014, literally a month after a very high-profile murder had been committed there? But did we cancel our reservation or bail? No. No we did not. We just looked around for clues and made sure all the heavy vases and fruit bowls were gathered up and stored in the butler’s pantry.
(Side note: My favorite headline for a TripAdvisor review ever “Everything is perfect, until the murder happened.”)
But then I realized just how awful it must be for the hotel to have to move and re-accommodate all those people, including wedding parties and people on their honeymoon. All because the late-to-the-party Balinese government couldn’t book a conference in advance.
While I shrugged and tried let go of my dreams of kite-flying on the beach, champagne sabering and releasing baby sea turtles back into the sea, XFE got creative and offered up an alternative suggestion that neither one of us thought the fine people at Starwood/the St. Regis would EVER take us up on.
That trip-planning-genius-of-a-man kindly suggested to the fine people at the St. Regis that they book us a room using our Starwood loyalty points (ie: with us only paying taxes, basically) at the newly-opened, super luxurious St. Regis in the Maldives. Oh, and he wanted an overwater, sunset bungalow, pleaseandthankyou.
Now, just for comparison, rooms at the St. Regis Bali (looking at March dates, since that was the time of year we were looking at) run about $469 to $2,092 per night – definitely a chunk of change and nothing to sneeze at. The lagoon villa (with private pool) we stayed in in 2014 currently retails for around $1,200 a night.
Meanwhile, rooms at the St. Regis Maldives in March START at $2,580 and go up to $4,500 for a family villa. The sunset water villa (with private pool) that we ended up slumming it in for the week retails for $3,500 a night.
We thought they would laugh in his face. We thought they’d say, “Ummmm, yeah, nice try. Now, may I direct your attention back to the list of luxury Balinese properties we’ve offered up to you, including a Bulgari and a Four Seasons? Surely one of those would do, no?”
But no. The exceptionally fine people at the St. Regis Bali just said, “Sure. We can make that happen. We’ll talk to the property and make sure they can accommodate your request.” And then THEY DID. Which is just another reason to add to the list of why the St. Regis Bali is amazing and wonderful and all of the great things. All of them.
We had to change our flights from Sri Lanka, obviously. And book and pay for the prop plane to take us to from the Velana International Airport in Maldives to Vommuli, which was $645 roundtrip per person for a 45-minute flight to and from the resort, and yikes, that’s a lot of money but still.
And that’s how we accidentally, unintentionally, and maybe undeservedly got to go to Maldives. THE MALDIVES. Without even planning to. All because of those conference-planning slackers, aka the Government of Bali.
My travel-buddy-for-life XFE and I just got back from a soccer roadtrip through the South, which was basically 3,000 miles of varying degrees of traffic and highways broken up by stops for soccer (go Tottenham), kitschy tourist locales (I’d never been to South of the Border, but I have now), barhopping at country honkytonks (Nashville might be my new favorite place ever), ice cream from gas stations (literally, every day) and tons of Southern food (hello pimento cheese)—all in all, pretty dang awesome.
But before we start down that 3,000 mile road, can we please just talk for a minute about Below Deck: Mediterranean? Because the reunion is tonight and I. Have. Thoughts.
First of all, killing me with those beautiful Croatian backdrops there, Bravo.
We went to Croatia in 2013, including Split and Dubrovnik, which are both prominently featured on the show. It was amazing to see the same medieval streets again on the TV screen and it really, really made me want to go back.
In fact, there was one scene where they went to pick up some guests from their hotel right outside of Split instead of at the dock. And wouldn’t you know it, they were actually picking up the guests from the same hotel we had stayed at, Le Meridien Lav (scene of the infamous French fry décor).
So yes. Killing me. Making me want to book another trip immediately.
But, more importantly, I think this was probably my favorite season of Below Deck. And that’s because I felt like this season really shined a light on the social hypocrisy that exists when it comes to gender stereotypes.
You already know what I’m talking about. There is, of course, the Malia-Adam-Wes love triangle. I cannot believe how much grief that poor girl got. And for what? For casually dating/getting to know two guys and figuring out which one she might like? Guys do this all the time and no one bats an eye about it. In fact, I believe Mr. Andy Cohen has a whole other show on one of the main networks where contestants date (and sometimes even kiss) three different people in the course of a week!
I was also very shocked that it wasn’t just the aggrieved, jilted Adam who was giving Malia grief. It was the other male deckhands and even the female stews. Hey ladies, how about you stop clutching your pearls over whether Malia is kissing two grown men and giving Malia a high-five for evening up the score a bit. #sistersdoingitforthemselves
I’m actually more bothered by the fact that they’re all co-workers. I’m a firm believer that you should not poop where you eat and dating co-workers falls into that category, which is why I’ve never dated a co-worker. (I’ve also never dated a boss and Wes was a blind idiot for making Malia his second-in-command over Bobby, who clearly has more experience).
Then there’s the whole Hannah-passenger-Jason and Bobby-passenger-Paola business. Again, do I think any of them should be smooching on passengers/clients? No, absolutely not. But the hysteria that surrounded Hannah’s transgression compared to the virtual shrugging of the shoulders when Bobby lurked (multiple times!) on his Tinder match (dude, what are you doing checking Tinder when you don’t even have the night off?) was so annoying and hypocritical.
Even Max admitted to how hypocritical his reaction towards the exact same situation involving crew getting involved with clients was when Bobby went creeping downstairs to get a smooch from a girl who may or may not have been a paid companion of the primary.
Anyway, it was a great season and hopefully, there will be more discussion of this sexist hypocrisy business at tonight’s reunion. After all, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? Or, as the Croatians say: Velike ribe male proždiru (big fish devour the small. I’m not sure that actually applies here, but I wanted to include a Croatian proverb).
We’ve got tickets to see Tottenham play Paris Saint-Germain in Orlando and Manchester City in Nashville. And instead of trying to see Tottenham is pay Roma in New Jersey in the middle of the week, we decided to skip it and swing through New Orleans instead (we’ve got some historywith ol’New Orleans).
So today, we’re in the car for approximately 8.5 hours heading to a quick overnight stop in Charleston to say “howdy” to the fine folks of “Southern Charm.” (Well, maybe not so much. Although, we are going to try to have drinks at the Gin Joint, which was featured on the show.)
While we’ve travelled quite a bit, we’ve never actually been on a road trip, per se. I mean, we’ve rented a car and slowly meander our way across northern Italy, but that was only 270 miles. SFE dodged Irish sheep for about 300 miles when we drove the Ring of Kerry and explored the Dingle Peninsula back in 2009. And we once got held up on a highway in Peru on our way from Lima to Paracas by a fishermen’s protest, turning a trip that was only supposed to be 3.5 hours into a multi-hour nailbiter. We’ve even traversednorthern Spain (twice!) to get our soccer (and kebab) fix.
But we’ve never done such a heavy driving trip. We’ll be covering approximately 2,853 miles in a total estimated time of 42 hours and 18 minutes. Which is a lot of beef jerky and “Despacito” on the radio. Here’s hoping we don’t kill each other.
In the meantime, here are some past posts explaining our love of the Hotspurs.
Because I really cannot top our stay (and odd massage experience) at the Signature Amaya Kandalama, I’m condensing (ha!) the rest of our hotel accommodations in Sri Lanka into this one little (ok, NOT little) post. Most of them were one-nighters anyway, with the exception of the beach house in Unwatana. But they each had their own odd charms.
Langdale by Amaya in Nuwara Eliya – This is another Amaya Spa and Resort and a hotel listed among the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The description on the SLH website says Langdale is “a picture of old-world elegance in Sri Lanka’s tea-growing heartland,” and that is certainly true.
It’s got a very old school, British colonial feel to it, which is always something that makes me slightly uncomfortable, especially in a country as colorful Sri Lanka where the culture is just so vibrant. And that tea country setting is just spectacular.
Instead, the Langdale feels like a stuffy British outpost/country with impeccably manicured grounds (the grass looks like a carpet), squeaky floors, a preponderance of chintz and even a dusty reading nook at the top landing. If I were to compare it to something in the U.S., I definitely would not put it in the luxury category. Maybe, more like an inn or a bed-and-breakfast.
So here’s a basic outline of our first day (2 days) getting to/and/around Sri Lanka.
A 14-hour flight from D.C. to Seoul on Korean Air First Class.
A 6-hour layover at the Seoul Airport.
An 8-hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Land at 3:15 a.m. and meet our driver, Tillie.
Drive about 3.5 hours in the darkness (and occassional rain) to Dambulla Cave Temples, dodging school children, dogs, tuk tuks, roadside stalls with open fires, etc. all along the way.
Climb 350 very steep, very slippery and uneven stone stairs in oppressive heat and humidity to see said Cave Temples. (no air conditioning, obviously)
Spend $2 to recover in the small but well done (and, more importantly…air conditioned) Cave Temple Museum
Drive 15 minutes or so to Signature Amaya Kandalama and collapse.
Honestly, Signature Amaya Kandalama could have been a roach hotel and I would not have given a flying Fig Newton. I probably still would have declared it the most luxurious and wonderful accommodations ever known to man.
Luckily, it was not a roach hotel. Not at all. It’s pretty upscale for Sri Lanka. It actually reminded me of some of the resorts we’ve stayed at in other tropical locales. In fact, the Sri Lanka National Cricket team was staying there the same time as us (they apparently had a match in Dambulla).
A little background: the Sri Lanka Railway was originally known as the Ceylon Government Railways when it opened in 1858, and was built to “transport coffee from the Hill Country to the coastal port of Colombo, then when the coffee crop was wiped out by disease, the embryonic crops of tea that Sri Lanka is now famed for were transported to the coast for exportation.”
There are three main rail lines in Sri Lanka, according to Lonely Planet, and they are used by both government and privately-run rail services (I believe there are like, 2 private companies).
We took the government-run red train from Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) to Ella, through some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful hills and valleys. It’s a trip that, while it’s only 60 kilometers, will take you about 3-4 hours (plus an hour delay on arrival, in our case.)
Hey. Let’s talk about driving. Specifically, driving in Sri Lanka. Or as it should more accurately be called, defying death every single breath.
I live just a short metro ride away from downtown D.C. in a very lovely, historic neighborhood with all the restaurants and shopping my little heart desires located just blocks from my doorstep. Literally, there I live two blocks from both a Trader Joe’s and a larger, conventional grocery store. I work from home, but when I did work in an office every day, I took the metro, which is an 8-minute walk from my house.
These days, when I have an appointment or something that necessitates I go into D.C., I usually metro or take Uber. Which is all just to point out that 1) I’m used to putting my life in the hands of transportation strangers, and 2) my driving skills have certainly not been tested in quite a while and are probably not honed into a fine laser beam of awesomeness, so I’m not judging any Sri Lankan drivers skills or finesse.
But, I will point out, we’ve been to lots of countries where there are few (if any) traffic signals and whole families zip around piled up on mopeds, slipping in and out of traffic like they’re being carried along a fast-moving river current. And while these road encounters were sometimes heart stopping, nothing prepared me for the calamity and chaos of Sri Lanka’s roads.
First of all, “roads” is a pretty generous term. Sri Lanka does not have the best road system. It’s pretty limited and seems to rely mostly on old cart tracks, some of which have been paved, a bit. Sri Lanka’s first major highway, the 80-mile E01, opened in 2011. For comparison, Smithsonian.com notes, the U.S. interstate system is 46,876 miles long.
But mostly, while in Sri Lanka, drivers like ours (Thilani, aka Tilly from SL Driver Tours) must navigate narrow, two-lane highways crowded with cars, trucks, buses, “collective” buses (private for-profit buses that compete with the city buses), “gypsy” buses (vans with people hanging on to the sides, the tops, the back), tuk tuks, mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles.
There are no traffic lights or signals (except in very big cities like Colombo or Kandy) and there appear to be no traffic rules whatsoever. People are honking and passing and overtaking nonstop.
By the way, these roads have no shoulders to pull over to or use for passing, so people use the middle of the road to pass, resulting in a head-on game of chicken as vehicles bear down from the opposite direction.
The sides of the road, meanwhile, are packed with stray dogs, food stalls with open fires, makeshift vegetable and fruit stands, and people walking (there are no sidewalks), including children walking to school as early as 4:30 a.m., when it’s still dark out. Overhead lights are few and dim, making for especially dangerous driving conditions at night. The first note in my trip notebook is “Driving is pretty intense.”
Tilly told us that four people die every day from road accidents in Sri Lanka, but actually, the number might be higher than that. In 2015, more than 2,700 people were killed in road-related incidents. Luckily, we didn’t see any accidents during our 10-day stay, but that’s probably due only to the skill of our excellent driver, Tilly.
On paper, Sri Lanka was a no brainer for us—our logical next vacation destination. It has a lot of the things we gravitate towards as travelers—we like South/Southeast Asia (admittedly, one of us a bit more than the other). We love the spicy food in this area of the world, with the focus on fresh fish and vegetables. We like learning about a new country’s history, architecture, and culture. Sri Lanka presented us with plenty to see and do, the weather was warm (which always means there’s a good excuse to spend the afternoon by a pool with a cold local beer). And it’s very, very affordable.
Sri Lanka is very much trying to put its recent violent past behind it, but devoting so many resources to fighting a civil war has definitely left the country a bit behind the eight ball as far as development goes. It is very, very poor and people are struggling. They’re relying on tourism to help economically and, from a marketing standpoint at least, it appears to be working.
All during our year of planning, we kept hearing about other people who were going or had just been to Sri Lanka. I don’t know if it was because it was finally on our radar or if it had just reached the popularity tipping point, but all of a sudden, it seemed like Sri Lanka was more sought after than a hot cheerleader at prom (or, a Harvard acceptance letter. Shoutout to ya, Priscilla Samey). Bloomberg added Sri Lanka to its list of 20 places to go in 2017, Huffington Post said it was the one country you should go to in 2017, and even that travel authority Vogue declared it a “destination that stimulates all the senses.”
The Lay of the Land
Sri Lanka is certainly diverse in terms of geography. This former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony—aka Ceylon—has beautiful beaches to the south (packed with foreigners, we noticed). The cooler, hilly mid-part of the country is much cooler and is incredibly lush, green and misty, and packed with tea fields/plantations (full of visiting tourists and smacking of British colonialism still). The northern, historic Golden Triangle area has caves and crumbling temple cities and all the accompanying tourists turning bright pink under the scorching sun.
Sri Lanka is also quite the hikers’ paradise and everywhere we went—from the mountaintop cave temples at Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla to Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains Park near Ella, there were opportunities to slip and slide over some dangerous trails—if you could stand the heat and oppressive humidity (we could not).
Instead, we drove. Or, more accurately, we rode in the backseat while our driver Tillie ferried us around the country for 10 days. During that time, we saw wild elephants lumbering along the side of the road (there are over 2,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka). We drank from king coconuts, including one we purchased for 400 rupees from a man on the side of the road with his teeth stained red from chewing betel leaves, mixed with tobacco, and areca nut. We rode a very old train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. We spent a confusing and sweaty morning wandering around the old Dutch fort town of Galle–confusing because nothing, even churches, appeared to be open that day, and yet we almost got swept up in some sort of parade of some sorts. We talked to giggling school children who wanted to practice their English at the otherwise disappointing Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. And we ate. And ate. And ate.
As Vogue noted, Sri Lanka does stimulate all the senses. But the biggest “sense” it stimulated in me was a sense of déjà vu and maybe, even, just the slightest bit of a letdown, which, I know, sounds maybe a bit harsh.
What’s the Problem, Poe?
As we’ve previously encountered in other countries in Southeast Asia (I’m looking at you, Bali. And Thailand), there’s this major confusion over what tourists want, with a heavy reliance on tourist traps, whether it’s “turtle hatcheries” that house a collection of sad, little cement enclosures too small for the turtles living in them, or the “tsunami photo museums” which had neither photos (they were faded color print-outs from the Internet) nor were organized in anything resembling a museum.
Then there were all the tourist traps we just said, “no” to: wooden mask carvers, the multiple spice farms, the elephant sanctuaries, the moonstone mines, the stilt fishermen—all of which are (generally) staged, and less focused on education/more focused on accepting donations/taking photos in exchange for donations.
This reliance on tourist traps in a depressed economy is completely understandable. It is a very, very poor country. The people are struggling and are trying to find ways to get by—and increasingly, that seems to be relying on tourism. The saddest bit is the clustering and proliferation of one particular type of tourist trap. Instead of one spice farm or turtle hatchery, there would be like, 20 of them, all identical and all lined up right next to each other.
In the end, it all just comes off as feeling very exploitative – on both sides. I hate saying, “no thank you,” repeatedly. I feel defensive and like I have to keep pushing people away who really need the money and why don’t I just go to the damn moonstone mine and buy some damn moonstones even if I don’t want or need them?
Or, when we do cave in and visit one of these places, I end up feeling like it wasn’t a great experience and like I didn’t really learn anything. I feel self-conscious, looking at these sad, little makeshift tourist traps and expecting more. I feel like I missed the disclaimer that screams “all this place is supposed to do is elicit enough sympathy to make you reach into your pockets and throw some money at your guilt.”
So that was my struggle with Sri Lanka. And with travel and tourism in general. I know there are countries out there that need it, that are counting on it, and that want us to come and visit and spend our money. So go. Go see places, even if they might make you uncomfortable, even if they might make you sad or confused. Go and see if you can spot a wild elephant, slowly weaving its way in and out of the trees along the side of the road on a cool morning in the middle of Sri Lanka.