An Overview of Sri Lanka, Privileged Tourism and Getting in My Own Head

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 Lankan curry
The curry in Sri Lanka was out of this world.

 

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.”

Sri Lanka sunset
Postcard material, courtesy of Sri Lanka. I took this picture. With a point and shoot camera. No filter.  Sunsets really did look like this.

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.

Polonnaruwa temple
Sweating it out at Polonnaruwa temple

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).

Dambulla caves
At least it was cool (if a bit crowded) at the fabulous Dambulla Cave Temple in northern Sri Lanka.

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.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy
An offering station at the very crowded and rather underwhelming Temple of the Tooth Relic.

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.

Vendor in Galle
Vendor in Galle selling cool “joos.” NOT a tourist trap. 

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.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

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.”

Sri Lanka wedding
A Hindu wedding in Sri Lanka (NOT a tourist display….at least as far as I know).

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.

Wild elephant in Sri Lanka

 

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Ten Other Animals We Saw at Leopard Hills (Including…Leopards, Natch.)

So many photos. Heads up: I’m no photographer, as you will see from many of these images, but especially, the very last ones. So, with that endorsing caveat, enjoy!

Leopard on safari at Leopard Hills

 

I believe this was taken on the evening drive on our first night at Leopard Hills. If so, this is Dayone, a 9-year-old male who was out and about marking his territory.

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We, of course, saw many elephants during our time at Leopard Hills (especially babies!), but one of my favorites was this young one that walked right up to the lodge deck.

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Our suite was near the kitchen and on our way back to our room each night, we walked past the kitchen where a spotted genet lived and hung out in hopes of some kitchen scraps.

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Just a typical safari traffic jam.

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When we were in Sabi Sands in 2014, we hardly saw any rhinos. Two reasons: it was late summer and everything was still very lush and green, making visibility difficult and second, sadly, poaching had caused the population to dwindle. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the Sabi Sands lodges and their teams–we’re talking night vision goggles, helicopters on full moon nights, even hiring private security to sleep out in the bush and keep an eye out for poachers–poaching incidences have been greatly reduced since our last visit and we saw quite a few rhinos this trip, including this fairly shy trio who we kept our distance from.

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We did not, however, see as many lions at Sabi Sands as we saw last time. Apparently, the pair of brothers we saw last time have been very aggressive in the intervening years, taking over territories and killing off rivals. Everyone at Sabi Sands is hoping the young ones, including this young male who’s mane is just starting to grow in, will be able to stick around.

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Another fairly unusual sighting: a porcupine! We saw one porcupine last time we were here, but only from behind and he was hightailing it away from us. The only photo I have of it is a blur. This one was completely different and weirdly calm. We’re not sure if this guy was hurt or sick or what his deal was, but he didn’t really run away from us at all. We sat there looking at him, looking at us for a good long while. Such an odd animal and an odd sighting.

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Definitely one of my favorites: We went on a walking safari (aka: learning all about animal poop) with Stefan one afternoon and this family of warthogs followed us the whole time we were out. We’d stop. They’d stop. We’d walk. They’d walk. They were very curious about us.

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Giraffes are my absolute favorite. I love them. I have way more photos of giraffes than any other animal. They’re so peaceful and beautiful and they have no real enemies. But, I had never seen them drinking water, which is an exercise fraught with difficulty for these guys, the tallest animals in the bush. This was at the watering hole right near the lodge.

Sad side story: the same day I took this photo, an adult female giraffe–none of these guys–ran into an utility wire that was hanging far too low after a herd of elephants had rammed the utility pole and the utility company had not yet come out to fix it. The giraffe died immediately and Duncan, GM at Leopard Hills, arranged to have the giraffe carcass dragged to the riverbed so the other animals could eat it, which, I understand, while heartbreaking to me, is actually the right thing to do. Later that night, on our night drive, we drove over to check it out and they hyenas were eating her. It was very upsetting and I couldn’t even look, but I could hear it in all its’ gruesome glory and it really bothered me. Luckily, my super-excellent, sensitive travel-partner-for-life, XFE urged our guide Hugo to call it a night and head back to the lodge.

If that carnage of my favorite animal had been my last memory of Leopard Hills, I would not be feeling very warm and fuzzy about the whole safari at Sabi Sands experience.

However…..

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WE SAW HONEY BADGERS!!!

The next morning, we got up early to drive ourselves back to Johannesburg. Along the way to Newington Gate, XFE saw TWO honey badgers standing right next to the side of the road. My side of the road! Of course, everything was packed away, including my camera.

After confirming that yes, those were honey badgers, and holy crap, they’re just standing there looking at us, and screaming, “ohmygod, honey badgers, honey badgers, honey badgers, shit, there are honey badgers, and they’re looking at us, what do I do, where’s my camera or phone, crap!!!,” I finally dug around in my backpack, yanked out my camera and took about 4-5  “Blair-Witch”-meets-Loch-Ness-Monster quality pictures through my closed car window. Honestly, I must have been delirious and panicked because some of the pictures aren’t even pointing at the termite mound they were slowly retreating into.

But in the above picture, you can sort of make them out. No? Here:

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I drew a circle around them. Now here’s the closeup:

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See that white stripe right there? And to the right, that dark spot half obscured by a tree?

OK, you’ll just have to believe me. Those were two honey badgers! You know what, it’s fine if you don’t believe me, because just like honey badgers, I don’t give a shit. It was seriously amazing and I couldn’t stop talking about it the rest of the day. The rest of the trip even.

This was a very big deal. It’s fairly unusual to see honey badgers. They’re pretty solitary (it’s really unusual to see two together) and they don’t hang around too often for pictures. They’ve got places to be and cobra ass to kick. Actually, after digging around, I can’t even tell if they’re endangered or not: this site says “nah, not doing great, but not endangered” while this one says “there are only 1,000 left,” which seems pretty damn endangered to me. All I know is that Duncan, who’s lived in Sabi Sands for more than 20 years, said he’s never seen one and our guide Stefan-WHO RIDES IN AN OPEN VEHICLE ALL DAY LOOKING FOR ANIMALS–said he’s only seen one once.

In fact, these were the second and third honey badgers we saw during our stay at Leopard Hills. I spotted one from a pretty good distance moving pretty purposefully through the bush a few days earlier when we were out on a drive with Stefan. My first thought was, “huh, I didn’t know they had skunks in Africa. Hey, that’s a pretty big skunk, let me ask….HONEY BADGER!” We all caught a glimpse of him, but nothing compared to our early morning coffee klatch with the duo on our way out of the park.

Just call us the honey badger whisperers.

 

Friday Links: Sassy Cats See Buildings Shaped Like Food and/or Brains Edition

I’m frolicking in Naples, Italy right now, eating all of the thin crust pizza, and pasta, and creamy pastries, and just fried everything I can get my sticky little fingers on while my travel-buddy-for-life XFE actually works. Maybe the guys who make the expandable suitcase below could branch out into some expandable pants in time for my return.

This is the proper way to eat Italian cheese. I learned that from a Euro of Hollywood, so it’s a FAKT.

In the meantime: