Thursday, June 9, 2016

An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 15

When you depart Sri Lanka for any length of time, and particularly for distant shores, you oftentimes forget the smells and sounds of life back on the island. I’ve returned from a few weeks abroad and I can say I definitely missed being here. No doubt there will be the usual frustrations for this expat after being back home, but, it’s also a good thing to feel like this place is home and a place that I want to return to. And this is despite all the challenges and changes that this teardrop island has faced and is still facing. It’s been eight years on the island and counting.

Can you believe I actually missed the local sounds? This was a really odd thing because I usually complain in my head about the sounds of tuks and sometimes just the general noise in my area. But the funny thing was, I missed those sounds while I was away. It was like my background track was noticeably missing, like being unplugged from your usual radio frequency.

For those that haven’t lived in Sri Lanka, this track is a mish-mash of bird calls (from the sweet whistling
of the black-hooded oriole; the loud call of the asian koel; and the high-pitched chattering of the yellow-billed babblers); traffic sounds (from tooting horns or noisy tuks or bread and ice-cream mini-trucks that play the sounds of Claire de Lune or It’s a Small World); and the floating chatter and laughter of people walking along the street.

Interestingly, I also missed the familiar smell of the island. Weird I know! But I think most places have a distinctive smell (or stench depending on how your nose feels about it) but most of us ignore it unless it’s really overpowering. Just think of riding trams in Hong Kong and breathing in the aromas of roasted meats; or walking through a market in France and picking up a whiff of cheese; or landing in London and getting the subtle scent of dampness.

Well, Sri Lanka has its own unique smell. For me (around Colombo) it’s a blend of the Indian Ocean; the kades that sell local foods like kotthu, hoppers and vadai; a faint aroma of ripened jak fruit; a whiff of traffic fumes; and perhaps a tinge of the open drains and uncollected rubbish too. It’s a tropical blend and you could bottle it and market it as l’eau de srilanka.

And then there’s the local food. I previously wrote a blog post on "Turning Lankan" - a checklist to help you figure out if you're going native! and I think loving Sri Lankan food is on that list. While away from Sri Lanka I was longing for the local food. This wasn’t necessarily about missing a particular restaurant or dish per se, but more about missing access to the unique array of fresh local produce from my usual weekend pola(s) excursions that would allow me to then cook up a storm. At the start of 2016, my ayurvedic doctor (yes, I have a few of them) had recommended a vegetarian diet and so I've been doing my best to stick to it. This has meant that I rely heavily on a Sri Lankan diet (with sprinklings of an adapted western diet) to survive.

And let me just say, it’s too easy being vegetarian and cooking at home in Sri Lanka compared to some other countries. Just the plethora of fruit and vegetables available to create tantalizing dishes - like jackfruit, drumsticks (also known as moringa), lentils, fresh coconut, cashew nuts, assorted gourds, leafy vegetables and more. It’s true that Sri Lankan’s are not strict vegetarians due to frequent use of umbalakada or maldive fish as added flavoring to vegetable dishes. Sigh! So if you are vegetarian or vegan, double check before taking that mouthful (or mention beforehand that you don’t want them to use it).

One of the big things I missed was being at home. It's an unusual thing to say because when you travel you're meant to soak up all that is foreign, new or different. But there’s nothing quite like tropical living (although the monsoon season has its challenges), natural air ventilation and the simple living I've grown accustomed to here in Sri Lanka.

Is there anyone else who has a hard time living out of a suitcase for any long spell? I guess it’s just nice to be home, around familiar surroundings, my neighborhood of quirky characters and island life. When you’re spending time in the dense urban jungle of a developed city and surrounded by really driven people, it can be suffocating (maybe even overwhelming) and tiring. Some of my trips are great reminders of why I continue to make Sri Lanka my home. It’s not a paradise by any stretch of the imagination (there are definite challenges - just live here, speak to the locals, and/or read the local news) but there’s a lot to be said for the laid back lifestyle, generosity, kindness, and the warmth of the local community.

Having said all of the above, traveling abroad is great reminder that Sri Lanka is still very much a developing country. I sometimes forget that while I’m on the island because one can get mighty complacent or used to the way things are. In contrast, life can be quite energized and technologically advanced in a developed country, which can make life easier.

One example would be the ultra modern and efficient public transport systems (subways, trams and buses). Let’s just say I was spoilt rotten by the subway in one of the densest Asian cities. I mean who would complain about commuting from A to B when it’s easy to access, affordable and delivers you to the door without even having to step outside and be at the mercy of the elements. And Colombo is long overdue for an overhaul of its public transport system. I think many of us expats, who are used to more efficient public transport, are holding our breaths to see what the Megapolis Project for the Western Province will deliver. The latest market video looks good, but until more details are released and the project delivers, we are all very much still in the dark.

And then there's the weather. Boy do I enjoy four seasons when I get the opportunity to make the most of it. Some cities even have four seasons in one day, but that's just a bit too much! Seriously though, a bit of cooler weather can go a long way, as can a hot day that isn't humid. Just saying. I was pretty lucky this trip because I got to enjoy some cooler weather so now it's back to muggy and humid for the rest of the year (and no complaints).

I know I write a lot about the beautiful natural settings all around the island, and it's amazing to explore and spend time. Having said that, I've recently enjoyed some of the well-planned and accessible urban spaces in a few rather dense urban cities abroad. These are long walking tracks, urban parks and botanical gardens set amid the dense urban sprawl where you can walk, exercise and simply spend time. All had superb public facilities such as clean toilets, eateries, museums and were well-maintained with excellent signage.

Don't get me wrong, Colombo has come a long way since I first moved here. I'm thinking of Galle Face, Diyawanna Oya Walking Track, Independence Square and Belanwila Walking Track to name a few. Unfortunately, some of these have a few issues with respect to flooding, drainage and maintenance. So there is still room for more ideas and innovative urban planning for existing and new spaces. Inevitably, the hot weather makes it difficult to enjoy some of these places at times. I wonder whether it's possible to have some covered public areas or long corridors.

So, that's my ramblings on being away and being back.

It's always good to venture out to experience new and innovative things in other places, but at the same time acknowledging what's great about where you live.

* * * * * * * *

If you haven't read these yet, but are interested in reading my earlier "Expat in Sri Lanka blog posts"... you can click on the links below:

An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 1 on what it's like living as an expat in SL
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 2 on local attitudes, dual pricing, behaviors
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 3 on police force, corruption and stories
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 4 on garbage collection, waste and recycling
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 5 on the case for expat fatigue
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 6 on miscellaneous encounters at the post office, around the neighborhood, Mt Lavinia Beach and more
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 7 on New Year celebrations, firecrackers and dodgy doctors
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 8 on Avurudu, Sri Lanka T20 World Cup win and cooling fruits
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 9 on living as an foreign expat woman in Sri Lanka
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 10 on visa renewal process, helping Chinese tourists and enjoying roadside corn-on-the-cob
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 11 on things they don't tell you about living in Sri Lanka, Peenas oil, Colombo apartments and taxes on imported food items
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 12 on an unusual picture of a local man; gathering local plants for ayurveda; and commuting between Colombo and Kandy
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 13 on recent Sri Pada pilgrimage and dansel; harvesting season for cloves and nutmeg; attending a Buddhist ordination ceremony; and my Jar of Awesome Thing
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 14 - moving away from the expat bubble and embracing local lifestyle and culture in Sri Lanka


yasela said...

few very interseting observations Eva.....

since you have made comment on foods I know what it means. been a native Sri Lankan how much have I addicted to Rice and Curry...yea I can not live without it...same for all three meal....yea forigners may think we are crazy....yea we are...

Eva Stone said...

Appreciate the comment Yasela. Hope life is treating you well.
I don't think you're crazy, just conditioned to eat the food you're used to from young. I kind of have that too, with some foods from my native land, BUT, I think I'm actually more asian in my food palate - feels like home ;-)

Faith Fernando said...

Hello Eva,
We live in Los Angeles, CA and looking to retire in Sri Lanka, as much as Sri Lanka is a paradise to retire in, not very many blogs are written from the perspective of a non-Sri Lankan. I am married to a former Sri Lankan and he is very much an American than a Sri Lankan. The reason I say that, the first 20 years of his life he spent in Sri Lanka and the next 30 years he’s being living in the U.S. He just turned 50 (2016) and ready to let go of a great paying job to enjoy the retirement, as you know money is not everything. We are hoping to spend the retirement years in Sri Lanka, within the next two years, (2019). No one from his family migrated to U.S.A, his entire family still lives in Sri Lanka. I had the chance to visit Sri Lanka at least 8 times over the past 25 years. I was always the tourist and loved it, unfortunately never done the pre-retirement test drive. As much as I love to do a test drive, not sure if that’s possible. Reading your blog almost eliminates the need to do a test drive. My husband is saying your blog is so comprehensive and well written, he himself with all his relatives that lives in the country cannot provide such great detail and advise to non-Sri Lankans that are thinking about retiring in Sri Lanka. We had the opportunity to travel to over 35 countries and we know when we see good advice. Eva, thanks so much for providing this service for free and the Sri Lankan Government should pay you for your service. We don’t mean to insult, but like to donate a small contribution towards your great blog and let us know how. You should add a donate button.This is too valuable to read this information for free.


Eva Stone said...

Hi Faith,
Thank you so very much for your comments. I am humbled by your words and immensely grateful. I set up this blog as a way of sharing my experiences and a variety of perspectives as an foreign expat living in Sri Lanka. I'm pleased to hear that it has been of benefit.
My very best wishes to you and your husband and your plans to retire in Sri Lanka. Things are constantly changing and developing over here and 2019 is not that far off. Hopefully, the both of you have more confidence in taking that leap after reading the blog and weighing up the pros and cons.
Since writing this blog and sharing what I know with others via social media, emails and blog posts and comments, Sri Lanka has felt more like home and easeful. In this small way, it's wonderful to give the little that I know about this amazing place with all its quirks and sometimes hard edges. I'll have a think about the donation button. Thank you!
Best wishes,

Peter said...

Hey Eva, what a treasure trove of information have I stumbled across here!? I started out with part 1 of good/bad/ugly and was delighted to see that a) you are still posting b) you kinda answered already one of my questions back then in 2013 and I wanted to follow up if this is still the case in 2016: The 'red tape' when it comes to receiving packages from abroad, either family care of i.e. amazon / aliexpress. Having lived myself as an expats on a constantly changing country circuit, I have made very similar experiences as you described, though my last 2 locations were even worse: stuff would never show up :) Is it still a hassle / customs/taxes prohibitive? Thanks a lot, I keep reading in the meantime.

Eva Stone said...

Hi Peter, Thanks for the comment. Good question to follow up. I actually did further investigation regarding receiving packages as I was used to ordering stuff online and receiving care packages from family and friends. Anyway, it actually boils down to local regulations which require customs to check the packages, therefore you have to go into the central main exchange to give permission/witness the process. Occasionally I've had packages come through to my home directly, but I have no idea why some didn't need the check (tho' I suspect, they may have been scanned?) Anyway, the duties/taxes are not prohibitive if they are items that are for personal use. If the quantities seem commercial, then you'll be charged additional customs duties or taxes. Mostly, I find with personal packages I can explain what I've been sent or it might be a present and I simply pay the nominal handling fees for the customs/postal checking process.
Best wishes

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