Of course we are all travelers of a sort. We travel everyday to get from A to B and back again. We travel for adventure and to experience destinations around the island and beyond these shores. We travel to visit loved ones and to reconnect with our native countries. And beyond this physical travel, we travel through the internet, within the stories in books and, in the realms of our aspirations and dreams.
Traveling in Sri Lanka is both a wonderful and challenging experience for visitors and expats on multiple levels. Foremost, it provides an opportunity to experience the island's people, places, language and culture. I don't mean the kind of traveling where you jump into a private hire vehicle or your own vehicle, but the travel where you're rubbing shoulders with the locals on public transport (i.e buses, coaches, and trains) and getting the full experience of life on the island. I have learned so much from these kinds of experiences - from commuting on buses and trains in Colombo, to long-distance travels by bus, coach or train, and also off-the-beaten-track tuk-tuk rides as well.
Some of the best conversations I've experienced on the island have been with random people I've met on commutes and journeys. Just the other day I was on the morning train from Colombo to Galle. I sat in both 2nd class and 3rd class over the course of the train journey. Initially, I sat in third class literally rubbing shoulders with the locals. Most if not all the seats were taken up in third class. You don't find that many foreigners traveling in third class (they usually travel in 1st if it's available or generally 2nd class). It's kind of understandable as it can get a bit squishy and sweaty. I like to observe my surroundings and see who is traveling and how they travel.
One clear observation is that hardly anyone is on their mobile phones. What a contrast to other places around the world. People here are usually snoozing, chatting, looking around, eating snacks, or sometimes reading a newspaper. But mostly, they're sitting still and enjoying the journey. It's very relaxed. Most people are friendly and would love to strike up a conversation, but sometimes don't if they feel they can't converse in English or assume you don't speak the local language.
On this occasion, I spoke to a student who was busy working through some physics problems on a notepad and a young man who was heading back down to Mirissa for work. Both were eager to converse and were, as is common in Sri Lanka, curious about my background and why I was in Sri Lanka. It's no longer a culture shock to be asked so many personal questions. I don't necessarily like it, but I understand the local culture and nature of their inquisitiveness. It also doesn't mean I'll reveal everything, but maybe enough to hold a decent conversation.
In 2nd class I was sitting next to an older man who kept glancing my way as if in hope of striking up a conversation. I tend to gauge whether I want to engage by using my much-utilized "dodgy-sinister-sleaze" sensor. In this instance, he passed the test. He turned out to be a retired, local government politician who regularly travels by train. So I found myself answering his initial question, which was the stock-standard "From which country you from?", which moved the dialogue swiftly on. We covered topics about him (I can tell you about his wife, children, nieces and nephews and bits of random information about his home, investments and those of his adult children); then more questions for me; then an engaging back-and-forth about politics, history, social issues, current affairs and where we think Sri Lanka is heading. It was an illuminating conversation and it's also a good example of how open Sri Lankans can be about themselves, which can be quite a contrast to the private and guarded nature of the western culture.
And it's not just conversations that are interesting. On some of my daily commutes by bus or train, although it can be a tight squeeze, I find myself witnessing or experiencing the generosity and kindness or strangers. Occasionally, I am offered a seat on a busy bus; or if there's been an accident, strangers have come forward to advise me (thinking I'm a tourist) to get off the bus rather than wait; or someone tells me the bus fare in English by way of being helpful (not knowing that I live here and speak Sinhala).
Naturally, there are also contrasting tales of rudeness and trickery, like the attempts of some bus conductors to overcharge me on bus fares. Usually I speak back in Sinhala and give what I know to be the correct fare. For your reference, I use the National Transport Commission's website as a guide to check on the variety of bus fares. Sometimes I might find myself subject to a bus driver yelling for getting on a bus from the front door during peak hour. In this case, I ignore the driver because I just have to get on that bus (along with other locals doing the same thing) and I can see that the back of the bus already has people hanging off it. Then there's the staring and occasional sleazy behavior. Seriously though, I don't usually have too much trouble with that. You get used to the staring and ignore the rest and somehow the unwanted attention disappears.
I know there are expats who prefer to take a taxi or car as it's more comfortable getting around Colombo, but you lose out on the everyday experience and peak hour traffic can be prohibitive. It's also cheaper to travel by public transport, and I'd have to say a faster journey at peak hours. In many ways it's no different from the conditions on the tube and rail at peak hours in London...
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It also varies depending on your situation - whether you're an expat whose plan is only to be in Sri Lanka for a year or two before returning to your home country; or a long-term expat who plans to stay in Sri Lanka for awhile; or a wandering expat going where the next opportunity calls; or a retiree who has decided to retire in Sri Lanka; or Sri Lankan expat returning to the island after living abroad for many years; and other permutations.
At this point, you could be pondering some of the following questions:
- Will the Sri Lankan rupee depreciate any further against the US dollar?
- Do I have the ability to repatriate my foreign funds out of Sri Lanka should I need to?
- Is there any way to overcome inflation and taxes that are eating away at the value of my money?
- With Sri Lanka's Inland Revenue Department being tasked by the IMF with streamlining the tax system to increase tax revenues in Sri Lanka, are you seeing more scrutiny on local and foreign earnings?
- What are the implications of the massive foreign exits from Sri Lanka and the decline in Sri Lanka's foreign reserves?
- With the steady overall decline in stocks since the relative highs of 2015 on the Colombo Stock Exchange, what other investment options should be considered?
- Should I invest in the booming Sri Lankan property market?
- Is this the right time to start a new business in Sri Lanka?
- With all the global uncertainty impacting on the markets, am I doing enough to diversify my investment portfolio and mitigate risks?
- What will be the impact of Trump's presidency on Sri Lanka?
- What's going to be the impact of Brexit on Sri Lanka?
- Will Sri Lankan banks be more vulnerable in the next global financial crisis?
It's no easy feat navigating through these challenging times. As a foreign investor you try to make the most of facilities provided by the Central Bank, such as SFIDA, SIERA, government securities, BOI assistance and so on. However, whatever returns you might currently make from these investments literally turn to dust with rising inflation, the introduction of higher taxes (e.g. nation building tax, VAT etc), slowing economic growth and the very real depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee. Local financial news articles such as "Rupee falls on dollar demand, bond sales" are published daily. Add to this, the increasing global uncertainty and volatility across all major currencies and you find yourself in a rather uncomfortable position of not knowing what to do with your money.
If your plans are only short term in Sri Lanka (or your earnings are in foreign currencies) then you won't be as concerned with the local Sri Lankan market but more concerned with global markets, though this doesn't necessarily make for an easy time either. But for long-term expats, Sri Lankan expats considering a return or having just returned to the island, and retirees on fixed incomes in Sri Lanka, there is much to be considered, advice to be sought and decisions to be made. It's a time for vigilance and sharpness, rather than complacency.
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It seems as if Sri Lanka is on super-blast mode to export anything and everything. The last time I wrote one of these "An expat in Sri Lanka" blog posts I was harping on about the price of thembili or king coconuts being jacked up, partially due to their export to overseas markets.
On my recent travels I had a chat with various fruit and vegetable stall roadside sellers and I was surprised to hear that things like betel leaves are now being exported. This can be added to a growing list of things that are leaving the island.
Sri Lanka appears to have jumped very quickly onto export market opportunities for local fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices with the assistance of various trade delegations from certain countries. I'm not anti-trade by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm concerned about whether anyone is looking at how the island is going to feed itself. As well as how much will the prices be inflated is supply is further limited.
Challenges like the ongoing drought (supposedly the worst disaster in the past four decades) and the fall in recent crop harvests as well as an increase in crop failures come to mind. Not to mention, though positive for the tourism sector, the impact on the food chain of the increasing number of tourists and the ever-growing number of hotels opening across the island.
This expat can't help her musings...
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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 Things
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 14 on moving away from the expat bubble and embracing local lifestyle and culture in Sri Lanka
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 15 on being away from Sri Lanka experiencing new things and returning from travels and acknowledging what is great about where you live...
An expat in Sri Lanka: the Good, Bad and Ugly - Part 16 on urban gardening and creating neighborhood sharing networks, the price of thembili and the unexpected benefit of expat blogging