The title makes little sense, neither did my head when I finally decided to leave the country I have called home since October 2004, yep 13 years.
13 years of joy, sadness, hurt, immense moments of happiness, fun, near-death experiences, sickness, health, evil and good, and fucking great, absolutely dreadful, but fantastic too. Beauty and ugliness, rich and poor, intense colour, and black and white. Sometimes, sadly, just black. Not meaning the dark-skinned smiling faces, no. The darkness of depression.
The country I probably love as much as I do my own has certainly made me who I am today, and I must acknowledge that. People who holiday there, those who spend extended holidays there, and even those who pop in and out for work or what have you, will not have experienced what I have, or ever will.
That in itself does not bother me. Everybody is different. I made things difficult for myself mostly. BUT, no regrets. What bothers me is a multitude of numerous things (HA! How many can I fit in she wonders… a multitude of infinite things perhaps…). But, relax not now. Later, maybe.
People inadvertently want things to work out at the beginning. Nobody likes telling their friends and family a job did not work out, they were fired maybe or decided it was not for them. Their relationship broke up, they cheated on their husband or wife or they have a regret about something else big. Whatever, nobody is 100% perfect, people fuck up – fact.
Well, my stuff just was not working out. I needed to leave. I fought this feeling for over a few years to the detriment of my health (mental AND physical). I am now in Holland and doing great. I miss many things. I really do but no lists here, not now.
This article is about transition. So no photos of curries, people, animals and sunsets that I miss, no sentimentality, no moaning, no nothing.
Also no blurb about the benefits and pitfalls of Holland, no photos of cheese, people, animals and sunsets, no sentimentality, no moaning, no nothing.
Just an article to say – hey this is what I just did. It’s not so difficult to make a big step. I am going back soon, but not like before. Because I learnt my lessons the hard way.
So, I am in Haarlem (NL) for now – more to follow on that!
Going to the vegetable market is always fun in Sri Lanka. It’s pretty much pointless to make a shopping list for me because I never stick to it. I can be convinced that I’m going to buy potatoes, onions, cabbage and tomatoes, but what I’ll actually come home with are sweet potatoes (the normal variety were small and the sweet ones SOOO purple, seriously the colours get me every time), aubergines (tomatoes weren’t fresh), courgette (zucchini – my new favourite food), limes (just because) and yes onions, always onions.
I have lived here for nearly twelve years and I still don’t know what all the vegetables in the market are.
Don’t let the picture above fool you. I live in a tourist destination and our market caters for that so you will find many vegetables popular with non-locals (with prices to match). It makes for great shopping but what really interests me are the veggies that are so indigenous that they don’t have an English name, vegetables that aren’t well-known and have no endless recipe suggestions when you do a Google search on them, vegetables that have health benefits that only Ayurveda practitioners or Sri Lankan grandmothers (Aatchis) know. Strange vegetables. Weird vegetables. Wonderful vegetables.
Attention grabbers include the gourds (bitter gourd, snake gourd, bottle gourd, ridge gourd etc.). These are related to squashes and pumpkins but seem to have many more health benefits, such as helping to lower blood sugar and eradicating toxins. Locally these are usually made into curries and sambols.
Another vegetable you are not likely to encounter in an average supermarket abroad is murunga, also known as drumsticks. They are eaten in a similar way to their chicken equivalent in name, you basically hold them in your hand and suck off the edible bit. Again they are said to be incredibly healthy, not to mention an aphrodisiac.
One of my absolute favourites to use raw in a spicy sambol are winged beans, aka dambala:
This strange looking vegetable is so delicious fresh; simply finely chop it into a sambol with onions, tomatoes, chillies and lime (with salt and pepper to taste). Providing it is not too hot I even eat that on a cheese sandwich. Seriously good.
If you have followed this blog for a while you will know that I love aubergines (brinjals, eggplant, wambatu, whatever). So I’m in my element here in Sri Lanka because they come in all different shapes, sizes and colours! Big, long, oblong and deep purple to tiny, round and white and green.
Another favourite of mine are snake beans. They can be prepared just as normal beans but they are much longer and in my opinion tastier. They are less stringy than normal green beans and make an absolutely fantastic curry. Peter Kuruvita has a lovely recipe here.
Then there are all the different kinds of leaves, ranging from spinach to the more exotic gotu kola. Your more familiar vegetables such as potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots can of course also always be found and increasingly vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, courgettes, peppers etc. are available at larger markets and supermarkets.
One thing that I simply cannot imagine any Sri Lankan market to be without (other than coconuts) is the wonderful karapincha. These are curry leaves. A mere crunch of these in your hands gives off such a Sri Lankan curry smell that it is almost overpowering. They grow abundantly in my garden and I would consider them a horticultural nuisance if they weren’t so tasty and healthy!
Karapincha are indispensable in any kitchen in Sri Lanka. They are added to almost every curry recipe or even just fried briefly in oil to flavour the cooking oil. It is a hardy plant and its health properties are numerous.
There are also dedicated karapincha dishes, like karapincha mallung (or mallum) and karapincha kenda (a herby drink). Karapincha kenda is a mixture of a cup or two of finely shredded leaves, grated coconut, chopped garlic and ginger, a teaspoon of mustard powder, and pepper and salt to taste. Mix the ingredients together with water and season with lime juice. Put the same spice mix with a couple of green chillies thrown in, through a blender to make a fine and healthy karapincha dip for your potato wedges.
Of course, Sri Lankan cooking is not just about taste. Combinations of ingredients and dishes are chosen to optimise nutritional balance and health, and often to address health issues. In that sense, karapincha is somewhat of a workhorse, adding much more than flavour. The native ayurvedic medicine system lists a variety of uses for almost all parts of the karapincha tree, from its leaves to bark, roots, fruits and flowers.
Its bark and roots are used as a tonic and a stomachic, and stimulant. The raw leaves, rich with amino acids and oils, purify the blood, bring down blood pressure, prevent diabetes and aid digestion. Studies have identified a compound that slows down the breakdown of starch, making it effective for weight control.
A visit to the vegetable market in Sri Lankan is therefore so much more than a shopping trip.
If I had a euro (or even a rupee) for every time somebody told me that I was so lucky to live in paradise, how happy I must be and how that person wished they were me, I would be, one, quite bloody rich and two, probably quite a bit happier.
Many expat/travel blogs will bore you senseless with fantastic adventures made away from home, cool things done outside of a comfort zone, eating weird ingredients, pushing ones boundaries and finding ones inner Zen blah blah. This is not one of them. Yeah I have good times, sometimes even very good, but sometimes I just feel like punching smiley people who pontificate about how wonderful it must be to live in a beautiful tropical island and freelance from home in the face.
I know, not nice. Still I would like to see those same people say the same thing after experiencing some of the lesser evils of this little bundle of fun in the Indian Ocean 🙂 I have moaned before here and here I will moan again and give you 5 inevitable grievances of living in Sri Lanka.
1) Random shit
Take today for example. I wake up to a beautiful day, do my morning stuff, switch the kettle on to make a cup of coffee… and… no luck, the power is off. I check the sockets, check the fuse box, listen out for the Singhala radio station which usually bursts out of my neighbours house at this time. Nope: “light ne”. Or translated: “power cut”. Ugh. Grab my phone 30 minutes later to call the electricity office and check what’s going on and just as the guy answers (after the third attempt may I add) the kettle springs into life. Fine fine, no harm done you say – only bloody 45 minutes doing things I didn’t have to. Forget working in an office and turning up on time…no chance. Still I’m lucky there so actually no real harm done.
Two hours later I eventually get ready to go out as I have some bank stuff to deal with. Need to see the manager and have been putting it off. Get to the bank. It’s closed. The guard apologises “sorry madam, today is [insert unintelligible name] holiday, bank closed”. Me: “but the wine store is open” (yes I know that is a completely random thing to say but you would understand if you lived here). In fact every single shop is open except for banks. It is a real “bank holiday” in the bloody sense of the word. Only nobody seems to know why.
I go to a wedding in the afternoon, a woman comes up with a tray of glasses of water. I’m not thirsty at all but I’m afraid to appear rude so I accept a glass and just as I am about to drink it it is snatched out of my hand. One person frowns, the snatcher is grinning “no, no you no drink, touch, touch…”. Eh? Another person appears and touches the glass with both hands, or actually barely touching and then holds his hands together as in prayer. “Like so” the snatcher whispers. My partner has stepped outside for a cigarette. I am mortified. Why didn’t anybody tell me about this custom, am I just supposed to guess this stuff? I see it happen to another foreigner a bit later. Maybe they do it as a joke, to make us look stupid, I brush that thought aside only for it to re-surface when somebody laughingly tells me and the other hapless looking foreigner are the guests of honour at this wedding. I barely know the wedding couple. Random shit. Random annoying shit.
2) Being white (aka suddho or suddhi (male & female))
Every man and his dog thinks it is fine to ask you your name, age, occupation and marital status just because you are white (well… a foreigner). Some are genuinely interested, most are just nosy or practising their English. Annoying. Having to pay 10 times as much for any tourist attraction, including dubious places, is perhaps acceptable for bona fide tourists from wealthy western countries in a poor third world developing country, but given that those “definitions” are so blurred nowadays (especially in Sri Lanka which is no longer classified as third world by most standards), and that residents on the same local salary still have to pay those rates by virtue of their skin colour is just stupid. It’s racist. And that is just the regulated price discrepancies. “Regulated racism”. Gah.
This would be acceptable if it was a common practice globally. It is not.
Don’t even get me started on the opportunists I come across in my day-to-day wanderings. I once heard a story of some Russians being charged 10,000 rupees (+/- $100 USD) to cross Bentota bridge by tuk tuk in 2008 (this journey takes 5 minutes on foot). The driver had told them he was risking his life crossing the bridge because of the war. Got to give him 10 out of 10 for ingenuity.
You are also often referred to by “suddha” or “suddhi” (which means white, in male and female form). By friends and foe alike, referred to as “the white person”. Yes, literally.
3) Loopy shit
My neighbour has been having pujas at night to exorcise bad spirits – it is a Hindu religious ritual. Now I am wary of religions full stop so anything that is in the slightest bit strange I dismiss as utter madness (I do not mean this in any way derogatory – I am a non-believing, non-practising Catholic and fully believe Catholics are the craziest people on the planet). So, imagine when I am confronted with not only chanting, incense burning, coconut throwing, bell ringing, head oiling and bindi annointing activities, but also high-pitched wailing and something I can only describe as body jerking when the deity being revered in the puja to exorcise the bad spirits has taken possession of a human being – a kind of spirit possession I guess (don’t quote me on that, my sources are the village gossips!!). From wiki (just to give you an idea): “The Coast Veddas, a social group within the minority group of Sri Lankan Tamil people in Eastern Province, Sri Lanka, enter trances during religious festivals in which they are regarded as being possessed by a spirit. Although they speak a dialect of Tamil, during trances they will sometimes use a mixed language that contains words from the Vedda language. This is bigloopy shit. This is my neighbour. I am proper freaked out.
They also have extreme horror films on the bottom shelf in the DVD shop – completely unrelated but just saying. Chilled out tropical island lifestyle? Think again.
4) Gecko shit
Precisely that. Many geckos live in my house. They shit everywhere. A nuisance. Sometimes they have diarrhoea… need I go on? Gecko shit.
Let me finish with probably the most controversial of all:
5) Karma. Yes, that notion which the majority of you will perceive as that fundamental doctrine in Buddhism, that law of moral causation; “what comes around goes around”. Yes that one. You know the one where you think oh dear that will come back to haunt them when somebody does something bad and you read about it in the newspaper, or when an ex-lover gets ceremoniously dumped by their current beau and you think “YES karma matey!”. You would think that living in a place dominated by this very notion of karma would be pretty damn fantastic right? Well you’re wrong.
Picture this: It’s 9am in the morning, you have a full day planned. The power goes off (see number one). You don’t panic yet…no need. Only then you receive a call from your other half to inform you this power cut will last until 5pm. Your mouth goes dry – you have a deadline due at 4pm and your laptop battery will not last the distance to complete the work anyway. You panic. You demand some answers from the electricity board – no luck. You moan to your other half: “what to do?” he exclaims, meaning there is nothing we can do because it is all caused by a higher force which we have no control of. I am here driving myself crazy but the locals have accepted their fate, even if it inconveniences them greatly: there is nothing we can do so we will not be bothered in the slightest. I have a headache and high blood pressure, not to mention an increasing urge to commit murder, yet they are having a cup of tea gossiping with their friend across the road. Sri Lankans embrace karma. This is fantastic if it prevents you having high blood pressure, surely?
Yet, karma has a dark seedy side. This very thing which should make living our lives so much more simple also makes our lives so much more unbearable. This very notion of moral causation has evolved into quite a disturbing phenomenon – the absence of motivation. Accepted apathy. More worryingly, the absence of good and bad. The absence of any feeling of guilt. Much has been written about ethics and morality since the early Greeks. How the hell do we, as mere humans, know whether something is good or bad? Well to avoid getting into too deep waters here I will make a probably insane assumption that most of us do actually know the difference. Yes we do. Increasingly though I notice that this notion of karma is being used as an excuse for laziness – “I can’t really do anything about it so I won’t”, “my actions won’t change the outcome much so I won’t bother”. Also as an excuse for bad behaviour – “it wasn’t really my fault… it just happened that way”, “nothing we can do about it now, it’s already happened”, “it’s not my fault, he brought it on himself”, “if he didn’t do that to my sister five years ago then I wouldn’t have felt the need to steal his car”, “if she didn’t kiss that guy last night, she would not have a skull fracture today”. I have heard these kinds of things and have occasionally been shocked. People here often hide behind their religion and particularly the notion of karma to avoid the repercussions of their actions. Thankfully, this is something that is changing with better education and it will continue to change just like it did for Catholicism years ago. For me it can’t change quick enough. Religion doesn’t do a whole lot of good in my book.
A controversial piece. Feel free to argue and criticise in the comments. I’ll only delete it if it is outright slander :). And for all you lovely people of Sri Lanka please don’t think I am having a go at you and your homeland. I’m not at all, far from it. These are my opinions of my life here. I love the country and its people most of the time. We all have our grievances – I just took the initiative to air them. I would do the same anywhere else, even in my own country – probably ten times worse. Freedom of speech and all that – been a long time coming here 🙂
Not so long ago I posted reasons why I love the off-season in my adopted home, Hikkaduwa. They are all perfectly valid reasons and I am looking forward to that experience in a few months again. The peace and quiet, the gentility of the locals, not constantly harassed by having to look after people on holiday (shopkeepers, house owners renting their property, surfing instructors, tour guides, even fishermen sick and tired of having their photo taken at sunset with a catch). People have more time. It’s more chilled out. And the weather isn’t that bad either contrary to popular belief.
Saying that, however, I will miss the tourists. After all it is them that keep my favourite restaurant open, the locals smiling because they are earning, the bus drivers driving less recklessly because there are white people walking on the Galle Road (yes really…most of the time, kind of), my favourite bartender in my favourite bar not scowling because he has to source the ingredient for your particular drink from afar (“ah you want a mojito…just give me 30 minutes to get mint leaves from the market, or we have curry leaves???” – I just made that last bit up but yeah conversations do happen along those lines in the off season – “you want pork? Sorry we don’t have any but we have chicken…”).
The season feels like the town is richer, both materially and immaterially, nothing is too much trouble, anything is possible. People walk with a spring in their step, a purpose, everybody has somewhere to go and wants to go there.
And when it is beautifully sunny the whole vibe steps up a notch – COLOUR. I honestly sometimes catch myself taking out my phone to capture a scene while I am shopping for onions at the market. Tourists are dressed in silly bright-coloured clothes and driving on blindingly white Honda scooters. The place is buzzing and I like it. I gladly wait in the queue at the ATM in town because I am people watching in the sunshine.
Yes it’s busy and fun. I stop in the queue at the ATM and tell an Estonian man that he can only get out 40,000 rupees a day on his bank card. He pulls out 2 others, we laugh. That doesn’t happen in the off season.
I stop at the market. There is fresh basil. That doesn’t happen in the off season.
I stop at the super market. There are fresh button mushrooms and I meet two friends. That doesn’t happen in the off season.
I walk into my friends shop and a Russian girl has bothered to cover herself up with some clothes. That didn’t happen at all until recently when the town kicked up a fuss.
The sunsets are incredible, the ocean is calm and so blue. It’s wonderful.
It’s been so damn good that except for one or two incidents I am ready for the off season for all the right reasons.
A blog about freelance translation as a digital nomad, travel, food & drink and all things Sri Lankan and Dutch.