Sri Lanka: Feeling Intimidated in Colombo
It takes a lot for me to admit defeat. I’m Irish, English, and Scottish, so naturally I blame my heritage for my stubbornness and desire to ignore advice from fellow travelers who I consider negative or aggressive. And by aggressive I mean they tell me a place sucks and that I should go elsewhere, and I promptly make a note to ignore them and go anyway. Childish? Maybe, but that is how I roll. There was no way I was going to end up being intimidated in Colombo.
My trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka was no different. I was told flat out to avoid Colombo, and I planted my feet and stayed in Colombo.
Most of the time I come out on top in these situations and confidently do a ‘nah, nah, nah-nah, nah’ when I prove someone wrong. This time however, the naysayers were kind of right. I should have skipped Colombo.
As a solo female traveler with sizable cleavage I face many challenges that other travelers do not, the biggest one being attention — especially when traveling in Asian countries. While I’ve become immune to the attention in many countries, my first encounter with Sri Lanka left me unnerved and running for the nearest big brand hotel chain.
I checked into a guesthouse near the beach, which looked lovely, except for a beady-eyed Sri Lankan man who stared at me in a way that made me feel as though my room might have hidden peep holes. Ignoring the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach I left my things in the room and walked down to the beach where I found a place to sit down, have a drink, relax, and try to settle into a new and unfamiliar place.
I sat at my table watching local families play on the beach, and thought about my guesthouse, trying to ignore a local man who was standing nearby, starring at me. Should I stay and see what happens? Should I leave and find somewhere that made me feel less uneasy? I pondered my options as I left the restaurant and walked down the beach, heading back to my guesthouse. That’s when my decision was made for me.
The moment I stepped off the beach a local man was beside me asking me where I was staying. I recognized him as the man who had stood outside the beachside restaurant, starring at me, just fifteen minutes earlier. Did he hide somewhere on the beach, waiting for me to leave the restaurant? I walked straight ahead, deciding to ignore him and hoping he would go away.
He didn’t get the message. He kept following me, asking where I was from, was I traveling alone, and where was I staying. I was unnerved and didn’t know how to get rid of him. I knew I couldn’t walk back to the guesthouse as he would then know where I was staying. I had to walk somewhere different, somewhere completely unfamiliar to me and hope that he would eventually tire of being ignored.
That’s when I came across my salvation, a red mototaxi with a kind-faced driver who immediately understood that I was uncomfortable with my walking partner. As I climbed inside his mototaxi and sat down my decision was made. I asked the driver to take me to my guesthouse where I collected my backpack, and then instructed him to drive me to the Hilton. Where I hid for the rest of the day.
It was shameful, but I was hating Sri Lanka. Traveling in Asia can be challenging at times as the culture is different from that of Canada (my home country). Staring is normal in Asia, and for the most part I am cool with it. Asian people, from what I have experienced, are curious and sometimes daring in their curiosities. I’ve had older women in China stop me in the street and start poking my boobs, and then try looking down my shirt in a way that a 1 year old would go in search of their Mom’s breasts at lunch time. It was incredibly awkward, but as a woman I can understand her fascination with the size of my cleavage. When that attention comes from a man, it’s different. There is an underlying sexual component that comes into play.
Why do I say that? It’s something that seems to be beaten into the minds of solo female travellers. It’s an incorrect notion, of course, not all men want to get in your pants. I know this. That being said I also know my gut. I’ve been very fortunate on my travels and I haven’t had too many bad experiences, so when I’m in a situation that makes me feel sick to my stomach, I listen!
That night all I could think about was heading back to Thailand, but a cooler head prevailed after a good night’s sleep and I awoke feeling different.
There was no way I could go back to Thailand early, not after saying I was going to stay in Colombo and prove that it was awesome. No, I needed to save face. I needed to stick it out.
I needed to move to a less expensive hotel.
With a room in the basement of the Galle Face Hotel, which was nicer than most of the hotel rooms I’ve stayed in (it came with a hot tub in the bathroom), I used the Galle Face as my Colombo buffer. By day I would venture outside the hotel to explore the city, and by night I would sit on a lounge chair outside, look up at the stars, and listen to the Indian Ocean crash against the shoreline.
As perfect as my hotel made me feel, walking around Colombo constantly assaulted my senses. I fell for a mototaxi scam similar to tuk tuk scams in Thailand where drivers claim they will take you to popular and important temples, but they end up taking you to two minor temples and three shops. Something I pride myself on avoiding in Thailand. When I realized I fell for the scam in Colombo I was instantly felt frustrated with myself, and Colombo. But after ditching the driver I stumbled upon a mototaxi driver who was friendly, honest, and after a few minutes of confused conversation he agreed to take me to a local outdoor market.
I fell in love with Colombo at that market. Hidden from the main road, the market was filled with mostly men, and fresh fruit and vegetables were displayed on sheets or tarps laying on the ground. As I wandered around the market with my camera, my driver kept an eye on me, making sure I didn’t get myself into trouble. I was surrounded by piles of key limes, onions, and peppers. Men were gawking (understandable as I was the only foreigner there), people were talking, and I was feeling excited and alive. This is what I live for, what I travel for. Culture.
After a rough start in Colombo I was finally starting to relax and see past the noise, the dirt, and the stares. Maybe Colombo is worth spending time in after all. Maybe I was right to ignore everyone.
On my last day in Colombo I pulled a piece of paper with a number of it out of my bag. It was the number of the driver who had picked me up and taken me to the Hilton on my first night. He had offered to take me on a tour, and I was curious as to what he wanted to show me, plus 500 rupees didn’t seem like a lot of money.
I wasn’t disappointed.
With a full bottle of Absolute Vodka in his cup holder my driver sped through Colombo, taking me to various temples. Our first stop was, Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil, the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo.
I was a silent observer, asking the musicians inside if I could photograph them, and checking out the various shrines. In other words I was in stealth mode, trying to be a quiet observer and not attract too much attention, which is a comical endeavor between my skin color and chest size. Needless to say I was unsuccessful and before we left the temple I had been blessed and given food to eat for my health.
Once I was ready we walked back to the mototaxi and drove to the red and white striped mosque, followed by my favorite temple in Colombo, Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil, the “granite temple”.
Unlike Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil, at the granite temple I was not permitted to take photographs, so I put my camera away and relied on my sketchy memory, committing as many details to memory as I could with the aid of the notebook app on my iPhone. The best way to describe the temple is to compare it with the movie Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. Inside the temple was dark, with small windows close to the roof which resulted in random beams of light. The only color in the temple was that of the worshipper’s clothing, and a select number of golden statues. I could have found a corner and people watched all day long, and I would have if I didn’t have a driver in tow.
As it turned out Colombo wasn’t completely awful. There were definitely some redeeming qualities to the city, and when it came time for me to fly back to Thailand I found myself wishing I could stay longer. But, once again she turned her back on me when I tried to exchange my Sri Lankan rupees at the airport. I didn’t have receipts from when I withdrew the money, and none of the banks wanted to exchange them into Thai Baht. So, I fought. I played the arrogant tourist card and argued until the men behind the counter became so exasperated that they exchanged my money in an effort to get rid of me.
Needless to say, I have a love hate relationship with Colombo. I found some wonderful places to explore and met some friendly locals, but I also found myself getting frustrated by the way locals did business — which is even more harsh than in Thailand. I’ve dreamed of going to India for years, but they say Sri Lanka is like India, but not as intense. Now I’m not sure if I can handle India. It’s a shitty thing to admit, but I’m actually nervous. I don’t want to hate it, I want to love it. The same goes for Sri Lanka.
As humans we are not perfect, and having 100% perfect travel experiences is an impossible task. The key to having more positive travel experiences is to know yourself, and your limits. It’s about making decisions that you are comfortable with, and not allowing yourself to give in to guilt trips by so called hardcore travellers who may paint you as anything but.
Traveling in Asia has taught me that I need to wear a thick skin at times, and that if I wake up feeling overtired, or not myself, then it’s okay to have a ‘me’ day and do things like hang out at the hotel and read instead of subjecting myself to the possibility of hating the country I’m in by noon. It’s about balance. Every country has something good to offer, and that is what I’m looking for when I travel.
Colombo almost broke me. I almost changed my flight and returned to Thailand. But I didn’t. I stayed, and I discovered that there are some beautiful places to explore within the city. When I finally do go to India I’ll be thinking about Colombo, and remembering that I need to have thick skin, and an open mind.