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Hello world, I’m a tourist!

January 21, 2013

I was chatting to some friends by the road when a car screeched beside me, and the driver called through the open window: Do you need help? Confused, I refused – I was within a few metres of the college where I’ve been working.  He handed me his card through his open window before driving off and I read: tourist guide. Of course, I was now wearing my rucsack. Let the circus begin.

Previously I’d traipsed the streets of Kandy unnoticed (or so I thought) on the way to the tailor’s or bookshop, or to meet a friend for coffee or a beer. Now, I was greeted loudly by all sorts of people, and invited to all manner of guesthouses, tours, Kandyan dancing, firewalking ceremonies.

As I’ve travelled around Sri Lanka since Christmas, it’s been something of a culture shock to go from volunteer to tourist.  But often being more obvious has been lovely. Yesterday I got chatting to a couple the same age as Steve and I on the bus, with their two children. We got off the bus in the same place as them, and as we considered our map, the lady invited us to her house. We followed them 20 minutes downhill through the most beautiful mountain scenery, and ended up staying for hours, while they gave us tea and curry, gifts of tea, and posed for photographs to update the years-old pictures on their wall.

In remote Jaffna city, people came up to us on the street, shook our hands, and said ‘Welcome, welcome!’ and we virtually had to persuade a three wheeler (rickshaw) driver to take us to our guesthouse a few kilometres from the town centre.

Contrast that with our experience in Wellawaya yesterday.  It’s the  gateway town to touristy hill country, and a good humoured driver tried valiantly to take us on a 20 min photography tour to use the time we were waiting for our bus.

From a traveller’s point of view, it’s meant we’ve labelled some places ‘useful’ towns.  Like Haputale, where we are now in the mountains. Not only does it have more liquor stores than restaurants (ahem), but you can buy flip-flops, tissues, and other useful things with ease.  Contrast that with resorts on the south coast entirely set up to serve tourists and the cheap pastries or ‘short eats’ that have been a dietary staple disappear, and you’re left instead with expensive smoothies and board shorts.

But I’m not complaining.  For the first time ever, I’ve seen how tourism can give people a new income: money from a tour of a tea factory, snorkelling trips run by ex-fishermen.  For tourists too, it ain’t a bad thing to be able to get a meal after 9pm, or have somewhere to go – Sri Lankans typically don’t drink and turn in early, so nightlife can be lacking.  I’m getting used to the constant shouts, ‘hello’s and inquiries. Perhaps it’ll be strange to be back in the UK and anonymous, again.


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