My first steps in Sri Lanka took me down some endearing little roads with colourful flowers and smiley people in quiet, tucked away places. They were the initial observations of a woman who spends most of her time wearing rose-coloured (or ignorance-laced) glasses. Let’s just say I like to look on the bright side of things. And such things are easily noticed when you’ve got all you need in life and a whole lot more. But, as is the case everywhere, there’s more to this place than rosy first impressions, which is why I like to explore one little place for a while, to walk a little longer down the same road. But let’s start with more of the rosy stuff first.
One of the most frequently asked questions about any place is, what of the food? It’s an important question because we spend a great deal of time and energy and love on food and eating–naturally, because food is one of our main requirements for sustaining life. I’ve come to love the worship of beautiful, natural foods–the time spent finding a good fruit stand and selecting a perfect, buttery papaya, brimming with peppercorn seeds, or gorgeous, rosy-skinned mangoes that hint at perfect, syrupy ripeness. Just normal food that grows in normal places by people who work hand to mouth on the land.
Tropical fruits are just one of all kinds of edible delights in this island country. I haven’t tasted anything that has scared or mystified me yet. Everything seems to be a wicked combination of root vegetables and herbs, stewed in curry and lentils, folded into paper-thin layers of soft warm roti. There are meals wrapped in the day’s newspaper, to be eaten that day, costing just a couple of dollars. They take a little of this and a little of that and toss in some light, meaty rice and add herbs and spice and everything nice, a gorgeous monstrosity of deliciousness. Smooth, sweet carrots and beans of green chopped and bathed in curry, tucked gently into a heap in each corner. A chunk of meaty, curried fish nestles alongside, surrounded by spiced, cooked herbs. Discovering and promptly devouring this dish was like looking through an old book for that one phrase that struck you long ago, and finding it on the first try. A magical happenstance, hidden in paper.
Now I love talking about food. If a place can draw in my taste buds and belly then it can most certainly draw my heart in too. If we’re well nourished and adequately satiated in the most basic ways, we can attend much better to our environment. This applies to travelling too–a context in which I often go hungry for long periods of time or experience dreadful intestinal aversions to the local food; my chosen, First World discomforts. And when that happens, the only things I notice are public hygiene’s appalling standards. But I have been eating well here, with my personal vegan chef, who happens to foremost, be a great friend. But every so often we go out and eat street quality roti kotu, or those warm, delightful pockets of curried joy.
So with a full belly and grateful appetite, I can walk a little further, notice a little more of what’s happening around me. All of life seems harmoniously intermixed here and that’s a really cool thing. I see the locals care lovingly for the animals around here. One day a cow and her calf were stuck in the net surrounding a little volleyball court and a couple of the guys stopped their game to gently remove them. The cows wandered off down the road after, aloof and unbothered by it all, though surely grateful for liberation. Monitor lizards and snakes cross our paths occasionally and the mongoose dart in and out of road side brush. Monkeys swing from tree to tree as we sit and eat breakfast. Late a night we hear livestock on the roof as chipmunks scurry across the tin awning, and there is chirping, buzzing, smacking, going on out there beyond the edge of the doorstep, in the blackness that is the jungle at night. Every so often we hear a rustle out there in the black, as loud as someone banging on a door, like something messing around in the trees, moving closer. And I think it’s probably just another spider, which are so big one can see each individual eye of the vile eight they wear.
Long walks through my temporary neighbourhood remind me of summer days when I was 10-years-old and knobbly-kneed, when mornings stretch timelessly into afternoons. Where tall trees filter the sunlight to dance upon old, cracked pavement, and the azure sky stretches from one side of your vision to the other. Local construction sounds of hard work and manual tools dapple the background. Other sounds are the ear-pricking, 100-bird species symphony. An old road meanders alongside train tracks and eventually leads us to the main road, where vehicles fly by and people wait for the local bus. At this junction is a little triangle shack on the corner that sells those vegetable roti bombs I might have already mentioned three times already, and other such delights. Local, barefoot men stand around wearing long lengths of traditional fabric over their small, thin bodies, and worn, white collared shirts– a reflection of pride in their appearance. They smile toothy grins, sometimes absent of teeth, or stained from betel nut. Squinty eyes sprout half moons from their corners. There are always people lined up at this place. Those same shoeless men are there every time I want one of those roti bombs.
Many people walk shoeless here, by choice or not, I’m unsure. Their long, gnarled feet tread along hot pavement, over stones, and through dirt. Shoes are a symbol of individual lives, of culture and the climate we live in, our relative comfort in life. But I see shoes as one of the most basic provisions for life, not as vital as food obviously but a sanctuary, a symbol of immunity against the sometimes hard road beneath our feet. They protect our feet from damaging elements and dangerous refuse strewn about the road. Being barefoot on city streets reflects the economic reality of a village local, a man who doesn’t have access to the resources we’re accustomed to in the ultra-developed world, a man who has probably worked his whole life in the urban wild–in the craziness of an Asian city with the jungle at its fringes–just to sustain his family. One man approached us as were stopped on the motorbike, waiting at the corner to enter traffic one day. He stood just over five feet tall, dark skinned, hollow cheeked, eyes dancing and head wobbling like those guys up in India. He smiled to reveal two teeth and pointed to his naked, scarred feet in request for shoes. We got him some flip flops from the local supermarket.
What we see as an alternative, privileged lifestyle comprises the basic living conditions for much of the world. Living in the jungle, soaking in the sea everyday, eating natural foods grown locally, living off the land. Many people from First World countries and privileged communities aspire to shave life down to an uncomplicated arrangement of basic conditions, for health, simplicity, and freedom, to spend more time on fewer things. But the freedom is in the choice to live that way and that is the biggest difference. Much of the world doesn’t have a choice, and that is evident just in this tiny community we live in for the month. Families cram comfortably together inside a small home that bleeds into the garden, inseparable spaces. A roof but no walls, a comfortable-looking raised bed but inside an open kitchen, exposed to insects and heat and humidity. My exotic is another’s basic, my choice another’s only, my romanticized another’s hard reality. It’s a cultural and environmental living arrangement resulting from–or inspired by–economic poverty, depending on how you look at it.
We walk most days down these roads through villages sat on the edges of the railroad tracks. My feet are safe in sound in supportive shoes, and my belly jiggles with nourishment. Palm trees graze the late afternoon sky and a peacock stares out at us from the middle of a rice field. We arrive at the beach a few minutes later and tuck into the sea, watching the sun go down.