Lessons from Sri Lanka – The Island That Glitters

I mentioned in my previous article that I am taking a break from my normal business articles while I travel around Sri Lanka for a while. In the Tamil language, Lanka means to glitter, so the island that used to be Ceylon until 1972 is now the island that glitters.

Even as I travel observing, enjoying and learning about the culture I am finding that there are also lessons to learn at every turn.  Some are life affirming and enriching and some will translate well into business practices when I get back. I hope by sharing my experiences over the next few weeks you’ll get a taste and, who knows, may even be tempted to take a trip over.

Arriving in Sri Lanka

You emerge into Colombo airport bleary eyed and dishevelled after the all-night flight and are immediately assailed by a wave of intense heat.  The next thing you notice is the jam-packed stores of duty free. Not the posh boutiques of western airports but the stacked to the ceiling booths of washing machines, tumble dryers, hoovers and other types of household white goods. Commerce is obviously booming.

The very first thing I did was find a ladies room and stripped out of my warm British clothes into the loose cotton things I had the foresight to carry with me.  After that (having learnt from previous travels) I retrieved my insect repellent and liberally doused myself with Deet.

After one of the fastest immigration and bag collections I have ever encountered I meet my driver, Bhodi, who was to take me to my hotel. A brief ‘Ayu Bowan’ (long life greeting) he whisks me off into the Colombo traffic which is a lesson in itself.

As far as I can tell there are not that many rules to Sri Lankan driving. 6 way overtaking seems to be the norm even on the single track roads that abound.  Pedestrians, cyclists, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, cars, lorries and buses vie for space and squeeze past each other in gleeful abandon. Drivers need to hold their nerve once they commit to a manoeuvre. My fatalist adage of ‘what will be will be’ was the only thing to calm my bulging eyes, loosen my tight grip on the seat and stop my phantom braking foot motions.  Breathing in at some of the tight squeeze pasts, whilst useless, made me feel better.

A warm welcome to Sri Lanka- caring about customer needs

We arrived at my first hotel, The Notary’s House  http://www.thenotaryshousesrilanka.com/,  and I was enveloped by peace and tranquillity.  As this is the beginning of the low season before the rains arrive in March I am the only guest. This 6 room boutique hotel is situated near a wonderful lagoon lake bordered by jungle where you can watch people gathering the blue lilies (national flower). Young boys play and splash each other sending arcs of water into the air where the crystal drops of water catch the sunlight as they fall back like thousands of diamonds.

Lagoon Lake

A reception committee of the staff were already there to greet me.  A team of 6 headed by an affable manager called Lucky. They had been anticipating my arrival and were on hand with cooling face cloths and a cold watermelon juice drink.  While my bags were transported to my room (which is huge and decorated in local tradition) Lucky showed me around the compact but open building.  He cannily asked me unobtrusive questions and it was only afterwards I realised that he now knew I needed rest and relaxation but with some adventure thrown in.

A prime example of what I am talking about in terms of anticipating customer needs are the postcards thoughtfully provided by the tour operator Experience Travel Group https://www.experiencetravelgroup.com/sri_lanka which are already pre-postage paid for the UK.

One of the lovely things I quickly discovered is that the staff act more like a family unit and it wasn’t long before I felt part of the family.  Lucky, Anu, Amila, Sampath, Madushan and Ranjan also have the uncanny knack of knowing what you might desire before you ask for it and are quietly in the background before materialising to attend to your whim.  They seemed amused at my clumsy attempts to speak a few words of Sinhalese (the local language) but encouraged me, appeared to like the fact I want to get to know the real Sri Lanka behind the tourist scene and were at ease with my numerous questions or prompts asking them about their own lives.

Birthday in Sri Lanka

Lucky has so many stories to tell which are all fascinating and illuminating you have to listen. From his entry into the hospitality business at the age of 19, working in Saudi for a wealthy prince to returning to the Sri Lankan hotel industry in order to take care of his elderly mother.  His humour and keen observations about the human nature of different cultures are played out in all their colourful glory. The caring side of his nature (shown by the reason for his return) shine out with his concern and tangible help with the welfare of his guests. In fact the same could be said for all of the team who all have their own tales to tell.

Having slept well my second day began with it being my birthday.  Lucky had cleverly worked this out from my passport and I pitched up to breakfast to find the chef, Sampath, had baked me a birthday cake complete with candles.  The whole team turned up to sing Happy Birthday with smiles and hugs. Cake was quickly followed by a traditional Sri Lanka breakfast of egg hopper (delicious) and then, because I had previously mentioned that my recently departed mother would cook my favourite curries with dahl, rice and roti on my birthday, these subsequently appeared to my delight.  To say I was well and truly replete after this repast would be an understatement!

The Notary Team

Having recovered a little Lucky, Amila and Ranjan then took me by tuk-tuk to a local school located in the jungle down a bumpy clay track which must become a quagmire when it rains.  Amila, Ranjan and 2 other lads at the hotel want to improve their English (which is already very good) and Lucky was investigating the courses he might send them to. Having satisfactorily completed this task we then putted off to the nearby town of Pannalla.  Experiencing the crazy driving in a tuk-tuk needed more ‘what will be will be’ muttering.  The town, though small, has everything you might need and I spent some happy time wandering around the local fish and vegetable market with Lucky naming vegetables that I was unfamiliar with.  All the time a local music shack was blaring out Volarie accompanied by Trinidadian bass beats which added to the happy atmosphere.

Next we hared off down the road in the opposite direction and spotted a roadside stall with fresh coconut on the other side.  Ranjan skilfully negotiated a U-turn across the several lanes of overtaking traffic and the stall holder cracked open a fresh King coconut with a machete for me to drink the milk from.  Once drained he opened it up further, hewed a piece off for me to use as a spoon and I scrapped the delicate ‘baby’ flesh out which tasted wonderful.

Exploring the local area in Sri Lanka

Back at the Notary’s House Anu took me around their vegetable garden showing me rows of chilli bushes, Bhindi (Okra), Kerala, Bananas, snake root, pumpkins and papaya.  We munched on bitter mangos plucked from the bush while we surveyed. I looked at their recently planted pineapple and coconut trees from which they will make their own coconut oil which Sri Lankan’s use to cook with as well as condition their hair and moisturise their bodies.

Cocount Seller

In the evening we wandered along the back road on the edge of the lagoon into the edge of the jungle to visit the local Buddhist temple (more on this in a later article). On the way back I noticed a large dwelling on another side of the lagoon which Lucky informed me is a private residence. What a shame I thought. It is the beginning of the newly wealthy moving into waterside locations and building huge, unobtainable to the locals, properties destroying the jungle around them in an effort to tame it much as we have already done in the west.

Not wanting to return to the hotel quite yet Lucky accompanied me as I walked along a local village street looking at the local dwellings. Some were big, some small and most a little ramshackle. I popped into a local store little bigger than a shed meeting the elderly owner and her grandson.  Eventually we emerged out on to the main road again which we had to cross to get back to the hotel.  Talk about taking your life in your own hands! Scampering between the traffic gaps seemed to be the order of the day and we made it in one piece.

Tired but happy my evening meal consisted of local fish curry and 5 other local vegetable dishes all delicately flavoured and spiced.  A new favourite was a vegetable I had not come across before called maniyok which apparently is a staple for Sri Lankan’s.  One thing I have noticed here is that Sri Lankan’s show their care and love for other people through food. They certainly do not want you going hungry and I have a feeling that even the poorest would share their last crust than have any guest going without.

My first experience of Sri Lanka and its kind and generous people has been an incredible start to my trip and I have already learned that through simply observing and listening you can tune into people’s needs. I have a feeling that I may return from this trip with many life lessons.