Night had already fallen over Unawatuna by the time I arrived, and the rain soaked paths splattered mud on the back of my legs as I ventured out in search for food. Directing the harsh, white glare from a flashlight application on my iphone, all the establishments looked hauntingly empty, abandoned for the monsoon season. A few mongrel dogs trailed me silently from behind, while I formulated counterattack plans in my head, warming up my wrist with a pretty floral umbrella in hand.
After 15 minutes of nervous scuttling, I finally see a warm orange glow in the distance, eerily lighting up the dark smiles of the restaurant owners sitting on the benches outside. My feet is instinctively drawn to the feeble suggestion of warmth, food and conversation.
The menu was a list of curries, and more curries. They certainly made sure no meat, vegetable or seafood family had been left out of the curry options. There was also an assortment of western style wraps, rolls and sandwiches – not something I came to Sri Lanka for, yet a telling sign of its clientele when the sun is up.
Ariyawaphie – Sinhalese names are the full-bodied chirp of a songbird. Hunched over her thinly threaded cotton shawl, she is a gnarly old woman with a toothy smile, conversing with me freely in English from outside the café.
I requested for an extra plate and generously offered to share my dinner with her, only to feel a little silly when I discovered she was the owner’s mother. My table was soon filled with cosy dinner conversations, and the one-for-one exchange of superficial cultural comparisons in a bid to fast-understanding.
A Refined People, Eager for Knowledge
There is something very culturally advanced about Sri Lankans – something I find sets them apart from other developing nations. Everyone seems to possess a hard skill – caftans and sarongs are spun from Ari’s fingers in a mere thirty minutes; Aruni and KK whip up wonderful curries and cakes in their humble kitchen; KK also had a glamourous past as a DJ spinning in many places, including the popular Zouk club back in my country; the café is tastefully decorated with oil paintings by Aruni’s sister; Mubarak from the store across the road eagerly requested for me to translate all the gems into Chinese, both for potential customers and self-education; he is also constantly referring to ‘a book I read’ or ‘a movie I saw’; Dinesh is a sound engineer on top of his daytime tourist knick-knack shopkeeping.
A huge portion of the old-fashioned billboards, usually covered with cheesy advertisements of mass consumer products, instead promoted English, Physics or Math courses, a testament to their fervour for education. The Sinhalese road signs are all coupled with English which makes navigating the country a breeze, a mark of their humility and openness.
Keeping in Touch with the Human Soul
Everyone I met spoke a decent English, and I received offers from locals on a daily basis, to be taken at their own expense to places of interests.
Facebook is extremely popular yet hasn’t lost its innocence here. They take the connection reverently – shaking my hand, refusing tips after a drive or assistance, and even inviting me to their wedding, because ‘we are friends now, right?’.
Half a year after leaving the country, they still drop messages from time to time, mostly in capital letters asking “HELLO HOW ARE YOU”. “I am fine, and you?” “I AM FINE.”
That would be the extent of most conversations, with the cycle repeating every few weeks. Yet it amazes me that they can remember a one-night tourist with such sincerity. Relationships are high on their priority list, and digital technology is used to achieve the human connection.
Sri Lanka would be the first country where all my expectations of it are met, nothing more and nothing less; a timeless people who have become comfortable in their own skin, and are confidently in touch with the human soul.