Our first two nights we stayed in a nice neighborhood on the outskirts of Colombo, a busy, sprawling port town that is the center of commerce in Sri Lanka. Our Couchsurfer host, Volker Juenke, kindly picked us up from the airport at close to midnight and took us to a take-away restaurant on the jerky thirty minute drive home. Volker is a retired German national who married a Sri Lankan girl right before the civil war. They lived in Germany for 25 years to avoid the violence and returned when the Tigers were defeated a few years ago. Her family is from Trincomalee in the northeast, Tamil area, and unfortunately the war had a lot of racist overtones and many innocent Tamils were persecuted throughout the country. After the war they returned to Colombo where the rest of her family had fled to. Volker joked a few times that he knows more about Sri Lanka than she does and that she is more German now than Sri Lankan, but they mutually agreed to spend their retirement in Sri Lanka.

The Juenkes are a very nice couple with a great home and had a lot to say about Sri Lankan culture, and actually a lot of it was more about how the people act in public. In general a lot of their insight used Germany as juxtaposition which made Sri Lanka seem noticably less orderly than it “should” be. According to our hosts Sri Lankans are the nicest people in the world if you get to know them in private but in public certain civilities are forgotten or ignored. For example, there is no such thing as a line. They will just push each other to infinity until someone somehow accomplishes something at the front of the line and someone else emerges from the pushfest to make it to the counter. In fact right after he told us this he took us somewhere to order food, and while standing first in line behind the guy ordering at the counter another Sri Lankan walked up and stood in front of us. I think because he had just explained it to us it affected Volker more strongly and he aggressively got in the guy’s face about it, who completely backed down and kind of looked at us like “what did I do wrong?” So that was a pretty interesting exchange.

It was clear that they felt the economy and social fabric were steadily rebuilding and that things like order were slowly, so slowly, on the rise towards being on the level of developed nations. It will certainly take its time.

We were also advised that as the tourism industry is just getting back on its feet in many parts of the country following both the war and the terrible floods from the tsunami a few years back we would be getting lots of attention from both locals and tauts. Strange forebodings notwithstanding we had a very pleasant time with the Juenkes.

This is the view from the upstairs patio that covers the entire roof – the landscape of Sri Lanka is beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Fiji. Most of the closest neighbors are Mrs. Juenke’s relatives. The neighborhood kids run, bike and play soccer on the dirt road all day.

The place we enjoyed the most in Sri Lanka was definitely the town of Kandi. It is built among the hills surrounding a beautiful lake with lots of wildlife. Walking around the small lake we saw monkeys, turtles, huge flocks of bats, giant water monitors and several other species. The water monitors in Sri Lanka are the second biggest lizards in the world after komodo dragons in Indonesia. I got as close as I dared to a medium sized one on the bank.

For the next two nights we stayed in the home of Couchsurfer Ben and his enthusiastic and entertaining family in a quiet neighborhood high in the hills above the lake. The neighboorhood began as a Christian organization-affiliated government project with homes given to randomly selected families. As important members of the organization Ben’s great-grandparents were given a home to live in and serve as model neighborhood residents, and their family has been continuing in the role ever since.

Ben is a businessman, his brother Philip does graphic art, their sister Sarah is an attorney doing activist work with the UN for womens’ rights and their other sister remained a silent mystery but was very polite. The family is well educated and highly opinionated about politics, social welfare and Sri Lankan culture and it was great getting their opinions on many subjects.

Something they felt very strongly about was the pervasiveness of political corruption at every level of government. Politicians accept lots of bribes and extortion money in return for promoting specific business and individual interests, especially their own, and also in return for not purposely damaging others’ interests. They also expressed frustration that the government is extremely heavy-handed regarding negative discussion about government policy, especially about the civil war and war crime allegations.

Sarah has been working to promote women’s rights and empowerment. Sri Lanka is fairly conservative regarding gender roles. For the most part women do not finish high school and stay in the home. The literacy rate for women is noticably lower than for men and a surprisingly high amount of the tea-picking day laborers are young women with few rights or ways of organizing unions or bargaining collectives. Sarah’s work focuses on educating women to give themselves more opportunities and to encourage them to enter the workforce in something other than day labor.

When pressed for their opinion on the future state of the country and the people they were firmly optimistic that progress is taking place and will continue to take place, but that, as with Volker’s opinion, these things go slowly and it would take a long time before things are similar to that of a developed nation.

Ben met us in town and squeezed into a tuk-tuk with us to go up the hill. Once we arrived the first thing his family did was to take us to the neighborhood games festival celebrating the Sri Lankan new year, with classic games like water balloon toss, races and a dancing competition.

One great game was a form of gladiator where two boys attack each other with pillows while balancing on a log suspended in the air with one arm behind their backs. To taunt each other they always do an irritating version of the Indian head bob and dare the other to hit them which often makes them more unbalanced and susceptible to falling over. Kristof gave it the old college try with hilarious results. I should mention that he has his own blog, and you should read it: engsrv.com.

Ben’s family is in the process of a massive home renovation project. It is so extensive that in the States it would be unthinkable to still live in the house but in Sri Lanka it’s perfectly normal. It’s going extremely slowly but they are patient and methodical and in a few years the house is going to look fantastic.

One of the top events of our Sri Lankan trip was our cooking class with Ben’s mother. She gave us a grocery list and we headed up the hill to a neighborhood market to buy fresh produce.

Ben’s mother set about preparing things and giving us orders while his sisters helped her and his father patrolled the small kitchen like a boss.

While I grinded coconuts Kristof mixed and stirred.

The result was the best meal we had in Sri Lanka. The traditional way to eat Sri Lankan food is with your hand, scooping it up with your thumb and the ends of your fingers and using your thumb to push the food toward your fingertips and into your mouth. I quickly became an expert at eating but remained an amateur cook. Many thanks again to Ben and his family for hosting us and teaching us about Sri Lankan life.