While visiting a new country is interesting and exciting, moving to one, learning to adapt, and understanding the culture can be challenging. Some things are very obvious and easy to get used to, while there are certain other things… well, you’ll probably never get used to them. (Hint: Rice and Curry. All. The. Time.)
Here’s a list of 10 things that are very typical for Sri Lanka, but can be difficult, confusing, or even flat-out weird to a foreigner.
1. The Head Wobble
The Head Wobble is one of the first things a foreigner notices in Sri Lanka, and getting used to this can be confusing to say the least. While dealing with tuk-tuk drivers in itself can be frustrating and make you feel as if you’ve lost your mind, the Head Wobble doesn’t make it any easier. Confirmation that the driver knows a certain road or direction is almost always indicated with the Head Wobble, which can be frustrating for a foreigner – it’s not clear if the shake of the head is a ‘no’ or a ‘yes.’ You’re just left there expecting a verbal answer and feel ignored when you don’t get one.
2. The Unbelievable Heat
Stepping out of the Bandaranaike International Airport can be compared to walking into a wall: one made of heat and exhaust gas. Walking down the streets of Colombo, or anywhere else without a pool or the ocean to cool off in, will make you feel as if you’re a walking-sizzling Fajita. You will eventually realise that taking three showers a day – and sweating it out while you take them – will be your life for as long as you stay in this country. We could very well be living on Mars.
As if that wasn’t enough, on more than one occasion, you will find yourself waking up at the crack of dawn, sweating like a pig and realising that the fan is off due to yet another power outage. And to top it all off, you never know if it’s going to last two minutes or two hours.
3. Rice and Curry 24/7
Sri Lankans do love their rice and curry. So much so that they prefer to eat it at every single meal, and if that wasn’t crazy enough, they put enough spices in it to kill a small animal. Jokes aside, Sri Lankan food is exotic, bursting with flavours and overall really good. But let’s face it, eating rice and meat in a spicy gravy for breakfast is never going to feel normal.
4. Traffic From Hell
The traffic in Sri Lanka seems to be straight out of your favourite action movie: stressful, nerve-wracking and often insane. For instance, the way tuk-tuk drivers navigate through traffic can make you wonder if they believe their vehicles are ten times smaller than in reality. It’s an assault on all your senses: while you’re desperately holding on for your dear life, your ears will protest against the constant honking and your lungs will try to crawl out of your body in a desperate search of clean air.
Riding the bus is also not recommended for the faint-hearted. With no timetables, no bus-stops with names on them or buttons to press when you want to get off, it’s no wonder you feel like a champion each time you manage to get off at the right place. Add loud Sinhala pop-music, no personal space, and a homicidal driver to the equation, and you have a typical day in the Sri Lankan commute system. As grim as it may all sound, it’s definitely something that you’ll remember as an adventure once you go back to riding the quiet, enclosed and half empty buses in your home country.
5. Using Vodka Flasks As Water Bottles
This is something a visitor to Sri Lanka will most likely see while riding a tuk-tuk. The scenario will probably look like this: you’re stuck in traffic and, like most days at any given time, it’s hot, and you can see a traffic policeman up ahead directing the traffic. The tuk-tuk driver reaches for a bottle of Smirnoff or another famous alcoholic brand, screws the cork off and starts chugging straight out of the bottle. You’ll probably wonder what is going on, while you try convincing yourself that it’s not actually hard liquor he’s chugging out in the open.
Turns out, there’s no need to worry: drinking water out of glass bottles is, one could say, just as common as the mosquitoes. If you work in an office, you’ll definitely spot multiple people with vodka and wine bottles at their desks. And while being drunk on the job might fit the exotic country label, it is definitely not acceptable in Sri Lanka. They’re simply giving the finger to plastic and reusing glass bottles for drinking water.
6. The Showerhead Next To The Toilet That’s Not Actually For Showering
Walking into a restroom in Sri Lanka can be a bit confusing for a newcomer. First off, depending on whether you are in a fancy hotel or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, there might not be any toilet paper. Instead there’s a scaled-down version of a showerhead next to the toilet. As tempting as it may be, it is definitely not meant for washing your hair. Correct usage of this contraption will forever be a mystery to foreigners: it’s not exactly something you can walk up to a person and ask.
After a while, you will realise that this works just as well as toilet paper. It will just be a little more, uh… wet.
7. Time As A Loose Concept
Time is an interesting concept that is valued differently all over the world. Many people coming from Western countries are ardent followers of the concept of punctuality. Being a few minutes late is often okay, but it’s not so okay after the 15 minute point.
If you come from a country with that kind of view on punctuality, adjusting your mentality once you get to Sri Lanka might be of help. Over here, things never seem to start on time. Not even important things like doctors’ appointments. Or meetings. Or events. Nevermind the bus. (It’s debatable whether the Sri Lankan buses follow a time schedule at all).
As strange as it seems, however, while it would seem impossible to change your ways at first, after a while you’ll be thankful for those extra ten or fifteen minutes that you get every day.
8. Sri Lanka – The Country of Holidays
Sri Lankans take their traditions very seriously. Which other country has at least one holiday every month? If it’s not a Poya day, there’s always something else. While that sounds great to a certain extent, it can, however, be difficult when having to deal with closed restaurants, shops and other sources of entertainment, especially if you are here for a limited amount of time.
It truly is a love or hate relationship: working here and getting time off at least once every month? Awesome!
Trying to make the most of your time in Sri Lanka while everything is closed? Relax. It’s not what you planned, but you’re still in warm, beautiful and awesome Sri Lanka.
9. The Umbrella Thing
Sri Lankans like using umbrellas, and that’s just a fact. You’ll see people walking around with umbrellas trying to shield themselves from the strong sun, and you’ll see them trying to hold onto them in the heavy wind and rain. But the third and most fascinating one is young couples hanging out under umbrellas. With the umbrella over their heads creating privacy and a sense of personal space, young men and women innocently touch each other’s shoulders or hold hands. You might not get the appeal since it doesn’t really afford much privacy, but it’s actually strangely cute!
10. The Impossible Pronunciation
There will be times when it will feel as if Sinhala is the hardest language in the world. Even simple phrases seem to consist of an unlimited amount of letters, and street names like Cotta Road or Galle Road sound easy to pronounce… until you try saying it, that is. Especially when you’re in a hurry and need to get somewhere quick. The tuk-tuk driver will grace you with the infamous Head Wobble and you’ll be on your merry way. After a while you’ll notice that you’re going in the opposite direction of where you intended to go, and questioning them will result in: “I thought you said *insert something incomprehensible*.”
Another typical scenario will be at the bus station. Someone asks you where you’re going; you say something like “Dambulla,” which indeed seems easy enough to say, and then they look at you with confusion in their eyes. You show them a piece of paper with the name on it and they will repeat it… in the exact same way you did.
A useful tip for when travelling around Sri Lanka: write down the name of where you’re going on your phone, or on a piece of paper, to show tuk-tuk and bus drivers. It’ll make everything much easier than trying to pronounce things like “Valvettithurai” or ”Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nahimi Mawatha” (the longest existing road name in Colombo. No jokes, look it up!).
Living in Sri Lanka as a foreigner has its ups and downs, but there are definitely more ups than downs. Once you start looking at it as something fun to experience rather than something that hinders your life, it will help transform every day in Sri Lanka into an adventure!
Editor’s Note: Elina Sundqvist is a 22 year old student of journalism from Sweden, currently interning in Sri Lanka.