How do you notice difference in a place, when you expect everything to be different?
For about three weeks this holiday season, I explored the small tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka with a close friend from Berlin. Though Sri Lanka and the South Asia region were new terrain for us both, this wasn’t our first backpacking rodeo. We were experienced enough travelers to expect the ups and downs that a trip of this magnitude would throw our way. We reveled in the highs – a school of fish gracefully drifting past us 12m deep into the Indian Ocean, the exquisitely pungent scents and colors of turmeric and homemade roasted curry powder, a 360 degree view of the greenest green imaginable in tea plantation territory, a monk whipping out his iPad to snap a photo of us hiking. And we did our best to laugh through the lows – a seven hour train ride on the ground by the toilets, being followed and sexually propositioned by a strange man on a dark road, accidentally paying our safari jeep driver twice, the ruthless mosquitos that left me with infected foot wounds I’m still watching heal.
But these moments were the superlatives, the stand-outs. When traveling in a place where we expect everything to be different, we may become so focused on the exotic and extreme that we overlook the “in-between”: the nuances that expose intricate relationships and interconnections, diversity within diversity, and differences among difference.
It took one quick glance at a Sari for me to have an idea about modesty in Sri Lankan female dress (“they can show their bellies and backs but not their shoulders and knees?!”). One trip to the bathroom with an unusually low toilet seat had me wondering if Sri Lankans were all very short (“are all toilets going to be like this?!”). In other words, I had made my first assumptions about Sri Lankan culture before even leaving the airport. Correction: Before leaving passport control. A few minutes upon arrival and my brain was on overdrive, actively seeking out the exciting, frantically trying to affirm preconceived ideas and make connections. Maybe fatigue, definitely curiosity, likely a survival instinct. I desperately wanted to “understand” the place in which I was going to be spending the next three weeks of my life, but I was primarily doing so on a larger, generalizing scale. While my mind naturally looks for nuances and intricacy at home, it took an active effort to protest generalizing abroad. Otherwise my mind would have continued to host its very own Karneval der Kulturen, watching a parade of one-toned diversity go by and glossing over the subtleties.
It’s sometimes not about what we say, but what we don’t
Once we made it out of the airport, Anna and I encountered the “Your country?” or “Madame, you are from?” question at a rate of approximately once per hour. While I would ponder how to put “Well actually, we met in Buenos Aires, Anna is German but spent half her life in England, I grew up in the U.S. but have a German passport, we live in Germany but speak English together” into one concise thought, Anna was usually quick to respond with “Germany”. Considering how much this type of question can provoke discussion and bother me at home, I was surprised at how quickly I followed suit and resigned myself to the “put me in a box” game. On top of that, I was doing the same in return, never going beyond the “do you come from this town?” question with locals. Granted, not every conversation while traveling has to be life-altering, and language often poses a barrier, but opportunities were surely missed to explore our understanding of identity and (inter-)nationality. The one-word response was convenient not only because it was quick – it facilitated our interactions and put them at a comfortable status quo. “I am a German tourist and you are a Sri Lankan local” was never the whole story, but it was story enough. But what about the stories we missed?
Relationships are often more complex than we expect
“Ahhhhaaaa,” the Tuk-Tuk driver or waiter would say after we answered the above, a knowing smile on his face, “Alles klar?” The surprise of Sri Lankans speaking a few words of German faded rapidly as we realized the extent of German tourism to Sri Lanka (It’s the third largest visitor-generating market to Sri Lanka after India and the UK). We spent two fateful days on Beruwala beach experiencing the extent of Teutonic tourism: in a German-run resort surrounded by a predominantly German clientele eating from a menu complete with “German specialities” (Schnitzel with a view, anyone?), marking their beach-chair territory at the break of dawn, and interacting with Sri Lankans only when they needed their next smoothie.
Yet tourism turned out to be only the tip of the Sri Lankan-German-Iceberg. More often than not, our Sri Lankan inquirer would proceed to tell us about his brother who works in a restaurant in Düsseldorf, his university studies in Heidelberg, her father’s German friends who came to visit every year, his decision to pursue science thanks to Einstein, even that we looked like we came from Munich (ouch). One guesthouse employee donned a shirt with German and Sri Lankan flags that he got from the local German-run Kinderheim. On one bus ride, we rolled by a station donated by Germans. In Galle, a shopkeeper recited the last eight German Chancellors to us in chronological order. The relationship between these two countries repeatedly smacked us in the face, each day and in every which direction.
Just because a relationship exists, doesn’t make it two-sided
The Sri Lankans we encountered were much more aware of Germany and Germans than we had expected. But what about the reverse – the German perception of this dynamic, continually evolving, and surprisingly multifaceted bi-national relationship? My instinct is that when Germans think of Sri Lanka, they picture pristine beaches, coconut trees, people eating with their hands, and maybe a country re-emerging after the longest war in Asia’s history. I’m less confident that they see a legacy of exchange, generation-long friendships, or a cab driver studying science because of Einstein. My hopes remain low after the doctor inspecting my foot wounds back in Berlin asked if they “also speak Indian there?”, and I was unable to find any substantial information online about Sri Lankans in Berlin, other than this list of restaurants. It may not be visible, but a Sri Lankan community in Berlin does exist (1,113 Sri Lankan nationals as of the end of 2012) and is conceivably more diverse than we think.
After three weeks in the most “exotic” place I’ve ever visited, my most striking take-away is that an authentic travel experience must extend beyond exoticism. To really understand what it means to be Sri Lankan, German, or anything else, it is perhaps the nuances that count the most.
– By Sophia Burton
All photos by yours truly. For more information on Sri Lankans in Berlin, check out the Sri Lankan Association Berlin.