Sri Lanka Tales: Merging Expectations with Reality

It was 2003.  I was finishing my second year of undergrad and working away on a poster research assignment for my favourite class that term, Development Economics. I had chosen to research Sri Lanka.  I started out knowing absolutely nothing about the country except that it had a very cool-looking flag and was oddly located by itself in the middle of the ocean.  Good reason to research a country, right?!

My poster concentrated on the economic vulnerabilities of the country, particularly for communities displaced due to rapid building of dams.  The displacement was real and resulted in hundreds being relocated from their homes to new make-shift communities.

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Sri Lanka Quick Facts: 21.2 million population; civil strife ended in 2009 after 26 year war; 9 provinces; GDP per capita $10,400; absolutely beautiful people; best avocado smoothies in the world!

From that poster I had retained random factoids about the country: I knew its national anthem from painstakingly making a border with the musical lines (which was a brilliant idea I came up with at 1 in the morning before it was due, thus a sleepless night).  I knew it had previously been called Ceylon, was one of the world’s largest tea exporters, and was in this interesting position as an island nation.

But here’s the odd thing: since that second year poster project, I had learned nothing new about the country.  Meaning?  I had an outdated list of facts (my research was done IN a library WITH a card catalogue!)  and realized that I had in some ways created this 12-year impression of what the country looked like.  And if there’s anyway to enter travel in a NON-experiential way, it’s to have pre-determined expectations of the country.  I HAD TO SHED MY UNDERSTANDINGS AND ENTER THE COUNTRY WITH FRESH EYES AND AN OPEN MIND.

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Yes that’s real…

HOW TO MERGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS WITH REALITY?

  1. Hire a guide and/or talk with locals.  This is important on any trip, but especially one where you have pre-determined ideas about a place.  Learn about current realities.  Ask instead of assuming.  Hear stories about current political/cultural/social/economic situations.  Be open.

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    Sri Lanka is a great place for walks and hikes.  It would also be a superb place to rent a kayak, canoe, motorbike or bicycle (the latter 2 not recommended in the rainiest months).

2. Read newspapers, before and during your travels.  Finding out what is current news in the country is an important part of the learning process.  Media, especially local media, is a great way to learn what are the important issues of a day in a society.  It’s why cultural anthropologists use media as a tool for understanding communities.  True, media shapes communities, but communities also shape media.

3. Make random stops along your journey, rather than simply passing through smaller towns and villages.  Ken and I hired a driver (recommended during the rainy season especially!).  We asked him to stop at the little fruit stands along the side of the road.  One time there was a little makeshift rubber tree plantation set up to be explored.  Not only did this give us a much-needed chance to stretch our legs, but also to just sit, enjoy, and be one with the smaller community.  Having some freshly cut mango with two local women who stopped their farming activities to sit with us was not only refreshing, but a welcome chance to feel part of the smaller communities.  (as an equally important note, it also ensures that your tourism dollars also make it to smaller communities where tourists less frequently stop).

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One of our stops along the side of the road – absolutely stunning everywhere.  And really nice to feel some rain when you live in a desert country!

4. Use your knowledge to your advantage.  For me, knowing that Sri Lanka was “Ceylon” previously, and about the tea plantations, offered opportunities to talk to people about their country with some knowledge.  But rather than asserting my knowledge, it offered opportunity to hear their perspectives.  For example, questions like “when and why did the name change from Ceylon?” or “why is it still called Ceylon tea?” were ways to initiate conversation.

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tea time: most plantations will offer you free tea as a gift at the end of the tour.  These are also great places to purchase beautiful tea cannister.  Don’t limit yourself to the high tourist areas – so many tea places to explore!

5. Try to enjoy your time with an open mind.  This is where having a partner with you can REALLY help!  One of the many things that brought Ken and I together is our love for travel.  Ken is an amazing travel companion, in part because he always supports the things I love and want to see.  For example, he knows my obsession for tea.  He doesn’t share this obsession, but still made sure that an entire day was devoted to touring assorted tea plantations.

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Since I was overcoming an illness, I had a lovely sit with tea at this pool, while Ken climbed up Sirigiya Rock, which you can see far off in the distance.

At the same time, Ken loves hiking.  It was because of him that we ventured to Sigiriya to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and to climb Sigiriyia Rock (well, Ken climbed…I was just getting over a serious illness during that trip!)  TOGETHER we learned about opportunities, ideas, places, and realities of Sri Lanka and its people.  If you have expectations of a place, finding your perfect travel companion is a great way to have outside influence filtrate your traveling experience.

Another highlight together was the town of Kandy – botanical forests, cultural dances, walks along the river, and amazing avocado smoothies are just some of the highlights of this beautiful town!

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Follow the advice of locals for hidden gems, like this waterfall – it was a 20 minute hike from the road, but one that we wouldn’t have known about had we not asked.

6. Just admit the shortcomings.  Let’s be honest – I learned about Sri Lanka when I was 20 with whatever mental capacity and research capabilities I had during that time.  If I think about it actually, I know that there are many things I have forgotten, romanticized, or maybe just dreamt and/or glossed over.  We have this way of thinking that places we travel to won’t change…when if someone told me they had visited Canada in 2003 I’d KNOW that my country was different today.

Call a spade a spade.  Recognize your expectations for what they are, but reflect upon their shortcomings.  Where did they come from?  How can you supercede them?

In the end, I had a much richer experience in Sri Lanka because I took my pre-existing knowledge with a grain of salt and still tried to learn.

 

 

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GF Tips: Gluten Free Airplanes & Airports

If you have any sort of food allergy, you know that one of the worst feelings in life is feeling hungry but not knowing where to get food.  Outside of the comfortable walls of your home, you don’t have 100% control over your food preparation.  This is where doing a bit of research will go a LONG way.

Here are my own tips for surviving planes, airports, and other forms of transportation when travelling.  Please note that I am NOT coealiac so do not need to deal with cross-contamination issues (with which I would highly recommend calling businesses to ensure 100% non cross-contamination…but I’m sure you’re already familiar with this).

TOP TIPS FOR SURVIVAL:

  1. Use the word “allergy.”  If the person doesn’t seem to speak English fluently, use words like “Makes me sick” and use your hand motions to show yourself literally being sick!  A big reason for this is that ‘gluten free’ has become a pretty big bandwagon.  Resulting, saying things like “I don’t/can’t eat gluten” or “I’m gluten intolerant” often means that you’ll be treated like the person who thought giving up gluten was a healthier lifestyle (have you read the ingredients list of gluten-free baked goods…trust me – this isn’t healthier!!!!).  If you SINCERELY have a gluten intolerance, use the word ‘allergy’ instead.  You’ll be treated much more seriously in ALL cultural contexts!

2. Don’t just ask for the gluten-free meal when you buy your ticket and not do any follow up.  48 hours before your plane is departing, CALL the airline and ensure that you are on the special meals list.  Also do this at the check in counter.  Why?  Because this way the airline can correct misinformation.  If there isn’t enough time and no food on board for you, you will still have time to visit a restaurant/cafe in the terminal to have enough food with you prior to boarding.

3. THINK about the airline.  If an airline is Asian or Middle Eastern, chances are you’re going to have a good gluten-free rice option on board.  If your airline is North American, there’s a very good chance that pizza and pasta are going to be your choices.  It might mean that you don’t need to be as determined to call ahead for the GF meal for one airline, whereas another you want to make sure that you’re getting your special meal.

4. Don’t trust everything ‘gluten free’.  My special meal one time came with a bun, unwrapped, lying on top of my food.  I felt it and it was mysteriously warm, soft, and buttery.  If it feels too good to be true…it probably is!  Upon calling over the flight attendant, I learned that she had placed the bun on top of my meal as habit (all other meals always receive buns).  and on that note…

5. Still read your labels!  From pudding to yoghurt to salad…remember back in your early gluten free days when you learned about hidden names for gluten?  If you’re anything like me, you’ve done your homework and spent months doing research, so now you can go shopping with relative ease (I just instinctively know to avoid most canned soups, for example and don’t even need to check HP BBQ labels – I know they’re safe!)  Remember that certain items made in one country may use gluten whereas in another they do not.  Don’t forget to check your labels!

6. Bring along a snack.  I’ve been learning this myself.  Always carry some nuts, a banana (if you’re allowed), a chocolate bar…something to get you through.  I LOVE the granola recipes at http://www.ohsheglows.com!  The Glo Bars are phenomenal and will keep you fuller longer!

7. Get to know fast food staples.  When I think of fast food, I often think of big juicy burgers and chicken fingers that I can’t have.  But most food courts these days ALSO have more “international” options (I love that food term “international”…which basically means anything that isn’t a burger).  There are so many cultures where gluten isn’t a staple in the recipes:  Ethiopian, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Lebanese, Indian….these are GREAT options for when you’re needing to eat in the airport!  Nothing but McDonald’s and Subway?  Don’t forget about the beauty of a fresh salad!  Instead of the salad dressing (glutenous madness – pleh!) they should have oil and balsamic vinegar in their offerings!

8. Keep that health serious but help people out!!!!!  When I first became gluten free, the hardest thing for me was suddenly becoming a “picky eater”.  I was fine with reading labels and cooking things myself…I hated having to tell someone who has just invited me to dinner (so kind!) that I can’t eat gluten.  In today’s society, most people understand what “gluten” is, but sometimes you’ll still have to help them out.  Instead of telling someone what you CAN’T have, if they’re confused, offer what you can have:  “do you have plain white rice?  do you have a salad without the dressing?”

Above all, remember that this is YOUR trip and your health is YOUR priority.  That cabin crew or restaurant owner is doing their best, but only YOU know YOUR body best!  It is NOT worth being sick over politeness or misunderstandings.  Instead, be loving to yourself…be extra careful to read labels, bring some food with you, and do your homework.

In the end you, and your body, will have an amazing trip!!!!

 

 

Swaziland & The Joy of Traveling TO an Incredible Friend

Two of the most amazing blessings in life are GREAT FRIENDS and TRAVEL.  If you can combine them, you are one lucky human being!  On New Year’s Day, I headed into 2016 with a bang – by getting on a 10 am plane and sojourning my way to Manzini, Swaziland, where one of my best friends in life, Kristen, is currently working.

So unlike most of my travels where I’m first and foremost excited to experience a new surrounding, on this adventure I was firstly MOST excited about seeing Kristen.  Despite the fact that we both work in international development and both love traveling (she’s lived in Ghana, Liberia, and Taiwan, for example), we had never actually travelled overseas together.  I was also excited because after many a phone call and texting conversation ABOUT her home, I could finally picture it!

SWAZILAND QUICK FACTS:  the world’s only absolute monarchy; technically called “the Kingdom of Swaziland”; borders both South Africa & Mozambique; population of 1.25 million; Mbabane is the capital; landlocked country with world’s highest HIV/AIDS rate and one of the world’s lowest life expectancies (50 years); an extremely beautiful and hospitable country!

So after a 1.5 day journey (think 7 hour plane ride, 7 hour bus ride including border checks, for example), I entered the Saint George Hotel in Manzini and hugged one of my best friends in the whole world…and then like most anticipated visits with good friends we quickly got back into the normal groove of our laughter and shenanigans and grabbed dinner (coupled with deliciously cheap red wine! – thank you bordering South Africa!)

Kristen and I (I’m the one with the water bottle…no surprise there!!!!

In our multicultural, internationalized society where everyone knows someone living abroad, here is why you MUST take advantage of these situations and visit your friend:

  1. QUICK NAVIGATION:   With Kristen as my tour guide, we were at places that would have taken me a week to find, on the very first day (and on that note, if you do find yourself in Swaziland, be sure to visit ‘Gone Rural’ in Ezulwini for amazing fair trade artistry (www.alloutafrica.com for more information).  I have dozens of placemats, table runners, and coasters to prove it!

    Stunner place where we ate braai…Swaziland is SO beautiful!

2. POSITIVE LOVE OF HOME:  When you visit someone’s home it’s a much different experience than simply visiting another city.  You learn more of the intricacies of cultural life than you would be able to on your own.  Everything from navigating the local bus system (called ‘kombis’) to ordering your dinner (Kristen knew the best meat choices for the braai – BBQ) to better understanding political and social life was more easily understood with my very own resident!

A gorgeous hike to a waterfall at the Swazi Cultural Centre

3. TRUSTWORTHY TIPS: This blog has time and again urged the importance of determining safety precautions (i.e. when to be home at night) especially for solo female travellers.  When you have a friend you 100% trust, this becomes much easier.  Manzini essentially shuts down by 7 pm, so Kristen made sure we were home by then, to enjoy her beautiful yard.  Speaking of…

4. A REAL HOME FOR CRASHING: Homestays have grown in popularity in recent years;  travellers are delighted by the prospect of staying in a local home, thereby feeling more closely connected with the community than a hotel offers.  Now imagine that instead of paying for a homestay experience you’re actually being hosted by a good friend!  It was amazing coming home every night to hang outside under Kristen’s mango tree, watching the sunset while sipping on rosé and eating fresh fruit in her backyard.  As well, you are probably going to feel the most comfortable at a friend’s house.  I slept longer and better in Swaziland than I usually do on vacations, I think mainly because I felt so comfortable in Kristen’s home (and she gave up her bed for me!!!)

catching a kombi ride downtown Swaziland.  The one on the left was EXTREMELY contagious!

5. “TOP TEN” FROM A LOCAL RATHER THAN A TRAVELBOOK:  I love travel books and websites like Tripadvisor.  They offer amazing advice.  But you know what’s even BETTER: insider tips from someone who knows you far better than a book every could!  Kristen knows my disdain for long walks, my incessant need for water, the fragility of my “60 year-old in a 33-year old body” hips, my love of wine and good sits, my need to eat breakfast within 4 minutes of waking, my need for green tea, my love-hate relationship with animals, my gluten allergy, my need for clean shoes, my desire for the most perfectly matching placemats…and so on…

Traditional rural housing depicted at the Swazi Cultural Centre.  The Centre also included a one hour dance and singing presentation – amazing & a must visit!

No travel guide would ever have suggested the Mbabane National Library as a tourist attraction but Kristen knew I’d LOVE it.  Likewise, she also knew that the Swazi Cultural Centre and waterfall walk (see picture) would be a highlight of my trip (which it was!)  No book can ever replace the knowledge, experience, and guidance of a true friend.

6. CREATED MEMORIES.  So many things happen while travelling that it can be hard to recall everything.  But with a travel partner you have double the memory PLUS oodles of stories to bring out laughter for years to come!

And finally…

6. IT’S SOOOOOOOOOOO FUN!!!!  Let’s be honest.  Why do we ever get together with friends?  Usually because friends make life more fun.  Travelling plus seeing a friend?  YES PLEASE.  I basically smiled the whole week!  THANK YOU KRISTEN FOR AN INCREDIBLE WEEK !!!!!  I’m coming back… 😀

Do you have a friend living in another country?  Do yourself a favour and VISIT THEM!!!!!  Not only will you get to see your friend, but you’ll end up having an amazing time in the process!

 

Expecting the Unexpected: Preparing for Overseas Sickness

Traveling is the most lovely, wonderful, beautiful, thought-provoking, creativity-inducing activity that I do.  Maybe you do it too.  Some people hate it – these are people I don’t understand.  I LOVE traveling.  My soul comes alive.  I feel my spirit lifting, my heart exploding, as my mind seeks to grasp new experiences, new possibilities, new ideas, new cultures.  It’s amazing what traveling can do.

But you know what traveling doesn’t do?  Make you feel happy when you’re sick!  Being sick sucks on any occassion…but it is SO MUCH EASIER being sick on your own turf, with your doctor on hand, the hospital you trust, the language you understand.  Ken and I have 2 unfortunate medical emergencies in 2015 but…

Through these medical emergencies, one in Thailand, one in South Africa, I’ve learned some very helpful tips on how to prepare yourself in the unlikely unfortunate event of a medical emergency.  In both cases, Ken and I were lucky enough to have each other (so the healthy person could help the travel partner in need!), but I especially urge anyone travelling alone to have these things prepared and WITH YOU so that if you’re in a hospital alone, you have what you need.  Your half-conscious, ill state will thank you for the pre-prep!

  1. Obviously health insurance is key to travelling, but how many of us actually take the time to go through what steps we need to take should we need to use that insurance?  Are there forms you should have printed out (i.e. for the doctor to sign?) or phone numbers to call?  In Thailand, we were lucky that the very helpful Phuket International Hospital was willing to print out these documents for us but: a) imagine if they weren’t or b) imagine if you’re alone, very sick, and unable to muster the strength to get these forms printed.

TIP #1:  Have everything on a piece of paper WITH YOUR PERSON (i.e. in your wallet) at all times. This should include step-by-step what you need to do, who you need to call, etc., in case of a medical emergency.  Need a form filled out by the doctor?  Have that copy WITH YOU!

hospital sign

2. Always carry water with you.  Anyone who has travelled with me thinks I’m borderline crazy with my addiction to always having a close supply of water. My friend Kristen who I recently visited in Swaziland (a post for another time!) mentioned that I was easy to host:  “all you need is something gluten-free for breakfast and water at all times!)  But am I ever glad that this has always been my travelling approach…

TIP #2: Always, always have drinking water with you!  It doesn’t matter if you’re in rural Africa or the middle of a modern European city…if you have to travel in a taxi to get to the nearest hospital, you don’t want to risk dehydration or worrying about taking medicine given to you because you don’t have safe water with you.

3. Be aggressively firm about your health.  I don’t mean be rude…but be aggressively firm to ensure that you completely, 100%: trust the nurse/doctor, understand what is going on, and are in agreement with the procedures.  Ask questions!  Call a friend or even your doctor from home for a second opinion.  Phrases like “I don’t understand what you mean by that” and “why are you doing this/what’s this for” will help you feel more comfortable in understanding what is happening.  This is also necessary so that you can explain to your doctor back home what happened should you need continued care.

TIP #3: Ask questions so that you understand the prognosis and the procedures to follow.  Speak up if something doesn’t feel right and never be afraid to get a second opinion.

4. Think about travel insurance on top of your health insurance.  What if you need to prolong your stay?  What if you arrive at the airport and realize you aren’t fit to fly?  Any kind of insurance can really seem like just extra money…but when you need it and you have it, boy oh boy, are you grateful!  It’s a lot cheaper to pay a bit for insurance than to pay change fees and additional airfare charges!

TIP #4: Make sure you can afford to stay extra if you need to.  Don’t have your budget completely drying up as soon as you enter that airplane.  Have some extra saved for another night at the hotel, a few more meals, and some airline change fees/travel insurance.

5. Finally, and this is a reality I always struggled with as a student and in my early career…have a plan in case you DO need to use your insurance.  Why?  Because many insurance companies reimburse you ONCE you’re home, AFTER you’ve paid and had the procedures.  Which for some people is just a happy situation where they have the credit or the dough to spare.  But for someone traveling with a smaller credit limit or budget, this can be a real problem!

How to solve it (besides magically getting a $20,000 credit increase?)  Think through this backup plan before you travel.  If you’re able, talk with a family member or a close friend, even your bank/financial advisor, and discuss the grim situation of needing a temporary loan in the case of an emergency.  Be prepared to show your health insurance as proof that it exists and there will be pay back.

TIP #5: Think through how you’re going to pay upfront for the health coverage.  Get a plan in place before you’re in the situation!

I wish you happy, healthy travels in 2016…but in the case of unfortunate medical emergencies, I hope you’re a little better prepared with these tips!

If you have any others, feel free to add in the ‘comments’ section!  Always happy to share ideas!!!