One day I’m sitting in an airport lounge in Los Angeles, sipping on a sugary coffee drink while listening to a middle-aged woman nearby complain about her yoga instructor and car payment. Thirty hours later, I’m 9,000 miles away, sitting in a low budget hostel in the southern province of Sri Lanka. Nobody within earshot is complaining about yoga instructors but the heat is relentless and a loud chant from the temple just across the alley is creeping in. The chants are competing for air time with the soulful tones of Sam Cook on the hostel speaker as well as laughter and frivolities from the card game at the giant wooden table in the open-air room. I’m sitting on a cheap and dirty bean bag that doesn’t have quite enough stuffing to be comfortable. All this is going on while I try to articulate my thoughts about the chaotic country I’ve found myself in.
After just one day, I’ve decided that I love Asia. I love the sights, the smells, the sounds, and tastes. The madness, chaos, peace, and beauty all mix into a cultural experience that shocks the average Western brain into questioning its whole way of life. I am sure that feeling will wear off when I return to the modern luxuries of toilet paper, air conditioning, high-speed wifi, and a comfy bed. But for now, I’ll enjoy living a simple life free from distraction, consumption, and temptation. To be honest, I have no choice, Sri Lanka is primal.
Many of my friends and colleagues in America had never heard of Sri Lanka. I got a lot of, “Where the hell is that?” whenever I told people about my plans to come here.
“Near India,” I would always reply before going on to explain a brief two-minute history of Sri Lanka, starting with the Portuguese conquest and ending with the Civil War. I would try to emphasize the beauty and importance of the island in terms of historic trade routes and empires but the war part of my history lesson would always resonate most with my unwilling students.
“Sounds scary. Is it safe?”
A quick Google search today and you’ll mostly dig up pictures of cool Instagram kids swimming with turtles and YouTube videos of bikini-clad tourists surfing on logs. Sri Lanka looks like a tropical paradise. Of course, that’s because it is a tropical paradise. However, it is also clear that this is a developing nation struggling to deal with its latest Western invasion. This time the invasion comes from an influx of what some might call much-needed tourism.
So here I am, in the lowest of low budget hostels with two friends who joined me: Jason from Orange County and Phil from England. I hate to admit to being a spoiled Westerner but our first night in the hostel was tough. There’s a humidity that clings to your body like an unwanted coat. I slept in a bottom bunk bed that was two feet too short and a mosquito net that was collapsing on me. On top of that, there’s no water, no electricity, and God forbid, no wifi. The first two problems were temporary. The water would be delivered tomorrow and we were warned the electricity would come and go as it pleased throughout our stay.
As my friends and I ventured out to explore over the next day or two, I realized I had been lied to. Instagram had lied to me. I vividly remember scrolling through my feed and seeing a modern, tropical paradise. Obviously, I hadn’t looked close enough. Behind the gorgeous girls, handsome men, sea turtles, and longboards sat a grossly underdeveloped country still recovering from economic hardships caused by 30 years of civil war and a tsunami. If I had of looked a little closer at those Instagram photos, perhaps I would have seen the sun beds made from wooden pallets, the burning trash, and the houses with giant holes in the walls. I doubt it though. No one actually wants to post reality on their carefully curated social media page.
All this soon taught me to live simply again. I hadn’t been on a trip for the sole purpose of surfing for a while. It felt strange to have no obligations and I soon turned my frustration with the evening humidity into 5:30 a.m. wake up calls each day, pulling on board shorts and waxing my surfboard in the twilight. From there it was a 15-minute walk to check the surf. Surfing was our only agenda item on the trip. So this is what we did.
We stayed in a small village called Midigama with five or six decent reef breaks scattered along a short stretch of two-lane highway nearby. Once we reached whatever wave we deemed most surfable for the day, we would paddle out for a few hours at a time. Another surprise left out of social media and Google was the low standard of surfing. I hate using the word kook, but I don’t know how else to describe some of the surfers in Sri Lanka. The lineup isn’t filled with local surfers, mostly tourists like myself, and I assume somewhere online, Sri Lanka is pitched as a great place for people to learn to surf. Some days it was like navigating a minefield of surfing torpedoes. I wouldn’t consider some of the waves in Sri Lanka for beginners but the crowds did not reflect that. All this tested my patience. I generally like to think of myself as a mellow character in the lineup. I try to stay positive and avoid confrontation, even at home in the busy lineups of Southern California. I rarely interact with anyone in a negative manner but Sri Lanka was different. Let’s just say I would defy any regular surfer to not exchange some hasty words with someone in a Sri Lankan lineup.
Sri Lanka is unique in the fact that it’s an extremely underdeveloped country that happens to be trending on social media. Honestly, it makes most central American countries look like Silicon Valley, still, a very popular travel guide just listed Sri Lanka as its number one travel destination for 2019. Awareness like this travel means a travel boom is coming and an even heavier flood of tourists. I can foresee some disappointed tourists who demand luxury and expect a Waikiki-like paradise while Sri Lanka’s infrastructure catches up to the growing demand. I can also see those who are open to the culture shock having some truly wonderful and fulfilling experiences.
I’m sure there are some higher-end hotels in Sri Lanka if you’re willing and able to spend the money. But for me, I learned a lesson from living hard and living cheap. Having time to think and be in your own head is healthy. I typically got about 10 minutes of wifi access a day before internet speeds would slow to insufferable rates or the power would go out, and I spent a lot of time just playing cards when I wasn’t surfing. I was reminded we can reap rewards from isolation if it’s not prolonged. Unplugging from social media, not worrying about work, emails, bills, and rent should be a required prescription for anyone living in modern society. I feel like I hit a reset button. I’ve come back home to California with a refreshed view of life. I lived quite happily on the basics in Sri Lanka, eating simple tasty food twice a day and drinking black coffee. Now I see all the temptations of the West clearly, the coffee house with its added sugar and extra-large sizes, the fancy cars, and designer labels. None of which is a necessity — just added sugar.
Believe me, I’m grateful for my high-speed wifi and extremely grateful for toilet paper. But I have come back to my life extra mindful of overconsumption. Extra mindful of life balance. It’s so easy to be dragged away from self-awareness and true balance when we live in a society where value systems are defined by wealth and materialism. Simplicity is something we can work on day to day just like life balance. Leaving home and breaking your routine is a great way to regain some self-awareness and perspective on what really matters. Honestly, having so little for two weeks made me feel more alive than ever.
I love that feeling I get sometimes where the voice in my head asks how did I get here? I smile to myself and thank the skies that I am alive in those moments. I felt that numerous times in Sri Lanka. I felt alive when I was having long meaningful chats into the early hours with lifelong best friends. I felt alive having those same chats with strangers that became friends. I felt alive cruising along perfect clean waves in an ocean I had never waded into before. I felt alive riding in the back of a Tuk Tuk in the dead of night to meet some shady people for shady purposes. Those are the moments I live for, the moments I’m truly alert and alive.
Sri Lanka taught me much about myself, things I perhaps already knew but had let dull inside me. If I learned nothing else, I learned that simple black coffee is just fine.
Find more from author Simon Short here.