How to have an adventure in Sri Lanka:

Just leave the house.

Yesterday (Saturday) we needed to go into Kandy Town (Kandy Town refers to downtown Kandy) to run some errands. I needed some hearing aid batteries, Kris needed some medicine, we wanted to buy a DVD or two, and finish with some grocery shopping. As a treat, we decided to have lunch at a South Indian restaurant that Kris had discovered was quite good.

Challenge number one: Where to buy hearing aid batteries? I had already tried local pharmacies, but batteries are not an item carried by pharmacies. But one pharmacist told me of an optician that sold hearing aid batteries on Old Peradeniya Road. He also gave me the name of the proprietor which was approximately Kumarathna. So before we leave the house, I spend some time with the local equivalent of the Yellow Pages, here called the Rainbow Pages, no doubt to avoid copyright issues.

Challenge number two: No listing for an optician named Kumarathna in the Rainbow Pages. I am getting the impression that it is much less of a universal practice here of listing businesses in the Rainbow Pages. We look under “Batteries” in the Rainbow Pages, but it is hard to distinguish the sellers of batteries in general from automobile batteries. We call one ambiguous listing. We cannot communicate the concept of hearing aid batteries to the person who answers the phone. He gives us the mobile phone number of someone associated with the business who may be able to help. We discover that there is one digit too few in the number we are given. Things look up when we immediately get a call from the person whose mobile number is missing a digit. His English is better and he understands what we need, but he does not carry hearing aid batteries at his store. However, he will call someone he thinks carries hearing aid batteries and will have that person contact us.

So we ponder. Should we wait until we get a call back? No. Our phone is a mobile, the worst that can happen is that we get a call back and find out the hearing aids are in the other direction from Kandy Town. Who knows when or even if we will get a call back? We call our favorite tuk-tuk driver, whom I will refer to an NS. NS speaks a few more words of English than I do in SInhala, but in the past he has been a veritable bloodhound. No matter how poor our phone conversations have gone, he somehow tracks us down. He has also been enormously helpful on a couple of shopping expeditions. When I was looking for a ADSL modem and phone wires and jacks to install internet service at home, NS, on his own initiative, followed me into a computer store I had located in the phone book. I explained what I needed to the clerk in the store. The clerk knew enough English and had enough experience to understand what I needed, but he did not carry either the modem or the phone supplies. However, he knew of another store that might. So, rather than attempt to explain to me how to find this other store, he explained it to NS in Sinhalese. Off we went to the other store. They indeed had an ADSL modem which I bought, but no phone wires or jacks. Oh well. I will figure something out, I thought and was ready to head home. But NS initiated a conversation with the clerk in SInhalese. Then we left the store and I thought we were headed home, but NS surprised me by stopping . He took me into what evidently was a hardware store and he explained to the clerk in SInhalese that I needed phone wires and jacks. No problem. I show my gratitude by overpaying him and everyone is happy.

NS answers our call. He somehow knows it is me by this time. I have no idea if he somehow has my mobile number recorded on his mobile (and if so, what name does he use to identify me? Crazy white guy?) or whether I am the only person who calls him who can’t speak Sinhala and talks with an American accent (I’m told my American accent is very heavy and difficult to understand, whereas everyone understands Kris.) Today he comes quickly and without any other passengers. That was not the case a few days ago when we foolishly called him during the time (around 1:30PM) that school children are getting home from school and every tuktuk driver worth his salt has a regular contract to deliver some children from school to home. On that occasion, NS drove into our driveway with three darling littlle boys in the passenger seat. He explained that he would be back soon to pick us up after he had delivered the kids. It took him half an hour. Fortunately, we were not in any hurry.

So off we head for Kandy Town. We get about 100 yards from our house when NS stops the tuk-tuk. He explains that he is out of gas. “Ten minutes,” he says. “You wait here.” So he starts up the road, hails another tuktuk and disappears. So, Kris and I sat in the back of the tuk tuk and she explained all she had learned about leeches while passersby gawked at us sitting in the back of an apparently abandoned tuk-tuk by the side of the road. By and by, NS came back and off we went.

Oops. One more stop. NS stops at a tire store and gets air put into his left rear tire. Finally we make it to Kandy Town. We get out and I tell NS to pick us up in front of the grocery store at 4PM. I say “four” in English while holding up four fingers. I add one of my new Sinhala words “hathara” or “four” to make sure we understand each other. “OK, OK!” he says and drives off.

No call yet from the hearing aid battery guy. First stop, the DVD store we had been told about. by one of the other Fulbrighters. Our directions are good, we find the store right away, up a flight of stairs from the street. Lights are off. Bad sign. Sign on the door says “Closed Friday and Saturday” This is a sure sign that the proprietors are Muslim. Nothing to be done. I should mention that what we were going to do in that store would be a crime in the US. We were going to buy a pirated DVD. My only excuse is that, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other kind in Sri Lanka. The average Sri Lankan earns about $32 per week. So there is very little market for $20 DVDs. Correspondingly, I have never seen software for sale in Sri Lanka. All the computer stores I have visited have sold only hardware so far as I tell. But fate has prevented us from a life of crime, at least for another week.

Next stop, lunch. Eating in Sri Lanka is a little like eating in France. There is no such thing as “fast food” in a sit down restaurant. We order our lunch and wait. And wait. Our meal is served about half an hour after our order is placed. This at almost 2PM when the lunch rush has passed and the restaurant is mostly empty. Once the food arrives it is very good, however, and we tuck in with relish. The other thing that takes time in a Sri Lankan restaurant is getting a check. I can not remember ever getting a check in a Sri Lankan restaurant until I use the universal hand gesture for “bring me the check.”  The issue is the time it takes to find ones waiter to give the gesture to.

Out on the street again. Heading for the grocery store. Amazingly enough, I spot a sign at knee level advertising watch batteries. Kris had earlier had the bright idea that maybe a place that sold camera batteries might carry hearing aid batteries. This primed my mind to think that maybe a place that carried watch batteries might carry hearing aid batteries. So, we stepped into the jewelry store with the sign and asked if they had batteries. The two young women at the counter displayed the look of deer in the headlights. Obviously their English was none to good and they had no idea what we were talking about. I was both desperate for hearing aid batteries and a trifle annoyed that a store would have a sign displayed advertising something they didn’t have. And the language issue in this instance is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the Sri Lankan word for “batteries” is “batteries” pronounced with a Sri Lankan accent.  So I asked one of the young women to come outside to see their sign. Maybe that would break through, if not the language barrier, the accent barrier. She came forward a bit, but just enough to almost see the sign I was gesticulating to, but could not be coaxed further. There was enough of a commotion, that the employees of the jewelry shop next door took an interest. This was a good thing, because it turned out that the sign in question actually belonged to them. And, what do you know, they had four batteries remaining in a pack of six that work with my hearing aid. I cleaned them out and ordered four more packs to be picked up next week. The batteries were American made Energizers and cost roughly the same as in the US. The jeweler told me that he could obtain cheaper Chinese made batteries, but would not recommend it, as they were of inferior quality and did not last as long. I agreed.

My cell phone rings. It is NS. Where are we? I look at my watch. It is ten after three. I re-explain about the four o’ clock meeting time. “OK, OK. Bye.”

Finally, we head for the grocery store. This grocery store, Cargill’s Food City in Kandy, is always very busy. The reason seems to be that it is the best stocked grocery store in the province, has the best quality produce, and is located in the heart of Kandy. We have a short list and get through it efficiently. There is a pharmacy in the supermarket, but Kris is unable to find an Asian equivalent for the medicine she needs. She will try again when she looks up the ingredients in the medicine. The line to check out is slow. Checkers have scanners, but they only seem to work on half of the items. I use my umbrella and our basket of groceries to (successfully) maintain my place in line (see 101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka Reason #6). And we are out.

Oops! We did not watch the time. It is only 3:30PM. No NS in sight. It is raining. We go to the back of the store where there is a small parking garage to see if he is waiting there. Not there. I call NS on my cell phone. “We are ready to be picked up now. Please come as soon as you can.” “OK, OK.” We decide to go to the front of the store to wait. Several tuktuk drivers ask us if we need a ride. We tell them “No.” We wait under our umbrellas (see 101 Reasons to Carry an Umbrella in Sri Lanka Reason #1). Even though we only have three plastic bags of groceries, they get heavy in our hands as we simultaneously try to hold up our umbrellas. Non-moving white people are targets and the buzzards begin to close in. There is a beggar woman to my right, cross-legged on the ground, holding her baby to her breast. Eventually the rain thins the crowds and she moves to find a better egging spot. A peddler stops to try to sell us gifty stuff. Keychains with crude, but colorfully painted wooden elephant fobs. “No?” Out of his bag comes a cat sized carved, painted wooden elephant whose head bobs. “For you, very special price. No?” Out comes a coconut carved in the shape of a monkey. Cleverly, the carver has used the stringiness of the coconut husk to create a beard with some realistic texture. “Not today, thanks.” “Special price. Very cheap. No?” Out of the plastic bag comes a coconut carved in the shape of an elephant. “Sorry. Not today.” He reminds us that we need to buy gifts for Christmas. After several more unsuccessful attempts to interest us in at least one of his products, he gives up and leaves, unhappy.

A tuktuk driver pulls out of line and pulls up next to us. “Your tuk-tuk driver can’t come. There is a problem because of the rain. I will take you.” We are beginning to catch on to the scams. “Oh, really? What is our driver’s name?” “I don’t know, but I saw you with him here yesterday.” “We were not in Kandy yesterday. We will wait for our driver.” “Where are you staying? How long will you be in Kandy?…” “Thank you for your concern, but we do not need your help today. Good bye.”

Finally, at 4:05PM, NS shows up. The groceries go into the back of the tuk-tuk and we head for home. “Only five minutes late!” says NS, beaming. No mention of the intervening phone call. Traffic is modestly congested on the way home. NS stops at the supermarket closest to our house. We think he is asking whether we want to stop at this supermarket as well and we tell him to keep going. Our mistake. He has stopped to a exchange a few words to his friend, another tuk-tuk driver. It is a short, few sentences, and we then finish the journey home. This time I do not overpay him and he seems a bit annoyed, but accepts the amount offered and departs.

Whew. An expedition that would have taken no more than an hour at the mall has taken three hours here. Much of the extra time is due to our lack of knowledge and experience with shopping in a new city and a different culture, but clearly there is also a local contribution to the extra time errands take here in Sri Lanka.

Tim

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4 Comments

  1. Eromi said,

    December 1, 2008 at 12:35 am

    Hello Tim! I came across your blog through some google news feeds I get for “Sri Lanka”, and I have to say it was very amusing 🙂 I was born and currently live in the US but my parents are from Sri Lanka. I will tell you that the experiences you have had are not limited to just “white people” in Sri Lanka, but just about anyone who has different mannerisms from the local people. Even though I look just like eveyone else in the country I get my fair share of stares when I am visiting! I’m glad to see you are enjoying your time in Sri Lanka, I love the counry and cherish the time I get to spend there. While you will run into a con-man or two, the people are generally compassionate, kind hearted, and friendly. Enjoy your time in Sri Lanka- I look forward to reading about your adventures!

    Eromi

  2. Tim said,

    December 1, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Eromi,

    Thanks for writing. I am loving being here in Sri Lanka and everyone I have met has been very welcoming and helpful. So please take my attempts at humor for what they are, i.e., attempts at humor. I’m sure that you have had many experiences with culture shock. I hope that you agree with me that one of the best ways to deal with culture shock is to maintain a sense of humor about the misunderstandings that occur on both sides of the cultural divide. I certainly feel at least equally responsible for the communications issues and hope that I continue to find humor at my own expense in these situations.

    I hope that you find my blog at least occasionally entertaining and that you comment more on future postings.

  3. Jim said,

    January 24, 2009 at 6:59 am

    As an annual visitor to SL I love your diary. (Five years running to work with a school just east of Galle) I am showing the site to my wife who will be traveling to Galle with me for her first visit to the country in March. It is wonderful to be able to say to her, “This is the cultural frission of which I speak”. I too love all of the balances upon the cultural divide.
    Best, Jim

    • Tim said,

      January 24, 2009 at 10:28 am

      Jim,

      Thank you for your kind comment. I worry sometimes that all my observations are totally idiosyncratic. To hear that my observations are similar to those of others makes me feel a little less like I am writing only to myself.


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