Jun 3, 2012

Business Class

Spoiled white boy, i'm becomin'. After a week of real backpacking in India - local trains, street food, $10 rooms - it's businessman Sri Lanka all the way. $100 AC rooms with a pool and very stiff white sheets and very polite staff holding doors open. Per diem higher than the highest restaurant. Dress shoes and black socks. "The driver will pick you up at 8."

I almost couldn't sleep my first night in the Global Towers hotel. I told myself it was just so Not Me. I can carry my own bag, thank you, and probably even figure out how to open the curtains. I don't need a 14-dollar 28-dish Indian buffet in a huge plush dining room. This place is for rich travelling businessmen and spoiled tourists and Sri Lankans sneaking out on their families for a forbidden weekend. Not me. I want the "Real Sri Lanka."

But then I look in the mirror and see a middle-aged businessman. Worse - a Consultant. He's sporting a greying beard and slightly wrinkled dress slacks, and he's lamenting repeatedly about the wi-fi not working in his room overlooking the Indian Ocean. It'll take him some laps around the pool and maybe a 90-minute Ayurvedic massage to shake off that indignation, by which time that buffet sounds alot better than wandering the streets for an hour looking for authentic street food. And he's just tired enough from a day that started at 5am on an Indian train that a queen-sized bed in an air-conditioned room might be justified after all.

So I relax and enjoy this privileged and lovely luxury. But after wiping the corners of my mouth with white linen, I still hit the streets in my Keen sandals. 4 hours of finding myself in this new place, snacking, browzing, learning how to cross traffic and how much eye contact to make in the streets. Dipping into a cool cinema for a bad movie (Avengers) with a hot dog and Fanta is a welcome break, but the day is still me and Sri Lanka full on. The cinema's full of Sri Lankans, the hotel is primarily Sri Lankans, just because they're wearing polished shoes doesn't make them inauthentic. And just because I'm wearing shoes doesn't mean my feet aren't on the street.

Hippy backpacker Rick would say I'm rationalizing and selling out. 45-year-old development consultant Rick is cutting himself some slack, enjoying the best of, well, not of both worlds, just of this slice of this world. This fabulous, exotic, welcoming Sri Lanka that offers comfort and adventure, hot clammy afternoons and cool evening dips, unnameable street lunch and unbeatable dinner buffets. It's all part of the experience, all part of this nation, and it's all part of me.

Going back to that list of typical tourist things I've done, I was going to open today's post by listing a few more that I did expect to be called on:

5. Talking about India like it's one place. I used to alternately be annoyed or laugh when people talk about "Africa", like Mandela's the president of the whole continent and they all speak one language. The I arrive in a huge and hugely populated subcontinent with hundreds of languages, cultures, climates, etc, and I'm so ignorant that I just assumed it was Hindi I was hearing spoken around me - turns out it was mostly Tamil. So even if anything I've observed is anywhere close to a truth, it's likely limited to the 300km slice of the South Tamil-Nadu province I chanced to visit, or just to Chennai, or just to the street I happened to stroll down after breakfast.

6. Confusing rural and urban. A reader wisely pointed out that, when lauding the relaxed reaction I experienced from Indians, I was comparing urban India with rural Zaire. "The urban experience (though with differences as you've observed) is a common one now, around the world, and those of us who live (or have lived) in cities can connect fairly easily - as I guess people with similar lifestyles have always been able to do."

7. Making sweeping generalizations. I'm glad y'all understand that I'm sharing first impressions, trying to make some sense of the foreignness of this all, not pretending to have anything more than a superficial snapshot of the true depth of a nation. I spent 7 years in Africa, and each year thought "Now I get it!" Then the next year would pass and I'd look back and think, "What was I thinking?!" I really shouldn't say anything after one week, but if we waited until we knew everything we'd never say anything - the best we can share is what we have at any moment, and a willingness to embrace a different understanding later (reason number 824 that I'd make an unsuccessful politician).