Friday, January 20, 2006

Food For Frogs?

Well, my time in Sri Lanka is up. I must say I have enjoyed myself and it has made a welcome intermission to my time in India. My last day was spent at the beach resort of Negombo where, after having barely seen another foreigner in 3 weeks, I was confronted by swathes of flabby, middle-aged Westerners, cramming in a couple of weeks of sun before returning home. The more I travel as I do, the less I can identify with such holiday-making where, to me, there seems to be little interaction with the local community. Enough of that though, I'm not here to preach or judge; people can do as they please, and I suppose I have the luxury of time, which many people with jobs do not.

Instead, seeing as I have finished with Sri Lanka, I ought to make a stab at summarising my thoughts somewhat. All islands, certainly due to their insular nature, have their eccentricities (just look at the British!), and Sri Lanka is no exception. It's cuisine, though nothing to write home about (rice and curry for the most part), they do have several peculiar specialties. The ones that you notice immediately are hoppers and their unrelated namesakes string (or steamed) hoppers. The former are mainly eaten in the evening and are best described as bowl-shaped crepes. Usually they are dipped in curry or, that old subcontinental standby, dhal (lentil stew). String hoppers, on the other hand, are more of a breakfast thing, and are little patties of vermicelli that, because they are quite tasteless, just like normal hoppers, are dipped in either curry or dhal. To make up for this the Sri Lankans have the delicious, and peculiarly orange, king coconuts in such abundance that they cost less than water (10 cents for a coconut!). Nevertheless the most trying part of eating out in Sri Lanka is the actual ordering itself. Prices are never listed, and for that matter neither are dishes. Here's an example of a typical restaurant encounter (waiter = Wa):

Me: Good evening. What do you have for dinner?
Wa: What do you want?
Me: Well, what do you have? have you got a menu?
Wa: No. Just tell me what you want.
Me: Do you have rice and vegetable curry?
Wa: No.
Me: Rice and any curry?
Wa: No.
Me: Rice?
Wa: No.
Me: Well, do you have any rotis then?
Wa: No.
Me: How about string hoppers?
Wa: No.
Me: Well what do you have?
Wa: We have (normal) hoppers.
Me: Anything else?
Wa: No.
Me: Aaarrgh! why didn't you say so to begin with.

This is then followed by me asking for the price, getting a hugely inflated answer, and then trying to negotiate a reasonable price. I've grown resigned to dual pricing for many things, but I draw the line at food. I resent being regarded as a walking cash machine to be taken advantage of by locals, especially when it comes to buying something as essential as food (Sri Lanka is by no means the only place where this happens, but it is one of the most blatant). I did thoroughly enjoy myself though, from my nature walks to the ruins to the fascinating discussions with the lodgers at the Colombo YMCA about the political situation on the island.

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