Why Sri Lanka is Not “India Lite”

sri lanka
Warning: In this post Daniel Adler visits a Sri Lankan prostitute. Don’t read if squeamish.

Max told Daniel he’d feel ready to return home as soon as he landed in Sri Lanka, that he’d get there and think, more of the same, and that would be that, the adventure would be gone. Same dark-skinned people, same hectic bazars, same age-old churches none as impressive as the great cathedrals of Europe, same beaches as in Mexico and Bermuda, and he’d feel incredibly lonely and want to be done with it all and just go home already, start living a life of ambition and love and comfort and change without simply moving and wandering and soaking experience. Daniel lay in bed after his first day in Sri Lanka and thought how wrong Max had been, how he never thought he’d actually miss backpacking India, but Colombo made him.

When Daniel first arrived he instantly felt how much nicer it was than India. The palm trees and all the green– a tropical island. And he could feel that there wasn’t the human pressure of 1.2 billion people. Even though people were standing in the small air conditioned van that took him to the city, it was just a matter of circumstance; it wasn’t a way of life. It wasn’t the train he took that morning from the ‘burbs of Chennai to the airport, with men literally hanging out the sides– humans weren’t constantly bearing down on the land, throwing their garbage, dumping their waste, living— all that was gone in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka things are more Western, from the music, which has a jangly islandy beat, to the women’s fashions, which are decidedly more t-shirts and jeans than their sari-wearing northernly neighbors. Later that night, after his adventures and while talking to the American girl Karen, she said that she’d heard Sri Lanka is India Lite, but as is always the case, international borders separate different paradigms and religions and cultures. So while yes it’s cleaner and generally more pleasant than, say, Delhi, it’s also entirely different in the laid-back attitudes of the people, in their background and history of civil war and imperialism, and in their feelings toward the U.S. (negative, after the U.S.’s condemning the government for their treatment of the Tamil people on the northernly island of Jaffna).

Colombo first left a bad taste in Daniel’s mouth when the guy running the bus told him it was twice the cost Daniel knew it to be. He called “Bullshit,” and gave him what he thought was fair, since he did take up two seats, one for him and one for his bag. He tried to find a hotel for an Indian price, but in the capital all of them were around ten dollars a night. He walked down an alley away from the crowded crap-filled tables of the main drag, across from the train station, into a cheap-looking hotel called Hotel South Asia. It was less than $7 a night, with the bathroom down the hall. But an American girl he later came to know as Karen was staying there and he probably wasn’t going to do any better so he chose it.

He went out for a dinner of fried rice and curry with a piece of fried chicken and dal and potato salad, all for less than $2 and this reconfirmed his faith in Sri Lanka as a good, cheap destination. He wanted to go to the beach then, and on his way, in front of the WTC he met a nice young man with big brown eyes and an aquiline nose who was going to lead him. He mentioned an elephant festival, and Daniel figured the guy who was a year older than him and seemingly pretty genuine, was pretty good.

He said they were going to miss the festival, so they hopped in a took-took and went to a temple, where a small elephant was chained and eating out of peoples palms. He paid for Daniel’s entrance, one dollar. As they walked through the Buddhist temple Daniel had a cautious feeling rising in his stomach that at any moment he would have to repay this act of courtesy a hundred fold.

The elephant’s tongue was way bigger than Daniel’s hand and he dropped the lychee on the ground and made a guttural sound, then picked it up with his trunk, which was like sandy leather. They walked through a museum of old crystal and antique Buddhist statues and when they were done Michale suggested they go to a whorehouse. Daniel was reluctant, but his ambition to do this in Bangkok was his last adventure he really wanted to experience on his round the world trip, and he’d heard bad stories about being poisoned or robbed and he felt comfortable enough with Michale so that if he was going to do it, he’d want to with someone who knew how to do such things, and not take the chance of trying it on his own. He wondered whether a whore got pleasure from her job, or if it was purely business and the sad looks in their eyes were a result of a deep-seated desire to be loved. As they drove through the posh Colombo streets, Daniel giggled to himself in self-consciousness of having an adventure.

They walked into a massage parlor with a madam and three women sitting in chairs, as though waiting for them. The one in the middle was older and monkey-faced and Daniel pitied her. Michale chose the one on the right, offered Daniel the one on the left, which meant he wouldn’t have to reject monkey-face himself, and then got the price down to $30. He went with his whore, who was thick and pretty with a powdered face, into a backroom where she left him to change. He was hot and sticky from having traveled all day, waking up in Pondicherry and taking the train to the airport, to Colombo and walking around the city with his 40 pound bag in late afternoon heat, and he watered himself with a hand shower and wrapped himself in a towel. His whore heard him come back in and dried him off, paying attention to his balls and penis, which she honked with a smile.

She started with a massage and proceeded to ask for tips. “I don’t get salary. ”
“I can give you 500.”
“500? That’s nothing.”
“I’m sorry. I’m poor.”
“You’re American, you can pay. 3000, then you can touch.” She pointed to her breasts and her crotch.
“I can’t,” he said, “It’s too much.” She pouted at him and left the room. She was 26. He reasoned with himself. 500 is less than 5 dollars. Okay, 1000. But no more.

She came back in with monkey-face, which he now realizes was an attempt to pass him off to a more seasoned, cheaper woman, so he could get more bang for his buck (note the pun) . But at the time he didn’t realize this and didn’t even look up from lying on his belly waiting for her to finish massaging his head. “She’s a doctor,” the whore said.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, enjoying the hands rubbing his crown. Monkey-face’s presence made him uncomfortable and he wasn’t sure why she was there. He thought maybe she would go into his wallet he’d wrapped in his shirt and try to steal his money, like the Thai whores do. But she left.

“My dear, why you no give me better tips? For 5000 you can fuck.”
“Yeah,” she looked urgently at him. She wants me, he thought.
“I wish I could. But I already paid 4000.”
“That was the room charge. I don’t get salary.”
He thought about this. “I have Indian rupees.”
“How much?” Her face flashed green.
He didn’t want to give her all his Indian money, so he said 1500 ($30) and she glowered in disappointment. He imagined she probably didn’t realize it was almost as much as she wanted, probably couldn’t do the math on the exchange rate. “Okay, I’ll give you 1500.” If this was going to go anywhere, he was going to have to compromise.
“Okay, give to me now.” He got up, still wrapped in his towel and extracted the money and gave it to her. She looked at it the way a child looks at a Christmas present he didn’t really want, and pocketed it. She took off his towel and with her thumbs and fingertips close together started tracing invisible orbits up and down his flanks and into his nether regions. She took his cock in her hand and made the motions. With one last try, she said, “For three thousand it would be better.” He worried that he had wasted his 1500 and that she wouldn’t even try, wouldn’t work with any of the passion he wanted from her in order to make the experience worth it. He apologized again and she realized he wasn’t good for anything more. He tried to enjoy it. And soon sexual tension bubbled in the air and enveloped them.

He said, “Oh baby that feels so good,” and then she started making sounds to encourage him. Whether or not she actually enjoyed it, her sounds made Daniel enjoy it more and when he told her he was arriving, she looked up at him with big eyes.
Then he washed himself and she told him to take her phone number and he said to himself, I am never going to see you again, as she vehemently said that if he calls her tomorrow, 3000, and to come back here and she kissed him once on each cheek and then on the forehead and sent him on his way.

While washing himself, he had felt the instantaneous flashes of regret and loneliness most men must feel after whoring, that wish for something real instead of this forged business transaction, this flash of falsified intimacy which would only lead to more of the same, the way drugs work, or how you scratch an itch only to make it worse. He thought he’d give Michale the Irish goodbye and go home, that he’d wasted enough money, but Michale was already done and sitting in the lobby. “I’ve been waiting ten minutes,” he said. It turned out Michale had had one shot for 3500. This made Daniel feel better, but he still needed a whiskey.

He had never checked in at the hotel, since people were still in his room; he had just left his bag outside. So before they went out for a drink, the took-took drove to Daniel’s hotel, which Michale laughed at and cautioned him against, saying this alley was home to crack addicts and prostitutes, although Karen later said that this hotel is one of the few decent ones around here, isn’t pay-per-hour, and that families stay here.

Then they took the same took-took to a bar and Michale and the driver sat on either side of Daniel in pale barroom light as they smoked and talked about Sri Lanka, and how it was better if Daniel said he was Canadian and didn’t leave his hotel room that night. Daniel said Michale didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would fuck him, and Michale reassured him that he was not, that if Daniel had more time, he would take him on a road trip with his friend, not for money but for the experience of it– Daniel was only the second foreigner he’d ever met, the first a Malaysian. To rent a house in Colombo is cheap, 2000 rupees a week, but the bill for three beers and a few cigarettes was a thousand, and so Daniel couldn’t be sure if Colombo was expensive by Indian standards or roughly the same. The beer was strong, 8.8%, and he was still full from that huge dinner and didn’t feel like drinking it all, especially because by the last sip it was lukewarm, but Michale was paying which was very nice.

Daniel was all but sure he’d had an expensive, yet worth it, night when Michale dropped him off at the hotel and the cab ride, not including wait times was 6500, which Daniel found hard to believe, that their driving through the city, granted for 2 hours, had cost $50. Michale assumed Daniel would pay it all, and here it came, crashing down, all their friendship and feeble shared trust, because Daniel thought it fair to split, and since Michale had paid for the drinks, offered 4000. Michale wanted to give 2000 to his mother but Daniel was adamant in his poverty, and so Michale paid, and walked him to the front door of the hotel, and wrote his number down on a card and said he would come by and drop off Daniel a small bag of marijuana in the morning. Daniel had no intention of doing so, not only because the sign at the airport had said possession of drugs is punishable by death, but also because he still didn’t trust Michale, and he didn’t want any drugs.

Almost the first thing Daniel did when he got upstairs was calculate how much money he’d spent in the six hours he’d been in Colombo. It was more than he’d spent in the past four days in India, and with his shrinking budget and the impending need to buy what will probably be a thousand dollar plane ticket back to NYC, it made him long for that time in Dharamshala when he’d have to try to spend more than ten dollars a day. Now he would have to punish himself, stay in shitty hotels and eat cheap food and not do any extensive traveling over the next few days in order to make up for his profligacy. But that is how I live, he decided, bouncing between extremes in order to better appreciate what life has to offer.

He was still feeling his beer a tall friendly Sri Lankan man made his acquaintance and told him to knock on his countrywoman’s door, in room 8, so he did. She stood in the doorway as he confessed and she expiated him by inviting him to sit on her bed. She wants to work for the state department and has been traveling a year to scary places like Sierra Leone and Egypt and Rwanda. She consoled him and said, yes, Colombo does kind of suck and when she asked about India after they’d been talking for a while on her bed, he realized he was doing a lot of talking and that her arm closest to him was back, opening up her shoulder, and her entire left side to him. She nodded and he thought of kissing her but also thought that she was the kind of smart girl who would easily refute such a facile (and slightly drunken) attempt, would be offended that their intellectual conversation had taken such a base devolution, and would cast him out of her room with a condescending smile for him to walk ashamedly back to his dark closet to be lonely and pathetic. So he didn’t do that, and instead, waited for a silence in the conversation, which took a while, since she kept asking him questions even while he thought maybe I should go and not wear out my welcome. When he finally did leave he saw the tall Sri Lankan man, who suggested in pidgin that he go back  and try to seal the deal, and Daniel contemplated this, thought Karen probably did want to, partly, because she had taken interest in how Daniel described the whore’s slight pleasure, even if it was tinged with greed, in getting him off, but he was still afraid of reducing their conversation and worse, being incapable of having a normal and stimulating conversation with a member of the opposite sex.

So he excused himself and lay on his bed in darkness, listening to horns blaring (which by morning became as comforting to this sleepy man as the cooing of doves), and mad at himself for taking such a shitty hotel room, and resolving to leave for the mountain town of Kandy on the morrow, and be done with Colombo. Now that he had got that need for adventure and unexpectedness and danger out of his system on his first night in Sri Lanka, he realized that there’s always more pleasure and adventure and learning to be done from travel, and felt a little burst of energy and rejuvenation and he became dedicated to getting the most out of the rest of his journey, which he realized would be very little like his time in India.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.

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