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Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a small, tear-drop shape country south of India.  There’s a reason Lonely Planet has named Sri Lanka the number one country to travel to in 2019.  It’s a beautiful country that has everything you could possibly want to do or see.  There are outdoor activities such as hiking, rafting, surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving.  And if you’re a wildlife lover, Sri Lanka is an absolute must. Some of the many animals you’ll see are leopards, elephants, blue whales, different species of monkeys, turtles, sharks and other marine life.  There are twenty-two declared national parks to explore in Sri Lanka, and Yala National Park and Minneriya National park are two of the most well-known ones. If you’re looking for leopards, the number one place to see them is Yala National Park, and if you want to see elephants, Minneriya National Park is the place to go.  At Minneriya, the best time to visit is in the afternoon when herds of up to fifty elephants can be seen around the park. Imagine these large, majestic creatures roaming around at dusk! 

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This is the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen from Coconut Hill in Mirissa.

When you’re ready to relax, find a yoga studio in Ella or try a Savasana retreat in Kandy.  There are also dozens of yoga retreats and surf camps in beach towns like Welligama in the south and Arugam Bay to the east. If you’re a foodie like me, you’ll have to take a cooking class to learn to make traditional Sri Lankan food. Even if you’re not a foodie, I guarantee that you’ll have fun learning to grind the fresh coconut meat out of the coconut—it’s not as easy as it looks! Not only will you have the satisfaction of making everything from scratch using local, organic ingredients, but also savoring the delicious, fragrant curries and fresh handmade roti afterwards. 

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This is a meal I prepared with Violette at our homestay in Ella. It was all vegan!

The quintessential Sri Lankan experience includes visiting a tea plantation. You’ll learn how tea is made—from the moment the tea leaves are picked until the tea is ready to drink.  We had our own private tour and a tea tasting afterwards.  You’ll have a newfound appreciation for tea and for all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. 

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Here we see two Sri Lankan women carrying heavy bags full of tea leaves. Each bag weighs about 8kgs.
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These tea bags will be taken to a local tea factory to be processed into the tea that you and I drink.

If you love history, then head to Galle, Colombo and Kandy to check out the many forts, temples and architecture there. Museums and temples are fine once in a blue moon, but they aren’t what I’m after when I travel.  The three things that make me fall in love with a country are its food, nature and people.  If you’re like me and love delicious, fresh, flavorful food, spending time in nature, and being surrounded by kind, and warm people, I can’t recommend Sri Lanka enough. Do you believe in falling in love at first sight with a country?  I do, because it happened to me when I visited there.  

After a late-night flight from Bahrain and a short layover in the United Arab Emirates, I arrived in Sri Lanka at 4:30AM.  At the airport, an elderly man took one look at my sleep-deprived face, gave me a toothy green and asked me if I needed help.  He confided that he was waiting for a family member to arrive and asked if it was my first time in Sri Lanka.  I told him yes, and somehow, his smile grew bigger.  He was a bit shorter, but his brown skin, eager eyes, tan jacket over a plaid shirt, and the way he carried himself reminded me of Abuelito Everardo, who passed away a few years ago. With my abuelito on my mind and a tiny knot in my throat, I bought a SIM card and withdrew some local currency at the ATM, and stepped out into the hot, humid, morning air.

I’d been too excited to sleep on the flight, so after a drowsy chat with my driver, the movement of the car rocked me to sleep.  I had sprawled out on the backseat using my backpack as a pillow.  I must have slept on a pair of shoes because my bag felt lumpy and hard under my head, but I was exhausted and slept soundly for a few hours.  When I woke up, I was in complete awe of the view flashing by from my window—palm trees, mountains, green sloping hills, flowers of every color, and chickens strutting in front yards—and felt tears in my eyes.  I felt like the kids in the Jurassic Park when they’re in the Jeep and look out and see dinosaurs appearing out of the trees for the first time.  I bet I had the same dumbfounded look on my face, too.  As I took in the landscape, I couldn’t contain my happiness, and it wasn’t long before it all came spilling out in the form of tears streaming down my cheeks.  I hadn’t forgotten my encounter with the sweet, toothy-smiled, elderly man who reminded me so much of my grandpa at the airport, either—I felt that it had to be a sign.  With that image fresh in my mind, I felt a tiny knot in my throat again, as I thought about my Grandpa Everardo, the original backpacker. 

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I’ve heard stories from almost everyone in the family about how my abuelito used to pack up a little bag, take off to the neighboring town, and disappear for days at a time.  Later, he would come home with a bag full of groceries from the market, pan dulce, and stories to tell about wherever it was that he’d gone.  Rumor has it that one time in Mexico, he abandoned his hoe in the middle of a field, and without so much as a goodbye—to everyone’s dismay—he turned on his heel, and sent a letter home sometime later from somewhere in the U.S.—much to my grandmother’s relief.  Traveling is in my blood.  Maybe it was a combination of all of those thoughts coupled with the sudden realization that I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, but I swear, I could actually feel the positive energy radiating from my surroundings.  I was a free bird, and I was sure that wherever he was, Grandpa would be so proud of me if he could see me on starting my journey and smiling like a crazy person in the back of that car in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka turned out to be all the things I love rolled into one.  First of all, thanks to a largely Buddhist population, Sri Lankan food is almost always vegetarian, and because Buddhism requires that its followers abstain from harming any living creature, this means food is usually all vegan, too.  This is great news for me because I really only began traveling after I became vegan three and a half years ago, and I’m an even bigger foodie now than I was before.  While being vegan in some countries is easy, it can be really, really hard in others.  In Sri Lanka, I had zero issues, and I was able to try all the food that my little heart desired.  .  There’s nothing like that euphoric feeling I get from being in a new country and then trying its signature food.  It’s such a surreal moment.  I vividly remember my first croissant in Paris, as my sister and I sipped mulled spice wine under the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tower.  Then there was the Pad Thai on my first solo trip in Thailand, the Turkish coffee in Istanbul, and the Moroccan tea in Marrakech.  I imprint on each new country through its food and drinks.

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Here is a breakfast for two at our homestay in Happutale. The fresh papaya juice was delicious!

My first ultra surreal moment in Sri Lanka happened my first afternoon in Sigiriya when I had coconut roti, five different types of curries (all vegan thanks to coconut milk instead of dairy cream!!!) and fresh coconut water.  I love coconuts and there is an abundance of them in in Sri Lanka which means they are used in many dishes. I took a cooking class at my homestay in Ella where I learned how to grind the coconut flesh out of the coconut, how to make fresh coconut milk, coconut sambal, and coconut chutney.  Coconuts are about .30 cents (USD).  In contrast, you get a single coconut in the U.S. for about $5.00 and there’s no guarantee that it will be fresh.  I love how in Sri Lanka, like in Mexico, meals are always hearty, homemade, spicy and flavorful—especially for breakfast.  The dough for roti is made in a similar way to the masa for tortillas and both roti and tortillas are a staple at every meal.  My abuelita always says that a meal isn’t complete without tortillas, and I bet Sri Lankan abuelitas say the same thing about roti.  And we know abuelitas are always right.

Secondly, Sri Lanka is one big, outdoorsy adventure just waiting to happen.  Although Sri Lanka is a small country, it is so full of life and every landscape imaginable.  As I traveled around, I saw everything from palm trees and beaches in the south and east, tea plantation-rich highlands and plains in the center of the country, and mountains in the north and in central parts of Sri Lanka, too.  I found that transportation between places was easy, quick, and cheap due to the short distance from any given point to another.  It was picturesque as well.  The train ride through the tea plantations in central Sri Lanka is said to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, and after seeing it for myself, I agree! It was one of the highlights for me, and if it’s not on your bucket list yet, it should be. 

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I grew up in a small town in Washington State surrounded by mountains and trees.  Those mountains and Evergreens are the backdrop to my favorite memories—running around barefoot on my parents lush, green front yard, making mud pies, jumping in piles of leaves in the fall, and hikes with my sisters. When I left for Bahrain, I fell in love with the palm trees and hazy sunsets—the desert landscape is a thing of beauty—but I didn’t realize just how much I’d missed all the green until my first visit back home.  Although I’ll always love the outdoors and the Pacific Northwest, I’m not ready to settle down in Washington.  For now, I’m happy to find little pieces of home—like the mountains and trees in Ella—whenever I travel. 

And finally, I love Sri Lanka because I met the kindest, most hospitable people who went out of their way to talk to me and help me. On my first day in Sigiriya, I checked into my hostel and Dil welcomed me with a cup of Ceylon tea (Ceylon tea in Sri Lanka!!) There was a really sweet dog at the hostel, and I found out that she had been hit by a car and rescued by a German traveler. The dog had required extensive surgery on her legs, post-op care, and lots of medication in order to heal.  The German traveler left, and Dil took care of the dog.  “She used to be so skinny, and now she is a fat and happy girl,” Dil told me proudly.  It seems to me that at every hostel I went to in Sri Lanka, I heard similar stories of stray dogs being rescued by hostel owners, and in my opinion, people who love animals really are the best kind of people. 

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As we continued chatting over tea, I mentioned that I was planning on going for a sunset hike that evening and a sunrise hike the next morning to Lion Rock and Pidurangala Rock, two popular hiking spots near the hostel.  He solemnly shook his head and warned me that I shouldn’t walk there at dawn or dusk because it was dangerous, and that just the night before, an elderly man had been trampled to death by wild elephants while riding his bicycle through the area (the same area I was planning to walk through to get to the hiking spots).  He offered to accompany me during daylight hours and insisted that if I wanted to go alone, he would hire a tuk-tuk to take me.  It was nice of him to take the time to chat with me, and that he was willing to go out of his way to make sure I was safe.  Everywhere I went, it seemed that people wanted to help me find my way or were happy to step in and translate when I needed it.

I’ve probably said it a hundred times, and I’ll say it again: Solo traveling has been life-changing for me.  While I’ve often wondered what an introvert like me is doing at a hostel with a bunch of strangers, I won’t do solo travel any other way. It’s made me more independent, and I’ve met incredible people while traveling that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  On my first day in Sri Lanka, I met one of my favorite traveling partners I’ve ever had.  Brave, adventurous, and driven, (and almost ten years younger than me), Violette had traveled through four countries by herself for three months by the time we meet.  While her trip was coming to end, mine was barely starting.  Because she was drawn to Sri Lanka for the same three reasons I was—the food, nature, and the people—I found that we were on the same page most of the time.  It was nice to travel with someone that I had so much in common with.  From sunrise hikes in Ella to swimming with turtles and snorkeling in the ocean at Pigeon Island without a life jacket for the first time (in the choppiest waves I’ve ever swam in in my whole entire life, might I add), to my first of many homestays, to cooking classes, scooter rides at 5AM, and sharing vegetarian meals (vegan for me), we made the most of our time in Sri Lanka.  She was one of the greatest people I met during my entire Southeast Asia trip.

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Violette and I rode up to Lipton’s Seat at 5AM to catch the sunrise. It was freezing cold! Luckily, I found this jacket in the scooter.

One of the many places we visited together was Nilaveli, a small beach town on the east coast.  The family at Suman Beach Rooms, our homestay in Nilaveli, was especially kind and welcoming, and treated Violette and I like family.  After the day’s activities, I slathered myself in mosquito spray every night and fall asleep exhausted, imagining all the delicious things I would eat for breakfast the next morning. It seemed that each breakfast was better than the one before. I fell in love with one dish in particular, a coconut sambal, and I asked our homestay host if she could teach me how to make it.  She spoke enough English to tell me the directions, patiently repeating the steps and showing me each ingredient, one a time, until I was satisfied that I’d written everything properly in a notepad in my phone to make it on my own later. 

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My homestay family at their food stall at the local market.

In addition to putting their heart and soul into making the most delicious homemade breakfast we had in Sri Lanka, they also invited us to visit their food stall in the local market for a free parcel of Sri Lankan treats.  They were so proud of their business and they wanted to share a bit of the local food with us. Everything—the round, fried, savory donuts, and the small, fried chickpea and lentil balls called Masala Vadai—was soo good, and it was so nice of them to share with us.  As I ate my food, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that the people who have less to give are often the ones who give the most.  Once again, it was humbling to be so far from home and to have someone go out of their way to share what little they had to make me feel welcome in their home, and by extension in their country. 

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This is the food that our homestay family gave us at their food stall.

Sri Lanka is hands-down my favorite country I’ve ever been to.  I would love to go back again to visit new places, and to revisit my favorite ones.  In the meantime, I need to put my cooking lessons to good use because I haven’t been able to find curry as good as the one in Sri Lanka. When I go back, I’m sure I’ll see a sweet, Sri Lankan abuelito that will remind me of Abuelito Everardo, and I’ll know it’s him just checking in on me and traveling with me in spirit.