You know what the most frustrating thing about travelling in Sri Lanka as a woman is?
Not finding accommodation – because you’re sorted with cheap deals on booking sites or you can turn up at your destination and expect all-smiles welcomes from an array of homestays.
Not transport – because honestly, put together our train network and long-distance bus routes and you’re covered to get quite far.
Not food – because kadeys, thambili stalls and ‘hotels’ are absolutely everywhere.
It’s that you have to plan your whole itinerary [and be real, in this country pretty much your daily life] around the reality that you are easy prey to a man anywhere, at any given time.
I absolutely hate that it’s come to a point where – as much as we’re independent feminists – we know deep down in our gut that it’s better to have a guy in the group when we’re travelling far out of Colombo. That our parents are likely to, and have, asked us to cancel long trips because the male in the group dropped out of the trip and no way in hell would they let us go alone. Because Lankan parents, mums especially, know as much as we do that young girls alone are walking targets for male entitlement.
And it’s honestly institutionalised, right now. This is why they ask if you’re a group of females when you buy a bunch of tickets for the Night Mail train, because then they book it out for women alone, creating ad-hoc ‘women only’ rows. Same on the bus from Fort – take a window seat and the driver asks you to keep your bag on the next one, saying that he’ll make sure a woman sits next to you. This is why hostels have women-only dorms and why some guesthouses are for female travellers alone.
[Note: This is all with regard to experiences of budget travel, where one has to take public transport, stay at cheap accommodation and walk about looking for meals or to get around to sites of interest. I daresay travelling in a private vehicle and staying at a luxury or even semi-luxury property will save you from most of these frustrations as you’re essentially not making much contact with the larger world unless you’re going out on excursions or wandering the areas alone. Sorry but true.]
This feeds into a larger problem of society expecting women to not go places alone. Because it’s somehow not respectable and a whole rabbit-hole of other gender roles that I’m not ready to jump in to. Taking a boat across the Northern islands and a man, a navy man acting as boat patrol, starts essentially chatting us up. Questions as to why we’re alone, what do we do for a living, how much do we make and ‘did you leave your boyfriends in Colombo to come here?’ are among the many levelled at us with an uncomfortably inquiring tone.
You can’t even have a drink on the beach alone without encountering an entitled idiot. A Southern town infamous for its cheap alcohol – a few cocktails in and you’re approached by someone trying to make a move because girls who drink must be easy. Open up a bottle for free, of course they’ll stay and agree to anything. Ridiculous logic, and I immediately translated for my foreign friend that as they topped up her glass they said ‘no they’re not drunk enough, we need to get them to drink more’. You can’t go to a beautiful secluded beach alone without having to worry that someone will pounce on you, so much so that you grow wary of the one guy who was nice enough to warn you of robbers on the beach. Island life for you.
If I’ve ever ranted on about this, I’ve heard the response of ‘oh it must be worse for foreign girls then’. I’ve read a few blogs about young foreign travellers who have experience leering stares and flirtation but from my observations, no. It’s a lot worse for local girls. On a crowded train, you’ll get pushed and shoved within an inch of your life for a centimetre of space that some burly man is convinced he can fit in. This happened to me and a few stations down, two foreign girls boarded the same carriage and no one even went near them. They had space to stretch their legs, keep their bags and enjoy the ride while only a few minutes earlier, we’d been flattened by a stampede. Foreign friends have practically hitchhiked here but one of us would get either stared at or harassed if we tried the same thing. Locals see foreign girls in shorts and bikinis and write it off as the Western way of doing things. A brown-skinned girl in a swim suit or – horrors – pants is stared at as if we’re some alien species. So no, every trip I’ve taken, while I’ve seen them get maybe ripped off for a few hundred bucks, I’ve seen local girls get much more harassed than foreign girls.
This is [unfortunately] for certain;
You will get catcalled by a guy who can’t string together ‘excuse me, thank you’ but can say ‘hi sexy, I think you’re beautiful’ as you lug your backpack down the Southern coast.
You will have strange men on the train fondling themselves in your company as you race down the Western belt.
You will have men looking at you strangely when you wear a swimsuit – a one-piece at that – to indulge in the waters off the Eastern shore.
You will have men stare at you while you’re curiously exploring the back-alleys and markets in the North.
When a girl asks me how I travel so much, I tell them the usual how-to-budget guide and hate having to add in that warning to please be careful and if they’re going to particularly unfamiliar areas, go with a group or with a guy. It really frustrates me that this is what we have to plan our travels around – not the places or the sights but how safe we are getting to and from them, at any time of the day.
Sri Lanka is ridiculously beautiful. The places I’ve seen have taken my breath away; the Lakdasun articles I’ve bookmarked and Instagram photos I’ve screenshot-ed to ultimately visit are even more stunning. It’s so sad then that something as seemingly simple as a mindset precipitating from ancient patriarchal norms has to hold us back from just upping and going to the places that make our hearts race.