The Art of the Scam
Tuk-tuk drivers here are ruthless, relentless and sly. If you’re not familiar, a tuk-tuk (also known as a rickshaw) is a three-wheeled motorized vehicle. It’s used as a taxi throughout much of South Asia.
Tuk-tuk drivers are also Madison’s arch nemesis. She would rather walk 5 miles in the scorching heat than give a single dollar to a tuk-tuk driver. If we were in a galaxy far far away, Madison would be Luke Skywalker and tuk-tuk drivers would be Darth Vader. She is Austin Powers and tuk-tuk drivers are Dr. Evil. Wolverine vs. Magneto.
Why? While I’m sure some are respectable taxi drivers, we’ve run into more than a few that have mastered the art of scamming unsuspecting foreigners. It usually begins with the driver yelling “Hello! Hello!” followed by “Where are you going?” Here are a few schemes that they’ve tried unsuccessfully on us.
#1 The Vanishing Bus Stop: He tells us the bus doesn’t stop here, but for only 500 rupees he’ll take us to the next bus stand 2km away. [The bus pulls up 5 minutes later]
#2 The Forbidden Temple: We tell him that we’re going to the temple and he replies that the bus doesn’t stop at the temple because it’s a holy site. Lucky for us, he can take us there in his tuk-tuk. [We hop on the bus and sure enough, it stops directly in front of the temple]
#3 The Holiday Run-Around: There is a special holiday today at the temple in town. It is very hard to find, but he can bring us there for a real Sri Lankan cultural experience. [There is no special holiday. He will drive around in circles, take you to a random temple and charging an exorbitant amount of money. Or he’ll just take you to an alley and rob you.]
Personally, I think #1 is just being lazy, #2 is a step in the right direction but still has some holes, and #3 is his best work.
The Cultural Triangle
Following our first teaching stint at the Kekirawa learning center, we headed south to the town of Dambulla. It’s a good location to serve as our base to explore Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle. Madison had come down with a case of the Asian rumble gut and spent the entire bus ride hanging out the window vying for some fresh air. During our time in Dambulla, her meals consisted mostly of tums and Pringles.
We stayed at a guest house run by a group of tuk-tuk drivers (let’s just say this wasn’t Madison’s week). One evening there was a knock on the door and the tuk-tuk driver told us a guest was checking in the next day. Then he asked us to lie about how much we had paid for a ride with him. He wanted us to tell our new neighbors it would cost more than it did. We laughed, then realized he was serious and politely declined to take part in the scam.
We visited Polonnaruwa, an ancient city with a number of ruins spread out over 3 miles. By the time we got there it was pushing 100 degrees with over 50% humidity. Think Indiana Jones, but in a sauna. With sweaty t-shirts and sunburns abound, it was too late to turn back. We rented bicycles in town and rode around for several hours, stopping at each of the ruins, shrines and temples.
Blackie and the Rock
The next day, we had a 4 am wakeup call and a long tuk-tuk ride out to Sigiriya Rock. We decided to climb Pidurangala Rock, which is across from Sigiryia. We started the ascent up the mountain in the pitch dark. Shortly after we started hiking, we noticed a small black dog following us. He stuck around and soon took the lead, as we scrambled up the steep rocky hill behind him. We named him Blackie.
When we got to the top, the only light came from the moon and our headlamps. We sat and listened to all the strange and interesting noises coming from the jungle around us. When the sun started to rise the sky lit up with vibrant colors and steam started to rise from the tree tops around us. Blackie hung with us the entire morning and even escorted us back down the mountain. Madison wanted to keep him, but I said no.
The Cave Temples
For our final day we embarked on another climb, except this time up the stone steps to the Dambulla cave temples. Each room built into the side of the mountain is different and houses a number of incredible Buddha statues and paintings. The cave temples were so colorful and peaceful. It was easy to imagine monks climbing the mountain to bring offerings and chant in the cave rooms.
We spent just as much time watching the monkeys play around on the hillside as we did exploring the cave temples. Madison loved their funny “bowl cuts”.
We made our way back to Kekirawa for another round of teaching. After the struggles we experienced during our first week, we decided to implement some new strategies. Our first session was a small class of only three students. After two hours they were engaged, seemed to grasp the content and speaking really well. We were so proud of ourselves. Success!
We then learned that these were university students and their engineering program is taught entirely in English. Needless to say the 2 hours we just spent on how to use “this” and “that” in a sentence was a complete waste of time.
The Hut on the Mountain
One day in Kekirawa we hiked a mountain that some kids in class told us about. The entrance to the mountain was behind an older lady’s house. She was very excited to lead us through her yard and show us the trail. It was a steep hike to the top, but when we got there the view was incredible. There were two large Buddha statues on top of the mountain looking out over the valley below.
We noticed dark clouds rolling in and all of a sudden it started raining. The rain turned to torrential downpour quick. We started heading towards the trees for shelter when we noticed a local man on top of the mountain waving us over. On the other side of the mountain was a small shed near a radio tower. He invited us into his hut, which was only big enough to fit a small bed, two teacups and a Buddha shrine. We did charades to introduce ourselves since he didn’t speak English. We sat in the cozy shed and watched it pour outside as the sun slipped below the horizon.
Eventually the rain started to clear, and we decided to head out before it got too dark. We thanked the man, waved goodbye and started heading down the mountain. We were actually heading down the wrong side of the mountain and almost went off the side of the cliff. The guy must have thought we were pathetic. He appeared again with a flashlight and led us all the way back down the mountain. The next day, after class, we returned to the top of the mountain to bring cookies and an apple to thank him for rescuing us.
The American with the Flying Robot
On a quiet morning before class I decided to take my drone out for a spin. Our host mom saw the drone flying around and started calling out for all the neighbors to come see. It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather. The American with the flying robot soon became the talk of the town.
The host family has a beautiful yard with plenty of coconut trees. Sometimes our host mom will crack one open and pour fresh coconut water into our cupped palms to drink. Madison laughs at how much she used to pay for coconut water back home.
After two weeks in Sri Lanka we’ve started getting into the swing of things. A stray dog ate Madison’s flip flops, but some locals helped her buy a new pair in town. We found a juice shop nearby that we have been to every day. They add a little scoop of vanilla ice cream to the watermelon juice, so it is creamy like a milkshake. Also, we found peanut butter and bread at a nearby market, which has helped us introduce some variety into our vegetable curry and rice rotation. It’s the small things that make all the difference!
Pit and Peak
Pit: Tuk-tuk drivers, lack of toilet paper and having to answer questions about American politics (we are starting to call this an apology tour).
Peak: Finding a restaurant that serves spaghetti, mosquito nets and the incredible hospitality of the locals.