Written by Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan
01 December 2020
Sri Lanka is a country of colour and beauty, from the Sari and gems in Colombo to the mighty Sigiriya, once home to the Kings Palace.
I am one of those females who loves organising other people’s lives – call me manipulative if you must – but I just know when two people would be perfect for each other. Even if they don’t know it. So if a friend breaks up with their partner, they know where to come.
So can you imagine my glee when I stepped off the plane at Colombo Airport and opened the Sunday Observer to read a classified section entitled Marriage Proposals. I could barely contain my jetlagged little mind.
Just think of all those gorgeous Sri Lankan men I could set my friends up with, such as: “Govi Buddhist, respectable, wealthy (over 60 million). Businessman based in a prime area in Colombo, handsome with personality; 5’10”. Divorced (innocent party) invites an English educated, pretty, kind partner from a good family below 35. Divorcees or widows welcome. Caste, religion, dowry immaterial. Please reply with all details, contact number and especially horoscope.”
The ads all read like this. Wealthy men who were an innocent divorced party who needed your horoscope before you could walk down the aisle. It sounded easy. Perhaps I could convince The Sydney Morning Herald to start up a classified section entitled Marriage Proposal. I’d be putting an ad in every week (not for myself, of course, but for my far-flung friends). I filed the newspaper away in my luggage – I had not come to Sri Lanka to find a husband; I was here for the shopping.
My guide, a friendly Sri Lankan Seinfeld look-alike, greeted me at customs. “Are you born?” he said, which I later found out meant hello. (I think it is spelt differently.)
“Are you born?” I said, knowing it had to be some sort of greeting up there with the likes of aloha, bula and ciao. Then it was down to business. “Have you heard of the Muslim markets?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“No! You must have.” (I had done my research;I’d talked to a travel-writer friend). “The Muslim markets. It’s filled with silks and saris, you must know it.”
“Muslim markets? No, I’m sorry. I haven’t heard of them.”
After ten hours even in business class, I was champing at the bit and armed with credit cards and a shopping list that started with at least two gorgeous to-die-for silk saris and one incredibly large but cheap Ceylon Sapphire.’ How could this guide not have heard of the Muslim markets?
He smiled, hoping to placate me with tales of other things Sri Lankan. He didn’t know me. I had a bee in my bonnet, and I was going to find those Muslim Markets.
We drove through the empty streets of Columbo. Buddha statues loomed high on almost every corner and neon lights dusty and flickering in the early daylight.
This scene was worlds apart from the afternoon hustle and bustle of three-wheelers or tuk-tuks weaving in and out of traffic, the sun streaming down while drivers composed symphonies from car horns.
Laughing schoolchildren skipped along in lines – some with shoes, most without – yet all seemed happy. I joined them in their happiness. We were on our way to Pettah, where he promised I’d find my saris. (I’d asked at least ten people that day if they knew the Muslim markets and nobody had so I had accepted Pettah as the place to go.)
He was right. The whole main street was filled with sari shops. It was your picture-postcard version of Sri Lanka and here I was, the only fair-haired woman in sight, standing right in the middle of it. I timidly looked at the shops, at first afraid to go in, but my confidence grew with the number of sari shops I saw.
Finally, one shop beckoned with its engaging fabrics and designs. It turned out to be a sari wedding shop. The silks were piled high in an array of colours battling for my attention. I just wanted to rip them all down and unravel them immediately. This did not seem possible as behind the counter stood about five Sri Lankans all awaiting me.
These guys were great. They had no qualms about fulfilling my desires, and soon the counter was littered in whites and golds, maroons and purples, tans and beiges, each bursting with embroidery.
Eventually, I chose an aubergine and a tan silk sari, which cost me about $140 each. The saris are about 6 metres in length and range in price from about $30 to $800 and, of course, you must bargain when you buy anything in Sri Lanka.
My other guide Cecile, the blue-eyed Sri Lankan who’d retired from the railways as an inspector, assured me I had received a good price. A guide like Cecile is a great asset. They can ensure you don’t get ripped off. I later purchased a sapphire with Cecile and spent the rest of my trip seeing if I could get a better price without him. I couldn’t.
We Australians are often very sceptical of people’s help and especially in a foreign country think there must be something in it for them. In Sri Lanka, this isn’t the case.
Sri Lankans are genuinely friendly. They want to encourage tourism to their shores and are certainly going the right way about it.
Besides shopping in Sri Lanka, there’s a mind-blowing amount of activities to do and places to see. The beaches are pretty good, even for Australian standards.
There are tea plantations, Mr Fernando’s tea factory, Dilmah, the tooth relic temple at Kandy, the Pindawalah Elephant orphanage where you can see elephants up close, bathing in the river or frolicking around the sanctuary.
Then there is the mighty Sigiriya, a colossal rock that once held the King’s palace. Or if you are a follower of Deepak Chopra, you can experience Ayurvedic massage and potions and herbs that cure everything from arthritis to overeating. I bought a strange concoction of lemon juice, garlic and honey that promises to make me thin without any diet or any exercise. I’ll let you know how it goes.
PS When I returned home, I rang my friend to ask her exactly where the Muslim markets were and she replied, “What markets? I never told you that!”