Romesh Ranganathan is from Crawley in Sussex, but his parents come from Sri Lanka. Worried her son would lose touch with his roots, the 37-year-old comic’s mum took him on a cultural crash course. This is what he discovered…
DON’T MENTION THE WAR
My family is Tamil and we were affected by the conflict that ended in 2009. We visited Jaffna, which is still war-torn in places, and some people are unhappy about how Tamils have been treated. It’s a complicated situation, but the general feeling is that they want to draw a line under it and they are feeling very positive about the future.
TRY THE LOCAL CUISINE
There are cafés called bake houses all over the island, serving spicy vegetable rolls, chicken patties and fish cutlets for 40 rupees each – that’s 20p! They can look grubby but they’re really lovely. Pretty much all restaurants serve a dish called rice and curry, one portion of rice with five or six different curries, all really good. If you’re vegetarian the selection is incredible. Everyone drinks Lion beer, chilled, and look out for arrack, which is a coconut-based spirit.
LISTEN TO THE ISLAND
Sri Lankans love cricket, but they really love music. There are speakers outside shops and sound systems in the street. You hear it everywhere, especially a folk style called bayila. If you go to a nightclub in a city like Trincomalee or Colombo they play generic western music, but at some point it becomes traditional Sri Lankan and girls in saris come onto the dancefloor. You can only stay if you buy a garland and give it to a girl. I tried to sidestep it by buying one and wearing it myself. But no, you can’t get around the garland system in Sri Lanka.
CLIMB A (VERY SMALL) MOUNTAIN
I’m that guy at dinner parties making other people feel bad about their holidays. “Oh, you did that, did you? That’s very touristy. What we did was the real experience.” But I did climb Sigiriya, the famous Lion Rock, with my mum – it was on the list of things she wanted me to do, along with a Sri Lankan martial art called Angampora. And Sigiriya was amazing. There’s a ruined palace on the top. Looking out from there it seems as if the tree canopy just blankets the whole of the country.
FIND THE GOD VIBE
Sri Lanka is a religious place – you hear the Muslim call to prayer and you see limes and chillies hanging from tuk-tuks [motorised rickshaws] as an offering to the Hindu gods. Mum and I went on pilgrimage to Kataragama, a city of ancient monasteries. There were lots of religious rituals happening; men sticking little spears through their faces, others having hooks put into their backs. I’m not massively spiritual, but there was a contagious euphoria; you’d have to be very cynical not to pick up on that vibe.
GO FISHING — AKA STICK DIPPING
The stilt fishermen at Ahangama on the southern tip of the island are symbolic of Sri Lanka, so I had to have a go. I was ready to come down from the stilt after seven or eight minutes, but I was up there a lot longer than that. The view, the sunset, the beach and everything was amazing, and watching the other fishermen – who actually knew what they were doing – catching fish was pretty cool. But I’m a vegan; I didn’t want to catch a fish. So essentially it was stick dipping, that’s what I did.
BEWARE THE ELEPHANTS
We visited elephants at the Millennium Elephant Foundation near Rambukkana. A lot of the elephants there belonged to temples that used them in festivals with fireworks, so they are traumatised. But to make money, the sanctuary had to let people go on elephant rides, which they didn’t really want to do. It was a dilemma for me. There are several elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka; it’s worth checking how they treat their animals before you give them your money.
PICK YOUR BEACH
My mum’s from Batticaloa on the east coast, which was badly affected by the 2004 tsunami. It’s a beautiful beach, but nobody had made any attempt to clean up litter. It was really sad, covered in debris. Arugam Bay further south is very different – a surfers’ paradise, lots of dreadlocks and people wearing sarongs and looking gorgeous.
Trincomalee has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, but Colombo beach was absolutely jam-packed– you’d need to get down there at 6am to mark out your territory.
LEARN THE LANGUAGE
There are several languages on the island and I didn’t know any. People assumed I was Sri Lankan and would speak Tamil to me. I would have to say embarrassingly, “I’m English,” and they looked at me like I was taking the mickey. “Are you? Because you look more Sri Lankan than most of the people round here…”