Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland in Tissa, Sri Lanka

chandrika“Do you want some drink? Perhaps a bottle of French wine? We have red wine and white wine. Maybe you’d like a cheap wine?”

Dinner at Chandrika Hotel, an aspiring “boutique hotel” in Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka. Like so many service establishments in this developing South Asian country, they try so hard to give you what you want. After all, you’re a part of the relative trickle of Western tourists that visit the country, particularly compared with its neighbors just north in India and across the Indian Ocean in Southeast Asia.

Hotel managers here are well aware of the impact a positive TripAdvisor review can have on business. They often don’t really know what exactly you want, however, because regular Western tourism is only just now picking up–and let’s face it, we’re a fickle lot with inconsistent demands, complaints, and compliments.

I think that explains Chandrika’s bizarrely faux-formal inclusive dinner.

Our short two-night stay was sandwiched around a morning safari in Yala National Park, and expectations were modest: clean, air-conditioned rooms; clean pool; quiet; convenient access to Yala. Check, check, check. Perfectly fine little place with a friendly manager that helped arrange our safari and, after checkout, assigned somebody to stand with us at the “bus stop” out front to ensure we flagged the correct one down.

We weren’t sure what to expect at dinner. We definitely didn’t expect a sitdown affair that felt like a small wedding banquet with strangers. The dining room was spartan and nondescript: white panel floor, black tables, ceiling fans. Teenaged servers dressed in white button-up shirts and black slacks looked on anxiously as guests filed in, about five or six tables in all. Our server asked if we wanted wine, but despite his hopeful earnesty (and management-prompted upsell) we had to decline; something about the humidity and overly optimistic pricing.

Our first course was appropriately, perfectly absurd and out of context here in southern Sri Lanka: a hot, watery, tasteless bowl of spinach soup served with a basket of dinner rolls and tray of butter cubes on ice. Soup slurps, the clinking of silverware, and Muzak renditions of popular Christmas songs like “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” wafted through the open-air dining room on this steamy night in May.

I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if the main course was pepperoni pizza with a side of iceberg lettuce salad; instead, an authentic, well-prepared Sri Lankan spread arrived in waves. Papadum, rice topped with shaved coconut, curried vegetables, spiced cabbage, ash plantains, green beans, daal, eggplant–refills on everything if you wanted it. Dessert was a scoop of malty chocolate ice cream.

After the table was cleared, to the kid’s delight I gave in to one final upsell stab and ordered a glass of Chivas. They were out; I instead got a bottle of beer and asked to have it delivered to our room. Ten minutes later we heard a knock on our door, then glass shatter on the pavement: the kid must have slipped and dropped the bottle. He was initially nowhere to be seen, but when we stepped outside he darted back from around the side of the building and quietly, anxiously, casting furtive glances over his shoulder in the direction of the restaurant, said “Madame, madame, I’m sorry, your beer.”

We told him not to worry about it; he bent over and quickly picked up the shards of glass with his bare hands, squeegied the beer into the grass, then skipped back to the restaurant. If we asked for another beer he’d clearly have to pay for it out of pocket, and probably incur the wrath of his boss too.

I hope Sri Lanka’s endearing lack of total understanding, despite best efforts, for many Western tourism wants and needs never changes (though of course that’s probably impossible). I want to slurp hot, watery bowls of spinach soup in the company of awkward Western families on a humid night in May while listening to Christmas music. I do also hope, however, that a day soon comes when the wants and needs of the ones struggling to serve us are given just as much thought and attention as ours.

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