In the past few years, something of an obsession has developed amongst travelers (both short-term annual vacationers and less conventional long-term ones) in “living like locals” when abroad. It starts before we even embark on our journey, with carefully pruned packing lists so that we aren’t outed on sight alone as the foreigners that we are by something as superficial as our clothing, and we spend hours researching all the best “off the beaten path” attractions that only the locals frequent so that we can escape our fellow tourists once we arrive.
But I always wonder why so many people would want to live like a local when the option exists for you to go one step further and actually live with locals; I firmly believe that if you want to quickly uncover the heart of a place, there is no better way to do so than to meet its people and, better yet, be invited into their homes. When it comes to authentic local travel, surely there can be nothing better than this: not only do you gain insight into the culture and a new way of life, but you also get the chance to form friendships and new connections, which we’ve swiftly come to see as one of the most powerful and wonderful things about traveling. As luck would have it, in Sri Lanka, homestays are abundant and readily available, so experiencing the warmth and hospitality of the country’s residents couldn’t be easier.
In my last post, I wrote about our marathon travel day that took us down to the tiny town of Ambalangoda. No one questioned what about this town made it so special that we decided a 24-hour travel day was worth the journey, but I figure it’s a fair question to ask, especially since, even if you’re a Sri Lankan geography buff, it’s probably not one of the first places you’d think of visiting.
But our decision to visit Ambalangoda was one of the simplest ones we ever made: I was browsing AirBnB looking for reasonable lodging somewhere between Colombo and Galle and a particular homestay jumped out at me. Not only was the price great ($11US for two people!), but something about the photos and the family featured within them just immediately called out to me. When I showed the listing to Tony, he agreed that this was a place we needed to stay.
Even though it took us eons to reach Ambalangoda (which is really almost a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of place) in our shiny red tuk tuk, immediately upon our arrival we knew we had made the right decision. Coasting King Tuk through the gate into the family compound (which felt more like a lush tropical garden), our host family immediately gathered around, grins blazing, to admire our ride and usher us eagerly into their home. The interior wasn’t anything fancy or ostentatious, but you could immediately tell from the personal items scattered about and the knickknacks on the walls and tables, that this was a place for family, a place where life was lived rich and full. And for one, night we would get to be a part of it.
Even if we were slightly dazed and confused following our epic travel day, I can’t imagine a better introduction to Sri Lanka than the one received. We were welcomed so warmly into their home, and felt that we immediately had a new group of friends. We stayed up later than we thought possible chatting with our hosts about the many guests they had hosted over the years (in addition to being on AirBnB, they had also hosted many CouchSurfers!) and their own travel experiences, as well as their hopes and dreams for the future. Shakthi, an affable teen with a passion for cricket, was more than happy to expand our pitiful knowledge of the sport when a match between two Indian teams popped up on the television, while his younger sister diligently crafted a delicate paper lantern for an upcoming Buddhist festival. We hadn’t even been in the country for an entire day, but already we were in the thick of a boisterous and loving family. We loved every second of it.
And the food! If ever there were a country where any extra effort required to sample homecooked food is worth, surely that must be Sri Lanka. Part of what had drawn me to this particular homestay was the promise that Nayana, the mother hen of the family, was a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen when it came to Sri Lankan delicacies; we were not let down on this score. For dinner we chowed down on ladles of creamy dahl thickened with coconut milk, crispy fried fish drizzled with a lip-tingling spicy chili sauce, fresh salad & crunch papadams, and mountains of fluffy rice. Nayana continued to pile our plates high and we ate unprotestingly until our bellies bloated and to eat any more would have been painful.
In the morning, we awoke to a magnificent Sri Lankan breakfast spread of coconut roti toasted over an open flame served with woodapple jam, soft squares of milk rice, and cubes of kalu dodol—a devilishly sweet treat made from coconut milk, rice flower, and a Sri Lankan specialty called jaggery (palm sugar). To round everything out, we had copious cups of sugary milky tea and the sweetest little bananas we had ever had the good fortune to taste.
Never have we so quickly learned not just what the locals in a country eat, but how they eat as well. Swiftly we realized that Sri Lankans like to eat frequently and with gusto. Although we had eaten more for breakfast than we normally would in two meals combined, not three hours later, our hosts were tempting us with fresh crabs that they wanted to prepare into a traditional Sri Lankan curry for us. Though our stomachs protested and we needed to be heading out for our next destination, there was no way could turn down that offer!
To try to work up an appetite for the feast we suspected would soon follow, we asked Shakthi to take us for a tour of the neighborhood. With him acting as our guide, we ambled towards the local temple. Down cheerful laneways strewn with flowers the color of candy and lined with houses that seem plucked out of a colonial fairytale we strolled while a shy mongoose darted alongside us through the brush.
The temple grounds were quiet and serene, housing a white dagoba awaiting its annual coat of fresh paint and a centuries old banyan tree, revered for its holy properties. Frangipani blossoms carpeted the ground, and their perfume—alongside that of the sweet cinnamon trees scattered around the complex—catapulted us into olfactory bliss. As we wandered through the temple, a trio of mischievous young scamps in training to be monks shadowed us, snickering and giggling whenever we waved and said hello.
Then it was back down the lanes, across the main road, and over to the beach. What is so shocking about the beaches in Sri Lanka is not that they are the perfect combination of sea and sand (though they are), but that they are impossibly clean for Asian beaches AND utterly deserted. With miles of pristine beach ringing the country like a coastal halo, it’s all too easy to find huge swaths of it that you can claim for yourself and live out your secret “desert island” fantasies on for a couple of hours. We strolled along the sand, letting the warm waves tickle our toes, and scrambled up a rocky knoll to enjoy the view from a higher perch.
By the time we returned home, we were more than ready to tuck into our first Sri Lankan curry. We have eaten some ridiculously good crab on this trip, but believe me when I say this iteration, made with crabs fresh from local fishermen, might have been the best of them all. Although I had been expecting something akin to a South Indian curry, the flavors of this curry—based on coconut milk and lots of leafy herbs—were much more reminiscent of the West Indian curries I grew up eating in my Nanny’s kitchen. Each bite was like a flavorful blast from my past, and the only sounds at the table were the contented sighs of everyone sucking and slurping every last morsel of sweet crab from its shell. I maintain that there’s no elegant way to eat crab—you’ve got to use your hands and be ready for a mess—but, like warriors who make it through a battle together, you’ll never feel closer to your dining companions than you do after you’ve demolished an army of crab.
The curry was the perfect balance of rich yet light, satisfying without being stodgy. We ate incredibly well throughout Sri Lanka, feasting on some of the best seafood of our entire trip while on the island, and this curry definitely sits near the top of that list. By far the best meals we enjoyed while in the country were the ones made by regular people in basic kitchens based on recipes passed down from one generation to the next and this was a wonderful start to three weeks of connecting with locals across plates piled high with glorious food.
So it was with bellies impossibly full (you will never go hungry in Sri Lanka, this is a fact) that we reluctantly bid farewell to our fantastic hosts in Ambalangoda and hit the road (already three hours behind schedule) once more. The memories we shared with this family are ones I know we’ll carry with us always and, hopefully, will carry us back to Ambalangoda itself some day. Our stay with them was more than just a place to sleep and fill our stomachs (though we did both very well), it was also a lovely way to truly live and breathe the local way of life and let it slip under our skins, if only for one day.
Tell Us: Have you ever done a homestay while traveling? If so, what was your favorite experience? If not, is it something you would like to try?