So what is it really like you ask? Well...
It's hot, dusty orange roads span the length and breadth of a vibrant and fascinating country the size of Scotland. This may seem small, but the place has a real knack of making your journeys double in time. The constant beeping and honking from the haberdashery of traffic and people filter the ears like music through headphones with the volume turned up too high. This soon becomes your accepted norm.
The zebra crossings are an out of place foreign concept for most; walkers stand patiently waiting for the oblivious traffic to halt, a wait they shall endure all day unless they take that self-conscious hop out into the middle of the wacky races. Paths fall away from immaculate paving into potholes and crumbled drainage drops; keep your eyes firmly on your feet or risk tripping up into an uncomposed mess.
Towns and main streets bustle top to toe with produce spilling out onto the paths in front of them. From shoe sellers to halal petti kades, mechanics to vegetable stalls, mobile repair hole in the walls and pirate DVD huts next to temples.
Opposites sit side by side, natural and considered the norm.
Toilets consist of a sunken bowl, bucket and hose, and a confused and slightly reluctant tourist on the other end of them. Elephants roam on main highways after dusk, bird sounds come from small rubber - like geckos (forever omnipresent on every wall), frogs find a home in your toilet bowl, flying cockroaches land on your shoulder and there is always one mosquito that gets into your net come lights out.
The only place outside of my home country that I have called a home. 8 years later, from the very first visit, my admiration, excitement, love, and joy for the country has only ever grown. In truth, I've grown up with it. A considerable portion of my memories from recent years have been split between here (the UK) and there. You could say we have a lot of history together. Well – a quarter of my life!
I had a motto of never visiting the same place twice, but 8 years later, and 12 trips through I think that I can safely say I have thrown that idea out. Mind you, this was declared at the teenage age when travel to me was defined by a few weeks on the typical British holiday every year. I can say I knew nothing, immature about what travel was really about. I am by no means an expert now, but practice makes near-perfect (as close to the word that represents an ideal that is non-existent) and travel makes the wise.
The years between us have seen friendships form and drift apart, some loves lost, others gratefully ended, applauded as they depart; tempers flared, hearts forgiven, new lifestyles embraced, and most recently, a much-needed break. Many new chapters were created with each significant visit, and I think will be for every one to come; Just like the rings in a tree, this place adds a new layer of life experience to me each time I step foot on its soil.
Many have asked me why here? Why my country? I cannot give a simple, short answer. I will explain in detail and recall memories, places and moments because that is my sentence, my answer to their question. I cannot summarise such a significant part of my life, I have noticed that I cannot hide it from my face either. I tell people don't start me on this topic unless you have a few hours spare.
The real jewel is that you don't see, or even know about it unless you get off of the tourist path, and stick around to really live in the place. That is the biggest revelation that I have made in the name of real travel - to live in your destination, not to just pass through it.
Away from the tranquility and other-worldliness of the hotels, dogs bark day and night, pacing the streets playing Russian roulette with their lives. Strangers will offer an invite to enjoy a meal with their family; smiling faces will be seen left right and center - along with the permeating stares in every direction - the sight of white skin, you are new here.
You ride your first tuk-tuk and you are hooked for a lifetime. Find a hidden cove, swim in the clear blue waters come sundown and be swept in the smashing waves on the beach, walking home with sand in places you didn't think sand could reach. Walk along the railway tracks, sit on the breakwaters watching the city go home for another night as you feel the bone-shuddering of the earth rumble under passing trains. A week later you spend 8 hours on that train without a seat, sitting on the floor of the catering carriage feeling hopeless; visit somewhere nondescript and ordinary and it turns out to be the most awe-inspiring location of the entire trip, the memories forever lodged in your mind.
Your first Sri Lankan curry couldn't look further away from what you know a curry to look like; 5 dishes with bizarre names and so strong they make you cry on a regular basis. Shortly after, Noodles, curries, Dhal and Rotti become your normal breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the sound of the omnipresent bun van in the distance gets you giddy with childlike excitement when you can get your fill of those delectable short eats.
You meet somebody famous - "It's a small island", this country feeds off of connections. Your friends will get you 'local prices' while everyone else asks "Where do you come from"? "How long do you stay"? "You like my country"?
There is a national holiday at least once a month, where the temples and mosques fill to the brim, the people spilling out onto the streets - Poya days are a beautiful reminder of the human connection. The differing religious groups clash, making headlines and painting a picture of instability. Relatives tell you that it is an unsafe destination, yet when you are here, even, daring to be in the 'areas of conflict', you would never know. You have never felt so at ease.
It is a land of opposites, of contradictions and developments. Each year that passes sees a new layer of transformation and development. It is a country with many names; behind the scenery lies a wealth of stories. Stories which help to unravel the essence of Sri Lanka. But it is only visible to those who see something on their first visit. It is then, you will return if you feel something, that unexplainable attachment. The anticipation of the unknown. The adventure into somewhere you feel so at home with. Before you know it, it is 4 years later and you have part of your life there. It's your home. Because your heart is definitely there.