Budget travel versus luxury travel: Why going budget has advantages beyond price
Athula looks concerned, making a pinching motion with his hand as he stands over me.
"Sir, do you have a problem with your fingers?" he asks.
Athula's father also looks concerned, and is also standing there watching me eat. Athula's mother, too, is here, as is Athula's sister, his aunt and his cousin, all of them gathered in a little semi-circle of sympathy around my table.
I laugh and try to explain to Athula that no, my fingers are fine. It's my technique that's the problem. I've only been in Sri Lanka a couple of days, and while I'm trying to do things the local way, to eat with my fingers, balling food up and shovelling it towards my face, I'm far from expert.
In fact, there is probably more of Athula's mum's excellent dhal on my forearms and face than in my stomach. The family watches on, bemused.
Not everyone at Athula's restaurant – which is called David's; more on that later – gets such personal attention. It's just that it's a relatively new business, and I'm the first foreigner who has ever stepped through the door.
"How does the food taste, sir?" Athula asks. "It's not too spicy?" He points to the woman standing next to him. "It was made by my mother. It's her traditional recipes, sir."
I assure Athula that it tastes good. In fact, it's better than good. It's delicious. It's one of the best meals I've had in Sri Lanka, and I've had some good ones. The plate in front of me – wrapped in a plastic bag for "hygiene" – is filled with dhal, rice, potato curry, chicken curry, a stir-fry of capsicums and chillies, and a coconut sambal, and I'm doing my best to eat it while sweat pours down my face and mingles with the curry and sambal smeared on my cheeks.
Athula pulls up a plastic chair next to me. "Tell me sir, where are you from? No, no, I'm bothering you, sir. I'll wait until you finish."
And so he does, and I eventually do. It's then that Athula finds out I'm Australian. He has a connection to Australia, he says. He once met an Australian man while he was working at a hotel. This guy offered to help him study, and sent him $150 a month so he could make ends meet.
"His name is Mr David," Athula says. "That's why I named this restaurant 'David's'. To show respect for him."
What a sweet story. In fact, what a sweet family. This whole experience, lunch in central Sri Lanka, a random stop-off on a long journey, has been fun. Meeting Athula and his family, trying to eat with my fingers, chatting about our lives and how different they are and how we can bond over things like curry and cricket, it's been a blast. And the whole meal cost $4.
Contrast that with the dinner I'll go on to have later tonight, at a flash, luxury resort just down the road from Athula's. There the meal will be a buffet of "international cuisine", and to get to it I'll have to push through a crowd of Chinese guys with their T-shirts pulled up over their bellies trying to keep cool. To eat it I'll use a knife and fork. The whole meal will be safe, nice, and comfortable. And it will cost $45.
You can guess, obviously, which experience is better. The hotel is nice, no question. Even the food is OK, although the Sri Lankan cuisine is a toned down version of Athula's mother's food, a pinch on the cheek when you're expecting a punch in the face. But it isn't fun, and it isn't a story.
It's not, for me, what travel is about.
I don't want to be a reverse snob here. I don't want to say that all luxury travel is bad and all budget travel is good. Because I enjoy luxury. I love a swim-up bar. I go nuts for a cocktail with an umbrella.
But luxury travel is a holiday. It's a break. A buffet of international cuisine is not an experience, and it is not a story.
If you want a story, something like meeting Athula and his family, you have to go budget. If you want a whole crowd of Sri Lankans hanging around your table while you battle your way through mum's curry with your fingers, you have to go budget. If you want to meet a lovely guy with a mysterious Australian benefactor who is giving the restaurant business a go, you have to go budget.
You may not always enjoy budget travel, and it may not always be pretty. But you'll have stories, and you'll have experiences. And you'll learn to eat with your fingers.