The international arrivals area in Sri Lanka's major airport has two kinds of shop: the usual duty-free perfume and alcohol stores, and shop after shop stuffed with second-hand home appliances. It's a fitting first impression of a country that hasn't yet begun to pander to Western expectations, palates and wallets.
I went to Sri Lanka last August, along with 22 of my colleagues and friends, with Habitat for Humanity. We helped to build a village for 24 local families displaced by three decades of civil war. The country has been frozen in time while it dealt with war, poverty and unfairly, a huge tsunami, so the tourist industry is only just now re-emerging. Less developed and Western-saturated than neighbouring Thailand or Indonesia, Sri Lanka boasts just as dazzling an array of temples, luxury resorts, white-sand beaches, wildlife and food. But I was there to experience the other side of the country - the human fallout we Westerners rarely see from the comfort of our resorts.
For six sweaty, exhausting days, I was bussed, along with 200 other volunteers, to and from a patch of red earth surrounded by coconut palms. I was put into a team, allocated an already-poured foundation and introduced to our home-owner.
With three grown-up children, Rani, a widow, had been moving between their overcrowded houses for the past 10 years. Other families had been squatting in shacks or paying unbelievable amounts to board. By New Zealand standards, the tiny, three-roomed homes we were building were nothing more than large garden sheds. To Rani and the others they represented a dream life: growing vegetables, having grandchildren to stay and, luxury of luxuries, their very own outhouses.
We mixed cement with shovels, carried mortar up scary DIY scaffolding, and braved scrapes, funny tummies and scorpions. By 9am every day temperatures were in the high 30s. The locals looked at us pink-faced softies with bemused pity, as we chugged litres of tepid, electrolyte-laced water. I've never been more aware of the uselessness of my mostly desk-bound body.
But after a few days, my muscles stopped aching, I stopped minding about my permanently damp clothes and our team fell into comfortable roles. We were building colleagues, had work-in-progress meetings and made friends literally at the water cooler.
My normal life of writing and wearing heels seemed weirdly foreign now that building consumed most of my daylight hours.
And then suddenly it was all over. Our team made an inept attempt at landscaping, cut the ribbon on Rani's new house, and ate delicacies that represented an embarrassingly large proportion of her income.
Her extended family packed into the dim front room where we exchanged gifts and words of appreciation through a translator. Not usually given to sentiment, I found myself swept along by our makeshift ceremony. Even Stan, the tough-guy builder, had a few secret sniffs.
The next day, catapulted out of my clay-covered, hard-graft lifestyle, I was keen to spend some tourist dollars in relative luxury.
Even with my bias for New Zealand's natural beauty, Sri Lanka's hill country is breathtaking. Far above sea level, it was surprisingly chilly after the heat of the build area, with an eerie ethereal quality from the afternoon mists that settle around the tea plants. People scratch out a living here: shacks dot the plantations, and people carry loads for kilometres around steep hills.
The cooler temperatures once made it a favourite with British colonials. A surreal relic, The Hill Club serves English food in rooms filled with pictures of the Queen and shellacked deer heads. We dined silver service for the cost of a Kiwi take-away meal, waited on by a man in white gloves, too-big shoes and little English.
On our way back to the sea, we stopped by the roadside to watch an elephant and her calf eating fruit the locals were lobbing over the fence. Further on, we ate unpasteurised buffalo curd, kept cool in wet terracotta pots and served with palm syrup "honey". It was a whirlwind intro into the beleaguered, beautiful country we'd only seen glimpses of from behind our mortar buckets.
After staying in basic, but comfortable tourist digs, we checked into The Last House, a cinnamon-scented, saffron-and-teal-coloured guest house with a private beach, in-house chef and frangipani-blossom-covered swimming pool. There was even a puppy. Lazing around in the sun for two days was probably a waste with so much of the country still unseen, but the beautiful grounds were almost impossible to leave.
We did make it out for an occasional meal though. On yet another empty white-sand beach, we dined by kerosene-lamp light. The "menus" were the trays of seafood eagerly proffered by the young men who'd caught it that morning.
Another small restaurant attached to a family home served up some of the finest curry we'd had. The family was large and gracious, with a passion for yoga and big plans. We came back later to learn Sri Lankan cooking from the mother, then served up our efforts to the family. Rather, they served it up to us, in enormous and ever-growing quantities. With three generations and nine people, it was a tight fit in their house with one bedroom, a kitchen and a front room.
Sri Lanka, by and large, is raw. With its scary, windy roads, negotiable traffic rules and underdeveloped tourist industry, it's what I imagine Bali or Thailand was like 30 years ago. To me, that's a major positive - you're there as a guest, rather than a demi-celebrity. We came away feeling like we got a truer slice of life than you'd get in other countries - the people eager to share their lives and homes, the unavoidable poverty (and generosity) and the relatively untouched landscapes.
Don't wait to see it for yourself. It won't be long until the tourist polish is applied and the airport second-hand electronics shops are replaced with the usual array of overpriced, made-in-China souvenirs.
Sri Lanka Checklist
Singapore Airlines connects Auckland to Colombo daily.
For information on Habitat for Humanity's projects around the world, go to habitat.org.nz