A weekly ode to the joys of moaning about your holiday.
If she hadn't been on automatic pilot and looking down when she said it, it would've felt like pretty much the greatest compliment you could give me. "Any skin whitening lotion for you?" As a fair-skinned chap with a lifelong complex about not being as tanned as others, the notion I was brown enough that I might want to dial things back a shade or two was flattering (not to mention unprecedented).
This was in Hong Kong a few years ago and I was picking up some deodorant at a pharmacy where checkout staff were obviously instructed to get customers buying skin-whitening lotion in addition to whatever else they were purchasing. Like New Zealand petrol stations where the attendant might throw in, "Can I interest you in two chocolate bars for just $3?", there was a basket of the whitening tubes sitting by the till.
"No, I'll be fine thanks". No eye contact was made and I made my way out the door. I'd been backpacking in Southeast Asia for a couple of months before reaching Hong Kong so I was at my tan maximum — but we're not exactly talking Barry Gibb in Miami circa 1978.
So no, I wasn't in the market for any skin whitening products. But being in Asia for an extended period had not only exposed me to a lot of sun, but also to the differing attitudes people have towards it. The juxtaposition is well known: sunburnt tourists of a European persuasion trying desperately to tan their skin in the tropical heat versus the people who were born there doing everything they can to avoid it.
It's one thing noticing that locals in Southeast Asia use sun umbrellas and shun the beach, but things take a sombre turn when you hear stories — as I did the first time I was in Thailand — of children being made fun of by their own parents for having naturally darker skin than the rest of their family. I had a guide in Thailand once who had a kind of golden-honey complexion it was very easy to be jealous of. And yet, he walked around all day in the 35-degree heat wearing arm socks. Arm socks!
I teased him for his arm socks and then wished I hadn't when he told me he used to scrub his skin raw as a child in the hopes he'd look more pale. The sociological reasons still boil down to the judgmental idea of poorer people working outside in the fields (and therefore growing darker) while wealthier people work predominantly indoors. To think this mindset permeates through so much of society right across Asia, so that skin-whitening products are ubiquitous enough to be bonus, on-a-whim purchases at pharmacy counters, is genuinely sad.
Sri Lanka's unusual monsoon seasons
My wife and I will be in Sri Lanka in a few days so here's a quick tip if you're thinking of doing the same and making for what looks like such a stunning country: don't go in May or October. I've spoken with so many Kiwis over the years who haven't checked when the monsoon season is for their dream tropical holiday destination, or didn't realise it differed for different parts of the country. Sometimes this doesn't matter and it's just a bit of a late afternoon downpour you have to contend with. Other times it means days of torrential rain and return-tans that are anything but Barry Gibb in Miami circa 1978.
Sri Lanka, though, is unusual in the sense that there are two monsoons. For the southern part of the country (which includes some of the most populated areas and the most beautiful beaches) it buckets down in May but not in April or June. May is an isolated month of stay-inside mayhem. Then it's largely fine and sunny again until October when the same thing happens. And while November, December and January can also be wet (and rain can fall at any time of year), May and October are your two months to avoid.
Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's Weekend Collective and blogs at RoxboroghReport.com.