One of my best friends for the past 20-plus years is Sri Lankan. I was essentially “adopted” by their family during my formative years (although I have to believe it was mainly due to my affinity for the spicy Sri Lankan curry flavors).

But in all of these years, I never sincerely thought about their distant island-nation — until this year. I decided to take a short sabbatical to the country. A short, surprising sabbatical. Sri Lanka would reveal its varied landscapes, its varied cultures, its history, its troubles, and more.

1 — Tea Country

Being an island-nation - roughly the size of West Virginia - with over a thousand miles of coastline, one does not expect to see much more than bountiful beaches. But take a short drive inland to the Central Highland’s mountains and this stunning tea country is found.

2 - Women Carrying Tea Bags

Up until the 1860s the country (then named Ceylon) used their hillsides to grow coffee. But the industry was severely damaged by a coffee leaf disease in the year 1869. Scotsman James Taylor and Englishman Sir Thomas Lipton capitalized on the land, climate, and timing to cultivate Sri Lanka’s future tea industry. Sri Lanka is now one of the top three world producers of tea; trailing only the colossal countries of India and China.

3 - Sea of Rice

Not only can one expect to view the Indian Ocean around the country, but pass seas of rice crops within its interior.

4 - Rainforest

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. While the country covers only 0.013% of the world’s land surface, the island is the home to a high number of endemic plants, reptiles, and amphibians.

5 - Unawanatuna Beach

Unawanatuna Beach, on the southern coast, is one of the many breathtaking beaches of Sri Lanka. Although hosting various hotels, offering convenient services, receiving great waves for surfing, and having a very comfortable climate, the beach is not overly crowded — like many beaches of Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 2004.

6 - Girl with Fruit

Sri Lanka needs tourism to return to their economy. After the tsunami of 2004 the visitor count has dropped severely, only to be creeping towards the levels of before. The hotels, the beaches, the tours, the restaurants, the street-side fruit stands and more await travelers and locals alike to be enjoyed.

7 - Fish Market Negombo

Every early morning well before sunrise, except on Sundays, the fish market of Negombo comes alive with a fresh fish stench. While this is no surprise as boat after boat pulls into the small harbor to unload their smelly cargo, what is a further feast for the eyes occurs once the fish are laid down on the nearby cold concrete. A verifiable Wall Street stock-like commotion begins with yelling of prices and attendants walking around with their small pads of paper, making quick marks for bids and sellers.

8 - Colombo’s Busy Capital City Style

Mornings in the capital city, Colombo, are hectic. Along a major streets in Colombo are flavorful food markets starting early in the AM. It feels like a mix of Bangkok’s overload of stimuli and energy, Bolivia’s pressured public transportation routes, and a heavy western-world flair.

9 - Fruit

One of the many items in these food markets is the jackfruit (pictured). This deliciously gigantic delight is native to Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. But Sri Lanka does not stop there in its offerings — make sure to try the wood apple and king’s coconuts among other more common tasty fruits.

10 - Colombo Suburbs

Only a few miles away from the hustle bustle of Colombo’s city center, one can step back hundreds (if not thousands) of years by wandering through the capital’s suburbs. It is truly amazing how geographically close together people can live, but in entirely different ages. For a great Colombo City tour (and hiking tours through parts of Sri Lanka), check out: Let's Trek Lanka.

11 - Man in Sarong

Sri Lanka has been under the rule of many over the centuries — various kingdoms fought for its control for thousands of years, followed by Portuguese and then the Dutch in the 1500-1800. But the most recent rule by the British until 1948 has left its most evident marks on the island. New agriculture was introduced at the cost of destroying forestland. The English language was promoted and is now widely spoken. And among other things, the country’s fashion style was influenced. This is the usual outfit (pictured above) for men in mostly all communities or towns outside of Colombo. Men wear the traditional sarong and sandals dating back thousands of years into ancient times…along with a collared business shirt (British influence) dating back to — well, not really dating back.

12 - Buddha

This is a figure that is seen ubiquitously throughout the island. Buddhism is the religion for approximately 70% of the population in Sri Lanka. But a healthy number of people follow Hinduism (15%), along with Islam (7.5%) and Christianity (7.5%) as well.

13 - Elephant Visit

At the temple site of Sithulpawwa, a wild elephant known as “Ganumu” visits the monastery every evening around 6:45 to eat a few Kings Coconuts. The monk hands “Ganumu” the goods, the elephant cracks them open to drink the juice, and the on looking 50 or so monkeys fight for the remains after the beast has his fill.

14 - Soldiers

Since 1983, Sri Lanka has had to endure a civil war between the present-day government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Also known as the Tamil Tigers, they are seeking independence from Sri Lanka through using terroristic tactics such as explosions in busses or in other public locations. Sri Lanka’s government has placed its army in various checkpoints across the island. At these checkpoints are heavily armed enlisted men. But being Sri Lanka, they are usually very friendly and are not shy to give a smile. Even with an AK-47 on the shoulder.

15 - Local Games

This is a local board game played much like one would play pool — using the fingers to flick the “cue” chip instead of using a pool cue and balls.

16 - Alcoholism

It is well known within Sri Lanka that there is an alcohol problem. Moonshine is cheaply sold, and there are a plethora of other alcoholic options. Drugs are not an issue with the population, but alcohol has made a clear impact on family life and society.

17 - Man Sitting Down

The nation was waiting to show off its well kept beauties and intricacies. Waiting, albeit for a photo, like this local man was.

18 - Schools and Kids

The toll of the 2004 tsunami is still very felt throughout the nation. But in this suffering, there are various organizations helping the people of Sri Lanka. Whether it be with building homes or schools (Bridge To Peace, picture taken at their school), there is a definite contingent of citizens and foreigners helping this island-nation get back on its feet.

19 - Smiles

Within a week’s time outside of Colombo, I had seen more smiles than I had in the past six months. The people are not shy in flashing their pearly whites for whatever reason. Such as simply catching eyes with a family (shown above) while driving behind their ride, the beauty began and continued for miles.

20 - More Smiles

Sri Lanka has their internal conflicts — with a civil war, the relations between their two main ethnicities (Tamil and Sinhalese), recovering from the last tsunami’s damage — but they have kept an innocent beautiful glow. This glow can especially be seen in the kids. Full of energy, happiness, and curiosity they will hopefully be able to lead their country’s future into a brighter time.