Meet Sri Lanka’s Jo Saunders the Magnificent

‘Come on hurry up! You’re like an old lady,’ Jo barged into my room and remarked.

This comment can only come out of the mouth of Jo Saunders directed at someone she has met just a couple of days ago.

And she wasn’t finished. ‘And what’s that mushy smell?’ ‘It looks like fungus is growing in your bathroom.’

She wasn’t amused that I didn’t take her advice for staying at King Fern guesthouse in Nuwara Eliya, a place which was quite far off from the town, and taking shelter in this inn which she was now shredding to pieces.

There was no way I was going to go stay at a place that was not only far off from the town of Nuwara Eliya, but expensive as well. And Jo Saunders couldn’t get me a discount there at Kingfern. Otherwise I may have changed my mind.

Me the old lady could only manage, ‘I got this room really cheap’.

‘It seems they’ve given you the room reserved for drivers,’ she was unstoppable.

That’s Jo Saunders for you – one of the most unforgettable characters I met in Sri Lanka.

Our first conversation didn’t go well at all just a few days back.

It happened on the mobile in the back of a tuk tuk just a few days prior to this episode. I had nearly cut a deal with Toga the tuk tuk driver for showing me around Sri Lanka for a hefty discount, or even better, for free. In return I would make sure that Toga gets some real publicity both online and offline. But then Toga got a call from her. He told her about me rather excitedly. The noise of the tuk tuk coupled with the broken English of Toga made it difficult to comprehend what exactly he said, but all of a sudden he handed the phone over to me, saying she wanted to talk to me.

‘Hello. How are you doing?, ‘ I chirped cheerily.

‘Not too bad,’ she replied warily.

I couldn’t hear her that well over the noise of the tuk tuk which was still in full swing, but the next words she said baffled me, ‘Are you a travel agent for Toga in Pakistan?’

‘Excuse me?, I was totally at sea.

‘Hand the phone over to Toga’, she commanded. I gave the phone back to Toga.

I don’t know what exactly Jo Saunders said to Toga but the end result was that the deal was off. Toga didn’t want to take me anywhere for a discount, let alone for free. He didn’t even want me to promote him on my blog, that he got enough customers already. He said if I wanted to put in a good word for him, good, but even if not, no problem. It was as if Toga had grown a conscience or something in the blink of a second.

I wasn’t amused. I vowed right then and there to write an article about this lady who I will christen as the ‘Dragon Lady’. Little did I know that the tables would turn so soon and I would be writing a glowing review of this ‘dragon lady’ by the end of my tour.

So how did Jo Saunders land in my good books all of a sudden?

It so happened that a certain creepy old lady called the Greeky Cypriot on Virtual Tourist tried to play smart with me by not only accusing me of trying to promote myself by asking a question which I already knew the answer to, but reporting me to the VT management that my profile was a sham.


What she said infuriated me no end because it was a genuine question, and this woman didn’t know jack about Sri Lanka, let alone having visited it before. So Jo Saunders supported me in this verbal sparring, and she offered to help me out. In fact she said let’s have dinner whenever you are in Kandy.

Hence began my brief encounter with Jo Saunders the Magnificent.

So Who Jo Saunders is Really?

When I finally met her, she had revealed almost her entire private life in a span of 10 minutes. I was like Whoa, Who is she? And why is she trusting me so much? But Jo Saunders’ blind trust in me made me warm up to her right away.

Jo Saunders Sri Lanka
Jo Saunders Sri Lanka
Jo Saunders Sri Lanka
Jo Saunders Sri Lanka

She is that kind of a person. She starts talking to you as if the two of you have known each other for years.

Beneath her razor-sharp and bubbly/ effervescent persona, there is a considerate person. She knew already about kosher and halal food, didn’t question me once why I chose that lifestyle, and whenever we went out for a meal, she made it a point to check which food was halal or suitable for me. They don’t make that kind of people these days anymore.

Spending some time with Jo Saunders, you may feel she’s breezing through life without a care in the world. But the truth of the matter is, she has had a hard life in Sri Lanka. But it hasn’t made her bitter or make her lose her jolliness.

Jo Saunders hails from the UK, in fact she has her roots in South Africa. She met a Sri Lankan man while in the UK, fell in love, married him, and moved to Sri Lanka where the husband and wife opened a nice little guesthouse cum restaurant called Aqua Inns hotel in Trincomalee, the land of pristine beaches in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. They separated, and she moved out. Jo Saunders is now living in Kandy with her boyfriend Roshan and helping him out with his artifact distribution business. At the same time she’s looking for a job to support herself, not wanting to be dependent on her boyfriend or anyone else.

She has travelled the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, and knows the ins and outs of most tourist destinations. If anyone can give you a lowdown of how to travel on a budget in Sri Lanka, she can.

Being a marketer, I recognize a great marketing idea when I see one, and Jo Saunders has come up with a terrific idea for a business.

She wants to open a pub cum rest house, now that’s standard stuff you may say. The clincher is that she will offer to hook up solo travelers with each other so that they can travel together and split transportation costs. And there are scores of solo travelers doing the rounds in Sri Lanka. While some may not like the idea of traveling with strangers, there are travelers like me who would pounce upon an opportunity to meet other travelers and share the cost of traveling.

If Jo can pull this off, the idea would be a hit in no time. And she has got the network to pull this off, both online and on ground in Sri Lanka. Yes there are loads of sites offering this feature in some form or the other, but in most cases the system is being abused by horny men in Sri Lanka trying to hook up with foreign girls. The differentiation Jo Saunders would be offering is the filtration of creepy men so that only genuine travelers are paired with each other.

Like any other woman, she’s inquisitive as hell. There was a newly married Sri Lankan couple staying where she stayed in Nuwara Eliya, and she was flabbergasted why there was no rapport between the husband and wife, that if they didn’t have anything in common, why the hell did they marry in the first place.

So is Jo Saunders the perfect companion to travel with? My only gripe with her is that she changes plans at the drop of a hat. We were supposed to meet in Ella, but on the very morning she was supposed to arrive, I got a message that she had changed her plan and was now going to Colombo.

For some inexplicable reason, I can’t shake off the feeling that she didn’t want to hang out with me anymore. That she had enough of me. Although the explanation she gave me was completely plausible, that her friends came over from Colombo to take her there for a hotel show – something struck me as off.

Maybe it’s just a figment of my imagination, the tiredness of the trip getting to my ahead. But I am usually right with my gut instinct. And what added to my suspicions is that Jo Saunders wanted me to write a good piece on her boyfriend’s business and I had told her that when we met in Ella, I would need to sit down with her and extract enough information from her to shape an article. And she readily agreed. But all of a sudden, she forgot all about the article and giving me background information.

Bottom line – I never saw her again.

But all in all, she’s a great buddy to have around

So whenever you are in Sri Lanka, especially Kandy, make it part of your plans to meet Jo Saunders the magnificent. You won’t be disappointed.


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