Everything about Sri Lanka was awesome, except for the guys on the cover of the guide book. Those fishermen are jerks.
Sri Lanka. The first Asian country I’ve ever travelled to where people aren’t surprised that this white girl could be from South AFRICA. “Where you from?” “South Africa.” “Ah, AB Devilliers! Sorry about the world cup. Bad luck!” – Sri Lanka, the land of cricket. That alone. What’s not to love? Add to this that land of tea and I’m sold. But Sri Lanka was so, so much more than just Cricket, Tea or Curry and we are truly in love with this Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
When I told people that I was going to Sri Lanka on holiday most responded with ‘Why?’, others responded with an impressed nod of ‘I didn’t predict that, I’m almost impressed at your unpredicability’ – much like what the very first hipster must have felt when he was the first to wear his grandpa’s hat in public. I liked the idea of going somewhere that not many people had an opinion on. Myself included. A true bonafide adventure, best get my captain’s log in order! (read: Instagram). I’m from Cape Town. We’re Hipster like that.
Day 1: Colombo
After a bit of a nightmare in Abu Dhabi with Ethiad Airlines seeming to have made EVERYONE in the airport miss their flights.
Montage: An angry transfer desk full of waving fists and stomping feet, Long queues of tired travellers at different degrees of furious, threats of us being trapped in the desert airport for 17 hours as there were no other flights, Regretting the choice to wear shorts in the Seychelles heat that we’d left, because now my lily white legs were the red-light district of the conservative UAE airport. After tears and pleading, using my one Arabic word (learnt from the inflight announcements) “Shukrah” I thanked them as they managed to book my hussy body onto a different airline flight only 2 hours delayed off to Sri Lanka. (Possibly to remove the excess flesh heathen from their midst!) Our flight was further delayed midair by an hour, thanks to Yemeni airspace being closed due to the war that had just resurged there. Damn inconsiderate wars, throwing off our holiday plans. How dare they.
We arrived at dawn into Colombo airport, maintaining an upbeat optimism that lingers when you know you’ve spent all your savings on this damn holiday and you WILL have fun, no matter what, dammit. So SMILE!
Pros: We liked the curry on the flight, maybe our western tastebuds will not shrivel up and die. The Sri Lankan air-host-dude was hot and all the Sri Lankans around us on the plane were really friendly and excited about us visiting (or perhaps just excited to be returning home). They even moved us to the back of the plane where there were open seats so we could sit together, and lie down.
Inside the airport, standing at the luggage conveyor belt, our carry-on backpacks in tow, awaiting the one suitcase we had to check in, laden with no-no carry-on items: suncreams, face-wash and bug spray. Oh the litres of Tabard we had flown across the globe. Watching each bag as it came out of the magic-secret-rubber-curtained-hole-in-the-wall and it wasn’t ours. Seeing the dwindling crowds, and convincing each other with optimism that there were still one or two other people, they haven’t lost our bags – have faith. And then it came. A very polite Sri Lankan accent out of the mouth of an officially dressed gentleman, with a younger more nervous looking, equally officially dressed gentleman in tow.
“Excuse us, are you Miss Angel Campey?”
“Yes, I am…?”
“Oh dear. So sorry madam, but your luggage did not make it onto this flight. It remains behind in Abu Dhabi. Please come with us.”
Nervous glances between officially dressed gentlemen as I inhale and exhale a measured-try-to-stay-calm sigh. How is this foreigner going to conduct herself?
Pained glances between foreigners. Trying to reiterate telepathically the mantra: “Remember the optimism, honey. Don’t let’s ruin our holiday.” (Of course this was easier for me to embody, besides for one bottle of suncream and an XL can of Tabard spray, everything else in said suitcase belonged to my boyfriend. All of his clothes.)
After a few loud sighs at the Lost Baggage counter, it became evident that our luggage had been put on the same flight that we had been threatened to be placed on, 17 hours after our original arrival time. All credit to the Sri Lankan airport authorities, they knew exactly where our bag was, what time it would arrive and promised to deliver it to our back-packers at no extra charge. (Which they eventually did.)
We strapped the “optimism smiles” back on and marched forth into our new adventure.
And then, everything became right with the world. Cue R4 a cup of instant tea (yes they have instant tea machines) and taking a breath to suck it all in. Women in Saris, the Palm trees against the blue sky through the airport windows. The immaculate grass, which we had to touch to make sure it wasn’t astroturf. Warm air, warm smiles, warm tea. Hello Sri Lanka.
We bought a Dialog sim card with airtime for my iPhone (2gigs of data and free SMSs that, all inclusive, only cost R130). We called our taxi driver, who’d already been there waiting for our original flight – shame – he sent a friend to come collect us. Heads up: we payed 3500 Rupees for our taxi, which is R350 – but pretty standard for Sri Lanka as we have family friends who live there and recommended him. The Airport is pretty far away from the city and includes toll roads, so while this cost is much higher than average things, it seems fair.
We arrived on the 15th of April which is Sri Lankan New Year’s Day. We hadn’t planned on that but it was magical. The roads in the infamously bustling capital city, Colombo were much quieter. Restaurants all seemed to be closed, and shops deserted. All the people were also on holiday, just like us.
Tuk-Tuks were around R30 – R50 to get around Colombo, depending. Our first destination had come highly recommended by our Airport Taxi Driver, the Mount Lavinia Hotel. It’s a 5 star hotel that feels incredibly opulent with fountains and air conditioning. A pot of tea also set us back R60, but it was a welcome sit down and stock take. We met a pair of incredibly enthusiastic (are they ever not?) Americans who had retired in Sri Lanka and were full of tales of colonial wonder and caution. Tales like “Don’t wear your expensive jewellery around the locals, they might snatch it from you” which had us rolling our eyes inwardly and nodding politely. Sips tea like Kermit.
We were gagging for a bit of local flavour after that, so went walking looking for this beach-promenade I’d seen on a travel documentary called ‘Galle Road’ – I thought. In hindsight I chuckle at myself. Us walking through the seafront suburb, asking locals to direct us to ‘Galle Road’ and all of them pointing away from the coast, and looking at us a bit quizzically. Turns out, Galle road is the name of the main road that goes through the whole west coast of Sri Lanka, and can be driven on for hours, Literally. It links major cities. After wandering the noisy (deserted) Galle Main Road, we found ourselves part of a funeral procession of mourners, as we walked in the same direction (which was hauntingly magical), eventually passing the graveyard which is where they left us. We ducked into the first local curry shop that we finally found that was actually open. Just a small cafe where we shared a chicken curry for R30, and a Fanta orange. The universal fun finder. The local children giggling, and peering out shyly from behind the kitchen curtain wall at us. My spice-phobic boyfriend seemed to be coping very well, with only a few tears.
After consulting the bible, (The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka book), we decided to head into the central Colombo district. To feel a bit of the chaos. We drove past The World Trade Centre, which is a set of twin towers. No joke. Went to the train-station to pick up our pre-booked tickets for the following morning to Kandy. Then we went back to the Chicken Curry restaurant to pick up our Guide Book. We forgot that behind. (We were sleep deprived OK!?)
All this Tuk-tukking around helped us to see the city, and enjoy the quiet holiday-time roads. We also drove past this amazing Promenade full of food stands and people flying kites.
“There it is! That’s Galle Road! That’s what I saw on the Travel Channel!”
Turns out it’s called Galle FACE. Face… Road, same same. Whatever, we were finally here. And what a day to be there. All the people that seemed hauntingly vacant from the main-road shops and restaurants were here! As sunset approached, the promenade was crawling with Happy New Yearers, all enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Some flew kites, some played cricket, others snacked on different curried yumness from the food-stands and the majority were down at the seaside, shrieking with joy at every wave that wrapped around their ankles.
We bought some curried, crunchy yumness for R5 a bag and sat watching the sights. It was a truly joyful first day in Sri Lanka. We alternated between watching children play cricket and the sunset. At R5 a bag, we couldn’t help sampling some more of the stall foods. Pro Tip: Sri Lankan curry-powder on sweet-pineapple is surprisingly yum!
Sitting, watching the first sunset on this tropical island, alongside the young mother whose toddler was practicing the over-armed cricket bowl with a small transparent ball that flashed LED red and blue with every bounce as he gleefully chased after it, to gather it up, prepare for his run-up and again throw it over his arm, we were struck by how peaceful and contented Sri Lankans were. There was no boisterous noise, even though there were throngs of people. There were no hustlers coming up to peddle their wares on the the two (clearly foreign) people sitting on the stairs. There was a sense of shyness about us being in their midst, a sense of respect and mutual understanding. That we were there because their country was beautiful, and as they smiled, and shyly looked to the sunset themselves, enjoying it’s last rays on this, the first day of their new year – it was as if they were saying.
“Thank you, we know it’s beautiful. You’re Welcome. Enjoy.”
Thus began our time in a country that already had our heart.
..To be continued. Tomorrow we were off by train to the cultural capital, Kandy.