Arriving in Sri Lanka with a band of flying idiots

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 15, 2012

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ah yes, a new country. We arrived late last night in a new city in a new country that was new to me once again after an absence of twenty five or so years. We had done a bit of back tracking to get here, flying west instead of east like our general plan dictated, but we felt we had missed the Indian experience and didn't really want to go to India. Sri Lanka, historically known as Ceylon, is the mythical home of Sinbad the Sailor and the Three Princes of Serendip (a poem, and the source of the word Serendipity). It spent twenty five years in a nasty civil war between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority population, a dispute that was recently resolved.

When I was here last in 1984 the country was in the beginning of their civil war. When I was there on the large yacht I had dropped anchor in the harbor of Colombo, where we had dinner with the US ambassador. He warned us that for our own safety we should not to leave the yacht, but over the next couple of weeks we left the yacht almost every day. We drove around the local streets, went to visit neighboring villages, and took hikes in the countryside. At night we would hear shelling and in the mornings we would see the results of the bombing attacks. One day I saw a bus stop I had visited the previous day turned into a crater overnight. It was not a very safe place to be, but we really couldn’t help ourselves.

Later we moved our yacht down to Galle, on the southern extremity of the island. It was the rainy season and the beaches were a mess, but the rain kept the countryside green and lush, and showed me that I would spend some time here in my future. I didn’t know my future trip would be twenty eight years later.

We boarded the airplane in Bangkok in the early evening onto an airplane that had lived a long, hard life and was ready to be turned into Moroccan lanterns. I had the great misfortune to sit amongst a large group of smelly Indian men out for an adventure with an undefined objective. They each carried large bags of duty free alcohol, talked loudly, smelled horrible and behaved like they were the only passengers on the airplane, at least the only ones who mattered. They harassed the flight attendants diabolically. The guy next to me, who couldn't manage a 'hello’ or even a smile, kept me on my toes for the entire flight. I kept my buttocks clenched as I awaited a random blow from his elbow or his shoulder, which tended to come at me without warning. A couple of times shards of food escaped his meal tray, coming to a rest on my legs or in my drink. He behaved like he had pints of caffeine coursing through his veins. He would be squirming in his seat most of the time, then demanding Bacardi from the flight attendant, then a few minutes later he would be fast asleep, his tray table unable to lie flat because of the protrusion of his copious gut. He snored loudly as his Bacardi rose and fell with the rhythm of his breathing. A few minutes later he would be helping me read my novel, his elbow in my crotch. Then he would be fiddling with my seatback TV (God knows why), and then he would be engaged in an agitated conversation with his comrades across the aisle, across the airplane or in the row in front of us. His group of friends were just as neurotic as he was and spent much of the airplane ride standing up, leaning on random seats to bend cushions to the dissatisfaction of the residents sitting there, and they would nearly shout at each other, just a meter or two away. The guy in front of me would sit down with an impassioned lurch, and then bump the seat around like he was trying to rip it out of its foundations. At one point he jammed the seat back to the lowered position with such vigor that he nearly shattered my right knee cap. Then he hung his hands over the top of his seat and fiddled with his fingers right in front of my face for a while until it was time for him to demand more Bacardi from the flight attendant. Shelby watched him idly rip his cup holder to shards and left it dangling by a single mangled rivet. She said it seemed that he had done it because there was really nothing else to do. It was three hours of hell.

We landed in Colombo and made our way through immigration and customs. We found the taxi counter, and arranged a van to take us to town.

I had read in a Lonely Planet book that you could get a driver with a van in Sri Lanka for about 25 dollars a day, but apparently times have changed since the publication of that book, and we would find that transportation through this country cost more than we could easily afford. The van from the airport was one you couldn’t have legally driven in the states, or in most other places in the world. The bench in the back was just that, a piece of wood with a thin layer of padding and a backrest of aluminum tubing holding a sagging piece of thinly padded wood. The three girls bruised their butts on that bench while Mason and I sat in the front, he on the side where there was a seatbelt and me in the middle, on the hump above the hot engine peering out at the oncoming night traffic and the squalor that represents Colombo. I started to have my first misgivings about returning to this country.

Forty minutes later we pulled into our hotel and settled into our rooms, ordered room service and an extra bed. The hotel room was very clean and the staff was excellent. We were glad to be settled, if only for one day.

The next morning I asked about breakfast. The hotel here cost us over two hundred dollars a night (two rooms), and breakfast was to cost us an additional seventy five bucks. I set out to seek an alternative. I walked down the busy street and turned up another looking for a supermarket, but was told that they don’t open until 9am. I stumbled across a small bakery right across the street from our hotel, and picked up an armful of juices and a bag full of Sri Lankan pastries, some filled with eggs and fried potatoes, and took them back to the room. I found and booked a place in Kandy for that afternoon, a town in the mountains that I had visited on my first trip here, and then I arranged for a driver to take us up there. Then I visited a wireless store, bought a couple of dongles for a SIM card to fit into a USB port so the girls can do their school work on the road, and a couple of SIM cards, and went back to the hotel to check on our ride. The driver was there, but wanted to leave right away. He didn’t speak any English and his van was pretty dirty, so I had the bellman tell him to clean it up and come for us at 11. He never came back.

We asked for a second driver, and this one showed up at noon. He was a Malaysian man named Ishan, who grew up in Kandy. We checked out of the hotel and got on the road.

I asked Ishan to take us to a good place for lunch and he said he had a place in mind. Things were looking up. We pulled into the thick smoke that filled all of Colombo’s extra space and plowed down the road between the confusion of traffic and pedestrian mayhem that only Asia can create. We skirted between huge cargo trucks and overstuffed buses, over bridges spanning still, black water marinating floating car tires and other debris, and around crumbling buildings. The city goes on forever. When I finally saw a palm tree that wasn’t smog stunted, I felt we were getting somewhere. Soon the countryside opened up to reveal the real Sri Lanka, a green and fertile story book land I had remembered. But behind every perfect rice paddy and every palm lined meadow lay a pile of wrecked cars or a mountain of plastic and barely degradable matter either rotting or smoldering or just ruining the scenery. Sri Lankans have some sense of physical beauty and the priceless value in the absence of litter, but not much.

We made it to the outskirts of Colombo and found a small diner along the road that was nothing to take a picture of. But the food was fantastic. We ate a variety of dishes from a small buffet that was loosely centered on curry. Our favorite was a yellow, sweet dish called Daal curry, heaped on top of red Sri Lankan red rice. There was a dish called dambala, a curry made from some kind of leaf and full of vitamins, Ishan told me. Mason saw a hot dog and sprouted big, full-moon eyes. He has not had a hot dog since Spain, but only had one there. He tore it up.

Back on the road I talked with Ishan for a while about the history, new and ancient, of Sri Lanka. He told me about the last couple of years and how the lack of war has made the tourist industry boom, and about his dreams of growing a business of his own. He was very informative and very friendly, a perfect host for a trip like this. He encouraged us to stop along the way and pick up samples of the local foods. We passed an area he called ‘pineapple city’ and he aimed for the shoulder to get a couple of pineapples cut up and put in bags, one with chili on it and one without. It had to be the sweetest pineapple we have ever eaten. Then there was an area where they sold a strange looking fruit that turned out to be old fermented coconuts called pulmathers. It had a peculiar, slightly rotten coconut taste, with the consistency of a rice cake. I ate two but was not particularly impressed; Ishan ate the rest of them up. Then we went through a place he called ‘cashew gama’, or cashew town, a place where cashews are grown. He pulled off the side of the road and a woman shoved bags of cashews in through the window and we had to cut in half what she had decided to sell us. These cashews were particularly good, very fresh and crisp, some with chili powder and some without. Strangely, the nuts that did not have chili powder were twice the price of those that did. Perhaps they were hiding something. When I ate some that had the powder I noticed that they were a bit ‘off’.

It took us the best part of five hours to get to Kandy, the last half hour we spent winding through the tight roads that took us to the top of Kandy to our place. These roads were so narrow and steep and lacked signs, but the hotel manager was on the phone with our driver giving directions the whole way. When we got close to the guest house I started to sense that the family was losing faith of my ability to find suitable accommodation. I had gotten the same kind of silence on other parts of this trip, such as in Obersalzburg, Germany and in Opatija, Croatia, but in all cases the long drives paid off. When we finally hit the peak of our local mountain beside the Kandy antenna farm, the manager knew my name and introduced himself with a big Sri Lankan grin. His name was Dilip, and he became our new best friend.
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Mike and RoxanneRhoades on

Hi there Estella and Greg,
We are enjoying checking up on you and your blog very much! My Dad grew up in India and in his teens he lived in Shillong, when he wasn't in Catholic boarding school in the Himalayas! He told me he liked the lychee fruits, though in SD county they were always canned I think! We look forward to travel there too one day soon.
mucho gusto!
Roxanne & Mike Rhoades

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