New Years Eve...Sri Lankan style!
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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Nineteen hours after departing Cape Town, our Qatar Airlines (which had an amazing personal A/V system!) flight touched down yesterday in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Buddhism dramatically influenced the history of this teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India. Originally, an exiled Indian prince settled the island on a large scale in the fifth or sixth century B.C. Soon after, the Buddha spent a number of years teaching, preaching and setting up monasteries in Sri Lanka. Since that time, the island was ruled by a succession of Buddhist kingdoms, eventually being taken over and called Ceylon by the British in 1802. Since gaining independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has remained one of the most devoutly Buddhist nations on earth.
Since nonviolence is a cornerstone of Buddhist teachings, it might come as a bit of a surprise that this nation has had a rather violent recent past in dealing with a separatist ethnic group known as the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or just "Tamil Tigers"). Since the mid-1950's, this group has been engaged in a guerrilla war to gain its own homeland in the northern part of the country. The periodic bombings, targeted assassinations, and subsequent army reprisals have become an unfortunately regular part of life in some parts of the nation. This has resulted in many foreign governments (including the USA) issuing travel warnings against coming here. This violence has affected a very small geographic area (which we are traveling nowhere near) and has never been targeted against foreigners. Like the other nations (Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe) we have visited having current US State Department travel warnings, Sri Lanka poses little danger to the tourist as long as you are smart about where you go.
Last night, for New Years Eve, we splurged a bit a stayed in the oldest hotel (opened in 1864) in Sri Lanka, the Galle Face Hotel. Leave it to say that the "decaying elegance" that our guidebook used to describe it was 100% accurate. Parts of the hotel were historic, elegant and utterly charming while other aspects were just plain decayed. All in all though, fun for a night and certainly worth a visit next time you are in Colombo! I'm going to leave it to Katie to tell you about the unreal NYE party we attended at the hotel and our shopping experience in getting proper clothing for the event.
Since we left home last July, each time we encounter a bit of trash on the side of the road, extreme poverty, or hundreds of wild "livestock" roaming freely about, Todd has flippantly told me, "If you think this is extreme, wait until we get to Sri Lanka and India." So, naturally, you can understand the tiny (more like huge) bit of reluctance I felt leaving what had become my new home in Cape Town.
And let me tell you, so far, he is WRONG (it actually happens, you know)! Now perhaps this is due to the places and events we have chosen thus far, but let me just paint a little picture for you. After a very long and pleasant flight on Qatar Airways (the BEST airline so far - all economy class seats have individually controlled TVs with more that 100 on demand movies and TV shows), we landed in the brand new international wing of the Colombo airport. There were at least 10 passport control lines open and we made it through in less than 10 minutes (while listening to Jingle Bells on the sound system and standing about 50 feet from a large nativity scene setup - what?!?!).
A driver from the hotel was waiting for us with a sign with our names (which I must say felt very luxurious and a bit like we were traveling on important business), and the car was a new Toyota sedan with leather seats and air-con. At this point, I fell asleep in the car and missed nearly all of the scenery on the hour-long drive to the hotel. But when I work up, we were pulling into this giant three-story colonial mansion right on the beach. Men in elegant white and gold suits and women in elaborate saris greeted us and showed us our room. While it was large, clean, and had a comfy bet, it was a bit in need of some minor renovations (nothing major, the kind that Trading Spaces could do in a weekend).
The hotel was apparently party central for New Year's Eve, and was hosting 3 separate events. One was a fancy 7-course dinner in their five star restaurant for $90 per head (a bit expensive for our smallish budget), and another huge party on the lawn in front of the beach with a famous Sri Lankan DJ (and coincidentally right outside our hotel room window) that was already sold out. We chose a party called "Jubilee", which included a buffet dinner, entertainment from a local band, and decorations in a black and gold theme for $40 per head (and because it wasn't sold out). We were told that the dress was somewhat formal, and since we left all of our nice clothes at home, we headed to Sri Lanka's only department store - Odel's. But not before having fancy-shmancy sandwiches for lunch at Barista, Sri Lanka's very own Starbucks-esque coffee chain.
On arriving at Odel's, it seems that we must have entered some strange hole in the time-space continuum, because I would have sworn that we were in New York City (except everyone was extremely tan). High-end brands galore (Gucci, Dolce & Gabanna, Burberry) line the walls. But the best part was the prices. A lot of the clothing sold at Odel's is actually produced in Sri Lanka and exported to the US for several high fashion designers. Most of the clothing was already had price tags in dollars for the US market, and a separate Odel's tag with the local price. For example, Todd bough a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch swim trunks that were tagged $48 for the US, and the local price was $6. After our shopping spree, we came out with 5 t-shirts, 2 pairs of Calvin Kline underwear, 1 pair of shoes, 1 formal looking collared shirt, 2 formal dresses (tagged $150 each for US market, but real price $8), 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of swim trunks, and 1 casual dress for $127. It was amazing, and I would have bought you all something as well, but unfortunately we have really small backpacks.
So, we got all dressed up in our new duds to attend the party that night (and our new outfits were perfect level of dressiness for the crowd). It felt like we were at someone's wedding and sitting at the table with the people that don't fit into any particular table seating group - the left over friend from high school, the strange uncle, the piano teacher, and some neighbor. The place was complete decked out in black and gold as promised, and the buffet was enormous with ice sculptures, waterfalls, and fancy foods like sushi, crab claws, and several carving stations. The band played an odd assortment of music from Elvis, Santana, Abba to Gloria Estafan. But what really knocked our socks off was the interesting medley of songs they played in the moments leading up to midnight - starting off with "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain", into "When the Saints go Marching In," into "This Land is Your Land" just as the clock struck midnight. So much for traditional Sri Lankan music!
At around 12:30ish, we decided to call it quits on the party and turn it for the night. At least that was the plan until we got back to our room to see the MEGA-PARTY that was going on just outside our window. There were at least 2000 people there and this was apparently THE place to be. All of the rich and famous Sri Lankans were dressed in seriously high fashion partying their brains out and dancing to the unbelievably loud sounds of US hip-hop mixed with an Indian beat. The party went on in full swing until after 5am, and I have to give a giant thank you to the makers of the wonder drug Ambien, which sponsored the wonderful night of sleep we both had, despite the raucous party just outside.
So as you can tell, my view of Sri Lanka has been nothing like what I was expecting thus far. I suppose that will change once we leave this hotel.