Sending Miles Back Home From Colombo

Trip Start Feb 23, 2009
Trip End Mar 18, 2009

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Sunday, March 8, 2009

    Our deal with our son was that he was willing to go anywhere and do anything as long as he was away from home for only two weeks. He was in a great hurry to get back to his job, his friends, his high school. (Uh huh.) He certainly met his part of the bargain, so this was the day we shipped him back to Los Angeles. (Although during the trip, apropos of nothing, Miles said to me, "You know Dad, I would have been happy to go to Egypt for four weeks." What? We never knew he had even the slightest interest in Egypt.)

    I may have mentioned in passing that there were a lot of armed soldiers in Colombo. Our hotel, the Trans Asia, was in a high-security zone where we were not allowed to take photos on the streets. In fact, right after I took a picture of one of these cinemas, a soldier came over and told me to stop. (Not in English, but his gestures were very clear.) The soldiers were highly alert, and armed with machine guns. Sometimes they had gun placements behind sandbags on city streets. The government has fought a civil war for decades with rebels who at this point seem to be isolated on the North and East coasts, far from anywhere we were going. But Colombo is still a prime target for rebel suicide bombers, who have attacked the main railway station, many buses and even the airport in the past. And my brother-in-law, a journalist who specializes in Asian crime and terror issues, told me, "The Tamil Tigers basically invented modern terrorism, using suicide bombers to target civilians." Still, the terrorism in Sri Lanka has never targeted tourists, and you're more likely to get hit by lightening than to encounter terrorism overseas. After the Mumbai attack in November, a terrorism expert  said in the New York Times [I'm paraphrasing], "People ask me for advice to stay safe when traveling abroad, and I tell them to drive safely to their local airport. Because they're much more likely to have a traffic accident on that one trip than to encounter anything overseas."

    After dropping Miles at the airport (and hence losing our numero uno trip photographer), Jae and I walked around Colombo a bit. We encountered a common, but in this case harmless scam. As we walked out of the hotel, a young man appeared at our side, and said he was an employee getting off of work, and he was heading to the Buddhist Temple where they had a couple elephants that afternoon. We told him we weren't interested in paying for a tour, and he said, not to worry, he's going the same way. We stopped to take pictures outside the Hindu Temple on the way, but our suspicions certainly elevated when the guy suddenly got anxious and said, "The elephants are only going to be there a little while longer. We better get in a Tuk Tuk (auto-rickshaw) right now!" No way, we said, we're not getting in Tuk Tuk with you ever. "That's okay, we can walk," said the guy quickly. We did make it to the Buddhist Temple, which was new and impressive from the outside, but Jae and I told our shadow that we weren't interested in going in, and we abandoned him. Later that evening, I walked out of the hotel grounds by myself, and another guy appeared at my side, saying he was a hotel employee heading home from work, just happened to be walking the same direction, and would I like to go to a nightclub? But in neither of these situations did I feel overtly threatened, because there were so many soldiers around.

    Hasantha drove us around to a couple points of interest in town. One was a government building which intentionally looks like the White House in Washington, DC. There was a nice quiet Buddhist shrine on an island in a lake in the city. And we visited the historic Galle Face hotel, a classic colonial hotel on the ocean that had a plaque indicating their famous guests of the past. Including Bo Derek and Duke Ellington. (Presumably not in the same room at the same time. But you never know. Duke was very smooth.)

    The Trans Asia Hotel is a big upscale hotel with a few very nice features. We ate most of our meals at the main buffet restaurant, which was very good, even if they had some spelling mistakes on the food. (See picture). They also had a Thai restuarant that was excellent, and the best health club of any hotel we stayed in, with a great variety of modern exercise machines. (It was usually busy, although our room looked out on the hotel's tennis courts, where everyday we saw three attendants sitting with no customers.) But the highlight for me was the elevator chimes. The sound you hear when an elevator arrives at your floor was so beautiful that I tried numerous times to record it. I might be able to post an MP3 of it here sometime. I spoke to the management and asked if there was any way for me to get inside the elevator shaft to record the sound, but as you can imagine, that only got me a round of confused looks.

    Later, while Jae was getting a massage, I went out to check out the prestige cinemas of the capitol city. First I walked down to "Ricky's DTS Theater", where a Sri Lankan film called "Leader" was showing. It was a huge old movie house in pretty bad shape. Different prices for different locations in the theater, but I splurge and paid about $1.40 for a balcony ticket. (150 Sri Lankan rupees, which are not the same as Indian rupees. The film had no subtitles, but seemed to be about a Rambo-like character who comes to clean up a corrupt city. The film was clearly amateurish, but since there were only two other patrons visible in the theater, nobody was complaining. The picture quality and stereo sound were pretty good, but certainly not the DTS technology as advertised on the marquee. I watched for about half an hour, and then before I left I poked my head in the projection booths where two (!) projectionists looked bored. (In America, I don't know that we ever had two projectionists for a single screen, and certainly even one is becoming a rarity.) As you might expect, they appeared very alarmed that a foreigner had found his way up to their booth, and I think they thought they were going to be robbed.

    Next I went down the street to the 70-millimeter Todd AO Rio Theater, where an American movie called "Inferno" was playing. Decades ago, the film format called "70-millimeter Todd AO" was a state-of-the-art projection format, but this theater was a sad, dingy place. This time I paid about $1 to sit in the balcony, which was hot, with uncomfortable seats, and filled with flies and mosquitos. But when you paid extra for the balcony ticket, at least you were closer to the overhead fans. I was warned when I entered that they were having their interval break to sell snacks, which meant that the guy who sold me the ticket went around the theater with a cardbox full of a hot fried substance that I thought I better avoid. (There were no drinks at either theater.) Some strange American country music played thru the speakers, speeding up and slowing down like a cassette player that was jammed. When the movie was turned on, it wasn't anything that I recognized. It appeared to be a martial arts film from the 60's, although when I looked it up later it turned out to be a 1997 piece of low-buget trash produced by Roger Corman. Here in Sri Lanka, it was rated "A" for Adult, which made it sound much more exciting than it was. Picture was faded and scratched, sound was mono and distorted. But it was still way more entertaining than the Sri Lankan film I had just left. And since there were 10 people in the balcony, it seemed to be a box office smash by local standards.

    When I left after 20 minutes, I once again visited the projection booth to talk to the two (!) projectionists. As in the other theater, hey didn't speak any English, but somehow I explained I wanted to know about the country music and they pointed to an old boombox that had a frayed wire leading into their speaker system. The cassette inside was unmarked, so it was impossible to find out about the music.

    It was dark by the time I was walking back to the hotel. At one point I was stopped by soldiers near the hotel, who refused to let me walk on the street where they were, so I had to make a wide detour to get to the hotel. Again, it was uncomfortable to be stopped under dim streetlights by armed guards who didn't speak English, and clearly it wasn't normal for tourists to be walking this area, even though it was close to the hotel.

    While I was gone, Jae unfortunately had not enjoyed her massage very much. The facilities weren't very well taken care of, including exposed wiring and unfinished ceiling areas that didn't seem very classy and weren't very relaxing. But you can see the picture of the wonderful massage she gets from me.
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