Welcome to the war zone Ms Parkyn

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
Trip End Jul 15, 2012

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Anyone who's ever had the foresight and good sense to involve themselves in one of Tom Dennison's excursions will be familiar with the catchphrase 'your mission, should you choose to accept it...' Such missives tend to be delivered with increased regularity as the event approaches and by a variety of means, including, I sometimes suspect, subliminal messaging. 

This particular instruction arrived by email to my desk one cold credit crunchy January Tuesday, coinciding with the daily internal monologue over whether to have a traditional cheddar baguette or a sushi selection for lunch. Praise be, I thought (or was the language stronger than that?). Sometimes, occasionally, and often in the company of Dennison, there is more to life. I hi-fived myself. My colleagues looked on. 

The body of the email contained three bits of good news. The first, that Sri Lanka was as magical as he and Marco Polo remembered it. The second, that Tom's parents had delayed their return to Blighty and would be around for my arrival - you can't always say that about other's people's parents, but this boded well; they're excellent company, in addition to the fact that the more people Tom has to organise, the more ambitious the activities in question become. I imagined we'd be sailing the Palk Straits with the Sri Lankan cricket team in a beautiful pea green boat by day three. 

The third was that Tom and Anna Rose had done some calculations and my greed to do as much as possible during my two weeks in this fantastically diverse country could be sated. To say I was excited was an understatement, There are some people and some places worth going half the way around the world for. I knew that Tom and Anna Rose fell into that category, and there was no doubt the beautiful island of Serendib couldn't fail to delight. 

Back to the email: My mission was to get from the airport to a designated hotel in Colombo for no more than 500 rupees. I soon realised that Tom and Anna Rose are probably the only people capable of accomplishing this so resigned myself to failing (or lying) and decided to turn my attention to a more important challenge - drinking beer for breakfast after 24 hours without sleep

As I waited at our agreed rendezvous on the lawn of the Galle Face Hotel, slipping in and out of consciousness in the heat, I noticed a sniper on the roof of the building next door. Moments later, a small fleet of army speedboats bounced across the horizon, appearing, apparently, from behind a group of men in Afghan dress gathered at the foot of the perfectly manicured lawn. I wondered whether I should panic but just couldn't muster up any sentient response other than 'this could very well be the life'. I realise now that this might be how governments get away with perpetrating atrocities on their own people without anyone batting an eyelid.  

It's a traveller's wont to make sweeping assumptions about a country based on whatever received wisdom they've already heard plus a selective mental inventory of the characteristics or features they encounter within their first, highly impressionable hours. Admittedly, I'd already drunk out of a king coconut, met three extremely mellow and moustachioed Sri Lankans and seen a number of singer sewing in machines in shop windows so my prejudices were essentially intact. I wasn't necessarily expecting the machinery of war but did know that the Sri Lankan Government had recently declared that they would finish off the Civil War once and for all within days. Was this what was unfolding before me? 

And then a lanky blonde and a lanky brunette appeared. Maybe lack of sleep was making me hallucinate, but it looked as though they had emerged from the sea. Well, I dunno, you never know how much people have changed in ten months. They'd spent a bit of time with spiritual types - maybe they were walking on water these days. Jo and Ralph joined us after a short while. They emerged from the dry land of the hotel lobby but did look very well nonetheless. 

Where do you start after ten months? With food, apparently. Amongst the many other delights they had so far encountered in Sri Lanka, discussion of the cuisine inspired the most enthusiasm. Amongst the many culinary joys on offer, including various and delicious spicy curries, I was assured that the dish to look out for was hoppers. Made from a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk and - hello! - a dash of palm toddy, hoppers are accompanied by lunis minis, a fiery hot mix of red onions and spices. Throughout the holiday it was customary for our combined order of hoppers to exceed 50. Sometimes we'd have so many ordered up they wouldn't fit on the table. 

Colombo is no highlight. Polluted and vaguely threatening in the run up to Independence Day on February 4th, it was a place to catch up, watch Liverpool FC and encounter numerous army road blocks. Such roadblocks give Colombo the reputation as a 'city under siege' amongst serious foreign journalists, yet in reality they couldn't have been less intimidating. Mostly the soldiers in Colombo - and elsewhere in Sri Lanka - wanted to practise their English and find out which one was the real wife (they tended to guess right - must be Anna Rose's wifey look, especially when doing 70 on a motorbike). We laughed about it then, but I read later that Tamils were not treated to the same jovial wave through. Of course not. 

Colombo was also the place where Tom and Anna Rose had fashioned a dressing room from a lock up at Colombo Fort station: Their own little slice of Colombo real estate - a locker for which they were paying 50 rupees a day and where Tom could keep his magic stick for no extra cost. Being estate agents (once) they wanted me to have a piece of the action. For a small cut, I bought into the dream. 

The attendant in his blinding white crisp shirt and immaculate slacks looked on as we changed our clothes and repacked for the beach with a mixture of amusement, disgust but mostly complete incomprehension. He reminded me of the Indian character in Are You Experienced who wonders why all travellers 'dress like shit'. Not that we did. We just dressed in left luggage locker rooms, which is probably comparable. 
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