It was a long (three) flights but I arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka at 2:00 AM on Monday without any significant hassles. Sri Lanka is 11 1/2 hours ahead of Central Standard Time. India and Sri Lanka are on the half-hour instead of the hour—I think it is so India can all be in one time zone.
Because of the 20-year-old civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, the city was swarming with soldiers. On the way in from the airport, my taxi driver had to stop at three checkpoints and present his license, but they waved me through quite cordially. When we came to the 4th check point only a few blocks from the YWCA where I had a reservation to stay, the driver told me the road was closed to traffic and that I would have to walk (it was 3:00 AM!) But when the soldiers got a better look at my old face and gray hair, they relented and opened the road. Things were very locked down around the YWCA as there were many foreign consulates and embassies and I was also told that the Prime Minister lived ‘just around the corner,’—good (?) neighborhood!
The moment I entered the airport it felt very much like India—hot, humid and smelling like incense. However, Colombo is not as run down as most Indian cities, although still plenty exotic.
After some sleeping, some breakfast, and some walking, I tackled going to get my visa extended. I need 90 days rather than the routine 30 days that one gets upon entering Sri Lanka. After kind of a scary mob scene of locals pushing me along to get into the building, I was able to negotiate the two-hour, seven-step process with little difficulty. When leaving the building the first floor was again a mob scene—everybody pushing, everybody sweating, and me trying to exit without getting my pocket picked or camera stolen.
To celebrate that success I got a tuk tuk to take me to The Gallery, a posh restaurant where I not only had lunch, but also was also able to buy an opera ticket for “The Pearl Fishers” by Bizet for Wednesday evening.
I miscued on the electrical plug business—I thought I had the required two-round-pin plug in which to plug my iPod and camera for charging. Nope, there is a third hole that requires a prong to go in and release the barrier for the other two pins. When I asked my landlady about it, she just took a ballpoint pen and inserted the tip in the third hole to release the catch, so the two-pin plug could go in. Voila! My iPod began charging! Since I have a dozen books recorded on it as well as music, as well as my Italian lessons that I do each day, which would have been a serious loss, to say nothing of my camera.
Each day in Colombo I hired a tuk tuk to go sightseeing. I saw government buildings, museums, parks, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, Christian churches, mosques and other landmarks but much of the fun is just being on the street and mingling. I tried various restaurants—some cheap and some expensive—the food was very enjoyable and sometimes very spicy. After all, Sri Lanka was the spot the Dutch conquered so they could import and trade in spices.
The opera, “The Pearl Fishers,” was very enjoyable. The concert hall was new and very pretty; the performers were pretty good; the chorus and orchestra were fine; but the highlight was eight dancers who were superb! They added so much with a combo of Sri Lankan/ballet dancing. I think that I was the only person that came by tuk tuk and I was definitely the most casually dressed although certainly presentable. Most of the women wore either beaded/decorated saris or ‘little black (Western) dresses.’ Mixing with the local glitterati is almost as interesting as seeing the opera.
Getting home was quite a challenge—the tuk tuk driver was to come at 10:00 and pick me up, but the reliability of this is not promising. Since the driver had given me his cell phone number I asked the young woman seated next to me if she would dial it on her phone when the opera let out. He answered and said that he’d come in 10 minutes. We all slowly exited and most people waited on the steps while their drivers pulled up in their spiffy cars to take them home. Finally after 40 minutes there were just a few still waiting and I asked a young couple if they would call my driver, which they did. No answer! They offered to drop me where I could get another tuk tuk, which I took them up on. As their driver drove us out the driveway, the young woman got a call from my tuk tuk driver (call-back option) who said he had arrived. I thanked them and left their car to get the tuk tuk. A few minutes later I realized that I had left my purse in their car. Not much in it (no money) except my map and info on Colombo, which I badly needed. No problem! The driver could call them back on his callback option. We met, they handed over the purse and I thanked them profusely—so it goes!
Yesterday morning at breakfast at the YWCA where I stayed, I asked if I could have the Sri Lankan breakfast that the staff was eating with their (right) hand. I thought she nodded, “no”, so then I said I’d have my usual one egg, toast, fruit and tea. Well she brought both! So first I ate the Sri Lankan breakfast—lentils with shredded coconut and hot chili paste—with my (right) hand, and then ate my American breakfast with knife and fork. There is always a sink in the dining room in which to wash your hands, before and after eating.
One day when my tuk tuk driver was taking me on a long trip to see a special Buddhist temple, he invited me to his home, which was nearby. Nalinko is 30, married and has two children, a boy, five, and a girl, one. He told of his own personal tsunami experience: they were in Matara on the south coast visiting his parents for Christmas in 2004 and were attending Roman Catholic mass in the local church at 9:00 AM on Dec. 26th when the tsunami struck. It filled the church with water nearly to the ceiling engulfing Nalinko, his wife, his brother and his then-1 1/2-year-old son. He stood on a table up to his neck in water and just then saw only the little hand of his toddler son above the water, which he was able to grab for a rescue! He and his brother began helping others, but then the second wave crashed in and broke the church apart. Somehow all four of them managed to escape with only minor bruises. He showed me a clipping from a newspaper where he was pictured immediately after the disaster. His parents’ house was not damaged. 26 people in the church died in the tsunami.
I, of course, told my much less dramatic tsunami story: on December 24, 2004, I bought an airplane ticket to Sri Lanka for January 4th; two days later the tsunami hit—so I cancelled my flight and went to Argentina instead.
Their house had four good-sized rooms with a corrugated metal roof, a nicely tiled living room, and no running water that I could see. A tree had fallen on it, which nearly destroyed it, but all was shipshape now. Nalinko said he owns the tuk tuk he drives, but is making payments on it.
His brother came over on his motorcycle to meet me and all were most cordial—I was served sweets, bananas and orange juice. Nalinko suggested that I sponsor him to come to the USA—this almost always comes up when one makes an acquaintance in a developing country.
Nalinko made quite a point of commenting on his daughter’s appearance: “She is very white, very nice, and has blue eyes—I think she looks like a European—very nice!” His son, who has a darker complexion, was not commented on in terms of his looks—sad, but true.
Today I’m taking a bus to Negombo, a beach/Dutch town on the west coast. Nalinko will take me to the bus station. It will be good to get out of the traffic-clogged, polluted city. Riding in the open tuk tuk with the traffic exhaust gets old.
Until next time—Carol