Sri Lanka Calling

(Days five and six)

Good morning, it’s 8am here in Negombo and I’ve been up since 4.30am at the fish markets. I’m in my room now waiting for the bus to depart at 9.30am. My bags are packed and I’m sitting very upright on the couch due to there being more cushion than seat. The sun is pouring in through the high window of the colonial style room and I can hear the traffic outside; horns blasting, motorbikes, tuc tucs and buses melded in to a cacophony of frenetic movement.

I might be travelling alone but I have constant company now as part of a group for the next week, it’s a good group but I still feel I can wander by myself when we arrive somewhere, which in most cases is my preference. It just means I have to play catch-up on the bus getting the information I missed because I took off to take photos.

The alarm went off at 5.30am the morning of my next flight. I opened my eyes and groaned reaching for my phone to hit snooze. Then it it me - 5.30am. No. That couldn’t be right. I needed to be at the airport at 5.30am. In that instant it registered that if I had any chance of making my flight to Colombo I needed to MOVE and pack, FAST. I jumped out of bed and slid across the bathroom floor, splashed water on my face, cleaned my teeth and grabbed all the half-dry washing I had slung off every rail I could find - including the one in the wardrobe. Everything was thrown into my pack, I jammed my boots in at the end and zipped it up wondering where my combination locks had got to. Still in the last nights' clothes I hoist my day-pack onto my shoulder and dragged my big pack out the door mentally revisiting the room I’d just left to ensure I’d collected everything as I went down in the lift.

Downstairs I raced over to reception in a panic, “I’m late!” I said, “Can you please just charge my card?” This was no issue and I was escorted out to an awaiting cab who high-tailed it to the airport.

“Will I make it do you think?” I asked the cab driver as he unloaded my pack. “You will have to HURRY!” He said.

Inside I was directed to the right check-in counter, a look of alarm presented on the girl’s face as she saw where I was headed and the flight time. “I just found my combination lock” I said, “Can I put this on?” I asked holding it up as my bag was about to disappear off the belt. She did it for me. Then it was time for my morning run. I shot off to border control and then looked up, I needed Gate 58. The sign said it would take me 11 minutes to get there. My day-pack shoulder strap was rubbing and burning through the skin on my shoulder but the speed of the Changi travellators was now a blessing; I arrived at the gate as the last of the passengers were making their way through the security check. “Hmm”, I thought. “I wonder if I can make it back to the electronics shop I saw on the way here to get another PowerBank.” I made the call and raced back the way I’d come, trying to find my credit card on the way there to save mucking about at the counter. I made it there and back and went straight through onto the plane. I lobbed my bag up into the overhead and plonked down in my window seat breathing a sigh of relief and giving a sideways glance to the woman sitting alongside who must have been wondering what the big deal was.

Shortly after take off breakfast was served. We were asked if we would like a Western meal or an Indian meal. I chose Western and instantly regretted it as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Mine was a questionable looking sausage, bathed in soggy scrambled eggs with half a tomato. Never-mind, I wasn’t the slightest bit hungry! The lady in the aisle asked where I was from and we got talking. She was from Colombo originally but living in Singapore with her husband and daughter. She was returning to Colombo for her Mother’s surprise 75th birthday. Given the holidays for the Sri Lankan New Year Shanez would need to help her family prepare for this two days earlier. They would prepare the food and buy flowers in bud form so that they were ready on the day. Many of the shops and markets would not be open over the New Year period.

After we landed and were waiting to stand Shanez asked me if I had completed my immigration form. “What immigration form?” I asked. “I don’t have one.” “We were given one when we went through security,” She said. “By the way I also saw you running to the gate.” She said laughing. I located the form in my passport and began looking for a pen. “Do you need a pen?” She asked. I looked at her sheepishly and said “yes please, do you have one?” I started filling out the form as I walked from the plane. When I approached the counter I realised I’d put my passport number in the Sri Lankan passport number boxes. I seemed to be mastering vague quite well on this day which was totally out of character for me. The immigration man looked blankly in my general direction and let me through and immediately into duty free. I had no desire to purchase a washing machine or a fridge in spite of the assurances from multiple salesmen that it was most certainly necessary. I headed downstairs to collect my bag having said goodbye to Shanez and thanking her for getting me this far.

My bag turned up and I walked out to find an ATM - fortunately the ATMs had an attendant because I hadn’t had a chance to look up how many INR to AUD. I asked the guy how much I should put in telling him around what I wanted to get out Australian. It will be the first and last time I type 30,000.00 into an ATM.

Next I needed to find my driver. A local Sri Lankan company were looking after the first part of my stay but my driver wasn’t in amongst the thirty men all standing holding signs with people’s names on them. I know because I stood alone in front of them all with my bags reading each of them. It was the weirdest feeling. Particularly when I stopped looking at them to text a Sri Lankan contact only to look up again and see them all raise their signs as if I needed to check again. Next minute my driver was standing right beside me with a sign, and on it my name. He’d been outside.

Roshan was lovely. He took me out to the road and told me to wait while he went to get the van. While I waited I was asked eleven times if I needed a taxi. Then again he showed up right beside me and asked if I was ready to go. I think he must be a ninja and yes I was ready to go, I was melting. And we were off - it was hands down the best ride I’ve had from an airport in my life. There were old buses pushing through traffic, motorbikes whizzing by, tuc tucs weaving in and around people and smaller cars, older men on bikes and then vans, like the one I was in. Drivers veered as needed, turned when they felt like it (seemingly) and while we stopped at a pedestrian crossing, six motorbikes when straight through.

Safely at the hotel after a 30+ minute drive I was parched. It was now 11.30am Sri Lankan time which was 1.30pm Singaporean time and all I’d had to drink was one of those cups (please tear here) of water on the plane. I was super thankful for the welcome drink custom at hotels here, the cold orange juice was like liquid gold.

I was escorted up to my room by two staff, the three of us squeezing into a tiny lift with my bag. The girl said something in Signalise to the guy, the guy then asked me if I was Australian, I said yes. They both smiled. Good chat.

Once in my room I showered, edited some photos and went to sleep before heading down to the lobby to write. At 7.30pm the restaurant opened for dinner and I took a seat which looked out over the beach where a lightning show showed no signs of an intermission.

The service was attentive, there were so many waiters! By different waiters at different times throughout the meal I was asked where I was from, if I would like something to drink by another, how long I was in Sri Lanka for, when I arrived, how old I was and if I could I be their Facebook friend (to which I replied that I didn’t have Facebook rather than have to say no).

The meal was everything I’d hoped for, I was able to try yellow fish curry, chicken stew, red beef curry, a cabbage dish which was packed with chilli, saffron rice with saltanas and mango chutney. Then for dessert I had the best date cake and fresh pineapple. A couple of stray cats wandered around and you had to make sure you left something on your plate or it was whipped from the table as you were being asked if you wanted anything else but for my first night in Sri Lanka I couldn't have asked for more.

And then it was morning, I was up early for no reason in particular and down for breakfast by 7.30am. Fish curry and black coffee on-board I decided to take a walk on the beach. There was a large outrigger on a sandy bank so I walked closer for a photo. As I was taking it the owner emerged and came running over. “Where you from?” Asked this older man. “Australia” I replied. “Ah” He said. “How many of you?” “Just me” I replied not realising this boat was in working order and he was hopeful for a bunch of tourists to take out. This was made perfectly clear when another younger man showed up and demanded money for the photo I’d just taken. Fortunately I was thinking more clearly on this day and said “I don’t walk around with money, it’s back at the hotel, so ah, bye.” I said, backing away. I’d made it a mere 20m when I was approached by another man, “where you from?” He asked not waiting for a reply “will you visit spa while you here for massage?” “Not sure” I said, “but not today.” “I do massage, you find me, I be here - first massage free.” He said.

I smiled and took a direct line back to the hotel grounds.

They were preparing for the New Year celebrations, there was a rustic cocktail bar set up on the sand, a big wooden swing, a band setting up and the staff were decked out in their traditional colourful dress. I sat watching until it was too hot to stay any longer and went back upstairs to pack. I needed to get to a hotel further down the road later that afternoon.

On this night I would be meeting the group I was to join though I was a bit sad to not see the celebrations in full swing at this hotel. One of the staff asked why I needed transport to another hotel, “this is good hotel! Is it not?” I was able to sort transport quickly - I had left my bags at reception, wandered out to the road and within seconds, “you need tuc tuc?” I was asked. “Yes,” I said, “how much?” “200 rupee, 250 rupee.” He said. “Okay” I said ignoring the range, I just wanted to get there and it was basically costing me nothing! He drove up to the hotel to get my bag. If you’ve seen my North Face pack getting this into a tuc tuc is no mean feat. I was instructed to wait while two men manoeuvred it into the back seat - this took a little while but in the end it looked like it was sitting up like another human because they had to put it in upright. I got in next, my day-pack on my lap and we shot off for the five minute journey to the next hotel. At the risk of sounding like a seven year old writing about their weekend. It was awesome.

After a short afternoon nap I went for a street walk and came back along the beach - then it was down to the bar to share a beer and meet the group and the tour leader. Our guide informed us that we would be up super early the next day so we could see the fish markets. Off the back of that we went immediately out for dinner given an early night was in order (lesson learnt from my last early morning). We went to a local restaurant for, you guessed it - curry. They have curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner here, anniversaries and birthdays too. But, they’re GOOD.

The was another storm, the waiter handed me an umbrella on the way to the toilet.

Tip: You might think your hotel room in Sri Lanka has no powerpoints, or not enough but it’s more likely they’re just hiding, for example; behind the couch, behind the wardrobe - or so far up the wall you have to stand on a table to plug in your device. Have a hunt. You will find them.

Track: We’re Going Home - Vance Joy


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