Wheels up, tray table down and ready to write. Never mind the fact I have just worked on a pair of long black circulation socks that reach my knees which don’t necessarily pair well with my bright pink shorts. I’d have just worn tights if it weren’t nearly 40 degrees.
No chances were taken with getting to the airport in time for this flight and yet I still had to make a last minute dash to the gate. It would seem, in Colombo at least, that in spite of having passed through two security check-points and being pat-down twice, you also have to go through security to get to your gate PRIOR to the boarding time stated on your boarding pass.
I was in the bathroom standing at the basin when I heard the final boarding announcement. Usain Bolt would have been proud of my transition from starting block into sprint, I was out of there at lightning speed.
I chose to use the term pat-down as opposed to “invasive manual screening”, a term being used right now in a conversation I'm overhearing from the row behind me. It was a pat-down woman, not a Pap smear!
It was a strange feeling to be looking out the window, leaving this beautiful country. I wasn’t sad, not because I wouldn’t miss every inch of the place, but because I knew I would be back. The friendships I've made - they will last a lifetime.
Having gone to bed thinking about tsunamis as the waves pounded only metres away I woke tired. Fortunately today we didn’t have to leave super early so I stretched out across the king-sized bed and shut my eyes again. It was easier to enjoy the sound of the waves now the sun was up. I’ve considered 8am a sleep in for years so going back to sleep was unlikely but it was nice to not have to be anywhere.
At breakfast time I wandered upstairs to the restaurant and ran into Rose and Fred. While they sorted us a table I did as I had done every morning since leaving Australia, assembled (piled) an array of dishes onto one plate, poured myself a cup of percolated coffee and joined them on the deck overlooking a line of palm trees on yet another stunning morning. Time in Sri Lanka was coming to an end so it was inevitable that we would start to talk a little more about our lives back home. I wasn’t quite ready for the transition yet though and after breakfast retreated to the couches in the open-air lobby to write.
By late morning we were all on board the bus excited to be visiting a local Fisherman’s family a short drive away.
The Fisherman’s home was in a unique location. Just off a bay with a view to the rough seas of the impending monsoon season, but still set back far enough to give the place a neighbourhood feel. Enclosed by the surrounding rocky outcrops narrow winding streets lead to colourful homes - each with plenty of character, this one in particular was pink.
Having learnt to prepare and make fresh blue swimmer crab and cuttlefish curries with not much chit chat due to more of a language barrier than usual it was time to eat! Now as much as I love crab there’s a quite a lot of effort involved so after failing dismally with a second claw I snuck it over onto Kevin’s plate for him to deal with. This freed me up to enjoy the cuttlefish curry, the small crispy fried fish and the jackfruit curry, a longstanding favourite, for two weeks at least!
The Dutch Fort in Galle was to be our next stop but the drive there turned my mind back to tsunamis. On the road to Galle along the southern coast of Sri Lanka, the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami is still evident. Rolling walls 90-feet high were triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. It was one of the deadliest disasters in recorded history - at its most destructive in Indonesia, followed by Sri Lanka where approximately 35,000+ people died or went missing.
In Galle itself, 4,000 people were killed. The tsunami waves did some of their worst damage at the bus station I could see from my window as we drove by - the devastating memories of these scenes are etched on the faces of locals and it hurt my heart just to imagine what the Sri Lankan people went through, back then and in the years that followed.
High tide was building and the waves crashed hard against the embankment sending water up onto the road. Apparently it had been worse at dawn because the road itself was covered in sand. We would take the inland route for our return journey.
And so Galle; the first recorded visit here by European sailors was in 1505 when a fleet of Portuguese sailing ships was blown of course en route for the Maldives. By the end of the century, the Portuguese had established a small fort on the rocky promontory that shelters the port.
When the Dutch took over the island in 1640 they destroyed most of the Portuguese fortifications and replaced them with their own. It is these ramparts and gates that still stand in Galle today. Built to withstand cannon fire they saved Galle Fort from the devastating impact of the tsunami waves, repelled by the walls, the waves swept around the promontory, but into the town.
After a guided walk we were left to roam the network of narrow cobbled lanes lined with restored and crumbling old Dutch villas, colonial-era public buildings, a whitewashed mosque and Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches. While more tourist focused than most other places we’d visited I was happy wandering alone, getting lost and ducking in and out of shops.
Next minute the rubber strap on my flip flops gave way and I was left with only one covered sole on the melt your skin off cobbled streets. I also needed to find an ATM which is why I’d walked so far but I was due back at the bus in 15 minutes. Cue tuk tuk, do they wait in hiding for occasions like this?
“You need a ride?” I was asked. “Sure do” I said smiling as I slid into the backseat with my shoe in my hand. “I need an ATM please.” I said. He found one two blocks away and waited while I used it. This worked out well since I wouldn’t have had any cash to pay him otherwise. I was then asked, “Where are you meeting the bus?” “Where we parked it.” I replied, more for something to say while I looked around trying to get my bearings. We found it eventually!
That evening we sat up in the bar with maps of Sri Lanka laid out across the tables as we marked the route traveled over the preceding two weeks. There was no denying the trip was coming to an end but there was still more to come, the two days that would follow the tour ending were likely to mean as much to me as the two weeks we were all reliving over a day’s end drink.
Come morning it was time to check out, to pay our bills and board the bus. In Sri Lankan hotels, or at least many of them, you hand your keys back at reception but are then escorted to the cashier to pay any outstanding monies.
Do you remember the old-school invoice books with the blue carbon sheets laid in between pages to produce the duplicate copies? Well each time I’d ordered a gin and tonic during my two night stay I’d signed one of these slips. As you can imagine, after say, four G&Ts I didn’t care so much for what I was signing and, as it turned out, on the previous night, I had signed individually for four G&T and then also signed a summary for four G&T, effectively totalling eight.
My account was ejected from the noisey dot matrix printer and torn off like toilet paper along the perforated edge, I reviewed it and pointed out the error. Not because I am tight, but because, as I mentioned at the time, had I have had eight (local) G&Ts I would still be in bed.
It would be a few hours drive to Colombo so with my earphones in I powered up the Mac to write. We travelled mostly on the Southern Expressway, which after a couple of weeks of narrow roads, windy back streets and traffic chaos it was odd moving at a greater speed, and in a straight line.
We passed by a big complex, our guide informing us it was the Convention Centre, if you’re Tasmanian think something the size of the DEC. In the next breath he said that it was no longer used, unless you count the fact it is now inhabited by monkeys. Ah the corporate monkey.
The lack of traffic chaos was short-lived, it was late morning so we had missed the morning and late-afternoon rush hours but the roads were still jam-packed. Like everywhere though there seemed some order to the chaos, albeit just louder than anywhere else we’d been. There was so much going on I didn’t know where to look first, I felt like I was trying to watch the ball in a game of squash.
It is said on average 7.5 people die each day on the roads here. This is as per the statistics of 2015, from an article written back in 2017 in the Colombo Telegraph so it’s quite clear my research was down to just a Google search, a selective scroll and some speed-reading. However, my point is that I’ve been saying since I got here that it’s an “ordered chaos” and while I don’t like to spoil views formed on a two week holiday these fatalities are a sad fact and one I wanted to share.
In another article published in the Sri Lankan Daily News in 2017 it was stated that a road traffic accident is reported in Sri Lanka every ten minutes and that fatalities number 3000+ each year. Now is probably a good time to mention what an incredible job our driver did for the duration. Back home we curse drivers for their inattention who don’t have half as much information to assimilate as the drivers here. Thanks to his sound judgement and reaction time I always felt safe.
Toilet stop! A walking tour was next so this was timely. Only problem was, when participating in a walking tour you need your camera, sunglasses and backpack and as there were enough toilets for everyone we all had to take our stuff with us. When I emerged from the toilet block the group was waiting for me, “sorry I took so long, I’d have been out sooner but I dropped my sunglasses in the loo.” This situation was far less insufferable than you may be envisaging though still not a fond memory.
Pettah is one of the oldest districts in Colombo and an interesting place to spend a few hours. With so many different ethnicities and faiths this place provides a unique and undiluted insight into the cultural diversity of this developing city.
The Pettah Market lies just outside what remains of Colombo Fort, set against architecture from the colonial period it is a bustling bazaar of hawkers, shops, vendors and buyers.
Vendors hurry past, their carts piled high with impossible loads, tuk tuks whizz by so close you need to look out for your toes, cars try to squeeze down narrow lanes and people are rushing everywhere! In the midst of it all are buildings like the striking red and white Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque (pictured, or a quarter of it is).
Pettah is a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and smells and worth a visit, particularly if you don’t have to navigate these streets alone - it was definitely great to have a guide.
I was getting hungry would you believe! Today we were going to one of the halls of the Dutch Burgher Union to try a savoury rice and meat dish, (served with an assortment of condiments and baked in a banana leaf) called lamprais - a dish that maintains a thread between modern Sri Lanka and the16th century Dutch Burgher settlers.
Each meticulously wrapped parcel hides a small mound of short-grained rice cooked in meat stock, a rich, deep brown mixed meat curry, usually a combination of chicken, pork and beef. The curry and rice camouflage the other accoutrements, you discover them as you go.
There is vambatu moju, a sweet-sour pickled aubergine dish; seeni sambol, a condiment made of caramelised onions with fish flakes, and a tiny portion of prawn blachang or dried prawn relish. Two small frikkadels or crisp-fried meatballs complete the offering.
Definitely one of my favourite meals - just make sure it’s an authentic lamprais! They’re labour intensive and not always the real deal.
Check in time! Woo! We arrived at the hotel around 2pm and would have the afternoon to ourselves, my room was great, a kingsized bed and a decent shower. I posted a photo of my room on Facebook and Rose was quick off the mark to comment, “how come you got a kingsized bed?” “Why, what did you guys get?” I asked. A photo appeared moments later of Fred sitting on the edge of one of their single beds. I roared laughing. The photo was GOLD! Come 5pm the six of us met at a bar down the street for a pre-dinner beer.
We were off to the Ministry of Crab for our final evening meal together. Crabs are a major income earner for Sri Lanka’s fishing industry, but most are exported. This high-profile restaurant rectifies this loss by celebrating the crustaceans in variations ranging from Singaporean chilli crab to locally spiced crab curry and with sizes ranging from 500g up to “crabzilla” specimens weighing over 2kg. The two owners are former captains of the Sri Lanka cricket team plus there's famous chef Dharshan Munidasa, born in Japan to a Sri Lankan Father and Japanese Mother.
After a sublime seafood dining experience we retuned to the bar, set roadside the street had filled with performers so the evening’s entertainment was taken care of; from the 30,000-year-old Angampora (a form of martial art) to traditional drum performances and dancers with their athletic moves, multi-colored costumes and full-toned music, these performers captured the attention of everyone passing by, they had mine. I moved to stand street side so I could see better narrowly missing a large orange traffic cone that said “police.” I couldn’t see any real ones.
We sampled another local Arrack while we watched, which I still didn’t like all that much. I had tried hard to.
Our tour had officially ended but we made plans to say our goodbyes the following morning.
My final two days in Sri Lanka, still to come.
Tip: Just because I’d spent my days on a tour bus for two weeks doesn’t mean I should have treated it like a wardrobe. Anyone who reads these posts would know by now I don’t pack light so of course it was easier that my boots should live under my seat in the bus - for whenever I might need to ditch the flip flips for real shoes. Alighting in downtown Colombo for the final time I looked up to see Nalaka standing in the doorway waving my boots in the air, he spoke little English but the grin on his face could be translated to “ya forget something?”