Okay, it was like stepping back into time and being in Beijing, Thailand, Singapore, and Bali at the same time.
Tuk tuks abound here – still loads of fun, and still as reckless as in Thailand. Humidity from the nightly showers keep Thailand, Singapore and Bali in mind. Crowded roadways and optional occasional sidewalks make the trek from the hostels to shopping and dining a challenge. The beggars, most missing a limb or two, skinny, and pathetic can be found more frequently than those in Beijing. They are gracious to us even though we don’t give them anything as we walk past them. Amy would prefer to cross the busy four lanes of traffic than walk by one, however.
Sri Lanka is the Land of Smiles – it is where we’ve gotten the most number of smiles returned as the people look on us curiously. They exude happiness in meeting us, even though the economics of Sri Lanka is almost desperate. We have been approached by many vendors, shop clerks and business owners to help them in any way to get out of Sri Lanka, or to make them wealthier somehow. One shoe salesman even gave me his email address, and wanted to invite us to his home to introduce us to his wife and family!
There is potential in Colombo and perhaps Sri Lanka, as Thailand was able to turn itself around economically through their silk manufacturing and trade. I am looking around to see what Sri Lanka would have to offer besides tourism. In that regard, there is still much to be improved to encourage more tourists are comfortable and safe. It’s a bit alarming to walk to shops, and pass by armed soldiers, or guards posted in doorways or at fortified corners with guns mounted and pointing at eye level. Though the uniforms lend a serious tone, the men and women in the uniforms smile just like the general populace does when we pass by.
Amy and I have learned some Sri Lankan words and phrases from our first restaurant – Pizza Hut. Not knowing what would be safe to eat, or where, we came upon Pizza Hut. I was reluctant, due to being lactose-intolerant, but Amy was really persuasive, and wanted pizza. The waitresses kept walking past us, and generally hung around closeby. So, to put them to “work” I figured it was an opportune moment to learn some of the language. Amy and I grilled them on how to say, “Good morning,” “Please,” “Thank you,” “Where is the bank?” “How much does it cost?” and “toilet.” We now have a small vocabulary list!
We had arrived at Colombo airport at 12:30 am, and after an hour waiting in line for our passport review, and collecting out luggage, we hailed a taxi and arrived at the Hornbill Home Hostel in Dehiwala (by the Dehiwala railway station) at almost 2:30 am. Since Sri Lanka is in the same time zone as Perth, that meant we were wiped out, but still had to shower! It was a good thing I booked for two nights right off. The room had a double bed, windows all along one wall (some didn’t close all the way, and bugs and geckos would come inside), our private bathroom, a desk and a wardrobe. The living room looks just like it does in the website, but the kitchen had just a water pot for tea or coffee provided, mugs but nothing else. There is no stove, oven, toaster, or even plates, silverware, or refrigerator! The hostel reminded me of the first one we stayed at in Bali, on the east side of the island. It was “rustic” in the sense of stone allowed to degrade and crumble, or moss over. The staff consisted mainly of men, and the one that actually did the work was Suresh, who also opened the doors for us when we first arrived. He’s a short young fellow, easy-going, and always smiling. We tipped him well when we checked out. He was happy.
The next morning, we awoke to sounds of the neighborhood – someone yelling, “Oooooh!” and walking along; Beethovan’s Moonlight Sonata played by a tinny sounding mini-truck; birds singing songs we didn’t recognize; and the muted unmufflered traffic noises in the background. We learned that the guy yelling, “Oooooh!” was selling something – I thought it was Oil at first, since many Sri Lankans speak English well. Later, I learned it was some sort of breakfast from his hand-pushed cart. The musical vendor was a tuk tuk selling buns and baked goods. Amy saw one later, and pointed it out, “Look! A bun tuk tuk!” I LIKE that!
One of the reasons we moved from the Hornbill Home Hostel was because of the sewer-y smell in the bathroom – there were two drains, and one emitted the smell more so. Another reason was the location – it seemed so remote from shopping, places where people gathered, and decent restaurants.
The closest restaurant that had a semblance of sanitation was a 10-minute tuk tuk ride away, the Yaal Family Restaurant by the beach. When we entered the open doors, there were a few tables filled, and I began looking for the coolest spot in the place. But, we were immediately directed to go upstairs by the greeter at the door. Wondering why we were sent upstairs, we found out as soon as we went through the doors – air conditioning! I guess Non-Sri Lankan or Non-Indians can sit downstairs, but visitors and special requests to sit in the air conditioning were honored. Actually, there were Sri Lankans and Indians upstairs, too. On the menu, it states that there is a 10% air conditioning charge added to the bill. ‘C)
[Amy is describing her Dream House in great detail to me right now…]
We moved to the Tropic Inn, the same place Chris stayed when he blew through Sri Lanka. Well, he stayed in the other Tropic Inn (the main one), but it was full when we shifted, and we were redirected to Tropic Inn @ No. 12. Ha ha … I laugh because the main inn is at 30 College Avenue, and the secondary one (that’s nicer, we think!) is at 12 School Road. Actually, it’s on 12 Hotel Road! Anyway, our luggage and backpack laden tuk tuk dropped us off at the closed black metal door and gate, which made the place seem a bit ominous. A few minutes later, the gates opened, and we were greeted by a man who seemed confused about our reservation. He was gracious, though and helped us bring in our luggage, and apologized that the room we’d be in would be ready in 5-10 minutes. I did not have a reservation, and had only emailed a request for one. He told me it was fine, but they were cleaning it immediately. It was not even 10 am! We saw some people having breakfast and realized that we hadn’t even eaten at the Hornbill when we checked out! Breakfast was not offered, and there was no place to eat nearby. The manager invited us to have breakfast and use the wifi while we waited.
We were served by Madu who immediately brought us toasts, fried egg (nicely fried, and not OVERLY fried), English tea, butter and jam, and offered bananas, but we had our own already. We left Madu a good tip, as I’d looked up that tipping is a good thing in Sri Lanka since most work for so little, and every rupee means so much more to them than a dime would be to us. When our room was ready, I quickly took our luggage upstairs, turned on the A/C, and noted the smoky smell. An assistant offered to spray the room with perfume, but I vetoed that idea as it was too sweet. We ended up sitting in the breeze-less dining room for over an hour! Madu saw how sweaty I was getting, and turned on a ceiling fan. WOW! What luxury! A good fan in a room still does wonders in cooling!
Our mission today was to submit our visa application to the Indian Visa Center. By noon Amy and I tuk tuk’d over, reserving a fellow for the roundtrip for LMR1,100 (about $10), though we told him it might take awhile. He said he didn’t mind and would wait for us. The application form was simple enough, but we needed to give copies of our passports. A copy service was available in the area, and for LMR5 each page (4 total) it was such a deal! Passport pictures were also offered, but we had our own pictures from before. They however, did not pass muster as they were too big! The visa pictures had to be about 1”x1” and back to the passport picture taker we went. For LMR300 we got four little pictures of us in tiny ziplock bags! Now we waited our turn. Our number was 1211, and 1163 was just being served. Sigh:: it took us almost three hours before we were processed – and our visas would be ready by March 3rd, about ten plus days later! Chris’ visa was approved by 4 days – wonder what HE did to expedite it. Even telling the clerk we were due to fly out of Sri Lanka on Feb. 28 did nothing to help our situation. The guy just said we’d have to change our flight plans. Well, I told him that just meant less time in India. Which seems fine by me, with the malaria and sanitation worries I have. I’m not sure the reasoning for such slow processing for visiting India, and though the clerk is Indian, he didn’t seem to care if we went there or not. He was from Mumbai, too. Go figure.
The tuk tuk driver was waiting for us – asleep and smoking in his tuk tuk. Clever… anyway, Amy was dying to get shopping for her fancy shoes she liked at Hakeem’s shop, so the driver was QUITE willing to drive whatever way necessary to get us back to the hostel pronto! OK, so driving on the “sidewalk” is a bit thrilling, both for us and for the pedestrians, but passing next to buses as they switched into our lane tops everything. Especially when we already ARE in the “fast” lane with nowhere else to go! As I found amazing in China, Thailand, and Bali of the random and laissez-faire method of driving sported in those places, I, too, found it here. By random driving, I mean where lanes are generally there as guidelines, but not adhered to at all. Sidewalks are additional options for tuk tuk and motorcycle driving. OK, the scariest thing is making a right turn – across the incoming traffic. The tuk tuk begins by honking it’s tiny horn, and shifting toward the center line, and sometimes the driver “signals” with his hand out the side. It does wait patiently till there’s a slight crack in the traffic flow, and then edges forward slowly. The key word here is, “SLOWLY.” It gives the on-coming traffic time to react, and most vehicles, buses and trucks included, actually do STOP to let the little tuk tuk drive across in front of them! It’s like a minor PAUSE in the flow! I will have to videotape this to show you!