After a shaky 3 a.m. start that involved a breakdown on a freeway in the middle of nowhere, we did make it to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean just off the southern tip of India. The people are a very lovely blend of Singhalese and Tamil who love their bright colours and spicy foods. Although the locals complain of the traffic and the congestion, it is relatively serene compared the bustle of Kuala Lumpur or the congestion of Bali.
We took ten thousand rupees out of the ATM – sounds excessive unless you know that this is only 100 dollars – and caught a taxi into town, stopping to buy a SIM card for our travel phone on the way. SIMs are relatively expensive here, nine dollars, as the economy has yet to fully recover from 26 years of civil war. The driver was sweet, with excellent English and wonderful credentials, judging from his guest book, but we opted against keeping a driver for the duration. The fifty dollars a day was pretty reasonable, but paying for his accommodation was added expense and hassle. We decided to go ahead with Plan A, which was to take the train to Kandy.
The driver dropped us off at Galle Face Hotel, a building that predates Canadian Confederation by three years (snap quiz!) and was the choice of authors such as Anton Chekov in 1890. It owns a gorgeous piece of real estate overlooking the Indian Ocean, and with its sprawling colonnades and spacious winding staircases is a testimony to the faded elegance of the British Raj in its heyday. Our room is cavernous, with what must be twelve foot ceilings, and the wide wooden plank floor large enough for ballroom dancing.
A quick phone call put us in touch with cousin Ros’ friend Becky who lives just outside of town. She and her daughter Annalee were good enough to meet us at the hotel and take us for a bit of a tour of the city, ending up at a restaurant/craft centre called Barefoot. I was disappointed that the Chicken Tikka Masala was only moderately spicy, as I had read that Sri Lankan curry was famous for its heat. Becky thought the recipe had been tamed for tourists. The fabrics and the art at Barefoot were fabulous, but I rarely buy the crafts and settled for a book on the Buddha to help me to clarify some lessons I am writing for an upcoming workshop. A short hop brought us back to the hotel for a wee kip.
In the late afternoon we ambled along the waterfront outside the hotel. This area features a large tract of undeveloped land, first cleared by the Dutch in order to provide an unimpeded line of sight for their cannons in the adjacent fort that once defended the city. These days the land serves as a parade ground for the Sri Lankan military, although I read in this morning’s paper that the area has just been sold for 125 million U.S. to Shangri La, a Japanese hotelier, who plans on putting a seven star resort on the site. The locals will miss it, as the land is a popular spot for kite-flying and picnic suppers. We finished our stroll back to the hotel where we watched the sun gently subside into the ocean from a waterside table. It was a nearly perfect first day.