Last weekend, I travelled to Sri Lanka, the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” for a long weekend. I’m not totally sure what I was expecting, but I have to say the place blew me away… and I’m definitely planning to go back in early 2010. I flew out on the Thursday night / Friday morning, interestingly enough after dinner with a bunch of Danes, and arrived in Colombo at 0600 local.
The first thing I noticed was the climate. It was fresh… admittedly I thought, ‘well it’s early, it’s got time to heat up’, but at 0630ish, it was lovely. Travelling into Colombo, you immediately get a feel for the level of threat that Sri Lanka has faced over the past 30 years or so. There were soldiers everywhere… almost every junction had someone overseeing that everything went smoothly. As you got into Colombo itself, the numbers increased, as did the level of armaments. The Powerstation was completely walled in with gun posts around it. The soldiers almost all carried automatic machine guns.
I guess if you had never grown up in Northern Ireland, you’d probably find it all a bit disturbing. I have to say, whilst it reminded me a lot of being a kid, I had to say that it was completely understandable, and part of me was saying fair play to them for looking out for themselves. I guess that’s a pretty sad reflection on my childhood’s context… but then I guess, Northern Ireland wasn’t (and probably still isn’t) normal.
Arriving in to the hotel, the Cinnamon Lake Side, I was given my room and once settled, I met up with Barry Clarke (of Invest NI fame) and we headed for Colombo. Having hired the services of a tuck-tuck driver for three hours at a (locally) extortionate rate, we headed for the sights.
Downtown Colombo has some great history, and some great historic buildings – in much the same way that Mumbai has – with strong links to the British rule here, which ended in 1948. Driving about, it was easy to see that compared to India, the Sri Lankans have taken to driving with ‘Land Discipline’, obey traffic rules, and apparently are as anal as I am on finishing pavements!! It was immediately obvious that these people have a pride in their surroundings. Refreshing.
Having seen the Town Hall, some of the Parks, the old commercial district, we decided a wee break by the pool to relax was in order. In the evening time, Barry Snr contacted some of his colleagues in the Sri Lankan High Commission and we arranged to meet at the Galle Face Hotel – an imperial throwback, with a beautiful beach front western ocean view. Perfect for sunsets. What was also striking was the climate that day… it was still fresh… yes it was hot temperature wise, but the humidity was low. Frankly it was beautiful… and I think it was there, at the Galle Face, where I fell in love with Sri Lanka.
The other great thing was the people we met in Colombo. Not only did we get to meet the PA to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, we got to meet the former Deputy High Commissioner in Delhi & his American wife, who’s father was from… wait for it… Randalstown!! Alongside these movers in high places, there were several Volunteers, who were working in Sri Lanka following the fall out of the believed conclusion of their Civil War earlier this year. Nic was working on Relocation of families back to their homes on the East side of the island.; Eve, Nat & Caroline were working in similar fields but on the West Coast. Llewellyn was managing a Charity in Colombo also.
On the Saturday, Snr & I decided to relax by the pool and take in the food in the hotel & the glorious weather. A few other tuck-tuck journeys to sort out tat… sorry I mean gifts (for me as much as anyone, as I picked up not one, but two fridge magnets!!) and then out to dinner again with the VSO guys.
On the Sunday, we hired a car & headed for Pinnawalla, to the Elephant Orphanage. In the car, driving on a beautifully finished asphalt road for two & half hours, we passed through village after village with finished pavements and colourful houses… it’s amazing really, Sri Lanka is a poor country, relatively speaking, it’s suffered 30 years of a conflict that has numbers which put the Northern Ireland conflict in to a global context as nothing other than a bit of trouble, and yet, they’ve quite clearly decided that what they’re going to do, they’re going to do it right. It’s like most other countries in Asia with a fair bit of corruption at the highest level, but on the ground?? They just get on with it & do what they can & what they have to. No police asked us for money at any point. None.
Anyways, at the orphanage, we got to see lots of elephants… many were disfigured, either through accident, man-made accident or suffering due to some form of old age or trouble. One had a foot missing due to a land mine. One was blind through old age. But there were lots of little elephants who had been born in the safe enclosures of the orphanage… so there’s hope amongst the gloom. One thing we did see, which I wasn’t a fan of, was the feeding of some of the little fellas. They were chained up for about an hour, and in came the staff with bottles of milk, and actively encouraged the punters to feed them from secure feeding bays, whilst their friends & family took photos. It seemed a little bit of barbarism amongst so much good work. A pity.
After that, we decided a bit of old fashioned jungle safari was required, so we went to a riding school, for… err… elephants. So on we climbed & Snr & I spent 30 minutes in the sun, having a whale of a time (or should that be an elephant of a time?!) through the jungle… which interestingly, as we got to the paddy fields, reminded Snr of Vietnam, and his references to Huey Helicopters coming over the tree line to Napalm the place had me in stitches of laughter. One thing I will say about elephant riding, is it’s not very comfortable… there was a little while of John Wayne walking to try & get the muscles used to walking again afters!!
Having recovered, we headed off to Kandy, in the centre of the island. If anything, Kandy is the one city with the least influence of the Colonialists – whether Portuguese, Dutch or British, yet you will still find references here & there, particularly in the hotel industry. The feeling in the city was pretty chilled, certainly in comparison to Colombo the military presence was significantly less. We had lunch & dandered around until we found the Queen’s Hotel, where we decided to have a rest & ended up chatting to a few British tourists for an hour or so. And with that it was back in the car & off back to Colombo.
The Monday, our last day on the Island, involved more time at the pool – as I said, elephant riding isn’t easy, so a day of relaxing was in order – before heading over to the High Commission to meet up with Emma for tea, and then on to the Galle Face Hotel for an evening watching the sunset & dinner. Now, what India doesn’t really do is British food… so when Emma recommended the “Inn on the Green”, what is essentially a British style pub, we discovered pie!! I had chicken & mushroom & Snr had Steak & Ale pie. And they were superb. It’s amazing what you miss about home when you live so far away, but the ability to dip your toe in to home every now & then is worth 10 times a local meal.
Alas, it’s always the way that holidays go in that you have to end them, so we headed off to the airport after having witnessed a superb thunder & lightning storm from the Galle Face Hotel, and returned to the hustle & bustle of Mumbai. Though, I’m definitely going back to Sri Lanka, so I’ve always got that to look forward to…