The time to depart for Sri Lanka has arrived on this 30th day of January. Paul and I put our backpacks and luggage in the Hyundai. We do a last walk through the house, and give a worried cat a final pat goodbye. As we drive away, I have the usual mixed feeling of looking forward to our adventure along with some regret of leaving this place I love.
There is something new to the beginning of our trip to Sri Lanka in that we are flying out of Manhattan! How nice to leave from this small airport only an hour from home, where there is no charge for parking your car, plus we know the area well. O.k. so they took Paul’s shoes as we were going through security, and checked them for bomb residue but otherwise it was a piece of cake.
We fly to Dallas where we wait 3 hours before boarding an American flight to Frankfurt. Arriving in Frankfort ten hours later, we take advantage of the chaise lounge chairs, to while away the 6 hour layover in the German city. We board the old, worn Sri Lankan airplane and fly another 11 hours to Colombo. It is 4 a.m. Sri Lankan time when we land on the Island on February 1st. We gather our luggage, yes, both pieces arrived! We go through customs where one of the posted signs proclaims “Possession of illegal drugs is subject to the death penalty”, exchange US dollars for Lankan rupees and go out to search for our name on a cardboard placard.
My gosh, there sure are a lot of drivers holding the name of their clients high in the air. We walk along until we spot Paul Miller, written in black on a white piece of cardboard, and wave to the man holding it. He introduces himself as Sunil, grabs my suitcase, and leads us out into the humid, tropical night. We wind our way through vehicles, finally arriving at his red sedan. We pile our luggage in his trunk, and then load ourselves in the car. Sunil drives us to St. Lachlan, our hotel in Negombo an hour away.
Sunil honks as he pulls up to the closed and locked gate of the hotel. When there is no response he lays on the horn again. A man appears and opens the gates so Sunil can pull the car into the hotel grounds. We check in with two sleepy young men, and then are led up several flights of steps to room number 5. They dump our suitcases in the room; give us the key and leave. We are left to check the room out on our own. I soon discover there is no bottled water, so Paul goes down to reception and returns with two bottles.
As tired as we are, the need for a shower after 36 hours of travel is a must! We fall into bed at the same time the sun is beginning to rise. Three hours later we dress and go down to eat breakfast. Our waiter seats us at an outside table by the pool, where a plate of fresh fruit accompanied by a basket of toast is promptly served to us. This is followed by scrambled eggs and tea (of course).
Despite the food and distraction of a greater coucal (bird) in the courtyard, I feel lousy. We return to the room, where I change into my pjs and go back to bed. I drift in and out of sleep, but finally get up as Paul is ready to walk to the beach. I go to open the door where our suitcases are and I can’t turn the knob. I try turning the knob the other way with the same results. I tell Paul the door is locked, he says it can’t be. Paul had shut the door to keep our bedroom cooler, and the door is definitely locked.
We assume that the room key will also unlock this door. Nope, it doesn’t. Paul digs his Swiss army knife out to see if he can jimmy the lock with it. Nope, he can’t. Upon examining the door knob closer, it is obvious that we aren’t the first guests who have had this problem as there are dents around the keyhole. Great.
Well, all we can do is get the manager to help us out of this rather embarrassing situation. Surely, they have a key that fits this door. Nope. They have to call their maintenance man, but it is Saturday, so they aren’t sure how long it will take to track him down. We wait and we wait. The problem is, this door also leads to the bathroom, and of course, when you can’t get to the bathroom the need for one seems to be crucial.
After an hour, a cheerful fellow appears at our door, and with the tools of his trade has the door open within seconds. However, the safe also needs to be fixed, so he works on this problem, which entails a couple of trips back to his truck. That means we can rush to the bathroom during his absence. The pleasant man finishes all his repairs within a half hour. I can now don my street clothes after which Paul and I make our way to the beach.
Paul and I must walk several blocks to find an opening that allows us access to the beach. After the bland grey, brown, and beige of Kansas the bright sunlight and lush tropical trees, flowers, and plants is a feast for the eyes. Since it is approaching noon, the sun is also white-hot as we stroll on the sand. There aren’t that many sun worshipers on this stretch of beach and most of them are Sri Lankans. We enjoy the big mast ships that are sitting at the water’s edge. We watch as some people frolic in the water, while others sun bathe in the intense heat. No thanks, I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t be burnt to a crisp within minutes! We spend a scant half hour walking the beach, and people watching, then turn back for the city streets.
On our walk back, we take in the sights including tuk tuks, motorcycles, cars and people. The most eye-opening sight is a trash pickup service consisting of a tractor hooked to a trailer where one of the workers is stomping the dumped garbage down with his bare feet. Umm, does your job seem pretty good after reading the prior line? Well, at least they are picking the trash up instead of just leaving it lay in the street.
When we return to St. Lachlan we arrange a boat tour that traverses a part of the canal which was built by the Dutch when they controlled the island. The tour also consists of exploring a marsh which was afforded government protection. The highlight of the tour is bird watching, although we realize that this time of day, (mid-afternoon), isn’t the optimum time to see birds. Since we leave Negombo tomorrow morning, we really had no choice but this time spot.
When we arrive at the tour company, the two people working there obviously have no record that we booked a tour. After an intense discussion with our driver from St. Lachlan in Sinhalese, they must come to an agreement, as we are handed life jackets. We get into a small wooden motor boat with our driver, the boat captain and a young naturalist.
As we glide down the narrow canal, we find the human activity as interesting as the bird life. There is a striated heron balanced on a half-emerged log in hunting pose. A small truck, playing a musical tune as it drives down the road, catches our attention. It’s a bread truck and people stop the small truck on the street to purchase the breads and rolls that can be seen through the glass panes of the paneled truck. Neat. Ooh, a water monitor is swimming before us and we stop to watch him as he clambers onto dry ground. He is a big fellow. There are a few people fishing, some with a wooden pole, others with simply a string wrapped around their hands. Wow, a white-throated kingfisher glows a vibrant turquoise as he turns his back on us.
As we near the end of the canal, e must boat into some choppy water in the lagoon on our way to the marsh. Well, this isn’t appealing to me but our naturalist assures me that it isn’t far and the water isn’t that deep. He is good to his word, and soon we are floating on the calm waters of the marsh. The birds seem to be oblivious to the time of day as we see plenty of species. Cormorants, a darter, whiskered terns, and several varieties of herons, egrets, and one of the oddest birds we see being the purple swamphen. Our naturalist spots a tiny crocodile sunning on a small log. This tour was certainly worth the money and time for us.
As the boat turns back for the canal, we come upon a man and woman fishing from a brightly colored, catamaran. The man is paddling while the woman appears to be laying their fish net out. They greet us with smile and waves. We find this friendliness all through our trip.
After thanking and tipping our naturalist and boat operator, we are driven back to the hotel. One of the oddest things we observe on the return trip is a full-sized, live hog, securely tied to a wooden cart, which is being pushed by a man and woman. I, for the life of me, can’t figure out how they got that large porker up on that flat cart. How in the world did they get ropes around the hog in such a manner that he looks like a porcine Gulliver! No photos unfortunately, I was too busy gawking to even think about trying to snap a picture through the vans windshield.
We eat supper at the hotel restaurant, the food is cheap (my fish and chips cost 4 bucks) and very good. However, the local Sri Lankan beer is the star of the meal. We share a bottle of Lion lager, the bottles are quite large, and we agree that this is just what we needed to end the day. We both succumb to the jet lag that we have fought all day and crawl into bed by 8 p.m. We are awoken at 3 in the morning, a drunk is screaming and laughing somewhere near the hotel. When it appears that our serenader has no intentions of wandering off to entertain someone else, we share a sleeping pill, and drift off despite the caterwauling.
Next installment, Dolphin Beach. Nancy