I have an affiinity to islands. Perhaps
it's due to being born on one. Whatever the reason, they always
seem to feature as my favourite holiday destinations. Even so,
no one could have prepared me for the impact Sri Lanka would have
I first went to Sri Lanka 10 years ago
and had wanted to return ever since. For a long time, the nearest
I ever got to it, was keeping in touch with Sunny, the chauffeur
guide who'd helped to make the first trip so memorable. Through
photos, I watched his two sons, now 11 and 9, growing up. The
damage that the Tamil Tigers did to the island worried me whenever
I read about it in the British newspapers, not just for the deaths
they caused, but because it also hit tourism and thus had a knock
on effect on a family I knew and cared about.
The possiblity of a return first cropped
up last Spring, but it was all dependent upon finding a cat sitter
to look after the boys. That solved (thanks Eileen, I really appreciated
it), Jen, who'd spent 10 years hearing tales of my last trip and
had no intention of being left out of this one, and I, started
planning in earnest.
We made our own arrangements. This meant
that, for a while, we had our flights booked, but no firm hotel
booking. We looked around for local evening classes on building
your own house out of plaited palm leaves, but they seemed to
be thin on the ground. We consoled ourselves with the thought
that, if we cut ourselves plaiting the palms, or got bitten by
anything unmentionable, at least our holiday insurance was in
place and we'd get free treatment! Fortunately, the hotel booking
came through well before we needed to put any of these plans into
So it was that, on the morning of 14th
January 2003, I found myself back in Sri Lanka. Sunny was at the
airport to pick us up and take us to the Galle
Face Hotel in Colombo. This
was to be our base for the duration of our stay.
The Galle Face Hotel is unique. On the
ocean, but in central Colombo, it's the oldest hotel on the island.
Full of character and with a very imposing frontage, it's still
a little old fashioned in terms of furnishings and fittings. We
were startled to see a gardener valiantly mowing a vast expanse
of lawn with a small, rusty, manual lawnmower. I can also still
see the horrified look on the face of the Director of Operations
when we excused ourselves at the end of a cocktail reception,
held by the hotel for its long term and repeat guests. Our reason?
To check if the leaks we'd experienced in our suite during the
previous tropical storm had returned during the current one! While
the hotel might lack some of the modern touches, state of the
art living isn't everything. Far more important to us was that
The Galle Face Hotel can't be beaten for its atmosphere and friendliness.
I especially liked the little homilies that greeted you in the
passageways. "Please do not smoke in bed or the ashes we
find may be yours." "Please use the stairs, it's only
one flight and it will benefit your health."
The front of the
Galle Face Hotel. It is the oldest hotel in Sri Lanka and
the only hotel actually on the beach in Colombo.
The grounds of the
hotel. The pool is behind the palm trees.
Detail of the gardener
mowing the huge lawns.
Devi and Gunny provided a personal touch
when we went to the pool area. Gunny, who knew I liked to write
when I was there, always did his best to make sure I had my "special"
table. (On one occasion this included trying to remove it from
a gentleman who was trying to eat his lunch on it.) Devi gave
us the breakdown on the spectacular Sri Lankan weddings that were
a daily event there.
Devi, in the blue sari,
Gunny in the background and Jen
The hotel's currently being refurbished,
so next time we stay there (and nowhere else would be the same
now), I hope we find that they've succeeded in their aim of retaining
the character, but repairing the leaks!
Neither Jen nor I are lovers of "resorts",
so a bonus for us was that whenever we left the hotel we stepped
straight into everyday life rather than the artificial society
that grows up around a tourist centre. Everyday life however,
included negotiating crossing busy main roads. If there's a Highway
Code in Sri Lanka, no one seems to take any notice of it. If you're
a pedestrian, the general idea seems to be close your eyes, stretch
out your hand (palm downwards), and hope the traffic weaves its
way around you. That we finished the holiday with all our limbs
intact is surely due to the helpfulness of the local people, who
allowed us to attach ourselves to them, (metaphorically speaking
that is) and led us safely over the road. The local supermarket,
"The Elephant House", was only a few hundred yards away.
It was not generally used by tourists and we were as much of a
novelty to the shop as it was to us. On one occasion, when trying
to simplify a transaction only resulted in us complicating it,
we even gathered a very goodnatured crowd. They laughed, we laughed
and the confusion sorted itself out.
Despite being in Colombo, we were still
prey to the local tourist scams, but we'd been well briefed by
Sunny. The most common one was to be accosted by individuals who
explained to us that they were teachers at the local school for
deaf and blind children or, alternatively, the local orphanage,
culminating in asking us to sign a paper committing us to donate
money. Had even half of the supplicants been telling the truth,
Sri Lanka would be remarkable for the vast number of special schools
there. Not to mention the amount of children who'd had the misfortune
to be orphaned.
The value of money is one of the most startling
things about a trip to Sri Lanka. I would never describe myself
as poor, but here in the UK I spend my life budgeting in order
to pay all the bills and still have enough money left over to
be able to afford to do all the things I want to do. In Sri Lanka,
I suddenly become seriously rich. Many everyday items are a tenth
of the UK price. If I lived in Sri Lanka and budgeted the way
I do in the UK, I could probably live comfortably on £10
($15) a week. It's a very strange feeling. On the one hand, it's
wonderful not to have to consider the cost of anything at all.
To wander in and out of hotels, the British equivalent of which
would have me drawing a sharp intake of breath at the cost of
even a cup of tea. To plan tours without having to keep a tally
of the cost. To go into a shop and buy without needing to ask
the price first. On the other hand, it's uncomfortable being aware
of the financial differences between me and my Sri Lankan counterparts,
which occur purely as a result of the two different economies.
Sunny had lent us an excellent guide book
so we were able to explore a lot of Colombo on foot. To see the
rest of the island, transport is a must. Coach and mini bus trips
are easily bookable, but by far the best way is to travel with
a chauffeur/guide. When the chauffeur/guide also happens to be
a long standing friend, the tours become really memorable.
Touring in Sri Lanka requires a degree
of stamina. How the chauffeur/guides aren't on their knees by
the end of the day is beyond me. Sunny just says, "It's my
job, it's what I have to do and I'm used to it." Somehow
I can't imagine anyone in Britain coming up with such a philosophical
Here's an example of what we covered in
a typical tour day. During our second week, we went on a tour
of the west coast. Sunny had asked us to be ready for a 6 am start,
so we actually got up at 5.15. Sunny, who had a 40 minute drive
to reach our hotel must have been up even earlier. After driving
for a couple of hours, we stopped at Bentota for a tea break and,
in Sunny's case, breakfast. Then on to a turtle hatchery where
we heard how the eggs were collected and saw what happened when
they were brought to the hatchery.
The turtle hatcheries collect the
eggs, keep them buried in the sand, in a safe area, until
they hatch and then keep the babies for 3 days before
releasing them into the ocean.
I'm holding two day old babies
in this picture.
From Bentota, we went to Ambalangoda to
look around a Mask Factory and Museum and to watch the masks being
made. Further down the coast at Hikkaduwa, Jen went for a ride
in a glass bottomed boat. By this time it was about 12.30 pm.
The boat owner, Jen and
Sunny set off for a trip in a glass bottomed boat.
Right on the southwest tip of the island
is Galle, the old Dutch capital. A lot of the fortifications are
still in place and we were able to stroll along some of the ramparts.
But not for too long as Sunny wanted us to see Weligama, a fishing
village where the fishermen are famous for "stilt fishing".
Two stilt fishermen at Weligama
At 3 pm we reached Tangalle and finally
stopped for lunch. By this time, we'd been on the road for 9 hours.
Whilst waiting for our lunch,
we couldn't resist a paddle
My lunch was a soufflé
omelette with bananas and palm treacle.
It was absolutely delicious!
From Tangalle, we headed inland to Bundala,
one of the National Parks, as Sunny wanted to take us on a jeep
safari. Our safari was around an area known for its birdlife,.
Along with Sunny, who was for once a passenger, we were escorted
by a guide as well as the jeep driver. It will be a long time
before Jen and I forget standing by the edge of a lake to stretch
our legs, only to have the guide point out a couple of crocodiles
basking in the shallows. We were ready to do a standing jump straight
into the back of the jeep at the first sign of one of them coming
to life and showing an interest in us, but everyone else was most
unconcerned. The jeep safari was the last item on Sunny's agenda
and from there he took us to a local hotel where we were to spend
the night. By the time we arrived at the hotel, it was 7.15 pm.
This was the view of paddy
fields from the balcony
of my hotel room.
However beautiful a country, a visit can
be made or broken by the friendliness of the people and sometimes,
just the little things that you look back on with a smile or a
sigh. In Sri Lanka, all were overwhelming.
I will never forget,
Stopping by the roadside to give some children
lollipops and biros and seeing a sturdy 3 year old emerge from
the nearby house like a bullet out of a gun, little legs flying
like pistons and a frantic look on his face at the thought of
being too late.
The dignity and close loving bonds of familes
so poor it defies anything we see in the UK. Sunny asking a young,
barefoot boy why he wasn't at school and being told it was because
his family couldn't afford to buy him shoes.
Being told, completely straightfaced, by
a young hotel waiter one morning that the hotel had run out of
tea. He managed to maintain his deadpan appearance through my
disbelief (Sri Lanka is the world's third largest tea exporter),
so that I finally began to think he was telling me the truth.
Only then did his face break into a huge grin at the success of
his practical joke and we all laughed together.
Buying Sri Lankan scratch cards and sitting
in open air rest houses drinking tea with Sunny and attempting
to win a tuk tuk, one of the many prizes. We'd agreed on a three
way split of any winnings, but this proved to be a little difficult
with the prizes of 10 and 20 rupees (3.3p & 6.6p respectively),
which were all that we ever won.
Jen and Sunny on one of
our many tea breaks. Jen had just hit the jackpot
with a 20 rupee win on a scratchcard!
Having the most hair raising ride of my
life in a tuk tuk driven through Columbo streets, heavily congested
with traffic, by a driver who clearly thought he was immortal.
The sight of the burnt out shell that was
all that was left of the bank in Colombo that was bombed by terrorists
a few years ago.
Being invited, by the bride's brother,
into her wedding reception at the Galle Face Hotel.
All the monkeys and elephants.
Three monkeys renoving
fleas from each other.
keeping a close guard on an orphaned baby as he's washed
by a handler.
The realisation that, despite the completely
different cultures, religions and lifestyles, we shared the same
opinions on many fundamental things and the same sense of humour.
The many kindnesses and the numerous running
gags that are too personal to write about here.
Thank you to everyone who helped to make
my holiday in Sri Lanka such a memorable one. I hope to see you