Saturday, May 24, 2008

My Sri Lankan Diary: Part 1

This is the first of my travel memoirs of a trip to Sri Lanka in 2002. Part of the story has already been told in my Scowler Monkey post last year. As with all holidays and trips, I keep a running diary of events and never travel anywhere without a notebook or voice recorder. Then, when I get the time, I write the stories up; more for practice than anything else I guess, though I wouldn't say no to a writing a few travel features ...

My Sri Lankan trip is all the more poignant in that some of the people I mention may no longer be with us. The island was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Much of Galle was wrecked as was our hotel. I dedicate these essays to all those who died or lost loved ones.

So, let's go right back to the start of the visit ... I hope you enjoy it. I've peppered it with photos I took at the time.

Part One: Paradise Lost (but visible through the window)

The flight to Sri Lanka was a bastard.

Let me clarify that. I can’t fault Sri Lankan Airlines. The cabin crew were courteous to the point of obsequiousness and the plane was well-appointed and didn’t wobble in the air too much. The food was crap but you expect that so you can hardly claim to be disappointed.

However, it was the first time that I’ve ever been worried by a sausage. Not an easy task, I assure you as I love sausages. I think that a good sausage is the closest thing to Heaven that an old atheist like me will ever experience. But this was not a good sausage. It was white. Whoever heard of a white sausage? What sort of meat was inside? Albino? I found this tiny anaemic savaloy lurking among the scrambled eggs as if it were ashamed to be seen in public. Maybe all it needed was a good few hours on a sunbed. Not surprisingly, it tasted of nothing whatsoever. I suspect I may have eaten a complimentary pencil eraser by accident.

Anyway, as I said, I can’t fault the staff or the airline. It’s just the length of the flight that’s a bastard. Thirteen hours in a cramped seat. That would be nightmare enough for most people but for my dodgy back it meant an agony of aches and pains. Even frequent strolls up and down the aisles (to ward off the possible effects of deep vein thrombosis – a serious worry when you are as overweight as I was back then) didn’t help. Naturally, it meant that I couldn’t sleep either. And my fidgeting annoyed Dawn who was equally unable to sleep but was at least making an effort. So I ended up watching movies on my personalised back-of-the-seat-in-front telly, or switching cameras to see what was going on outside the plane.

The plane had several cameras mounted outside. There were three views to enjoy; ahead, behind and down. None of them, I'm pleased to report, showed a Gremlin tearing off chunks of the engines. Ahead and behind were only of any real interest during take-off and landing. The rest of the time all you could see was a kind of cloudy nothingness. I imagine it's what the inside of Paris Hilton's head looks like. But the downward pointing camera provided some staggering views of Eastern Europe and the Arabic countries as we whistled overhead at 36,000 feet. And it really came into its own as we approached the Maldives (pronounced Maul-deevs), our one and only stop on the trip.

From the air, this tiny nation of coral islands looks like dollops of cream in a rich pea soup. I wondered where the Hell we were going to land and, for a moment, visualised huge water skis unfolding James Bond-like from the belly of our Airbus 330. Or maybe the plane transforming into a giant robot in a swimsuit. But then the Captain announced that we were making our final approach towards Male (pronounced Mah-lay) airport. An airport? Here? I flicked between the forward and down cameras, trying to spot anything that might be an airport but all I could see was the jewel green of the ocean and those tiny postage stamp-sized coral atolls. And then I spotted Male ... and I hoped that our pilot had steady hands.

Imagine a strip of road, about the width of an average motorway/freeway and about half a mile long. Now rip it up and drop it into the Indian Ocean. That’s Male airport. There, in front of us was a tiny strip of concrete in the middle of the sea and we had to land on it. If we overshot, we’d be in the sea. If we deviated left or right, we’d be in the sea. Small powerboats and larger passenger ships chugged around this bizarre construction as our undercarriage was lowered and we began our descent. I swear I saw some of the local fishermen rubbing their hands with glee and chanting ‘Miss! Miss! Miss!’ while preparing their nets for a hefty haul of Duty Free goods and tourist suitcases. However, the pilot was pretty good (I bet he always wins at Operation) and, to his credit, gave us a much smoother landing than I’d expected. Then began the most frustrating hour of my life.

We'd been cooped up inside a metal cigar tube for 13 hours breathing in everyone else’s recycled bad breath, burps and farts. Now, all of a sudden, we were in the middle of a tropical paradise. Outside we could see swaying palm trees, white sands, crystal clear blue oceans and a blazing sun in a cerulean sky. But torture of tortures! We were told that we had to stay on the plane while they refuelled and took passengers on and off. Noooo! It was soul-destroying. A whole hour of watching paradise outside while watching episodes of Friends. And it gets worse ... for some cruel reason the cabin crew decided that this was the perfect time to gather in all the free headsets so we had to choose between viewing paradise through the window or Chandler being witty in mime. I felt like drafting a terse letter to Amnesty International about our inhumane treatment.

After a while, the pilot turned the plane around and we headed back up into the sky. A further couple of hours and we finally landed at Colombo.

If the Maldives was Heaven, Colombo was Hell. The journey out of the city took us past scenes of poverty the like of which we haven’t seen in the UK for maybe 150 years. The corrugated steel roofs of shanty town after shanty town were our first taste of Sri Lanka and it was a sour, bitter taste. Here we were in an air-conditioned coach being driven in some luxury to our four star hotel on the south-west coast while outside, children grubbed around in garbage heaps looking for anything that could be recycled, salvaged or sold. I took some comfort in the fact that at least the people looked well-fed. That’s one thing you can say about Sri Lanka; there’s plenty of food. You're never more than just a few yards from fresh bananas, jackfruit, guavas, pineapples, cashews and other foodstuffs just hanging around on trees in the same way - and in equal profusion - that acorns and conkers do over here. Enterprising locals would commonly set up a rough-built shack on the side of the road and stock it with fresh produce from the wild larder to sell to us tourists – we lived on the stuff during our stay.

The coach journey seemed to take even longer than the flight (we’d now been travelling for some 16 hours) and we couldn’t wait to get to our hotel. Unfortunately, the coach was dropping people off at every hotel it passed and it seemed that we were the last in line.

The hours wore on and night fell. Well, afternoon fell. It was dark by 6pm.

We passed through odd little villages. I say odd because each village seemed to consist of one type of shop only. There was a village where every single ramshackle hut sold brooms. Another just sold fruit. Yet another, garishly painted wooden dogs. Our driver told us that these were family-oriented communities. What would happen is that an artisan – a wood sculptor perhaps – would decide to build a hut by the side of the road to sell his wares. In time, he’d take a wife and they’d have kids. The children would then be taught how to be wood sculptors. In time, they too would marry and build a hut next door to Mum and Dad. From there, they’d also sell their wood sculptures. And as time went on - three or four generations say – the village would grow with sons, daughters, cousins, nieces and nephews all building huts and selling wooden sculptures. In many of these monomaniac villages, the entire community is one big extended family and all profits are pooled and shared. Sounds like a damned good system to me. People navigate by these villages; 'You go down to broom village, turn left and keep going 'til you get to walking stick village and then straight on to goat village'.

After a really quite scary drive that lasted an age (four hours), but actually only covered around 30 miles, we neared our hotel. The reason the drive was scary was not speed - there was a distinct lack of that. Rather it was the way that none of the vehicles, including our coach, seemed to understand the concept of dipping your headlights. Everyone drove around on full beam, dazzling each other. Again, I questioned the driver about this quaint local custom. He looked at me askance and said, 'It's dark here. We put lights on big. How else do we see?' I couldn't really argue with that. But more than once I saw a startled bicycle rider wince and careen off the road as we fried his retinas.

Finally, after nearly a whole day of travelling, we got to our hotel and into our room and hastily set up the mosquito nets so that we could sleep bug-free. We were lulled to sleep by the sound of the nearby Indian Ocean - our hotel was right on the beach at Beruwela. Then we were instantly jarred from our sleep by the sound of breaking glass. We'd felt a little dehydrated and had poured ourselves a bedside glass of water each. Not from the taps of course. The local water gave off a curiously sulphuric farty smell. This was bottled water ... and something had obviously taken a liking to it and had knocked Dawn's glass over. I looked at my own and was surprised to see a small orange gecko staring back at me from inside the glass, his fat tongue poised and still, the tip dipped in my water. If he could have spoken he'd have said, 'What?' With a sudden quick 180 degree turn, he zipped up the inside of my glass, leapt gracefully to the sheer featureless wall and scuttled up to the ceiling where, I noted, four of his mates were waiting for him.

I was too tired to fight them all off so I reset the net and snuggled down to sleep again. Every so often, as I drifted off, I heard the frustrated zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz of a mosquito that couldn't reach my fat, sweaty, blood-filled body. Then, all would be silent.

Good old geckos. They eat mosquitoes so it's handy having a few in the room. They're good workers and very reasonable too. They'll work all night for just a glass of water.

I slept like a dead man.

Next: Tea, McLizards and the world's most dangerous shack.

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