Saturday, March 22, 2014

Seduced by Sri Lanka

“Sri Lanka has seduced travellers for centuries,” The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka begins.
Marco Polo said it was “the finest island of its size in the world,” and Mark Twain called it “beautiful and most sumptuously tropical.” By the time we left, we were smitten with this lush teardrop ornament hanging like a single earring from the southern tip of India just 6 degrees north of the equator. The tea plantations, terraced vegetable farms, roadside stands, gems, rice curry, seafood, and Sri Lankan smiles have cast a lingering spell on us.

Our first stop was two nights in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, at the storied Galle Face Hotel. Built as a Dutch villa in 1864 and the oldest hotel east of Suez, the older Classic Wing is undergoing reconstruction and the grand entrance is closed, but we wanted the experience of staying in such a historic location anyway.

Galle Face Hotel

Despite it all, the hotel still provides well-dressed doormen to open doors, welcome drinks, polished wooden staircases, and plenty of room for the guests to relax while sipping their afternoon gin-tonics.

Galle Face Hotel

Our second-floor corner suite was in the luxury Regency wing, which was already renovated overlooking the pool at the edge of the Indian Ocean.

Galle Face Hotel

We were also right beside the torn-up, older Classic wing. I can’t say we didn’t notice, but the experience of staying in the famous old hotel was still worthwhile, despite the construction, which we are used to after living in Abu Dhabi. Sri Lanka is still recovering from a 30-year civil war that ended in 2009, and reconstruction is going on everywhere.

Sri Lanka  (204)

Guests enjoy their sundowners at the Poolside Bar & Terrace. I would love to go back after the restoration is complete, and see the older wing and seaside restaurant returned to its former glory.

Sri Lanka  (209)

Our drink of choice was the margarita, and we made a meal out of the deviled fish in a spicy-sweet red sauce.

The Galle Face breakfast buffet might be the best we’ve ever seen, filling both rooms of the 1864 Restaurant. I tried the local specialties, the hopper (appam), a type of dry pancake cradling a fried egg, and string hopper (idiappam), which reminded me of rice vermicelli. These are dishes that people eat in the local restaurants daily, where they cost less than a dollar.

Sri Lanka  (232)

The walls of the 1864 are lined with photos of princes and princesses, politicians, famous poets, writers, and scientists who have visited the hotel – including Russian Yuri Gargarin, the first man in space, and our favorite American travel writer and humorist, Mark Twain.

By morning, we were still considering our transportation options. Bus? Train? Driver? Or rent a car and drive on our own? The Rough Guide said that the buses were crowded, unreliable, and sometimes pretty scary. Meanwhile, the romance of the train was beckoning Mark. But I read that trains were crowded, we couldn’t book a ticket except in person at the station (Mark asked the hotel, and they confirmed this.) The chances of us booking next-day tickets in the observation car were zip; they go on sale two weeks in advance and sell out almost immediately.

Sri Lanka  (29)

Still, we decided to walk the few kilometers through the old city to the Fort Railway Station. Leaving the hotel and strolling seaside along Galle Green, I was struck by two contrasting sights. The first was a gorgeous wedding couple, the bride bedecked in gold, posing for photographers on the beach.

Sri Lanka  (30)A few meters further on, we found sea birds wallowing in slimy, stinky bright green water draining from the city’s innards to the sea. Hundreds of years of human activity on the island, including heavy use of fertilizers in agricultural areas, has left Sri Lanka with a legacy of pollution. The slime was probably coming from the city’s Beira Lake, which was built as a transportation hub during the 19th century and is fed by rivers coming from the surrounding cities.

The best train seats were sold out, so back at the Galle Face hotel, the travel concierge booked us a car and driver for a Colombo city tour later that day, as well as the next day’s transportation to the hill country. Then we wanted to travel to the southernmost part of the island, and up the west coast to the town of Galle. We were told the driver would take us there, as well.

I didn’t quite understand, because we were staying two nights at the tea plantation. You mean, he will stay there? Wait for us? Yes, no problem. All this for $300 USD, which is still a lot of money compared to what we would have spent on the train, about $7.50 US each. But, it would have cost another $125 for transportation between the train station in the city of Kandy and the tea lodge. And the train would take many hours, the same as the car, with the possibility of an unannounced strike. In a car, we could make stops at a tea factory, the spice garden, the elephant orphanage.

Sri Lanka  (103)

Our driver and guide for the city tour, the gregarious Joe, took us to see all the sights of the city, saying “I will take you to all the best places!” When I asked about a place I’d read about, or wanted to slow down to take a photo of an impossibly ornate Hindu temple, Joe teased me, saying ”I will show you a better one! You will see! You are impatient! Just like a child!”

Sri Lanka  (71)

We drove along the Galle Face Green, past the gates of the Presidential Palace and historic Fort District buildings and into the teeming Pettah market, the wholesale merchant district which reminded us a bit of Old Delhi in India. “You cannot buy a kilo, or one of anything here,” Joe said. “Only large quantities.”

Sri Lanka  (106)
Although it would have been fun to walk around in the chaotic streets dodging lorries, bicycles, carts, pedestrians, and dogs, we were ok with staying in the calm and comfort of the car. And even there, I almost got into trouble when I pointed my big camera lens at a pair of balloon sellers as we were stopped in traffic. They noticed me, and came up to the car leering and grinning, dangling their limp balloons, trying to blow them up to show how big they could get.

“They are drunk,” Joe said.

This photo album captures the pace of life for the “normal” (Joe’s term) Sri Lankan.

Joe confirmed what I had read in the Rough Guide about the buses. There are two groups of buses, the red SLTB buses run by the government, and the private buses, which are painted some version of white.

 Sri Lanka  (284)
They are all old rattletraps, but the SLTB buses are better in that they are more reliable and less crowded, as the drivers are not in competition with other buses.
Oh, and this bus in the photo? Yes, we are heading right at each other and no, they didn’t hit us. Somehow.

Sri Lanka  (249)

Private buses jam in as many passengers as possible, careening around, jostling for position with millimeters to spare, and passing on curves to reach the passengers at the next stop before another bus gets there. I couldn’t quite envision this until I saw it, but it’s true, and is but one element of the harrowing driving that was to come as we traveled around the island.

Sri Lanka  (191)
After a drive through Cinnamon Gardens, a 289 acre former cinnamon plantation that is now Colombo’s most upscale neighborhood containing elite schools and clubs, embassies, and public buildings, Joe took us to eat at Colombo’s best beachside fish restaurant, the Beach Wadiya. It would have been impossible to get in for dinner as they are booked far ahead of time, but we were there for a late lunch and the place was almost empty, except for the birds.

Sri Lanka  (184)

Over a cold beer, we selected our fish from a platter and read the guest book while we waited. Although the restaurant has many famous clientele, including members of the British royal family, most of the entries I found were made by flight crews and embassy staff. Reading them, we realized we should have ordered the crab!

That evening, we enjoyed our sunset drinks at the Galle Face Hotel and, knowing a good thing when we find it, another round of Deviled Fish and margaritas.

Here’s a photo album featuring the colonial sights:

And next, the trip to Kandy.

No comments: