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Just arrived

It was dark more than the usual pre-dawn tropical darkness somewhere before 6am. We’d landed in Sri Lanka shortly before and been welcomed by a requirement to make an official “gift” because I’d mis-typed my passport number in my online visa application. The immigration officer had escorted us to his bosses office saying it would cost £100 to correct my error at such short notice… the boss took one look at my printed visa confirmation and my passport and dismissed us but on walking back to his desk the officer said in a quiet voice that a “gift” would see us straight through – Kevin offered him 100AED (about £20) – he took it tried for more but one look from Kevin and he stamped us through. Outside in the melee that was the queue of people seeking access to the airport arrivals area we soon located our pre-booked taxi for the drive south into Colombo.

The shopping streets of Pettah

The streets were already alive with traffic and pedestrians, it had rained recently so the latter were occupied dodging puddles and spray. Every vehicle seemed desperate to make its way into central Colombo first, beeping, overtaking in front of oncoming lorries or buses or swerving left onto the “pavement” area demarcated only by a thin white line from the rest of the road. There were no ordered rows of shops or houses, every building was a different shape or size and covered with adverts. Some were residential and some commercial, workshops rubbed shoulders with upmarket boutiques or modern bank buildings. Crammed in the back of a small saloon car we found our view restricted to that through the windscreen, as soon as you noticed something of interest and turned your head to watch it pass you were blind, the rear windows were tinted so dark it may as well have been an unlit street we were being driven down. I felt more than a little sympathy for the blinkered horse.

Tut-tuks – Manning Market

An hour or more later we turned left into the leafy cul-de-sac where the Havelock Place Bungalow is situated, a quiet oasis away from the noise and chaos of the main road. Everywhere was green, unfamiliar plants growing up in front of the low walls, trees and shrubs overhanging the potholed lane. A large, highly polished brass plaque just on the right indicated we’d arrived and a young sleepy man in a white jacket came out to greet us. The staff don’t arrive until 07:30 so we could wait in the lounge, he turned on the lights and the overhead fans as he guided us into the the rightmost of the two bungalows. We had forty minutes or more until any hope of breakfast or checking in so decided to go for a walk in the balmy warmth of an October morning. Across the main road was a sports ground, walking past the entrance we were intrigued it wasn’t the expected cricket pitch but a rugby club! A small bakery had opened so we sat in for tiny cups of sweet coffee and cake.

Our home for the next few nights were two restored colonial bungalows separated by a small swimming pool and some fishponds. The gardens were overflowing with plants more usually found indoors in the UK as well as bananas and many unfamiliar trees. A wonderful smell of cinnamon pervaded the whole place. The further bungalow had tables and chairs outside and in, as well as rooms the Havelock has a good restaurant serving an eclectic mix of Asian and European food – Sri Lankan chilli beef fry, strogonoff or pasta with lots of seafood featured. The rich coffee was served with hot milk and there were huge pots of Ceylon tea for one – both available at almost anytime! Homemade jams and marmalade can be purchased by the pot if the breakfast portions whetted your appetite. And the homemade ice-cream was to die for – it literally was frozen clotted cream with fruit or ginger.

Redonions and potatoes – Manning market

Once checked in, showered and breakfasted on a very unhealthy porridge with clotted cream and honey we met the resident tuk-tuk driver who conveyed us to the station as our first aim was to book some tickets for a rail trip up country to Kandy later in our stay. Mission accomplished we wandered the nearby Pettah markets – tuk-tuks were everywhere beeping frantically to clear the way, the rest of the traffic responding in kind. The street facing stalls produced a wall of noise making conversation impossible – garish boom-boxes (literally quilted plastic covered plywood boxes more closely related to a bathroom footstool than hi-fi equipment) with large speakers top and front demonstrated their capabilities. Lottery ticket vendors used amplifiers to tout their wares above the boom boxes and the DVD stalls shrieked the latest Bollywood hits. Our ears were ringing!

Police biker – love the shopping bag!

Everywhere we were asked where are you from. England seemed the easiest response, oddly the majority of the Sri Lankans often only wanted to say a polite hello. Only in tourist areas like the bazaar selling craft items were we accosted by persistent men trying to sell us things we didn’t want, often to the embarrassment of the stall holders. In muddy back streets lined with shops we were greeted frequently with no hard sell, simply answers to our questions that tried to close a deal and things were cheap – I was very tempted to buy a gorgeous red silk sari for a tenner but not certain what I’d really do with it so resisted. We actually managed to purchase nothing on our first day. Umbrellas were everywhere, extremely practical – they keep the sun off in the heat of the day and then protect you from the inevitable late afternoon downpour. Dodging them became a bit of a sport.

This street sold only plastic flowers!

Colombo is a relatively small city in terms of places of interest and a day exploring was ample, we loved the colour, the chaotic tuk-tuk rides, the welcome we found everywhere and the cheap beer and good food at the newly restored Dutch Hospital, the traffic police in their huge white gloves. We walked Galle Face Green briefly before seeking the shelter of a tuk-tuk as the rains started. Even the cacophony of sound that seemed to accompany everything in this crazy city was entertaining.

The slightly quieter FOSE (Federation of Self-Employed) Market
Cool calm elegance of the Dutch Hospital