In late November 2013, my father and I returned to our ancestral homeland for the very first time. It was a spontaneous trip, only taking shape a month before departure. Fresh from my solo Europe trip, I had initially planned to go alone. I casually invited my Dad along expecting him to say no but surprisingly he accepted the invitation. A father and son adventure it was to be!
I can’t exactly place where the idea of Sri Lanka as a destination arised from. Curiosity maybe? I come from a mixed background (Sinhalese, Burmese and what not) so I guess it was only natural to have the inclination of discovering my heritage. Besides, the thirty or so year long war had finally ended and the dust somewhat settled. The country was slowly getting back on its feet.The wounds of war slowly but surely healing, a period of convalescence of some sort. It was an opportune time to visit.
Whatever impressions I had of Sri Lanka was formed around tales told by my late Grandmother who was born and raised there. As with all Grandmothers, these tales were rehashed, re-mashed and retold countless of times that it became subconsciously ingrained into memory.
Coconut trees, beaches, hawker push-carts, and grand colonial buildings shaped the central narrative. All these tales were set in the previous century, the 1920s to be exact. A colonial Ceylon (The Colonial Name) still ruled by the British Empire. Much has changed since then, but vestiges of the past still remain in plain sight. It’s not too hard to recreate the past in your head while traversing through the city.
My Grandma’s tales aside, in my naive youth, I always imagined Sri Lanka to be a backward third world country with nothing much to offer. India and Sri Lanka to me were alike. Even till this day, such comparisons are not uncommon amongst people who have yet to visit either country. In reality, Sri Lanka is an entirely separate entity from India. From the very moment the plane touched down at Bandaranaike airport, Sri Lanka enthralled me.
I arrived in Sri Lanka in the twilight hours of the morning much alike how a newborn enters the world for the first time – A quarter before 2 in the morning to be exact. The odd arrival timing was not a personal choice. Majority of the flights into Bandaranaike airport (Sri Lanka’s Main International Airport) touch down in the wee hours of the morning.
Unsurprisingly, the airport was packed with people despite the timing. Aside from a small canteen serving instant coffee and cakes (at decent prices I might say), there’s nothing much else in the airport.Transportation into the city and other parts of the island are available even in the twilight hours but then again it’s pointless to travel into a city that’s sound asleep! You’d be better off grabbing some refreshments from the cafeteria and idling your time away on the free Wi-Fi network.
My dad and I agreed that we should wait out till 5 am before we headed out to the city. We planned to catch the morning train to Kandy and the ticket booth only opened at half past five. My dad soon fell into a deep slumber and I gradually grew bored with my phone. An hour had past in the arrival hall and I had yet to catch a glimpse of the country. With curiosity getting the better of me, I ventured out of the airport. Given that it was 3 in the morning, all that greeted me was pitch black darkness. Despite the lack of color, my time outside the arrival hall did uncover a few peculiarities :
- At Bandaranaike airport, visitors entering the airport without a boarding pass had to pay an ADMISSION FEE of 300 rupees ($3) ?!?! I guess that means send-off parties is not common here? I didn’t see this fee being imposed first-hand but still I wouldn’t be surprised if it was!
- As I was about to head back into the arrival hall, I was stopped by a female security officer and subsequently underwent a full body strip search. The scars of war have yet to heal completely evidently? The experience left me dumbfounded. I was the only one amongst the crowd who was stopped and furthermore, I was empty handed! I questioned my identity for awhile… Did I look like a Tamil or a terrorist? Or a Tamil Terrorist?
The clock struck 5 and my Dad and I headed out of the arrival hall. Barely a few steps out, a man approached us touting taxi services. My better judgement told me that it was a scam so I ignored the man. After scanning the perimeter of the arrival hall, I spotted a shabby taxi counter but by then it was too late. I turned around and was shocked by the sight of the man carrying my father’s luggage towards a car with him in tow. It was resemblant of a stray sheep separated from the flock being led to its death by a wolf disguised as a sheep dog.
The above imagery is befitting for the “taxi” ride that followed. I did all the negotiation with the driver and we agreed on a price of 2400 rupees. Slightly more than the market rate of 2000 rupees which I later discovered. The car we entered was obviously not a licenced taxi but a personal vehicle. We drove out of the airport premises and stopped a few minutes later at a carpark at the edge of the road. The driver got out and muttered a few words to a teenager barely a few years older or younger than me. This young man was our newly appointed driver. We were then joined by another passenger, a middle-aged man. Things were starting to get fishy….
I took the front seat while my Dad and the stranger occupied the rear. I intently listened to the small talk that was brewing between the two men in the rear. It didn’t last for long though as my Dad fell asleep again. My first glimpses of Sri Lanka could have well turned out to be my last on that particular morning.
Sri Lankan traffic is horrendous. The vehicles communicate in a language of their own – Horns. The blaring of horns hold various meanings here. It can mean anything from ” Good Morning!” to an outburst of anger ” You nearly caused an accident idiot! “. Horns aside, the driving is reckless. A two-way street is an alien term here. Vehicles swerve in and out either side of the road without hesitation as everyone rushes to their individual destination with the aim of beating their personal best. Welcome to Formula 1 Sri Lanka!
As my Dad slept, I watched Colombo awake from its slumber. I enjoy witnessing a city awake from its slumber. No one city is the same. Some rise as if they’ve been rudely awakened by a splash of cold water; others more gradual and peaceful. Colombo belonged more towards the latter group.
Schoolchildren lined the streets in pristine starched white uniforms awaiting ubiquitous TATA School buses. Shopkeepers raised up the shutters and began preparations for the day’s business. White Collar workers in TukTuks zoomed past every now and then. Even the birds began their day, perched on thin electrical lines which ran alongside the road. All this unfolded under the warm orange glow of streetlights.
The teenage driver must have held ambitions of becoming a formula 1 driver ( Or maybe he had to take a piss?); as he was driving at a ridiculously high speed. He horned, accelerated and cut lanes at every possible moment. “Highway to Hell” came up in my playlist lending an ideal soundtrack for the situation. Coincidence? I can’t say for sure but it left me with a queasy feeling that an accident was imminent.
My premonition came close to fruition. Two songs later, a huge construction truck made a sudden U-TURN from the other side of the road into our lane without signalling. The desperate blaring of the horn and screeching of the tyres followed as everyone in the car jolted forward. If not for my seatbelt, I would have went right through the windshield! My dad awoke from his slumber and cast a confused look before returning to la la land. We were a mere 2 inches from a collision.
The rest of the trip was uneventful barring the end. The other passenger alighted at a random neighbourhood and we proceeded towards Colombo Fort Station to catch our train to Kandy. When it was time to make payment, the teenager raised the previously agreed price by a 100 rupees. My sleepyhead father suddenly sprang into life and erupted into a fit of anger. The commotion was beginning to attract attention from passer-bys. The teenager was insistent on the new price even after much argument. Since I did not have small change, I settled the bill and we parted ways. Maybe the surcharge was for saving our lives from a possible accident?
We purchased our train tickets and had breakfast at a nearby local roti shop. Breakfast consisted of a bread platter and tea. A single serving of tea here is potent enough to induce diabetes!
P.S : Sorry for the lack of pictures. More of that in the following posts!
*** TO BE CONTINUED***