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Snap Into Sri Lanka

The Sim City 2000 theme poured out of my cell phone, calling us to rise once again at 4:45 am and head to a new country. This we did, bidding our new friends at the Mass Residency farewell and climbing into another of  those fantastic metered cabs. Bangalore was slowly waking up around us. We could see women sweeping the streets and vendors setting up their stands. The sun shone in long golden rays, which transformed the choking smoke of the streets into a cool jungle mist.  The sky lit up in deep oranges and pinks and we settled into that feeling of motion. Ah, morning:  So ripe with possibility.

And Sri Lankan Airlines… so delightful an airline. The line to check in was long and snaking, but moved quickly. It was mostly full of Sri Lankan traders pushing luggage carts piled high with boxes of Indian goods, wrapped in bright blue tape. When we came up to the counter, the fellows seemed relieved to be interacting with a passenger who was not fiercely bargaining over his charges for excess luggage. They were quite happy to take the cycles and our packs with none of that nonsense about a “sports equipment charge,” happily plastering the Dahon bags with fragile stickers, and dispatching a squadron of uniformed fellows to handle our belongings. Our luggage reduced to merely a couple small packs and a ukulele, we enjoyed strolling through the clean, air-conditioned, metallic space.

On the other side of security, we purchased a couple of espressos and a couple of Badam milks.

Badam milk turned out to be a kind of nut-flavored milk, into which we poured the rather acrid and overpriced espressos. We were feeling quite awake and excited about Sri Lanka when we climbed onto the plane. The seats were large and comfortable and the flight attendants very friendly. Each was dressed in a very brightly colored traditional Sri Lankan sari, printed with a vibrant peacock feather pattern. It seemed no sooner had we finished breakfast than we were landing in Sri Lanka.

We had no idea what to expect from Sri Lanka. We knew that it had recently made the transition from developing-country-hampered-by-fiercely-violent-civil-war to developing-country-bolstered-by-floods-of-foreign-investment. From the exterior, the airport looked not unlike that of Milwaukee, except that it was nestled amidst lush tropical foliage. Inside, the facility was clean, small, easy to navigate, and quite welcoming. We waited in line at the passport control counter, which was covered with glowing back-lit imagery of men and women in traditional Sri Lankan dress welcoming us to the country. The border official greeted me with a giant smile and promptly stamped my passport, welcoming me in English. We waited in the baggage area, while endless amounts of imported Indian goods wrapped in blue tape were unloaded. I kept an eye out for our cycles and bags while Scott went in search of the oblong items counter, where we had often found the cycles in the past.

Here in the airport we had our first encounter with what was to become a constant theme of our time in Sri Lanka: heavily armed military personnel. While he was searching for the oblong items, Scott had gotten a number of guards with large machine guns interested in our case, and they were now throwing their own heavily armed efforts into the hunt for the cycles. The last of the blue tape-wrapped boxes were being piled up and pushed to the side by the time we finally found the cycles, now quite hidden behind a large square pillar amidst the sea of unclaimed baggage. We thanked our new friends and headed through a set of hospital style swinging doors out into the main hall of the airport.

It was well-lit and heavily air-conditioned, sporting some thirty counters, with large glossy signs advertising services to tourists. I had asked a fellow on the airplane what the current exchange rate was and armed with only that data and a hand full of local currency we had recently gotten from the ATM, we poured headlong into negotiations with all three of the taxi companies that had booths there. All seemed strikingly expensive, and we thanked them for their help and began to consider wheeling ourselves into town. Our questions about the distance into town had provided us with a wide range of answers, but perhaps it would be worth risking it, given the high price of a cab. We even got as far as stocking up on some ominously overpriced baked goods filled with green onion and egg to help fuel us on the ride before we realized that we had better, just to be sure, re-confirm the exchange rate.

It turned out that all costs here in Sri Lanka to date had in fact been about 40% of what we had thought. It was a great feeling. Something like winning the lotto. We strode victoriously back to the taxi stand and asked their finest driver take us in their cheapest cab into the city of Colombo. And that they did. Thank goodness we had not wheeled for it proved to be a 35-kilometer drive. We stopped part way through the trip with our driver to eat a little rice and curry. The spot he chose was delightful, affordable, and spicy like nothing we had yet eaten. This meal of rice, egg, and chicken curry, was to become one of the staples of our time in Sri Lanka, and I was thrilled.

It was so refreshingly different from the food in India, and almost as inexpensive.

While our cab driver ordered a single cigarette, which arrived on a yellow plastic plate along with the bill, he motioned to the ukulele, and asked whether I would play a bit. So I took out the Uke and played a little while he enjoyed his cigarette. The other patrons of the establishment perked up a bit, taking the time now to stare a bit at the strange foreigners in Panama hats, one of which appeared to be playing a King Crimson tune.

We had chosen, more or less at random, from the very short list of Colombo’s cheap hotels.  When asked how much we wanted to pay, our driver assured us that there was no way to get a room for 2,000 rupees. But when we strolled into the Hotel Nippon, the gods of wheeling must have taken pity upon us, for that was the asking price for a non-AC room.

Unfortunately, something about the way we had conducted the transaction had deprived our cab driver of his cut of the hotel rate, and he was distressed. He explained this to us in so many words, and quite bluntly asked for an extra 200 rupees (about $1.80). We liked the guy, and this seemed fair enough. So we paid him and parted on very good terms indeed. The hotel clerks were three very friendly middle-aged Sri Lankan women.

They seemed truly thrilled to have AsiaWheeling staying at the Hotel Nippon and made sure we had a nice safe place for the speed TRs beside the giant arching hardwood and marble staircase that led upstairs.

The Hotel Nippon was something like the kind of hotel depicted in old-time western movies, with green and yellow stained glass, leather upholstery, a piano in the lobby, and plenty of wood paneling.

That said, the Nippon had certainly seen better days, as evidenced by the price tag. The marble floors were now cracked, and most of the hotel was caked with a good amount of dust. Grit had collected in the corners and brown stains discolored most of the carpets. Exactly our kind of place.

We happily threw off our packs and climbed onto the speed TRs, heading for the train station. We had very little time in Sri Lanka, only about a week, so we wanted to get the next train to the mountain settlement of Kandy. Our Sri Lankan bureau chief, Daniel Brady, had spent quite some time there, and the city came very highly recommended. As we rode, we could not believe the military presence in the streets. There seemed to be a checkpoint every block or so. And the cops were pulling over cars at random to inspect their papers. These were not your relaxed Indonesian checkpoints either. Each one was complete with a machine gun nest, strangely festooned with advertisements for the local business that had presumably funded the building of this little in-case-of-urban-warfare unit.

We had no problems with the police, however, as it seems two white fellows on bicycles do not exactly fall within their profile for terrorists. To the contrary, it seemed Sri Lanka was enjoying an economic boost from western tourism. While it was nothing like Singapore, Malaysia, or Bali, we saw a surprising number of white people strolling the streets. Everywhere, people seemed to be building things, doing business, in a hurry, and generally exhibiting momentum. Sri Lanka is going places, that is for sure.

We locked our cycles to a fence, where they instantly began attracting crowds of people, and headed in search of a ticketing agent. When I finally found the appropriate line, something seemed wrong, for the clerk was just lazily counting money, which was in stark contrast with the other fellows beside him who were furiously selling tickets like hotcakes to crowds of people. He explained to me that there were tickets left for the train, but that sales for the day were over. It was 3:30.

In hopes of finding a work-around, we made our way into the tourist information booth, a strange, dark and frigidly air-conditioned space. We proceeded to have a very uncomfortable conversation with a fellow who was interested in selling us all kinds of additional and very expensive services. While the conversation left both Scott and me in a very strange place, a few good things came of it. This first is that we realized that the tickets to Kandy would be about $3.00 for a ride in the first class observation saloon, assuming we got to the station early enough to nab two of them. The second is that the tourist informant helped us to defuse a situation with a few cops who had become wary of our cycles and where we had chosen to park them.

So while we did not have tickets in hand, we knew when and where to get them the next day. And with that out of the way, we dialed a Ms. April Yee. She was a friend of a friend of ours who, we had recently learned, was only in town for a night.

She told us to meet her at the Galle Face Hotel, probably the most famous and most imperialist hotel in the city of Colombo for a sunset cocktail.

We were more than happy to oblige, relaxing, and discussing the ins and outs of South Asia as the sun disappeared behind the horizon.

As we enjoyed the sunset and our drinks, we were introduced to her friend, a local Colombodian, Anu, a gentle, considerate fellow. Anu in turn introduced us to one of the most fantastic things in Sri Lanka: Koththu.

Koththu, as Anu described it to us, is a kind of Sri Lankan Pad Thai. It is made by taking a number of roti and chopping them up into little strips. These strips are then fried with egg, vegetables, cheese, and meat, and “gravy” to produce a kind of stir fried noodle-esque dish.

Koththu places are easily identified by the deafening clang of the chopping, which happens at a furious and piercing decibel level, well into the night. The place he took us was one of the more famous Koththu places in town, and even though it was well after dark, it was packed.

The owners of the place were nice enough to let us back stage to witness the magic.

We finished off the dinner with a nice cool glass of iced milo.

Full of Koththu and feeling positively ecstatic to be in Sri Lanka, we piled back into Anu’s car and dropped Ms. Yee at her hotel, which sported delightful interior design, as evidenced below.


  1. Rohan | April 2nd, 2010 | 5:47 pm

    Lion Stout is a sick beverage. Had one at a friend’s place after a jam sesh a couple weekends ago.

  2. John Norton | April 3rd, 2010 | 2:46 am

    Well boys, it gives me great relief to know that you are in a place where the locals offer you the protection of their machine gun nests. I have a warm and comfy feeling all over.

  3. Woody | April 3rd, 2010 | 3:31 am

    @ Rohan
    So glad you dig the Lion Stout. We did too. Sri Lanka: a real diamond in the rough.

    @ John Norton
    But seriously folks…

  4. Mark/Dad | April 10th, 2010 | 5:56 pm

    Koththu looks tasty–enjoyed the video.

  5. Woody | April 10th, 2010 | 8:40 pm

    @ Mark/Dad
    And it was tasty. Each time I see that image, I get hunger pangs…

  6. Prathap | October 10th, 2011 | 12:04 pm

    We Sri Lankans are famous for our hospitality hope you have enjoyed the holiday brother you can call it Paradise but Im calling it home.

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