Although they have a very bad reputation, Etihad Airways reliably gets to Abu Dhabi from New York on time. Marc watched it over the weeks before we left, and the bad reputation must have to do with other destinations than Abu Dhabi. Night after night, the flight left New York City mostly on time, and arrived in Abu Dhabi on time. We had a 2 hour and 15 minute layover, which should've been more than enough time given Marc's investigation.
Except there was some kind of unspecified "mechanical" problem on the plane and a gate full of increasingly frustrated passengers. No matter who asked, no matter how often, the response from gate agents was "5 to 10 more minutes." Occasionally it was "5 to 10 more minutes for an update." They 5-to-10-more-minuted us through a 2+ hour delay. And so, of course, we missed our connection. At Abu Dhabi International Airport, after a lot of extremely fast walking, some blind following of other people who seemed to be in the same boat, some often confusing explanations and directions from a variety of airport employees, and then arrival at a second transfer desk, we got tickets on Sri Lankan Airways, were assured our luggage would be transferred to Colombo, and we got seats together. We had enough time to send an email to the hotel in Colombo, telling them we would not be arriving on the 3:30 flight, so we canceled our airport pick-up. While we were waiting to board the plane, a Sri Lankan man sitting next to me opened his large briefcase and it was filled to the brim with candies of all kinds.
We got to Colombo around 6:30am, had the quickest and easiest entry into a new country, changed some money, and our taxi driver was still waiting for us. He had not been given the message, so he waited three hours for us. When we got in the cab, he told us that Prince of Charles was coming (another person later told us King of Charles was coming) and that the country was so proud. We passed billboards that said "We warmly welcome you to our beautiful country." And it really is beautiful -- the visual definition of lush. It's kind of dreamy in some way; Michael Ondaatje, the film director, is from here, and I can see the roots of his visual aesthetic. My primary impressions on the way from the airport is that Colombo is extraordinarily clean and thick with color. Every shop is painted a different rich color, deep oranges and reds and blues and purples, lots of purple.
Our Colombo hotel is beautiful, minimalist, but warm, with gorgeous furniture in the lobby made at a fine and small scale, from wood that's been polished to a very warm glow. The staff are friendly and warm, but the management is another story altogether. We're glad we didn't actually get in at 3:30 as we'd planned; I guess we'd have just been sitting on the street waiting because even arriving at 7 was a problem. The manager who greeted us complained of the early hour, and told us that if we wanted the room early we'd have to pay half the day's rate. Marc argued and eventually we got the room around 10:30. We were exhausted and hot and sweaty and just wanted to peel off the sticky clothes we'd put on in New York 30+ hours earlier and take a cool shower.
Our hotel is very near Small Beira Lake, so we walked around the lake's perimeter. The streets were utterly empty and all the shops were closed. Sri Lanka is primarily a Buddhist country, especially in the south where we are, so we were puzzled. Where was everyone? We saw military men in little huts with their guns, and women in orange t-shirts sweeping the remarkably clean streets, but few other people. It was steamy and muggy and overcast, so after one tour around the lake we returned to our room to rest a while and figure out what to do, especially given the fact that everything was closed.
When we were in India in September 2006, we had a uniform experience everywhere we went of being lied to and misdirected, and we were rarely able to go where we wanted to go because "Today is a holiday," or "That place is closed, I'll take you here instead." Over and over and over. I hope what happened to us our first day reflected the truth, but it seemed an awful lot like our experience of India. We were walking to the beach and a man fell in step alongside us, saying he was just walking home from work. He asked where we were from, and told us we ought to turn right up ahead, go to the downtown area. We said no, we just want to go to the beach and he said it's closed, the President is here, we're not allowed, no, just turn right up here, come, I'll go with you. Marc persisted and we crossed the street toward the beach anyway, and the guy followed us, insisting that we really should go the other way. We saw people there and he said it closes in 15 minutes, we should go with him. We finally ditched him and of course the beach was NOT closed, it was filled with Sri Lankan people enjoying the afternoon. The sky was full of kites, the steps were lined with people (and young couples hiding behind big umbrellas), the water was filled with people standing and letting the waves crash against them despite the signs saying not to swim because of dangerous currents. We walked the length of the beach and started trying to find a place to get some kotthu roti. But everything was closed, it was so bizarre.
We stopped to sit in the shade for a few minutes to make a plan B, when a young guy walked up to us and asked us what we were looking for. He introduced himself and said he worked at the Hilton (showed us what seemed to be his Hilton employee card), and said we really ought to eat at Summer Garden, a restaurant specializing in Sri Lankan food, in Victoria Park. He told us to get a metered tuk-tuk and motioned for us to follow him. He hailed one and spoke to the driver at length in Sri Lankan, and then he hopped in with us. I'd gathered we were going to drop him off at his apartment along the way, and he was saying something about since it's a big holiday (ah! An explanation, we thought) -- Buddha's birthday -- everything was half price. The driver pulled over at some store and the guy tried to get us out to do some shopping . . . ah, the old switcheroo . . . and we said no, so he tried to explain to the driver where the Summer Garden restaurant was located but was getting nowhere so he just climbed back in the tuk-tuk with us and directed the driver to the restaurant.
We clearly went WAY out of the way, although the long ride was still very cheap, and in the end the guy didn't get anything he was after. We didn't do the shopping he wanted us to do (and for which I assume he'd have gotten some commission), and he didn't get dropped off at his apartment. We sat at an outdoor table under an umbrella and ordered lunch (no kotthu roti, and the waiter laughed when I asked for it); Marc ordered devilled cuttlefish and I got stir fried rice and chicken, I think, along with a giant Lion beer. The food was quite good, the Lion beer cold and bitter, and the place was filled with Sri Lankan people.
After we ate, we wandered through Victoria Park for a few minutes and then hailed a tuk-tuk. The driver was a very old man with a sweet, toothless smile. We showed him the little map of the area where our hotel was located and he nodded his head. Along the way he pulled over at a Buddhist temple and turned around to grin at us, pointing at the elephant being tended behind the gate. We sat for a minute watching the elephant and then the driver pulled back into traffic and dropped us near enough to our hotel that we could easily walk the rest of the way. He kind of redeemed our earlier experiences, but now I am very wary, wondering whether we will be lied to and misdirected everywhere here, as we were in India. I really hope not.
We'd planned to head out for dinner in search of kotthu roti, the dish we've been salivating over the for last couple of months, but the heat and exhaustion caught up with us and we crashed kind of early in the cold of our room.
Day 1 is always kind of dreamy because we're exhausted and a little dingy from the trip. We have another full day here in Colombo -- very different, surely, since the streets won't be so empty -- and then we'll be off to the beach at Tangalla. More Colombo tomorrow!
|the corner that leads to our little hotel|
|the upstairs bar at our hotel|
|all the street cleaners wear orange|
|a tiny little Buddhist altar on a rock wall|
|beautiful Sri Lankan girl|
|brilliant bird, the only one like this we saw|
|bomb disposal squad hanging around. also, lots of military guys visible everywhere, with big guns|
|egrets or herons everywhere|
|green everywhere, like beautiful Ireland|
|colored foliage, here near the equator|
|these flowers are everywhere, even dying on the ground|
|the gorgeous little lake near our hotel|
|a smallish Buddhist temple on the lake. there's a giant one nearby too.|
|Sri Lankan Navy. Is this a joke, I wonder? SURELY.|
|guys learning math on a Sunday morning. What were you doing Sunday morning?|
|chicken and rice, with really delicious red pepper condiment|
|devilled cuttlefish -- much better than at the Sri Lankan restaurant in NYC. Subtle and hot|