The plane had taken off from Maximum City about an hour after its slated time of departure. It was 3:45 a.m. in the morning and it slowly started to sink in that we were finally on our way to the Emerald Isle. Till late the previous evening we were unsure whether we would be on this flight as the travel agents were yet to send us a confirmed itenerary and hotel details. But the Bee had steadfastly sat across their table and made sure they hand him over each piece of paper that was rightfully ours.
Anyway, the flight over the Indian Ocean, between Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and Bandaranaike International Airport, took about two hours and we were in a somewhat overcast, sultry Colombo in the wee hours of the morning. And only to add to our woes, we realised, our ‘world renowned’ tour operator had passed us onto a local tour operator. But the view of the dark waters of the Arabian Sea from our tenth floor hotel room that looked out over the old Parliament House and the wide promenade took our breath away and between the Bee and I, we decided to take the rest of the trip in our stride, a rogue tour operator, a tour guide who knew very little English, a rundown van et al. Colombo, with its clean, smooth roads, larger than life war memorials, smiling people, over-zealous trishaws (Ceylonese for auto-rickshaws), well maintained parks, loads of foreign tourists and Arthur C. Clark’s house, with the occasional temples all of which have pet tuskers, strikes you as a city that is stuck in time. It seems to be in no hurry to modernise its looks, build an enviable chrome and glass skyline or line up its roads with international mall franchisees. And this perception was further embedded by a visit to a single screen cinema (yes, on Christmas day we landed up to watch a movie from the Narnia series) something that we have lost in metro India many years ago, a hall with a high ceiling, balcony and boxes, a dinghy darkness, non-reclining seats and an usher with a torch, complete with vendors who came in with their tray of goodies at interval.
(And this is the abode of one of the greatest sci-fi writers, Arthur C. Clarke, in Colombo.)
On day three, we started our road trip along the western coastal road of Srilanka, on our way to Galle, a fort city established by the Dutch colonisers of the Isle. The itenerary mentioned that there would be a stop over at one of the most famous beaches of Sri Lanka, at Bentota. So off we went down the Colombo Galle Road, towards the southern tip of the Emerald Isle. The sea kept us company all the way, the sky clouded over most of the time with the retreating monsoon. The single lane highway was lined with quaint houses with cobbled roofs and their gardens overflowing with the equatorial abundance. But soon after we had crossed Bentota, the countryside seemed a little different, somewhat rundown with less habitation along the coast and remains of walls, broken down doors, gaping windows. With what our chaffeur-guide shared with us, it slowly started to fall into place. We were travelling on the same road to Galle that was devastated by the backlash of the tsunami that had rushed further inland, washing away whatever stood in its way, on the same day, exactly six years ago, on 26th December, 2004. I almost felt a chill running down my spine trying to imagine the houses around us that wore a haunted look actually once bustling with people. It seemed cruel.
By evening, we had finally reached Galle, an old city that saw its earliest Dutch settlers alight upon its port. The city today has grown surrounding a fort that had five ramparts, three of which protruded into the sea. The colonial charm of Galle with its strong Dutch influence was inescapable. Even the hotel that hosted us turned out to be a colonial bungalow of yore that also proudly hosts the Galle Literary Festival in its lush green patio every year. My R made friends with a swarm of fireflies the same evening after meeting them for the first time in her life. And perhaps to add to my amazement and much to R’s glee the Bee had so far been ditching his mobile as well as his BB while we kept wrestling over the camera.
The next day, among other things, we did walk around the Dutch fort, where the Bee and R flew their kite from the main rampart of the fort that also overlooked the Galle Cricket Stadium, which was before R decided to set the kite free to the gale that had suddenly blown in from the sea and took it away towards the bay beyond.
It was day five and we had a new van with a new driver, who spoke even less English (thus he had brought his undergraduate cousin, Lakhshana aka Lucky along, to talk to us in English) and shook his head even more than the earlier one. We were on the road once again, this time travelling away from the coast and towards the hills. We were on our way to Kandy, upcountry, to cooler climes and the land of mask-makers. And much more, to be continued …
(Picture courtesy : Sukanti Ghosh)