After a rather busy day doing things that should have been done ages ago, I realised I had 30 minutes in which to pack, shower, and phone Paul Crosby. I phoned Paul first, a quick 5 minute chat to catch up. He was in good spirits, excited about his trip – his first to Asia. He had the typical apprehensions of one travelling to this continent. “Make sure I don’t get lulled into a card game in the basement of a dodgy shop or down a back alley and lose all my money” he warned. There was no chance of that. The chances of being buggered by a ladyboy, however, were far higher. I bid him farewell. I’d see him in 13 days. But first, I needed to check out Sri Lanka.
I bundled some clothes into a backpack, packed a small satchel, had a very quick shower and a shave, and hurried out of the house and into a taxi. The driver got me to the airport on time – at 8:15pm, with the flight leaving at 9:30pm. I checked in and grabbed a quick bite at sushi tei – salmon, crab and tuna sushi – spot on. I then hurried to the gate. Interestingly, the Colombo flight is categorized as an ‘Entrance B’ flight, which means you need to be specially screened in a private room for extra security measures.
I sat on the plane and looked around. It always interests me looking around and noticing the type of people that make up the flight. I remember the first time I went to Jakarta. I always had a media-created negative impact of Jakarta before I lived there. I wondered what the people would look like – I’d never seen or talked to Muslims in person before that year. Going to Sri Lanka, I was slightly better informed. I’ve had a few Sri Lankan students at the British Council. They seem a kind people, humble and well-mannered.
On the seat in front sat an Australian sex tourist. Classic look – 50s, floral shirt, white cargo pants, slicked back blonde hair, chatting to a Sri Lankan lad in front of him, whom he would later change seats to groom further. I heard snippets of their conversation. An invitation to Australia, the offer of buying the lad tea in Kandy, paying for his petrol if he guided him to the North. The young lad wasn’t sure about the Australian man, but was responding warmly. No doubt they’d both be off to Negombo together within hours.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Sri Lanka. Emily and Ed, colleagues of mine at the BC, had been most helpful, providing itineraries, maps, and nuggets of advice, as well as setting me up for a drink on the terrace of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo – one of Sri Lanka’s finest colonial-era hotels – for a drink with a BC Colombo teacher called Andy. I planned to head north after 2 nights in Colombo, then down to Kandy and Ella, before hitting the Southern beaches. I now noticed the Australian man shuffle next to the Sri Lankan lad. What a lovely couple they made. The Aussie was in for a good night. The Sri Lankan lad in for a change of life.
I arrived in Colombo, and immigration was quick and painless. After I collected my bags and passed through customs, I went to Ceylon Bank Foreign Exchange and changed $400 US into 53,167 Rs (Sri Lankan Rupees). Enough to make my wallet incredibly fat indeed.
Leaving the foreign exchange, I rounded the corner, and saw a small crowd of moustached men holding professional-looking signs with their hotel name on and a client’s name. Then I saw a small man holding a scrap piece of paper with ‘MR NEIL DONOVAN’ scrawled on it in red felt pen. This was my pick-up. We exchanged pleasantries, then walked out of the hotel and into a car park, past armed militia, and met another man who was the driver of my car. I hopped in the front, and the man who picked me up hopped in the back, and we were off, heading to Colombo City Hotel, which I had discovered after lots of painstaking internet research, and took a gamble on it at only $35 US a night. The location was fantastic, right across from the Hilton in the heavily-fortified Fort area.
The journey took about 40 minutes I was my usual talkative self – which is a sign of nervous energy, and also a way of breaking the ice as I constantly look out for a potential scam or an attempted robbery. I’m always paranoid when arriving in a new place – especially late at night, and especially in a country that’s at war. The roads were well-paved and clean. Military checkpoints going into Colombo were frequent. They were checking for Tamil Tigers, and giving hassle to anyone who was Tamil, basically anyone from the North. We got stopped a couple of times, and an uneasy-looking soldier with AK47 loosely hung around his shoulders would lean into the window, ask a few questions, then grab the driver’s ID and run his torch over it carefully. It was pretty thorough, though I noticed they weren’t checking for car bombs.
We made it to the Hilton eventually in the Fort area. Access to Colombo City Hotel was denied. Huge yellow roadblocks, as high as a bus, were in place, and a group of soldiers looked warily at us as we parked up and my driver, who hadn’t been particularly chatty on the drive but was pleasant enough, got out and ran to the hotel to fetch the porter, who hurried back prim and proper in British Raj style prim and proper white bell-boy suit with shoulder pads. We went into the hotel. It was nice. Clean. Polished faux marble tan floors, a colour scheme of browns, yellows, and sunset oranges very agreeable to me. I checked in, and the porter brought me up to my room. A good-sized Queen bed, nice shower, looked good.
Feeling the urge to head out, even though it was 12:15 past the witching hour, I changed into a new pair of jeans and headed out into the night. I decided to go across the road to the Hilton, as I’d heard they had a club called Blue Elephant there. They didn’t. It had closed down a while ago. Disappointed, I asked the concierge where a good nightclub might be. He called over a group of porters, and one of them said he’d take me to one for 1,000RS return. He advised me: “Don’t get a 3-wheeler at night. Dangerous. Might not get through checkpoints.” I agreed, and hopped into the back of the fabulous Hilton chauffeur car, and off we went.
The chauffeur’s recommendation was ‘Stardust’ club, at the back of Stardust casino. We got there, I hopped out of the car, and I went up the lift to the club. It was 500 Rs to get in. Bag of shit. 2 Sri Lankan ladies were on me in an instant, chatting away to me, wanting a drink. It was dark, and only a handful of people were there – all locals. Chart RnB music was playing. I had a coke and left pretty quickly. The chauffeur was there waiting at the bottom, and so I hopped into the car again, and we headed back. On the way, he showed me Galle Face Hotel, and it looked amazing bathed in flattering soft yellow light. Very colonial – a relic of a bygone era. After this, we headed back along the Coast Road. Only official hotel vehicles are allowed down this road. The Fort area is where the Military are stationed, and also the President’s residence, so security is incredibly tight. All the way back, the chauffeur was asking me if I wanted a girl, saying he could arrange it. “Russian girls or a Sri Lankan?” He asked. Russian girls?! They get everywhere, they really do. I politely declined. He asked me what I thought of the Hilton, until I admitted I don’t really stay there, and I’d duped him. He gave me his card anyway, saying to call him if I needed a girl later.
I returned to the hotel, walking past the sleeping porter, and into my room. A dark, yet interesting first night in Sri Lanka!