Once a year, go someplace you've never been before
It takes almost as long to fly to Sri Lanka as it does to fly to Europe, which is a surprise because you would imagine that Southern Asia is basically on our doorstep. Perhaps flying via Hong Kong is not the most direct or even the most efficient route, but as I try to build an itinerary that is good value for money, this is what I got. Being Australian, and virtually living at the bottom of the world, it takes a long time to travel anywhere beyond New Zealand, so I think we are more accepting of long hours being confined to a tin can hurtling through space for long periods of time. After approximately twenty hours in the air, with a four hour respite in Hong Kong, we arrive in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the middle of the night.
Arriving late at night has its advantages; the traffic is light, and we are treated to Christmas lights that would probably rival even those of New York City. This city, which is predominantly Buddhist, celebrates all cultures and religions. The rest of the population, it seems, celebrates tourists.
I like to arrive in a new city a few days ahead of embarking on a tour to explore. I believe that there is no better way to get to know a city than to walk and walk. Today, after collecting a map, we walk along the Galle Face Green, which is a five hectare strip of land between the major arterial, Galle Road, and the Indian Ocean. We walk along the promenade, enjoying the refreshing breeze on our faces as we stretch our legs.
Just opposite the Kingsbury Hotel, which is located at the beginning of our trek along the promenade, huge sand dunes obstruct the Indian Ocean. Ibis birds climb along the sand, their light feet not even making an impression on the surface below. It won't take long to realise that Colombo has many green spaces, roadside trees and parks. The birds are a surprise. Beyond the sand dunes is a large land reclamation project. The Chinese are building a new Port City, which will later be filled with hotels, casinos and night clubs. It's a shame to see the coastline being exploited in this manner, but I do understand why a country like Sri Lanka would encourage foreign investment of this nature.
This beach path is lovely. Young couples sit on benches arranged strategically toward the sea. They hold umbrellas to shield them from the relentless sun. We feel the heat beating down upon us as we walk along the path, and we take care to use sunscreen on our white skin. Below us, families are paddling in the water of the Indian Ocean. As the small waves crash upon the short sandy beach, children run away, shrieking in delight. Ahead is an observation deck, or a small pier, which extends a short way into the sea. From the end of the pier, we get a good view of the work being done at the sand dunes, whilst on the other side of the road, a huge new apartment complex is being built. In the parkland between the beach and the road, kites float on the jetstreams, whilst children buy packs of popcorn and other treats from the small market stalls along the edge of the green.
Before we realise it, we've walked almost five kilometres before we decide to sit for a while and decide our next steps over coffee. Now that we have left the beachwalk, we're targets for every empty tuk-tuk that passes us. Driver after driver stops and offers us tours.
'No thanks. We're walking today,' I say as we pass. Sometimes, well-dressed and well-meaning men - it's always men - approach us and explain that we need to do a tour, or to see a temple, or to visit a shopping centre with a big sale. We politely decline. We are just glad to be able to stretch our legs and although the tuk-tuk drivers and pseudo tour operators are insistent and a little bit annoying, we don't feel intimidated. Our time to take advantage of the excellent prices offered by the drivers will come later.
Much of the coffee available here is brewed, so we are delighted to see a familiar franchise, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Similar to Starbucks, I prefer the better quality coffee on offer from this franchise. Besides, I haven't yet seen a Starbucks here - not that I'm looking! Beneath an air-conditioner and over coffee, we pause for a while to watch people walking past, going about their normal Saturday afternoon business. Young couples flood into the shopping centre to do their shopping or to meet their friends here. Latte-sipping is a very expensive pastime here - far more expensive than at home, although the minimum wage here is approximately $USD80 per month. The shops in this mall are gaily decorated for Christmas, although many of the store owners are not Christian, which make up about 5% of the population.
As the sun goes down, we decide to venture out again. Hospital Street, where our hotel is located is like a fairyland with a canopy of tiny white lights above us. We walk down to the Kingsbury Hotel, where it has been transformed into a magical Christmas kingdom, Lights blaze upon every surface, whilst a huge Christmas tree stands against the front wall. Trees made up of snowflake-style lights stand like sentinels along the road, whilst white stars hung on invisible threads appear to be suspended above the entrance way.
A hapless tuk-tuk driver stops and offers to take us for a tour around the city. After negotiating a price, we slip into the back seat of the three-wheeled vehicle and ask him to show us the Christmas lights of the city.
When I say that Colombo's Christmas display would put Melbourne, if not Australia, to shame. I'm not kidding. Everywhere, it seems, lights cascade down from buildings, are embedded into the ground, are made into arches and garlands that makes the city look bright and happy. Our driver does his best to stop at several beautiful sights, even taking us down to where the Saturday night Christmas Street party is currently underway. There are hundreds of families gathered in the one place to celebrate together - this Saturday night before Christmas.
We rebook our tuk-tuk driver to collect us tomorrow for a tour of the Buddhist temple and to visit some of the most iconic Colonial architecture in Colombo. Today has been a long day, but worth it. We have found ourselves in a city, which is dynamic and facing new challenges as it emerges from a 10-year war and a recent change of government. Some might say that it is a city on the verge of many new changes.
TITLE QUOTE: Dalai Lama
ACCOMMODATION: Fairway Colombo, No. 7 Hospital Street, Colombia 01, Fort.