We were excited about this stop having heard so many good things about Sri Lanka.
We docked at about seven. I walked the deck as we did so and then, skipping breakfast, and at about nine, we left the ship. Cunard were providing shuttles from 10.00 but the Port Authorities allowed us to walk out of the dock area where armed guards were numerous. We were to discover that there was similar evidence of the still delicate security situation throughout the capital.
It was already very sunny and very hot and the walk out of the port, and along a dual carriageway before we got into the city itself was hard work. Once in the city we rested for a while in an air-conditioned bank from where I withdrew about £50 worth of Sri Lankan Rupees. And then around the corner we stumbled upon an old, once colonial, tearoom where we stopped for coffee and a savoury pastry and planned our day. It was a great find, rather elegant and with coffee at about 40pence a cup:
We wanted to go to The Pettah, Colombo’s busy commercial/market district but were keen to walk and see what else we might stumble over. That itself was a challenge in Colombo because Tuk Tuks in their hundreds kept pulling alongside and offering – dishonestly – to take us anywhere for a dollar. One would stop, we’d politely say we were fine and then another, which had just observed our refusing a ride, would stop. They couldn’t be ignored and the drivers would generally not go until they’d received their own personal rejection.
The walk took us about 30 minutes. It was very hot but worthwhile because on the way we saw lots of the sights: the Independence Hall, The Twin Towers and, most engagingly, Cargill’s Department Store, now closed but with its past grandeur very evident.
The excellent Lonely Planet Guide to Sri Lanka warned that The Pettah might be overwhelming and that we’d need a break from it after a relatively short time. It was an extraordinary experience. It’s not a market as such; the traders all operate from stores or semi permanent kiosks. But it’s incredibly loud. There was no personal importuning, just countless shopkeepers shouting out details of their wares. And amongst the considerable crowds, Tuk Tuks and motorbikes dodged their way through. It was as intense an experience as we’ve had on this holiday, but it was fantastic.
There was nowhere to get a cold drink or a coffee, the handful of cafes being without air conditioning and, as we discovered, being warmer than the outside and more stifling. Fortunately for us we stumbled into here:
This was a department store, considerably faded and somewhat eclipsed by the chaos and energy of all the ships and traders which surrounded it. It was an oasis. It sold primarily fabric and men and women’s clothing. Jan found a very pretty Indian dress, conscious that we are expecting to attend an Eid party at our daughter in law’ parent’s house when we return. She tried it on and decided to buy it. We would not have missed that experience for the world. First the young, barefoot man, who served us, agreed the price (which appeared to be about 90% of the ticket price but which, when I then accepted that without any hesitation, rose to about 95%). We agreed the newer higher price and he took us down two flights of stairs to a supervisor who wrote out a receipt for the agreed amount. I then had to take the money to a cashier. The cashier took our money and with, by now, a bundle of receipts, we were able to go to the door of the shop where the dress was parcelled up and handed over to us. Throughout this process the original attendant hovered in the background to ensure all was well. It was great.
By now it was close to noon and we decided we’d have a change and visit the Colombo promenade, Galle Force Green. We agreed a price with a Tuk Tuk driver, obligingly agreeing the first price offered of US$5 (which was about double the going rate). All we then had to do was hold on as he forcefully and recklessly threw the Tuk Tuk into the crowds.
The promenade was pretty and in front of the beach there were innumerable kiosks selling refreshments, toys, food and kites, which were being flown in some number. But there was a complete absence of shade and although the walk was pleasant it was formidably hot. So when we saw – somewhat surprisingly in Colombo – a Sri Lankan take on a Bavarian Bier Keller, we almost flung ourselves within where I tried, some Sri Lankan rather than German beer. We cooled down, had some French Union Soup (so that was a French dish, served in a faux German Bar in Sri Lanka) and more beer (and wine) before steeling ourselves for the return walk along the promenade.
We found our way, very nearly, back to the ship but the first security guards on one of the Port gates wouldn’t let us through. A Tuk Tuk pulled up and the driver insisted he knew which gate we needed and took us on another hair-raising drive dropping us at a much bigger set of gates. He insisted that because it was a Friday afternoon that the fare was US$20. I gave him two and when he protested suggested we might discuss the reasonableness of his fare with a nearby police officer. But in the heat of the argument I’d failed to establish that we were now at the right gate. We weren’t. A very helpful soldier intervened with one of the port drivers and he took us into the port and around its perimeter to the QM2, driving us to the gangway just as torrential rain arrived. We’d agreed a “fare” of $10 but I gave him $20. It was a worthwhile investment at the end of a great but exhausting day.