We were supposed to land in Colombo at 11am, but were delayed for some reason, perhaps crosswinds, or maybe air traffic control coming out of Bangkok. Either way, we were slightly late to meet our driver. I desperately needed to use the bathroom and happily used the squat toilet- the very first I’ve used with a flush!
Immigration was easy enough and we stood patiently in line as a family of Russians barged through, with a small child and a green plastic bag of clothes. We paid for our visa online, so as we waited to be processed we made small talk with the Immigration officer, who had a warm smile and taught us that ‘Ayobowan’ means a lot of things, generally in the ballpark of a greeting. Snidely made nice with a woman in our row on the plane and she came up to him desperately seeking help. She spoke only Thai with not a skerrick of English, and she was trying to call for a taxi through a man who only spoke Sinhalese. I don’t know how he managed to get to the bottom of it, but through some patchy translation app and wild hand gestures, Snidely figured it out and managed to help the lady.
The drive from Colombo to Kandy is long and windy. We passed villages along the way; a strip of storefronts became peppered with derelict building projects which thinned out onto stalls covered in king coconuts and finally the landscape opened up to reveal rice paddies. Sri Lanka is so green. The humidity encourages all the plants to grow and grow and they become overgrown and muddy as the palm fronds along the main road collect dust.
The traffic is ordered chaos. Buses screech to a halt, pick up one or two saronged people and start with a cough and a splutter of diesel. Cars navigate this at a reasonable speed and always remain in a state of overtaking, so that when they get a clear shot, they speed up and swerve in front. Add tuktuks to the mix, bleeping and coming up on the inside, you get all the threads necessary for a braid, decorating the countryside.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that put on Western pop songs, just for us. Their menu boasted submarines and steak and fries, but we were mostly interested in trying some Sri Lankan cuisine. We had rice and curry, dhal, eggplant, potatoes, an array of delicious sides and fresh rice, and prayed that we would not get sick. Although the saying goes that hunger makes the best sauce, I disagree- Sri Lankan chicken curry is pretty good too.
Our driver recommended a few stops on the way to our hotel in Kandy. Snidely and I were yearning for a unique and authentic experience that shows ‘the real Sri Lanka’, but I guess all tourists are after that as well. We chose not to ride the elephants, or smell the herbs and spices factory, or see the silk factory. We elected to wander Kandy so onward we went.
Kandy is loud. Kandy is a mess of everflowing cars and trucks and tuktuks and this is the single most intimidating thing about Kandy. The street vendors are particularly intimidating too. Like hungry hyenas they encircle and follow you, with a handful of fridge magnets or popcorn.
The streets are a mixture of dusty shopfronts, secret alleyways and colonial architecture. There’s not a lot to lure a tourist, and yet foreigners are called and waved inside (for a toaster or a wedding photography package or something?).
We agreed to a cultural dance in the evening. Only an hour of sitting in a hall that was filled with seats and busloads of us. The performers showcased dances from the local surrounds, some representing demons, others representing peacocks. The program outlined that many of these dances were traditionally performed at festivals or in rural settings. Bright, colourful acrobatics, the tinkle of ankle rings, shells and the twang of drums. We skipped the firedancing, however. We didn’t want to watch a spectacle put on just for us.
Our driver took us to see the Buddha’s Tooth Relic. This Buddhist temple sits beside the lake and is much more peaceful in the cool of the evening without the blare of traffic. We followed pilgrims through decorated tunnels, around pagodas of incense and up the stairs to the relic. There’s a half hour wait on the queue to see the casket that holds the relic (noone can see the relic itself, or as legend goes, the alleged relic). Monks from overseas stood in line, pilgrims sat all in white on the floor and prayed, others brought in jasmine and lotus blossoms as tribute. There was a lot of hustle and bustle to see the casket through three doors, so we chose to pay our respects and move on.
The bed and breakfast we stayed in was lovely. Out of the city, up on a hill, we had a panoramic view of the city lights. After such a long day, we collapsed. A beautiful hot shower and a soft mattress sent me right to sleep.