As I sat waiting for the train back to Galle, I watched a couple of crows pecking at the carcase of a recently-defunct rat; meanwhile two fighter planes, no doubt the pride of the SL Air Force, circled over head on this, Sri Lanka’s Independence Day. As an idle spectator I had time to think back over the last couple of days.
After school on Thursday – no doubt the super school bus and swimming lesson will feature in another edition – I caught the 15:30 train to Colombo. Despite my fears to the contrary, I had no difficulty getting a seat and I settled back to the two and a half hour journey. To my frustration and through my carelessness I recalled I had left my Kindle lying on my bed back at base, so I resigned myself to gazing out the window and occasionally playing with my GPS if I felt in need of a digital comforter. About three weeks ago I quoted Philip Larkin: more lines from his “Whitsun Weddings” came into my mind as I sat there. Having boarded a train in Hull heading to London, Larkin says “all windows down, all cushions hot, all sense of being in a hurry gone … all afternoon through the tall heat … a slow and stopping curve southwards we kept”. Larkin may have been describing a train journey from Hull, but it fitted here perfectly. Except we were heading north.
I had stayed a night in “City Beds – the Regent” when I got off the plane and knew it as basic but clean and handy for the railway station, with en suite loo / warm shower. As I walked the five minutes from the train, I became aware of even more people than usual being on the street. True, a lot of them would be going home from work, but even so… Right outside my destination a sit-down demo was taking place and traffic, both pedestrian and motorised, was significantly disrupted. Hundreds of young people were sitting down blocking one of the arms of the roundabout; a speaker was addressing them in Sinhala; police, both “normal” and “riot” varieties – the latter armed with teargas – were watching proceedings; traffic, being redirected by policemen on points duty, honked and fumed; the giant electronic billboard advertised a luxury hotel in the area. I snatched a shot of the protesters, but decided photographing police, especially those wielding teargas, might be a step too far.
No-one could accuse “City Beds – the Regent” (hereafter “The Regent”) of being pretentious: the entrance is remarkable only for the camouflaging scruffiness of its front door. The welcome inside was warm and I asked them to recommend somewhere to eat. As dusk slid rapidly into dark, we pored over a city map and various options were considered: I opted for Upali’s, about 4km away. We decided that, with all the protests and increased police presence, I would be better walking a bit then grabbing a tuk-tuk. The demonstrators were medical students protesting about the lack of jobs and I have to say they got little sympathy from the guy at The Regent. He said it had been going on for a couple of days and teargas had already been deployed: his hope was for a good downpour and for a while it looked as though he might be lucky so I took the advice, first walking some distance before hailing a tuk-tuk.
Upali’s was nice: cheapish SL food in a fairly upmarket setting. Not quite fast food but perhaps a local variation on Bella Pasta or something like that. My barbecued prawns came with a cumin roll and “Sri Lankan white sauce”. Béchamel it wasn’t, more like a finely-grated rose-pink coleslaw with a kick that could have knocked out Escoffier. However, I enjoyed the dish, washed down with ginger beer, and even had a dessert: sago with local honey, almonds and cashews. Unsubstantiated rumour had it there were sultanas as well.
Meal finished, armed with my GPS, I walked back. That’s one thing about SL: I rarely feel threatened or uneasy. That’s not to say there’s no risk and I do try to remain alert, but the general air is one of friendliness. The main danger seems to be the pavement which is predominantly composed of concrete slabs which are no doubt easy to lift for access to infrastructure such as sewers and cables, but which are often not replaced or, if they are, badly. Without keeping your eyes firmly on the ground, allowing only the merest glance ahead, you are absolutely bound to come a cropper and a broken leg, possibly infected with something nasty, is very much on the cards. Luckily, the City Fathers have thought of this and done their best to ensure nothing of any attractiveness or innate beauty should be allowed to distract from your pedestrian life.
Friday was visa day. The demonstrators had gone home overnight and The Regent ordered me a tuk-tuk: they use an app called “Pick Me” on their phones to get metred taxis, so there is some chance of not being rooked. Being right on the roundabout and with pedestrian crossings sometimes manned by police officers, the tuk-tuks can’t stop outside The Regent, so one of the staff led me round the corner to the local cinema – “The Regent” – where we found the waiting vehicle: all very helpful and efficient.
The driver was a nice guy and knew exactly where we were going. Traffic was very heavy indeed: it was about 9am and the roads were jammed with incredible dodging, diving, barging and insinuating going on all round: whilst in general the SL Rule of the Road seems to be “Might makes Right”, there is a fortunate reluctance on the part of drivers of even the heaviest lorries to take human life, assuming they can stop in time. All of this is accompanied by a haze of fumes and continual horn-blaring. My nine and a bit kilometres took almost half an hour and cost the princely sum of LKR 450 (about £2.40). Big-hearted as ever, I rounded it up to LKR 500.
Last year, the visa office was chaotic, crowded and confusing in a grubby building. They have now moved to grand new premises as part of a pair of integrated Immigration and Emigration Department buildings, complete with lifts and a fountain. Apart from that, little has changed. It took several enquiries to find exactly where to go, but eventually I was able to show my completed application to a girl at a desk. Did I have a photograph? I proudly produced one from the strip I bought for the same purpose last year. It wasn’t attached. I pointed at her stapler and suggested we could use that. It had to be stuck on with glue: I could get glue from the photographer who had set up taking shots of the less-well prepared. The glue was in a paper cup, but I had to apply it with a finger…
Next, my papers having been quickly scrutinised, I was sent to another room. It turned out this was on another floor, a fact I discovered after about ten minutes’ fruitless wandering. As I entered the room I was given a “token” – a wee bitty paper with V66 on it and had to wait until I was called. This stage went quickly and the guy to whom I handed my paperwork and passport said the gluey mess round my photo really wouldn’t be a problem. I had visions of it sticking to some Ukrainian’s paperwork and never being seen again.
Back to the second floor and a long wait. Occasionally a guy appeared with a bundle of paperwork and passports, but V66 took about two hours to be called. Next was the paying bit. Another – mercifully short – queue, another checking of passport, paperwork etc. before they were taken off me again and I was presented with a bill for $54 (LKR 8222). Why they don’t price the visas in rupees, I don’t know.
Next was some more waiting until at last V66 was given back his passport, with a visa extension neatly stuck inside. The whole process took just short of the four hours the information boards at the front door had warned.
I started back with the intention of going on foot, but quickly caved in due to heat etc. and hailed a tuk-tuk. I got dropped off at the railway station to check train times for Saturday – Independence Day – and walked the last five minutes back to The Regent. I slobbed a bit then thought I ought to seek out the delights of Galle Face and other parts of the old town. My GPS took an inordinate time to get a fix, by which point – though I could find my way back – I had little idea exactly where I was. I passed rows of newly-washed military vehicles preparing themselves for the Big Day. I did find a lake which had something to commend it, but I’d veered so far away from Galle Face – which is supposed to be nice – that I gave up and went back to The Regent, where I luxuriated in a warm shower, something missing at Sera’s – not that the temperature demands it. I was disappointed about Galle Face as one of the guys at The Regent had recommended a van that goes there every day, sets up a small restaurant for the day and then decamps until the following day: the combination of possible Independence Day access restrictions and everything else outweighed any potential benefits. I did see a new variation on the Leaning Tower of Pisa though.
In the evening, faute de mieux and better the devil you know, I went back to Upali’s and had a traditional seven vegetable curry – “Recipe goes 2000 ago back” with rice tempered in ghee. I’m getting to like these SL curries, much milder than many of the Indian and Pakistani offerings available in the UK. Again I walked back but taking a different route and passing City Hall, an attractive building with wide lawns whose sprinkler system caught me unawares.
Which brings me back to where I started: Independence Day with its specially-smartened policemen. I chatted to one outside The Regent and he proudly showed me his medals. Traffic was quieter, this being a holiday and most of Colombo having decided to take the 10:30 am Matara Express (Mount Lavinia … Hikkaduwa then Galle and on to Matara).
It would be nice if SL railways painted the exterior of each class of railway carriage a different colour, but they don’t. True, they generally have a “2” or “3” painted on them, but that’s not visible when looking up and down a train from the platform, especially with the milling crowds and knowing every second counts. What with one thing and another, I ended up standing in a third class carriage which had a big “E” painted above the doors, but no numbers. There was provision for five ceiling-mounted fans. One mounting was missing altogether, three held no fan and the fifth – apparently complete – did not function. The train arrived late and left half an hour late. After about half an hour’s travelling, a middle-aged lady with whom I had been rubbing bottoms for some time indicated the imminent freeing of a seat. I gestured for her to have it, but she was about to disembark so I grabbed my chance. The seats were hot, the windows were down, all sense of being in a hurry had gone and this time our slow and stopping curve would also be southward.