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PERSONAL BLOG - 2003 Q2: April – June


3 April 2003

After three days of meetings in Colombo, I was not enjoying the city. On the few occasions I had been out of the hotel (usually to find an Internet café because the Internet access in the hotel’s business centre was so slow) I was finding it a most unpleasant experience. Apart from the heat and humidity, the crowds, rubbish everywhere and air pollution from dirty exhausts, the constant hassle of having to fend off beggars and people trying to sell you all sorts of tourist junk, made every venture outside of the hotel quite exhausting.

However, this evening after my meetings had finished, I decided to take a walk through the so-called commercial centre of Colombo (called Fort) and around to Galle Face Green which was supposed to be a popular place for the locals to hang out in the evening.

As soon as left the hotel, I was approached by a local who wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing. He said his brother owned a jewelry shop in Fort and would be able to negotiate a very large discount for me. When I said I was not interested in shopping for jewelry, he told me there was an elephant festival on nearby to celebrate the start of the Buddhist New Year and offered to take me there in a three-wheeler. I declined because I had no intention of getting into a three-wheeler with someone I didn’t know.

It took a while to brush him off, but no sooner had he left my side when someone else approached me and said “Good evening sir, where you from?” (an almost standard greeting by these pesky touts). He claimed to have an uncle with a jewelry shop nearby and also offered to take me to the elephant festival. As I walked through Fort I had to fend off one guy after the after. As soon as I had got rid of one, another was there. It was like they were operating in relay to wear me down. It was most distracting from what I wanted to do, and that was to look around Fort and find some interesting photos to take.

The problem with trying to take a photograph anywhere in Fort was that it was virtually impossible to shoot a street scene without getting a military checkpoint or machine gun post in the picture because they were on every street corner. And you cannot take pictures of any of these otherwise you run the risk of getting shot yourself. I’d read that Fort was the most heavily fortified part of Colombo as it had been the site of suicide bombings in the past. Many of the streets in Fort were barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire, and some were open only to pedestrians after passing through a military checkpoint. There was not much to photograph anyway because the area was very dilapidated and run down, and some of the buildings were completely gutted and burnt out (I assume from the bomb attacks by Tamil Tigers).

After fending off a half dozen or so locals walking through Fort, I reached the north end of Galle Face Green (or Galle Face ‘Brown’ as some expats jokingly refer to it, because there is more brown dirt than there is green grass) where there were groups of schoolchildren lined up along the concrete esplanade to watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean.

Here I was approached first by someone claiming to be a plain clothes police inspector who had observed me getting hassled by the locals. He said the locals all wanted to take me to the elephant festival because they would ask for money in return when I got there. He said the elephant festival was indeed worth going to, and offered to take me there (promising not to ask for any money) as he had just come off duty and was going there any way. Just then a three-wheeler pulled up alongside us, and he suggested we take that because it was a little too far to walk. However, I’d noticed this three-wheeler further back up the street, and had earlier thought it had been following me, so I was immediately suspicious.

Then I also noticed a couple of uniformed policemen across the street, so I said to the ‘police inspector’ “Before I go anywhere with you I’d just like to check your identity with those policemen across the road”. He said, “Why, don’t you trust me?” to which I replied “As a policeman I am sure you yourself would recommend to tourists that they check the identity of persons whom they don’t know before getting into a vehicle with them”. I then crossed the street towards the policemen. When I got to the other side I looked around and saw that both so-called ‘police inspector’ and the three-wheeler had disappeared. The guy was a very smooth talker so I wonder how many other unsuspecting tourists had fallen for his ‘trap’ – whatever that was?

Whilst walking around on Galle Face Green I was approached by five different men in about 25 minutes (one after the other) claiming to be teachers for a school for either the deaf and blind, or for handicapped children, and seeking a donation. In the end I found the best way to get rid of them was to say “Oh what a coincidence, I have just met one of your colleagues to whom I gave a donation to help your school”. Then they would just disappear, probably assuming that I wasn’t going to make a second ‘donation’.

As I got rid of the last ‘teacher’, a guy claiming to be a tourist from Male came up to me and said what a hassle it was fending off all these touts, because he’d been doing it himself all day. Then he said he was on his way to the elephant festival and would I like to join him. For a moment I believed him, but then I realised it was just another ploy by a local who perhaps was trying to be a bit smarter than the others. When I told him I didn’t want to go to the elephant festival with him he started getting quite argumentative, so I just turned around a walked in the other direction ignoring him.

When I got back to the hotel, I’d been out on the streets of Colombo for about an hour and a half, and spent most of that time just trying to fend off annoying touts. It seems to be impossible to wander around Colombo on your own without getting constantly hassled by people trying to find a way of extracting a few rupees from you.

4 April 2003

Having finished my business in Colombo, and having found the city to be such an unpleasant experience, I decided to go up to one of the beach resorts on the coast for the weekend before flying back to KL. I’d heard there were some very good resorts in Sri Lanka, which offered good value for money. I booked two nights at the Royal Oceanic Beach Resort at Ethukala, about five kilometres north of Negombo.

Before leaving the hotel, I decided to check out a shopping centre that had been recommended to me in Colombo called Odels, as I needed a few extra shirts for the weekend. I wish I had found that place earlier in the week, as it was clean, airconditioned, and all the merchandise was fixed price, which avoided the hassle having to bargain for everything. The prices were still reasonable – I paid 500 rupees each (US$5.25) for some good quality cotton casual shirts. I noticed some of the shirts had Lands End and other well-known labels on them.

The shopping complex was not large, but had a good variety of clothes, handicrafts and local products on sale – and a Delifrance coffee shop, which sold the only decent café latte that I had in Colombo. The shopping centres that had been recommended to me by the hotel drivers earlier in the week – Majestic City and Liberty Plaza – were nothing like their names suggest. Both were dirty, run-down, dimly lit and with many vacant shoplots – but they probably offered commissions to the hotel drivers for taking guests there, whereas Odels didn’t.

Everything in Sri Lanka seems to operate on a commission basis. Even one day when I asked a taxi driver, between meetings, to stop at a bank to change some money, he insisted on driving me down some backstreet to a small money changer on the basis that the rate was much better than at the bank (what he really meant was that he got a commission from the money changer which he wouldn’t get at the bank).

After a quick lunch at Delifrance, I took one of the hotel taxis up the coast to Negombo. It took about 90 minutes and cost 2,250 rupees (US$25) which was quite cheap but still a bit of a rip-off compared to the hotel’s full day rate of 3,000 rupees for a car and driver. About half way to Negombo, the driver started acting strangely. He would accelerate up to about 80kph, and then jab on the brakes about three times to reduce the speed to 50 kph. Then he would accelerate again, and jab the brakes again, causing me to lurch backwards and forwards in my seat.

I looked at him a couple of times. His eyes were wide open but he seemed to be shaking his head. Then suddenly I saw his eyes roll shut. I realised he was falling asleep so I immediately started talking to him. I had to keep talking to him nearly all of the way to Negombo, and on one occasion we narrowly avoided a head-on collision. I asked him what time he had started work. He told me he had been driving since 5 pm the day before. The previous day one of the other hotel taxi drivers told me that they worked 24 hour shifts – and I thought I had misunderstood him – but it seemed that this was what some of them were doing to make money.

5 April 2003

The resort has turned out to be nothing special. It is actually at Ethukala, just north of Negombo. It is more like a motel on the beachfront. The room is very basic but it’s quite relaxing as there are not many people here and I have a room overlooking the beach. At US$90 a night I had expected something a little more upmarket, given that things are so cheap in Sri Lanka. The food at the hotel is awful, but that doesn’t matter because there are plenty of small restaurants all along this strip of the coast (on the other side of the road to the beach) serving both cheap local food and reasonably priced western food. Tonight I had grilled seer fish, French fries and vegetables at one open-air restaurant for 200 rupees (US$2.10) – which was very good – and a 625 ml bottle of Lion beer for 100 rupees (US1.05).

During the day I took a taxi into Negombo, which is quite an interesting little town. Negombo is known as ‘little Rome’ because a large proportion of its population are Roman Catholics. I was told that there are 52 Catholic churches – more than in any other town in Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankans are Buddhists, with Hinduism and Islam being the dominant minority religions, but there are a few towns on the west coast of Sri Lanka where Portuguese colonisers in the 16th century successfully converted the population to Catholicism, and they have remained Catholics to this day.

There’s not much to do at night in Ethukala (apart from cheap eating and drinking) unless you are interesting in shopping for jewelry. Every second shop is a jewelry shop, and they will invite you in to every one you pass, but fortunately the shop owners are not as aggressive as in some other parts of Asia.

However, the hawkers on the beach are a hassle trying to sell you sarongs and shirts, and guys wanting you to take pictures of them with their cobras or pythons (for which you will have to pay). But the hotels don’t let the hawkers into the resort areas and there seems to be an imaginary line in the sand, a metre back from the lounge chairs closest to the beach, which the hawkers are not allowed to cross - and which they do seem to respect. But once you are on the beach proper, you are at their mercy and it’s almost impossible to take a quiet stroll along the beach without being hassled by hawkers, fishermen wanting to take you on a boat ride or women asking for money to support their children.

6 April 2003

As I have a night flight out tonight, I took the opportunity this morning to have a massage at an Ayurveda clinic next to the hotel. I had intended to have an ‘Ayurvedic holistic health consultation’ as well (at least that was how it was described in the clinic’s brochure) but I changed my mind after sitting in the waiting room for ten minutes. The walls were so thin that I could hear every word that was being said between the doctor and the patient that was before me. The patient was a Dutch woman that I had seen in the hotel, and she was describing in graphic detail to the doctor the problems that she was having with her piles.

When it was my turn to see the doctor, I told I was perfectly healthy thank you, and just wanted to have a massage. However she insisted on giving me a physical examination first (it was very superficial though). She then told me that my three doshas were out of balance and I needed some herbs to correct the balance and prevent future illness. She handed me a small brown paper bag containing some dark brown and black pills, and told me to take one of each for the next two weeks.

After my consultation, I was taken into a large bare room at the back of the clinic in which there was a 3m x 2m white marble bath, in which I spent 20 minutes soaking in a herbal oil mixture. There were about a hundred flower blooms floating on the water which made a colourful contrast to the stark white tiled floors and walls. I couldn’t lie back and relax in the bath though because it was so large and rectangular in shape (like a mini-swimming pool).

After the herbal bath, two masseuses (who were dressed in white uniforms like nurses) took me into a room for the massage. I had expected to see a traditional massage table, but instead I was asked to lay down on a stainless steel table like those you see in mortuaries for doing autopsies on dead bodies. This table even had what looked like drain holes for the blood, but turned out to be drain-holes for the hot oil that they were about to pour over me.

An Ayurvedic massage is a combination of traditional massage and pouring hot oil (but not too hot) over parts of the body from a terracotta container that is suspended from a beam above the massage table, and which is swung from left to right, or top to bottom, by one of the masseuses. At one stage when they were pouring the oil over my chest, and massaging my upper body, I had to hold my arms above my head for so long, that by the time I finished the massage I had a pain in my neck (massages are supposed to relieve muscular pain, not create it!). The massage itself was quite rough and I really didn’t enjoy it, but the part of the Ayurdevic treatment that involved pouring hot oil over the forehead was very relaxing (but that bit didn’t last long enough).

Later that afternoon, I checked out of the hotel. When I went to pay the bill, they asked me to go into a cashier’s office next to the reception counter. It was hot and stuffy with no air-conditioning, and the cashier took nearly 15 minutes to prepare by hand a bill and receipt using Kalamazoo stationery. I have not seen Kalamazoo stationery for about 30 years, and was amazed to see that there was still somewhere in the world using it. It was lucky that I was the only person checking out at that time. If they had a full house, and people were rushing to check out to get to the airport, I would imagine they would have a lot of irate customers queuing up to pay their accounts.

8 April 2003

I am back in Kuala Lumpur now and have terrible neck pain. My neck is so stiff that I can hardly move my head. I have had to spend the morning at the chiropractor and having physiotherapy on the neck and shoulders. Lying on that hard stainless steel table with my arms in such an uncomfortable position was definitely the cause. I will be very wary about seeking any Ayurdevic treatment again in the future.

29 May 2003

I have been in Bangkok for the past couple of days for a conference. With the conference over, I went out for dinner with two of the delegates. I suggested we go to an Italian pasta and noodles restaurant that I knew, which was just two stops on the BTS (skytrain) from our hotel. After dinner I decided to walk back to the hotel for exercise. My dinner companions took the train back as they had to leave for the airport within the hour. It was still very hot and humid, and the walking was making me thirsty, so on the way I stopped at a bar for a lime and soda.

After downing my drink I thought I’d better use the men’s restroom as it was still a fair distance back to the hotel. As I was standing at the urinal, two young topless Thai girls walked in and started doing their make-up in the mirror behind me! At first I thought I must have walked into the women’s restroom, but then realised that women’s restrooms don’t have urinals. The two girls were wearing only leather boots and skimpy bikini bottoms, and just carried on as if I was not there. In fact, I don’t think they looked at me once. Of course, they knew I was there because the men’s room was quite small and their bums were almost touching mine (we were standing back to back). I think they were dancers from a go-go bar next door. I am sure that can only happen in Bangkok .

31 May 2003

Today I am in Osaka , Japan , and spent most of the day in the hotel preparing papers for a meeting tomorrow. Late in the afternoon I took a short walk around the city in to stretch my legs. I stopped at a fruit shop to buy some fruit, but desisted when I saw the prices. The quality of the fruit on display was superb, but the prices were 5-10 times what I am used to paying in Kuala Lumpur . One item that caught my eye was a ‘musk melon’. It looked just like any ordinary honeydew melon – except for the price tag – 12,000 yen! That’s over US$100.

In the evening I went to dinner with the people I would be meeting tomorrow. Two of the guests who were flying in from Turkey arrived late, so had to be served their courses from the start. One of the waitresses started giving me the food intended for one of the Turkish guests, so I motioned that it wasn’t for me. She didn’t understand, so one of the Japanese hosts spoke to the waitress and told her she had given the food to the wrong person. She was very apologetic and took it away, bowing madly and saying something I didn’t understand. Our Japanese host translated explaining that she was very sorry for the mistake, but all foreigners looked the same to her. You’d realise how funny that was if you’d seen the Turkish guy she was mistaking me for – balding, bushy black eyebrows and a thick black moustache (and no glasses either).

3 June 2003

I arrived in Wellington , New Zealand , this afternoon after an all-night flight from Osaka via Brisbane . I ordered a coffee in an expresso bar next door to the hotel to wake me up. I asked for a café latte, which was $3.50. I counted out some coins but only had $3.00 in change, so I handed over a $10 note, to which the girl behind the counter said: “Oh, three dollars will do” and took my coins. That would never happen in Malaysia ! I recall recently when I went into a Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur , I was one sen short of RM7.19 for a cup of coffee, but the girl wouldn’t take RM7.18 – she insisted on changing a RM50 note.