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PERSONAL BLOG - 2003 Q1: January – March

 

12 January 2003

I arrived in Tokyo on a cold winter’s day for a conference. I checked into the New Takanawa Prince Hotel at Shinagawa, where the conference is being held. It is a really tacky hotel (not ‘new’ at all) in what looks to be a boring area of Tokyo. On the desk in the hotel room, there was a sheet promoting the hotel’s “Non-Cleaning Service” whereby you can apply to have your room cleaned only every second day, instead of every day, as is the case with most hotels. If you sign up for the “Non-Cleaning Service”, for each day your room is not cleaned, you get a 1,000 yen coupon which can be used in the hotel’s restaurants and shops. I thought it was an innovative way to save money for both the hotel and the guest, which I have not seen in any other hotels.

22 January 2003

I flew into Bangkok in the morning en route to Kuwait. This was the first time for many years that I can recall flying into Bangkok when it was not raining or at night, and I noticed for the first time that the area between the two runways is utilised as a golf course. What surprised me was how close the tees were to the runway which is used for landings – about two wing lengths from the aircraft. I wonder if they have a rule about not teeing off when aircraft are landing. It would be very easy to hook a ball into an engine. I suppose that wouldn’t be as dangerous on landing as it is on take-off. Fortunately the tees are further away from the runway that is normally used for take-offs, but I would imagine that if a heavy hitter sliced a ball it would still be possible to put it into an engine of a jet taking off. I think I will feel more comfortable taking night flights into Bangkok in the future.

23 January 2003

It is cold and raining in Kuwait today – not what you expect this part of the world to be like. I am staying in the J W Marriott Hotel. I don’t think I have come across a hotel for a long time where the food is so good. The breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets are absolutely superb – a great combination of western and middle-eastern food – but it would be nice to have a glass of wine with dinner. Unfortunately that is not possible as alcohol is completely banned in Kuwait. The hotel facilities are excellent (great gym, free Internet access in the business centre) but the view from my window is the most depressing I have seen for a long time – a massive graveyard where it looks like 90% of the gravestones have been stolen and about 10% of the bodies have been dug up. Someone said that Iraqi soldiers dug up bodies, looking for jewelry, when they invaded Kuwait in 1990, but I don’t know if that is true.

24 January 2003

The rain has stopped today. Clear blue skies and a pleasant 18 degrees – more what I expected Kuwait to be like in the winter. I had some time to spare in the afternoon so took a walk around the city with my camera. Kuwait is not a very exciting place, but I found an interesting souk (market) and got a great picture of an old man selling dates. I didn’t see another westerner all afternoon. One of my colleagues who was here with me for the same meetings wouldn’t leave the hotel because an American was shot dead a couple of days before when he stopped his car at the traffic lights near the US military base. There was a full colour picture of the American, dead in his car with blood dripping out of his mouth, on the front page of the paper. It was a gory picture! A lot of people in Kuwait believe that the Americans are building up their forces here to launch an invasion of Iraq. It was interesting to watch the American reconnaissance planes flying up the Gulf to the Iraq border and then do a sharp U-turn. Maybe they are just testing Saddam Hussein.

25 January 2003

Today (Saturday) is the start of the working week in Kuwait (Thursday/Friday is the weekend in Kuwait) and after finishing our meetings I persuaded my work colleague to come for a walk on the basis that I didn’t get shot the day before! We took a taxi to the Kuwait Towers where I got a great picture of the towers against a deep blue sky and then walked the 4-5km back to the hotel. I didn’t see another westerner again all day outside of the hotel (they must all be too chicken to venture outside!). My colleague said he still felt uneasy being outside the hotel. We discovered the following morning that an American convoy was shot at just north of the city. Just as well my colleague didn’t know about that whilst we were out.

26 January 2003

I arrived in Doha, Qatar, in the morning and spent the afternoon (Sunday) wandering around the city. All the shops close at lunchtime, and then re-open about 4 pm, so the city was dead. I walked to the Doha Fort which seemed to be the only place of any historic interest in the city. It was very small and not very interesting, but a decided to take one picture. As I did so, I heard a voice yelling at me from a room being used as an office at the entrance to the fort. I walked over to the office and there was a big, fat, unfriendly Arab sitting on a wooden chair, who started to abuse me for taking a photograph without his permission. This seemed strange as the fort was one of Doha’s few ‘tourist attractions’, the doors were open, and it was free admission. But he said I needed his permission to take a photograph, and he said it over and over again. He went on for about five minutes, ranting and raving. He seemed just to want to humiliate me, rather than stop me taking a photograph. He said you couldn’t take a picture of anything in Qatar without obtaining permission first. When he seemed to have finished his ear-bashing, I asked if I could have his permission to take a photograph, and he just said “Yes”. I wonder how Doha is going to cope in 2006 when it is invaded by hordes of Asian tourists with cameras for the Asian Games – the guy in the office at the Doha Fort is going to have a heart attack. I didn’t see any other tourists in the city all afternoon, so maybe that guy is just cranky because nobody is visiting his fort.

Doha feels a safer place than Kuwait, but it is even less interesting. In fact, one of my guidebooks describes it as the most boring place in the Middle East. It has a nice, turquoise blue harbour, and a few architecturally interesting new buildings along the north side of the harbour, but not much else. Like Kuwait, it is very expensive. The only things that is cheap are the taxis – about the same as Kuala Lumpur taxis – but they are falling apart. They are driven by Pakistanis who don’t appear to have ever taken driving lessons. One I got into was so full of petrol fumes that the driver must have been on a permanent high. The airconditioned limos are very cheap though – about US$10 an hour including driver. (In Kuwait, where the taxis are not metered, we paid about US$7 for a 5 minutes taxi ride to go one city block).

27 January 2003

Once I had finished all my meetings in Doha, I took the opportunity to hire a car and driver for two hours to go down to Al Wakra, which is a “quaint, picturesque, historic fishing village with lots of photo opportunities” (according to the Qatar tourist guidebook in the hotel room) because there wasn’t much around the city to take photos of.

Al Wakra is about 30 kms south of Doha, and when we reached there all I could see was a massive housing development. I said to the driver, “Where is the fishing village”, and he replied “No more”. His English wasn’t that good, so I couldn’t quite work out what he meant by “no more”, so I just asked him to drive me to the fishing village. He drove on a short way, and then he turned off the road and we drove through an area where new roads were being built and the land was being divided up into housing lots. Then we came upon an open area which looked as if it had been recently bulldozed, in the middle of which stood a tiny, very old mosque (which the driver claimed was 300 years old). He waved his hands towards the open area and said “Fishing village here”. It was then that I realised that what he was trying to tell me was the fishing village had been bulldozed to the ground for a new housing development. There were a couple of old buildings on the edge of the open area, together with a pile of rocks and the remnants of two stone walls which appeared to be all that remained of an old cottage, but apart from that there was no evidence of the “quaint, picturesque, historic fishing village” featured in the guidebook. It seems that Qatar has little interest in preserving its history. The same guidebook described Qatar as “a gem in the Gulf waiting to be discovered”, but it’s really a very boring place and I can’t see why anyone would want to go there unless they are a golfer trying to escape a northern European winter.

8 February 2003

I am on my way to New York to attend a meeting. I decided to overnight in Tokyo on the way so I am not so jet-lagged when I get there, as I have to do a half-hour presentation on the Monday afternoon. As I was checking out of the ANA Hotel at Narita Airport before going over to the terminal to check-in for my flight to New York, I saw a ‘breaking news’ story on CNN that the east coast of the US had just been placed on an Orange terrorist alert (the second highest). It didn’t look to be the best day to go to New York!

9 February 2003

This morning I had to drop in a videotape that I had brought for my presentation to the meeting organisers on 6th Avenue. When I walked back to the Hilton Hotel where I was staying, about three blocks away, I found the whole neighbourhood surrounding by police cars and bomb squad trucks and nobody was being permitted to return to the hotel. Someone said that an unidentified package had been found in the hotel. The temperature outside was about minus 5, so I had to go and have an early lunch in a nearby deli as it was too cold to stand outside. I managed to get back into the hotel about an hour later.

In the afternoon I took the subway down to the site of the World Trade Centre to have a look at ‘Ground Zero’. It is now just a big hole in the ground around which there is a lot of construction work going on, and dozens of souvenir stalls selling tacky reminders of 9/11. This hole in the ground seems to be New York’s biggest tourist attraction at the moment, but there really is not much to see.

10 February 2003

It is difficult to keep up with news from outside the US when in New York. None of the network stations carry much foreign news in their news bulletins. It is all US news and very parochial at that. I noticed over the weekend that apart from a couple of short stories about the impending war in Iraq, there was no foreign news at all – but there was an extra-ordinary amount of coverage given to a dog show that had been held in upper Manhattan over the weekend.

12 February 2003

I am on my way back to Kuala Lumpur today. I had my first experience at going through US airport security since 9/11 – and it was as bad as I had read about. The ANA flight I was on departed from the Delta terminal at JFK Airport and the passengers had to queue outside in the freezing cold (it was about minus 7) whilst people went through the security screening just inside the entrance doors. We had to take off our shoes, belt, coats and place them through the X-ray machine along with our luggage, whilst the X-ray operator meticulously checked each piece of luggage on two different monitors – sometimes sending bags back for a second pass.

As I was waiting for my bags to go through the machine, I realised that I had left a metal paper-opener in the side pocket of my suitpack. That would undoubtedly show up like a dagger on the X-ray screen, so I waited for one of the security officers to call me over to open the bag and confiscate it. To my surprise, my bags were cleared through without any question being asked and I proceeded to the check-in counter.

When we boarded our flight an hour later, to my further surprise I found there was no X-ray machine at the boarding gate for the hand luggage. So I could have easily slipped the paper-opener from the side pocket of my suitpack into my carry-on bag before checking-in, and boarded the flight with an undetected ‘dagger’ in my bag.

It doesn’t look like US airport security has got its act together yet.

We are taking a northerly route to Tokyo over Hudson Bay and northern Canada. It is a clear day and I had an excellent view from 32,000ft of Hudson Bay – completely frozen over. At the moment we are over far northern Canada, north of Great Bear Lake and well inside the Arctic Circle. This is the furthest north I have ever been and it’s very interesting to have such a great bird’s eye view of this remote and barren part of the world. For the past four hours all I have been able to see is snow and ice – as far as the eye can see. The snow is so thick in places that it is difficult to pick out any landforms at all. It looks like a white Sahara Desert. I am amazed that I am the only person in the plane still looking out of the window of the aircraft. Everyone else has the blinds closed and is sleeping or watching a movie. Occasionally someone gives me a dirty look because I have had the blinds open since we took off. Nobody else seems interested in looking at this spectacular part of the world. People pay thousands of dollars to go on Antarctic sightseeing flights, but on this flight they are getting something almost as good for no extra charge.

2 March 2003

I arrived in Beijing today for three days of meetings. As we taxied to the aerobridge I observed aircraft cleaners lined up on the tarmac in the freezing cold like soldiers on parade, with their vacuum cleaners neatly stacked in front of them. It was minus two degrees outside, so you’d think the airport authorities would allow the cleaners to wait inside in the warm. Before the aircraft doors were opened, we were advised over the PA that we were not permitted to take any newspapers or magazines into China and that any in our possession had to be left on the aircraft. As we left the aircraft there were soldiers standing to attention in the aerobridge (perhaps to check we weren’t smuggling in newspapers?). With all this formality and displays of ‘authority’ I expected to find Customs a real hassle – but it was a breeze. In fact there was only one customs officer on duty in the Customs Hall and he seemed to be there only to wave people through the green lane as fast as possible. Not what I expected at all.

I was invited to a lavish Chinese banquet for dinner. I am not a great fan of Chinese food, but I don’t mind plain Chinese food – like Shanghai dumplings. But it is the custom in the PRC to offer guests more exotic food as a way of honouring them, so I was prepared for a few things that I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat. I had to politely refuse several of the appetizers (jellyfish and duck tongues) and one of the main courses – sea urchin (looked like a giant sea slug with a dozen ‘antennae’ poking out of it’s backside) but I don’t think my hosts were too offended. I made a joke out of the fact that I am not used to ‘exotic’ Chinese food and told them that I used to be frightened about coming to China because of all the stories I had heard about the Chinese eating dog, snake and monkey brains, and drinking snake blood. They all laughed when I asked for their reassurance that the red wine was in fact wine and not snake blood!

5 March 2003

I have been in Beijing for three days now, and I am having difficulty coping with the food as it seems to be almost the same every meal – and so much duck. In the evening I took a taxi down to one of the main shopping streets near Tiananmen Square and had a McDonalds cheeseburger and a Starbucks coffee – McDonalds has never tasted so good! I actually didn’t set out to eat McDonalds but I just couldn’t find any western restaurants (I spotted a pizza place after dinner so made a mental note of that for my next visit).

6 March 2003

My hosts kindly organised some sightseeing for me in and around Beijing before my afternoon flight to Shanghai. We first traveled to the Great Wall at Badaling, about an hour out of Beijing. It was snowing lightly on the way, but stopped when we reached the Great Wall. My interpreter told me that during the summer the Great Wall is so packed with tourists that you can’t stop moving – you have to keep going with the crowd. Fortunately in the winter it is much less crowded, and in fact looked quite picturesque covered in snow. The only problem was that it was slippery in places. On the walk back along the wall we reached a sloping section where there was no handrail, and it had become so icy that nobody could make it up a section about five metres long. After several people tried unsuccessfully to run up it (ending up flat on their backsides at the bottom of the slope) four or five of the visitors formed a human chain to pull people up the slope.

The Great Wall at Badaling is the most visited part of the Great Wall because it is the closest to Beijing. However, this section is reconstructed and not the original wall. It is still very impressive to see, but on my next visit to Beijing I’d like to travel further out and see part of the original Great Wall.

When we arrived back in Beijing, my interpreter said she would take me to a western restaurant as I might be getting a bit tired of Chinese food (she was so right!). We ended up at Maxim’s of Paris (a replica of the original Paris restaurant), which must be the most expensive western restaurant in Beijing. Lunch for two cost nearly 400 yuan (about US$50). I was embarrassed about how much money they were spending on entertaining me, when really all I needed for lunch was a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

After lunch we went to the Forbidden City. That was interesting – especially the Emperor’s Garden – but it was very cold, and the sky overcast, so I couldn’t take many photos. Walking back from the Forbidden City to the car, we were approached by a man selling souvenirs. I had brushed off at least two dozen souvenir sellers as we had been walking around the Forbidden City, but this one was very persistent. He was trying to sell me a Buddha carving for 280 yuan. I told him I was not interested, but he persisted in walking alongside me, progressively reducing the price everytime I said no. He eventually came down to 100 yuan, and then pulled out of his pocket a carved wooden box containing chopsticks and said I could have both for 100 yuan. I continued to shake my head to say no, so then he put the Buddha carving and the chopsticks in a plastic bag and pulled out of his pocket a carving of a dragon, put that in the bag as well and said I could have all three for 100 yuan. I was really not interested in buying any ‘junk’ souvenirs, but at less than US$5 each, I started to think maybe I should buy them. But before I could say anything he pulled another box out of his pocket containing a carving of a temple, put that in the bag and said I could have all four for 100 yuan. At that stage we had nearly reached the car, and my interpreter said to me “That’s a good price”. I took that as a signal that I should buy them at that price – which I did – and then wondered how I was going to fit them all in my suitpack to take home. I wonder how many tourists would have bought the Buddha carving at his original price of 280 yuan, not knowing how much extra they could have got for one third of the price. The trick in getting the price down seems to be not to show any interest in anything that the souvenir vendors show you, and just wait and see how low they will go.

7 March 2003

I am in Shanghai now. More lunches and more dinners – but the Shanghai food is more palatable to my taste than the Beijing food which is very oily. The problem continues to be the quantity of the food – every meal is a 7 or 8 course banquet. In between meetings I was taken to the Oriental Pearl Tower – the highest building in Shanghai – for a bird’s eye view of the city. I was told that people have to queue for a long time to take the elevator up the tower (up to four hours in the summer) but I was lucky to be taken straight up in a reserved elevator.

The view from the observation deck of the tower was impressive, but what amazed me was the amount of boat traffic that there was on the Huangpu River. I have never seen so many ships and barges steaming up and down a river at the same time – it was like rush hour on the river. (Many people think it is the Yangzi River that runs through Shanghai, but it is not. The Yangzi River is the river into which the Huangpu River runs about 20 km downstream from the centre of Shanghai. At that point the Yangzi River is 18 km wide, whilst the Huangpu River is less than a kilometre wide as it runs through the centre of Shanghai.

8 March 2003

Saturday now and meetings over, so my Shanghai hosts have organised some sightseeing for me. First stop was the Maglev (magnetic levitation) train – the fastest train in the world - which opened at the beginning of the year. The Maglev train operates from the Longyang Road subway station to the new Pudong international airport – a distance of 32 km. It is not used by airport travelers yet because the seats are all fully booked by joy riders up to a month in advance, even though ticket prices are a hefty 300 yuan return, first class, or 150 yuan economy class.

What surprised me when we boarded the train was that there were no seatbelts of handrails – I had sort of expected to have to be strapped in on a train that was going to travel at over 400 kph. We left Longyang Road station at 10.00am and accelerated to 431 kph in about three minutes. It was very quiet (although I was told that the train sounds quite noisy outside because of the aerodynamic noise) and unless you looked out of the window there was no sensation of speed. The acceleration was very smooth – in fact one of the woman passengers stood up from her seat just after we left and was standing in the aisle way (not holding onto anything) as we accelerated from about 100 kph to 431 kph and didn’t have any difficulty keeping her balance. The ride is so smooth because the train is not making any contact with anything – the magnetic levitation technology is propelling it about 10 mm above the guideway. It uses very little power and generates less magnetic field than many household appliances.

After hitting 431 kph we held top speed for about half a minute before we had to start decelerating for the station at the other end. We arrived at Pudong Airport at 10.07am, and after a few minutes wait, went back to Longyang Road in reverse hitting exactly 431 kph again on the way back.

It was an amazing experience and a taste of what long distance travel may be like in the future. If the track was longer than 32 km, the train could have reached 500 – 600 kph we were told. The technology certainly works – the problem is that it is too expensive at the moment to put into widespread commercial service (the cost is in the construction of the elevated guideway). The Shanghai Maglev train is based on German technology, but the Japanese have an experimental Maglev train that can achieve the same speed. I had a quick look in the driver’s ‘cabin’ on the way out. It was not like a train driver’s cabin at all. Just a desk and two computers (and one of the German computer technicians who were ‘driving’ the train was sitting on a three-legged wooden stool that wasn’t even fixed to the floor).

After the exciting Maglev joyride, we headed west out of Shanghai to the canal town of Zhouzhuang, a little over 50 km to the west of Shanghai. Zhouzhuang attracts millions of tourists every year who go there to walk around its old town which was built nearly a thousand years ago. Despite the crowds of tourists (mostly domestic Chinese tourists), Zhouzhuang’s old town is worth visiting because it is like stepping back in time. The stone cottages, narrow cobbled streets, canals and stone bridges are like a film set – but the difference is that Zhouzhuang is real.

Alongside the picturesque canals are dozens of tea shops where you can sit and watch the locals ply their wooden boats along the canals. Most of the boats these days are carrying tourists, but occasionally a ‘real’ boat will pass by. Apart from the teashops and souvenir shops, there are many shops selling ‘wansanti’ – which is boiled pork knuckle, a Zhouzhuang speciality. It is served in a dark rich gravy, the colour of soy sauce. I don’t eat much meat, and hardly ever eat pork, but I must say I have never had meat so tender and tasty as ‘wansanti’, so I am glad my guide persuaded me to try it.. It is a very fatty dish, and my guide and driver were tearing into the fat and skin, but the lean meat peels off the fat very easily, so I was able to tuck into that. One pork knuckle is a meal for 3-4 people and is not expensive.

There are a couple of interesting pagodas in the old town, but most of the appeal of Zhouzhuang comes from just exploring its narrow streets and alleyways and observing how the villagers continue to go about their daily lives despite the presence of hundreds of tourists taking photographs and watching everything that they do.

I was there in the ‘shoulder’ season which is probably the best time to go. It was crowded but tolerable. There are fewer tourists in mid-winter but it is very cold then. In summer, I was told, there are so many tourists that you can hardly move in Zhouzhuang.

28 March 2003

Today I am visiting for the first time, a place that I have long wanted to visit – the Maldives. As my flight from Singapore banks on its final approach to Male International Airport, I am struck by the thousands of stars in the night sky. I can’t say I recall noticing this flying into any other airport in recent years. It must mean that the air is very clear and unpolluted, here out in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

As we come into land I can see the capital of the Maldives, Male, on an island a kilometre or two off to the left of the aircraft, but I can’t see where we are going to land. As we go lower the aircraft’s landing lights pick up the surface of the ocean and it seems like we are going to land in the sea. Then when we are just a few metres off the ocean’s surface, a strip of sand and then some tarmac appears under the aircraft and I realise we are landing on another island.

After being checked through Immigration, my hosts lead me out of the arrivals area onto a wharf where we board a speedboat to take us to Male. This is the first airport I have been to where you board a boat instead of a taxi or bus when you leave the arrivals hall. As I board the boat I notice how clear the water is, even at night, and under the lights of the wharf I can see hundreds of fish and a large manta ray drifting silently by.

As we speed across the ocean from the airport in the pitch black darkness, I wonder whether the guy steering the boat can see where he is going, as we seem to be going at one hell of a speed.

When we reach Male we are met by a car and I’m taken to the Mookai hotel, which is a small 20 room hotel close to the wharf, but still appears to be one of the largest hotels in the town (most tourists stay on the outlying islands where all the resort hotels are, and not in Male itself). My hosts have organised a room on the sixth floor with a sea view, so when I wake up in the morning I am greeted by a glorious view of a turquoise blue ocean with old wooden ferries plying between the islands and modern speedboats darting between them leaving white trails across the surface of the ocean. It’s an idyllic scene and I can understand now why so many people rave about the Maldives.

After a morning meeting, my hosts took me out to Bandos Island – about a 25 minute trip in a speedboat – for lunch. Bandos is a typical tourist island – about 250 villas spread across the island and the usual recreational facilities and restaurants. One of the staff took me for a drive around the outside of the island in a golf buggy so I could take a few photographs. On one side there was a continuous palm-fringed white sandy beach, whilst on the other side the beach was broken up with patches of coral (good for snorkeling). The island takes only about 20-25 minutes to walk right around. From every part of the island, whichever direction you look in, you can see more islands. There are about 1,200 islands in the Maldives, of which 200 are inhabited, stretching over 1,000 kms north and south of the equator.

My hosts told me that the Maldives were truly ‘paradise’ because there were no snakes, no big spiders, no dogs (it is a Muslim country), no crime and no unemployment. About the only thing the police in Male seem to have to do is put parking tickets on motorbikes that are not properly parked in the designated parking areas.

I asked one of my hosts about the ethnic background of the Maldives people. He explained that the early settlers were from southern India and Sri Lanka, but many Arab and Portuguese traders had left some of their genes in the Maldives. He said there were many Maldivians of mixed race, recounting the story of how a French explorer had married the daughter of one of the island chiefs and there were now 100 of their descendants in the Maldives. He also told me that there was one island where the people were black like Negroes. This was because some slaves had been brought from Africa years ago, but they were always fighting and arguing among themselves (which was alien to the peaceful demeanour of the Maldives people), so the President banished them all to one island so they wouldn’t disturb the people in Male or on other islands.

Despite being a Muslim country, the Maldives has the highest divorce rate in the world (about 85%) because it is very easy to get a divorce in the Maldives and there is little attached to being divorced in the Maldives. In fact, for many men it is considered a source of pride to have been married many times, and one man claimed to have been married 80 times. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he had 80 wives, because it is quite common to marry the same person in the Maldives. In fact the law on divorce in the Maldives requires men and women to marry a different partner if they have been married three times before, but after marrying a different partner, they are then allowed to get married to each other again for another three times, before they have to marry someone else, and so on.

31 March 2003

I arrived in Colombo today for three days of meetings. This was my first visit to Sri Lanka so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – perhaps a cross between India and the Maldives? Not so. As we left the airport I was surprised to see so many military checkpoints, barbed wire barricades and machine gun posts. I suppose I had assumed that because the peace talks between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil separatists had been progressing well, there would be a more ‘peaceful’ atmosphere about the place. But at every major road junction there were sandbagged bunkers manned by soldiers with loaded machine guns. And it was clear that the soldiers were not relaxing. They were eyeing every vehicle carefully as they approached (perhaps nervous about suicide bombings of which there had been a few in and around Colombo in recent years). It felt like I was in a country still at war, and the ceasefire could fall apart at any time.

The road in from the airport could not be described as a highway – just a heavily built up rural road – and was crowded with vehicles trying to squeeze two abreast in each direction and overtaking in the most crazy places. As we reached the outskirts of Colombo, I was surprised at how dirty and unkept the place was, and the apparent lack of any modern infrastructure. The bus drivers in the city seemed crazier than those on the road from the airport, and many of the drivers of the little three-wheelers that darted in and out of the traffic looked decidedly suicidal. Many of the buses and trucks belched black smoke from their exhausts, polluting the city streets, and the rubbish by the side of the streets was as bad as I have seen anywhere in the world.

My first impression of Sri Lanka was not a good one!