We saw the new high-rise buildings of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, hours before we reached land. And it would be hours still before we saw them from the city streets. Our first encounter with Sri Lanka, like those of many who visit neighboring India, was one spent waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Though we reached the dock at 2:30 p.m. and, along with the two other passengers, were ready to disembark, the officials from immigration didn’t arrive until 5:00 p.m. They drove us to the port’s immigration office and disappeared with our passports, leaving us in the passenger van, the sliding door left open to better feel the humidity and heat, I suppose. Several small bugs made their way inside, the first we had seen in over two weeks at sea, and a rather large rat hobbled across the edge of the wharf, injured, and disappeared down a drain. Thirty minutes later, the man returned with our passports, only for his colleague to realize a mile down the road that we were checked into the country as members of the ship’s crew, not as passengers. We had to turn around. Another twenty minutes were spent waiting for the proper entry stamp. No one asked to see the electronic visa confirmation we were told to purchase for $30 USD each; nobody looked for the banking statements Kristin underwent tongue-twisting gymnastics to get a hotel clerk to print for us. No forms were necessary. Immigration personnel didn’t even bother to match our faces with our passports.
Our minders from the shipping company, two drivers upon whose reliance wasn’t an option, asked where we wanted to go. “Someplace we could walk around and see the city, a restaurant and maybe some temples or shops. Mostly just a restaurant,” I said thinking a market or a downtown core. The older passengers with us made it clear they were going to stick to our side; that I was to lead us, whether I wanted to or not was of no concern to them. It was already past 6:00 p.m. and we had gotten used to eating our dinner at 5:30 aboard the ship. Also, I’m of the belief that a meal in a local restaurant is arguably the best way to experience a new location when pressed for time after dark. We’d have more time for sightseeing come morning.
Leaving the port of Colombo for the booming city proper, where in just five short years a who’s who of multi-national hotels and boutiques have sprung up, one has to pass through a checkpoint into the commercial High Security Zone. Armed security guards in military outfits manned the checkpoint, presumably to inspect vehicles for terrorist threats – the fear of another clash with the Hindu minority Tamil Tigers has diminished, but remains a possibility. These security guards, in reality, serve another purpose: to collect baksheesh. The guard only need approach the door to the rear passenger compartment for a flash of cash to suddenly find his hand. I feel so safe. The bribes were handed out by our minders, both coming and going, as we passed the checkpoint.
We were asked if we wanted to eat in a hotel, “perhaps the Ramada?” No, definitely not, we explained. Someplace you would go. No western food. Sri Lankan food. “Take us where you would take your wife for her birthday,” I said, a line that has landed us great recommendations in other countries. The two men conversed in the local language, Sinhala, then turned and said that they had the perfect place in mind. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves deposited outside a small three-story shopping mall, with the instructions to head down the stairs to the food court. “Very good Sri Lankan food. But, if you no like, they have everything.” They’d be back to pick us up in two hours.
Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
Our one night in Sri Lanka and with little choice in the matter, we got summarily dumped at a God-forsaken shopping mall. Even now, the morning after, I am straining to express our anger in PG terms, just in case my cousin’s children still read these posts in their geography class.
A shopping mall, really? Simmering with frustration, we descend the escalator and find a food court that wouldn’t be out of place in New Jersey, only with slightly more ethnic offerings: the “Tennessee Fried Chicken” being to Sri Lankans what the equally dubious “Panda Express” is to us in the States. We approached the Sri Lankan restaurant, pointed at one of the display combinations, and were, before we knew it, searching for an empty table encumbered by heaping plates of spicy chicken, yellow rice, roti, and a number of vegetable dishes. The meal was tasty, quite so in fact, and we were given a 10% discount for using a credit card, a promotion especially appealing to those of us with no local currency (two dinners and two bottles of water cost roughly $8 USD). Nevertheless, the meal didn’t suppress my frustration over an opportunity lost/stolen.
Kristin and I spent the next hour pacing the shopping mall as closing time neared. A bookstore occupied our attention for a little while, but the clerk was preparing to leave. We passed Reebok and Adidas shops, an electronics store dedicated to the JBL/Harman-Kardon brands, numerous clothing and jewelry stores, and finally whiled away fifteen minutes pretending to be shopping for shoes in a Clark boutique.
We eventually found a café outside the mall and decided to kill off the remaining hour over dessert and tea. After all, we were in former Ceylon, one of the largest producers of tea in the world, second only to China (Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972, twenty-four years after shedding their colonial status, but plenty of signage still uses the exotic-sounding Ceylon in its messaging).
There, in a trying-too-hard café called “Sugar”, with a veritable Benetton cast of ethnicities seated among the other tables, and with royalty-free electro-chill music playing at an inoffensive volume, Kristin and I came to realize why our minders deposited us at a shopping mall: It’s what they thought we’d want… because it’s what they’ve wanted their entire lives.
This mall could have been anywhere in the world. For us, this was a huge disappointment. We’ve ceased visiting shopping malls in this form many years ago except when absolutely necessary. Malls like this are dying off throughout America and are rarer still in Europe, but the rising middle class of the developing nations have only just begun to get a taste of them. I couldn’t help but feel that the Sri Lanka of the very near future, at least here in this sparkling-new portion of Colombo, was like the United States of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This is the challenge of travel in the 21st century; it is so much harder to find yourself in the unfamiliar. As globalization and technology combine to create a middle class in countries that have previously not had one, they get whitewashed with a Western-branded sameness. It is why smart travelers talk about hurrying to Cuba before it’s too late. They fear that the lifted embargo means it’s only a matter of months, not years, before Havana boasts the same neon-lit fast food brands and hotels as every-town America. Of course, we can’t fault the locals for wanting the very conveniences we go on holiday to escape. We seek destinations without them not because we are so enlightened, but because we can rely on them being there for us when we return home. We travel to see another way of life, not a reflection of our own.
Nevertheless, trying to explain to locals that we didn’t bicycle halfway around the world for a Bloomin’ Onion is often met with incredulity.
We asked our friendly Sri Lankan waiter where we should go, given that we have less than twenty-four hours in port. He replied with a list of touristy destinations that Kristin and I had already vetoed during a cursory glance at Trip Advisor: elephant parks, museums, and more shopping malls. Alas, we settled on a temple, the oldest and biggest Buddhist temple in Colombo. It opened at 9am. We thanked him and hurried to meet our drivers. Foolishly, I must add.
Our two hours was ultimately over, only it wasn’t. We had to wait another thirty minutes before our drivers finally arrived to pick us up. No apology given, or really expected, as we came to understand very quickly that Sri Lanka runs on India Time, which is to say punctuality left with the British, to the extent that it ever existed. We chatted about Sri Lanka’s history during the drive back to our ship. There was another bribe given at the checkpoint, a brief exchange at the gate to the port, and then a meandering route through the container yard to the gangway. They’d pick us back up at 9:30 a.m. for a trip to Gangoramal Temple, to Independence Square, and to a traditional market so we could get some tea. Perfect.
Come morning, the four of us waited atop the gangway until 10:15 before finally giving up and going back to our cabins. It was no use. Shore leave was over at noon and the ship waits for nobody except the Captain himself. On a cargo ship, your time is not really your time. At least not when it comes to port calls. The Captain and the shipping agents will do their best to get you some time on shore, but no guarantees are made.
We went to the Ship’s Office to report that the four of us were all on board, surprising the Captain with our presence. He thought we were taken on shore nearly an hour earlier. Kristin explained that we had been stood-up, to which he just shook his head with annoyance and muttered, “That’s Sri Lankan Indians, for you.”
The above text was written in a one-hour flash of fury following our being blown off by the Sri Lankan officials who were supposed to have driven us into town, or at least from the ship to the port’s gate (a one-mile gauntlet of trucks, containers, and cranes that we were forbidden from traversing on foot). It is now five hours later and, judging by the sound of the engine and the sight of the brontosaurus-like gantry cranes whose necks have been hoisted into their upright, resting position, the ship was ready to leave well over an hour ago.
That is when the very same official who stood us up this morning arrived on the ship to demand that we four passengers return to the Immigration Office in town to complete the Arrivals Declarations forms that we should have filled out yesterday. The ones I had asked about last night. So we did get to go back ashore, four hours after shore leave had ended. There, moments before our departure, we were finally handed the forms needed to legally enter the country. From conversation later, over dinner, we learned that we each checked different answers on some of the questions, such as the purpose of the trip and our embarkation port. It made no difference. They didn’t even look at the forms; it was just an exercise in bureaucratic time-wasting.
Sri Lanka… maybe another time. Probably not.