Colombo & Negombo Saturday 2 - Tuesday 26 July 2011
We landed safely after a turbulent crossing. The first vehicle to make the crossing by ferry since the 1970s! More to follow ......
So, by 11am on Saturday 2nd July we were on the road again driving through Colombo's bustling traffic, past the busy markets, the distinctive twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the lovely Galle Face Hotel and along the seafront. As the war isn't long over the security here, particularly in the central areas with the government buildings, is pretty tight. As you drive along the army are everywhere, with these lolly pop signs with "STOP" on them that they flash at you to make you pull over. Our progress that first morning was very stilted as we were repeatedly pulled over. Once they stopped us they seemed at a bit of a loss and generally just let us go again after asking "Where you go?" We took to driving on the outer lanes and purposely not looking so we weren't pulled up every time!
Before making the crossing we really tried to find out whether diesel was cheaper in India or SL so we knew if we should fill up first. This was surprisingly difficult to pin down, we asked loads of people in India around the port but they didn't really know - often on our trip we've noticed a surprising lack of knowledge in countries about "the neighbours" over the border! I guess a lot of people never travel far. We even rang a British restaurant owner in Negombo who was mentioned in our LP, but he hadn't a clue about the price of diesel as "my driver takes care of all that!"
Anyway for anyone else that's interested it was a nice surprise -diesel here is cheaper than India. In India a litre of diesel (as at 30 June 2011) is 44.35 India rupees or approx 93 cents Aussie, cf 76 Sri Lankan rupees (SLR) which equates to 65 cents Aus. We'll enjoy it while we can before we hit pricey Europe - actually on that front we're really looking forward to Iran where diesel is 5 cents a litre!!! Bargain.
As those following our trip know we were here a year ago, and so we had that "home coming" feel, we kept remembering things we'd forgotten -like the cool wooden trucks -liked them. There's a real island feel here, very much more laid back than India and (sorry India!) a hell of a lot cleaner!
We missed it but about the time we landed Channel 4's controversial documentary about the war aired, which caused a lot of press here, most of it (from the government papers) criticizing it as biased and faked in parts.
On the ground here other than the full on army presence everywhere you don't see signs of any unrest, though obviously there's an undercurrent. The Tamils we met in India seemed very angry at the new government, one (a port official) even told us he hoped the ferry failed as to support it meant supporting the Singhalese Government! Maybe that's why it was so bloody hard to find info about it!
We plan to drive up to the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna in the far north this time, as we're now allowed to with an MOD permit so that'll maybe give us a closer view. Anyway it's very good that 30 years of conflict has finally ended making life better I'm sure for all the people of SL. Tourism is on the up and up certainly -20% increase last month compared to the previous year -though we still hope to find some quiet corners to camp in!
We headed up the coast 30km to Negombo, a fishing port 7km north of the airport which is a far quieter place to hang out than the capital. The little cheapie guest house on the beach that we stayed in last time didn't have parking so we tried a bigger hotel. Our first attempt was not successful! It was a very posh resort type hotel, with a small building site area next door which we thought we could camp in. The manager was very polite and went to phone the owner to ask if we could camp. He came back with the good news that we could, closely followed by the bad news that they would charge a "nominal fee" of 3,000 SLR for us to do so!!!! This is around $30 Aus..ok back home not a huge amount (though still a bit steep for camping) but to put it in perspective you can get a cheap room here for 400-1000 rupees per night. It does make you wonder how out of touch these people are!
Anyway on we drove to find an even posher hotel with a lovely beach car park. There we were greeted like long lost friends and invited to camp for no charge "just use the restaurant when you like -no pressure."
Amazingly it later transpired that the 2 hotels were under the same banner Jetwing -a very up market chain with hotel and spas all over the island. Our hotel (Jetwing Blue) was in fact the nicest newest and most expensive there was - yet they were the one who let us camp -go figure! Have a look at their site www.jetwinghotels.com Not cheap to stay here but worth it for a treat -the hotel and service were amazing.
So, we settled into the beach park, with our own 24 hour security man, and quickly 2 security hounds - which is what I like about camping -I try and encourage strays to sleep under the car as they make good security! Next day we enjoyed the buffet breakfast ($11 Aus -pricey for us but very good) and used the free Wi-Fi to update the site -great spot. We tried the egg hoppers at breakfast, a sort of crispy pancake unique to SL -very good.
Then begun a spate of traipsing backwards and forwards to Colombo , only 30km but not the greatest drive - it gets crazily congested being the main artery into the capital city and if you catch it at the wrong time the journey can take over 2 hours. We did it enough last year on the bus -so at least we're now more comfortable.
First job was to sort out our Pakistan visas. Just to recap we had been told "no way" when we tried to get them from the embassy in Delhi and it looked for a while like we'd have to return to Australia. Happily though Mr. Khan the consulate from the Pakistan embassy Canberra came to our rescue by saying he'd let us send our passports and would process our visas without us in the country. All good but we then found we couldn't send our passports from India (groan!) hence the trip to SL.
Anyway just to be sure we first went around the Pakistan embassy and the Aussie embassies here to see if they could help either with our visas, or sending our passports to Canberra. No they couldn't - so off we went to DHL and couriered them. It took a week door to door until we had our passports complete with Pakistan visas back. Big thanks go to Mr. Khan and team and Andrew's sister Kate who helped with this. Now we're all ready to enter Pakistan -we've got up to the 13th January next year! We also went to the local immigration office and extended the 30 day visa we got on arrival up to 3 months. SL is so much easier than India for all this stuff, in India they have that "2 months out" rule making it very hard for us, and in addition it's really tricky getting a sim card for a phone, and you have to fill in multiple forms just to use the internet. None of that here -despite having just finished 30 years in a bitter civil war.
Andrew had had his birthday "on the road" so as promised we went out for lunch, this time at the seafront Ceylon Continental Hotel. An all you could eat buffet (including beef -whoppee!!) -very well priced at about $11 Aus a head -good value, and we even splashed out on a bottle of wine.
After a day or so here we gave our friend Tim O'Reilly a call. We first met Tim in a very scungy "permit bar" in South India which we were passing through (!!) and then again in Vizag Andhra Pradesh where he kindly minded our car when we last went to SL. We knew he was now living and operating his business out of SL -Jaffna we thought - and gave him a ring about catching up in a few weeks.
To our amazement he was actually living just down the road in Negombo! We went out with him and an English friend Craig who was here on business to the Rodeo Bar which we'd passed a few times but never entered. We had a great night out but it took it out of us - we can't take it anymore and Tim parties hard! He very kindly invited us to stay in his home and there we've been to date. A lovely villa in a leafy suburb with maid service (of course!) this is definitely the life! Thanks Tim.
Then it was back to Colombo for the other job we had to nail here, which was getting some new parts for the differential. We've had a bit of an ongoing differential problem for a while now, Toyota in Bangalore stuffed it up by giving us the wrong bearing (and charging a fortune for it!) and since then whilst it still works it comes loose and Andrew wanted to replace some parts.
We were told that the parts were available here -but sadly that was wrong. After spending a day going round the auto shops we concluded that they weren't. Toyota here in SL offered to get them from Japan but that was 1) very expensive and 2) would take 2-4 months!!!! After a few phone calls we tracked down a guy in Dubai who went out of his way to help us and get them couriered over. We were then told that it is illegal for an individual to transfer money out of the country! Even though technically speaking it's Aussie money which'd never been in the country to start with!! Thankfully Tim came to the rescue by paying the bill through his company account - which is allowed though they charge a premium of course! As I type the parts have arrived safely and Andrew is off at Toyota hopefully getting them fitted. Whew! Thanks to Ramadas in Dubai for all his help.
Negombo is a nice enough little town to hang around. The beach is attractive if a bit polluted and there's a laid back relaxed atmosphere. Negombo was originally the big centre for cinnamon and was colonized first by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th and then the Brits in the 18th. Whilst the Dutch left a fort or 2 and some canals, it's the Portuguese who really shaped the town. Like in Goa and Kerala they converted with a vengeance and it really stuck!
Negombo (aka Little Rome) is VERY Roman Catholic -numerous churches, and Jesus statues everywhere -even throughout the house we're living in. Our suburb also has a small but significant Muslim population and the Mosque competes with the church bells every morning so no sleeping in! Lots of good Muslim restaurants round the corner too -like Bangladesh cheap and very clean. We don't yet feel we're in a predominantly Buddhist country, though in Colombo Buddha statues do outnumber those of Jesus! All road signs are in the 3 languages -English, Tamil and Singhalese - and on the surface at least there doesn't seem any religious tension.
Tim's business is fresh seafood -predominantly crab- which he sources, shells, packages and ships to the US. His operation here is a new venture employing 300 odd people in both Negombo and Jaffna which is a great thing, particularly in Jaffna where the war has blighted many young people's chances of education and work. Most of his recruits up north have never had a "proper" job before i.e.) one receiving wages so they're thrilled. We had a look around the factory -very clean and efficient.
Apparently there are HUGE ongoing issues with corruption here ( factories and ports -as ever!) which have to be addressed so the job is quite a challenge but we're sure Tim is up to it! Great to see jobs coming to an area that needs them. Talking of employment I even did a tiny bit of work for Tim short listing CVs for an HR Manager role he's recruiting for..takes me back!
Back in Colombo we took a walk along the Galle Face Walk past Galle Face Green - a promenade set up in the 19th century by the then British Governor, starting from the stylish Galle Face Hotel. This is a great spot always bustling with seafood vendors, kite flyers, cricket matches, kids playing, lovers smooching etc Going past the seafront on one side and some of Colombo's loveliest old colonial buildings on the other this place feels like the real heart of the city.
Between appointments we also went to see the Dutch Museum, This was a bit old and dusty but interesting, housed in a lovely old 17th century Dutch mansion set around a courtyard -like all the hotels in Galle (which presumably started life as Dutch mansions!) Andrew really liked looking at the Dutch wooden furniture -very well built apparently - and there were heaps of household artifacts (and a cabinet of knuckle dusters !!) as well.
As you know we've long enjoyed a sponsorship from Mobil Oil and once we hit SL we made contact with McLarens Holdings the company that act as sole distributor for Mobil here in SL. McLarens is a huge group with diverse interests including shipping, logistics, trading manufacturing and hotels see the company sites' for more information www.mclarensgroup.lk and www.mclarenslubes.lk We met up with the Director Dinesh Jayawardana and the Marketing Executive Randiko Fernando, both of whom have really gone out of their way to assist us.
Dinesh is a racing car driver and all round car and bike enthusiast and that evening he and Randiko took us to "The Grid" one of the company's restaurants with a racing theme. Set overlooking a racing car track the restaurant is packed with racing memorabilia which was really interesting.
We met a few of their colleagues from Singapore and Taiwan as well as SL and it was a great evening -they knew the guys we spoke to in Bangladesh and Pakistan too so we had acquaintances in common. Andrew and I once again had steak - surely soon we'll get tired of it!
It was a fairly late night after the hour's drive home, and so it felt very early when we got up at 6.30 am next morning. We had been invited to attend the company's sports day and despite misgiving when the alarm went off we were very glad we went. Rather than being seriously competitive the event was a fun day for employees and their kids.
As guests of honour (!!) we -together with the directors- were lead onto the stage by a group of dancers -in the tradition costume from Kandy. Very good they were too, the only downside being that the heavens opened just before we got onto the stage and so the last bit was a bit rushed!
Though it's a pretty small island thankfully SL being all coastal is varied climate wise so when the monsoon is pounding hard down one side it's not at the other. It's due down south in the next few months so we're keen to get there first and hopefully dodge the worst of the rains, and though it has been good weather since we've been here it can flip over and we're had some days of full on monsoonal storms in Negombo.
We had to take turns lighting the ceremonial candle -I went first which was a bit scary as there was a gale blowing and I was scared it'd blow out- but I managed! Eddie a British guy who works here was also a guest of honour who got presented with a garland -though he (strangely enough!) didn't want to wear it so I got it!
Whilst the adult's events were postponed the kids got to have some undercover fun with some traditional games- pinning the tail on the elephant (very SL!) blowing up balloons until they burst and my favourite the "eating buns on a line with no hands" competition! All good fun.
The races took place during a dry gap with a lot of competitors going flying in the swamp like conditions! A great day, thanks so much to Dinesh and Randiko for inviting us.
Thanks also to Eddie who very kindly treated us to a really great lunch at the Cricket Club Café a pub/restaurant set in a beautiful old mansion with a wealth of cricket memorabilia -including a lot related to Sir Donald Bradman. Really nice spot and great food. We've done more pub type socializing in the few weeks here than over the last year or so -guess it's not really the thing in India! Or more likely we just didn't really hang around in those areas (Goa, Bangalore) where it was.
As at Tuesday 26 July I'm sitting in the luxury of Tim's house doing this update -whilst Andrew's off at Toyota hopefully getting the differential sorted out. Our UK friend Penny who runs the dog shelter in Kochi has also been in contact. Due to the carnet rules she has to get her car out of India every 6 months so after our success she is braving the ferry tonight so we'll meet up with her which'll be fun. Then finally-car permitting - we'll be ready to head on down the coast towards Galle and the beautiful southern beaches -can't wait!