Monday, April 24, 2017

Incomplete (unedited) Notes : Colombo

Note 1:

My next sentence will make you exclaim, "There he goes again...on his fave topic..."

I tried to convert notes I had for local currency at a foreign exchange and I was told, "Sorry, this has been demonetized. We can't accept it."


There I was in a foreign land. I thought I could survive with the British pound notes I had from an old trip in pre-Modi-al times. And, they were telling me that those notes with the great Queen E had no value!

Surely, I was paying for the sins of my politicians.

Like all those poor foreigners here in Nov-Dec of last year who had to find ways to make ends meet, I had to find ways to survive. I thought of escort services. Selling a short dark guy (who the ones in power in our Heartland view as foreigners) turns out to be similar to selling tasty beef cutlets in our Heartland. Then, I thought of selling my stories since my friends keep telling me that they are ready to give me cash if I would stop feeding my stories to them.

Well, I survived (barely) wouldn't want to know how.

The experience made me wonder, "We were not even original when we demonetized."

The only good thing about foreign travel is that you don't hear about India. So, what's been happening?

Note 2:

Colombo is about 360 kms from Trivandrum, as far away as Kerala's northern border.

1) It is a good place to visit if you want to have a day-long siesta between a full breakfast and a full dinner (ok, put in an hour or two of walking on lovely pavements between those meals). There's enough to do at night. It is a small city and accessible, people are friendly, safe too.

2) I love places with contrasts. The zebra-crossings actually work (that is, for the pedestrians). But, the tuk-tuks (that is, autos) rarely have meters and they usually charge some random multiple of LKR 100. On trip advisor and blogs, you will hear Westerners talking about crowded and chaotic roads near the markets. If you are from Kerala, it would just seem like home. There is too much of construction going on. I hear that real-estate prices are as bad as Mumbai. The best parts of the city are those built by colonial powers.

3) There are just too many Chinese there, even state-owned Chinese construction companies with all-Chinese crew. Feels odd so close to home. It even shows on TV - poor old NDTV was erratic, the Chinese channels never faced any disruption.

More later...

Note 3:

It is tough to be a tourist when one dislikes tourists.

Then, what does one do?

I stayed away from religious sites. Even when I used to go temples, I hated it when outsiders stepped into my club.

As a rule, I always stay away from natural beauty and wildlife. That is the best way to preserve that, I believe strongly. I hate backpackers who hike and leave their droppings there.

Ideally, every place should have designated places for tourists, for example, malls, casinos, resorts, all-in-one hotels.

Colombo has all that except malls. Quite a drag actually. It has the usual "high-class ethnic" shops that cater to tourists or "foreign-returnees" who have no idea about the value of the local currency/products and are ready to shell out in terms of dollars just to seem foreign.

There's another reason why I dislike tourists. They turn up for the breakfast buffet all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, all ready to put a full tank's fuel before invading beautiful places. They are there at 6 am, 7 am, anytime, till the buffet closes.

On the first morning, it was the Chinese who controlled the area. I thought they were too loud at breakfast time. I had to re-calibrate on the third morning when it was the turn of the Indians. The Chinese women then looked demure, even their men seemed reserved.

It was lovely to see Indian men pile their plates with ham, sausages, eggs, not even glancing at idli, poori, chutney and bhajji. After all, when they returned home, they had to chase all meat-eaters. The Indian women looked well-fed and harassed but they matched their males' consumption.

The hotel staff tried hard to find a table for me. They really loved me for not being part of any tourist pack and for just being a sleepy-head. I was the missing link between the tourists and the corporate travelers, a breed slowly becoming extinct.

Note 4:

This should have been the Prologue.

On a Monday, around 10:30, I went to the local office of SriLankan Airlines.

I went to the lady facing the entrance, a mature lady who reminded me of many school-teachers that scared the pants off me. I reminded myself that I am now as mature as she is.

I told her that I want to holiday in Colombo. She took me to the travel desk of SriLankan Holidays. A young capable lady sternly told me to sit down and asked me what I wanted. I told her that I want air tickets and hotel booking.

She took out a map and nearly started a lecture on the best route for a fantastic time in Sri Lanka.

I interrupted her, "I want just Colombo."

She screwed up her eyes. She tried to reason, "Sir, it will work out to be more expensive if you go there and try to arrange this tour there."

I decided to enlighten her, "Oh no, I don't want to budge from Colombo."

Her eyes came back to normal size. The intelligence in those bright eyes flickered brightly as the grey cells behind that realized the IQ of the person sitting in front of her.

"You want to spend all your time in Colombo?" There was no doubt that she had not come across another human being who had done that, that is, waste a whole trip in Colombo.

I nodded.

"Ok," she said. She suggested a hotel. I told her the two hotels I wanted to split my stay. She had heard of one. She looked at me for clarification. I told her, "The two hotels are in two parts and I can cover the small city without too much effort, that is, if I step out of the hotel."

"Ok," she said, quite resigned to the fact that she would not have to use her ingenuity to give me a great trip.

Her fingers went at lightning speed over the keyboard.

I looked at the ceiling and said, "My cousin used to work in this office, maybe she still works here. Her mother's name is...(I gave my Aunt's name)."

The young lady stared at me for a while before saying, "That's me."

So, that is how I found a long lost cousin.

Of course, she knew the rest of my family quite well. She knew of me, which is usually not the case with most people who know my family. Most people do not know that my parents have a son.

By noon, I had the FX, the air tickets and by evening, she delivered the hotel reservations with confirmed pick-and-drop from-to airport. She brought a big bag of goodies too, fruits for the others, cakes and savoury for me. If you are trying to find lost relatives, I suggest that you stick to the nice ones like this girl.

I got the visa online rather than on arrival just to save $5 which I planned to waste elsewhere. (If you go on a trip, do shell out a bit more for that luxury limo to pick you up and drop you off. It is such a bore to land in some place without someone holding a placard reminding you of your own name.)

I left that Thursday morning for Colombo.

Note 5:

Tourists in Kerala usually get to experience the God's Own Hartal/Bandh. (Contact Aditi for details.)

For me, a local, it was actually a first. Usually, like every local, I used such days for total rest. I had never ever experienced the inconvenience caused by this.

Trust my luck - the Congress-led front and the Modi-led group out here like bhai-bhai called for a dawn-to-dusk hartal on the day of my flight.

So, I arranged for a taxi to get me to the airport before 6 am (even though no one expected the trouble-makers to start exercising their hooliganism before having breakfast). I had to get up at 3 am instead of the carefully planned 6 am.

And, there I was, seated inside the airport 5.5 hours before the flight!

The security personnel at the gate were very understanding. They understood my "Saab, kya karoon, bahar woh goonda log..."

Inside, I watched the community I live with.

First, there were these large groups of Muslims. The ladies wore some type of uniform with black purdah and a fluorescent green headgear. They were escorted by men in white without any visual marker.

Then, came along huge groups from the North. The ladies again wore some type of marker in addition to modestly covered heads, like prominently displayed sindoor and mangalsutras. The men again were without any markers.

The third party was a Christian priest. He wore a black headgear with various symbols on it. He also wore a brown costume. He seemed unmarried and celibate.

By that time, I had realized that there weren't really anyone like me out there. That is something we forget about our society. Whenever we scream about social injustice and how the social fabric seems to be altered for the worse, we forget that most of the people/groups are fine with it, and that we belong to a minority that never really mattered or worse, barely exists.

Anyway, back to community-watching.

Guess who came along next. The CM of Kerala with two or three to trip him or to catch him if he trips. Then came along the Leader of the Opposition. I wanted to protest, "Oye, you called a hartal and you spoiled my sleep and you are leaving town!? How dare you!?" Another minister ran behind those two to catch the same flight.

Then came along an attractive lady who looked very familiar. I stared once. Twice. I looked at her companion briefly. Ah yes, she is a famous playback singer's wife.

Thus, I whiled away 5.5 hours.

Now, on that flight, most were like me, blue-collar workers who worked for employers they hated. I was the only one who got out at Colombo, apart from a family of four who were Sri Lankan citizens. The rest were going to the Middle-east. On that flight, there were just three ladies and two Westerners (a middle-aged guy with a young male escort).

Guess who was the creep on that flight (there is always one). Yes, that middle-aged Westerner. He reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke. He tried to take photos of the air-hostesses.

Us blue-collar ones loudly munched the pav-bhaji and slurped apple juice. Yours truly got a lovely smile from an air-hostess for that. No flight is worth flying without that bonus.

Note 6:

When you check-in at a hotel you usually have the Moses moment. That is when the receptionist gives you the password for WiFi. Even Moses would not have received the 10 or more Commandments (he must have deleted a few, I am sure, even God should be censored) with greater delight or reverence.

So, when the receptionists at 2 hotels gave me the information and I responded rather nonchalantly, "I don't need it", you can imagine the scene. The receptionists took a step back wondering if I should actually be allowed to stay. Other customers moved away as if I have STD or a force-field (from Star Wars or Star Trek) repulsing all.

Well, it is no secret that my reaction to those who need WiFi or the internet during vacation is quite similar.

These days, it is very easy to get a mobile connection. There is a counter at the Trivandrum airport where one can get SIM activated and charged for use in Sri Lanka and the Middle East. So, as soon as I landed in Colombo, I called up the folks back home and gave them my new number.

They already had 2 sets of instructions. One, do not call me unless there was some disaster. Two, when I call, speak only sweet nothings, that is, do not unload petty troubles onto my delicate ears. In brief, use the phone how the phone (and the telegraph) was used in the 70s and 80s. Remember those brief messages: "Congrats Son Passed Away First In Exams" or "Wife Delivers Your Baby All Happy Send Money".

Coming back to the internet. If you have it, you will use it. You will take selfies. You will have to look good for that.

People will need photos. You will have to visit places worth a photograph. You will have to include a good restaurant, some decent shops and a few famous tourist spots.

You might say that it is useful to get around, with Google Maps, Uber, Ola et al.

Let me explain my modus operandi.

I guess you know that I usually cover most places from my chair rather than through actual travel. Lonely Planet guides are so useful for that teleportation.

When I do travel, I do spend a day or two with my Lonely Planet guide, its maps and also do some internet research for information suited to personal needs (I am sure you won't want to know more about that too). I make a list of all the wonderful places and all the great restaurants people usually visit.

There, at destination, I walk or use the tuk-tuk. I first go to the most obscure points in my list, places which would make the tuk-tuk driver ask, "Why do you want to go there?" or "Is there really a Ceylon Tea supermarket there?" "Oh yes, it's on Dean Street a little away from Odel..." There's nothing more pleasing than surprising a local with one's own knowledge of his/her place!

Then, the tuk-tuk (or my feet) would take me all around the city, and I would go past all those wonderful places and all those great restaurants which I had noted to avoid.

I just love that moment of discovery when the place I knew quite intimately through a map comes to life. There's always a skirt or a touching scene which I would have to note down in my black pocketbook.

So, why do you need the internet?

Here, let me add a few notes about tuk-tuks too. Those in Colombo reminded me of those in Goa. In both places, the cost per kilometre is roughly the same. In Goa, the minimum used to be INR 50, and they charged multiples of that. In Colombo, the cost per kilometre is supposed to be LKR 50 but it is always some multiple of LKR 100 (1 INR = 2.4 LKR roughly).

Always ask what the trip would cost before getting in. You could try bargaining, just for fun. Come to think of it, a meter would actually be a bore. They would just ride all around town to hike up the cost.

Every hotel has a regular set of tuk-tuk drivers. As in India, there are usually 3 types. The friendly guy who will even find out your kid's name will charge the most. The serious but helpful guy who will try to do something extra for you (like taking you to his choice of gem or tea stores) would still charge a lot. The third one is the surly guy who got out of bed after getting a kick from his wife, he charges the least.

You don't need the internet to deal with these chaps and in a small city like Colombo everything is just a LKR 100-300 tuk-tuk ride away.

Finally, with regard to photos in Colombo, be careful. There are too many places which seem like posh homes but turn out to be military establishments. My first hotel was close to a place called Union Place and that was like Delhi Cantt. Taking photos over there might get you into a spot of trouble. From there, I took a smaller road to Slave Island. The establishments became non-military and less posh. I bought half a kilo of banana for LKR 100 from a poor Tamil trader. Next door, I got a bottle of mineral water and 2 small packets of biscuit for LKR 170. A few steps away, there was the local version of Burger King quite unimaginatively called Burger's King. A photo of that would have been nice but since I couldn't take photos at Union Place, I felt it wouldn't be right to take photos of poorer Muslim and Tamil traders.

On the famous Galle Road, I poked my nose at a gate named Temple Trees and nearly touched the nose of a guy with an AK47. Well, it was the PM's residence.

The Indian high commission and US consulate are close to that. I thought of asking the Indian High Commissioner why our flag wasn't flying high on our building.

A nice store which sells pirated DVDs is also nearby. That is one thing I like about Colombo-the respectability given to my kind of shops. I was tempted but I did not allow myself that pleasure. I am paranoid about Customs. What if a Customs guy asked me, "Why do you have a pirated DVD of One Hundred Years of Servitude?"

Since some of you just can't function without photos, let me include a corridor of the Old Dutch Hospital Complex. The Ministry of Crab is in this complex - that is the restaurant of Sangakkara and Jayawardene. I did not go there, of course. It is right opposite to the World Trade Center (also given). As mentioned in another post, the old colonial stuff looks best.

Note 7:

This is about giggling in foreign lands.

What is the greatest danger you might face when abroad? Yes, you guessed right - meeting people you might know.

In Goa, I loved to haunt the lovely boulevard D.B. Marg from Kala Akademi to Miramar. I have a cousin living in that lovely Miramar area - this is the vanilla-type cousin one avoids and not the sweets-bearing type one likes to find. So, I used to hop from one tree to the next making sure my cousin was not on my path. The only plus point was that that cousin would hop too from tree to tree to avoid me. There was the danger of us meeting at the same tree.

When I set off to Colombo, I was given a list of people who lived there, close friends who had come home for lunch quite recently.

Imagine contacting such people. They would have to invite me for lunch. I would have to turn up at their place around noon and waste precious hours there, it is a waste even when there's great food because just try to balance the money you spent on the vacation with that meal.

Then, there would be a faux pas or two.

"Hi Swathi, lovely to meet you again. I still remember the lovely mutta appam you made last time," you greet your friend's wife.
"Sorry, I am Sathi," the friend's wife coldly replies.
"Sathi?" You turn to your friend.
"Swathi and I got divorced," friend explains.
"Oh sorry, I didn't know you got married a second time," you say.
"Third, actually," the friend's wife is near rigor mortis.
"Whoa, man! Way to go!" you exclaim.
Anyway, there would be those hours of forced feigned bonhomie. You know that your friend thinks, "God! Why is he here?"
You too pray, "God! Why am I here?"

And, all the while, you feel God's presence and the sly giggling from that corner, who else can put you in such a situation?

Moral of the story: when you are abroad, please avoid respectable joints where you might meet people you know. Of course, if you meet them in less respectable places, they might actually be worth knowing.

Now, let us deal with dangers you might face in 5-star hotels. No, it does not happen in the shower stall even though Psycho would like you to think so. It happens in the lift.

Early morning, en route to breakfast, who shares the lift with you? Nope, not Salma Hayek in a red bikini. But a man two sizes too large for the lift in a swimming trunk a size or two too small. I leave it to you to picture the front and the back.

Late evening, you have another type. Men in evening wear ready for a black-tie affair, tuxedo, gelled hair perfectly polished, gleaming from top down to the black shoes. In my best informals, I feel like a half-naked fakir. So, there I would be, standing next to him, trying hard not to giggle. How I want to tell him, "Man! You look like a penguin!"

I survived all that. I visited the famous Galle Face Green just to be with people like me, people without a tomorrow, people happy to have a sunset. Even that won't last. In the distance, I can see the horizon being altered. High-rises will come up, a new financial city built by the Chinese.

I giggle hysterically. It is not just our politicians who replace the green with concrete.

Note 8:

I landed in a new plane on a new runway. The first flight on that runway actually. I saw ministers and sheikhs celebrating. When big-shots are around, small fry are never allowed to escape without inconvenience. We, the passengers and crew, were herded to a hall where we were force-fed a complimentary special meal. Most of the passengers were transit passengers and so, it turned out that I was the only one who actually faced any inconvenience. I hate it when people keep me away from a 5-star hotel room for which the meter is already running.

I have always had a problem with special meals.

During post-graduation, in a place infested with non-veggies but ruled by veggies, a special meal used to be pulao and raita. Yes, I know you are waiting for more. No, that was it. I used to beg them to give me non-special meals. It was worse when they got imaginative and served a special meal of curd rice and palak muck (which resembles what cows produce) or bisibelebath (which resembles what cows consume).

There, in Colombo, I think I was given kiribath (tasteless rice-milk cake), lunimaris (a pungent condiment), a spicy fish masala with too much mint or something (its taste lingered in my burps till the next day's breakfast), jaggery and tea/coffee.

If you are offering someone a meal, try to make them smile, not wince.

A basic special meal should have two main courses (that is, a non-veg curry and a dry non-veg dish), two side courses (a salad/raita and a vegetable mix), two additionals (bread/cake and rice) and at least two desserts. Coffee/tea and soup, oh just include it, will you. That is the bare minimum one should give a guest to make his/her lips twitch favourably.

Note 9:

By the power of suggestion, you must now be thinking that I am a 5-star guy. Even though I stated in some of my posts that I slept rough too, I like every other mere mortal have been trying to make you focus on my 5-star life.

Where should I stay? For me, that's usually THE most important issue. Meeting the Queen and even eating are minor issues compared to that. For some, it is not so, I know.

If you ask for a suggestion, most people will tell you that you should stay at the Galle Face Hotel. If I am not mistaken, the hotel opened in 1864 and remains grand!

One dear ol' friend (who also suggested that I should watch a cricket match while sipping arrack and also have a Lampreis at the Dutch Burgher Union) highly recommended that hotel. He talked about sleeping with Noel Coward and Carrie Fisher (come to think of it, both could have slept with me, by their inclination, I mean). He also talked about grand rooms with four-poster beds. He is that kind of chap. Easily impressionable. Only after persistent questioning did he admit that the plumbing could be improved. Anyway, I never take a room with a four-poster bed unless I am with a lady who knows how to use it a la Fifty Shades of Grey Part Femme.

Colombo hotels are not exactly cheap during season. Well, I always holiday off-season. The hotel room remains the same, you see. And, one hopes to see fewer tourists during off-season. But, with Colombo, I think rates might remain high because the Chinese are getting there and, Indians too. People from two huge countries with large populations with reducing number of places to visit. Who wants Kerala or Goa if the priests are going to decide how to have fun, who wants the rest of India where hugs and non-veg are frowned upon. Sri Lanka could make a lot of money. Sundays and holidays can be a bore but otherwise it seems like what Goa and Kerala could have been without the idiots.

From outside, most of the 5-star Colombo hotels looked similar. Only the Taj seemed to have some area with trees. Well, your choice will depend on what you plan to do there. If you are on corporate money, the Galle Face or the Taj Samudra or the Hilton would be good. If you want to talk big, those and similar hotels around the same area will suit you. I think those come in over-$150/$200 per night range.

I usually depend a lot on online reviews, particularly those on tripadvisor. I have learned that the most trustworthy group are middle-class Westerners. They seem to know the value of money. They will choose clean rooms that cost $100 or less, inclusive of a decent, less-crowded but not-so grand breakfast. The difference between those budget rooms and rooms in a mid-level 5-star hotel which costs $40 more per night will be: no slippers, no robes, no toothbrush or shaving blade, one soap bar instead of two, no stocked mini-bar (which only the crazy or the rich or the lazy use, I think) and maybe, a whiff of bad odour from the drains.

Note 10:

In the movie "Up In The Air" (one of my faves not just because the character Ryan Bingham played by George Clooney gets described as " are a parenthesis..."),

Ryan Bingham: [giving a motivational speech] How much does your life weigh?

Trips often make you wonder about that question.

If money or the lack of it can ruin a trip's mood (via demonetization or just by the conversion of one's life saving into a few dollar bills after division by 65!), it is that question which could really decide the fate of the trip.

After arrival, give a few hours in the hotel room, make fists with your toes, stretch those back muscles, sip a beer or a mug of black tea and release the tension.

You feel the weight of life reducing.

Home, loved ones, favourite activities are offloaded. You might feel lonely. Let us admit it, a break is good for all.

Slowly, you give up your nationality, patriotism, security number, interest in current affairs and fake news. Whoa!

You feel like a new-born baby, an orphan or a tiny tot with tremendous possibilities.

You lose interest in all that's happening around you. You decide to be interested only in yourself.

Strangely, that selfish character is the most harmless creature.

Note 11:

Out here, the Water Authority has started rationing which means that we wouldn't get even the little we used to get.

I wonder why they woke up just now. Whole of February and March (even till last Sunday), they were celebrating all kinds of festivals, wasting water.

ps. A friend recently advised that I should stick to travelogues rather than political rambling. But, how long can I stay away from matters that mean something to me even though it means little to my friends?

pps. Ok, let me make this a travelogue. There was no water problem in Colombo. Every hotel room had the 'green' advisory though. There was also no body odour wherever I went. Even in one of the Taj hotels in Goa, the wonderful Taj service had a problem - the staff could make one gag, especially when they are helpful during breakfast, still wearing the uniform from the previous night. One could wait for the shift to change, I guess.

Note 12:

One of the problems of going on a trip is that my magazine subscription/reading goes for a toss.

I read the Economist quite religiously even though they try to avoid India as much as possible because they think the alleged Snapchat thought that India is irrelevant or, more likely, because our desi trolls are best avoided.

I thought I could catch up on my reading after the trip.

But, so much is happening these days that I need not bother with the 3 issues (one for the week when I was preparing for the trip, one for the week I was away and one for the week I am lazily recovering) I have to cover.

Trump and Syria was forgotten when Trump and MOAB happened and that's now irrelevant with Trump and North Korea. Turkey is going the Modi way. Today, Britain has called a snap general election. People everywhere are not voting for jobs or economic change. They are showing their true base nature.

I think we too need a snap general elections. Just to get into the next issue of the Economist. Till then, I am going to procrastinate about reading the issues I still have to read. All for laziness and lazy for all.

Note 13:

I left Colombo on a Tuesday. That Friday, a 90-odd-meter-high garbage landfill collapsed killing more than 20 people. Lots of houses were destroyed in that area.

I did not see that part of Colombo. I saw a remarkably clean city. If I had stayed till that weekend, I would have seen a more familiar scene - stinking garbage on the streets.

Today's paper reports another tragedy. Belgium bluebell forest is being destroyed by the people/tourists who loved it and trampled on it.