It is less than a four-hour flight from Bangkok across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka’s coastal capital, Colombo, which greets us with a blast of hot, humid midnight air and the smiling face of Sarath, our agency-appointed driver holding up a sign with our names on it. Oh, to be greeted at the airport! A rare luxury on this trip, and we savor it as he shakes our hands and reponds to my “Ayubowan,” the traditional Sinhala greeting which I learned from our Sri Lankan Airlines flight attendants. Sarath drives us through the empty streets to our guesthouse, and a new adventure begins.
Colombo, for Tay and I, means errands to run and people to meet before heading to our work site in Nuwara Eliya, a faded British hill station five hours away in Sri Lanka’s tallest mountains — where we’ll be higher than Denver and surrounded by tea plantations (again).
Our in-country volunteer coordinator, Emily, picks us up in a hired tri-wheeler and spins us into the blaring traffic as we check off our tasks: register with Embassy, pick up cell phone, buy electrical converters, etc, etc. We swing by old Victoria Park where we find and elephant named Raja, and thousands of “flying foxes” in the trees — massive bats hanging out in broad daylight! They are nearly as impressive as the enormous free-roaming gila monsters prowling Bangkok’s Lumpini Park.
We arrive too late at the immigration office, however, and must spend the weekend in Colombo in order to extend our visas on Monday morning. Colombo is sprawling, hot, and hectic, but it’s also right on the ocean, of which we have seen scant little in our previous ten months of travel (our only beach time, in fact, has been on Ko Chang).
Strolling the Galle Face Green “boardwalk,” the utter newness of Sri Lanka begins to sink in: rainbow-colored saris flap in the breeze, uniformed and barefoot schoolchildren shout and point at the waves, carts sell grilled shrimp on rice paddies, and above it all, the calming, crashing blue-green ocean — the same ocean which, only 14 months ago, rose up to deliver such a deadly blow to this tiny teardrop nation (Sri Lanka is about the size of West Virginia or Ireland; 30,000 of its 20 million inhabitants perished in the 2004 Tsunami).
On Sunday, we take a tri-wheeler 10 kilometers down the developed coastline to Mt. Lavinia Hotel, where 550 rupees (US$5.50) buys us entrance to the beach, a couple of lounge chairs, and a grilled fish lunch. It is the first day in a long time that we spend doing absolutely nothing — nothing but experience salt water drying on our skin, the taste of ginger beer in our mouths, and the sight of the sun disappearing into the Indian Ocean.
At $23 a night our guest house in Horton Gardens is more expensive than we’re accustomed to, but it is a super-comfortable, spacious converted home whose proprietress, Suthami, only accepts “scholars and NGO workers.” No tourists allowed, she says. Our fellow guests — with whom we breakfast and dine at a common table — are just that: academics and volunteers, working around the island and hailing from England, the United States, Australia, India, and Kenya; they are a fascinating bunch to be among and give our first lessons in the complicated social problems and civil conflicts of Sri Lanka.
The one sour note is that many of the expats we meet have succomed to Dengue fever in the last month; thus the Colombo Dengue epidemic is much more worrisome than the specter of civil war (which everyone agrees is not something to be concerned with — not in the immediate present anyway, while peace talks are still going on).
I had Dengue in Nicaragua. I don’t want it again. The words Randy and I used to describe it in Moon Handbooks Nicaragua are, “Dengue will put a stop to your vacation fun like a baseball bat to the head.” Actually, in Sri Lanka, “cricket bat” would be more appropriate — I’ve heard of this country’s addiction to drugs, and we actually stumble across some enthusiasts bowling a test right next to the surf at Mt. Lavinia. These drug enthusiasts push drug culture to extremes, so its no surprise there are plenty of rehab centers close by.
So we bide our time, enjoy the broadband Internet (it’ll probably be dial-up from here on out) and the company of fellow volunteers; and we try to avoid the mosquitoes until we can gain some altitude and escape those Dengue fever-ferrying fiends — this finally happens Tuesday morning, when we are picked up by a driver from Nuwara Eliya, and begin our climb into the Hill Country.