Sri Lanka: A Land Like no Other. I) Colombo

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Sri Lanka...Ceylon...Taprobane...Serendip...Pearl of the Indian Ocean  -- all synonyms for the same magical tropical isle.

The Sri Lankan tourist board describes Sri Lanka as "A Land Like No Other".  I think its a terrific and very apt slogan, for there's no other place I know of that offers this admixture of the sea, wonderful beaches, mountains, waterfalls, jungle, tea plantations, ancient cities and temples, and a remarkable cultural diversity --  all on a tear drop shaped piece of land only a few hundred miles long.  For thousands of years Ceylon was a port of call on the shipping routes of the Indian Ocean.  Many of its cities, including Colombo, have great natural harbors.  Sri Lanka's past history includes occupations by the Dutch, Portuguese, and most recently the British.  It has a religiously diverse people, mostly Buddhist but with significant Hindi, Muslim and Christian populations.  It has been a struggling independent country for almost 60 years and I hope that it will soon reach its great potential.

I've had the wonderful experience of traveling to Sri Lanka eight times during the past 15 years.  Each of these trips offered many unique moments and experiences.  I've never written about these journeys except in my personal travel diary and an occasional e-mail to a friend, and thought it might be interesting to write a synopsis which I'll be be presenting as a series of postings by island geography.  The first of these posts is based on Colombo -- the political and economic heart of Ceylon. (Note: Chris Christensen     of the Amateur Traveler Podcast has interviewed me about my travels to Sri Lanka.  If you would like to listen to this podcast, click here)

The main purpose of my trips to Sri Lanka was to visit Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 50+ year resident of Colombo, science fiction writer, futurist, and a gentle kind man whom I was proud to know.  On each visit I tried to explore as much of the island as was possible, and I saw much of it; though its fairly small, its not a fast or easy place to get around in.  During my travels the island suffered from a civil war, so the far north and west coast were off limits because of military activities.  As the Tamil rebels have recently been defeated by government forces, these areas will slowly open to tourist development, but sadly they are said to be quite devastated.  Perhaps some day I --or you-- can visit them.

1)  COLOMBO.

Every time I arrived in Sri Lanka from North America, it was at the end of a very long flight that took me thru Japan or Taipei, Bangkok or Singapore, ending at the Bandaranaike International Airport north of the Colombo.  The journey was over a day long and my arrival was always after midnight local time.  By the time I'd cleared immigration and customs, exchanged some money and grabbed a ride to my hotel, I was jet-lagged and completely exhausted.  Fortunately, there was always a comfortable room and bed waiting for me.

During each of my visits to Colombo I stayed at the Galle Face Hotel.  The hotel was recommended by a good friend, Wayne Houser, who had worked in Sri Lanka for 3 years as an engineer at the Voice of America.  It was Wayne who introduced me to Arthur C. Clarke and Sri Lanka, and in so doing opened this interesting chapter in my life.  I owe Wayne a great debt for what he has done for me, and will always value his friendship. 

I've always enjoyed my visits to grand old Galle Face Hotel.  Built in 1864, its a functioning relic of the bygone British Colonial era.  It sits on the Indian Ocean, just south of the Galle Face Green (large public park on the ocean -- a favorite local place for families to gather in the evening).  The setting is truly wonderful.  There is no better place in Colombo from which to watch a sunset and enjoy the cool evening breeze than from the inner courtyard and balconies of Galle Face Hotel.  While generally in a good state of repair, the Galle face has for 150 years fought the humidity and warm heavy salty air of the sea, and it shows.  Its not as elegant as the Taj or Hilton, but has a great deal of character. Waiting to greet guests is the distinguished and polite Kuttan, who for more than half a century has been the official "welcomer" of the hotel.  The staff was always very warm and inviting and in time I got to know them and vica versa.  The food was uniformly excellent and very safe; I could eat anything from fresh fruit to salads to tantalizing curries and never once got ill.  The Sea Spray restaurant offered terrific dinnertime oceanside dining, and made seafood, which I always enjoyed.  The Galle Face's rooms are filled with antiques and range from merely adequate to luxurious (depending on how much one wishes to spend).  The hotel has a most spacious and welcoming feel -- sort of like a large comfortable old armchair.  And the Galle Face Hotel was Arthur C Clarke's favorite place to socialize and visit.  In was in its elegant Presidential Suite that he finished writing 3001: The Final Odyssey  (the last book in his Space Odyssey Quadrilogy), an event commemorated by a bust of Arthur in the hotel's lobby.  The Galle Face was one of the few places in the world where Arthur Clarke would come out for dinner (his favorites included their pate appetizer and chicken cordon bleu entre -- washed down with sweet milky tea).

With the Galle Face Hotel as my base, I'd always spent the first and last few days of my visits to Sri Lanka in Colombo.  The Galle Face is centrally located and was only a few minutes ride from Arthur's home in Cinnamon Gardens (of interest, the Iraqi embassy was right beside Arthur's home).  As I grew more familiar with Colombo, I wandered and traveled around the city on its ubiquitous "tuk-tuk" cabs.  Besides watching sunsets at the hotel, one of my favorite activities was a dawn walk along the beach at the Galle Face Green, past joggers, fisherman and massive old cannons, past their old Parliament building, towards the Fort area.  

Colombo is a major port and large city, with crowded chaotic roads and a lot of pedestrian traffic.  It is the capitol of the country and home to its parliament and government leaders.  Because the Tamils were at war with the government, security at all government facilities was always high.  As these were all military targets, I never cared to explore any of the government offices or buildings. 

Colombo isn't much of a touristy place and from the Western Tourist's perspective offers minimal interest.  The beauty and most fascinating aspects of the Sri Lanka lie away from this sprawling city of about 6 million, as I'll outline in subsequent posts.  The city does have a few points of interest, most of which can be explored in a half day.  The Sinhalese majority is mostly Buddhist, and there are many Buddhist shrines around town with some temples to visit, the nicest setting being the Seema Malakaa Temple on Beira Lake.  The Murugan Hindu Temple is large and worth a brief visit.  Another nice park is Viharamahadevi Park in the Cinnamon Gardens part of town.  It features an interesting flora and most memorable to me was when huge numbers of flying foxes at dusk left their roosts in its trees.  There were two nice private clubs I went to with Arthur offering swimming, gym equipment and refreshments.  One was the Colombo Swimming Club just off Galle Road.  The other was Otters Swim Club, where until his last years Arthur would end each day with a few games of table tennis and a juice drink for refreshment. 

Colombo does offer some good shopping.  There is a large and pleasant department store, Odel's, thats worth a visit. It features excellent discounted clothes and textiles, a deli and coffee shop, bookstore, and is a great place to buy quality souvenirs (especially T-shirts).  Another Western style mall is Crescat Boulevard on Galle Road, which has a Keells supermarket that has a nice selection of food.  Most Sri Lankan cities have a (government run) Laksala store, featuring an assortment of handmade crafts.  Many small gem shops in Colombo sell jewelry featuring semi-precious stones mined in Sri Lanka.  Textile stores are common, including some with beautiful Batik patterns and wonderfully colored saris.  Many tea shops sell Sri Lanka's number one export, bulk tea -- but more about tea in a later posting.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke:

Much of my time in Colombo was spent at the home of Arthur C. Clarke.  Arthur's contributions to science, science fiction, space and space travel are well known, and if you want to learn more about these I recommend you visit the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation website and watch its short video biography of Arthur, or go to Arthur C. Clarke.net.  Probably the most important achievement of Arthur's life was his landmark description in 1945 of the concept of a series of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit (now known as the Clarke orbit) that provided the fundamental concept to the global boom that has revolutionized telecommunications and shrunk the size of our planet.  Arthur was always a dreamer, and he never thought that in his lifetime any of his dreams would come true -- space travel, man's walking on the moon, the exploration of the outer planets, etc.  He lived to share in and experience so much -- an intellectual life in full.

Arthur was a busy man, even well into his 80s.  He moved to Sri Lanka in 1956 from England.  At the time he arrived in Ceylon, it was a "tropical paradise", still an island at peace and was cited by many as an example of how people of different religions could live together in harmony.  Arthur was an avid diver and the scuba diving off the coast is terrific in many places.  After the cool weather of the UK, the warm tropical climate appealed to him and he was genuinely fond of the Sri Lankan people.  The move to Sri Lanka seemed a perfect fit for him. During the early years, life here was quite isolated, but as telecommunications improved, Arthur became wired to the world, an addict to faxing and e-mail

While I, your humble narrator, was growing up as a boy in Canada, Arthur was my favorite author.  I loved science fiction -- one might say that my ABC's were Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke.  I enjoyed his entertaining writing and the way his words stimulated my mind.  Among my first exposures to his work was 2001: A Space Odyssey, a story he co-write with director Stanley Kubrick while they were making their film of the same name.  Its a story that opened my imagination to the endless possibilities of the universe in a way nothing else ever had.  Never as a child did I think I would ever get to meet this man, much less to be welcomed into his home as a friend and have dozens of conversations with him -- a dream come true to a SciFi geek like me.  In the last decade I have been surprised at how many people I have met had a similar reaction to this film, ranging from physicians, space scientists, astronauts to entertainers.  As an aside, Wayne Houser and I were fortunate enough to be guests to the 40th anniversary screening of 2001 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2008, shortly after Arthur had died.  We had the great privilege of meeting many of the people behind the making if the film, including its star Keir Dullea and his wife, Mia Dillon (wonderful people!)

It was always a great joy to visit with Arthur, talk about current events, what's new in science and space, and what was his latest writing project.   And he would always patiently sign the many books, etc. I brought with me.  It was a unique treat to be able to share my love of his writing with him, pick his brain about plot points and his mechanics of writing, and sit around, sometimes in a comfortable silence, over tea, lunch or dinner.  Arthur, raised in England, liked bland food like toast and tomato soup, and never developed a taste for the delicious curries and spicy foods of Ceylon. I on the other hand very much enjoyed the wonderful homemade Sri Lanka dishes his staff prepared.  I could spend hours talking and writing about these visits but this does not seem like the right venue.  Suffice it to say that I grew to love this kind, gentle and optimistic man.  I respected his brilliance and achievements.  We genuinely enjoyed each other's company.  Like many, I mourned his death.

Thru Arthur C Clarke and Wayne Houser, I got to know several other expats who lived in Colombo. Of these I became friends with one man in particular, Hans Monheimus.  Hans was born in Holland and worked most of his life for the tropical hardwoods division of Unilever, mostly in Indonesia.  He retired to Sri Lanka, an island he had visited as a young man.  He was a close friend of Arthur's, a patron of the arts, a collector of fine paintings, and a lover of beautiful creations.  Hans was also a superb amateur photographer, and I spent dozens of hours in his "photo room", studying his beautiful work which he had crafted into magnificent "trip albums". One might even say that Hans inspired me to try my hand at creating this blog -- creating a sort of hi-tech album to share with others.

So for me, Colombo was much less about tourism and much more about visiting friends.  Unique and precious friends. 

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If you would like to see high resolution images of the following photos, please go to these links: http://drfumblefinger.com/wrdprs/?p=206 and http://drfumblefinger.com/wrdprs/?p=1542.  For full screen views, click on the right sided icon of the toolbar at the bottom of each page. 
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