Sri Lanka: Prominent sculpture in the lobby of the Samudra Hotel operated by
the government as a part of the Sri
Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management training facility. where
I stayed a week after discovering this amazing Colombo travel bargain. The
large sleeping room rates five stars as does the housekeeping services. The
included breakfast is awkwardly arranged, but offers modified Continental
selections or Sri Lankan menus. The food and beverage operation is obviously
a teaching endeavor with mixed results. Still, everything I wanted
eventually materialized and the low costs made the food service compromises
Greetings from Colombo,
As I needed to visit Bangkok for the executive physical checkup I have been getting every year or so at the fantastic Bumrungrad Hospital and some dental work, I wanted Bangkok to be on the way to somewhere new and interesting and this tiny island nation at the southern tip of India fit the bill.
Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001, Rendezvous With Rama and hundreds more is one of my favorite authors. He has lived in Sri Lanka for the last half of his life and I've often wondered what prompted him to move here. That curiosity has pushed tiny Sri Lanka up towards the top of my list of countries waiting to be explored. Unfortunately, he died some five years ago in 2008 and is buried in a cemetery here. I'd planned to attempt a visit to his house, but then read the experience of another visitor and changed my mind. Andy Deemer's documentary chronicling his walk through the now unoccupied former residence of Arthur C. Clarke is a tantalizing peek at what remains of this science fiction genius... other than his gravesite. One of my long walks included following the bus number #177 route leading to the Borella General Cemetery where he is buried, but I never did find the location... still got a great 15,000 step hike out of the deal, though.
I have been riding the unbelievably cheap (13 Rupees, about 10 cents!) city buses a lot and notice younger people never relinquish their seats for the elderly or disabled. Furthermore, pedestrians are all in such a hurry they bump into one another with impunity, never excusing their crude behavior. Sri Lanka is not a polite society out among the masses. On the other hand, I see a lot of easy smiles on the faces of folks rushing around. Government taxes are nearly 16% and hotels regularly add a 10% "service charge" to every bill.
For most of my adult life Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war instigated by a vocal Tamil minority in the north of the island who have been agitating for a separate partition of the country where they could enjoy their distinct culture separate from that of the principally Buddhist majority to the south. (An excellent BBC ten minute documentary provides a quick introduction to the conflict: Sri Lanka+Tamil Tigers: Evolution of the Ethnic War.)
Making little progress through mostly peaceful means during the earliest years of the struggle, impatient rebels resorted to acts of terror to focus attention on their unmet demands. After almost thirty years of escalating violent civil conflict the government forces finally defeated the rebels in May 2009 and the focus has shifted back to negotiation. That means the country is once again a relatively safe place for foreigners to visit.
During conversations with people about their personal experiences, I have learned nearly everyone is grateful the violence has ended. "We can walk the streets again without fear something bad will happen!" is a comment I heard time and again from people here who are mostly Sinhalese of course. Ordinary people lived in fear that one of the frequent acts of terrorism would eventually touch them personally and indeed, physical damage to prominent buildings in Colombo affected everyone in one way or another (See the Global Terrorism Database). "The economy was depressed. Hotel rooms were renting for as little as $30 a night and a lot of us didn't have jobs." Today, hotel rooms certainly rent for many times that low number. Looks like I waited too long to visit!
"And what of the civil rights abuses we in the West hear so much about?" Answers from my informants varied, but demonstrated ordinary civilians know little of the counter terrorist and/or retribution military operations:
"A lot of bad stuff happened during the war on both sides. I'm just glad it is finally over!" asserted one young guy who has lived his entire life under the eminent threat of violence.
Politically, the country is dominated by the Rajapaksa family. The president, Mahinda Rajapaksa currently enjoys immense popularity because of his leadership in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers four years ago. I can't help but notice the similarities of oligarchies around the world and wonder if the turmoil I witnessed in Thailand last month might well be the eventual fate of all regimes where power is concentrated in the hands of a single family and their friends. "Royalty" controlled empires have often been the target of envy and conquest throughout history and the same socioeconomic incentives have not changed since ancient times.
Having just spent a month in Bangkok, the absence of beggars every half block in the tourist areas here feels unnatural! In the five days before writing this I saw very few anywhere as I wandered in the city. Scammers are another matter. Walking through some of the more seedy areas of the city can pretty much guarantee anyone who looks Western will be harassed by miscreants persistently trying to involve them in a conversation leading to some sort of unsavory activity.
A common device used by the opportunists is to quickly synchronize their walking pace with the mark's and once along side start a "friendly" conversation designed to inspire trust... and then hang on to the encounter like a bulldog no mater how resistant the mark. This tactic is especially prevalent around any of the half dozen luxury hotels. Twice I had well dressed guys approach me with the "Do you remember me? I work at the hotel." I've seen that one so often around the world I can usually defuse it before the scammer can make any headway.
However, as I left the Samudra Hotel one afternoon and stopped to chat with some off duty hotel staff I did recognize, another stranger approached as I left the first recognized bunch and represented himself as a part of the group I knew. He kept me engaged while walking my way and suggesting we take a short detour to see some temples and elephants: "not far out of the way." At last suspicious, I asked a few strategic questions which revealed he had nothing to do with my hotel and finally defused the ruse.
The tuk-tuk drivers are the worst and shamelessly dog any Westerner with offers of transportation services no matter how determined you try to discourage them and there are a lot of these three wheel taxis in Colombo. There are many fewer motorcycles, none of which are used for taxi services like in Bangkok and furthermore, motorcycles stay off the sidewalks, something they rarely do in Bangkok.
For a long time I puzzled over the contradictions I saw in Bangkok. The democratically elected leaders still enjoy the support of a majority of the people and their elected representatives in the legislature, despite wide spread accusations they are all corrupt! Then it dawned on me: they stay in power by providing benefits to the lowest (and cheapest) class of constituents necessary to gain a majority of the electorate. (It is cheaper to buy the allegiance of poor people than middle class people.) That's democracy, but the substantial middle class, not numerous enough to make a majority, suffers. So, in Thailand they take to the streets and demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the status quo: they don't like democracy the way it works in Thailand.
I cannot help but wonder if there might not be an important lesson for those of us living in other democracies who recognize social inequities precipitated by the inordinate concentrations of wealth in the hands of a tiny super-rich minority. ( This week I read in an international newspaper how the French government has just approved a 75% tax on the incomes of their super rich! I'll want to follow this story closely to see how those affected counter attack.) Every political campaign manager's principle goal is to get their guy elected by selecting that combination of constituencies which will produce a majority of all votes cast. So, religious extremists, ethnic and gender groups, laborers, white collar workers, farmers, etc. are all examined for possible inclusion in a voter base. Forget the tiny proportion of the intellectual elite and focus on the lowest common denominator where the majority of votes will be found. So, even in our own democracy we see unholy alliances formed for no other reason than to guarantee election success! That strategy will never produce the republic of virtue envisioned by the founding fathers, particularly when we must acknowledge the role of big money in funding political campaigns and what big money expects from the elected representatives they bankroll.
The World Trade Center complex is a convenient place to grab a quick lunch. Food is good and cheap as most diners work in one of the two towers. While munching my chicken salad in one of the cubbyhole establishments I shared my table with a guy who turned out to work in the Sri Lankan stock market. "How is the market doing in this country now that the war is over?" I asked.
"It has been pretty quiet for a while, nothing like the U.S. market which is up almost 30% this year! But, the stability has it's benefits. We are getting a lot of foreign money coming in for the perceived safety provided."
As I prepared to leave the Trade Center one afternoon I paused to pull up one of my socks that had developed an uncomfortable wrinkle. Looking for something against which to lean while I performed the necessary balancing act I noticed a short pedestal which appeared perfectly designed for such a maneuver and leaned my butt briefly on the slanted surface. Not more than two seconds later a woman in a guard's uniform dashed to my side gesticulating wildly while upbraiding me angrily for showing disrespect of someone important. Sock pull up maneuver completed, I jumped away from the emergency support surface and concentrated on the object of the guard's concern. It turned out to be a commemorative plaque honoring the family which promoted the building of the World Trade Center complex in Colombo and my butt was not welcome on such a sacred feature. I apologized profusely, citing ignorance of the importance of this particular architectural feature and slithered away as fast as I could to hide my shame!
Again, I get ahead of my story which must begin with the unceremonious arrival in the country at 2AM Bangkok time (12:30AM Sri Lanka time), 6 December 2013, the day Nelson Mandela, founding father of South Africa died. Advanced planning had discovered a transit hotel and a transit lounge in the terminal complex and I decided to take a chance on arrival accommodations in one or the other for the few hours 'til the sun would make its appearance. To my chagrin neither would consider accommodating guests without onward boarding passes! So, what to do in the wee hours of the morning at an airport a day's hike or an hour's drive north of Colombo?
Naturally, I did what I have often done: start walking toward the city looking for hotels. After two hours hiking along the dark highway periodically approached by eager tuk-tuk drivers urging me to use their services and numerous civil and military security police watching traffic intersections along the way, I arrived in an area of moderate commercial activity, the small village of Seeduwa, Katunayake where I discovered a promising hotel.
The Hotel Cock Pit might rate three stars with a little more attention to details. At $60 per night including breakfast added by special request, I have stayed in much worse lodges. The hotel is nextdoor to a noisy nightclub and when asked, the on-duty receptionist confessed the main commercial activity in the town was carousing! ... citing the obvious adjacent nightclub noise. While simple, the room to my sleepy eyes seemed to be clean with all the necessary amenities... and I only needed a place to be horizontal for a few hours 'til dawn.
Breakfast, apparently custom prepared some distance from the deserted dining room took a while coming, but included the essentials. Strange tasting coffee and a beautiful fruit plate plus an egg and toast proved enough nourishment for my now significantly reduced caloric requirements and I soon departed to find the Colombo bus stop with the very considerate guidance of Chaminda Kumar, the genial hotel manager who had made my welfare his personal concern after a rooftop tour of his hotel.
He made sure we selected a nearly empty bus which had started at the airport; good thing too, for the bus filled to overflowing by the time we reached the city center an hour later. Had I done more research on accommodations near the airport I might have found the Ramada Katunayake Colombo International Airport Hotel with $83 rates, something to remember for my return flight.
No one on the bus to the city spoke understandable English, though several seemed to understand mine. In response to my "center of city Colombo big hotels" questions refined with "five star" and "deluxe" I found myself being urged off the bus not far from the Hilton Hotel.
Long experience has shown five star hotels almost always too costly for my budget, but also an excellent place to get reliable and friendly initial orientation maps and advice. This particular Hilton exceeded my expectations: in addition to maps and advice for affordable houses, the staff in this particular Hilton Hotel offered me a lobby Wifi password for some Internet research, a glass of fruit punch always offered legitimate arriving guests... and truly sincere encouragement to sit a while and use the Internet in the comfortable lobby! The research confirmed the reception staff suggestion I try the City Hotel which would have more moderate room rates.
Fortunately, the City Hotel is located directly across the street and the $75 rate met my budgetary preferences... except Wifi access would add $3/hour. But, the room looked O.K. and I wanted to get on with my exploration of the city so I took the room... and stayed two nights while continuing to hotel shop. YMCA hotel not far from the Hilton is simple, but air-conditioned double rooms go for only $50 and the YMCA restaurant serves the best vegetable plate in town for an unbelievable 70 cents. The Breakfast selections at the City Hotel included a "fish" curry one morning, but the first bite of the fish had the consistency of beef! I complained to the staff and then the hotel manager having breakfast at the same time who seemed unconcerned. Five minutes later I gagged on an incompletely masticated bolus and wretched for several minutes while my body made up its mind if it wanted to vomit.
I dashed out onto the rooftop patio to deal with the emergency and spit up small portions of the undigested curry concoction. The hotel manager now alerted, finally showed some concern. A closer inspection of the fish curry made it appear the chunks of meat truly were fish and not beef, but whatever it was, it was tough and nearly indigestible by my dainty system.
What I found in two days of walking did not make finding a better value hotel look promising. As I started considering moving on to a next destination in Sri Lanka I spotted a building with hotel features, but ambiguous identifying signs. On a hunch, I entered the deserted lobby and strolled around what did indeed look like hotel infrastructure. No one appeared to inquire why I loitered in their building. Finally, I noticed some people working in an office behind a closed door and got their attention. It turns out I had found a hotel management school and a student answered my questions: "Is this a hotel?"
"Yes, sir. It is."
"Is it open for business and can I stay here?"
"Yes, sir it is open for business. Let me get someone who can help you." So began my involvement with the Samudra Hotel part of the Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management training facility. Saint Serendipity had intervened again.
The Samudra Hotel is located about one kilometer north of the United States Embassy and a half block south of the American Center on the west side of Galle Road. The government tourism board building is next door and the Tourist Information office invites visitors to stop in for maps and an extensive collection of destination brochures. I have occupied two different, but nearly identical air-conditioned rooms on the fifth floor with large floor to ceiling windows and glass doors opening onto a wide balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean below.
My very first night one or more mosquitoes rejoiced at the banquet the hotel provided and dined into the early morning hours despite being hunted by their irritated host... I did manage to kill one of the little buggers. After a gentle complaint to Shanthanie in reception the next morning I found an electric powered mosquito repeller plugged into a socket near my bed and that night slept without any hungry visitors. A couple nights later, overconfident the pests had moved on I forgot to turn on the repellant gadget and several itching spots resulted.
The crashing surf lulls me to sleep and masks the occasional noise of passing trains. The modern room decor is luxurious and tastefully designed for 4-5 star comfort. Everyday since I arrived the housekeeping crew has serviced my room during the hour I am out for breakfast. The provided selection of bathroom amenities is haphazard and does not include shampoo (Which I regularly use for washing socks and underwear. However, laundry service is so cheap and quick I've actually departed from my habits and paid the $1 fee for a shirt and 38 cents for socks or underwear!).
My $67 room rate includes breakfast... of sorts. Training of students for dining-room skills has a way to go, but all of the kids have mastered politeness. In fact, all of their guest interaction skills deserve high praise. Food selection and preparation, as well as serving procedures are another matter and will require the attention of the teaching staff. I waited 10-15 minutes for anything to happen at the breakfast and lunch tables. Student waiters hovered nearby, but water glasses remained unfilled and coffee arrived long after the food started coming. The minute I gulped the last bite of food during a luncheon the dishes were whisked away and the bill immediately presented unrequested. (On my return visit before leaving for Bangkok, timing had improved noticeably, though food choices and quality had not.)
I sampled both the Continental and Sri Lankan breakfast offerings and while quite tasty and appetizingly presented, would not pass the many star standards I've seen during my travels. Serving etiquette however, has been unmatched, but timing needs improvement. Certainly not a fault of a teaching hotel, the breakfast menu offered has been unvaried and eventually became boring. The Al-la-carte menu is adequate for lunch or dinner and the staff seem prepared to accommodate guest demands at any time, either with room service or in the usually deserted dining room... surprising for the small staff employed. As I am usually the only guest in the cavernous dining room for breakfast, the air conditioner is not regularly turned on, leaving the room uncomfortably warm (On my later visit the air-conditioner cooled the dining room even for the few guests it served.).
Across the street and a block south of the hotel is the luxury Crescat Shopping Mall. In the basement floor I found a quite respectable food court where a dozen food stands offered every thing from "Tennessee Fried Chicken" to Chinese and Indian dishes... cheap and appetizing. The hotel Galle Road location is convenient as all of the major buses connecting destinations south run along that road.
Midget hyperactive ants dash wildly around the surface of the desk in my room doing their random walk in hyper-drive. So tiny and quick I overlooked them for a while, seeing only ghost smudges appearing and disappearing on light contrasting surfaces. They are everywhere in my Samudra Hotel room including all over my netbook, giving an unfamiliar meaning to the old complaint about computer bugs... something we seldom hear anymore, interestingly.
The new vegetarian diet and consistent walking exercise are having a dramatic affect on my weight: Both pair of pants I brought along are now a couple inches too large! The Accupedo pedometer application in my Samsung Galaxy Note smart phone shows I am frequently exceeding my target 10,000 steps a day, averaging over 9,000. As I have discontinued some of my prescription medications, increased exercise and serious attention to low caloric, low fat dieting is imperative. I am amazed and delighted how easy the diet has become: vegetables are delicious! How did I spend so much of my life believing otherwise despite all the parental urging "to eat your carrots!" Not everyone in the world is so badly brainwashed about food preferences... vegetable rich diets are common in the less developed parts of the world, unfortunately, usually for economic reasons.
I've been here in Colombo for well over a week, so it is time to move on to the next chapter of this adventure. So I'll end this now until I pause again to recall.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: 17 December 2013
from Sir Lanka,
Previously, I mentioned the American Embassy being an easy few minutes walk south of my hotel. Hiking around the hotel area so much, I passed it often. Uniformed Sri Lankan police positioned on the sidewalk in front of the fifteen foot high embassy wall always smiled as I passed in the bright sunlight. I smiled back and went on my way.
Last night at dusk when I started by the high dark stone wall things changed and I watched as these previously amiable chaps in their smart brown uniforms jumped into action to protect my country’s diplomatic presence in their country. And, what threatened the Embassy? Why me, of course!
“Hey! Why are you taking photographs?” calls out one of the fellows, six inches shorter than me. I stopped instantly to be sure they were talking to me and to assess the situation better and to make sure I understood their accusation correctly as I certainly hadn't been taking pictures. Furthermore, nothing in my distinctly casual behavior should have suggested anything sinister as far as I can recall. The two Sri Lankan guardians of America’s State Department buildings stood shoulder to shoulder blocking my further progress as they demanded answers to more questions designed to discover what nefarious purpose my presumed misbehavior concealed.
“I did no such thing!” I replied indignantly.
“Where is your camera?” one of the officers pressed on in a gentle, but ever so intimidating tone of voice.
“I don’t have a camera, other then the one built into my cell phone here.” I quickly explained, pointing to the still closed holster on my belt.
“Show me your camera.” snapped the second officer drawing closer to this presumed dangerous character. I slowly and deliberately released the clasp and pulled the phone out for their inspection. A third higher ranking officer with shiny bars on his epaulettes sat on his motorcycle over by the curb and an intense three way conversation in Sinhalese erupted, continuing for several minutes totally unintelligible to me, of course.
Finally, the ranking officer said something in a commanding voice and one of the two who spoke understandable English asked me to follow them to a door in a passageway through the high stone embassy wall where a fourth, still higher ranking officer behind a counter continued the interrogation, albeit in a somewhat more formal tone.
“May I see your passport, please?” he asked evenly in a businesslike way. This is a request usually leading to more friendly treatment, especially in an American Embassy abroad; after all, I am an American! With my passport opened in front of him he next asks: “What is your nationality?”
Say what? “You have my passport in front of you. I’m an American, of course!” By this time I’m sure my voice had an edge to it, though I tried to remain focused and cooperative. “What’s going on here? Why all this attention to an American walking past an American Embassy?” I pleaded.
“You were reported taking photographs and we’ve had an increase in recent threats against the embassy. You know, there are Lebanese, Pakistani and other Middle Eastern nationals in this country. We’re just trying to do our jobs.” he explains while viciously scribbling in his notebook details from my passport, pausing periodically to ask more pointless questions: “What is your cell phone number?” Slightly rattled by this time I couldn't remember the darn thing, rarely using it while traveling. Stammering for time I pulled up the directory on the phone and finding my listing, read the number to him, adding no one ever calls the number when I'm out of the country. “How can anyone reach you, then? He shoots back?”
“They can't.” I responded nonchalantly.
“What are you doing here?” His manner suggests all this is routine and it appears to me he is finally satisfied I am no threat to anyone and is about to conclude: “You are free to go.” But, that is not what happens. The two apprehending officers who have been standing by answering periodic questions throughout my inquisition are now motioned back over to the counter and instructed to take me somewhere else.
“Now what?” I wonder. Surely my government would not sanction a firing squad for one of its own. With apparently no choice in the matter I follow the two without protest back out the door onto the sidewalk where the motorcycle officer still waits by the curb and another hushed conversation among the three progresses to the point where they reach some decision and I am ordered to follow the three, all now on foot to the edge of heavy traffic on the dimly lit Galle Road.
With brazen authority the officers stop all the traffic in both directions so our band can cross to the police station located directly across the street and opposite the Embassy; an interesting juxtaposition: coincidence, an afterthought or by design for the convenience of the embassy protection detail? I guess it is probably the latter. Once inside the precinct station I see it looks like every other police station seen on TV shows. The officer manning the intake desk chats amiably with my three captors and I am finally informed the whole affair is to be kicked upstairs to be dealt with by the head honcho, The Officer in Charge!
At the top of the stairs we all wait while one of my guards timidly hesitates disturbing the brass inside, but finally cracks the door open and knocks gently waiting for instructions to come in. Inside OIC’s office sits a man wearing a tee-shirt and a bored expression. He is about forty and comfortable with command. He invites me to sit down in the arm chair facing his desk and listens while the entourage of security officers which has taken me into custody present their “evidence.” When they finish, they are dismissed and leave the room.
“We have had an increase in threats against the embassy and have increased our level of alertness and response.” he says in explanation and/or apology? Then, reaching into a desk drawer pulls out a folder and shows me a series of surveillance photographs recording what appear to be mostly Middle Eastern young men pointing cameras at the embassy wall… probably taken by security cameras at an elevated position across the street from the embassy. “These were taken just this month.” he adds for emphasis.
“But why stop an American? Surely I don’t match any threat profile!”
“Our increased alertness results from concerns expressed by your government. America has been very good to us and we try to cooperate fully with them.” The questions now more social and much more casual, almost friendly, he points out he has been in my country several times for training and names the cities which include Washington D.C. Then he locates two fancy official looking gold badges to show me. One designates him as a Special Agent of the F.B.I. and the other shows he is a US State Department Security Officer.
I ask him questions about his training and assignments and confirm he works for the Sri Lankan government. Then, our conversation lapses into cordialities and he indicates our interview is at an end and I am free to go… which I do.
The whole ordeal has taken about forty-five minutes and it is now quite dark, so I trudge back to the hotel a kilometer up the road. In retrospect it looks to me like I may have been selected as a convenient statistic to show how seriously the Sri Lankan government is taking American security concerns for its embassy operation rather than anything about me personally or my behavior.
At the moment I am in Kandy, Sri Lanka as this is being written and a new postcard featuring my pickpocket bus seatmate and a “Kandy Christmas” is in the works. FB