In antiquity, Sri Lanka was known to travelers by a variety of names. Known in India as Lanka or Sinhala , ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobane /təˈprɒbəniː/ and Arabs referred to it as Serendib (the origin of the word “serendipity”). Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese when they arrived in 1505, was transliterated into English as Ceylon. As a British crown colony, the island was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948. (Wikipedia)
In 1972 it became the Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. I was still trying to get my head around that as my flight headed in that direction. I would find myself thinking of the country as Ceylon for the rest of my life and wondered at the many changes of name over centuries.
I speculated on what I’d find on this visit. My first visit had been just after the first Marxist uprising in 1971. From the residence I occupied for six months on High Level Road, Colombo in that year I could view the concentration camp where Marxists were prisoners. That had always been a mystery to me in that political leaders of the time had cultivated close relations with China and the Soviet Union and those countries were swarming the country building infrastructure of this developing nation. The country under socialism had rapidly reversed from being the Singapore of the Indian Ocean to an economy going down the tubes under radical socialism. But socialists were imprisoning socialists! I supposed that was nothing new!
I’d visited the country many times since that initial visit 1971 and the country I was about to visit had retreated from its socialist experiment and was desperately trying to regain former glory as an international trading island of interest to tourists. In an era of air travel as opposed to sea travel that would be a more difficult task for them. Especially since they were now off the beaten track as far as air travel was concerned and transiting flights, like mine, arrived in the wee hours of the morning. A major turn off.
The pilot informed weary travelers intending to disembark in Colombo flight descent had commenced. I retrieved my passport and disembarkation document and rechecked to see all was in order adding the Holiday Inn voucher to a folder I’d produce at immigration. Then stretching to look through the small window I searched for signs of approaching city of Colombo lights.
Soon we were on the ground and taxying to the terminal. I glanced at my watch. It was 12.30 am. Customs and Immigration were usually not much of a problem for me. There seemed to be a multitude of officers in immaculate white uniform propped around walls looking bored that night. As I recall there were more officers than disembarking passengers on that flight.
As usual western foreigners headed for the green channel with nothing to declare and they were waved through. An occasional westerner headed for the red channel where items of value should be declared. Officers waved them through much to their surprise. However they were merciless with returned citizens or people visiting from the sub-continent. Suitcases were emptied, items spread out and closely inspected. Loud haggling was in process which I knew from long travel experience always resulted in money changing hands before harassed travelers were permitted out of customs.
I was prepared for the overpowering night heat of the tropics as I exited the building but pushing through fighting coolies and taxi drivers is not one of my favorite pastimes. It’s both unnerving and wearing trying to keep tag on luggage while at the same time negotiating a taxi price one can afford. It was late, and I was too tired and far from Holiday Inn on Colombo’s Gall Face road to argue.
Now Holiday Inn around the world is a twenty-four hour operation. Not so in Colombo at that time. The place was in darkness when I arrived but the front entrance doorway was ajar so I wrestled my luggage from taxi to the front desk where a solitary dim light was my guide in the inky blackness.
On the desk was a bell with notice that said, “Press when desk not attended.” I pressed and waited, and waited! Eventually a yawning night duty clerk emerged from the blackness and turned on lights at the desk area. He did a quick check of voucher against register then motioned me to follow him. We walked up stairs and down dark winding corridors and eventually found my room. He handed me the key and silently departed.
Turning on lights I hastily unpacked then headed for bed. It was now 2.45 am and my first appointment was at 8am that morning.
I have no idea what time it was when I woke with a start. I tried to recognize where I was in that dark room but nothing seemed familiar. I reached for where my bedside lamp would normally be at home, but it wasn’t there. Jumping out of bed I tried to recall where I was but my mind was blank. Fear gripped me as I raced around the room tripping over furniture looking for the door.
There should normally be a light switch around a door somewhere I reasoned. Running my hand along door posts I searched for a light switch, each minute adding to my panic. At last I found that elusive button and my room lit up. My heart resumed its normal rhythm and I limped back to bed rubbing bruised shins as memory recalled I was at the Holiday Inn in Colombo Sri Lanka. The light remained on for the rest of the night just to make sure there was no repeat of memory loss in an unfamiliar place.
At 6.45 am I limped down to the dining area and sat morosely waiting for the serving deck to open. I was feeling very foolish and hoped a night of limited rest would not affect work I had to do that day.
But out on Gall Face Road waiting to hail a taxi my mood improved. It’s one of the beauty spots I’ve been fortunate to visit around Asia and I’ve always enjoyed my walks along the beach at day’s end with the colorful parade of families worshiping or just enjoying sunset over the Indian Ocean together. The constant stiff ocean breeze plays host to hundreds of colorful and unique shaped kites as families enjoy time together and Walla’s shout encouragement to buy their wares.
I breathed the ocean atmosphere hanging languidly in the air. It was good to be alive in spite of my night’s experience.
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