What follows is the latest installment of tales from my recent visit to Southeast Asia:
Given that I was booked on this ship for just a couple of weeks and did not have a regular entourage of friends to explore the ports with, I decided to take organized passenger excursions for most of the itinerary.
I visited Colombo, Sri Lanka for the first time in 2006 – it was one of the most memorable days of my life, not because of any peak moment or extraordinary event; the whole day was characterized by serendipitous events, the kindness of strangers and many belly laughs. At the time, I was working as a production singer on a 167-day World cruise. I was hired as part of the resident show ensemble, living and working onboard for the entire 5 and 1/2 months. Being paid to see the world is a gift by any estimation, but the very best thing about working on a ship in a resident show ensemble is the camaraderie and sense of community that develops over a period of weeks and months. Plus, when the ship is in port, you always have someone to play with!
On my 2006 visit, I tackled this port by shuttle bus and on foot. By the time we had reached Sri Lanka, we had been onboard the ship for several months and had already endured some awe-inspiring albeit precarious escapades. My colleagues and I had formed port ‘travel-cliques’ based on native language and common interests. The two major factions dubbed themselves Over Achievers (usually the dancers), and the Sloths (singers and theater technicians), respectively. The dancers were usually off the ship by 8:30 or 9:00 am. The running joke was that in the course of one day the Over Achievers would assist in the birth of a baby elephant and perform cleft palette surgery on orphans before the Sloths were even out of bed.
And such was the case the day in 2006 when we docked in Colombo: The Over Achievers long gone, my singing partner and fellow Sloth, Jeff and I, hopped the port shuttle bus that drove us from the industrial outskirts to the downtown area. The drop-off point was directly across from the Galle Face Green Promenade – a sprawling beachfront and recreational area that runs along the coast of the Indian Ocean, in the heart of the financial and business district. The promenade was completely deserted in the escalating mid-day heat. The shuttle driver told us that Colombo that is a “vibrant city port city with a Colonial heritage”, therefore offering much to explore. He recommended a few attractions to us: an Elephant ceremony, a couple of temples, museums, tea at the Taj Hotel, as well as a restaurant called the ‘Banana Leaf’ for local color and excellent curry. These were the days prior to Google Maps and international data plans, so, in lieu of those technological conveniences we stepped off the bus and proceeded in the direction opposite anything of interest. We stumbled along the railroad tracks near the beach, the palm trees mocking us. We meandered through decaying colonial buildings and smattering of modern office blocks before we found our bearings and connected with the main thoroughfare that would lead us to the ‘Banana Leaf.’ Tall, fair and freckled, both Jeff and I were slathered nose to toe in sunscreen, sporting broad-brimmed hats and Jackie O sunglasses. We couldn’t help but notice people staring, honking their horns, laughing, and waving. We sensed there might be a cultural variation in the local beauty aesthetic – we were turning heads for all the wrong reasons!
By the time we reached the restaurant, I was wilting from the mid-day heat and irked by my own lack of forethought. We were navigating our way in a strange city on an empty stomach; the only money between us was in Euro coins, which would not be accepted at this restaurant. The day was a bust and I was ready to pass out. And just then, a local man who had been watching us fumble with change and weigh our options, intervened on our behalf. He told us that because it was Easter weekend, most businesses, including money exchanges would be closed. This was a surprise, as Sri Lanka’s religious majority is Buddhist, but we couldn’t argue with the fact that most stores and businesses were closed. He took us under his wing. He gave us bus fare and rode with us to his friends’ money exchange. His friends were Muslim, as was he, and therefore not observing the Easter holiday.
The public bus was of the ‘old school bus’ variety – no air conditioning and open windows. Why were we the only ones perspiring? A small boy glanced in my direction on his way to the exit. He stopped cold, regarding me with unbridled revulsion – an oversized, sweaty ghost!
Our benefactor walked us to his friends’ establishment and made the introductions. We exchanged our money and joined them for tea. These people were so very hospitable. By now we were a good distance from the Banana Leaf, so we asked our new friends for a recommendation of local cuisine. They generously offered to drive us to their favorite restaurant. I must admit, I felt a certain reticence while climbing into the back seat of their white mini-van; I do remember saying to Jeff, “I am so looking forward to this lunch…or…it has been really nice knowing you.” Five minutes later, we arrived at a local diner, located not far from the port shuttle drop-off.
|Jeff and me in 2006 with our new friend and benefactor|
Our day turned magical after the encounter with our Samaritan friends. After a gargantuan meal, we took the edge off of the afternoon sun by hopping in a tuk-tuk for a little city tour. This plan was quickly aborted when our driver doubled his fare after we boarded the vehicle. We hopped out into the snarled traffic, landing on the steps of the TAJ Hotel. Here we enjoyed afternoon siesta in the opulent hotel lobby, the luxurious interior and amenities a stark contrast to what lay a few feet outside their doors.
Eventually we meandered back in the direction of the shuttle bus meeting point, via the Galle Face Green Promenade. By now it was late afternoon and the waterfront was transformed as families gathered to swim, fly kites, play ball or have dinner at any of the dozens of kiosks that sprouted up when the sun dimmed and the temperatures lessened. It was enchanting! We strolled the green, put our feet in the water, and tried to chat with the curious but very friendly locals. Our pallor continued to turns heads, but by now, we were used to it.
We boarded the last shuttle back to the pier as the sun was beginning to set. It was dusk as we entered the port facility. Just before turning into our ship’s birth, our bus stopped to pick up a woman who seemed to be lost. She was Caucasian, but draped in a Sari, and had her luggage in tow. When she boarded the bus, she tried to communicate with the driver but seemed to be having difficulty. It was my turn to pass the Samaritan’s torch and so I interceded. She was a Bavarian guest entertainer, a flautist, scheduled to join a cruise ship that had not materialized. The poor woman was beside herself, schlepping her baggage through this industrial labyrinth. We brought her to our ship and left her in the charge of the Sri Lankan port agent. It was his job to connect the dots and get her to her destination, wherever that may be. And it was here, back at the port, our 2006 mini-adventure concluded.
You simply can’t re-create days like that, so I didn’t attempt it. Instead, I opted for a culturally themed city tour. Typically these kinds of excursions combine a scenic drive with visits to major attractions: We spent time at the Murugan Hindu Temple, the Gangaramaya(Buddhist) Temple, the National Museum of Colombo, The Parliament Building, Independence Square – oh, and I had my picture taken with an enterprising monkey! This time my visit was mellow and predictable, lovely nonetheless, as I ruminated over the antics I enjoyed at this very spot, 8 years ago.