Holiday - Sri Lanka 2005

LS Bristol departing Kathmandu

Drivers - Dave Watt - Fred Fisher

The holiday started early this year for me as I left on 29th November for a long overdue visit to my relatives in England. Unfortunately Cindy had to stay behind and look after the business as we could not both be away for 6 weeks. The main purpose of visiting the UK was to see my Aunts who are in their 80's now and to catch up with old friends from the past. I also arranged to go and see an old bus which has special significance for me. It was a 1950's LS Bristol originally operated by "Royal Blue" bus lines, my attachment to this vehicle came later in the early 1970's when I spent 4 years working for Asian Greyhound driving this type of vehicle from London to Kathmandu in Nepal. This vehicle is the only one of the Asian Greyhound Bristol LS fleet that remains and although I never drove this actual vehicle to India it still brings back fond memories. Unfortunately it is not in the green and gold livery with its "Swagman Tours" painted on the side, but it still has Kathmandu on the destination blind. Peter who owns the bus invited me to go and see it and have a ride in the now 55 year old vehicle. I set off for Stourbridge in central England for the 21/2 hour drive arriving about 11am, there she was VDV 749 sitting in Peter's drive, the first time I had seen an LS since being dropped of at Kathmandu airport in April 1977.

VDV 749 at a rally

Overlooking Kotor in Yugoslavia

After a cup of tea and a chat about buses in general, we set of for lunch in a country pub. The sound of the engine when it started, took me back almost 30 years. As we rolled along not only the sound, but the smell of the vehicle brought back memories of the hours that I had sat at the wheel watching the miles roll by on the 76 day trip to Nepal. I also came to catch up with ex drivers that I worked with, I found Clive Parker living a semi retired life after years as a landscape gardener and now happy with his frequent visits to his local pub to listen to live jazz. Geoff Lawrence is still at the wheel, but now he drives concert tours with Bands around England and Europe.

In between all this my sister and brother took me on a tour of the potteries, an area in England where my family came from and still live. We visited church yards to see the graves of long departed relatives and saw houses where the family once lived. It never ceases to amaze me that you can knock on the door of a house and when you explain your connection, you are invited in and treated to a complete tour. This happened to us when we visited a house in Cruddington near Newcastle-under-Lyme, the couple were about to go shopping but invited us in and showed us around. We had doubts that it was the right house, but after they explained that doors had been filled in and the entrance drive moved, we realised we had been looking at the house from the wrong side. We were able to give them a photo of the house taken about 1890 showing our relative "Thomas Hinks" standing in the now missing door way. They suggested we visit Mr Teece just down the road as he had lived in the area all his life and at 84 may have some information. He turned out to be the nicest of men and was only too happy to tell us about the "Hink's". He remembered summers when the extended family would arrive and camp in tents around the house. They had games and went on long walks and he even watched them go skinny dipping in the creek, it was a minor local scandal at the time.

Hinks house Cruddugington

James house High Lane Alsagers

A night was arranged at the "Millstream Pub" in Port Vale Hertford to meet some of my old mates, not so many these days as you loose touch as the years go by. We had a good old chin wag and caught up on what we had all been doing since the last time we met 6 years ago. It had been 2 weeks since I left Australia and I was looking forward to meeting Cindy in Singapore on the 17th. Just one last thing to do, visit "The British Bear Fair" at Hove Town Hall. After some difficulty finding the venue I spent a pleasant 2 hours checking out the bears and chatting to some traders including Rei Fukuda who had come all the way from Japan. The day for my departure seem to arrive all of a sudden, we had a big family meal the night before cooked by Thanos who had only just stepped of the plane from Greece but as the only chief he was always called upon to do the honours. (Thanks for the recipes Thanos they are safe with me). My Singapore Airlines flight left Heathrow at 11.00am so it was an early start to get there by 9.00am while leaving a bit spare for traffic. We were going fine until we had been on the M25 for about 20 mins, then the first tail back. It wasn't too bad and just as we seemed to be getting clear, the traffic came to a complete halt. We must have taken 30 mins to cover less then 5 miles, the turn off to Heathrow was so close, but so far away. It is very frustrating to sit in traffic knowing you are going to miss a flight that could cause you major problems, all I could see was Cindy standing in the arrival lounge at Singapore and me not there to meet her. Finally it moved, no reason it just started to move, we made it to check in with still 90mins before the flight, goodbye said and I headed for flight SQ 317.
I arrived at Changi Airport at 07.40am and was soon on my way to the Perak Inn in Little India, Cindy had booked the Scarlet Hotel in China Town, but I wanted to try the Perak for the first night before she arrived. It proved to be OK but on checking out the Scarlet later in the day, it was the better hotel. I had an early lunch of Masala Dosa washed down with ginger tea before buying a new sim card for my phone and sending off a few postcards. It was nice to be back in the warm after the cold of England, orchids are everywhere and the frangipani trees fill the air with perfume. I had tea at a small Indian restaurant in Racecourse road, Matter Panir, Nan followed by Gulab Jamin and more of my favorite ginger tea. In the morning I checked into the Scarlet Hotel in Erskine Rd before heading to the airport via Little India to pick up a pretty jasmine flower lay for Cindy, I got the man to plunge it in a bucket of water so it would be nice and fresh. Cindy was arriving on SQ 256 from Brisbane, the taxi driver suggested terminal 1 so on arrival I checked the arrival board to find her flight not listed. Information told me it would arrive at terminal 2 and I needed to go up one level and catch the shuttle train. Her flight had arrived 25 mins early and I was sure she would be waiting for me but I needn't have panicked, just as I arrived she was walking out of customs, with her lay round her neck and a big hug we headed for the taxi rank.

Lay stand Little India

Hotel Scarlet - China Town

The Scarlet turned out to be a very nice hotel, small enough to be intimate yet large enough to have good facilities. Our only complaint was the restaurants they were very trendy, lots of style but not much attention to the food, it was expensive and you were never sure what you had actually ordered, the name of the dish seemed more important than what was in it. We have a week here so there is no rush, we start off with a visit to the botanical gardens as Cindy is a keen photographer.

Botanical Gardens Singapore

Orchid Display

Cindy's photography

So many types of orchids

We arranged an evening out with Sandra & Sam of Beary Brown Bears Singapore, I am a fan of "Chill" music and Sam had promised to show me the best shops for CD's. We went to City Hall shopping centre and spent sometime browsing the shops before having dinner in Thai Express, the food was a bit hot for us, but it was a great night and we promised to send Sam a good bottle of Australian wine as thanks. The day after, we both started to have cold symptoms, me the runny nose Cindy the sore throat, by late that day it was full blown flu. We had both had a flu shot before leaving, so this was a real pain. The next 2 days were spent living on flu tablets and tucked up in bed with just a short outing when hunger drove us out. You long for home when you are sick and would give anything just to be in your own bed. We felt so bad we considered not going to Sri Lanka but kept hoping the next day would be better. On Friday we were on the mend and were to be seen dining out in Serangoon Road, I even managed some Gulab Jamin while Cindy looked round the shops.
Our Srilankan Airlines flight UL 312 was due to depart at 15.30pm on Christmas Eve, so we spent the morning shopping I managed to pick up a Hi8 video camera for S$275 (US$170), I have a lot of video on Hi8 and will use this camera to down load it to my computer. Cindy picked up a wide angle lens and a tele-convert for her new camera. The flight to Colombo was different, it was packed with guest workers returning home to Sri Lanka & India. Singapore has an army of these workers who do all the low paid jobs and power their construction industry. One could argue that it is cheap labour but they will do jobs that Singaporeans won't and they earn much more that they would at home, so it suits both of them. The first sight of Colombo airport is very encouraging, its new and very clean but the further we go the worse it gets. Night has fallen by the time we reach the footpath outside, its mayhem with taxi drivers all over us and people everywhere. The one good thing that happened was our little man standing in the crowd with a sign saying "Miss Cindy", well at least our airport pickup had worked. While we were waiting for our driver to get his car we were approached by a European asking if we spoke English, he was most relieved when we replied. He and his gay partner were on a seven hour stopover in Colombo and wanted to know how to get into town. They both had that look in their eyes that says "where the hell are we", the quieter one looked like he might burst into tears at any moment. We gave them some info on how far Colombo was and what to pay for a taxi and they wandered off into the crowd, I regret not offering them a lift, but we weren't sure what kind of a vehicle we were riding in at that point. While we waited a large limosine pulled up with "Taj Hotels" on the side and an American couple and two children were whisked away, they were doing it the hard way? Our 30 year old Toyota rolled in and we bundled in and set of for the "Tropic Inn" in Mount Lavina a suburb just south of Colombo.

The Tropic Inn - Mt Lavinia

The Mt Lavina Hotel

Rebuilt as the Tsunami

Traditional fishing boat

Hauling in the net

Sorting out the nights catch

It is only 45 kms from the airport to Mt Lavina but it took almost 2 hours!. If you have never visited a third world country it is hard to imagine what the traffic is like. There is such a mixture of vehicles, buses, trucks, cars, tuktuk's, peddle rickshaws, 3 wheeled carryalls, motor bikes, cycles, hand push carts and pedestrians. They pack together so tight that it is a wonder the traffic moves at all. The road acts as one big funnel and all the traffic is trying to squeeze through the opening, lots of horn blowing and near misses. The one thing you do notice is the lack of road rage, everyone just takes it in their stride, the horn blowing is to warn other traffic you are there, no one gets upset if you pull in front of them. By contrast Australian roads are becoming an assault course, bad manners are the norm, never give way to ANYONE, ignore the speed limit, and terrorize anyone who won't go fast enough, overtake anywhere and hurl abuse at anyone who gets in your way. The contrast from Singapore to Sri Lanka could not be more obvious, we had left organisation and arrived in chaos. There is so much activity it's like a bee hive. Everywhere you look in this city people are going about the task of living, it can be quite intimidating if it's your first visit. We finally arrived at the "Tropic Inn", this was not our first choice of hotel, I had wanted to stay in the Mt Lavina Hotel. Having visited Sri Lanka 30 years earlier and stayed in a family home in Mt Lavina I had seen the big hotel and thought it would be nice to finally spend a night there. Unfortunately for us it was Christmas Eve and the usual room rate of about US$90 had been increased to US$300 for that night. Cindy set about finding a different hotel on the internet and came up with "The Tropic Inn", the pictures looked good, the recommendations were great so at US$20 per night " it was a bargain" she assured me. When the Toyota turned down a little rutted road and stopped outside a shabby building you could see Cindy's face sag a little, "Its probably nice inside "she said. The foyer was old and tired, the air was stifling and it had the feel of a hotel that had not seen many guests in the last few months. We were shown to a large hot room with 2 very hard single beds with only a sheet on them as a cover, as the door closed behind the porter Cindy turn to me and said "Sorry Darling it looked so nice in the pictures". We put the air conditioning on and went downstairs to see if we could get a cold beer, we couldn't, but there was a restaurant down on the beach. We were warned to "be careful crossing the train tracks". The restaurant was OK except for the fact we were the only customers, they were disappointed that we only wanted a beer and we had 4 waiters hovering around trying to look busy.

Room in Tropic Inn

Beach Restaurant

The next morning our taxi arrived to take us to "Galle" on the southern most tip of the island a distance of about 130kms, we expected the trip to take about 3 1/2 hours and they wanted US$28. We set off into the heavy traffic with our speed rarely going above 40kms, after about 1 1/2 hours the traffic did start to get a little better and once or twice we hit 60kms. It was during one of these runs that a policeman on a motorbike tried to defy the Laws of Physics, he turned right in front of us and stopped, giving our driver no chance of stopping. Everything went into slow motion, I watched the look on the policeman's face when he realised we were going to hit him. We couldn't stop in that short distance and he couldn't get out of the way. The impact was at about 10kms per hour, enough to knock him off his bike and push him a few feet along the road. Fortunately no real damage but dented pride, the policeman started to blame our driver and was writing him a ticket when I intervened saying I thought he was at fault, and I was prepared to be a witness. After taking his number down he suddenly decided to let the matter drop and screwed up the ticket. It was soon after this that we started to see evidence of the Tsunami that caused so many deaths on boxing day 2004.


Tsunami Damage

The holiday Page 2