Holiday - Christmas 2005/6

Closenburgh Hotel

Dining room Closenburgh

We arrived at the Closenburgh Hotel in Galle at lunch time, Cindy booked this hotel from Colombo the night before so we weren't sure what to expect. It turned out to be a quaint 350 year old Dutch residence that sat high on a hill overlooking the town with beautiful gardens. There were very few guest even though this is the high season for tourism, the Tsunami is still to fresh in peoples memory. Our room had a small balcony looking out over the bay and we could watch the waves rolling in and more than once I wondered what the scene would have been a year ago. Tomorrow is Boxing Day, exactly one year since the waves tore this part of the coast apart, we are going to the anniversary ceremony which is to be held at a site where a train was washed off the tracks and 1500 people died. After lunch we set off for the Fort area which is the oldest part of the city built by the Dutch in about 1669. Today is Sunday and Christmas Day so the streets are quiet allowing as to wander around unobserved apart from the odd person who (finding out we were from Australia) insisted on talking about cricket. Little did they know that I know more about Quantum Physics than cricket and don't have any desire to learn that Shane Warn played at the Galle cricket ground.

Inside Galle Fort

Church in Galle Fort

We had a wander round the down town area and judged by the number of stares we got. they don't see many tourist around here. A chemist was high on our list as we needed to stock up on paracetamol, antihistamine & tissues to keep the remains of the flu at bay. As money was running low we decided to try and use an automatic teller to get some cash, these things always worry me when I'm travelling as I have visions of the thing swallowing our card and leaving us with no means of paying. Fortunately, and I must say to some surprise it returned our card and 15,000 rupees which I hide quickly, as that is a lot of money in these parts. As today is Christmas day we decided to push the boat out and have lobster at $28 each for tea, Cindy choose the Thermidor and I ordered Grilled, both with vegetables. When the meal arrived there was just the lobster on a plate accompanied by a bowel of very ordinary looking chips, my lobster was so tough it was almost inedible, Cindy's was better but I don't think we had ever had lobster so badly cooked. We could have eaten a nice coconut curry in town for 50cents, what a disappointment. Today is Boxing day and we are off to the Tsunami ceremony just north of Hikkaduwa about 20 kms from our hotel. We negotiate with a Tuk Tuk driver to drive us around for the day and settle on a fee US$25. First stop is a petrol station as most Tuk Tuk's have only enough fuel for one trip around town, it is a long way and the going is slow. We must get there before 09.27 which is the exact time the first wave hit and there is to be a 2 minute silence when all traffic stops. There is very tight security because the Prime Minister is to speak at the ceremony. We have to walk about a mile to reach the edge of the crowd & we are too far away to really see what is happening, so we walk around the back to see the spot were the train was derailed.

Spot were train derailed

Remains of train at Hikkaduwa Station

1500 people drowned in these carriages

Small memorials are everywhere

There is still much to do

Many don't have the money to rebuild

We spent some time talking to some of the survivors who now live in small wooden huts built over all that remains of their home, the concrete floor. They are afraid of the sea but have no were else to go, we hand out some money to some of the women but at best it will only feed them for a few days. You feel so helpless, there are thousands of people living in conditions we wouldn't keep our pets in yet a million dollars would only feed them all for a couple of days. We spend the rest of the day travelling around the Galle area and are surprised at how cheerful the people are, most are just getting on with life and slowly rebuilding. You soon realise that it was only the coastal strip that was effected and you only have to go a kilometer inland to find things are normal, but the cost to an already poor country of recovering from this disaster will take decades to repay. On our way back to the hotel the Tuk tuk got a puncture which is hardly any surprise as the tyres have no tread and holes with the canvass showing. A bit to my surprise he had a spare wheel and tools to change it, so with a little help from some locals it was soon changed, just giving Cindy time to snap some kids from a nearby house.

Tuk Tuk puncture

Take me - take me

Today we are off to Hikkaduwa one of the most popular tourist beaches in Sri Lanka, I came here 30 years ago when it had just started to attract tourists, it has changed a lot. When I came we stayed with a local family as there were very few hotels, now the place is full of guest houses that front the beach and have dining and drinking areas so close to the beach that a large wave will come right into the bar. Ironic when you consider what happened here, they have just put it all back the way it was and trust it won't happen again. We are staying at Ranmals Guest House which does turn out to be one of Cindy's real internet finds. We are staying in one of two Cabanas that were destroyed and have now been rebuilt. Just south of the main part of town it is quiet and we can watch local fishermen preparing to put out their nets. Any chance she gets Cindy is out there with her camera, no one is safe.

Cabanas at Ranmals Guest House

Preparing to go fishing

Old fisherman

Repairing the nets

We only had a day at Hikkaduwa before we head off to Kandy in the hill country. We are going by train, first to Colombo then change for Kandy. We arrive at the railway station at 8.00am to catch the 08.10 to Colombo, there is no first class so we opt for second class which cost 120 rupees each about $1.20. The platform is about 1/2 full when the train finally arrives at 08.25 and even before it stops, people are going in through every door and window. We are almost last to get on and it is a squeeze to get aboard. Did we get a seat? fat chance, we travelled in the door way for 3 1/2 hours, Cindy had to put up with sleezy men pushing up against her, while I had trouble not being sick from the constant motion. It was a very long trip and we were both glad to arrive at Fort Station Colombo, thank goodness we didn't get the direct train that takes 7 hours! At least this way we get a 2 hour break. I bought our tickets to Kandy and we sat amongst all the other passengers and had some lunch while we recovered from our ordeal. A man approached us who was offering to get us a seat on the Kandy train, he and his friend would dive into the train and grab a seat, then give them to us for a fee. He asked for 200 rupees about $2.50 which sounded like a bargin to me so we agreed. About 10 minutes before the train was due to pull in they got us to stand in a particular spot on the platform, as the train came in they leapt in the moving doorway. As soon as the train stopped we were rushed into the carriage and sat in our seats. The train had been empty when it rolled into the station, but by the time we got on almost all the seats were taken and within a minute there was not a seat to be found. The whistle blew and the train set off on the 112 kms journey into the hill country famous for the tea plantations that produce Ceylon Tea.

Fellow passengers

Fort Station Colombo

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