Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sri Lanka, Day 1 (Friday, March 16th, 2007)

Thursday evening I went to the airport and picked up Christen. Totally uneventful, but it sure made me smile to see her come out the door. Luckily I had prepared her for the chaos that is the arrivals area of the Chennai airport, and the craziness was at a minimum. All told, no big deal.

Friday I worked half a day, then we were off to the airport (again) to fly to Colombo (the capital city of Sri Lanka). Before we left we had a final lunch at the Raintree (the hotel I stayed in for the previous 12 days). All week the hotel employees harassed me about my wife’s impending visit. They just could not wait to meet her. At lunch, the servers tripped over each other introducing themselves to Christen. To top it off, at the end of the meal they brought out a cake with “Bon Voyage” on it. They put it in front of Christen, but, whatever, I know the cake was presented in sadness of my departure. Right? Right.

Off to the airport…poor Christen…after almost 24 hours of transit getting from Oakland to Chennai, what do I do to her? Haul her to the airport again and force her on to another plane (at least the flight from Chennai to Colombo is only an hour and a half). As I rounded the last turn of the jetway and walked on to the plane I very nearly grabbed Christen and bolted back the way I came. Smoke billowed from the vents both above and underneath the overhead bins. After overcoming my fight-or-flight instincts and inspecting more closely I noticed the “smoke” dissipated very quickly and was actually more fog-like. Almost like the vapor from dry ice. I went from thinking I was walking into my death to feeling as though, with the billowing fog and the white blankets on the bright blue seats, I was walking through heaven.

After sitting down we discussed various theories for the fog. One idea proposed and quickly discarded was that it was a calming measure. Um, so they attempt to calm people by making them think the plane is on fire? As I said, quickly discarded. We ultimately decided it was a dewpoint-type effect of cold air from the AC meeting very warm, humid air. Anyone with a greater understanding of thermodynamics than I possess is welcome to add their thoughts.

The uneventful flight ended at the very nice and modern Colombo airport. I wasn’t sure what to expect, what with a civil war raging and all, but it was quite pleasant. Especially as compared with the dingy chaotic mess that is the Chennai airport. Things went smoothly through duty free (to stock up on quality booze while we still had the chance), immigration, baggage claim, and customs. Unfortunately, Doug, who thought he would be able to pick us up from the airport, was no where to be seen.

After waiting an hour at Passenger Pickup and still no Doug I decided to try his cell phone. Why not earlier? Well, this involved going through the process of exchanging money and then somehow obtaining coins for the pay phone, which, in turn, involved leaving Christen alone with our loaded luggage cart. Not my most favored situation, but at least so far the airport seemed civilized with a distinct lack of unscrupulous characters.

I headed to the information booth to ask about pay phones and they directed me to the little post office window. And quite a full-service post office if I do say so. Not only did the guy exchange my Indian Rupees for Sri Lankan Rupees (without ripping me off on the exchange rate) but they had phones I could use, too. There were three everyday white phones sitting on a counter. I picked one up, dialed Doug’s number and after several attempts finally connected. During the call the post office guy sat there with a stopwatch and timed my call. After hanging up he charged me a total based on the per minute phone rate. That’s an entirely new and unique take on a “pay phone”.

Good thing I called Doug. Plans had changed considerably and now involved us taking a taxi to a hotel. Doug said it should cost about 2000 rupees and take about an hour to get there from the airport. So now I have to go haggle with the taxi people. I go back into the airport, walk up to a counter and ask how much to take me to the address Doug provided. The guy says 2000 rupees. Sweet. I was fully expecting him to say 5000 and me having to assert the fact that, although I may look like a lost American tourist, I am not a mark and will only pay 2000. My relief soon vanished as, after handing him a 2000 rupee note and asking for a receipt, he told me there would be a 200 rupee “service charge”. Mm hmm, and then what’s next? A 500 rupee “destination charge”? A 300 rupee “luggage charge”? Now I really needed to assert my unwillingness to be blatantly ripped off, so I grabbed the 2000 rupee note out of his hand, said, “no way”, turned around and walked back out of the airport with the guy following me saying, “Sir! Sir!” Probably an overreaction on my part, but what the hell, it just came to me.

I walk back to Christen and the luggage cart muttering about how this guy is trying to rip us off and with no idea how we’re actually going to get to the hotel. After standing there for 30 seconds or so Mr. Service Charge sidles up next to me and says he’ll do it for 2000. Soon he’s writing me a receipt, the taxi is pulling up, the driver loads our stuff into the back, and we’re climbing into the van. Strangely, the guy I negotiated with gets into the van, too, saying he’s coming with us. Ok, fine, whatever.

After driving for about 15 minutes the van pulls over and the negotiator says something heavily accented about “getting out”. Um, no, I don’t think so. Doug distinctly said it would take about an hour to get to the hotel and we’ve been on the road for about 15 minutes. And, we’re stopped on some random corner in a rather remote and industrial part of Colombo. And, it’s dark out. I mean, I know I didn’t fall for your tourist trap game, but is that any reason to abandon us here, presumably without our luggage? Christen stiffened and actually grabbed my arm, non-verbally saying, “There is no way on god’s green earth I am getting out here.” I agreed. The negotiator turns to us and says, “Bye, have a nice trip” and gets out of the van, shuts the door, and the van continues on.


HE’S getting out here. He’s not telling US to get out. Well, carry on then. Off to the hotel!

We eventually arrived at the hotel, met up with Doug and Jana (his girlfriend), had dinner on the beach (while being bitten by sand fleas, the little bastards) and slept soundly.

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