Monday, March 16, 2015

Seven Nights of Not the Fairmont in Sri Lanka, (But Still Awesome)

Being the daughter of a freelance travel writer can come with certain expectations when it comes to hotel rooms. I will readily admit that I’m a snob about hotels, (this leading to the charming nickname, ‘Five-Star’ from my darling mother). So when my parents told me we were going to spend a week travelling around Sri Lanka, by bus, train and van, and staying in guest houses and motels, I was slightly apprehensive. My experience of travel, (not counting the six years on the boat) had consisted of carefully structured days, following strict itineraries, dining in expensive restaurants and retiring to $1000 a night suites with chocolates on the pillow and a maid waiting at my beck and call. Like I said, I’m a snob.
The day we arrived in Sri Lanka, we checked into to the country with all due speed and immediately departed for the train station. The plan had been to get bunks in the first class sleeper train and then travel to the town of Columbo, take another train, arrive in the large city of Kandy and meet up with our friends on Totem whom we would be travelling with. At least that had been the plan. Unfortunately, the sleeper car was full and so we would be in second class seats overnight. That doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that second class seats cost four bucks and are made of sweaty, sticky, smelly vinyl and have absolutely no leg-room.

When we didn’t follow the plan, I got mildly agitated.  Luckily, after about twenty minutes of waiting for the train to leave, my dad found out that there had been a first class cancelation and grabbed the cabin for my mum and I. We hurried to the cabin and were greeted by a dismal sight. I (foolishly as it turned out), had believed that perhaps the magical land of first class would resemble something like the luxury train across the Rocky Mountains that I had taken when I was six. I was sadly mistaken. The floor was dirty rubber, somebody appeared to have stepped on our beds with muddy boots and it was stiflingly hot. Don’t even get me started on the bathroom. I tried to fall asleep but it was horribly loud and bumpy, and in the middle of the night the conductor burst in, shouting, to check that there were only two people in our cabin. You get the picture.

Luckily, the next train was better. We got first class seats in the optimistically named ‘observation car’ which promised air-con and a clean bathroom. However, the springs on the train were too soft, and whenever we went over a bump, we would go airborne and wouldn’t spot bouncing for about a minute.

Eventually we arrived in Kandy. We travelled by tuk-tuk to the guest house that us and Totem would be staying at. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Sri Lankan forms of transport, the tuk-tuk deserves an explanation. The tuk-tuk is a small, three wheeled taxi that nimbly weaves between large trucks and buses at breakneck speed, while the driver looks over the back seat and cheerfully assures you that his tuk-tuk is brand new, and he’s been driving since he was twelve.

As we arrived at the guest house, I took a deep breath. We were greeted by the owner and shown to our room. It was small, cold and white. It was a fricken cell. The bathroom at least, had hot water. And ants. I could deal with the ants. It was however, when I sat down on my bed that the trouble began. It appeared to have been made from chopped up tires mixed with bricks. I sat down on my parent’s bed. Perfectly acceptable foam. I went to visit the kids from Totem. Their bed too, was normal. Damn. Later, we found out from our friend Behan, from Totem, that my bed was probably made from processed coconut husks pressed into a brick. However, despite the brick bed, Kandy was lovely.

 The people were friendly, the air was cool and the food was wonderful. At three o’clock, we visited a sari shop, so that my friend Siobhan could pick up the sari that she had had tailored the day before. When I was little, in Vancouver, I had always wanted a sari. The women wore them with such elegance and grace and they were so beautiful. So finally, here was my chance. I poured over the fabrics and gazed at the delicate patterns. Finally, I chose a purple-grey silk with a lacy copper edge. The blouse would be made of black silk with the same border. The next day I picked it up. Then, we travelled through the hill country of Sri Lanka to one of the abundant tea factories. When we reached the small stall that sold Sri Lankan tea, my mother asked one of the women if she could help me wrap my new sari. She bundled me up with a smile and sent us on our way. As it turned out, a foreigner wearing a sari in Sri Lanka was an entirely social experience. Almost every woman we passed would stop to adjust me and rewrap my sari to her satisfaction. The woman that we had encountered up until that point had been very shy, so it was fascinating how a simple piece of fabric could open the way to conversations and friendship.

Over the next few days, we traveled to the tiny town of Dalhousie whose claim to fame is a mountain is called Adam’s Peak where the locals believe Adam first set foot on earth. Every day, hundreds of pilgrims journey up the 5000 or so steps to visit the temple at the top. We left for the climb at 2:30 a.m. I was just starting to regret wanting to do this. The air was frigid but infused with excitement. You could feel the thrill tingling through the icy air. Sadly, about 1000 steps up, my bad ankle gave way, and so I waited in the tea house of a kind old couple for the Totems to come down. The elderly couple spoke barely any English, but showed me pictures of their children and grandchildren and gave me a blanket and insisted I wait on their couch. At about 6:30, my father came up from the foot of the mountain to fetch me. The couple took a photo with me, I thanked them and bid them farewell.

Hubert the Elephant

Charlie's cousin
The next hotel was the worst. The bed was too small, it was boiling hot, the bathroom was filled with mosquitoes and it was filthy. I was horrified. I got through it however, (albeit grumpily) and we traveled on. The next hotel was much better. The three Totem kids and I shared a dormitory like bedroom, with thick mattresses, air-con, T.V, a mini-fridge, and a clean bathroom. It was slightly sad how excited I got. We would stay there for three nights, and we were all ecstatic. The other kids and I spent the remainder of the day chilling in the air-con and watching CNN. Excitement. The next day was our safari. We were packed into a giant jeep and splashed off through the puddles. We saw a leopard, elephants, jackals, deer, peacocks, wild boar, and mongeese. It was fantastic. 

The following day, my parents and I travelled by bicycle through the ancient city of Anuradhapura. It was beautiful and fascinating. The ruins were interspersed with peoples’ homes, which helped to see how huge it was.
The next day, we left, and arrived home at the boat. I think I might have possibly left some of my hotel snobbishness behind. Maybe.