Archives for posts with tag: colombo

So, last week I wrote a post about getting caught up in the Vel festival, on Slave Island, Colombo.

A week later, I was wandering through the same area, and whilst there was still evidence of the Vel festival (it continues over several weeks), this time it was all about Eid ul Fitr. Ramadan, the holy fasting month for Muslims, had just finished, so everyone was enjoying the first full day of Eid.

on the way to prayer-1I was walking through just on sunset – men and their sons walking to the mosque. Families were in the street, enjoying the cooler air as the heat of the day finally left, and taking the opportunity to chat with friends and neighbours.

I bumped into Riaz, who invited me to join his family for a cup of tea. Riaz, in his mid 30s lives and works in Dubai – and has done so for the last 14 years. He is now an assistant manager at a golf club. He is home for 6 weeks over the Ramadan period to spend time with his family who live on Slave Island.ImageProxy.mvc-2

As we sat outside the family house, neighbours and friends continually dropped by to say hello. ‘Salaam alaikum!’ Everyone was wearing their new clothes, bought for Eid. His mother was relaxing in the cool breeze – after a busy few days cooking for everyone! His niece stopped to show me the mehndi on her hands, specially applied for this time of the year.

ImageProxy.mvcRiaz’s family have lived in this area for the last 3 generations. But their future is a little uncertain as the government has already begun to ‘gentrify’ some nearby streets on Slave Island.

This area is called Slave Island, named by the British, in recognition of the slaves kept here during Dutch and Portuguese rule. Slave Island borders Beira Lake which used to be nearly 3 times the size it is today, and formed a natural defence around this small patch of land in the middle of Colombo. Many of the slaves were African and it is believed that some of their descendants still live in this area today, and are often known as Sri Lankan Kaffirs. Javanese and Malays, mostly soldiers under Dutch and British rule, also lived in the area. Many Muslim families live in this area today – they are often referred to as Sri Lankan Moors. It is thought they are descendants of Arab traders that came to Sri Lanka between the 8th and 15th centuries, and/or descended from Tamils that came from India.

photo-5Such a small area with such a diverse and rich history! I always enjoy wandering around this part of Colombo – and feel very thankful that I had the chance to join Riaz and his family for tea.


hindu festival-6Have you ever had one those days? Where your plans change and you’re not really sure what’s going on but then serendipity takes over and you get caught up in amazing things?

Well that happened to me the other day in Colombo. I had heard that there was a big Hindu parade at Sri Subramaniya Kovil, the big temple on Slave Island. By the time I got there, after getting caught up in typical Colombo traffic whilst doing a few chores, I thought I may have been too late.

It was the middle of a very warm and humid day in Colombo – it is supposed to be the wet season, but the rains have not come, and the city is so heavy and still, waiting for a big storm to clear the air! I was beginning to wonder whether this was such a good idea – maybe I should just go somewhere with air conditioning?

hindu festival-5As I got closer to the temple I could see signs of an earlier parade – had I missed everything? But no, there were still people waiting expectantly on the corners, offerings for sale, and police monitoring the traffic. I walked up and down the street just to see what was going on, as kids played on the street in traditional outfits, and locals watched from their doorways.

It wasn’t long before the crowds began to get heavier, the police presence more pronounced, and there was a definite air of excitement. The women wore traditional saris with flowers in their hair, carrying bowls filled with offerings; the men wore orange sarongs; hindu festival-8and the children – some in traditional costume, others wet from the earlier parade – were chasing each other up and down the street.

I found a spot near a little local store. The man was preparing and selling coconuts – an integral part of the offerings – and everyone was coming to buy from him. His wife was setting up a big table with offerings at the front of the store, and an older man was preparing a pile of coconuts.

The crowds continued to build, the police stopped the traffic, one gentleman found me a peak spot for viewing and for shots, and although everyone was eager to be ready for the parade, they were also wanting to make sure I was OK! At that stage the only white woman around – but I felt very safe and very welcomed into this distinct little community within the bustling city of Colombo.

hindu festival-16And then the parade started! From asking around, and doing a little research, I found out this festival, which goes over several weeks, is dedicated to the Vel. The Vel is the sacred spear, and is considered a deity within Tamil Hinduism.

First came men carrying giant fabric Vels, followed by 3 elephants – one even dancing to the music! There were many adults and children in various costumes – peacocks, and hanuman the monkey god, and various dancers, accompanied by bands and musicians.

hindu festival-3And then came one of the most important aspects of this parade – the men and boys, often in a trance-like state, suspended by dozens and dozens of hooks. Some were sitting, some were lying, others were suspended, almost in a crucifix-like pose. As well as being suspended by these hooks through their skin, many also pierced their faces with miniature Vels. Some were offering blessings and carrying babies that the crowd were offering up.

This is the first time I have ever seen anything like this. And I watched in awe and amazement. Not something I would ever want to do myself! And it made me wonder about the dedication to their religion and their culture.hindu festival-10

There was a lull in the parade as some overhead banners were moved in preparation for the larger floats coming through. It was only then that I stopped and realised how hot I was! I must have looked a bit out of sorts too as several women that I had been chatting to earlier offered me a cold drink. But despite that momentary need for a break, I was still feeling such wonder about being involved! And thankful for the opportunity to see such an amazing event! Wow!

hindu festival-1Soon after, women came, carrying sacred fire. Some had shaved their heads as another sign of their dedication. And there were many men, waiting for the next float, all in their orange sarongs. And many with mobile phones! A real mixture of old and new working together.

The street soon filled with 100s and 100s of men and women and children. Took me a while to work out there were 2 thick ropes in the midst of the crowd that were being used to pull a large golden chariot with the priests. One rope was being towed by men, the other by women and boys. You could barely see the rope as there were so many people wanting to be involved and trying to help!hindu festival-7

At the front of this, a group of young men stopped at the large pile of coconuts that had been doused in water and yellow dye and then also set alight briefly. As an important part of the ceremony, before the priests came any further, they smashed all the coconuts on the ground – with such delight! And bits of coconut flying everywhere!

hindu festival-13And with a shout, everyone heaved, and the chariot made its final way to the temple. The crowds surged to the base of the chariot to have their offerings blessed by the priests. The air was palpable with expectation and excitement. Following the chariot was a group of women. I’m still not sure of the purpose, but many were prostrating themselves on the ground, and following the chariot, often on their knees, whilst other women were pouring water over them.hindu festival-14

I slowly made my way through the crowd to the temple entrance, and watched the confetti being thrown from the top of the temple over the priests and the offerings and the crowds as they slowly shuffled inside. Some of the young boys were still suspended outside waiting for the auspicious time for them to be taken inside.

hindu festival-2

I decided not to try and enter the temple. And to leave the crowds for some much needed respite! But after an amazing couple of hours I was still abuzz! Whatever you think about religion or people’s beliefs, or what people do for their beliefs, for me it was such an honour to be involved and welcomed into this event.

driving licence

driving licence

So it was time to get a Sri Lankan driving licence. And on paper it all sounded so simple – take your current driving licence, and your passport with your visa to the Department of Motor Traffic, and with an exchange of paperwork, a temporary or lifelong licence will be issued.

Well, I should have known, that as with any bureaucratic process nothing is that easy or quick! Yes, Carolyn, just think about how long a visit to the post office can take; or how long you waited at the department of immigration to extend your visa!

So, I tried to get through the process this morning…

Jude, the tuk-tuk driver, picked me up at 8.30. I didn’t realise quite where we were going or how long it would take to get there! By the time we got there, and parked in the midst of all the buses, cars, and tuk-tuks with giant ‘L’ plates on them, we had to make our way through the 100s waiting for their driving tests.  But we were there for a different purpose so we wouldn’t get caught up with that?

Mmm… apparently not. We all had to go for a medical check up, so I had to join the end of the queue. With only 1 doctor who was already running late.

We heard about a clinic 15 minutes back closer to the Colombo. So off we went in the tuk-tuk again. Of course, for this particular medical check, you can’t go to any doctor or clinic – they have to be approved by the Department of Motor Traffic. So there aren’t many around! We finally found it. I was very unceremoniously whisked in to be weighed and measured, and then sent to the counter to pay for this part of the process, and wait for the next step. By the time we left there, we had been going for over 2 hours and were no closer to getting a licence!

At that stage, I gave up on the process for the day – if we had gone back to the Department of Motor Traffic, I’d still be waiting there now! And I had appointments and other things scheduled for the day.

So Jude and I have a plan – now that we know the process, know where everything is, and have found out the opening times, we will start extra early when I am next in Colombo to conquer the Sri Lankan driving licence process once and for all!



galle (1 of 10)Travelling by train is always an adventure! Even if it is just the slow train from Palavi Junction to Colombo!

This is a route that I’ve taken several times over the last few months, and it always starts the same way – with an apology from the ticket clerk because there is no 1st or 2nd class – only 3rd. Which is not a problem for me – but as I’m pretty much the only foreigner on these trips, I guess they expect that I would like to travel something other than 3rd class.

For 110 rupees (less than $1) I get at least 4 hours of entertainment, sitting on a bright orange, hard plastic seat in a carriage that has not been cleaned since the windows were left open during the last storm! It’s important to sit at a window that does open – this is the only cooling provided. It’s only about 120km but travel (by any means) always takes a long time in Sri Lanka – you really do learn to appreciate the journey rather than just thinking about the destination.

This is certainly no express train! With stops in every town along the way – and at least once each journey, because of the single track, the need to switch back to let trains going north through – it is very slow going!

The country side changes – from the lagoon views south of Palavi; to rivers and farming land; then as we get closer to Negombo and the airport, all the towns begin to merge into each other as we enter the sprawling metropolis of Colombo.

But it’s the people that are interesting to watch – and as the only white face aboard, I certainly know I am being watched too!

There is a large Muslim community in and around Puttalam where the train originates – there are always fully robed women with their children. The children are shy but interested – getting them to smile is a treat! Encouraging their mothers to smile is a small victory!

And then there are the other travellers – business men; families visiting each other; people with shopping or business to do in the bigger towns. I always seem to have more luggage than everyone else even though I’m only going to Colombo for a couple of days! As we near Negombo, the train fills up with school children – in pristine white uniforms and black shoes – and workers using the train for their daily commute. Some are ‘brave’ enough to sit next to me for a chat – always asking where I am from (Australia – ah! cricket!) and whether I like Sri Lanka.vardai-1

It is also interesting watching the various sellers and buskers/beggars make their way through the carriages. Peanuts, samosa, prawns, egg rolls, pineapple, vardai and water – all available in handy snack sizes. Blind people singing, people with physical disabilities begging, salesmen with toys and books – all trying to make their living day by day. For some reason on this train, all the doors connecting the carriages have been blocked and closed off – the only way to change carriages is to alight at a station and climb onto the next carriage – sometimes it can seem a long way between stations when the singing is particularly off tune!

It is never a very peaceful journey – with such old carriages and ricketty tracks, it is nearly impossible to read or doze. Once, the train was trying to make up time and we were all bouncing off the seats as we went over a bridge – I burst out laughing which brought out a few smiles from my fellow travellers.

The one thing I always find stressful about this trip – and I have to work out a way to manage it – is the arrival at the main Colombo station, Fort. As we arrive (always late) the platform is crowded with people waiting to board for the next destination. And the throngs begin pushing to get on as we are still trying to exit. I’ve been caught in many a tussle to and fro as the bottleneck quickly forms at the door . No matter how prepared I am for a quick exit, there seems to be no way to avoid it!

Once I make it through, slightly battered and bruised, and find my ticket to give to the clerk so I can exit the station, the next issue is to find a tuk tuk that will either use the meter, or charge me the standard price, not the inflated price! Ah, but that’s another story for another day…

colombo-9Ok, I’m probably being a bit cynical here but I am beginning to wonder if there is ever a good time to drive in Colombo?!

Speaking to locals and long term residents, one ends up with such a long list of when NOT to drive in Colombo:colombo-3

  • don’t leave at 4.30 pm – you’ll get caught in peak hour traffic;
  • and forget about 12.30 – 1.30 pm – that’s when school is finishing for the day and buses and tuk tuks are doing the school run!

three wheeler-1

  • then of course there’s the morning school run…
  • the rain always causes havoc – no matter what time it is!
  • at any time the president could be coming through with road blocks and diversions and police everywhere – or it could just be a family member or some other VVIP…
  • leaving town for a long weekend, or returning at the end of a weekend is painful too…

colombo-7I’m sure there are a few more conditions that could be added to the list!

As I seem to have been caught in all of these situations recently, I begin to wonder if there is ever a good time to drive in Colombo? Maybe at midnight?

colombo-6Saying that you’re stuck in traffic is always a valid excuse in Colombo!

But it does provide some great people watching and photo opportunities!! Belching buses, overloaded tuk tuks, white gloved police officers strategically placed at busy intersections so that all vehicles ignore them, bikes and motor bikes weaving in and out of the traffic, overloaded trucks bearing down on pedestrians and of course over all of this, the constant sound of horns blaring at a range of pitches!colombo-7

colombo-18All this providing a colourful snapshot into daily life in Colombo…

I’m now in Kandy, and everyone around me is preparing for the 2 day New Year celebration later in the week. The streets were so crowded today that every corner was blocked with pedestrians trying to get through with their shopping!

Yesterday was a travel day, as I made my way from Galle in the south, to Kandy in the hill country. 120 kilometers to Colombo by bus, and then another 120 by train to Kandy. Doesn’t sound that far. Well I got the bus from Galle at 9am and arrived in Kandy at 4pm. Because of the roads, and the amount of traffic, you have to plan very differently for travel in Sri Lanka. But it all adds to the adventure!

Two things happened that still make me smile as I think of them.

After getting the luxury A/C minibus to Colombo, I found myself at Fort Station – Colombo’s main rail terminal. I knew there was a train mid-afternoon with 1st class as well as an observation carriage and I thought that would be a nice change after traveling 3rd class the other day – and the air conditioning wouldn’t go astray either! But after a bit of back and forth between various counters I discovered there were no reservations available for the 3.30pm train. The attendant suggested I get the 12.40pm train in 2nd or 3rd class – but I needed to decide then as the train was about to pull in! So yes! Why not?

Walking onto the platform amidst the crowds, I asked a young guy who was changing track numbers for a nearby information board, which end the 2nd class carriages would stop. He indicated not far from where I was standing. As the train pulled in there was a surge of people pushing and shoving to get into the doorway and to find a seat! Next thing the guy who had just helped me, leaped ahead of everyone and seemed to jump over seat backs indicating that I should follow him! I made my way, slightly slower, to find him guarding a window seat for me – he had opened the window and also found a spot for my bag. I can’t believe how quickly it happened! And I’m not sure where I would have ended up if he hadn’t done that! It was more than worth his tip! And even as I think about it now I burst out laughing!

Of course we sat there for another 15 minutes, and the train continued to fill up. It was so stifling hot in those carriages! Sweat running down my back, and everywhere I put my hands, another damp patch would appear. Everyone sighed with relief as we finally pulled out of the station and the overhead fans began working and we had the natural movement of air from all the wide open windows.

I hadn’t eaten much the day. The original plan had been to eat lunch between the bus and the train. About half way through the 3 hour train trip, as we were winding slowly through the hills, getting higher and higher, the traders began to make their way through the train. With 4 spicy samosas, a bottle of water, and some Indian-style sweets that the gentleman next to me shared. What a simple lunch but what a delightful way to be enjoying it! The samosas were wrapped in the re-used pages of a child’s math notebook – as they were calculating how to turn fractions into percentages.

I have a few days in Kandy, and then hope to get across to the west coast. But travel may be difficult over the next few days as everyone goes home for the New Year celebrations, and many things close or have altered schedules. So we’ll see how it goes! I’ll keep you posted.

I love getting to somewhere new and exploring, discovering how to make it work for me. That’s a big part of my attraction to traveling. To help with this process, I normally do a bit of research before arriving  – establishing a tentative plan for my limited time there; possibly confirming some accommodation and/or transport options; checking the weather, currency, tipping practices, etc. But for many reasons, I was very disorganised with the planning for Sri Lanka!

Arriving very late at night into Colombo (why do airlines do that?), the one thing I had managed to organize was two nights’ accommodation and an airport pick up. Nothing worse than arriving after midnight, exhausted, and then trying to negotiate the local currency, taxis, and hotels!

Even with only a few hours sleep, there was no time to lose – I was a little way out of the city centre (as the Barmy Army were in town for the 2nd test match against Sri Lanka all other accommodation options I tried were booked up) but found a nearby shopping center  and the necessary money exchange, supermarket, and a coffee for breakfast.

Feeling fortified, it was decision making time! Utilizing the hotel wifi, I shot off a few emails regarding accommodation around the place – whatever came back would determine my next steps!

And then I braved the world of the metered taxi to head into the city centre. Now that might sound a very sensible form of transport to use – but in reality it is a tuk-tuk, and like tuk-tuks all over Asia, there is scant regard for road rules, the constant buzzing of the small engine, and the sense that every trip is urgent and one has to get there as quickly as possible! Whilst moving, the breeze can seem refreshing, but stop alongside the back end of a bus and that all changes!!

At the main Fort Station, thanks to the kindness of strangers, I developed a better understanding of the Sri Lankan railways, and made tentative plans for the trip to Galle the following day.

Across the bustling road from the train station is the Pettah Market area – each street and laneway specializing in a different type of merchandise. I was warned that it may be busy and overwhelming – next week is the Sri Lankan New Year, and, as is customary, people buy new clothes to celebrate. Many people also travel during this time back to their home towns, taking gifts – so the shopping was in full force!

Despite the crowds I enjoyed a couple of hours exploring the market – discovering the electronics, the clothing, the shoes, and determining from the smell, the spice area. Then the fruit and vegetable market – one of my favorite things to photograph! Later the stationery and wedding invitations, then the fabrics for saris and sarongs and lunghis, and then the bracelets and jewelry.

It was busy, I was jostled aside at times as I stood in the way of porters with their overloaded carts, but it was all good natured, and everyone was friendly and happy to be photographed. I only saw one other foreigner the whole time. I love exploring markets – they help me get a better understanding of life in that place.

Then came the time to negotiate my way back to the hotel – I couldn’t find a ‘metered taxi’ so the bargaining skills had to come to the fore pretty quickly!

The next day would bring its own adventures as I was off to Galle, with some possible accommodation, and transportation for part of the journey. But with very little pre-planning I was finding my feet and ready to go!