Saturday, 30 December 2006

Day two, 13th December 2006, Colombo

Two thirty A.M. is never a good time to arrive anywhere, and it was with a great deal of trepidation that I arrived at Colombo.

With all of the recent news about the renewed unrest in Sri Lanka, I had had distinct reservations about even transiting through this country. However it must be done, if our tight schedule was to be met.

What I had not anticipated, having visited a considerable number of south Asian airports over the years was just how pleasant and friendly place Colombo would turn out to be. The terminal was light and airy, and the airport staff were far more pleasant and attentive, than would have been the case for instance in Luton or Stansted.

For a country engaged in a bitter war, the security was either very light, or extremely unobtrusive, although as we flew out in daylight, it was evident that the airport is surrounded by a dense set of field fortifications.

Our flight to Cochin was due to depart at 7.40 am, so we had hours and hours to kill.

Fortunately, we were not the only travellers so placed, and it was obvious that the locals were well prepared, so as they say, “when in Rome….”

We soon found a row of chairs in a remote part of the terminal and bedded down. Our companion’s were middle-aged Sri Lankan’s (?) who appeared to be travelling on business.

Quite where they were going, we sadly never discovered, but we did discover that they were taking prodigious quantities of duty free drink and cigarettes.

Where ever they were going must have been ready to take these goods in plenty, as small groups of these men spent the night in huddles on the floor, disassembling the duty free packaging, and elaborately consolidating the cigarettes and drink into more compact parcels.

The skill and confidence with which these men carried out their repacking, spoke of years of experience.

What with the snores of my companions, and the tearing sound of sellotape being deployed, it was not the most restful of nights, or the most comfortable, but it will be remembered for quite a while for its fascination.

Buoyed up with anticipation, and a certain amount of apprehension we moved at dawn to the departure lounge. Airports are a great place for people watching, and people watching has long been a fascination of mine.

Working twenty-five years ago in the Gulf, one of our pastimes was to visit the bazaars on a Friday, and to try to identify where all of the myriad of expatriates came from, going by clues contained in their appearance and dress. This past time has proved surprisingly profitable in succeeding years, as I have often been able to break the ice at business meetings, by correctly guessing a person’s original place of origin.

Sometimes I have been extremely accurate, and at others less so, but it always breaks down barriers.

As in ancient times, Colombo is a melting pot of peoples from all the parts of the Indian Ocean fringe. Where does Air Sri Lanka get such a set of elegant hostesses?

Line upon line of the most elegant young ladies passing to and from their planes.

As the morning drew on, an ominous gap appeared in the departures flight announcement board where our flight should have been. Our gate changed, and the staff grew steadily more edgy. Something was amiss with our onward flight. As those who know me will attest, I hate being late, and I am not the most patient of people.

I left Sri Lanka feeling that I would love to go back there, and next time to go past the airport doors.

Our host in Cochin, the Raja would be waiting.. at this point steam would have normally have been coming from my ears, but so much was I enjoying Colombo airport, that I was enjoying even the wait.

Totally out of character, I found myself telling myself to relax, this is Asia, these things happen.

Soon enough, and only two hours late, we were in the air for the 55-minute hop to Cochin. My son and I had contested the window seat, and he had won. Still it was with great anticipation that we both craned to look down past the clouds as our descent began.

A world of watery beauty, juxtaposed to mountains came into view. The coastal plain was one mass of palm trees, with dozen’s upon dozen’s of houses scattered evenly amongst the trees. Running through the inland mountains where long narrow treeless light green strips. These soon resolved themselves into paddy fields.

Soon we were on the tarmac. The first hour in any country is always the worst, and transiting any Asian frontier can be a nightmare. As the doors opened, the entire planes passengers, with the exception of two rose on mass and commenced a mad scramble for the exit. And how could I blame them, for two or more years, these men have been stuck far away from their families in some Middle Eastern hell hole, being treated like dirt, by people far less intelligent and cultured than themselves.

The sight of these men leaving the plane took me back twenty years to the huge sense of liberation and relief that I had felt on that last Air France flight home out of Riyadh.

Arriving at the immigration, it appeared that we had filled in the wrong card, ours was intended for returning Indian’s. At this point my heart sank as I realised that I would have to rejoin the scrum again at the back.

Something totally expected then happened, the immigration official smiled, and said “is that your son?”, to which I replied “yes”, and turning resignedly to go to the back of the queue, the official said, that will not be necessary, I can give you a card here, and you can fill it in on the adjacent counter.

I wonder how many government tourist boards consider the effect the frontier officials can have on their countries reputation? This delightful and polite official should be receiving an award from his countries tourist board shortly, for promoting his countries best side.

It was with great relief that we spotted the Raja even as we collected our bags. Our meagre bag paling into insignificance amongst the other huge cases and monstrous cardboard parcels on the carousel. What presents where in these, and with what delight would their families be opening these boxes over the coming hours? I do hope that my fellow travellers had as happy an arrival as we did.

Soon we were being introduced to Menon, the Raja’s driver, or Jeeves as he was described to us. And off into the maelstrom of traffic that is the Ernakulam road.

Whilst I had been in India twenty-five or more years ago, and was to some extent prepared for the traffic with its eccentric ways, nothing had quite prepared me for the sheer madness of it all. The volume of traffic beggar’s belief, and it is all squeezed into an infrastructure built forty or more years ago.

Driving about 30,000 miles a year, and experienced in driving in many countries, I have developed a fast but defensive driving style, and one that has saved my life on more than one occasion.

Almost every minute I spent in a car in India caused my heart to leap and I instinctively braced myself for the impeding crash. My foot was repeatedly plunging to the floor seeking out the brake in an instinctive reflex brought on by the sight of yet another truck or bus careering towards our car….

Can Menon really think he can squeeze his car through that gap…?

Oh God protect us…

F---! Where on earth did that lunatic rickshaw come from... ?

Oh Lord, look at that idiot driving headlong against the traffic, and at that man sauntering out into the traffic wilfully looking in a fixed way away from the oncoming traffic, as if in the belief that if he does not see the oncoming bus, then in some divine way it cannot not hit him.

By the time we reach our hotel, I am reduced to a shaking wreck.

Our host who had most generously made arrangements for us that can only be described as being fit for a Maharajah, then took us to lunch. His concern for our welfare, and the evident reason why he had been testing out our palates in restaurants in London in the previous year, became immediately apparent as we commenced our first genuine Malabar meal.

The afternoon was ours to enjoy. Richard and I managed a brief stoll along the MG Road and down to the cornice. The faded buildings, and collapsing dock infrastructure spoke volumes of a failing local government, starved of resources, and one which has been increasingly been overtaken by events. Our host who lived and who was educated within yards of our hotel spoke wistfully of the area in the 1950’s, when apparently the population had numbered perhaps 10,000 at most.

Currently Ernakulam has a population of some 2.8 million, and growing at perhaps 25% or more this decade.

Suddenly sleep and the time spent travelling overwhelmed us. Richard and I had to beat a retreat to our room….

No comments: