Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Off to Sri Lanka

We’ve been here in China for seven years.  Kind of amazing when you think about it.  Obama has almost completed two terms, and entire social trends have come and gone in the US without my noticing.  But a lot of things have changed here, too.
Smart phones are everywhere and almost everyone has one.  Just like everywhere in the world, you see people hunched over their devices chatting, or surfing, or doing whatever.  Whatever. 
Traffic has gotten much worse, but drivers are a little less bad.  A few years back the head of the DMV here was busted for corruption.  In order to get a driver’s license you had to pay him an extra stipend.  In return, the driver’s test consisted of little more that fogging a mirror with your breath.  Drivers have to take a fairly rigorous test now so the competence level has risen a bit.  If you are concerned that the cherished stereotype you have regarding Chinese drivers is no longer valid, don’t worry, they still suck, just less so.
Gas powered motorbikes have been replaced with electric ones, and there are a lot more of these, too.  The three wheeled “sanmou” taxis are gone, outlawed, banished to smaller cities.  I miss those; they were an excellent alternative to taxis and buses. 
We have Uber now, or a Chinese version of it.  (Chuber?)  It’s very convenient during the late afternoon rush hour, since that’s the time that the taxi company changes to the evening shift.  The busiest time of the day, and they are completely absent.  I never could understand the reasoning behind that.   An English friend of mine, who has been doing business here for many years, loves to say that business decisions here are frequently not about making money.   I think this is a pretty good example.
To use the Chuber service, you absolutely need a Chinese person to secure the ride.  It involves far too much fluency in Chinese writing, geography, speaking, banking, and internet for any occidental to attempt.  It has greatly enhanced getting around, though, and it’s great to see the idiot taxi company take a hit.  In Guangzhou, where the taxi drivers are especially larcenous, it’s pretty common to see a lot of empty cabs now.
Internet shopping, which only a couple of years ago was distrusted by all but a few hearty souls, has gone batshit crazy here. 
It’s a hectic place, stuffed with too many people and sometimes one needs a break, so we decided to head to Sri Lanka for the winter holiday.
I was able to get an excellent price on a flight from Hong Kong to Colombo, with only one drawback.   The first leg took us two hours in the opposite direction to Shanghai.  It made for a longer trip.  However, we finally were going to Shanghai, the shiny, modern, model city by the sea!   The airport must rival Hong Kong’s for cutting edge grooviness!!  Too bad we only had a 90 minute layover.  I hoped for a little time for some boutique shopping, or making the scene in a trendy coffee shop.  The reality was jarringly different.
First of all, China Eastern Airlines apparently is in arrears with their terminal fees since we deplaned down a stairway to an awaiting shuttle about half a mile from the terminal.  The temperature was about 30 degrees, the air was foul and gritty, and there was a stiff 25 mph wind blowing even more frozen, toxic fumes into our faces.  The shuttle was unheated.
Upon arriving at the terminal, we were directed to the international transit lounge, which is a bleak, drafty box, designed in a Cultural Revolution motif, with comfortless seating and a vending machine that dispensed cold drinks.  A view of the smoggy tarmac enhanced experience, making the anticipation of departing that much keener.
Fortunately, our flight was on time.  We boarded another unheated shuttle, and eventually settled into our plane, only to discover that our upcoming seven hour flight was to be made with no personal movie service.  They just had old school, miniscule, drop down screens with a Chinese soap opera and illegible subtitles. 
The high point of the flight was the special announcement at the beginning informing passengers that they should maintain order and behave in a civilized fashion.  A long list of forbidden actions was given which included, smoking, shouting, jostling, using cell phones, and grabbing attendants.    The announcement concluded with a warning that extreme misbehavior would be dealt with in a legal manner. This announcement apparently is necessary to address the numerous episodes of extreme behavior by Chinese travelers that have caused Chinese tourists to be rated the worst in the world.  I did notice that the flight staff looked weary and stressed. 


We arrived in Colombo after dark, so there wasn’t much to see, other than a breathtaking sunset just before landing.
Colombo airport is a no frills, everything you need, kind of place.  You can change money, hit an ATM, or buy a sim card.  Definitely get the sim card.  You will use it and it’s dirt cheap.  There is a taxi booth that will arrange for a nice, modern vehicle to take you wherever you need to go.
The car was new and modern.  This was to be our last mode of transportation that was new and modern for a while.  It even had GPS, although it was apparent that the driver did not know how to use it, when he had trouble finding our hotel.  He had trouble finding our hotel for quite a while, asking for directions from at least half a dozen different tuktuk drivers.  We went around many different streets and alley-like streets.  I showed him my Google map, but map reading was a skill he lacked.  He eventually lucked onto the right street, a dark and dodgy looking place to be sure.  This was the Port View Hotel.  The clerk there seemed pretty clueless, but I showed him the printout of our paid reservation, which seemed like enough proof for him, so he gave us a key and we went to our room.  It was really nice, with a world class bathroom equipped with a mega shower.
Unfortunately, our room was facing the street, which although not very busy at night, was frequented by trucks which enjoyed honking their air horns.  I went downstairs to find that the dweeb from the previous night had been replaced by a lovely young woman who exuded competence and who gladly allowed us to change our room for one in the back, which proved to be much quieter and had a deck with an interesting view of some roofs.
Our first order of business of the day was to get to the train station to book our tickets to Trincomalee, which is a coastal city on the other side of the island, about 360 km away.  All guidebooks and people who travel this country insist that the old trains are the way to go.  We stepped out of the hotel to a street that was a solid river of traffic, and nothing but a row of trucks and small warehouses on our side.  I was planning on walking to the station, but opted for a tuktuk ride instead.  This was where I was to learn the first thing about Sri Lankan communication. I told the driver where I wanted to go, and how much I wanted to pay.  He shook his head.  I told him again, and he shook his head.  I repeated myself and said, “OK?”  He said, “OK”.  Sri Lankans do not nod their heads for “yes”.  Instead, they shake them from side to side in a manner similar to what most people in the world do, when they mean “no”.   I was able to make this same error in communicating a couple of more times until someone explained this anomaly to me.
We got to the train station, only to be told that there were no more tickets to Trincomalee for the next day.  This did not make me happy, since I was looking forward to a train ride, and I had already booked a room there.  A tuktuk driver approached and asked where we were going.  They do this a lot, sometimes to give a ride and sometimes just to help.  People here are very friendly, and being approached like this is common.  I explained what happened, and he told me he could arrange for a car to take us for about $120.  This was an interesting proposal, but not one I was willing to agree to with a seedy looking guy who was missing a few teeth that I had just met in front of a train station in a Third World city.
The fabled Colombo Fort Train Station

When we had gotten the taxi the previous night at the airport, the man there had told us that their agency hired cars for the day, and he put his phone number on the receipt.  We headed back to the hotel, so I could give him a call.  We walked back, which was somewhat interesting.  We live in a chaotic Asian city in China.  It’s kind of a training ground for getting around places like Colombo.  When you cross the street in Zhanjiang, you feel like you are cheating Death.  In Colombo, Death appears to have better odds.  We managed to get back to the hotel without dying, and try as I may, I could not find the receipt with the car agency’s phone number. 
I got online to research our options, and found a recommendation of a wonderful travel agency, at a reputable hotel that could arrange bus or car transport and I decided to give it a try.  I would prefer a nice air conditioned bus.  We got a tuktuk to the reputable hotel, and I noticed a good dozen travel agencies across the street.  We wandered across the quiet street and saw that these were all air travel agencies.  Just as we began to recross the street, we were approached by a well-dressed man whom we discussed our situation with.  He had a tuktuk and offered to take us to the bus station in order to help us secure our tickets.  He informed us that the next day was Sri Lanka’s Independence Day, so travel options could be limited.  Arriving at the bus station we found that this was so.  The only air conditioned buses did not leave until the following night, and I did not want to spend the night on the bus, or the whole next day in Colombo, which was a place that was starting to get on my nerves.
I brought up the car option, and he informed us that he could drive us for less than the shady guy offered.  We agreed to this, and decided to spend the rest of the day getting a tour of some sites with him. 
A friend of ours, who has traveled extensively in Sri Lanka said that we must go to the Galle Face Hotel for a cocktail, and to watch the sunset.  It’s the sort of thing Rudyard Kipling would do.  We asked our guy to take us there, which resulted in our sitting in horrifying holiday traffic for about half an hour.  He told us it would be this way all along the waterfront, and perhaps we might want to see some different sights.  Good idea, Dude!
We first stopped at a Hindu temple, a complete acid trip of a building, complete with a snake charmer who offered to pose for pictures for money.  Our guide told him to piss off, but I kinda wanted to watch, even though our Dude told me the snake was defanged and the charmer a charlatan.                                                   

A Bevy of Divinities
He then took us to the incredible Gangaramaya Buddhist temple.  It’s a fascinating place, overflowing with gaudy wealth---gems, statues, gold, an old Rolls Royce.  Kind of a mini Vatican for Buddhists.  There were so many pieces of jewelry and gems that much of it was just heaped in glass cases, and there was wealth of statuary jammed into places, not unlike an overpriced Eastern flea market.  Just as Jesus Christ embraced poverty and eschewed worldly possessions, so did Buddha.  And just like the Catholics, Buddhists love to pile up wealth at many of their places of worship.  I guess it’s just their way of saying that they will need a few more millennia of study and prayer before they “get it”.  The irony was not lost on me.
Copper panels that require frequent polishing, an excellent meditative activity.
Nothing demonstrates a simple, holy life like sapphires.
 This was a sacred elephant, apparently holy enough to stuff.
Like Oprah, Buddha's weight fluctuated.
 These crows are everywhere in Colombo.  This one must be sacred.

After a bit more touring, shopping, and idling in traffic, I asked our Dude, whose name is Musharraf, to take us to the place he likes to eat, and he did.  It’s a large cafeteria style place, with long tables, and lots of patrons.  We had rotti, which a kind of pancake that you can dip in all kinds of spicy concoctions, or roll goodies inside of.  Sri Lankan tortillas.  We also were introduced to Sri Lankan ginger beer, which is nonalcoholic, not too sweet, and has a generous amount of ginger.  I really like that drink!
We then headed back to our hotel, which Musharraf also had a difficult time locating, although he managed to find it in a much quicker time than the fancy airport guy did.  We arrived to find the front door locked and a note taped to it saying to call this number.  Fortunately, I had a phone and a sim card, otherwise we would have been stuck on a dark unsafe street in a shithole Third World neighborhood.  I called, and the clerk answered the door almost immediately.  I guess he was just in a back office enjoying some recreational internet activity.  For this reason, I do not recommend the Port View Hotel, unless you have a phone, and don’t mind being on a crappy street.  

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