The Heathrow gate for Sri Lankan flight 502 was a mix of Sri Lankans and tourists. A Buddhist monk in a maroon robe sat next to me, smiling at everyone (I saw him 13 hours later in the Customs hall in Colombo, walking out with no checked baggage, but still clutching a round item I gathered to be something religious).
The flight from London was long but pleasant, via Male, capital of the Maldives, a total tourism economy. Descending toward the airport, the land mass was actually a series of low coral islands, some inhabited (meaning small hotels and resorts).
At the airport, I had a nice T-t-S moment with Ali Mohammed, a duty manager for the airline handling company Island Aviation. He gave me the basics: 300,000 people, 1100 islands, 100% Muslim. An interesting contrast with the hedonistic-tending beach package tours that keep the country afloat. It seemed like a bad place to be in a typhoon, or in some years if the predictions of rising seas come to pass, but it certainly was beautiful.
We flew another 400 miles east-northeast, landing in Colombo at 2:45. The formalities were remarkably speedy. I was surprised at how calm the airport seemed, given that the country has just emerged from three decades of a cross between civil war and sustained terrorism from the (Hindu) Tamil minority. Waiting for my driver to pull around, I spotted a well-armed soldier in the bushes that flanked the arrivals driveway. And on the way into town, the Army at least every kilometer. The hotel driver was a friendly fellow, and we showed each other family photos on our mobile phones. He answered some basic questions about the republic, and I felt well grounded when we pulled into the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel right in the center of the capital.
The dark-blue-tiled pool beckoned from room 353. A swim, that’s what I needed, so I trotted down and jumped in. Struck up a conversation with the pool attendants, and admired lots of bird life – pelicans, egrets, and other marine species. About 100 feet beyond the birds, in the tidal Lake Beira, I spotted a crocodile! And back on land, a Lion. Well, a Lion Beer, from Sri Lanka, which was also agreeable. The water was soothing.On the flight, I spotted an agreeable dinner venue, the Galle Face Hotel, established 1864, and I spotted it on the map, an easy walk from my place. Changed into khakis and zipped out. Being in a new place is always exhilarating, and all my sensory input valves were open. First thing I spotted was a Buddha enclosed in a glass case, ecumenically flanked with symbols of all the other major religions (mine represented with a simple cross figure and an illustration of Jesus). A hundred meters further, I paused to salute and thank a handful of troops. Then I ambled across the railway, and passed Christ Church of Galle Face, founded 1853. Nearby loudspeakers called Muslims to prayer, and in the opposite direction, Elvis crooned, “And I can’t help falling in love with you.” That contrast summed up first impressions – a diverse and fascinating place.
Things were going so well. I had waved off one fellow, a tout disguised in Sri Lankan friendliness. Then, less than a block from my dinner venue, Michael introduced himself. He claimed he had just gotten off work at the nearby Ramada. The next thing I knew, we were walking five minutes to a “Buddhist ceremony.”Then he said it was faster by tuk tuk (the motorized three wheelers so common in Asia). We looped back around, behind my starting point. We did a quick tour of the temple, so far so good. We paused for several rituals that Michael said would bring good luck and good business. We left the shrine, and in two minutes we’re in a gem store, with profits allegedly going to help victims of the 2005 tsunami. Say what?
Clearly, the encounter had derailed, and I had no clear exit strategy, except to fib that I was already late to meet friends at the Galle Face Hotel. But not before the jeweler proposed to sell me a 2.2 ct. red gem for US$684, then sapphires for a thousand a carat. Make it stop! We exited the shop, rolled along for five minutes, and finally arrived at the hotel. The tuk tuk driver proposed a charge of Rs. 4000, $35. Whoa! The driver helpfully said he paid $10 to get me into the temple. I gave him half the asking price, period, a complete ripoff, and that still left Michael, He got $4.40.
So what did I learn? A couple of things. First, my open, friendly way gets me into these situations. Thinking back, it had been years since I had been in a Third World tourism place – a few minutes later, I racked my brain on the exact date. Apart from a week with the family in Puerto Vallarta in 2000 (and Mexico doesn’t really count), the last time was in the 1970s. Back then, traveling with a backpack, locals knew I was not an ATM! More fundamentally, though, an open-minded person like me couldn’t really blame Michael for trying to cash in on a visitor from a country where the per capita income was many times that of Sri Lanka. Earlier, he told me that his wife, a nurse, had just taken a nine-month temporary assignment at a hospital in Washington, DC, that he lived 40 km. from work, and that he was caring for two young kin whose parents, perished in the tsunami (that story subsequently appeared to be contrived, because I heard it twice more in the coming days).
In any case, I was happily settled in a chair on the breezy verandah of the Galle Face by 7:05, enjoying another Lion Beer. The Galle was my kind of place. Indian Ocean surf pounding 100 feet away, a keyboardist pounding out Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and life was good (he subsequently crooned Willie Nelson and a bunch of other wonderful American exports).
After a celebratory beer, I enjoyed an astonishing buffet for the equivalent of $12.74. Some of the freshest shrimps in years (the iodide flavor says it all), plus chicken tikka, curried lentils, stir-fried greens, tofu, and a killer dessert bar, high point of which was sago pudding and a coconut cake redolent of ginger. Yum. Caught a tuk tuk back to the hotel and clocked out, sleeping the best since leaving home.
Was up before six on Monday the 7th, and after a cup of strong instant coffee but no breakfast, I walked several blocks to the Fort Railway Station, the main depot.The Transport Geek was in a good place, watching the suburban trains rattle into a decrepit old terminus. The hotel had kindly booked a round-trip to the hill town of Kandy, 75 miles east-northeast, and obtained tickets. Round trip in first class (there was also second and third) was a little more than three bucks. The train was grandly called the Intercity Express. I found it on platform two. Looking closer, I saw that the coaches were made in Romania, 1988. First class, labeled “Observation Saloon,” was at the rear of the train, and the back wall of the coach was glass, for observing. I snapped a few pictures and we were off, bumping through the suburbs, passing morning rush-hour trains headed into the city, packed with people (including folks hanging on railings at the open doors. Out of the city, we passed lots of rice paddies, some being worked. A water buffalo appeared here and there. And lots more birds. At one station, three schoolgirls in white uniforms smiled. For that matter, almost every person with whom I made eye contact smiled – that’s the kind of place it is.
The track was rough. The sideways motion was often a strong, neck-bending lurch. The up-and-down motion was more interesting, all heads bouncing up and down at the same time. “Ride ‘em, cowboy,” I exclaimed, and people smiled. Monday is almost universally wash day, and I spotted clothes drying outside houses and ladies scrubbing in a stream under the rail bridge. About fifty miles on, we started to climb, slowly chugging through tunnels and along ridges. I left my seat to take pictures from an open door. The trainman sat impassively across from me. I spotted some confidence-building, hand-painted signs, in red: “25 MPH. Weak Rails,” and “25 MPH. Insufficient Ballast.” In the distance, you could see mountains the size of the Appalachians, and below, terraced paddies, tunnels. It was way cool.
At Kandy, it took 20 minutes to get into my Third World traveling mindset, partly because I was hungry. I finally got some yogurt and two local bananas and was set to go. The first tuk tuk driver was stubborn. The second guy was better; he spoke good English and showed me around. I stayed with him about 90 minutes, and he turned out to be very helpful. I paid him a bit extra. I had read online that a handicrafts center was in a village called Kundasale, four kilometers away, and we headed there. In hindsight, I don’t think we actually got to the “National Design Centre,” marked on a sign at the turnoff from a main road. We stopped at a brass showroom; I told the driver I didn’t want metal, but was looking for masks. He said masks had been moved to the other side of town, so off we went. He was probably steering me, but the woodcarving shop was interesting. A fellow demonstrated how natural stain is made: wood dust plus hot water made one color; lime juice turned it a different shade; chalk made it a third hue. Pretty cool. And the naturally stained masks were nicer than the painted ones. I bought a mask that would bring friendship (others promised prosperity, health, cure for dreadful disease). I do not like bargaining, but I did manage to work the price down 30%. We then rolled along to a batik “factory,” for another interesting demo, and I bought a small piece to frame. Two shops in 30 minutes exceeded my store quota, and I asked the driver to drop me at a hotel or restaurant in town. He said I would like the Devon, a sort of middle-class restaurant on the main street, and offered directions on how to get back to the railway station by way of the lake and the Temple of the Tooth. The men’s room had neither soap nor towels, and a small bottle of antibacterial gel that my German friend Dr. Susan Beckmann gave me in December came in handy! I had a big plate of veggie fried rice, two EGBs (Elephant Ginger Beer, very spicy and nice), and a bowl of mango ice cream. I was set for an afternoon of touring. Unhappily, it was pouring, so I stayed in the restaurant, watching a Cricket test on the TV, Sri Lanka vs. Zimbabwe. It appeared to be letting up, so I headed to the front of the café. Hard rain resumed, then a break, so I opened my umbrella and headed out. Ambled around the lake, briefly through a Buddhist temple, then back to the station in a hard rain. I was very wet when I reached the train, and little cranky, but my mood improved when I began a lovely T-t-S with four Sri Lankans: Chandreen, recently married, his pretty wife, and Chandreen’s parents, all of whom had been on the ride up to Kandy. Chandreen had emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, when he was 22, attended a hotel training college, became a citizen, and now worked as a pastry chef at an upmarket hotel. He would leave Sri Lanka in four days, and his new bride was to join him in a few weeks, when the Australian High Commission granted her papers. I explained why I was in Sri Lanka, how much I liked the country, and showed pictures of my family. It was a lovely, humane experience, made more so when Chandreen asked if he could attend my speech the next day. I felt honored.
The downhill trip was much the same. I dozed as well as I could give the bumps. At the station, we said goodbyes. I was short on time, because the welcoming IFSA reception started in 20 minutes. Hopped in a tuk tuk, took a fast shower, and was at the opening party by 6:15, meeting some new friends and some old ones, including Ken Samarra, an airline food broker in Dallas, Vicky Stennes from jetBlue, and Tim Zandbergen from TFK, a big caterer at Tokyo Narita Airport. Sri Lankan Airlines and their catering subsidiary had been asking to host this event for years, and now that we were assembled, they pulled out all the stops. Traditional dancers appeared several times in the evening, and the party was quite lavish. A small world moment: I met a fellow about to emigrate from South Asia to Minneapolis. His sister moved there 25 years earlier as a Montessori teacher, and she now owns a school in suburban Minnetonka. It took 10 years to get U.S. permission (sibling emigration is a lower priority than parents and other closer ties). I asked him if he knew about the winter! Another nice moment.
Next morning it was time to stand and deliver, and the talk went well. High point of the day was a presentation from Merrill Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea, and his son Dihlan, the firm’s marketing director.Sri Lanka has long been a major tea producer, and Mr. Fernando the elder was unhappy that in the 1950s it came under the firm control of a few multinational producers, with very little of the value chain remaining in his native Ceylon. He established Dilmah in Australia in 1988; the vision was “to bring quality, authenticity, and integrity back to tea and in doing so, to make our business a matter of human service . . . we believe that there needs to be an objective beyond the purely commercial and that it is an obligation of every company to give back to its community and to the environment. Accordingly, Dilmah established the MJF Charitable Foundation, with a portion of revenues “to change the lives of the underprivileged in Sri Lanka.” The foundation has a range of projects for children, for aspiring entrepreneurs, for wildlife conservation, and more. They were truly righteous people, and I had a nice chat with the son after the talk. They were the embodiment of doing well by doing good. Remarkable.
The sessions continued the following morning. The afternoon was free. Instead of paying the hotel $12 for an hour of Internet access, I walked south on Malay Street (well named, because it appeared to be the historic Muslim quarter) and into an Internet Café I found on an early-morning stroll. An hour online was 56 cents, and the connection was faster. Worked e-mails to zero, took a short nap, and headed out by tuk tuk to see a bit of the city. First stop was Town Hall, a bright white building from 1937. Some people go shopping, some to golf, but I rather like to go to public institutions. In a place teeming with police and security, the city offices were all open, and I wandered around. There were no computers anywhere, but stacks and stacks of paper and binders and such, which I ascribed to the power of the municipal unions, not to lack of funds.
I walked across the street and into Viharamahadevi Park, formerly Queen Victoria Park, a pleasant and fairly well kept green lung. Paused for an EGB, and shortly thereafter Mr. Rajendra appeared, introducing himself as the chief gardener and proffering identification. He offered to show me around, and his first few observations were compelling, so on we went. He knew a lot about tropical plants and I know almost nothing. I saw 1500-year-old banyans, rubber trees weeping latex, huge ficuses, philodendron, fragrant cinnamon and citronella, flying foxes (batlike creatures), nesting ants, a five-year-old elephant, a Buddha carved in Florence in 1956. At the end, I offered him Rs. 500 (almost $5), which I thought was fair in Sri Lanka. He pushed back, expecting more. It was a bit awkward, but when I closed my wallet he did not anger, but pointed the way. It was a good encounter. I walked on a bit. It was sunny and hot, and when I got back to the hotel, I paid homage to Willis Carrier, inventor of air conditioning.
A few scenes from my garden tour with Mr. Rajendra:
The conference ended with a reception and dinner at the old Galle Face Hotel, where I ate three nights earlier. I met a few new people, including some folks from the airline caterer LSG Sky Chefs, and a wonderful young fellow from a new catering company in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The party continued after dinner, but I had to get up about five the next morning, so I walked back to the hotel and clocked out.
Flew to Chennai (formerly Madras), India on Thursday the 10th. Arrived about 9:30, breezed through immigration, and waiting for me in baggage claim was Harish Gambhir, father of a long friend and former mentee at American, Nisha. When I met her 11 years earlier and she learned of my zeal for travel, she said I must visit her parents in Chennai. So there I was in a metro area of 7 million, capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, with 70 million.
We collected my suitcase and walked to the parking lot, where his driver and one his longtime employees, Surindra, were waiting. In no time we were in the snarled traffic that so defines large Indian cities. And we were in visual-overload mode, my head spinning in all directions to take in the bustle. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at their house in Thyagaraya Nagar (shortened to T. Nagar), an inner neighborhood of Chennai, where Nisha’s mom, Usha, was waiting to greet me. We sat down to a cup of tea with milk and fresh ginger, a beverage I would enjoy many times in the coming three days. Although I had breakfast on the plane, Harish and Usha insisted I eat another one. I changed into a cooler shirt and tucked into the first of many wonderful meals at their dining table. They are vegetarian, and I greatly enjoyed every repast. Since fingers are more common than silverware, I did need to explain my left-handedness; in that part of the world it’s considered unclean to use that hand, but I told them I washed well and could not really manage with my right paw.
After an hour I went with them to an appliance store.That bit of ordinary life set the tone for the visit: I wanted to see ordinary life in Chennai, and a trip to the Prestige store, filled with stoves, small appliances, and pots and pans was a great kickoff. They were having a variation of America’s “cash for clunkers” program – you brought in any appliance and they gave you credit toward a new one. After about 20 minutes I told Harish it was more fun than Disneyland. Next stop was a sort of Crate and Barrel place called Home Store.
We had lunch with their son Pranay, mostly talking about his very successful business, Narang, which imports upmarket European brands like Red Bull, Evian, Perrier, and Lindt. His wife Khushali came home from her clinic; she is a homeopathic physician. Then came their son Samay, 10, a friendly and outgoing kid, not afraid to hold his own with a Yank with a loud voice!
At about four, we headed south to Dakshina Chitra, “a nonprofit community service project of the Madras Craft Foundation for the promotion and preservation of the cultures of the diverse people of India, with emphasis on Tamil Nadu.” In short, an open-air museum with demonstrations of traditional crafts and ways. It was living history, and way cool. We got there late, but saw a few demos, including grinding rice into flour and palm-leaf etching, a wonderful and intricate art form. There were lots of interesting artifacts, long traditional and more recent, for example a frame loom brought by Swiss missionaries in the mid-19th century, which greatly sped the process of cloth-making, for which Madras and Tamil Nadu have long been famous (there was even a display on the popularity of plaid Madras clothing in the U.S. and Europe in the 1950s and ‘60s. We toured a traditional Tamil Nadu house, 400 years old, and admired ornate terracotta idols. It was a lot of fun.
We drove back via Eliot’s Beach, part of a strand that Harish said was the longest in the world Had a light dinner at a comfortable neighborhood restaurant, drove home, and clocked out. I was worn out from the all the visual and other stimulation. I had my own room with private bath and an efficient Carrier room air conditioner (thanks Willard!). Slept hard.
Harish is an early riser, and we were out the door at 6:15 for a walk around Nisha’s old college, Stella Maris, and a stop at Holy Angels Convent School, where she first studied. Harish and I met nuns at both places, and we had a nice conversation about the value of ecumenism. We were fully aligned. It was also clear that Harish was a very righteous person, always happy to help someone in need, whether someone looking to emigrate to America or a simple service worker at a restaurant or parking lot. After the walk we drove around a bit more, rolling freely before the morning rush (but driving still struck me as a huge challenge). We went through a seaside slum, grim, then, not a half-mile away, a zone of hotels and condos completed and under construction, returning to T. Nagar by way of a very posh neighborhood of business tycoons, senior government officials, and consulates.
After breakfast we continued the look at the vernacular and familiar with a drive down to Harish’s shop in Old Chennai, a really eye-popping, traditional place. It was raining and a little muddy, which added to the sense that the 21st century was a long way away.Harish’s father established the Bombay General Store to sell bulk grains, groceries, soap and other basics in 1953 (using money borrowed from jewelers down the street; I met the grandson of the kind lender later that morning). The store looked not much changed, and was doing a steady business, retail and wholesale. I later learned from Pranay that Harish and his two brothers built a small chain of supermarkets, but that Harish decided to separate after surgery a few years earlier, and now only looks after the original store.
After a visit at the store and a cup of tea, we explored. Similar retailers tended to co-locate, so we ambled through one arcade for bangle sellers, an alley of plastics merchants, a lane for costume jewelers (I saw the tendency elsewhere in the city, for example a few blocks of nothing but timber and plywood dealers).
The driver picked us up just as the rain increased, and we drove a couple of miles to the next regular place, Chennai Central railway station. The Transport Geek needed to see it, and Harish understood. It was way cool. We ambled around, then headed to platform 1 for the arrival of the Vasco da Gama Express, arriving from Goa, 900 kilometers west. The contrast with the modernization effort of the Chinese railways was striking – passenger cars and locomotives were old and worn, as was the station. Piles of goods were stacked on the platform. It all worked, but not with much efficiency.
One nearly ubiquitous fixture of the Chennai landscape were posters and murals with the image of the longtime Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, an old man in sunglasses, and his deputy chief, who was also his son. Indian democracy is a complicated matter. Enough said!
Next stop was Pranay’s office. Harish peeled off, and Pranay gave me a quick introduction to the enterprise. The modernity of all those fancy brands contrasted remarkably with the sacks of lentils at Harish’s store, but Pranay told me, in a very complimentary way, that he learned all the fundamentals from his dad. We repaired to a trendy café, Amethyst, in an old palace and lovely garden, a green lung. We ate a nice lunch outside. Khushali joined us. The driver brought me back to the house and I grabbed a quick nap. Travel in poor countries, even in the comfy manner that I was enjoying, has always been to me intense and thus tiring, and a little siesta was refreshing.
Last touring for the day was to Ritchie Street, center of the electronics business, shops and street stalls for all manner of new and used digital stuff. Guys were sitting on tables on the sidewalk repairing stuff. I met (and photographed) Mr. A. Akbar Basha, proprietor of Al-Mini Electronics; he and two colleagues were repairing speakers just out of the rain. In a place like India, almost everything has value and does not go in a dumpster, and this “electronics street” was a perfect example.We returned home by way of the seaside, taking a nice walk and at chat just at dusk. We remarked again at my good luck – the overcast skies and rain kept the temperature in the 80s, rather than the more normal upper 90s and even triple digits, with almost 100% humidity. On the way home, Harish called Nisha and I gave her a quick report on my 10X Disney experience in the Real Chennai. We had a nice dinner and chat.
We were up early again on the last day of my visit. Just before going to sleep, I checked my e-mail and found good news on a likely consulting assignment. I told Harish the next morning, and that launched a yak about God’s goodness. We prayed to our God in front of their home altar, giving thanks for all that we had. We headed out. Harish wanted to show me some temples in the early morning, all larger places of worship. It was good to see the believers, a range of them. At the second place, I received blessing on my forehead, red and ashes, which caused locals to wonder!
We paused for coconut water. Before returning home, we dropped a small birthday gift in a very poor neighborhood, meeting a young woman who used to work for the store; it was further proof of Harish’s goodness. He was a benevolent go-to guy.
After breakfast, Harish needed to go out, so I stayed at home and relaxed, then went with Usha to shops in Pondy Bazaar, a few blocks of shops less than a half-mile from their house. We were buying stuff for me to bring in a suitcase to Nisha and her family in Dallas – favorite sweets and salty snacks, dried fruit, some pans, and other stuff. We were back about an hour and I was feeling restless, so I told Usha I wanted to go for a walk, back to the bazaar. She was worried, sure I would get lost. I convinced her that a former geography professor could find his way, but she gave me her mobile phone just in case! All went well, and it was fun to amble around, back past the friendly mango seller (I waved; he waved) and the sweets shop, past stalls largely Muslim-owned. A nice outing. Usha was relieved when I returned at one.
Last outing was with Usha and Khushali to Nalli, a century-old sari shop also close to the house. The array of fabrics was bewildering – four floors of ready-made saris, bolts of cloth, and a limited stock of dresses and other ready-to-wear Western clothes. Khushali offered running commentary on it all. Enormous variety in price (the high end had gold or silver threads along the hems), regional style, color. It was eye-popping.
We had a late lunch and I grabbed another siesta, then showered, had a last cup of tea. Harish and Usha were busy loading the Nisha-bound suitcase. Harish had a friend at Sri Lankan Airlines who agreed to fly a bit extra, and one of the cooks was dispatched to a nearby grocery to weigh the bag. We had to take out some stuff. I said my goodbyes, took pictures of the family, and we headed out to the airport.
Harish accompanied me to the check-in, which went smoothly. We met the Sri Lankan duty manager, a senior manager for the airport (run by the national government), and a soon-to-retire fellow from Air India. We yakked about the challenges of airport operations and the need for those who work in corporate offices to see what really happens on the frontline. Indeed, I pulled out my laptop and showed them slides from my IFSA speech earlier in the week. It was a nice moment.
I gave Harish a hug, and threaded through immigration and security. In the waiting area, two young guys I met at the check-in desk tracked me down. One had graduated from a flight-dispatch program in the U.S. and asked about working there. I gave him my card and asked him to send his C.V. and I would do what I could. They asked if they could each get a picture with me. I felt honored, and it was a nice last vignette of the friendliness of people in that part of the world.
The homeward journey, 10,500 miles, was via Colombo. The first flight was more than an hour late, and I was among the last to board a Sri Lankan A330 for Frankfurt, but I made it. I slept hard, brought my e-mail and this journal up to date at the Admirals Club in Frankfurt, and flew home. It was nice to be back in Texas.