Monday, May 28, 2012

Sri Lanka Day 1: On the Road and Negombo

P.S.A - These are long because I like to recount all of my experiences. Feel free to skip through if you hate reading long posts.

Mood: Mellow yet motivated

Listening to: Stuart Little. Ugh, I really don’t care for cheesy children’s movies.

Bangalore Airport:
So. After our little snafu involving Yatra, we were all pretty stoked to get on the road again. A note about the Bangalore airport: it is neat, modern, and clean. I enjoy this airport. Another taxi ride to the airport, and we were in. Daddy G decided that getting some dollars would be a great idea because Indian Rupees don’t transfer into Sri Lankan Rupees. After locating the foreign exchange in the Bangalore airport,  Daddy G went to hunt down an ATM. He came back in a panic because the ATM had gone through with the transaction, but had not spit out any money. This was a problem for 2 reasons. ATMS have daily limits, which we would have almost certainly exceeded if the transaction was recorded, and we still didn’t have any rupees to convert to dollars. Daddy G thus spent the entire 1 hour flight to Chennai freaking the heck out. Our flight was short, pleasant, and completely uneventful. When we landed, he called the bank and was reassured that the transaction had not gone through. We all heaved a sigh of relief

Chennai Airport:
The Chennai airport is a lot older, not so clean, and not so well set up. Chennai is also a lot warmer and more humid than Bangalore. It hit us like a wet blanket the minute we walked off the plane and I was once again thankful for Bangalore’s weather. The domestic terminal and the international terminal are separate and you must exit one to get into the other. Daddy G was immediately concerned about getting to an ATM ASAP. We grabbed the girls and headed to the international terminal. Once we cleared security and found the foreign exchange counter, we found out the ATM was outside the international terminal. Daddy G headed back outside while I waited with the girls. This time (as opposed to the previous day), Daddy G got an airline official to go with him to go outside the terminal.

From Now on, things you should keep in mind are in red:
The police with very large guns will hassle you for leaving the terminal and trying to reenter without permission. If you need to leave for any reason, get permission and preferably an escort.

The airport is just about the worst place to visit a foreign exchange if you can help it. The rates are absolutely ridiculous.

ATM and foreign exchange business completed successfully, Daddy G finally felt like he could calm down, thank goodness, even though he was still a bit peeved about the high exchange rate. We only had 45 minutes between flights in Chennai, and by the time the foreign exchange guys were done fooling around, we really had to run quickly to immigration. This also took quite a while (because duh, it’s immigration), but thankfully the airport wasn’t busy and we made our flight.

If you are an American living in India, you will need your FFRO document (your registration to be in India for more than 6 months). You will not want to deal with customs if you did not bother to do this.

The flight to Sri Lanka was 1 ½ hour, short, sweet, and uneventful. They even gave out sandwiches, which were much appreciated at this point by Daddy G and I who were running only on coffee.

We were met at the Colombo airport by an even more oppressive wall of hot, wet air than Chennai. The airport, however, was clean, modern and stunningly unbusy compared to India. Customs and luggage was a breeze.  Daddy G only remembered he needed to change the dollars for rupees after we left the terminal, but at that point, we were unwilling to buy a pass to reenter the airport and ready to get on the road. We figured we could get rupees changed somewhere else.

Sri Lanka issues visas at the border for American citizens (which we all are) or you can pre-order them and print them from your computer at home. I suggest the second option as avoiding lines is a hobby of mine.

Our driver, Harry, met us promptly at the airport. Unlike india, Harry met us with a huge tourist bus type thing that could easily seat 8. We all piled in and took off. Harry suggested we stop at a grocery store and pick up some snacks and such because the hotels are way too expensive for snacks and water. This is excellent advice. While I can’t decide if it was Harry being nice or he tells that to everyone to create good will, it is absolute truth. We stayed at very nice resorts, and food was indeed, WAY TOO DAMN EXPENSIVE. Daddy G asked him to stop at a currency exchange too, which he did and it was much less painful than the Chennai foreign exchange.

Ask to stop at grocery stores and stock up on anything you want to eat that is non perishable. Cookies, chips, etc. And water. You will never, ever have quite enough water in the summer and the hotels will resort to extortion on water prices. I.E. 300 rupees for a 20 rupee bottle of water. It was so hot, we went through more than a gallon a day.

Our trip was arranged by Yatra, so we had transportation and a predetermined schedule. I’ll talk a little bit more on this and what it meant in the end of the series.

The drive to Negombo took all of 10 minutes and was a bit of a culture shock. Not in a bad way, but seeing quiet, empty-ish, clean streets is quite a change from what you see in India every day. Negombo is a town, but it’s a small one with a very village-y feel.  It is located north of Columbo on the Western side of the island on the ocean. Harry cautioned us not to buy souvenirs here as it was all a tourist trap type set up. I’m not sure if this was good advice or not. I’ll talk about Harry’s influence at the end also.  Negombo is 95% Catholic (according to Harry, who was also a Catholic), versus the majority being Buddhists elsewhere in the country,  so there were churches galore. For some reason, Harry drove very reasonably on the way to the hotel. Perhaps he didn't realize that I wouldn't freak out if he drove crazy, which he started doing the very next day. Sri Lankans are pretty sober drivers, but Harry could easily have been born and bred in India he was such a nut at driving.

Our Hotel was The Paradise Beach Hotel.
Hotel from the back
Yes, those are my adorable offspring. Feel free to admire.
It’s not all that fancy and has the air of a sea side resort that has gently decayed. That being said, the staff was beyond gracious, we were greeted with fresh fruit juice, and everything was kept neat and spotless, including the rooms.  After an amazingly short check in, we crashed in the room for an hour or two to recharge and relax. For some reason, our youngest only counted as ½ a person. All of our rooms were fitted with 3 single size beds, 2 shoved together, 1 separate. This however worked fine for the 4 of us as we all fit on the beds.  Since Daddy G usually goes gaga over the opportunity to snuggle with the girls and I love having a bed to myself occasionally, he slept with the girls most of the time. Unfortunately, since we all in the same room, and usually the same beds, there was no vacation sexy time for us.  This is the only hotel room I didn’t take a photo of, mainly because there was nothing outstanding about it, it was just a hotel room.

After relaxing, we donned our swimsuits and headed out for the pool. It wasn’t huge, but it was more than sufficient for us to chill out in. The girls played in a kiddie pool, which was fabulous, since the youngest cannot swim at all and the big pool would have required one of us to hold her at all times. We got to see the set up and photos for 2 Sri Lankan weddings, one of which was held at this hotel.

It wasn't dark when we swam, but this is the best photo of the pool I took

If you go to a hotel with a pool, do not expect refreshing water. Sri Lanka is hot as balls in the summer (if you don’t go up in the mountains) and the water is also bath temperature at best.

We enjoyed it anyhow. As tourist season is almost half way across the calendar, we had the pool almost completely to ourselves. Earlier, Harry had assured us that had it been tourist season, this hotel would have been packed to the gills. During our stay, I did not see one other person staying in the hotel – it was a little unnerving, but Daddy G and I prefer things that way. More on tourist season at the end too. After our swim, we wandered out the back courtyard and onto the beach. This was the best feature of this hotel for me. The ocean was too rough to swim in at the time, but it was fun to sit in the sand and let the kids build sand castles.

 We stuck our feet in the ocean and were stunned to note that the ocean felt like bath water too. It was downright warm. When we were done, we decided to head back for some showers and hopefully get back out on the beach to watch the sunset.  There was also a pretty cool palm woven type hut on the beach. I’m pretty sure it was set up by a local and we really didn’t go snooping around. It was really cool to look at though.

Unfortunately with every beach trip, some sand or other will get squirreled away in swimsuits. Daddy G had a little mini tantrum about sand on the floor for the hotel folks(he’s uber considerate like that), even though we had all showered outside by the pool. After we had showered and cleaned up the floor as best we could, we headed out. Daddy G was not going anywhere near the sand again, so we decided to head down the hotel strip outside. There were multiple kitsch shops and small bodega type stores on one side, and a straight line of ocean front hotels on the other. It was fun looking for about 5 minutes.

Sri Lankan shop owners are pretty damn pushy, even if you just glance from the sidewalk.

After living in India for 8 months and having people generally leave me alone unless there was eye contact or a spoken request, this was definitely weird for me and I ended up moving as quickly as possible around stores. I largely felt like a jerk because everyone wanted to say hi, but if I replied, it inevitably led to harassment about coming in and looking around, which I didn’t want to do. So I just kept walking.

We decided we were hungry and were going to try to eat outside. This was an excellent decision as later in the trip, we would be desparate to eat anything BUT hotel food. We avoided the places that looked pretty fancy and geared towards tourists and headed to a small restaurant with outdoor seating. I wish I could remember the name, but I didn’t write it down. Hungry to try Sri Lankan food, we ordered some fried noodles and fried rice for the girls. These ended up being ubiquitous items on all the menus we saw, but at the time, we were thrilled to find something we knew they would eat. Daddy G and I ordered some Deviled Fish appetizer (Grilled fish chunks coated in sweet and sour sauce) that was fabulous, chicken curry, and some white rice. The curry was spicy with a lot of black pepper and coconut in it, but yummy. 

Had we realized that 1 dish at normal restaurants could have fed us all comfortably, we would have ordered much less. The fried rice and noodles looked like they came on serving trays, rather than plates and it was really heaped on there. Strangely, the waiter who took our order didn’t say anything about the amount of food we ordered. Another waiter who later delivered our food chided us for ordering so much and then wasting it at the end of the meal. It was kind of annoying since we didn’t know, but the food was excellent, so we just let it go. Every meal comes with papadams (fried crispy stuff) and coconut sambal (coconut, chiles, and salt).

Hey, look at that. My face is on the internets. You can commence stalking if you like, but I tend to get stabby. You've been warned.

We wandered back to the hotel slowly. Daddy G stopped to buy some shampoo and conditioner and was furious to realize that they wanted 350 rupees each for them, and they were some tiny midget sized bottles. I’ll get into conversion rates and prices at the end. We didn’t bring any, figuring the hotel would provide them (really, I thought this was standard operating procedure), but this hotel didn’t. With 3 girls with semi long hair, you just can’t go without.

We stayed up for a while and watched the pageantry of a Sri Lankan wedding going on right outside our window for a while. It was very loud, and very bright. Strobe light type bright. I felt very sorry for the bride and groom as their formal clothing looked like it would smother them in the heat by the end of the night, but they looked beautiful. There were a lot of flowers and lots of loud music.

Lots of flowers and fancy clothing
Daddy G and the girls sacked out pretty quickly. I decided to stay up and get some work done (I know, I’m a bit masochistic taking my work along on vacation, and I’m not even sure why I didn’t just let my boss know I’d be gone) since I had a plug in for my laptop and some free wifi. I got a nasty headache about 15 minutes later and decided to go to bed, figuring that I would have plugins and wifi for the rest of the trip so it wouldn’t be a big deal to work the next day. Unfortunately, the party didn’t stop until almost midnight and I really felt like stabbing someone with a rusty fork by the time they finally turned the music off because it’s just difficult to sleep when there’s a disco outside your 

Next up: Sigriya.


  1. Very interesting and I read the whole thing. The pictures are great and I love getting to see you and your kids! The first picture of them was too small for me to get a proper idea of their cuteness - but the one with you and one of your daughters is adorable.

    Thanks for sharing part I of your trip - and I'm looking forward to the next bit. And by the way, the sand on the hotel floor, with your husband's reaction, was a nice human touch that I really enjoyed ;-)

  2. Thanks for your kind words! I'll try and include a closer pic of my youngest too.
    My husband is a great guy but he tends to freak out about some small things. :-)