I had woken up from a short nap. Lights inside the aircraft were dim but outside the window the sun was rising, its first rays illuminating the blue waters of the Persian Gulf and the golden sand of the great Arabian Desert. It was my first glimpse of the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. This sight evoked strange emotions. Nearly a hundred years ago, my grandfather, then a young man, crossed this gulf on a ship in search of a better life. Soon the plane started descent and by the time we landed at Abu Dhabi airport, the sun had fully risen and the day was very bright. We walked through the tunnel into the airport. Those were my first steps on a foreign land.
We had a couple of hours in transit in Abu Dhabi. I was accompanied by my friend Asif whose twitter handle describes him as “Doctor, freelance writer, amateur film maker, wannabe photographer, hopeless wanderer, a third-degree procrastinator and worse…”. So one fine day, Asif sends a message to me. It reads “Let’s go to Sri Lanka” and I reply “Why not”. I don’t say no to travel unless I absolutely must. I was out of town for a week on a rather complicated business so everything from research to planning and booking was left to Asif.
I came back to Lahore three days before the flight, attended some more business, packed my bags and followed Asif into an Etihad Airways aircraft like a devoted disciple.
We took a good tour of the airport, had some breakfast and eyed duty free outlets, taking mental notes about shopping on our way back. I especially liked the huge corridor with a beautiful view of the aircraft parked near the terminal, comfortable chairs and books and magazines to read. When we boarded the conveyor bus, I noticed that most of the passengers travelling to Sri Lanka were European. Must be a great tourist destination I thought, since I knew next to nothing about the place I was travelling to except that it’s an island of tea gardens, elephants and great Buddhist temples.
Under the shining sun and over a burning desert, the aircraft took off and headed towards Sri Lanka. The navigation screen was showing that after leaving the coastline of Oman, we were to fly over the Indian Ocean for most part of the journey, except a few minutes over India’s southern tip, before finally landing at Colombo.
I wasn’t going to miss the aerial view of India so I set my watch accordingly and retired for a rest.
After about four hours in the air, the vast coastline of the Indian peninsula came into view. The city by the sea was Kochi. There it was, my first proper sight of India. It’s beautiful green landscape, lakes, hills and so many red roofs. Just a few minutes later, the plane took to the ocean again.
As the aircraft started its descent towards Colombo, the Sri Lankan coastline was completely enveloped in low altitude rain clouds. Past the thick layer of clouds, I glimpsed a beautiful view of the countryside spread across the horizon in dark green (of the trees) and dull red (of the rooftops).
Once we landed at Bandaranaike International Airport, the fresh air felt moist on our faces. It had been raining in Colombo. The sky was full of clouds, and palm trees in the far distance were swaying in the cool air. Bandaranaike International is not a very busy airport but nevertheless, very clean and organised.
Until recently, Pakistanis didn’t need visa for Sri Lanka at all. It is much the same except that you have to submit an application and get an approval from the embassy. Visas are stamped at arrival in Colombo.
We went through the necessary formalities and came out in the waiting lounge. The crowd was comfortably sitting on chairs waiting to receive passengers, unlike Pakistani airports where the crowd at arrivals exit sometimes becomes a nuisance for airport authorities and arriving passengers.
Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities offer very lucrative mobile phone packages inclusive of sufficient international calling minutes and country-wide data connectivity. Asif ordered an Uber cab and we came out of the airport.
The first thing you notice outside the airport is a golden statue of Lord Buddha. It was the very first of literally hundreds (if not thousands) of Buddha statues we came across in our journey throughout Sri Lanka. From little unattractive statues placed on dashboards of taxicabs to the masterpieces of craftsmanship in great temples, Sri Lanka is the country of the Buddha.
The airport is some 30 kilometres away from downtown Colombo, meaning one has to take a highway to reach the city which makes its way through semi-rural, lush green landscape. Past the rural areas, the road leads to crowded suburbs and then to the heart of the city.
Downtown Colombo has beautiful colonial era architecture, grand old markets, embassies, government buildings, high-rise towers, monuments, memorials, statues and parks. Horse riding traffic police are stationed at every great square of the city and thousands of people can be seen going about their routine lives. A typical Sri Lankan woman dresses in a graceful skirt and blouse. Older people are mostly lungi and sari clad. Youngsters favour casual western-wear over formal and traditional clothing.
We stayed at a little resthouse in Police Park Avenue. This area was in the middle of the city, conveniently connected to all major attractions. By the time we reached our lodgings, the sun had set. We rested a bit before coming out in the glittery night of Colombo. It was a pleasant late September night and we were walking on a footpath along a broad avenue with consulates, residencies, and government offices on both sides. The road was dimly lit and shaded by grand old trees. The area was quiet and peaceful at this time of the night.
After walking a few hundred metres, we came across a beautifully illuminated monument on our left. It was the Independence Arcade. A curious mix of local and colonial architectural influences, the arcade was originally constructed in 1899 to house a lunatic asylum, which it did for many decades. Later on, the asylum was shifted elsewhere and the compound served various purposes for many more years until its vintage value was recognised. It was finally restored in its original image and converted into an upscale shopping complex.
The Independence Arcade houses various brands and fancy restaurants. Its fine round arches and slanting roofs were glowing in yellow light. At the centre of the compound there’s a fountain with handsome statues of lions on all four corners.
We made the next stop at Laksala, a countrywide chain of souvenir shops run by the government to promote tourism. Laksala had a beautiful outlet near University of Colombo and offered all Sri Lankan attractions under one roof. There were various types of Sri Lankan tea, herbal products, traditional ayurveda medicines and remedies, antiques, masks, artifacts, handicrafts, statues, clothing, paintings, and all sorts of souvenirs. Buddha had an entire section to himself with statues in various sizes, colours and materials.
We had actually left the resthouse to find a good dinner. Someone had highly recommended Upali’s restaurant to Asif. So, we took a tuk tuk (rickshaw) from Laksala and reached an attractive commercial district.
Upali’s had a spacious dining area and a welcoming feel to it. We settled down. An unfamiliar tune was playing. I couldn’t appreciate it. There were two huge portraits beside the reception. I asked a waiter about them. What I could make of his little English and many gestures was that probably one of the portraits is of Mrs. Bandaranaike, former Prime Minister, and the other portrait is of her son who owns the restaurant. A wall displayed a great collection of dinner plates autographed by celebrities who had dined at Upali’s. I could only recognise the names of cricketers Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga. On tables around us, middle class families and couples were having dinner.
I was getting a familiar feeling as if I had been here before, through a movie or a book. They weren’t strangers to me. Right in front of us, in a dimly lit corner, a beautiful young couple was having a great time. They looked perfect together, and all of a sudden the music started making sense to me. I realised that back in Pakistan owing to our obsession with fairness of skin I hadn’t before seen a coloured couple so happy with each other.
The food turned out to be disappointing. It was perhaps the only disagreeable thing in our entire stay in Sri Lanka. Maybe it has something to do with the oil they use or herbs or spices they add, but Sri Lankan food has a strange flavour which didn’t agree with me. They complement every single item of food with a combination of red chilies and crushed coconut. My halal food predicament was avoided by consuming only seafood.
Unfortunately, I have a problem with seafood. I can only consume boneless and thoroughly fried fish with zero odours. So, I was left with only one option: vegetarian cuisine. A dish of noodles fried with chopped vegetables was presented to me. I had certainly seen better eating days. The coconut water further dampened my spirits.
But food aside, this first day in Colombo turned out to be the harbinger of our days to come: exciting, vibrant and rich.