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Negombo: Going Deaf?

Jan 9-11, 2011: The first thing I noticed about Sri Lanka, being driven from Colombo airport to the tourist enclave of Negombo, was the quiet. Was it possible that my comfortable car was sound-proofed? Was I going deaf? Well, no. I quickly realized that the Sri Lankan drivers maintained lane discipline, and didn’t drive with one hand on the horn. But after six weeks in India, I had grown so accustomed to the continuous honking that accompanied any car trip on urban roads, that the quiet seemed almost eerie.

Just as my ears were no longer assaulted by the sounds of India, my eyes were spared the trash that fouled the streets of almost every Indian city. I had seen Sri Lanka described as India-lite. At first sight it was certainly India-clean and quiet. It seemed amazing that traveling such a short distance could have produced such a noticeable change. It surely also invalidated the excuses I heard for the dirt and chaos in India. True, Sri Lanka was a smaller country, but it had only just ended a vicious and long-lasting civil war.

Traditional boat off the coast at Negombo

About the car and driver – I had wound up planning for Sri Lanka over Christmas, with internet but without a guidebook, and finally took the line of least resistance and booked with Boutique Sri Lanka. Instead of taking trains and buses I would have a car and driver for the whole trip, plus they arranged all my hotels. While I certainly wasn’t staying at luxurious places like Tea Trails, I was definitely blowing my budget

Visitors to Sri Lanka are generally advised to spend their first night in Negombo, rather than tackling Colombo. In fact, they’re often advised to avoid the capital altogether. Since I wanted to see Colombo (my father had been stationed there during WWII) I had decided to start in Negombo and finish in Colombo. When I couldn’t get a reservation for the accommodation I wanted in Yala National Park, I added an extra night to Negombo.

Even though I had been prepared for Negombo to be touristy, the continuous row of cafes and souvenir shops still suprised me. My hotel, the Villa Araliya, was down an alley at the far end of the strip. My room, while a good size, was unexpected. The one double and one single bed were built from concrete, and just one single top sheet was provided. While the shower itself was fine, no hot water was available from the tap beneath the shower or at the sink. I fought a consistently losing battle with the door lock. I saw no sign of the supposedly welcoming owners when I arrived, and when I went down in search of coffee and internet and information, I assumed the woman who helped me locate coffee was another guest. Not until they greeted an arriving couple did I identify my hosts. I did not feel welcome.

Concrete beds

At breakfast I met a couple of long-term travelers – a Canadian and her NRI husband – starting their fifth year on the road. We shared a rickshaw down the street to the Ice Bear, a popular budget guesthouse, for lunch. The food was fine, but took forever to arrive, and while the place was on the water it looked pretty basic. I ate rather better in the evenings: a good Wiener schnitzel and fries at Bijou the first night, and an excellent sampler of Sri Lankan dishes at pricey Lords the second. The lobster, pear and lemongrass soup was a little tasteless, but I loved the spicy prawn curry, and enjoyed the dal and spinach, and pea and cashew curries. Between the wine with the meal, the Cointreau I treated myself to with coffee, and the free apple schnaps that arrived with the bill, I had something of a hangover the next morning!

January in Sri Lanka is still high season, one reason I had booked through an agency, and I should have been met by blue skies and bright sunshine. Instead, most of the time I was in Negombo it rained, and the Cultural Triangle area, my next stop, had been suffering from floods. Not an auspicious beginning.

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