Bandaranaike International Airport. Arrival time 3am. We hit the restroom, purchase our visas, make our way through customs and grab my pack at the baggage claim. We activate the Dialog SIM card we were given upon arrival and reach out to our CouchSurfing host, only to find out he is far less accommodating than we expected. So we are left to fend for ourselves, with no easy way of figuring out transportation into the city or a place to stay for the night. We’re jetlagged, disoriented, and alone. We need a plan.
It’s dark, pouring down rain, and the WIFI connection kicks us off every four to six minutes. Determined not to leave the safety of the airport without so much as directions to a hostel, we find a few chairs and wait for the sun to come up. We finally exit the airport around 6:00am in search of the main bus station. Met with a fierce crowd of busses, vans, taxes, and tuk-tuks, we fight our way across the parking lot. Several men approach us, “Taxi? Taxi, ladies?” “No … shuttle? Bus station?” we respond, almost in unison. But no one wants to tell us where the shuttle is, instead they name a price, then knock off a few hundred rupees when we decline. We say no thank you again, and walk away. This continues for about 15 minutes, when a young French couple bump into us, quite literally, and point to a bus that’s pulling away.
Throwing their hands up as they flag down the bus, they quickly explain that it’s cheaper – only 100 rupees compared to the 2500 hundred for a taxi. They say they are taking it to the train station. There’s a lot of commotion between the two of them, the two of us, and the two men running the bus. There’s wild hand gestures and taxis driving between all six of us and our broken conversation. There’s a plethora of aggressive honking and unrecognizable words. Then one of the men on the bus yells two very important words, “Bus station!” We had sat in the airport for 3 hours, then were aimlessly misguided in all directions in the massive parking lot. We had no WIFI connection. No phone service. And no time to think. Without hesitation we board the bus. I try to pay, but the unrecognizable words just get louder, until I finally understand one, “Seat! Seat!” I quickly cram my one hundred rupee bill back into my pocket and find a seat on the semi empty bus.
We make our way out of the maze of motorized vehicles and onto the main road, Negombo road. One of the men on the bus shuffles his way down the aisle, takes the French girls pack from the seat in front of her, and ever so politely places it on her lap. He moves on to Hillary, takes her hand in his and kisses it, picks up her pack seated next to her, and gingerly places it on her lap as well. He then opened the curtains to her window, offering her a better view of the chaos outside. He turns to me, but I have already took the hint and placed my pack in my lap, so he adjusts it just a bit as if to help disperse the weight in an even manner, opens my curtains just a bit more, and smiles proudly at the sight of his city before making his way again to the front of the bus. Hillary moves over to the seat next to me as the bus stops more frequently and begins to fill to maximum capacity. A 40 minute bus ride turns into 2 hours, thanks to morning rush hour traffic. I’m hungry, exhausted, hot, cramped, and having a difficult time breathing in the humid air. I take note, once again, of how we aren’t even sure where we are going, although I know we are headed in the right direction. Any direction away from the airport seemed to be the “right” direction. Hillary engages in small talk with a local man sitting to her left on a makeshift chair in the middle of the aisle as I look out the window and indulge in a weak moment, second guessing what exactly it is I’m doing here. Of course that’s when Hillary turns to me and asks me what I’m thinking. Exasperated I respond, “Oh, I’m just going where ever this bus is taking me, and I’ll be where I’m at when it gets me there.” We laughed, realizing that was both a silly, and obvious statement to make.
3 flights, 2 layovers, and 1 bus ride later we blindly walked the length of the joint bus/train station in central Colombo. If it wasn’t for the kindness of a local man, tracking us down and gesturing to the almost hidden “Tourist Information” sign pointing to a door tucked away between the hustle and bustle of ticket booths, we’d probably still be wandering the streets of Colombo; our hair matted to the beads of sweat on our foreheads, our damp clothes clinging to our bodies.
We entered the small quiet room and were greeted by an older man sitting at a wooden desk, the burning incense in the corner filled the air with a thick smoke that made the whole ordeal seem rather mystical. He was small in stature, with graying hair and a kind, but weathered face. We gave him a hostel name, unsure of how far it was from our current location. Through a heavy accent he told us he wasn’t sure about that hostel, then pointed across the street to a sign that read, “Colonial Hotel.” He told us he himself had stayed there the night before, that it was clean and only 1700 rupees (12.00 USD) for a private room with double beds and in a good location. Quite the deal, since we were prepared to pay 1200 (8.50 USD) per bed in an 8 bed dorm at a hostel we hadn’t yet figured out how to locate. And taking into consideration the fee of the tuk-tuk we would have to pay to get us there, decided the Colonial Hotel would suffice.
We expressed our gratitude, opened the door, and poured out into the madness of Sri Lankan everyday life. I’m pretty sure I came close to getting hit by a bus, a tuk-tuk, and a scooter at least twice before making it across the street, despite the best efforts of the crossing guard. Later I was told that there are indeed traffic laws, but that they are not enforced. It is not uncommon to see three vehicles in one lane, and the bigger the vehicle, the more leeway it has.
We approached Colonial Hotel, situated above a restaurant; the potent scent of curry wafting out into the street. After climbing two flights of stairs we trudged down a stuffy hallway, sweat drenching our clothes and our faces flushed from the heat. Upon finding the owner, we smiled and exchanged short courtesies. He jotted down our passport numbers, handed us two towels, and led us to room 18. An hour later we were showered, in clean clothes, and laying on cool bed sheets in our hotel room. A bit recharged and ready for round two of day one, we set out to find some elephant pants we’d heard so much about, and check out the local grub.
The streets of Colombo are scattered with stray dogs, run-down buildings, and colorful signs of all sizes. Busses rule the road, tuk-tuks challenge them with their horns, and scooters weave in and out of the tight spaces between them. Hillary and I laughed at how naïve we had been, back in the states while planning this trip. We had bought our international drivers license and said to friends, “Once we arrive in Colombo we’ll just rent a scooter and be on our way.” Thinking we could avoid transportation fees and confusing train and bus schedules. It would just be us and the open road! Open road? Yeah. We’re idiots.
We may have started our first day in Colombo off on the wrong foot, but luckily we both have two! With full bellies, and feeling much more comfortable in our newly purchased loose fitting trousers, we withdrew into the solace of our hotel room. The mayhem of the previous 48 hours faded and the reality of where we were set in. Sri Lanka, a tropical island country, with secrets I had yet to uncover. I fell asleep that night under the rhythmic motor of the ceiling fan, the white noise of foreign conversation down the hall, and barking street dogs in the distance. A breeze came in through the open window and I breathed easy. So many thoughts swimming around my head; some of upcoming adventures, the exotic places I’d see and the new friends I’d make. And some of home – a very far away place that I didn’t miss much at all.