Travel

That Week in Sri Lanka

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It’s been over a week now since my best girl ‘A’ and I returned from a week-long trip to Sri Lanka. It was the first trip that we had managed to embark on together in the 13 years (or is it more?) that we’ve been friends. There are a lot of hangovers here – of memories, of photographs, of instances. While on one hand the two of us are constantly chatting with each other and rolling in laughter as we think about all the things we did, conversations with family and friends are a reminder of the shadow that loomed through the trip.

You see, we were in Sri Lanka at the time the country was shattered by the Easter Sunday explosions. The two of us were unwilling witnesses to the sudden and steady method in which the country’s stability unravelled. We were among the fortunate ones unaffected by the attacks but caught in the tensed days that followed.

It had taken A and me nearly three months to decide on the location for our first trip! From the Pyramids in Egypt, we had gone to the mountains of Switzerland, gone swimming (her!) in the clear waters of Maldives and explored the unexplored in Morocco and Jordan. Until we thought, “Let’s start small, shall we?” and zeroed in on the Emerald Island in the neighbourhood.

Why Sri Lanka? Because it is cheaper and it covered our demands of heritage – culture – good food – beaches – mountains. You can imagine the level of excitement that saw two women in their mid-30s squealing and wriggling in delight as we landed in Colombo late on April 20.

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The trip started on a discordant note – we were unable to trace the driver who was to pick us up from the airport and that put us off-kilter as we struggled to connect with our Indian travel agent and communicate our woes to the local travel agent. It took more than 30 minutes and not a little bit of fretting until the driver found us slumped in two chairs next to a hotel’s kiosk. As we hustled to the car, exhausted, one of us randomly commented: “I hope this doesn’t set the tone for our trip.”

Was it an omen? I’ll never know. What I do know is that it did set a tone for the coming week – days that resonated with fun and laughter, all overshadowed with nervous tension and a few sleepless nights.

All was well that Easter Sunday – we rolled out of Colombo at 8.30am as planned, driving towards our first destination – the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala where we were to ‘play with the elephants’. It was around 9.30am that we got an inkling of things changing.

Fuzzy brained and blurry eyed – because we’d dozed off 15 minutes into the journey – it took us a while to register frantic messages from family and well-wishers enquiring about our wellbeing. A and I were wondering what happened when we noticed the lazy mood in the car changing. Our driver, Shelton, was visibly agitated and the only cause we could surmise was the Sinhalese words wafting from the radio.

It was a news alert on my phone that unravelled the reasons for the messages and the tension set on the driver’s shoulders – A’s eyes grew wide as I read out news of six blasts in Colombo, turning Easter Sunday into the Black Easter as it is now called. By the time we assured the families and friends of our well-being, it was time to walk into the Pinnawala Elephant when it struck me: “A, we were sitting next to the Shangri-La Hotel kiosk at the airport,” I mumbled.

Somber over the thought of a city going through such tumult, we walked into the orphanage and, rather selfishly, forgot about Colombo in the company of elephants. Enamoured and enchanted by the pachyderms, even a frantic phone-call from our Ahmedabad-based travel agent couldn’t dampen our mood. In hindsight, A and I think, we were yet to understand the enormity of the situation in Sri Lanka.

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In fact, we were even a bit peeved at the driver’s nervousness and his apparent hurry to reach our accommodations in Anuradhapura. Here, our room keys were delivered to us with the latest updates
– the numbers of dead were staggering
– the government had announced a curfew
– our visit to the heritage site in Anuradhapura was dependent on whether it would be open the next day because of the “situation in Colombo” as the locals said.

The gods of travel were kind to us and we were able to stick to our schedule for Anuradhapura and move towards Dambulla, the next stop on our itinerary. Spirits were high and the mood was upbeat despite the occasional news updates, A missing her babies, all of which ended in random discussions of ‘remember when’ and ‘that time when’ interspersed with the occasional ‘what if we need to head back’.

Reality seeped in when A and I spoke to our friends in the media on Tuesday evening – by this time, the data services on our local service provider were unavailable and the only way to speak with people was if they called us, Whatsapp was available in spurts and other social media was a no show. A national emergency had been declared and we were tucked away in a sparsely populated resort. “The security has been heightened, an emergency has been declared and with the curfew in place, security is at an all-time high. It’s your choice really if you want to join the hundreds thronging the airports or brave it through,” a friend told us over the phone.

Call us brave or foolhardy, A and I decided to put on our extra-alert caps and finish the trip. A decision we did not second guess until we were in Kandy – one of the most popular tourist destinations with a footfall so high, that you would struggle to walk the streets without rubbing shoulders with a tourist. Or at least that’s what we were told by the locals. Because A and I had entered a city that seemed like a ghost town in comparison.

Imagine walking into a coffee shop at 6 pm when the streets are lit and there are more than a handful of people walking around. You place an order and turn to look out at the street at 6.20pm – the streets are empty, the only signs of life are your car, the driver and a bunch of people leering at you. That was Kandy for us on Wednesday and it scared the shit out of us! At the sight of the board announcing the Office of Assistant High Commissioner of India that we spotted on way to our hotel, A and I released audible shaky sighs – a sure sign of the scare we had received. Such was the panic that we did not even have the presence of mind to seek a hotel change and were willing to hole up in a room with broken bathroom fixtures, a lot of ants and a dripping air conditioner.

Had A and I been indifferent to the tension spreading across Sri Lanka? No. Both A and I have grown up and lived in cities that have battled terror attacks time and again. We’ve witnessed the resilience of human nature and are aware that whatever the situation, a city and its people will always bounce back. But even in those circumstances, we were always secure with family and friends. In Sri Lanka, from our first night in Kandy, A and I had only each other to depend on.

Conversations with locals in the city made us realise that hotel occupancies had plummeted by nearly 80% within two days of the blasts. With countries reaching out to travellers and warning them about possibilities of further attacks, a majority of tourists had chosen to cut short their trips and return home. The famed Kandy City Centre wore a deserted look – shop lights glittered and gleamed on the dejected faces of employees who glanced at us hopefully as we strolled pass their stores. Munching on food at the outdoor café of KCC turned into a case of jumpy nerves as we observed people walk in and out of the mall in a hurry, an Army jeep parked opposite as a few men in uniform walking around the street. The eeriness of the situation was enough to send A and me escaping to our rooms and locking us in – trust me when I say there are few things creepier than being the only occupants of a huge hotel with seemingly strange hotel staff for company. Such was the fright that A and I got; we agitated ourselves to the point of imagining the most dismal events that could befall us. That night also saw A and me put together an emergency bag that we were to grab in case we had to “make a run for it”. Funny as it sounds, that gave us a sense of security. Because starting Wednesday night, the two of us were the only souls in all the properties that we stayed in – be it in Kandy, Nuwara Eliya or Bentota.

As I look back, I find myself indulging in a grin at the wild thoughts of two women. But words fail to describe the stress we were in. This is not to say that we didn’t enjoy ourselves – the two of us had the time of our lives rubbing shoulders with the locals, attempting to converse with them about their past and sharing stories about our lives in India, especially the similarities in the cultures of both countries.

But certain situations and conversations left us disturbed. Like when the owner of a sparkling new eatery near Sigiriya informed we were their first customers of the week. Or when a much-renowned pub in Nuwara Eliya almost turned us away because they thought we were Sri Lankans. When the 23-year-old receptionist at our hotel in Nuwara Eliya said the owner had to send home nearly 15 of their staff members and the remaining were fretting over the uncertainty the future holds. “We are a hotel with 100 rooms and you are the only occupants. All our reservations till August 2020 have been cancelled,” said Dillon, adding “at this rate, it will take us not less than 6 to 8 months to recover. And those 6 to 8 months, unfortunately, are the prime tourist season for Sri Lanka.” Those older to him mumbled about having to face an unsettled economy and a life in strife merely a decade after the country emerged from three-decade-long civil war. “We’ve been hurt, we were recovering, and now we hurt again,” said Pillai, the restaurant manager at one of the properties.

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There is truth in the words, as is evident by the several news reports that have been released since Easter Sunday. With tourism being Sri Lanka’s “third largest and fastest growing source of foreign currency” in the year 2018 and Lonely Planet declaring the country ‘top destination for 2019’, there was expected to be a boom in tourism revenue. But as Reuters report states: “Net hotel bookings dropped a staggering 186% on average over the week following the attacks compared to the same period last year, data from travel consultancy ForwardKeys showed.” As per the same report that echoes what several other media houses pointed out: “Cancellation rates at hotels across the country averaged 70% as of Saturday.”

The hauntingly lonely beaches of Bentota are a testimony to these words. The expanse of an otherwise densely populated stretch of sun and sand remained empty of visitors as A and I spent an hour in the waters with a stray dog as a designated bodyguard. Every person walking by, mostly men, put us on the edge and we were ready to run away if needed.

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The last few hours in Sri Lanka, as we edged closer to Colombo, had taken a toll. The families were frantic after yet another explosion in the city on the Saturday after Easter Sunday, leaving A and me sleepless and cranky. The long lonely corridor of the hotel lobby added to our panic as I lay awake in the night, staring at the whirling fan and contemplating the possibility, if any, of leaving the country a few hours early. “What will we do for an entire day in Colombo” was the thought that whirled through my mind – a stark contrast to the reason why A and me had opted to fly out of Sri Lanka late in the day – we wanted to spend our last day in the Indian Ocean island exploring its capital city. That option had been taken away. Moreover, Shelton was only too glad to drop us off in the safety of the airport at the earliest. And we understand, imagine being forced to stay away from your family for work in such conditions.

And so we complied. Our last day in Sri Lanka was spent on the floors of the Bandaranaike International Airport like about hundreds of others who thought it prudent to reach the airport at the earliest. Settled on the airport floor outside the men’s urinal – for sheer lack of space – A and I pondered on the trip that had been. What caught us by surprise was that we had completed our trip despite the constant shadow and were already making a list of the places we hope to visit on our next trip to Sri Lanka. Quoting Professor Minerva McGonagall, perhaps it was “sheer dumb luck!” and the company of each other that kept A and me going on at a time. But a major role, I feel was played by the Sri Lankans who touched our lives during our short stay. From Shelton to the local travel agent, the tourist guide and security personnel tasked with checking our bags and body search, every Sri Lankan went out of their way to make our day that bit better, that bit safer. And that resilience in the face of such a suspicious environment is what bolstered us.

I believe that also answers frequently asked questions, “Will you ever return to Sri Lanka?”

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6 Comments on “That Week in Sri Lanka

  1. A very well written article…captures the jist of one of the most stressful trip you will ever have in your life. Glad you returned home safe and sound! Pray nobody has to undergo such stress and the people of Sri Lanka recover from this national crisis.

    1. Sri Lanka is a place I would recommend to anyone, and for more than a week…
      I absolutely understand what you mean! Every time I read something about Sri Lanka in the news, my heart hurts.

  2. Srilanka is an amazing country. I could imagine how stressful your journey could be. Glad you returned safe.Still the country is under fear. Hope everything gone be ok in srilanka soon.

  3. I’m speechless. Thank you for writing about your experience, it was very interesting to hear about it from your perspective!

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