Just before our honeymoon, we received an apologetic letter from the travel agent we had used to book explaining that due to unforeseen circumstances, they had to cancel our trip and refund our money. This was not welcome news. We had weeks in which to find another holiday and it needed to be somewhere special. My wife to be was too upset so the task fell to me. I had never taken a package holiday in my life and every page in every brochure looked remarkably similar to me.
There was one location that called out to me. I don’t really know why, but Sri Lanka sounded exotic and I didn’t know many people who had been there. It also had the considerable merit of fitting within our beleaguered budget. I phoned my partner to explore the idea and she readily agreed. Moments later, the trip was booked. There was a note of mischief in my partner’s voice and she knew I didn’t want to go anywhere too adventurous so I looked up Sri Lanka.
I read with alarm that the island lay close to the equator with a tropical climate and that it had the highest incidence of snakebite death of any country in the world. It was going to be my first visit to Asia and the culture was completely different to anything I had ever experienced before. Still, the Arabs liked the island so much, they named in Serendib (which is the origin of the word Serendipity).
When we stepped off the plane, I assumed that we were in the wash of the nearby engines, but as we walked towards the terminal I realised that it really was that hot. Inside the Terminal, it was chaos. I have never seen so many people scurrying around like ants. Eventually we located our luggage among the unlikely items spinning around the luggage carousel such as fridges and parcels tied up with string and made our way to the Coach.
Our escort explained that the hotel lay 38km away so the journey would take approximately 3 hours to get there. The flight had taken 11 hours from Heathrow, so we were both shattered and assumed that one of those figures must be wrong, but as we wound our way through the roads of the capital, we began to understand why.
Outside the coach windows, there was bedlam. The roads teemed with bicycles, motorbikes, trikes (called Tuk Tuks we were to learn), cows and elephants. We were used to traffic travelling in an orderly fashion. There were vehicles on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes it looked like there was going to be a head on collision before one vehicle or another gave way. All this was played out to a cacophony of car horns. Some like klaxons. Some playing out a melody. All of them noisy.
There were paradoxes everywhere we looked. A line of children dressed in pristine school uniforms filing their way out of a hut at the side of the road. A stunning car dealership standing amongst a number of ramshackle dwellings made of oil drums and wooden pallets. A lady fastidiously sweeping the small area outside her hut. Western fast food outlets serving unrecognised Asian variations on their menus.
Arriving at the hotel, the tiredness seeped away as we tucked into a welcome cocktail. The complex lay on the coast amongst a stunning rainforest backdrop next to a single railway track. The noises coming from the trees sounded like a special kind of music to me. A constant varying chorus of insects and birds, the occasional interjection by some kind of ape all accompanied by the sound of the wind through the trees.
Stowing our things quickly, we were eager to explore so we set out around the complex. The accommodation surrounded a large grassy area with a wooden shaded bar in the centre. Playful chipmunks crawled around the bar area and danced among the tables. The staff were friendly and it didn’t take too long for the chipmunks to come over and introduce themselves either. They would jump onto your table and look at you as if to ask for a chip. If you gave them one, they held them vertically in both hands whilst periodically nibbling.
At Dusk each night, a couple of guys went around the complex carrying a lantern ringing a small bell every so often. We asked a member of staff why they did it. He shrugged and told us it was a ritual. I asked why they seemed to be in such a tearing hurry, eager to know the back story behind this “ritual”. The guy looked furtively in each direction to make sure no-one was listening before bending down to tell us conspiratorially that the ritual had been invented by a visitor from the travel agency and the reason they dashed around was because they thought it was ridiculous.
The hotel had an onsite elephant which made several appearances resplendent in a gold filigreed howdah and bejewelled cape. Lizards clung to the hot hotel walls and occasionally you could see a long line of huge ants making their way nonchalantly across the path. As we walked across the lawn one day, I saw a snake just by Julie’s feet. Knowing that it was best not to make any sudden noises, I delayed telling her until later, which was just as well because when I did, she made a lot of noise.
Venturing outside meant crossing the railway track. Hoards of cyclists went past in each direction. Each of them smiled and waved. Many of them said hello. I was amazed at how friendly everyone was. A steam train rattled slowly past. If you think your morning commuter train is crowded – this train had people on the roof, people hanging onto the sides and people precariously hanging out of the windows.
Someone had told us about a shop called Liberties in the nearby town so we hired a tuk tuk one day. I had imagined a glass fronted shop, but this was more like a narrow horse box with a stable door on the front. Inside the walls were covered in shelves piled high with clothes of all descriptions. An army of young boys crawled acrobatically up the shelves retrieving anything requested.
Our Sri Lankan odyssey was over all too soon and it had been the perfect holiday. The lead up to getting married can be quite stressful and we arrived back after two weeks invigorated and excited by everything we had seen. We must return one day, because there is plenty of Sri Lanka that remains undiscovered to us. If it hadn’t been for the apologetic letter from the travel agent, we probably never would have gone there – serendipity indeed!