My ship docked at night in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka. It was harder than expected to reach this third country without taking a plane. Back on 9th November, I entered India after having read some reassuring information about the existence of a naval connection between Chennai (India) and Malaysia or Singapore and knowing that I could not go overland further east through Myanmar because of the military regime there. After further research, I got in contact with some tradeship companies offering their services to limited numbers of tourists. All of them told me it was not possible to get on or off these ships in any Indian port - that was the first surprise!
Determined, I started searching for another means of transport by sea. It wasn’t long before I came across some excellent news: after thirty years without maritime services between India and Sri Lanka because of the civil war on the island, a twice-weekly connection on a luxurious new ferry, the Scotia Prince, had started operating a few months before between Tuticorin, in Tamil Nadu, and Colombo. My enthusiasm was sky-high, things seemed sorted!
Early in December I decided to start contacting Scotia Prince staff for information on the forms necessary for departure. While surfing the net looking for contacts, I came across the fresh news that the Scotia Prince was illegal and been impounded – what a let down! The reasons for this were not clear as the authorities of the two countries gave different versions.
But I didn’t give up. I decided to learn as much as possible while moving slowly south towards Sri Lanka by asking all the travel agencies if they knew of any means of transport that could suit me. Unfortunately, time passed by and no solution was found, every Indian giving me different information. All I could do was reach the southern ports and try for information there.
In Kerala, in the last week before my visa ran out, I reached the capital following suggestions found on the net. After the umpteenth exhausting journey on a very hot public bus I discovered that the port was inhabited only by fishermen and there were no suitable ships for me. I next went to the tourism offices of the two regions of southern India, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The employee in the Tamil Nadu office said vaguely that there might be a Chennai-Colombo connection and gave me a phone number to call. I did - but got only another negative answer. At that point, I decided to play my last card, which was to... you’ll find out in my book!
After a sleepless night in a very humid room with the lowest temperatures in Colombo around 25°C, I took the first bus from the outskirts where I had stayed for the night to Fort railway station, in the centre of the modern capital. I immediately noticed big differences with India as far as rubbish management and street cleaning goes. Looking at Colombo, Sri Lanka appears a well-off country, the promenade extending to the city center has many commercial activities, from restaurants and large supermarkets to shops and banks. But the real wealth can be seen in Fort, where luxury buildings and hotels are surrounded by monuments from the colonial days.
I reached the railway station, bought a ticket for Kandy and a Sri Lankan sim card, then had a large breakfast of egg rolls and nicely spiced vegetable rottis (spring rolls of egg and vegetables). I talked to two monks on their way to Kandy, the holy city of this mainly Buddhist country. Kandy is famous as the only stronghold to resist the Portuguese and Dutch colonial invasion for centuries, until the British managed to conquer it in the 19th century and unify the country under their dominion. Kandy is a pilgrimage destination for many monks because of the sacred relic of the tooth of Buddha contained in the Temple of the Tooth, which was attacked in 1998 by LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorists. The monasteries of the two most important monastic orders of Sri Lanka are in Kandy.
I boarded the train. Ten minutes before departure a sixth sense suggested I checked my passport but I couldn’t find it and I panicked! I think that one of the worst things that can happen to any traveller is to lose his or her passport; this was something that worried me more than illness or assault. I jumped off the train and raced towards the station bar, without feeling the ten kilos of my backpack on my shoulders, but I couldn’t find my passport there. Suddenly I remembered taking it out in the shop that sold me the sim card, so I rushed there to find the shopkeeper waiting for me with my beloved passport. I gave him an energetic hug as if he had saved my life. But there was no time to celebrate - the train was about to leave! Back I dashed, exhausted and sweating in the 34° of Colombo and, hearing the train start off, ignored the ticket check and only just managed to grab a handle and pull myself up into a third-class carriage to finally relax. I was among Sri Lankans, no tourists in sight and, as the minutes passed, enjoyed the trip more and more. Do you know the feeling of relief when you find a hotel and drop your backpack? I now felt the same as soon as I got on a means of transport. In my last nights in India I slept on a bus and a boat and after a few months of continuous movement was starting to see these means of transport as my new home.
Once in Kandy, I realised that room prices were not the same as in India and searched for hours for the cheapest accommodation. After several unfruitful enquiries at guesthouses, I came to an ex-temple where monks offered clean basic rooms. The courtyard was in a dilapidated state but the monks were calm and kind, and for the equivalent of €2 I took a room. In the afternoon I visited a meditation centre offering free lessons (donations welcome, however) and decided to start the next day, so if the experience turned out interesting I would be spending a few days in Kandy.