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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Thursday, 31 September 2019

Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 468 pushed off on time from Gate 50 at Changi Terminal 2. The Airbus A330 was much less comfortable and much more cramped than the A380 I took from Sydney. By pure serendipity, the man I sat next to on SQ 222 was the same man I sat next to on SQ 468. What are the odds? He was a Sri Lankan man who had lived in Sydney for thirty years, lives on the Lower North Shore and consequently sees former Prime Minister John Howard doing his morning walks frequently, and was returning to Sri Lanka to attend to a family emergency.

The flight from Singapore to Colombo was only four hours. By the time we left Changi, it was after 1am Sydney time and I was tired, I couldn't concentrate on much except playing solitaire on the Krisworld in-flight entertainment system over and over again and failing.

I promised myself that I would stop playing solitaire after I had won three games, and by the time I had achieved my goal we were descending over the sprawling northern suburbs of Colombo. The city seemed to keep going on and on. The plane went out over the Indian Ocean and banked sharply to the right to get onto the approach path to Bandaranaike International Airport.

We arrived on time, I offered my fellow traveller my best wishes, and deplaned reasonably quickly. All the better to get to the slowest immigration queue I have ever seen. There was a heaving mass of people, perhaps a thousand of them if not more, congregating before the immigration counters. It was so disorganised, I couldn't quite tell where the tail of the queue was. I just picked a random spot and hoped for the best.

Like in airports everywhere, there were those queue barriers made of elastic seat-belt things strung between portable stainless steel poles. But they were laid out in such an appalling manner with chokepoints barely wide enough for one person giving way to huge enclosures where a hundred people might have stood. Behind me were a group of Mainland Chinese people constantly pushing up against me. Every time the person in front of me moved a single centimetre, the Chinese people would tap me on the shoulder telling me to move forward. I felt like turning around and shouting "listen, you people! In Australia, we respect people's personal space! So get lost!"

There was also a large Polish family pushing past everyone, and more Chinese people jumping the queue. Most people who jump queues tend to do it in a sly, furtive manner so as not to draw attention to their nefarious deeds. These people, however, had not one ounce of shame. It was blatant, it was brazen, and they didn't even turn a hair when I muttered "cao ni ma!" at them.

I had plenty of time to study the immigration officials. I earnestly came to the conclusion that they were all doped up on Valium. I have never seen people work so slowly. I swear some were actually comatose. Some would argue with the prospective visitor who would then get exasperated and wave their documentation around, which would make the officer go even slower as he fumbled through his desk looking for the right stamp.

When I got to the head of the queue the space between the elastic belt barriers was about five people wide. The immigration officers in turn would motion to one of the people at the head of the queue to indicate that it is their turn to be processed. I waited and waited as everyone else was beckoned except me. In the end, I went up to the counter even though the official had beckoned the person next to me. I was there first.

I passed at least a dozen duty free shops specialising in washing machines - not perfume, not jewellery, not alcohol, but laundry equipment - and went to baggage claim where I only had to wait thirty seconds. The immigration queue was so slow that my backpack had probably been happily riding on the carousel for the best part of an hour. I passed customs and changed my Australian money into Sri Lankan rupees. Here's another Urban Reverie's Hot Travel Tip: never, ever, EVER change your money in Australia. It's a rip-off. The bureau de change at Kingsford Smith Airport was selling Sri Lankan rupees at 85 to the Australian dollar. The spot price on financial markets was 129 LKR to the AUD. At Bandaranaike, I bought LKR at 123.36 to the AUD.

It was time to find a taxi. There is an airport bus to Colombo but it was 1am and I just wanted to get to my hotel and sleep. I knew that there were official taxi counters inside the arrivals hall where you could pre-pay for taxis from reputable operators but I couldn't see them. A man approached me and asked "good evening, sir. Do you need a taxi?"

"Yes, I do," I replied hesitantly. I had read that illegal taxi touts operate at Bandaranaike who impersonate legal operators.

"It's OK, I'm an authorised taxi representative," he said as he proffered an ID card. I panicked and said I needed to get a bottle of water, so I did, as I quickly consulted my Lonely Planet.

None the wiser, I decided to go back to the man and trust him, it was very late. It was OK, he was legit. He took me to his counter in the corner of the airport and gave me a quote of Rs. 3300 (note: to convert from rupees to Australian dollars, knock off two zeroes and subtract twenty percent). I accepted, paid the money, and he escorted me out the front of the terminal where a taxi van quickly arrived.

As the taxi left the airport I quickly realised that the only road rule in Sri Lanka is that there are no road rules. Cars going down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, zebra crossings ignored by drivers, horns blasting, high beams flashing. Soon enough we were on the E03 expressway to Colombo which was eerily empty. A magnificent building soon appeared in the distance, a giant white temple topped with a gold roof. I asked the driver what the building was. A temple? A palace?

"It's a cement factory!" And as it drew nearer I could see that so it was. We both laughed. What can I say, I was very tired.

The expressway ended just short of the city centre and the van plunged down a labyrinth of back streets and alleys to get to my guesthouse in the southern coastal suburb of Kollupitiya, the City Holiday Bungalow. I gave the driver a small tip and he departed. I rang the night bell and an elderly man came down the stairs to check me in with plenty of paperwork and signatures and receipts. As I was about to be shown my room the taxi van reappeared. I had left my daypack beneath the front passenger seat! My backpack consists of the main pack (which I check in) and a smaller detachable daypack (which is cabin baggage). The daypack had my Samsung tablet, cables and chargers and adaptors, Lonely Planet, travel documents, medication, asthma puffer and rain jacket. It would have been a disaster if I had lost it. I thanked the driver profusely. Yes, that airport taxi is not dodgy at all and if you come to Colombo I recommend that you use JNW Lanka Tours for your airport taxi needs.

The old gentleman showed me into my room. It is large, clean, has a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, a bathroom, wifi, and is in a great location near a train line and handy to all the major attractions. What more could one ask for? The only bad thing was an enormous dragonfly the size of a remote control model aircraft buzzing around noisily crashing into things. I spent the best part of half an hour trying to coax it outside but nothing worked. Suddenly, by pure chance rather than by any dexterity on my part, I caught the dragonfly mid-flight by the tip of its wing between my thumb and forefinger. I took the insect to the door, and said "free at last, little fellow", as I watched it fly away into the sultry night at 2:30am.

Posted by urbanreverie 18:02 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged taxi hotel aeroplane sri_lanka colombo

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