Guide books had me believe that landing in Sri Lanka is a nightmare. The airport is in the middle of nowhere, you have to switch 3 buses to reach Colombo, the traffic is very bad, the buses are very crowded. You should just stay at a resort half-an-hour away from the airport instead, Colombo is just a big city full of sweaty locals, they said.
I was a little worried. For how will I get a place to sleep. Landing in a new country in the evening is not a good idea in itself, add all the things I have told you above, it gets difficult. It’s probably alright for those staying at star hotels offering airport pickup. But backpackers like me who are traveling for months cannot afford such luxuries. We use public transport, sleep at homestays, and eat with locals. Resorts are naturally out of question.
With these thought in my mind, I landed at Colombo airport. First the immigration guy was nice. No ‘Oh, Pakistan.’ He didn’t even see the paper visa I had. I think Pakistanis get free on arrival visa. No questions asked. Second surprise was free mobile sims at the airport, pre-activated and preloaded with complimentary balance—for calls and internet. Badia. But the best part was waiting.
As soon as you exit the airport—itself very simple and straightforward—you cannot believe your eyes: is it Vehari?! It looks familiar, it feels apna. Instantly all my worries were gone. I knew I could find my way here. It was des, not pardes. It was a magical moment.
The guides also advised to take the airport shuttle to the bus stop. I could see the bus stop! Goray are such burgers. I walked up to it and took the first bus that was leaving for Colombo. All the seats were taken but who cared, it was home! Guess what I saw first looking outside the windows? A ground, much like the ones we have near train stations in Punjab, filled with boys of all ages, playing cricket. 5 matches in a single ground.
The bus arrived at the bus station right in the middle of Colombo city. There were road-side stalls all around. Selling everything from t-shirts to plastic crockery. And mobile shops. Music. Kolaveri Di.
It was around 5pm. Pretty women, young boys, old men. Heading home. Restaurants were now bars. Liquor shops were another story. But the people were really nice. From rickshaw-walas to a boy whose girlfriend had crossed the road, anybody I talked to made sure I got what I was looking for.
But I was in the wrong neighborhood, tourists resorts were along the beach. This area for the locals. There were signs reading ‘ROOMS’ but they weren’t exactly for me. First one turned me down right away, “This isn’t for you. You should go to Hotel Ajanta, they have nice rooms.” I could find Ajanta but I found Crown. “These are short-time rooms actually,” he said, “Short-time you know.” Ohhhh, achchaaaa, woh wala short time! I walked some more and found an old but decent-looking bar cum hotel, with classic three-feet high wooden bar doors from Clint Eastwood movies. NEW COLONIAL HOTEL. “1000 for the night, we close the gates at 11pm, arright?”
“I’ll take it.”