Once my passport has been stamped and tattooed, I walked into a region of the airport that looked like a Brandsmart USA. Instead of the usual duty free shops consisting mainly of high end perfumes and alcohols, this area laid claim to aisles of durable goods like refrigerators and stoves. Business was booming. I collected my suitcase from baggage claim and headed through an automated doorway intended for foreign entrants to the country. My heart raced as I prayed that I would find a currency exchange booth and a cellphone vendor, both of which were absolutely essential to my ability to perform my research tasks and for the sake of my overall mental health. To my delight, as I crossed over into the land of accepted visitors I found multiple kiosks that could address my pressing needs. First I wheeled over to one of three currency exchange posts. I willingly submitted all of my Singapore dollars (save for the few coins I had remaining in my possession) and even tried to convert my lingering Nepalese rupees, but, as I have now come to understand, one cannot exchange Nepalese rupees anywhere in the world except for Nepal. At least now I had some working capital with which I could execute some important tasks. My next stop was one of three cellphone vendors. I opted for Mobitel, which featured signage boasting that it was Sri Lanka's official mobile carrier. I decided to purchase a SIM card stocked with 100 minutes of talk time and 1024 MB of data (600 LKR = $4.73 USD). Once the attendant got my phone up and running I walked over to the booth for my hotel, the Cinnamon Grand Colombo. On the way there I checked my Gmail and saw that my bank had contacted me regarding the potentially fraudulent activity on my account in Singapore. With the clicking of a button, I reassured my bank that I was indeed the culprit of said transaction and access to my money was restored. Tired though I may have been, what little excitement I could muster at that late hour was soaked up by the sheer jubilation I felt knowing I wasn't going to be living on $220 USD for the next 9 days. At the booth I was given a bottle of water (note: water quality is poor, so bottled water is literally a way of life), provided with free Internet access at the desk computer, and had a taxi ordered on my behalf. In only about 20 minutes, I would finally be on my way to my hotel, where the promise of sleep enticed me.
The drive from the airport to coastal Colombo took about 30 minutes with virtually no traffic to speak of. While the streets seemed reminiscent of those of Kathmandu where I conducted field work last year, I could not help but marvel at the religious installations occasionally dotting the sides of the road. Every so often we would pass what looked like a small Buddhist temple, only instead of a solemn, tranquil homage to Buddha, carnivalesque light shows assaulted one's visual field. It was as if the architects of these worship stations drew influence from Hunter S. Thompson's hallucinogenic sojourn into the neon belly of Las Vegas. Eventually the religious icons bathed in garish halos of hypnotic luminescence gave way to the pure and steady blackness of the sea as we approached Colombo.
As the taxi pulled into the Cinnamon Grand Colombo, I was immediately struck by the opulence of the hotel. As I began to exit the vehicle, a gentleman donning white gloves proceeded to open my car door and another gentleman swiftly attended to my luggage before I even had a chance to get to the trunk. Upon entering this magnificent white palace I strode up to the concierge and informed the attendants that I had indeed arrived (as if my entrance was not already ceremonial and indicative of this fact). While checking in, a man in full butler regalia appeared at my side and offered me a choice of fresh juices- black currant or guava. Drawn to its creamy pink coloring, I chose the latter. It became readily apparent that this experience would be very different from my time in Nepal.
A different gentleman led me personally up to my room while another man brought my luggage up separately (talk about a division of labor!). After I was acquainted with my room I settled down for the evening (morning?) and fell asleep without any difficulty.
The next day I awoke to the sound of birds chirping and the welcome slit of sunshine that shone through the area in between my curtains that did not overlap. After checking email and showering (not at the same time, mind you) I headed downstairs to Coffee Stop for a late breakfast. Knowing full well that I would be consuming plenty of spicy fare over the next few days, I opted for ethnic comfort food- a bagel with lox and cream cheese. My bagel arrived toasted, just as I had asked, although instead of a traditional bread heating treatment my bagel had been thoroughly warmed in a panini press, causing it to look like an oversized, circular crinkle cut French fry. It was excellent. Why had I never seen this before in all my years of professional bagel eating? The rest of the day I focused on securing interviews and writing my first blog post. Unlike in Nepal, where most of my meetings were arranged via email, here in Sri Lanka most of my contacts urged me to call them upon arriving to schedule my interview (this is why having a local cellphone number was so crucial). After making several phone calls and sending a few emails, within an hour I went from having one scheduled interview to four. Satisfied by my progress, I spent the remainder of my day putting together my blog post, which involved having to rewrite the entire thing from scratch on the app I'm using (which is actually intended for an iPhone but I'm using it on an iPad), and needing to use the business center to fix two of the pictures that had failed to upload the first time around. I also decided to stay close to HQ for dinner, so I found myself at a popular Indian restaurant in my hotel called Chutneys. However, as I was unaware of the evening dress code, upon entering I was provided with a black and white striped sarong, which covered my utilitarian khaki shorts and instantly upgraded my outfit to meet cultural standards (sadly, I do not have a photograph of this. Please just imagine me wearing a navy polo shirt, glasses, and a black and white striped sarong). The food, not your traditional Americanized Indian food of tikka masala this and saag that, and the menu was arranged by both geographic region and dietary preference. I ordered a Lion Lager, steamed white rice, a mutton dish, and a chicken dish (I won't even bother committing the injustice of trying to recall the names of these entrees). In general, the food was quite spicy, and although Chutneys is a high end restaurant, the quality of the meat was akin to that which I ate daily for lunch in Nepal (smaller, bony morsels). For dessert I had a small, yet saccharine treat- two deep fried milk balls floating in cardamom syrup. Aside from a maple sugar cookie I once ate in elementary school, I'm not sure I've ever eaten anything sweeter. I settled the check and headed to my room where I watched one of my favorite movies (Closer) on HBO, although it had been severely edited for content. Full of regional cuisine, again I fell easily into a deep slumber.
Next up: A Brave New World