Sri Lanka lays out its welcome mat as our big bird, flight QR 200 from Budapest, descends to Bandaranaike International Airport at Colombo. The mat is woven from the green fronds of thousands upon thousands of palm trees –more palm trees than you have ever seen, more palm trees than you will ever see. Spelt out on the mat – if you let your imagination read it – it says “Welcome to tropical paradise”.
This is a long-overdue return to the lush Indian Ocean island. The memories have dimmed considerably in the 43 years since that first visit in December 1973, but the original drop down into the palm trees has always remained a powerful, for-ever image stamped in the brain. Now, finally, we are doing it again, and it is just as spectacular.
Back then, this rupee-stretching backpacker stayed of necessity at the ultra-cheap and none-too-salubrious Colombo YMCA. In 2017, the YMCA is still there for a nostalgic look, and it is dusty, dirty and rather grim. It doesn’t seem to have undergone any major improvement in 43 years. Nowadays, no longer a backpacker and a bit better off financially after decades of toil, the accommodation will be in the multinational confines of a four-star Ramada.
This revives another never-forgotten memory of December 1973: Colombo is slap-bang on the west coast of the island, not far off the Equator, and each night provides an eyeball-popping tropical sunset. Sri Lankans enjoy it with a relaxing stroll along Colombo’s Galle Face, a long, grassed leisure area right next to the ocean where kids fly kites and vendors sell seafood snacks.
The Ramada is just 50 metres or so walk from Galle Face. The eight-storey building is set at 90 degrees to the ocean, and so the rooms at the front have a 45-degree view of the red ball of the sun disappearing beneath the horizon, on its way to Africa but leaving behind a sky of fabulous colour.
Rooms at the back of the Ramada look down on the outdoor swimming pool, surrounded by thick tropical foliage. The pool is large enough but slightly smaller than the Indian Ocean. While a sign warns that there should be “No horseplay” in the pool, a dip in the Indian Ocean is not recommended at all, as a sign at Galle Face warns of “Poisonous creatures”. The locals stick to their promenading.
The Ramada is an international chain. It has two men on the door in peaked hats and grey uniforms with epaulettes and braid. Outside are two Ramada cars for guests to hire. On this day, “Farah and Insaf” are enjoying their wedding reception at the hotel and a duo is playing keyboard pop in the reception. No alcohol is on sale in the bar because it is Poya Day, or full moon day, and thus a public holiday.
The hotel is a couple of kilometres from the Fort and Pettah areas, the heart of financial, ex-colonial and old-world Colombo. These days it is difficult to photograph the colonial architecture without getting a whopping great new “integrated resort development” rising under construction in the background.
It is too hot to walk far. Tropical paradise is more out in the beautiful hill country, inland, or on the quieter parts of the coast. In the capital city, a million tuk-tuk drivers try your patience as they chase custom, and a carrion crow picks over a dead rat in the busy street for that authentic Third World experience.