Arriving in a new country is always exciting. As usual I hardly had any sleep on the flights (Brussels - Abu Dhabi – Colombo), but I’m awake enough to sense all the new impressions as we first set foot on Sri Lankan soil at 3.30 a.m. Despite the early hour Colombo airport is very much alive. Travellers waiting for their morning flight sit, hang, sleep at the gates. Their journey is coming to an end while ours is just beginning. We change some euros to the local rupees and at the arrivals hall we look out for our driver/guide. Quite a challenge since the hall is filled with men holding up signs with names. We manage to spot a man holding up a sign saying “Party Hernalsteen”. Lesley booked the trip, so her name is on all the documents, and someone got the idea to use the word Party (as in ‘group’) instead of her first name. So it seems that for the rest of the trip this will be Lesley’s new name :-)
But on this early hour of the day we don’t pay too much attention to it and just approach our guide, shake hands and introduce ourselves. Rohan will be our companion on this roadtrip and he leads us through the early morning crowd outside the building to fetch the car. The air feels warm and humid. “You must be very tired,” he says as we leave the airport behind us and make our way to Negombo. Oh yes, affirmative! I can’t wait to fall down on a bed to catch at least some sleep before our first day begins. It’s about a 45 minute drive to the first hotel in Negombo and we learn that Rohan is from the Colombo area. He answers every question politely with “madam”, which feels a bit weird/formal at first, but we get a feeling he will be a very good guide. He explains to us that Negombo is called “Little Rome” because it has the highest concentration of catholics in Sri Lanka. I’ve never seen so many Jesuses and Mary’s on one stretch of road. A heritage of the Portuguese who colonised the island in the 16th century.
The night is slowly turning into day and cars, tuktuks, and busses start to fill the road. It’s not quite the full Sri Lankan traffic experience yet, but I can tell this is not a place for tourist drivers. We turn into some smaller streets and finally reach Catamaran Beach Resort. It’s quiet. The night guard sits in his little cabin and two guys at the reception do check-in. We’re taken up to our room and hear the ocean but can’t see it yet. Basically I chuck my bags somewhere, put my sleeping t-shirt on and fall down on the bed.
The plan was to get a few hours of sleep, but the few hours turn into a few hours and more as it’s about midday by the time I wake up. And it seems Lesley was in a sleeping coma too J It’s warm in the room and I see the sun shine behind the curtains. It’s time to get up and explore. What we didn’t see at our early morning arrival is that the Indian ocean really is right on our doorstep. It’s a small hotel and the beach is right down the stairs of our room. We need to feel the sand beneath our feet and head out to the water. It’s unreal to stand there, wind in our hair, water touching our feet, so many miles from our wintery home country Belgium. Negombo is a popular beach destination on Sri Lankan’s west coast but there’s no mass tourism here. We don’t see that many tourists and certainly no sunbeds :-)
We walk along the shoreline looking out for a lunch spot. We discover a little restaurant right at the beach. Just a few other people there, but we decide to take our chances. It’s seafood time and we go for our first local catch, shrimps. The owner comes out and shakes hands to wish us a warm welcome to his country. It’s slow cooking here, but we don’t mind. We’re still getting used to the temperatures and humidity and don’t have a good sense of time yet.
Lunch is good and we walk back to the hotel where we are meeting Rohan who is taking us to the local fish market. Our first encounter with the locals. The streets are brimming with activity and we spot a tuk tuk driver cruising around with loud music. He’s really showing off. In Belgium we would call this a “Johnny”, and it seems they have a Sri Lankan version as well.
The smell of fish tells us we are at the market. The fishermen are bringing their catch of the day in and the buyers are checking and comparing. “Good sashimi,” Rohan says. Well, it can’t get any fresher than this. I get used to the smell and take some pictures. Many people earn their living from fishing and Rohan confirms they make a good living out of it (good for them).
We’re not buying any fish today and continue to the Dutch canal for a boat ride.
The canal was mainly used for trade. Today it’s a pretty laid back area. We’re the only ones going out on a boat this time of day and we enjoy our 1,5 hour out on the water. The late afternoon sun feels nice and we observe life around the water. Locals are walking, cycling, ... by the water, kids wave at us, ... It feels quite relaxed. I’m glad we didn’t sleep the day away at the hotel or the beach side and got a first glimpse of Sri Lanka.
On our drive back we see people preparing for a religious feast, lights everywhere. We’re not joining the catholics tonight though, but head to Lords, a restaurant recommended to us by Rohan. It turns out to be an excellent choice. I try a chicken and mango curry and it’s delicious. Again, we notice how friendly and polite the people are. “Excuse me madam, I noticed you left some fish?” the waiter asks Lesley. She assures him that dinner was fantastic, but he still seems a bit worried it wasn’t 100% to her taste.
It’s about a 20 minute walk back to the hotel by the busy road, and it’s a good way to get a better sense of this beach side town. Many tourists only come here for the beaches and don’t see anything else. But we are ready to leave Negombo behind us and start the roadtrip through this ‘pearl’ of the Indian Ocean.