Adventures in Sri Lanka Part 1 – London – Doha – Colombo

So, back in November last year, as my birthday arrived and I found myself at 35 years of age (physically, if not mentally) I started to do a bit of introspection. One of the first things that popped into my head was that, of all my travels, which have taken me around much of Europe and a fair few places in the northern part of Africa, none have ever taken me into Asia proper. Sure I’d been to Anatolia in Turkey, but it’s a distinctly European nation, particularly until you go into the more Kurdish areas in the east, which I’ve yet to see. And, with my love of the spicy cuisines of much of south Asia, it seemed pretty silly and like something I should correct as soon as possible.

The result of this was sitting at 4pm, inside a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 at Heathrow’s terminal 4, waiting for the off. My journey – as it was the cheapest route – was an afternoon flight to Doha, a quick overnight in a hotel there and then a lunch time flight the following day, in to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. After the usual Heathrow delay of about 40 minutes, we were off. The flight was remarkably calm and I’d been told to expect a lot of Qatar airways’ service and they didn’t disappoint. Even back in the terminal, they’d had porters to do the job of taking my rucksack to oversize baggage, so that I didn’t have to carry it myself. The food on the flight was excellent and the selection of film and TV was above par.

Flying into the sunset

Landing at Qatar’s relatively new Hamad International was quite the sight. The runway juts out into the water, with it’s amazingly clean lines of glass and steel everywhere making it into a hugely aesthetically pleasing place. The service culture was in evidence again as, almost every 10 steps you took, there was a Qatar Airways staff member waiting to help you, should you get lost or need help. I went through security, quickly got my transit visa and jumped in a cab to the centre, where my hotel was. My cab driver was from Kathmandu, Nepal and spoke quite openly. First he mentioned the recent earthquake, in which he had luckily not lost any family members and then he went on to speak about life in Qatar. He pointed out that, as a migrant worker, he doesn’t have the same rights as Qataris in the country, but that he still feels his life is much improved relative to how it was in Nepal, and also that he has a sense that the current mood, amongst Qatari people as much as the millions of migrant workers in the country, is one with an appetite to change that and to make life better for them. I hope he’s right. Arriving at my hotel at just after 1am, I found my room and went straight to sleep.

I woke up with a spring in my step, partly because of the excellent sleep I’d had and partly because I knew I had an Arabic breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Sure enough, it was an excellent combination of flat bread, poultry sausages, omelettes, fried vegetables and a really terrific bean stew. There was also a few olives and a bit of white cheese. If it doesn’t sound like breakfast, then you really need to change your breakfast priorities. It’s terrific.

The Arabs know how to do breakfast
The Arabs know how to do breakfast

After breakfast, I decided to take a bit of a wander around my neighbourhood to see what was around. I also needed to get some Qatari rials for the reutn taxi ride in to the airport.Walking outside the air conditioned solace of my hotel, I soon realised that it was indeed 44 degrees centigrade at 9:20am. Ouch. So my walking around involved looking at some things outside, then finding anything I could that was inside to make use of the air con and alternating between the two. Sadly, as it was the height of Ramadan, it was all rather quiet and there wasn’t much to see.

Nice mosque Doha

So with my money changed, it was back in one of the beautifully bright, air conditioned cabs to the airport. The road out of the city, which I hadn’t noticed the night before, runs right alongside the coast, and planes landing at Hamad International fly remarkably closely overhead.

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Once checked in, there was just time to see this dinosaur and then to board another 777 for another 4 hours in the sky.

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Service continued as it left off and, for airline food, my meal was once again quite excellent.

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So, at something after 10pm, local time, we landed in Colombo. Immediately everything was different. The tranquillity of Doha and the flight in was gone, the smells in the air were different and the sales models were questionable.

How do they make any money?!
How do they make any money?!

Also unusual was that duty free was crammed with white goods. Sure, there was a stand full of whiskeys and the like, but the majority of travellers were flocking to duty free fridges and washing machines. A new one for me. Passport control clearance was mercifully rapid though and, within a few minutes, I was outside and immediately bombarded by taxi drivers, tuktuk drivers, people selling tat and general crowds of people moving all over the place. My book – The Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka 2015 – had told me previously that buses to the city centre ran throughout the night. A good thing I’d checked as every taxi driver to whom I said I was taking a bus tried to tell me there were no buses at that time of night. Finally happening upon a military policeman, after several minutes of aimless wandering, I was shown to a bus – with air con, no less – which would take me to the city centre for less than 200 rupees – 1/6th of what the rather unscrupulous taxi drivers were asking for. I said goodbye to the airport’s statue of the Buddha and jumped on board.

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The 32km between the airport and central Colombo is completely consumed by urban sprawl from the capital. So the journey took a full hour and thirty minutes, stopping every 500m or so to let people on and off the bus. In the meantime we were treated to a video of a Sri Lankan stadium rock band, who played a mixture of their own songs and those of 80s rock bands like Queen, Europe and others. It was a surreal experience, but refreshingly other worldly, so I just sat back and took it in. It certainly made the time pass more quickly. Jumping out of the bus, I negotiated simultaneously with about 6 taxi drivers until one of them offered to drive me to Narahenpita and my hostel for less than 500 rupees. Once there I was, once again, dying for my bed and so just got my head down after brushing my teeth.

I’d managed to arrange with a really nice local lady to show me around the city. She would drive me around and give me the benefit of her local knowledge and I’d buy the food and drinks. It seemed like a good deal. So I ate my breakfast of toast and surprisingly decent coffee at my hostel and then went outside to meet her opposite the cricket ground. Within a couple minutes I was in her car and delighted that she had basically perfect English and already had places in mind to take me. The first stop was Independence Square, a monument created after Sri Lanka gained freedom from the British Empire. It’s an impressive monument, even if it does need some renovation and it is situated in a quite lovely park, which is remarkably calm, in spite of its city centre location.

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Behind the monument is an old colonial building. Originally built by the original British governor and later extended and converted, it’s since been turned into a luxury shopping and dining facility with high quality designer clothing and hi-fi stores, Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants and… Burger King. But it really has been kitted out very nicely with antiques and simple decor.

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After this small glimpse of modernity and colonial history in one hit, it was time to see something spiritual. Not Burger King, but the Gangaramaya Temple. It was a very short drive and, within a few minutes we were parked up outside and leaving our shoes with a shoe monitoring person, for a small fee. Here there’s no charge for locals and that for tourists is pretty small and it’s really worth a look around. My guide told me that the head monk collects any old stuff he can find to display there and it’s not hard to believe, looking at some of the display cases. Nonetheless, the complex is a fascinating place, with some beautiful stupas and a wall of seated Buddhas at the rear, mostly donated by Thai benefactors, I’m told. It’s an open, airy space, which you can walk around in freely, and likewise, birds and insects too fly around freely inside. There are also countless monks working on the upkeep of the temple and adding new fixtures, new effigies and so on and one we saw had a working elephant with him, carrying some logs.

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With the temple covered, I was starting to get hungry, so we decided to head across to the fort for a snack. Near the fort and the financial centre is an old Dutch Hospital which has been renovated into restaurants, cafés and the like. One such place was a tea room with a difference, offering sublime cakes and fruit juice and tea mixes that sounded really intriguing. I didn’t take much persuading. Parking up in the car park of the Kingsbury hotel where, strictly, we were not guests, we put on our best “posh folk” faces and walked through the foyer and up along to the old lighthouse and further to the hospital complex. I ordered a black tea and soursop soda. I didn’t even know what soursop was. I also ordered a red velvet cupcake, while my tour guide ordered a slice of death by chocolate and an ice tea with some interesting fruit elements. It was a little pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but my god it was good. The setting was also just about perfect, with big, comfy blue leather sofas, low tables and huge flat screen TVs showing – what else? – cricket.

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From here, it was a walk down the historic streets towards the fort train station. We passed the financial district, with it’s huge, cylindrical towers of the Bank of Ceylon and others, various huge British era warehouses, converted into hotels and restaurants and, just on the edge of the Islamic quarter, the place we’d decided on for lunch – The Pagoda Tea Room, the place where Duran Duran recorded the video for Hungry Like the Wolf, back when I was a fresh faced young lad. The place has hardly changed, but I resisted the temptation to flip the tables on to the floor, unlike Simon LeBon, and I was grateful for the lack of snake charmers. We asked what was left of lunch, as it was getting a bit late, and were offered vegetarian curry or chicken lamprais. The lamprais was recommended to me and so I plumped for it. It arrived and was a huge portion of diced chicken, some vegetables and rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. It smelled fantastic. I asked if the small portions of red, onion rich paste dotted around were spicy, as I put a little into my mouth and discovered that yes, seeni sambal is indeed very spicy. It was an excellent meal and I was staggered to be charged only about five euros for both dishes, along with soft drinks and cups of tea afterwards.

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Looks dreadful, but tastes delicious!

With tea gone, we strolled down the old shopping street, stopping off at the famous Cargill’s food mart to buy some essentials for my trip – toothpaste and the like. The buildings are wonderfully preserved and there are some hilarious placards with messages that are entirely other worldly on them.

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With the toothpaste bought and the early sunset – 6:30pm, as it’s so close to the equator in Colombo – we decided that all that was left to do was to walk back along to the Kingsbury and get a seat and a cocktail in the sky bar and to watch the sun go down over the famous Galle Face. Which is exactly what we did, before I hurried back home, to be ready for the morning train to Kandy.

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Throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get hold of your copy, here:

SriLanka

An Alternative Look at Berlin

One of the worst things about living in Bydgoszcz, Poland is that the easiest way to leave the country each summer is via Bydgoszcz airport. I’m fairly sure that I had lunchboxes at school larger than this place. Worse still, the only airline running scheduled flights from here to Britain is the god-awful Ryanair. So when I see an opportunity to take a different exit route back to the UK, I generally jump on it. This year, it was via Berlin. This meant a 2 hour journey on the big red Polskibus to Poznan, to start off with. As has been the tradition in recent weeks, it was a gloomy ride. 120 minutes of heavy-looking, grey skies and intermittent rainfall but, arriving in the city centre, the sun peeked out and I found my way to a last karkówka (pork shoulder, Polish style) and all the trimmings and a delicious Polish beer to wash it down. After eating that and saying goodbye to Poland, it was off to the other bus station in the city to the second leg of the Polskibus journey, onward to Berlin.

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I should point out at this stage that the entire journey with Polskibus – booked only 6 weeks in advance – cost me a total of 37 zloty. That’s about £7.50. It’s a ludicrous sum of money for 7 hours on a very comfortable bus, with Wi-Fi for free throughout the Polish leg of the journey. Well worth a look, if you’re travelling within or to Poland from most of the major cities around it.

Anyway, the coach arrived into Berlin via Schonefeld airport. After that it ran in through the main arterial roads in the east of Berlin, across to the ZOB bus station. Climbing out of the bus, a blast of information in oh-so-official German informed me that I had indeed arrived in my destination country/city. Now it was time to find the Kaiserdamm U-bahn and my train across town to Kreuzberg – my home for the next couple of days. How well did I remember my German?

 Not well was, sadly, the answer. But I got myself together and asked a man in a corner shop and he pointed me on my way. So, with all my bags, in the now baking-hot sunshine, I staggered down the road to the underground. After the relatively easy process of buying my metro ticket, I climbed down the stairs to the platform. Despite being the capital, Berlin is by no means the richest of German cities and I was given a stark reminder of this when the ancient-looking rolling stock that was my train came thundering in to the platform. I waddled on and put down my bags. To other passengers, I must have looked like a sweaty tramp, but there we are.

After one change, I was on the U1 line into Kreuzberg, home for the next 2 days or so. The U1 is an elevated metro line, so I could look down over the buildings, seeing an increasingly diverse range of restaurants, convenience stores and so on. Schlesisches Tor, where I needed to hop off, was of course a stairs-only station, but also one full of the aged charm of the area. 

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As I made my way down Gorlitzer strasse and so on, towards my hostel, I walked past fragrant and, seemingly, authentic restaurants with origins as diverse as Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Goa, various African nations and much more besides. It was a delight to be there and there was a real buzz about the street, as people milled from place to place. I turned the corner at the end of the street, next to Gorlitzer park, which has been beautifully renovated lately, and along to the Jetpak alternative hostel. I checked in with a very helpful chap and was shown to my dorm, so that I could get a much needed shower. Once showering was done, I was left to have a look at the various “alternative” tours they do in the city. I settled on the street art and graffiti tour – done in collaboration with real artists. But that was for the following day – more on that later.

The Jetpak Alternative, which I mentioned previously was in a great location, was also a really pleasant, friendly place. At the point of booking, they make it very clear that the location is not the cleanest and, certainly, there are a lot of people who would be very happy to sell you any amount of any mood-enhancing substances you may care for in the vicinity, but if – like me – you’re not really into all that, it’s a fascinating place to be and the residents of the hostel, certainly when I was there, seem to be a really open minded bunch. So after fixing up my locker and choosing which bed I would sleep in collapse on later, I barely had a moment before one of the lads asked if I wanted to come into the lounge and watch the evening’s world cup game. I dashed out to fetch some noodles from a Vietnamese place – divine and 3 Euros for a bowl big enough to fill even me – I made use of the hostel’s excellent honesty policy, whereby you help yourself to locally brewed Berliner beer and put a single euro coin in the pot for the privilege. After the game and a lot more chat with the guys, I turned in, ready for the next morning’s tour.

Before any talk of the tour itself, I have to mention the breakfast, in the morning. This is the first hostel I’ve been to in my life where the list of spreads is near endless. So when you get your toast, you can layer it up with the usual, but also a choice of smooth or crunchy peanut butter, marmite or vegimite, and the list goes on. Add to this that, when I started looking around like a sheep who can hear a wolf approaching, failing to see coffee, the duty staff person informed me that they were all barista trained and that he’d be happy to make me a pro-standard cappucino. I could have cried tears of happiness.

Anyway, by the time I’d finished being happy about all that, it was off to Alexanderplatz and the tour. One look outside and it was clear to see that it was going to be a very British kind of day. It was raining cats, dogs, and possibly llamas, or something else much bigger than a dog, too. But as this was my only full day, I was not to be deterred! And arriving at the meeting point for the tour, it became abundantly clear that I was not alone in my spirit of adventure. About 8 or 9 others had showed up, from as far and wide as England, the Czech Republic, Australia and Spain. They all seemed remarkably jolly, despite their washed-outness. The tour guide – herself a street artist, as well as a conventional, fine artist, was a walking, talking bundle of energy, hailing from San Francisco, California and had lived in Berlin for some time. She had bundles of character, charm and knowledge about her subject – she also had a penchant for asking “you dig it?!” after she finished each explanation, which I didn’t think any real people ever actually said, but this just made me like her even more. So, after some fumbling around with ticket machines, we were off!

First we walked to some railway arches , just around the corner, in the heart of the area known as “mitte” – the centre. We were quickly told that this was the heart of the eastern part of Berlin, during the cold war. Here, we saw just how much graffiti and street art there can be in any one place in Berlin. We were given the definitions of what is graffiti and what is street art, the difference being that graffiti is anything which is primarily text whereas street art is… anything else! Here are a few examples:

Anywhere you see the executed cat...
Anywhere you see the executed cat…
... Little Lucy, the cat's nemesis, will never be far behind.
… Little Lucy, the cat’s nemesis, will never be far behind.

So first for a bit of history. As it turns out, perhaps a reason that graffiti pervades so strongly in Berlin, is that this was the first place it landed in Europe, after it had emerged in New York City in the 1970s, after the invention of the spray paint can. The west Berliners, despite having a better time of it than their kin folk in the east, took to the wall to protest against the harsh treatment of people in the east. In what might be the most spectacular error of judgement in human history, the East German government began to show graffiti, punk rock and smoking in public service videos, to deter young people from the “horrors” of the west. Of course, this likely speeded up the downfall of the system! Once the wall did start to come down and reunification began to happen, the graffiti and street art movement really took hold, as a way to make the wall – the symbol of something so terrible, for so long, would be made beautiful by the, now free, populace.

Of course, with the likes of Banksy, the lines between street art and fine art are becoming ever more blurred. But here are a few memorable pieces from the tour:

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A curious street art sculpture
A curious street art sculpture

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Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
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Once we arrived at Warschauer Strasse and were really out into the east, we began to see huge pieces like this, where the artist has obviously got permission for the work.
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This was a piece commissioned for a building which is being totally rebuilt. The artist is a Spanish guy, Rallitox. This piece, featuring one of his Freudian “id monsters” represents the bankers, excreting euros, with the cheerful phrase “Greetings from Spain and Greece, Portugal, Italy”. A bold piece in Germany, and the irony of it being in a place that is becoming increasingly gentrified in Berlin is lost on no-one.
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This one focuses on the city type, with the man in the suit. But notice, the only gold items are the watches. A commentary on time, perhaps?
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Finally – as one we are all the monster. the monster only exists, only works if everyone works together in the system that makes it. The real power here comes from the question it begs. Will the little guy survive?

   It was an enthralling walk and, as someone who knew less than nothing about street art beforehand, I’ve genuinely found myself looking up and around me wherever I’ve been since, trying to make sense of the art that may be lurking. I’d recommend it to anyone in Berlin, whether you’re a fan of the street art movement, or not.

After an hour’s break to drop off my umbrella and to dry myself through in the hostel, it was back out. The first port of call, just along on Oranien Strasse, was Santa Maria – allegedly the most authentic Mexican restaurant in Berlin, with a friendly price tag to boot. I arrived to find 2 bar stools available in the 80 or so seater restaurant. On a Wednesday evening. It’s that kind of place. I ordered my food and was swiftly served these rather excellent tacos and a cold pint of Berliner beer.

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As if the beef and chorizo filling wasn’t enough, someone needs to tell me how they make those pink pickled onions!

 After feeding myself and supping my beer, I decided to check out some rock bars. First, it was across the road to the Franken Bar. This is a classic, dingy German rock bar. Everything a rock bar should be. I don’t know why they haven’t quite figured it out in the UK yet, but there we go. I met some friendly folk here too, who told me if I’d been there the night before, I could’ve seen a fun band, the members of which were all 50+ and still crazy. Sounds like it would’ve been a laugh.

This kind of dirt is built up over years!
This kind of dirt is built up over years!
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti - special love for "Sunshine and Lollipops" in the black metal style! :)
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti – special love for “Sunshine and Lollipops” in the black metal style! 🙂
Grimy.
Grimy.

From here, it was across the road to the SO36 bar and the “alternative night market”. This actually made me a bit sad, as the whole set up reminded me of better times in the English alternative scene, where there was a similar market, open on Kensington High Street, daily. Once again though, a host of friendly people stopped to chat to me and I spent the rest of the time people watching with a pint of Berliner.

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Finally, with midnight rolling around and a lunchtime flight from Tegel the next day, I sauntered off to my hostel, in full knowledge that I would simply have to come back. I think Berlin is one of those places. In the morning, right on cue, we were back to glorious summer sun ready for me to carry my huge bags to the airport. I arrived on a very efficient U-bahn/bus link and had time for a nice ice coffee after check in, before British Airways sent me on my way. So after my second visit to Berlin, looking at a completely different side of the city to my first, more straightforwardly touristy trip, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. If you haven’t been – go. If you’ve been – go again! It’s really that simple.