It was a heady night on the last day of February. I could not wait long enough to catch my flight to Colombo to start A Slow Boat Around Sri Lanka. I had weird pieces of luggage and gear and I was certain that I was horribly overweight. I had already pre-paid 15 kg of excess baggage and knew that I would easily overshoot that. I went ahead and pre-paid and additional 15 kg. That, in addition to the 30 kg I was allowed as baggage allowance, took my total weight to 60 kg. I hoped that it would be enough. I was a little concerned about the weight of my boat. I knew it was around 30 kg, give or take a few kilos. And my three paddles were technically an odd-sized piece of luggage and the airline could charge me separately to handle that. I knew I had to reach the airport quite early to tide over these niggling issues.
For my 0750 hours flight I landed at the airport a little after three in the morning, thanks to my son-in-law who dropped me to the airport. The counter was relatively empty and when the nice lady at the counter weighed all my stuff it turned out to be a little over 70 kg. Which meant that I had to pay for an additional ten kilos of excess baggage. My Rs 40,000 budget for travel reached a figure of nearly double and kind of put a kink in the fund situation. But anyway. I slept on the two and a half hour flight to Bangalore where there was a seven hour layover. Which was good since I had to get an export certificate for the goods and equipment I was carrying out. I have to thank my cousin and friend Bani Bhattacharya who had made some calls to the Customs people at Bangalore where he had been posted earlier. In about an hour I had the necessary declaration in my hand. Which really meant that on my return furnishing this certificate would save a lot of hassles in terms of explaining that I had already carried these good out.
However, once I landed in Colombo airport I was told that this certificate was not good enough for Sri Lankan Customs and what I should have carried is a Carnet listing out all the goods. After about an hour of discussions with the friendly Duty Officer and the Officer Commanding, and showing them the letter I had received from the Sri Lankan High Commission in Delhi, I was let through. The entire process, in Bangalore and Colombo was entirely peaceful and extremely courteous.
I reached Groove House Hostel from the airport (which is actually in Negombo and not in Colombo) a little after 10:30 at night and promptly went off to sit with the many people who were already here. Mostly Germans. And an Australian who lives in Tel Aviv. I also met one Pakistani gentleman. By the time I had finished making friends and called it a night, it was already two in the morning. And sleep beckoned. I was out like a light in the bottom bunk of my four bedded dormitory.
The next day dawned and it was time to get down to business. I had not had anything to eat since I left Bangalore and I was famished. I headed towards the Indian High Commission in Colombo, but before I walked in I took a walk down the beach next to it and grabbed some local snacks. Tummy satisfied I walked back to the High Commission and called up the Defense Advisor who I had been introduced to earlier in Delhi. Despite my not having an appointment we welcomed me in to his office and we spent about half an hour together. I warned him that I would call him in case I needed his help at any time during the expedition, and he readily agreed to such an intervention. He also gave me the number of a person at Sri Lankan Navy Headquarters. Once out of the Indian High Commission, I called up the officer from the Sri Lankan Navy. He obviously knew who I was since he was part of the process in granting me the permit to conduct the expedition. He was busy and we fixed up to meet a couple of days later.
There was nothing else to do for a couple of days so I tried to catch up with the wonderful people at Tuktuk Rental (https://tuktukrental.com/). They were still trying to find me a driver who would travel with us for the entire journey and were finding it difficult. I gave them an option of finding drivers for sections of the journey depending on the amount of time they were prepared to be out of home and hearth. They are continuing their search and it seems that there is one person who is kind of willing to do the entire journey. Let us see how things turn out.
Back at Groove House Hostel it back at the lobby making new friends. When I came back there was the Pakistan gentleman I had met yesterday along with a lady sitting by themselves. She had heard about my expedition already and seemed very excited to hear more about it. We got talking and asked them if they would like to be shore support. They jumped at the idea. In a couple of hours the team that currently comprised Timm and I, doubled to include Sumbal Waheed and Ammar Afridi. This was a good development. First, I had a couple of people as shore support. And second, this was now an expedition conducted by a team comprising Indian and Pakistani citizens. Given the animosity between the two countries that has plagued both countries, this was an opportunity to showcase the friendship individual citizens have for each other. It is geopolitics that creates divide and it is up to citizens like Sumbal and Ammar and I to get together to prove that as citizens of countries that are eyeball to eyeball at their respective borders, it is humanity that bridges most chasms. As long as we can look at each other as human beings and not through the lens of hatred and a dark history, there is so much in common between us. With languages as varied as Sinhala, Tamil, German, French, English and a few more that I have not been able to identify, it was awesome to be speaking in Hindi, sharing stories about Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan and Atif Alsam and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Life indeed is so simple if we can keep politics out of the way.
Anyway, there seems to be just one problem. Neither Sumbal or Ammar have a driving licence, a must to be able to drive the tuktuk. So now I have a tuktuk, I have the road support team, but still need to find a driver. Maybe one of the nice people from somewhere around the world who has come to travel around Sri Lanka will jump at the opportunity to travelling around in a tuktuk. Who knows? The way the things are taking shape, life seems to be headed towards a positive outcome and I am almost certain that everything will fall in place in the next couple of days.
The last few days in Colombo have been awesome. It is so much like an extension of India that it could well be another Indian city. The difference though is that the traffic is far more gentle, the number of people of the roads are way lower than what one would see in any Indian city, and NO ONE HONKS. Also, every few hundred yards there are designated zebra crossings for pedestrians. No traffic light at these places and no policemen, but everyone stops to allow the pedestrians to cross. I found this to be extremely interesting. And the streets are so clean it is not funny. That is certainly a culture shock. It is individuals who are making the difference by not littering, not honking, not indulging in road rage, allowing pedestrians the right of way, etc. The Government can only set the guidelines and the laws, it is up to individuals to either follow it or break it with impunity.
Colombo has been good to me for the last three days and I know it will continue be so in the future. Now to wait for Mar 08 and hit the water and let the expedition begin. And I will have company on the boat with me. I hope Sumbal and Ammar enjoy it as much I will.