Thursday, July 26, 2012

First day. Negombo.


I woke up at about 9:30a this morning to a series of loud thumping sound just outside our window.

I crawled out of bed and peeked out the window. There was a small crew of men working on the building across from the small courtyard. Later on, we would find out from Marcus that he was building an addition to his existing property that would eventually house his home and small office on the first floor and five hotel rooms on the second floor. When done, Angel Inn would grow from three rooms to twelve!


After quickly peeking out the window to see what was going on, I crawled back into bed. I wasn't fully awake yet. But, all I could do was rest my eyelids as my mind was already racing with thoughts about the day ahead of us. I lingered in bed for as long as I could before getting up to get ready for the day. As soon as I began to rustle around, my brother woke up as well.

By time we headed out the door, it was close to 10:30a. There, we met up with Marcus and chatted with him about his plans for the building addition. He seems like a very nice man and I can see why, even though the hotel currently only has three rooms, that it's so well rated on both TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet.

We asked Marcus for advice on where to get a bite and how to get to Negombo town center. The plan was to explore downtown Negombo though I did not have high expectations as the guidebooks and forums didn't mention much to see or do.

As we were about to walk away from Angel Inn, we noticed a narrow path leading to the ocean. Of course, we had to check it out. It was a fairly wide section of beach though the sand was not as inviting as I had imagined it to be - a lot rougher. There were a few beached boats and in the far distance, I could see the traditional fishing boats, with large rectangular sails, that are unique to Sri Lanka. We made a note to possibly return for a swim later on in the afternoon.

We then headed back out to the main road and turned in the direction towards Negombo and started walking. In these parts of the world, sidewalks are not common so we joined the locals walking on the road. Every now and again, something would strike our fancy and we would cross the road to get abetter view. According to Marcus, it was about 1.5 km to town and I figured at a 15 minute pace, it would take us about an hour to get there factoring in time for the occasional diversion like the street vendor selling mangoes and rambutans who caught my brother's attention. The rambutans looked good and at 4 rupees each seemed like a reasonable deal. Unfortunately, all we had on us were 5000 rupee bills which we figured the vendor would not be able to break so we went on our way.

We kept walking and at some point came to an intersection that seemed like a *major* intersection. We instinctively turned in the direction away from the ocean and a short block later, found ourselves on a busy road. It turned out to literally be Main Street, Negombo. Downtown Negombo reminds me of the towns I passed through in Kerala India except much less chaotic and much cleaner.

We were in search of a place to eat and surprisingly, any sort of a dining establishment was far and few between. In fact, we only saw one on Main Street. We veered off onto an intersecting street and a short block later caught sight of a bakery. From across the street it looked decent enough so we decided to check it out.

Inside, there was a display case full of what looked like fried pastries of all sorts. We asked the woman behind what the items that looked interesting to us were and I swear every item had the word "fish" in it.....fish pattie, fish samosa, fish cutlet. We picked out a few items to share and bought two small bottles of water. We found a table and sat down to sample what we had bought. Everything was okay tasting - nothing particularly memorable; nothing particularly forgetful.

Remember the face of this scam artist!
As we were eating, a man approached the table and asked if he could sit down. Of course, we were at a table for four so there was obviously a seat available. We introduced ourselves to the man who said his name was Julian. He told us that he had seen us earlier in the day; that he was the cook in the restaurant we were staying in. I must have more tired than I thought because I could have sworn that I had read that Angel Inn did have a restaurant on the premises and most certainly Marcus had not mentioned there was one when we went looking for a place to eat. Julian quickly replied that he cooked for the family; that he was the cousin.

As Julian sipped on his coffee and we finished eating our pastries, he asked me if I was interested in spices. Uh, hello? Have we met? He offered to take us to the market to buy the spices. We didn't have anything on our agenda so what the heck.

I told him to not rush to drink his coffee - we were on vacation after all and had all the time in the world to take it slowly.

In no time we were ready to go and we followed Julian out the bakery and on to the main road. Every few feet, he would turn back to ask me how I liked my spices - not hot, medium or very spicy. I told him I liked it spicy. I must have told him this five or six times. I was starting to get annoyed.

Along the way, we passed by a street vendor selling knives. I talked my brother into buying one and at 250 rupee it was a bit pricey but I knew he would need it. As with our Mexico trip, I expect this one to be all about fruit and the knife would very much come in handy.

Purchase in hand, we continued on our way. Julian was taking us to the central market. Inside the market, we walked passed all the vegetable vendors until we got to the dry goods vendors. There, we found the spice vendors.

Julian instructed us to step aside; he would do the buy for us so we would get Sri Lanka price, not tourist price. Made sense so we stood quietly while Julian made the purchase. A few short minutes later, he came to where we were standing with a few bags of spices in hand- roasted spice for fish, roasted spice for chicken, chili, saffron and something else. He then asked for 2600 rupees. What?? I immediately knew I had been ripped off!!! I could have argued with Julian but I decided to just go ahead and pay him and then we would walk away from the man. What I really wanted to do was choke the man but that would land me in jail. Too bad as the man got to live another day to scam another tourist. I was angry but more so at myself for being so gullible.

As we walked away, my brother and I both acknowledged that I had been taken for. We left Julian behind and headed back out in search of more food. The pastries filled the tummy but didn't really satisfy the taste buds.

As we walked back along Main Street, we spotted a restaurant located alongside the canal. The canal is part of the transport system built by the Dutch when they occupied the town back in the 17th century. The Hamilton Deli sounded and looked like a place that we could sit down and relax a bit. I was still reeling a bit from our unpleasant encounter with Julian.....if that is even his real name.

View from our table out to the canal.
As we entered Hamilton Deli, we were greeted by a smiling man with a very friendly face. Right in front of us was a buffet of food but neither one of us was hungry enough to partake in the food so we opted to select from the menu instead.

Our smiling, friendly faced gentleman led us to the back room and my brother picked a table underneath the fan. There was no air conditioning on in the room so it was good to have the fan to cool us off.

From the menu, we both ordered a lime juice each and a masala dosa (yes!) to share.

As we waited for our food to arrive, we chatted to pass the time. I also tried calling Neil's dad and after a few unsuccessful tries due to sporadic data service, I was finally able to get through. Neil's dad and I arranged to meet at the hotel at 6pm which would work out well for us as we could get together with him and then head on out for dinner.

Service in Sri Lanka definitely operates at its own slow pace. Seemed like an eternity before our drinks arrived and when they did, I gulped down about half of it in less than a few seconds. I didn't realize how thirsty I was.

Our masala dosa came and we asked the waiter to get us utensils as neither of us is good at eating with our fingers. I have a bit more practice than my brother but even so, I would prefer a fork and spoon if I can get it.

It was the first time my brother had ever eaten a masala dosa so I showed him how to break through the dosa to reach the filling inside and add the coconut chutney (which is colored red from chili) and sambar. As you can expect, he enjoyed the dosa as most anyone who has ever tasted one does!

Everybody we've encountered so far has been curious about where we come from. Our stock reply is that we're from Malaysia. When the smiling, friendly faced gentleman found out we were from Malaysia, his face really lit up. Turns out he's been there several times and he excitedly rattled off all the places he had been too and enjoyed spending time in. After that, it was like we had a new found friend- he would periodically stop by our table to check on us. Of course, we were doing just fine.

Before we knew it, there was not a smidgen of food left on the plate and our glasses were empty as well. We paid the bill and headed out of the restaurant. By now, I was getting tired and really wanted to just go back to our room and nap; it had been a long day already considering we had arrived just about 12 hours ago.

Blurry camera lens thanks to the humidity!
Neither of us relished the thought of walking back 1.5km in the heat of midday so we opted for a tuk-tuk. Just as we came to that decision, a tuk-tuk pulled up to deposit two passengers. My brother leaned in to ask how much the fare would be and the guy replied, "200 rupees" which is less than $2. My brother said, "No" and walked away. I was just about the smack my brother for turning down the offer as I really did not ant to walk back when the guy swung by us and spoke out, "150 rupee" to which my brother thankfully caved in. We both clamored into the back seat and down the road we went. A short few minutes later and we were back in front of the Sea Joy restaurant. We checked the menu out and decided it would be an okay enough place to return for dinner - nothing fancy but it should fill the bellly.

We crossed the street and probably less than 50 feet were back at Angel Inn. Marcus and his construction crew were still hard at work.

It was only about 2pm but was tired and really wanted a nap. In some ways it had already been a long day and the heat and humidity had sapped whatever energy I had left. But I had to do a couple of things before laying down. First was to call our guide, Chandana, to confirm tonight's meeting time. I had emailed him earlier in the day but he had told me he would be taking another group around so I figured he would not be able to check email until the end of the day. I needed our plans confirmed sooner than that. So I got online, checked my ToursbyLocals account and got his cell phone number. I wasn't having any luck placing the call on my cel phone so I asked Marcus if I could use his landline. Instead, he called on his cell and I was able to get through.

Months ago, we had agreed to meet up for dinner. I didn't really care if we had dinner together or not, Most important thing was to confirm the meeting time for tomorrow morning as our roadtrip through Sri Lanka begins!!

Second was to reach out to Neil's father. Neil's dad and I arranged to meet at the hotel at 6pm which would work out well for us as we could get together with him and then head on out for dinner.

Duties done, I laid down for a quick nap. My intention was to wake up around 4pm and head to the ocean for a dip. Well, I didn't set and alarm and I must have been more tired than I thought because when I woke up it was already about 5:40p! Neil's dad would be arriving shortly so I decided to just get up and wait for him.

6pm came and went and there was still no sign of Neil's dad. I had no choice but to wait and so I patiently did. Somewhere around 7pm, there was a knock on the door. I leapt out of bed and opened the door. On the other side stood a very handsome older gentleman and next to him, a very statuesque young woman. He introduced himself as Neil's dad and she as Steph, Neil's sister. I motioned for them to come inside our room where it was cool.

The poor twosome had gotten trapped in rush hour traffic so the drive from Colombo, which would ordinarily take about 40 minutes took an hour and a half instead! Apparently, the road congestion is really bad in Colombo. I was thinking it had been a wise decision for us to not spend the day there.

We chatted for a few minutes - the usual introductory conversation between two sets of strangers. Of course, they wanted to know about our plans for the trip which I gladly recited our travel route which I knew could change depending on our plans. I then handed over the suitcase over to them along with the key and the manila envelope that I had brought for Neil all the way from DC. There was a bit more conversation and then it was time for them to go. Before we parted ways, Neil's father, who is a minister, led us in prayer - asking for a safe journey for us. I'm not a religious person but I thought it was a very considerate gesture nonetheless.

After we said our goodbyes, we headed out for dinner at the Sea Joy. It was late and we're traveling in low season so the place was relatively empty. We got a table without having to wait. The waiter handed us the menus, which were the same as what was posted outside. Everyone had told me that Negombo is THE place to grab a bite of the seafood that Sri Lanka is world famous for so my eyes immediately settled on the prawns. My brother ordered the squid. Those two dishes plus two glasses of lime juice completed our order.

Given how few diners there were in the restaurant, it seemed like we had to wait an incredibly long time before our food arrived. While we waited, we chatted - lots to catch up on plus I needed to brief my brother on our travel itinerary since I did all the planning. As we were chatting, Marcus entered the restaurant accompanied by another man who turned out to be Chandana. I was so relieved to see him! He was outfitted in a nice dress shirt and pants and he was carrying a plastic folder containing papers. My initial reaction was a positive one.

Chandana was with a pair of tourists so he couldn't stay long. We quickly settled on a time to meet tomorrow morning - 6am. It would be a long travel day and so it was best to get an early start.

After Chandana left, our food finally arrived. Not a memorable meal. How were my prawns you might ask? I had visions of something the size of a small lobster. Instead, I got tiny shrimp. In fact, so tiny that I struggled to shell them. Very disappointed.

At the end, our bill came to barely $6 for the two of us so we couldn't really complain.

Back in the room, it was basically time to take a shower and get into bed. I set the alarm for 5:30a.

The day had not been a very exciting one BUT.....our trip begins tomorrow and as always, I am excited beyond belief to finally get going!!

Lights out! Good night from Negombo!