|I'll admit that I didn't expect much from Sri Lankan Airlines. I'm not really sure why, but I guess I had a visision of the airline version of a Lao bus. How very very wrong I was!
First, there was substantially more legroom than on a normal economy flight, but it only begins there. Then we noticed the display sceen in front of each passenger: we all had our personal entertainment system with video games, puzzles (crosswords and such), a choice of at least 10 movies (3 or so in English), and a myriad of television shows. Then the beautiful sari-clad women appeared with the drink and food: a choice of three different meals and a free bar! It was the best red wine I'd had since leaving Canada!
I watched a surprisingly good movie (The Illusionist ... you should see it) and had a very tasty dinner before we started our descent into Columbo just four hours later.
We entered the Columbo airport expecting to find a few seats on which to sleep before our 7:45 flight the next morning. Then we saw the "night stop" counter where a small crowd from our flight was gathering. We decided to join them. A woman looked at our boarding pass, handed us some forms and a tissue-thin ticket, and pointed at immigration. We examined the ticket: it was a voucher for local hotel! The airline was paying for us to stay overnight at a hotel. We were bewildered but pleased. It seemed like we were going to Sri Lanka!
We passed through immigration and saw we'd been issued a 30 day visa for our overnight stay. It was tempting to stay longer, but India was calling.
Downstairs, we handed our voucher to a clerk who handed us a paper with a hotel and room number, then muttered something and waved us toward the door. Did we need to take a taxi there? If so, we didn't have any Sri Lankan money. If not, where was our ride? We figured the wave toward the door signified something so made our way in that direction. Quickly the relative calm of the airport disintegrated into bewildering chaos. On both sides of us were people waving signs, men trying to sell their hotels, people waiting for passengers. We tried to discern where we were supposed to go and kept walking past the armed soldiers at the airport exit. Just beyond were the taxi drivers, yelling and jostling for attention behind the small barricade meant, I assume, to keep them back. Still, we couldn't see our ride. Unmarked vans appeared, loaded passengers, and drove off. Was one ours?!?!?
I guess we were standing in the wrong place, because soon a soldier approached us. I showed him our hotel voucher and he waved us back inside the airport (after we were both "patted down" and our baggage put through xray). We returned to the voucher desk, who promptly waved us back toward the exit. This time we persisted with some success: a man in an unmarked shop gestured to us to come, wait, follow him, then pointed vaguely toward a set of vans waiting outside. We were slowly getting somewhere!
We wandered in the direction of the vans, approached one with our voucher, and were gestured away. We tried another. Eventually we found our van and hopped inside. It was very strange knowing we were in a new country with absolutely no way of paying for anything!!
I'd like to say that we saw something of Columbo, but it was too dark for anything apart from neon signs and the passing shapes of men and women walking along the side of the road. The landscape had a feeling of enforced emptiness like the roads around military bases and industrial areas sometimes do. We pulled into our hotel and were assigned a room, a dingy musty one it turned out, and we arranged ourselves for about three hours sleep. We were happy to have brought our own sheets to cover the hotel ones, specked with the occassional insect carcass, and with brown-stained pillows. As we layed down to sleep, we reminded ourselves we expected to be sleeping on chairs in the airport; this was much better despite the smells.
Our early morning wakeup call was almost painful after just 3 hours sleep; we showered, dressed, and staggered into the empty kitchen for a small breakfast of milky coffee and a spicy flat fried samosa-type thing that was quite tasty. Before long, we were on our way back to the airport.
Our checkin and flight to India was uneventful and short. Before long, we were descending over the stunningly blue ocean and palm-tree covered landscape. This wasn't the urban chaos I expected. It looked like a tropical paradise.
Exiting the plane, I breathed the hot humid air of southern India for the first time. The nervousness of entering a new country put me on edge a little. There is so much the guidebooks can never prepare you for -- etiquette, costs, customs, and it all hits you full-force as you leave the airport. The learning curve is always steep and there are always initial mistakes. I hoped, silently, that the mistakes would be small ones.