March 21 found us in Colombo, the capital & largest city in Sri Lanka with a population of some 3 million people. This was an over night stop, so we would be here almost two full days. Called Ceylon for many years when it was subject to Dutch & then British control, Sri Lanka recently ended a lengthy civil war with the rebel Tamils during which Colombo was subject to repeated attacks, most notably a car bomb in 1996 that killed almost 100 people & injured more some 1500. As a result, the central administrative area adjacent to the harbor, called “Fort” after an old Portuguese fort that is long gone, was subject to strict security measures that made it very difficult to visit. Some of that is still there, but a lot less than before apparently since we were able to walk around most of the area without hindrance.
Since we were docked right in town we decided to tour the city ourselves on foot. We had some maps & written guidance, but repeatedly lost our way in this large, complex & crowded city. But really, much of the wandering around made the visit more interesting because we got a taste of the local streets off the beaten tourist path. On our way out of the harbor area we were repeatedly accosted by “Tuk-tuk” drivers (very small taxis) seeking a fare. They do not easily take “no” for an answer, following us in their vehicles & urging us to engage them for a tour of the city. Twice we were stopped by men carrying what they claimed to be tourist bureau identification, who wanted to steer us to a good taxi. We found that people falsely claiming special status was not uncommon here, & a false id is quite easy to make. We hoped that this would only happen around the port, as in most other towns with this problem, but it continued all day long, to the point where we stopped being polite about it.
Anyway, we shook them all off & headed for our first landmark, the clock tower near the President’s House. Originally built in 1857, a decade later a lighthouse beacon was added to the top & it served as the local lighthouse until the surrounding buildings grew tall enough to cut off the sea view of its light. The grounds of the President’s House were blocked off by walls & guards, so we headed for the business district to the northeast. We noted that there seem to be a number of small mosques in this area, & we passed the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, inside which is a statue of Buddha with a neon halo (the picture is blurry because it is in a dark room & we were outside on the street). On one block of interesting old colonial era department stores we passed Cargill’s department store, apparently a venerable landmark in this city.
We walked on toward Pettah, an area with a huge & busy souk. It is arranged in the traditional manner, with particular specialties gathered together on each street, so that most of the gold shops are together, most of the fabric shops are together, etc. On the way there we passed another clock tower, smaller but apparently modeled on the one near the President’s House. We also passed the Old Town Hall, built in 1873. There are so many shops open to the street, some with interesting items we are sure but many with cheap goods or household items uninteresting to a visitor, that picking out something good would be difficult, particularly because the shop keeper would begin pushing his or her goods at you as soon as you showed any interest. Some folks love to haggle in these places, but we have never seen the charm in trying to save a dollar or two that might mean quite a lot to many of these less wealthy folks.
We came to the Jami ul-Aftar Mosque, a glorious candy-striped building completed in 1909. Many people think it is just gaudy, but we thought it had an interesting style. It is quite big & could be seen from the ship.
We walked on through Pettah’s interesting but dirty & nerve wracking streets. It was nerve wracking because you had to dodge vehicles & handcarts that weren’t interested in stopping or giving way & because sidewalks were unavailable, either because too crowded or piled with stuff. We continued to be approached by tuk-tuk drivers and individuals on the street. It was awkward because some of these people on the street may have been just trying to be friendly, but others were looking to make a few bucks, and it was impossible to distinguish between them since all seemed nice at first. For example, we were approached by one fellow who claimed to be the pilot of our ship (not likely), and another who claimed he worked in Amsterdam’s engine room, yet asked us where we had arrived from and where we were going next. So the only thing we could do was greet everyone politely then disengage as soon as possible.
We managed to find the Dutch Reformed Wolvendaal Church just when we were about to give up looking for it. Built in 1749, when the Dutch still ruled Ceylon, it has a rather simple interior & its exterior is in need of repair. A number of old gravestones line one side of the building, dating back to the 17th century, before the current building was erected.
As we walked back down the hill toward downtown we noticed that women dressed in saris were common, though not dominant, in Pettah, whose population is largely Tamil. That was not true elsewhere in town.
Our plan had been to explore Fort & Pettah on the first day, then the near southern districts on the second day. But we got back to Fort around mid day, so we decided to continue on south. We walked past an old pillared building with military guards that we found out later is the old Parliament Building and now the President’s Secretariat. Just beyond it is a canal (the Dutch built a number of them here) that leads to an interior lake. We didn’t walk up the canal, but we did see some nice birds bathing & swimming there, including egrets & what looked a little like crows, along with what we think were endangered spot-billed pelicans that live here.
We walked down the long Galle Face Green, a large park along the water’s edge created in the 1850’s. This area is more lively at night when lots of folks come out for picnics & promenading, but it was pretty nice to watch the surf in the insufferably hot & humid weather. There is a pier that attracted a lot of visitors, including several women in saris with classes of children dressed in white, and a few food vendors along the road.
We stopped for lunch at the Galle Face Hotel that forms the southern end of the park. Dating from the mid-18th century, the hotel has hosted many notables, from Mark Twain to Harrison Ford, whose pictures are on display in the bar area where we ate. We ran into some friends who were on a HAL tour that lunched in a courtyard here on an extensive buffet of curry & other local cuisine, but we just had a sandwich & a beer . . . in a delightfully air conditioned room.
After lunch we decided to walk to Barefoot, a store that had been highly recommended. We knew it was a ways further south, but we didn’t know how really far it was. We passed the US Embassy & the Prime Minister’s residence, surrounded by a wall with soldiers in watchtowers above it. But most of this very long walk was through uninteresting commercial & financial areas. Fortunately, Barefoot turned out to be a really interesting store, so we didn’t feel this long walk had been wasted. This is Sri Lanka, so there were plenty of nice flowers around the city.
On the way back we stopped at a McDonald’s for water (it advertised curry specialties), but mostly we just wanted to get back to the ship & off our feet. As we passed Galle Face Green there were a lot more people there than before & there were families enjoying the beach at the end of the park, which also had more pelicans.
We walked back to the dock. Shortly before entering the harbor, the last tuk-tuk of the day pulled up and offered to take us to the ship for $1 (this is the price they always quote, but others have told us that it went up after they were in the vehicle). It was only about 500 feet, so it wasn’t even worth that much. We walked past a lighthouse that doesn’t seem to work any more, which we think must be the one built by the water after taller buildings blocked the clock tower light. And we entered the port by walking under a huge stupa sitting on legs about 10 stories high, where the port controller’s office is located.
It turned out we had walked 13 miles on our first day in Colombo, easily a new record for us. We woke up the next day, March 22, still tired & sore all over, so we decided to stay on the ship. After all, we had seen most of what we had planned for two days on the first day. There was a row of tourist oriented shops on the pier across from the ship & we spent some time looking there, but found nothing we wanted beyond a tee shirt. Interestingly, although these shops had been open & available for the entire two days, when the all aboard time arrived (everybody knew when it would be), security officers had to go out to these shops to corral passengers who couldn’t tear themselves away. The antics of the passengers on these cruises are always entertaining, if baffling.
After Colombo we will be sailing north toward the Middle East and into pirate infested waters, including the Straits of Hormuz & the Persian Gulf, then around the Arabian Peninsula into the Red Sea & up to the Suez canal. In Colombo preparations for this began as crew members strung razor wire along the edge of the open walking deck, deck 3, which is where anyone would try to board this ship & also where our cabin is located. Just outside our window they also installed one of several water cannons, fire hoses attached to nozzles over the edge of the ship that can be turned on anyone trying to climb aboard. On deck 6 they also have sound cannons capable of breaking the eardrums of anyone in the water near our ship. The captain explained that we would be under constant surveillance during this passage, from the ship’s radar & security guards posted on the outside deck (with deck lights off at night), and from AWACS planes flying above & satellite coverage. In reality, there probably isn’t much real danger to us because Amsterdam can do 25 knots, easily enough to outrun any pirate boats, and a cruise ship with 1500 people on board is not a likely target for pirates, who want cargo to ransom. But its good to know that all these precautions are being taken.
So in late afternoon we sailed away from Colombo, headed up the western coast of India toward the Arabian Peninsula.