It was August 10th, 1982. As we descended into Colombo we could see palm trees and beaches below. The cabin doors opened to a hot sunny August day. Muggy air immediately flooded the plane, reminding us all instantly that we really wanted a good shower. The airport was chaotic and magnified sounds echoed off of the hard tile floors. The smell of sweat and airplane fumes dominated while we maneuvered through retrieving our bags and a confusing Customs line. At each phase of the process my father, nervous and tired, ran his hands through his hair, and by the time we were outside looking for our scheduled pickup, Dad’s hair resembled the Muppet Beaker’s, sticking up in all directions.
Skinny! Everything was so skinny. The van sped away from the airport in Colombo with my exhausted family. An 18 hour flight from Geneva, Switzerland had landed me in a world that was so different than anything I could have imagined. Women in sarongs in shades of purple and faded blue carried baskets on their heads as they walked along the road dangerously close, I thought, to our speeding car. A man squatted at a coconut stand by the side of the road and used a machete on a strange orange coconut that looked nothing like the brown hairy ones I’d seen in the grocery store. A woman straddled a ditch on the side of the road and relieved herself standing up. Everything appeared so skeletal to me. The dark skinned Sri Lankans looked so slight compared to the Americans I was used to. The palm trees stood tall and bare save their bushy tops – So, unlike the full oak and maple trees of central New York. Even the strange looking cows – which I’d later discover were actually water buffalo, displayed their ribs. The air was hot and sticky and before we arrived at the hotel I had used the sick bag I’d taken from the plane.
When we arrived at the Galle Face hotel (the first hotel we will be staying at next summer), things began to look up. The sea breeze felt good after the hot car ride and the colonial building appeared clean and welcoming. There was an American flag flapping violently in the brisk winds off the ocean. I excitedly wondered if they had hoisted it to welcome us. My mother pointed out that it was flying upside down and we got a good laugh speculating that a navy ship might come to rescue whoever had flown the S.O.S. symbol. A mustached, uniformed man bowed with palms together in greeting and I instinctively returned the gestured – like I was praying to the gentleman who was not much taller than I. I glanced at my father who gave me a little nod – yes, what I had done was acceptable. I later wondered if that man I encountered was Kottarapattu Chattu Kuttan who is famous for working for seven decades at the hotel. Starting at the Galle Face in 1942 as waiter and bellboy, he later became an iconic doorman until his death in 2014.
The four of us walked up the steps into the lobby and told the people at the front desk – who were not as skinny, I noticed, as those along the road – of their flag error. We were taken to a room overlooking the ocean and the expansive lawn of the Galle Face green. The cool tile of the floor felt good on my feet as I kicked off my shoes. The large windows were open and the salty air blew the mosquito nets and the curtains and quickly swept our boarding passes off the bedside table.
Despite being tired from our trip, I didn’t want to sleep. After washing our faces we went downstairs to some chairs on a large open porch. The breeze was warm, but felt good. I could taste the salt of the ocean in the air. I ordered a Coke. Not at all foreign except that it came it came in a cute little glass bottle. Janelle however had something I had never seen – passion fruit juice. Bright yellow and so sweet you could taste the sugar when you smelled it. Janelle would instantly take to the saccharine drink which we learned to feed her in moderation or what came out looked strikingly similar to what went in.
While my mother took Janelle up for a nap, Dad and I walked along the Galle Face green with the pink British colonial architecture of the hotel behind us. It looked like I had imagined the home that young Mary of Secret Garden had been living in before she moved to England. The Galle Face hotel was built in 1864 by a group of British and had been running ever since, making it one of the oldest hotels in Asia. Many famous guests had stayed there, my father explained as we walked across a giant white and black tiled checkerboard towards the sea, including Mahatma Gandhi, John D. Rockerfeller, princes and presidents. It was very bright looking over the ocean. Despite the rush from the Coke it still seemed I was looking through the fog of sleepy-eyes. I squinted to see if I could make out any land in the distance and asked my father if we could see India from here. He explained that India was to the North and with the exception of a few small Islands which he hoped to visit some day, it was a straight shot to Eastern Africa. Thousands of miles of open ocean – and thousands more miles from home. Although it was not yet lunch time we had been up for days, hours? It was all very confusing, but we knew we were tired. We went back to the room where I climbed into the large bed and immediately fell asleep.
I woke to that groggy, jet-lagged feeling that is so familiar to travelers. By the light coming through the windows I knew it was late afternoon. Everything had the warm sticky almost wet feeling of the seaside. Having spent the previous week in Switzerland the surroundings were confusing until I realized where I was and saw my mother sitting with my sister pointing to the waves outside. She smiled and asked how I felt and wondered if I would like something to eat. I was hungry so after my father showered we went down to find something for an early dinner. The restaurant I later discovered was called the Verandah Restaurant which was mostly empty at this strange in-between lunch and dinner hour. We stood at the top of the large stairs overlooking the open restaurant and several waiters quickly descended upon us to assist. My parents spent more than a year in India before I was born while my father did research for his PhD in religious studies. They lived in the Northern part of the country and, although it had been almost a decade, they still recalled some of the Hindi they had picked up during their stay. So whenever we went to an Indian restaurant, my parents would order in Hindi. I was always impressed and we often had long conversations with the wait staff. But this time none of us knew any Sinhalese. We were like any tourists coming to the Galle Face Hotel. And, on day one, with only a basic understanding of where I was – I was as lost as a traveler without a map. Later, I would adamantly deny being a tourist to any who would listen, but for now I needed to rely on the help of the wait staff.
They called my father “sir” and my mother “ma’am”, but my sister and I they called “baba.” My parents asked what I might like and two of the waiters turned to each other and began to debate what I only assumed was what my meal should be. I guess they decided because both pointed to a spot on the menu and shook their heads back and forth like a pair of bobble head dolls. Suddenly my father began to mimic their strange ambiguous wobbling and they seemed to take this as an affirmative. I had no idea what was going to appear on my plate. I had spent the last week eating mainly cheese and chocolate in Switzerland, but I was sure it would be something different. What arrived looked like a pile of spaghetti that had not been properly stirred in the pot and had formed a tangled ball. It came with tiny pots of curry and dahl. String hoppers are made of rice flour that has been pressed through holes and comes out as noodles which are then steamed. They were to become a familiar and enjoyable staple as my year progressed, but at that time I still felt jet lagged and the new pungent smells of curried potato did not agree with me. I took a few polite bites and washed it down with the drink the waiters had decided on for me, an Elephant House Cream Soda. It was the sweetest beverage I think I’d ever tasted, and to my 10 year old palette it was vastly preferable to exotic turmeric and fenugreek.
I pushed the food around on my plate in the way a young person does to make it appear as though it had been consumed and asked if I could walk around a bit. While my sister gummed her teething biscuits and my parents relaxed, I wandered to the back of the hotel. The patio behind the hotel led to the beach that at this time was unoccupied. The sun had set, and lights highlighted a few palm trees near the glowing windows, but only a few steps away the sand and sea were black save the glint of white that would appear each time a wave crashed on the shore. The ocean loomed louder than it had when my father and I had explored it earlier that day, and in my mind the waves towered over me. I could feel the hint of spray on my face and was suddenly terrified that I would be swept out into the blackness. My heart was pounding, but I forced myself to stand there and listen to the sound of the surf and the faint clinking of glasses behind me. This was the beginning of my adventure. It was summer at home and my friends would be swimming and sailing. They would be playing in pools and getting ready for a new teacher in a familiar school. My parents and I were not yet sure if, or where, I would attend school. I wasn’t sure how long I could survive on soft drinks and courteous nibbles of strange foods. But as I stood facing the shadowy expanse, I decided that I should do as my parents had urged and try to take advantage of the opportunity to explore a new environment. I stood at that spot for what seemed to be ages, but was probably no more than a few minutes until the fear of the black ocean overcame me and I turned and bolted back inside.