Settling in to life in Colombo

For one and a half weeks my family and I settled into life in Colombo. My father, Lowell, spent a lot of time at the University in Colombo planning coursework and phoning colleagues at Peredinya to finalize host families in Kandy. On Thursday – I remember it was a Thursday because it was a good day when I had no worries about Malaria drugs – we got a day pass at The Oberoi hotel to use their pool. The Oberoi was to my mind an ultra modern hotel that went, at the time, for the outrageous cost of $80/night. The building was taller than others I’d seen during my stay in Colombo. It was a large windowed block of concrete that had none of the colonial flair of the Galle Face, but many modern amenities. Each floor ringed around a central open courtyard, so that standing in the lobby you could look up and see all the way to the top of the structure. Shops in the lower level sold jewelry and batiks and also chic Western apparel.  It seemed wildly extravagant to me. The reception staff was friendly and the pool was amazing. We bought Janelle a pair of bright orange inflatable water wings at one of the fancy shops. On our way out my mother, Judith, organized pool privileges for the rest of our stay, and we went swimming at the Oberoi almost every day for the next six weeks. I would order French fries from the pool side restaurant – small shoestring crunchy ones – my favorite. I learned that the ketchup they served was spicy rather than sweet like at home, but the snack, along with the egg sandwiches they served, became my daily lunch. Some of the students followed our lead when they arrived and my father felt it was a mistake to allow them to isolate themselves in such a Western-oriented environment. He felt it delayed their immersion into Sri Lankan culture. This may be true, but I have many fond memories of splashing around with my family at the Oberoi.


Despite our time at the fancy hotel, we did learn our way around Colombo. We began to understand some of the mysterious images that had greeted me when we arrived. The strange brightly colored three-wheeled vehicles that had looked to me like a shrunken car that had mated with a tricycle I learned were tuk tuks which could get you where you wanted to go more quickly than a car and with more of an amusement park flair. Just when we would think we were stuck in traffic, that we couldn’t possibly fit in between the lory and the sedan stopped in front of us, the tuk tuk driver would somehow read our minds and take on the challenge. Riding in a tuk tuk is most certainly a “keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times” adventure. Mom decided after a few harrowing experiences that we would drop dad off at the university and use the car and driver to get around.

Sri Lankan tuk tuk

I learned that the red juice the old women were spitting on the side of the road was the remnants of the betel nut they were chewing. It only took one unfortunate, sticky incident while wearing sandals for me to learn the importance of reading the movements of the squatting grey-haired women chewing their drug.

Mom learned quickly, as many had before her, including Marco Polo, that the island had many gems. Her father at home worked at a jewelry store and had some gemology knowhow. The two exchanged letters and toyed with the idea of importing some gems for them to sell together back in the states. Although we explored lines of fruit vendors and noisy fish markets and began to get a taste for the country, most our early shopping adventures were slightly less interesting.

“There is a new supermarket here and we bought Sugar Pops for breakfast, canned hot dogs for Janelle and even Pringles Potato Chips. We can even get Pampers there although they are expensive….The accommodations are very nice. We have two bedrooms, a bath, a small laundry area and a balcony where we can hang our laundry. I’ve decided to do my own laundry as when the dobhi (washerwoman) does it, it all comes out the same color – gray! We share a sitting room with the rest of the family although they rarely use it except in the evening to watch TV.

The TV is limited – only from 6pm till 10pm each day. Some programs are in Sinhala or Tamil, but quite a few are in English. Last night we watched a variety show with Frank Sinatra and friends. We’ve also seen The Jeffersons and tonight Charlie’s Angels is on…

The weather has been hot and humid, but Lowell says it’s much cooler than when he was here in June. The nights have been cool or less warm depending on one’s view point but with the fans running it’s possible to sleep.

We go to bed quite early (9:30pm) as the lighting in these homes is not very good for reading. We have a single bare bulb in each room and only one electrical outlet in each room so you’d have to choose between a lamp and a fan, and that’s hardly a choice. Another reason for an early retirement is the birds are up about 5:00 am singing outside our window. And this one, called a Koel is as good as any alarm clock! And once Janelle is awake we might as well all be up!”

– Judith August 16, 1982

Waking to the sounds of tropical birds, exploring Colombo during the mornings, swimming in the afternoons… our Sri Lankan adventure was off to a wonderful start.

(To listen to the alarm that woke us each morning click here)


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

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