Go to the first post for Kandy
Feeling utterly relaxed, Weernsinghe drove me up the road for the final hour or two to Kandy. Kandy felt so familiar to me but instead of going directly to the hotel, we skirted the river to the Polgolla Dam to drop in on Roger. That last night I was invited round to Roger’s house once more. They had been so hospitable to me, I had been with them at least two or three evenings a week – sometimes for grand meals – curries, sometimes for the kind of cravings for British cooking such as a roast dinner or sausage and mash, sometimes just a “Whatever is in the cupboard” kind of meal. We chatted a little about what kind of report he wanted out of me and how much extra action might be necessary. We chatted about the future – I was due to go to Eritrea about a month after I got home, and wanted a holiday in between as I had taken none in this mammoth year of trips.
Sitting there on the coffee house terrace that night I reflected that Sri Lanka was probably the best all round trip I had ever been on. I had enjoyed working with Roger’s team and despite it being all computer work in a windowless air-conditioned office, it had been quite rewarding. I only hoped the staff had got something out of it. I knew a few of them did, but the effect was not what the Mahaweli Authority wanted – the talented staff left because they could now get better paid jobs in the private sector. But the friendship extended by Roger and Flo and the little community at the Queens Bar, the magnificent scenery and pageantry I had experienced, the charm of Kandy and the Chalet Hotel and the amazing hospitality of all Sri Lankans I met, particularly Premadasa, made it the perfect assemblage.
I was due to fly back on the Air Lanka flight from Colombo which left very early in the morning, arriving at Heathrow late morning, but still 10 hours later. It was a fantastic flight over the southern tip of India, the Persian Gulf and Arabia, Syria and Turkey and then the long slog against the jetstream over Eastern Europe, where the airspeed could be cut to as little as 350 miles an hour. To arrive in time for check in meant a three a.m. start from Kandy. I was to have Roger’s third and personal driver, Nandasenda. I paid my hotel bill before retiring early to get at least some kip. I awoke half an hour before I was due to leave and waited for the white Land Rover to roar up the drive.
Nandasenda had a game to play, he was ferrying people back and forth from Colombo Airport all the time, often in the middle of the night. During the day the amount of traffic meant the best time was about four hours, but at night, with few obstructions, it was usually just over two hours. Nandasenda wanted to beat the two hour barrier. He decided he would try on my trip. He did not start the clock until we were at the exit to the city. He stopped here and grabbed a few coins from the glove compartment. A small white shrine is set into the wall next to the roadside and it is for all travellers to wish them a good journey. Knowing how Nandasenda drove I knew we needed that blessing. While Saman was slow and friendly, Weernsinghe careful but average, Nandasenda was manic and ambitious. Once back in the vehicle, he put his foot to the floor and only a few times did it raise more than an inch.
Sri Lanka at night was an incredible place. The only time when you did not see hoards of people or animals along every road. The only time there were no belching vehicles holding up your progress. The long line of shop fronts strewn along the way were all shut up, coloured wooden doors and window shutters sealing the occupants or chattels completely.
And yet, there was not a complete close down. Even at this time of day, there were a few people walking along the roads, shift workers, or those with an impossible commute perhaps. A few vagrants who couldn’t sleep. There were animals around; donkeys, dogs and goats sleeping in shelters along the road, even the occasional elephant could be seen chained up along the road side. And some of these creatures took to keeping their bellies warm while they slept by lying in the middle of the road. Several times we only just managed to avoid a dog, at one time a couple of cows had plonked themselves in the middle of the road.
We crossed the Mahaweli Ganga at the massive bridge in Peradiniya and turned right down the main road to Colombo. I kept awake for the whole journey as we reversed the progress of three weeks before with Saman, only in double quick time. First the railway station at the pass, then the springs in the rocks, still bubbling away in the middle of the night. Then past the signpost to the Pinnawella Elephant Orphanage, through the craft villages and the deserted centre of Kegalla. Then back along the dichotomous scenery of coconut groves and rice fields of the plain.
We reached the town of Gampaha, some twenty miles from the centre of Colombo and Nandasenda turned off. At first I was wondering what he was up to, but the reason was clear. The airport was about 15 miles north of the city, and we need not travel all the way down to Colombo to catch the main coast road. We could cut across. The scenery was very different on this side road. More than anything else, I was aware of the prosperity of this region. Once we crossed the main railway at the level crossing in Gampaha and headed out into the country, there were few shacks or slums, the houses were neatly made, finished and painted, and surrounded by tidy walls and elaborate gardens. New cars sat in driveways everywhere. And in between, although there were still farms, the countryside was more reminiscent of the green belt around London – more trees interspersed with gardens. We passed a few factories, now we had re-entered the free trade zone. Although only a side road, it was well made and Nandasenda put his foot down even more – he was aware that the two-hour barrier was fast approaching. Because the land was near flat, there was little to measure our progress, but then suddenly, bright floodlights appeared to our right, and a massive wire fence loomed. Watch towers marked every quarter mile and a ditch separated us from the fence. More than anywhere else in the country, I was aware of the threat of terrorism. The airport was a big target and the Sinhalese government did everything to keep this vital business and tourist facility open. We burst out onto the main road and Nandasenda put his foot down even harder, he swung around into the airport entrance and screeched to a halt at the Departure gates. I looked at my watch – 1 hour 58 and 39 seconds. Nandasenda beamed at me.