Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sri Lankan Trip

In Colombo we stayed at a place called 'The Penthouse' (

It is an old colonial mansion that has seen better days ! Frankly now it is a run down place that is falling apart :--) !

The building is said to be over 200 years old. Refer to my attachments for visual references.

What I loved most about that place is the great collection of antique furniture that's lying wasted :--( !

Solid, huge and heavy teak / mahogany / rose wood working tables (I counted at least 5 of these); book shelves (just like the one that I've been searching here for the last 4 years), dressing tables with the same ancient mirrors, beautiful cots complete with bed posts and so much more. I'm sure the owner of the place Dinesh Sellamuttu wouldn't mind sparing some of these items for a true lover of antique wooden furniture like myself ! Incidentally, the lane in which this place is located is called Sellamuttu Avenue. I was told that they are one of Colombo's richest families. Most of the property in that lane is theirs it seems.

It seems that The Penthouse is going to be cut in the front to make way for a road which the Colombo municipality is planning. Hence no repairs or maintenance has been done lately.

Also it seems once the place was thriving. But since the civil war traffic dropped drastically almost to zero occupancy. So obviously no one is bothered about maintaining it.

The Penthouse is just a stone’s throw away from the sea. But we couldn't keep the windows open for long as the sea breeze (if you can call it that) was very strong.

The caretaker kept telling us not to open the windows as the breeze will blow things away ... but then you know Amma !!

She insisted on opening our bedroom window to enjoy the sea breeze and sure enough within minutes the window frame literally got ripped off its wilting hinges and went crashing down. The old wooden frame broke to pieces and the glass shattered into smithereens on the street below. Luckily it did not land on anybody's head !! Else I would be cooling my heels in some Colombo jail on wilful manslaughter charges. Ha ! Ha !

We had the entire Penthouse at our disposal. That means close to 15,000 sq. ft. of it. It had a kitchen, 5 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms large foyer overlooking the Indian Ocean ...

In a long time I think we were its only visitors. Sadly, most of the place is rotting. Except the area which the caretaker uses, the rest of the place isn't even opened.

But I'm sure in its heydays, The Penthouse must have been a rocking mansion. Wonder which all Dorais lived there !

In Colombo security is seriously severe. Since The Penthouse is located in Colombo - 3 (which is the heart of downtown Colombo, with close proximity to the President's Office (Temple Trees) and other major offices), every 10 meter had an armed posse of police presence. We were unfailingly stopped and carefully checked every time we stepped out.

One morning while we were out President Mahinda Rajapaksa ( was on the move and so we were herded quickly into the Galle Face Hotel's parking lot (where I stayed with Shyamalie on my return from Ella Adventure Park, the last time I was in Sri Lanka).

It was exciting (for me) to see the security precautions for the President. It was rather professional and serious.

I wanted to catch it with my camera (in video), but both Shyamalie and Amma put their foot down and stopped me. If caught, I could probably have got hauled to the closest police station for further enquiries !! LOL !

The Sri Lankan President's convoy was more functional and serious rather than ostentatious and flashy like Jayalalithaas, where you have 20 odd vehicles with headlights on and sirens blaring, with skinny back cat commandos hanging from Ambassadors with their AK47s !!

Rajapaksas convoy zipped past us in a jiffy. They must be doing close to 120 kmph is my guess. We saw him pass us on Galle Road. First, the road was cleared with road blocks.

Then armed military police quickly took positions facing the people. There were no sirens of any kind. Then some high speed armed patrol flew past in motorbikes.

After some minutes more such bikers came and lined on either side of the streets. Then came his convoy ...

In the speed at which it passed by, I could only notice little ... first went a large Hummer kind of an open jeep packed with some 20 commandos with automatic rifles sticking outside.

There were some 4 - 5 such vehicles.

Then there were 3 identical black, sleek, custom made Mercedes with dark glasses. Each one maintained a gap of about 500 meters between them. In between went these other armed jeeps. The convoy used both sides of the road. So some were on this side of the median while some others were on the other side.

We had no clue in which one Rajapaksa was seated - I think that was the idea !! And the whole convoy crossed us in less than 30 seconds max. I think safety for the President's life is seriously taken in Sri Lanka. And the looming threat from the Tigers is not taken lightly.

Within a minute after he left the road blocks were removed and the roads were back to normal.

Once I saw the convoy of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the monarch of Oman, when I was in Muscat the last time. Oh, that was really amazing ! He was in a stretch Mercedes limousine surrounded by at least a 100 Royal Oman Policemen in their large BMW bikes. That convoy was at least a 100 vehicles strong, complete with a Fire Engines, Ambulances, Towing Vehicles and some 5 helicopters flying at very low altitudes. The beauty of this convoy was it was proceeding at a leisurely 50 kmph speed !!

Colombo is getting paranoid regarding the forthcoming 10-day SAARC Summit. Schools and colleges will remain closed those 10 days. More road blocks have sprung up all over Colombo. Traffic diversions are being made and all kinds of other precautions are being taken.

In fact, even now there is armed patrolling round-the-clock in Colombo, especially around where we were staying. In the beach which was just outside our window, there were armed patrolling. At nights they use strong search lights and scan the shorelines and the sea.

I once went early in the morning to the beach to click some pictures and sure enough 3 armed commandos came and wanted to know who I am and what I am doing. When I showed them the place I was staying (which was bang opposite) they told me to go (and of course, not take any more pictures). After I entered the building they came and cross-checked with the security guard of The Penthouse ! I saw them from the window !!

Despite all this, Colombo is a far better place than Madras is my verdict. The civic sense of the people needs to be applauded. I say Colombo is a better city because the people there follow rules. Two wheeler users wear helmets - even those on pillion. There are no posters on the walls in the city. There are no beggars pestering you in the streets. Smoking is prohibited in the streets. Paan and spitting too. Pedestrians are given the right of way. Vehicles stop if you get on to the street from the curb. Traffic is all one-way only. We were also told that in Colombo - at least in the downtown areas there is no such thing called theft or chain-snatching or robbery, or any such unlawful activities. I guess with so many armed men patrolling the land and the sea the thieves wouldn't get much chance to get away ! The only serious problem that I noticed was the unscrupulous auto drivers ! Most cheat. Since I didn't have change one helpful auto driver offered to get me the change and disappeared with my 1000 Sri Lankan rupees !! 1 Indian Rupee translates to 2.5 SLR.

One of the main reasons for my trip to Colombo was to refurbish my wardrobe - which is easily 10 years old by now ! I shopped like never before. Bought jeans, trousers, shirts - both formals and casuals, shorts and tees. We all did quite a bit of shopping and the final Indian converted amount came to a song ! That alone made my trip worth the while !

We spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Colombo. On Thursday we went to Shyamalie's house in an interior place called Parakaduwa, near a town called Avissawella. The closest city is Ratnapura, which is also the district headquarters. Shyamalie's place is a very lush and beautiful area nestled in a slightly elevated place surrounded by rubber trees all around with gurgling crystal clear streams meandering all over. In fact there is one just opposite to their house. Shyamalie said that when they were small that's where they used to bathe and wash their clothes too. It is indeed a very beautiful and calm and a peaceful place. When we were there it was drizzling some times, pouring heavily some times, hot sometimes and cloudy most of the times. It is almost like a small hill station. Very green and very, very beautiful. We stayed one night in one of their relatives house which was plush ! On Friday it was pouring rather heavily. Sheets and sheets of water ! Amma said that she hasn't seen this kind of rains in quite some time ! We were treated to some authentic Sri Lankan cuisine. We went and saw witnessed the local Perahera ( - which is some kind of a cultural procession with different kinds of traditional dancers etc and of course lots of decorated elephants and tuskers - in Ratnapura the evening we were there. It happenned to be their Poya Day (Full Moon), which is a national holiday. It was very crowded and because of the rains the ground was slushy. Amma was sure that there will be a bomb blast because it was so full of people. She told me that LTTE would not miss such an opportunity ! But as usual there were enough and more security. We were frisked before being allowed to enter the grounds. Also there were the usual battery of armed patrols all over. So we returned without any incident.

Some time back Amma came and saw me write this mail and urged me not to write such long letters. She said no one will have the patience to read such long mails :--( !

I visited the Dehiwala Zoo, off Colombo one afternoon. It was superbly maintained - far, far better than our Vandalur zoo. The place was so lush and green :--) !

Well ... though I would love to share more details with you I will stop for now.

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