February 2, 2013
Today is Julia’s birthday and we’re horribly disappointed that we haven’t yet managed to congratulate her. Just as we’re about to give up, an email arrives saying she’s been online all evening and is now going to bed. Quickly we call and connect in time to relay our heart-felt wishes. We had envisioned before starting the journey staying in closer contact with our children, but due to divergent times zones, schedules and wifi availability, our Skype conversations have been few and far between. We have so much to catch up on it’s a scramble to get ready in time for the taxi to the airport.
A friendly Indian working in left luggage has a creative solution to our storage issues: we could settle our two-day debt and then recheck our bag for one day. When we return in seven weeks’ time, we should say we’re unable to foot the bill. The bag, he reassures us, will not be thrown away. He knows from experience, since this type of thing happens a few times a year, that the charge will then be a reasonable one, in order to free up much-needed storage space. Feeling uncomfortable about finagling, we have the manager, with whom we hope to strike a special deal, called. His ‘special offer’ of $280 is no enticement, so feeling like thieves we follow the Indian’s advice, and stuffing all our unnecessary belongings into one huge bag, check it for a day. The worst thing that could happen, we rationalize, would be to continue our journey in a lighter fashion.
The check-in at Singapore Airlines, without a doubt the best carrier we have ever flown with, is quick and easy. The service is forthcoming and friendly and customers are treated like kings. At the end of the procedure Christof asks if our bags can be checked through to Colombo, and although Sri Lankan Airlines is not part of their alliance, the old baggage claim tickets are removed without complaint and new ones issued and applied.
At the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok the runways are built into a network of canals and irrigated lakes, the air is overcast and muggy, and it looks like we’re landing in the middle of a swamp.
Looking for a way to kill time during our four hour lay-over, I convince Christof to join me in a massage parlor, where passengers reclining in lounge chairs with closed eyes are being massaged by Thai girls squatting at their feet. For a reasonable price we book a 60 minute foot and shoulder massage.
‘Our girls’ cover the foot stools with clean towels, gesture for us to stow our shoes on a shelf, immerse our feet in basins of sweet-smelling water, scrub them with a brush, and pat them dry with fresh spongey towels.
My ‘girl’ looks away as she kneads my feet and legs with so much pressure I squeal from pain. When I beg her to lighten up a bit, she smiles as though she doesn’t understand me, and looks towards her colleagues who giggle at her antics,
– First time? they ask with feigned innocence while she massages and kneads my legs, pulling on each toe until it cracks, without any attempt to be more gentle. After half an hour she switches to my arms and hands, twisting and bending them into positions I would have thought were anatomically impossible, and repeatedly causing me to yell out in pain. The session ends with a few brisk karate chops, after which ’our women’ get to their feet and bow politely while pressing their hands together in front of their chests,
– Khorb Khun Na Ka, (thank you) they say in Thai.
The Bangkok airport is dirty and unappealing; the waiting hall has very few seats and is staffed by discourteous bureaucrats. When I go to buy a drink, the cashier insists on seeing my passport. Explaining that I don’t have it with me, she unceremoniously pulls the drink out of my hands,
– Passport and boarding card!
– But I don’t have a boarding card yet, I sputter, it’s too early to check in.
– Passport and flight number, she clarifies turning away to end the conversation.
I get my passport and flight number, which she refuses to recognize, claiming it doesn’t exist.
– Just type in another one, I hiss through clenched teeth with exasperation. Passengers waiting in line for boarding cards fare no better. The ground personal shuffles through their travel documents, comparing them with information on computer screens, as though they were criminals instead of guests. Our baggage claim checks are quickly ripped from our hands, slowly studied for irregularities, and when at last one is found, we are triumphantly informed that a surcharge is due. We are 4 kilos overweight!
An uncomfortable silence ensues, which Christof thankfully breaks by cracking a joke. Miraculously the ground crew laughs, hands us our boarding cards wishing, us a good journey. Three hours later we are in Sri Lanka. The arrivals hall is accessed through a flimsy tunnel crammed with Asian stands selling home electronics. Here the usual array of duty- free items has been replaced by washing machines, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.
After pulling some Sri Lankan rupees from an ATM and we purchase prepaid SIM cards at a stand conveniently set up so that tourists can fulfill their communication needs with a minimum of fuss. The internet here, which is super quick and unbelievably inexpensive, is a pleasant surprise after traveling through the USA and New Zealand. We pay the equivalent of $15 for 3G which will last us for our entire visit.
Christof books a taxi from one of the men hawking rides to new arrivals who, it seems, is a middle man. He takes the money, fills out a form and accompanies us to wave down an ancient rattle-trap driven by a skinny old man. Folding the back seat down and loading up our luggage is a project the driver leaves to Christof. As we clatter off into the pitch-black night, I discover that the van has no seat belts.
– Sounds like your breaks need work, Christof shouts over an unpleasant high pitched sound.
– This new highway, the driver says, and passing a slower truck bumps over a sharp ledge onto a rough two-lane road. Trucks and three wheelers continually swerve into our lane to avoid a host of obstacles on the side of the road. It’s so dark that the amount of activity along the roadside, where swarms of people are walking about and shopping at tiny stands made up of boards and corrugated tin, is astonishing. Although it feels like midnight, it’s only 19:30. Close to the equator ( Sri Lanka is at 7.0000° N), night comes without a prelude. There is no twilight, no gradual fading of colors. It arrives suddenly, swiftly enshrouding the world in a thick, dark blanket.
My heart sinks when we see the sign for the Gateway Hotel Airport Garden. The thought of staying on a busy road so close to the airport is so unappealing I feel like turning around and leaving this island immediately.
The wallpaper in the corridors, loosened by the damp humid air, hangs down in unattractive mold-spotted strips. Our large bedroom, however, is well-appointed and has a splendid view of a swimming pool which glows in the dark night air like a turquoise.