“Coming to Sri Lanka, your first time?”
Lakjimi, our taxi driver looks like a Bollywood film star. His hair is slicked over to the side, and the English he has flows out in this beautiful sing-song rhythm, verbs first.
I’m a bit hazy off the plane, but Bandaranaike Airport in Colombo has thought carefully about what new arrivals want and they have nailed it.
Post immigration, we’re handed a local sim card and then greeted by a skinny Sri Lankan Santa Claus. The white beard clashes with his skin tone, but his gumboots are impeccable – shiny, black, patent. Then you have your choice of duty free white goods – fridges, driers, washing machines. Everything a traveller could want.
I change some money and Mr Tea activates our sim card at Sri Lankan Mobitel. The Champion Employee Board sits on the front counter. A guy called Dillum has it sewn up – he’s been employee of the month 11 times in the past year, with only one slip up, February. Maybe he was on holiday then. Dillum’s picture looms large – he has big brown eyes, a furrowed brow, coiffed hair.
But Dillum is not working today. I can tell immediately that the other guy behind the counter hates Dillum. When not-Dillum sees me looking at the Champion Employee Board, he moves it a little further away from the counter while he sings the praises of various phone and data plans.
The service might have been faster if Dillum worked weekends, but eventually we have a working phone, a bunch of rupee and our Bollywood star leads us to a limousine…more commonly recognised as a 1990s era Toyota.
The holiday is off to a great start: Sri Lanka FM is playing holiday tunes, including a jolly mash up of Jingle Bells and Pop Goes the Weasel. But it gets better when the DJ announces a “minor reggae flashback”.
We’re on the tollway into Colombo, an engineering masterpiece replete with many bridges and some outstanding uses of concrete, which pleases Mr Tea. I’m pleased to see that our first hawker is selling colouring in books. He turns the different pages of animals and fairies, all in outline for the budding artist. His showcasing has the same finesse of Adriana Xenides in her Wheel of Fortune hey day. A tuktuk alongside runs out of fuel, so the driver gets out mid tollway and refills with a soda bottle of two stroke.
We tour the National Museum and walk along Galle Face Green, a patchy lawn filled with people flying kites, stands selling roti and prawn cakes and local couples snuggling on park benches. But my favourite part of Colombo is Slave Island. It has a darker colonial history, but today it’s a mish-mash of colourful and decrepit shop fronts, selling everything from “Poo Max” men’s briefs (I shit you not) and Sri Lankan cricket caps, to car tyres and shoe repairs.
I’m a novelty here, and fair enough. I’m twice the size of the average Sri Lankan, both vertically and horizontally. Mr Tea and I are inundated with well wishes and good mornings, occasionally punctuated with giggles and, I’m pretty sure, some commentary on my breasts.
Luckily for us, the Indonesian phone tapping scandal and our migration policies are not front of mind in Slave Island. Instead, we get thumbs up and “Very nice country!” for being from Australia.
One of our friendly well-wishers gets straight to the point.
“Australian cricket team! Very good, Sir.”
He pauses and smiles widely.
“Madam is very tall, like Glenn McGrath. And Sir, just like Michael Clarke!”
Mr Tea doesn’t even like cricket, but he knows a compliment when he hears one. His balding good looks have just been vindicated on the streets of Slave Island.