A Chance Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka

This morning, our first morning in Sri Lanka, we decided to go for a walk. It was hot even at 9am, and we deduced that it probably wasn’t going to get any cooler as the day progressed, so a short walk into the city and a leisurely afternoon on board Voyager would suffice. After all; we were still a little jet-lagged, and it would probably take us a couple of days for our body clocks to stabilise and re-adjust to the new time-zone.

The walk out from the port was pleasant enough. Naturally, we were harangued by taxi-drivers and tuk-tuk drivers, but we politely brushed them off and continued on our way, pausing only to take photographs of the large bats hanging upside down in the trees.

The haranguing continued but not in that annoying way that some taxi-drivers seemm to adopt, in fact, our first impression of Sri Lankans was that they are extremely friendly.

One example of this extreme friendliness happened halfway across a pedestrian crossing, where a very friendly chap started talking to us, remarking upon how hot the day was. What started out as an off-the-cuff, spontaneous comment quickly developed into a full-blown conversation in which he asked us where we were from, and told us that he was from Kandy in North Sri Lanka. We stood chatting for several minutes (we’d finished crossing the road by now); he told us that he was a lawyer on his way back to the bank ahead (he pointed), and then told us that we were lucky to have visited Colombo on such a good day, what with it being such a special day and all. When pressed, he explained that we were visiting on the last day of a special three-day event that happens every year – a holy day, celebrating moonstones and the like, when traders in the city offer their wares at half-price… surely a good day to buy one of Sri Lanka’s famed gems.

He went on to tell us which establishments we shouldn’t buy from, and recommended places where we should, if we wished to, spend any money (which we didn’t). However; he talked enthusiastically, and at length, about moonstones and birthstones and about how Sri Lanka is the gem capital of the world, and that if we were looking to buy, then there really was only one place where we should buy them. He told us where the place was and even went as far as showing us the precise taxi stop from where a tuk-tuk would take us there. He warned us that there are many tuk-tuk drivers who try to charge more than the going rate, which is surprisingly small; while some drivers are chancing their luck, trying to charge anywhere between $5 and $25, he explained that we shouldn’t pay more than a dollar. When a tuk-tuk turned up, as if on cue, he spoke emphatically to the driver and insisted that we only pay one dollar for the journey…

At which point… let’s just recap… we were out for a walk, and had no plans to spend any money (after all, we only had about $25 in cash on us). The information about the special day, and the generous discounts were very inviting, though, and I think it was probably when he told us that we could by a birthstone for as little as $20 that our ears pricked up.

There is a great quip from facebook, which you’ve probably seen, but if you haven’t, I’ll share it with you now… It goes like this…

If you say ‘Gullible’ really really slowly… it sounds like oranges…’

Both Tracey and I wondered how it was that we found ourselves on a tuk-tuk bound for a jewellers shop somewhere in the heart of the city. When we were sat inside, being shown gems by a very persuasive young salesman, who seemed genuinely surprised that we knew about the half-price discount, our wonderment continued.

At this point, I’m not going to reveal exactly how much we spent. The fact that we didn’t have a credit card with us was no problem, they explained, since they would happily drive us back to the ship to take payment should it be more than the $25 dollars in our pocketses. I’ll tell you that it wasn’t an extortionate amount, and that the blue topaz was absolutely beautiful (or it will be when Tracey gets it home and has it mounted on a necklace). But we were both rather surprised to find ourselves in a car, heading back to the port to pay for an item of jewellery that we’d really had no intention of buying.

There’s another part to this story, which I’ll come to in a moment, but I heartily recommend you read Tracey’s side of the story (she may even give an inkling as to the value of the purchase) – this can be read by using the link to her blog in the left-hand menu, or going to http://dittzzy.blogspot.com/.

Despite the purchase having been made in absolutely good faith, and in completely transparent circumstances, neither of us could throw off this awful thought at the back of our heads that it might all have been some elaborate scam. Could the lawyer have been a plant? (we hope not… he seemed totally genuine… in fact, we’re absolutely certain he was totally genuine, and our meeting was truly one of chance); could the tuk-tuk have been waiting for us just around the corner – or waiting for a nod from the lawyer? If we went back to the jewellers, would we find an empty shop unit? (unlikely; it seemed like a very well-healed, high-class shop, with several staff, and purchases came with guarantees of authenticity)… it was still a very nagging, and worrying, after-thought, though.

The second part of our day’s adventure happened after we’d been taken back to the ship and the goods had been paid for. We asked the young man who had been appointed our chauffeur if he minded dropping us back into the city… we very much wished to see the large Buddhist temple there; we figured we could see it and walk back by ourselves.

The young man, whose name, I’m sad to say, I’ve forgotten, not only drove us to the temple, but accompanied us inside. As a Buddhist himself, he turned out to be a very warm and knowledgeable guide, explaining everything we saw, encouraging us to partake in a ‘watering of the tree’ ceremony, and swinging it for us to jump the queue to be blessed by one of the monks. Not only is the temple the largest one in Colombo and surrounding district, but it is also, as it turns out, a very important Buddhist pilgrimage, to which people travel from many hundreds of miles around to visit; to be blessed and to see the sacred hair from the Buddah himself. I’m not sure I knew what to expect, but I didn’t expect the temple to be as vibrant a place as it was. Everywhere you turned, holy relics were on display, from a single hair from the head of the big man himself and the bones of his helpers, to a full-sized replica of an elephant that had once belonged to the temple. Our guide led us into rooms where giant statues gazed benevolently down upon us and had us walking around an enormous tree which had to be watered from a small silver cup four times, then touched by the palm of the hand to receive good fortune from upon high.

On leaving the temple, we thanked the young man for his help and told him that we’d be happy to walk back to the port by ourselves, but our unassuming, and very gracious, host wouldn’t hear of it. He took us to the Independence Memorial and made several random photo stops, enabling us to enjoy the Minister’s Residence and to see the work of a very fine, local artist whose work was proudly displayed on the street along the back wall of the National Museum.

He had us back to the ship in time for lunch. He’d been a fantastic host, offering many interesting insights into his life in Sri Lanka. I spent much of the first part of our pop-up tour waiting for the catch, which never came. Although our guide was in the employ of the gem shop, his choice to take us around the city seemed to be completely off his own back, and, at certain points (when dealing with the guards at the port entrance, for instance), at his own expense (he’d had to pay the equivalent of 1000 rupees out of his own pocket before they’d let him through the gate). If any of the day had been a set-up, then it was a seriously clever one (I don’t think it was, but you can never truly know about such things… what happened to trust?)… all because we’d started talking to that lawyer on the pedestrian crossing…

A rather excellent, if unusual, day.