It is approx. 8am and the temperature is now very hot, we enter the Orphanage and wonder around observing the herds then watching calf’s playing and being bottle fed, which is adorable……..More buses have now arrived and there are hundreds of children all huddled around the ‘feeding pen’ once again I am observed with some interest and lots of smiles and giggles. There only a few white faces in the orphanage at this point and it feels strange being observed with such interest. After we have covered the whole of the Orphanage we wonder out onto the road and head towards a shop lined street that leads to a river.
As we walk down the street I am approached by a man who looks like he is selling life insurance, he wears a tie and is carrying a briefcase. He takes my hand and tells me that I have a good heart and a strong head and I wonder where this is going ? I glance over towards Nisha who is keeping within proximity to me and he winks and shakes his head, I take this as a warning look and politely say ‘No thank you’ and pull my hand away. The man then moves onto another female further up the street, they engage in conversation as he takes her hand and starts to trace the lines of her palm it becomes evident that he is a ‘palm reader’.
As I peruse the shops there is a loud siren that sounds behind me and I wonder if an ambulance or fire engine is about to emerge, I am delighted to realise that in fact it’s a herd of elephants making their way down the road from the Orphanage to take their morning bathe in the river, this is a wonderful sight and I climb some steps as pedestrians disburse to make way and observe the elephants in their morning routine.
As I watch the elephants in the river, a Sri Lankan wedding party arrives at a nearby restaurant and there is music and dancing which is a feast for the eyes. I have been in Sri Lanka for less than 6 hours and I can feel myself falling in love. As the elephants continue to bathe, we head back towards the car park and drive out into what can only be described as a stream of chaotic traffic.
Our next destination is Kandy and as we begin the 2 hour drive, both Nisha and I start to feel more relaxed in each other’s company. As Sri lankan LKR is a closed currency I have brought with me GBP and USD and ask Nisha if we can stop at an ATM so that I can withdraw a small amount to get me through the next day or two rather than having to seek out a money exchange straight away and as we approach Kandy we pull over in a busy street and I approach the ATM. I had worked out roughly what the exchange rate was before I left the UK, however…….. now that I am staring at the ATM screen, after very little sleep and travelling over 5000 miles to get here, this information has now left me………..I look blankly at the screen with no idea about how much I am about to withdraw.
There are 3 zeros after each option and although I do remember that there are a number of thousand LKR to 20 GBP I really cannot remember whether this is 5 or 500? I click a button and hope that I am drawing out roughly the equivalent to £70 and not £700 as I have enough cash, once changed to get me though the next 6 days. I take the cash and get back into the car with absolutely no idea how much I have just withdrawn ?
I am hungry now and Nisha recommends a restaurant for us to stop at on route towards Kandy centre, The Honey Pot which is set alongside a river and has a tranquil relaxed feel to it. After asking for a recommendation of what to eat, my first Sri Lankan meal pretty much sets the scene for the following 6 days of taste bud heaven, as I devour a platter of curries, vegetables and rice.
After paying the bill and realising that I have probably withdrawn the equivalent to approximately £15, I realise that what I have left, will not get me much further than today (even in Sri Lanka.) We leave the restaurant and continue our journey onto Kandy, find a parking space and seek out a money exchange that Nisha tells me will give me a good exchange rate. I hand over USD and receive a ridiculously high number of LKR and I am now pretty sure that 1000LKR is roughly £5-£7.
As I wait outside Colombo airport for Nisha to bring the car, I listen to the chaos that is going on around me……Car horns sounding, shouting, loud chattering, laughter and the distinctive sound of moped exhausts, all add to the character of this island at the southern most tip of India and it’s a feast for the senses.
Several people approach me whilst I stand alone waiting for Nisha, asking whether I need a car, ‘No no thank you I am waiting for my driver’ is my response and as traffic comes and goes I move myself around several times to avoid being driven into by buses cars and motorbikes. Although it is still early morning the temperature here is hot and I begin feel the impact of this as I blow the fringe out of my now clammy face, whilst trying to negotiate both myself and my luggage to a safer location.
Soon enough Nisha arrives and deposits my bag into the boot of his car as I climb into the passenger seat. The Air Con is already blowing and it feels good to be in the comfort of an air conditioned car. Nisha confirms that the first port of call is Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which is roughly a 2 hour drive away. It is still just after 4am and dark with little traffic on the roads, which makes for easy driving and we make small talk along the way. I am pleased that Nisha’s English is very good, as my ability to speak any foreign language is terrible!
Nisha has a very gentle and calm demeanour and I begin to feel relaxed in his company as we make our way to Pinnawala. I make a decision not to mention my despair at Dubai airport after receiving the messenger bubble from his friend ‘the driver’ who I had originally booked my tour with. Although I am not so sure that I won’t bring it up at some point during the next 6 days when a more appropriate opportunity arises…….The drive to Pinnawala is quicker than anticipated and we arrive there much earlier that its opening time.
We pull into a deserted dusty car park opposite the entrance and as Nisha brings the car to a stop, a male approaches the driver side and he and Nisha exchange words in their mother tongue. Nisha askes me whether I would like to use the restroom ‘No thanks I’m ok’, is my response and the male ‘eyes’ me from the driver’s side of the car, before turning on his heels and walking back in the direction that he came, before disappearing around a corner.
Although I am not exactly worried, I do feel a tad ‘tetchy’ about being parked up in a dark dusty car park with a person whom I have yet to learn anything about and as Nisha explains that we probably have 1hr 30 minutes to kill before the orphanage opens, he reclines his seat and invites me to do the same………I am not sure how to react to this offer and my grip around my bag carrying my valuables tightens. It is soon obvious that I have nothing to worry about as within, what seems like seconds, Nisha is fast asleep. I later go on to find out that in his attempts to help his ‘friend’ out and collect me from Colombo airport, during the early hours, he himself had dropped off another guest only hours before and so had pretty much worked right through the night……..I am grateful for his efforts.
I smile to myself as I wonder what I would be thinking had either of my daughters telephoned me and described this scene, whilst they were travelling solo ? I take comfort in the fact that he is sleeping like a baby, arms folded across his chest and I sit quietly listening to the gentle rhythm of his snoring……I use this time to appreciate that I have arrived in Sri Lanka and I am looking forward to what the day has in store, as I reflect on the information that I had previously gathered about the elephant orphanage.
I remember reading that the primary purpose of Pinnawala was to provide a lifeline to the orphaned baby and adult elephants that have become lost in the wilderness. It is said that there are instances of adult elephants being killed by farmers to protect their paddy fields and crops resulting in baby elephants being orphaned. The Orphanage was launched to provide the best possible opportunity to the sad victims of such situations.
As I spend some time in my own thoughts, staring out onto the road, the darkness of the night diminishes and is replaced by dawn sunlight. With this I experience my first daytime images of this beautiful country and again I see similarities to Bali. Soon after the sun begins to rise a bus arrives carrying young children.
I suspect this is a school trip and as the children vacate the bus their attention in focussed on the single car in the car park with a snoring driver and a white female passenger still clutching her handbag. Some approach the car giggling and pointing towards me. I am unsure what they make of this image but find it amusing that they are so interested (Maybe they think we have been here all night!)
Not long after Nisha wakes and asks whether I was able to take a nap, my reply is ‘No such chance with your snoring………..’ this brings a smile to my face and he sees that I am amused by his ‘napping.’ He exits the car and returns with two bottles of water before we both make our way towards the Orphanage entrance.
The first 7 hour flight to Dubai passes quickly with me watching several ‘Planet Earth’ episodes, enjoying the indulgence of complimentary beverages whilst listening to music and working my way through the ‘Rough guide to Sri Lanka’. I arrive in Dubai during the night-time hours with 2 hours to kill before my connecting flight onto Sri Lanka. As I am keen not to get ‘stung’ by EE in terms of telephone charges I seek out WiFi and attempt to ‘Messenger or WhatsApp’ the offspring.
As I am typing the message, ‘I’ve arrived safe and sound in Dubai….’ a Facebook bubble appears, it’s a message from the driver who I have arranged my driver services with, he tells me that he won’t be picking me up??……he then goes on to say that it will be his friend Nisha instead… shit!! A sense of panic begins to rise within me, a second bubble appears from him……’Can you do a favour and pick me up a bottle of whiskey from duty free? The cheeky @!@!@!@!
So I am now in Dubai airport waiting to board a flight to Sri Lanka to meet a complete stranger, whom I had conducted ZERO research on at the other end. At least I had been able to conduct SOME research back in the UK on the fellow whom I was expecting to transport me around a foreign land for 6 days……’shit! shit! shit! this doesn’t sit right with me !’
In an attempt to reduce the feelings of panic that are now quickly rising within me, I make a decision to purchase the whiskey as I don’t want to offend and end up driverless once I arrive at Colombo at 4am. I had read many tripadvisor posts highlighting the problem of drivers not ‘being available’ at the last minute but as this chap had come as a recommendation. I felt confident that I would not fall foul to this issue…………As I feel restricted in terms of what I can do to challenge this situation, I accept it and board the 4 hour flight to Colombo, a bottle of ‘Chivas Regal Yr 12’ in hand.
The second flight also passes quickly and I am able to take a short nap. I descend in darkness and arrive at Colombo airport less than refreshed at just before 4am, feeling a little anxious about how this is going to pan out. I know that sharing my frustrations with the ‘new’ driver is not going to help the situation and so I use a ‘reframing’ technique (something that I use at work to encourage young people to see a situation from a different view point) and tell myself that so long as I text the offspring the number plate of the car I am about to climb into, then putting complete trust in a complete stranger (whom I have conducted ZERO research on) in a completely foreign land, could be quite exciting……..
As I pass through customs with my luggage I am met with a line of white shirts and black hair, all of whom are holding up name boards and as my eye sight has recently taken a turn for the worse I struggle to read the names………I walk closer trying not to squint too much and as I work my way along the long line of men (I notice some return my squint, wondering whether I am the name on their card, possibly hoping that I am not!) I finally see my name and make eye contact with the holder. It has been a long journey and I cannot remember the name that came through on the messenger bubble in Dubai airport earlier but I do remember it resembled Lisa, so I mumble something similar to ‘isa’ the holder of my name card smiles, nods his head saying ‘Hello yes yes I am Nisha’ and takes by bag.
I am escorted outside and an immediate sense of familiarity washing over me as I recall a trip to Bali last year, whilst visiting a friend in Australia with the offspring. The vibrant colours, the smells, the noise, the chaos, all bring back fond memories of our time there and excitement resumes squashing my earlier feelings of frustration
I later go on to describe Sri Lanka to the offspring as being like ‘Bali’s big sister’. Nisha asks me to wait while he collects the car and as I inhale these first moments standing by the roadside at Colombo airport I know that the following 6 days will be wonderful and I am already wishing that I had arranged to stay here longer.
Sri Lanka is a much easier trip to plan and as time passes I arrange transport and accommodation for my 6 night stay there. After emailing several tour operators and toiling with the idea of making my own way around on public transport, I decide to hire a driver that comes recommended by a friend. He arranges the whole trip for me taking into account sights highlighted in the ‘Rough Guide to Sri Lanka’ as well as booking my accommodation and my itinerary is agreed as follows:
Collect from Colombo Airport-Kandy.
Kandy-Dellhousie, Little Adam’s Peak.
Little Adam’s Peak-Ella
Negombo-Colombo Airport and onwards to the Maldives.
There are many places of interest which I will visit during this time and on reflection I wonder whether I have been too optimistic to cover this ground in just 6 days. However I don’t want to miss anything so I’m prepared to hit the ground running and rest my head in a different bed each night.
After some negotiation between the two of us we agree a price and it’s booked. I will be collected from the airport, transported from place to place and deposited back to the airport for my flight onto the Maldives, this brings with it an overwhelming sense of reality that this is actually happening and I am excited!
Before I know it 8th March 2017 finally arrives and I am chauffeured by the ‘middle one’ to Manchester Airport, where she waves me goodbye with a slightly worried look of ‘please look after yourself’ on her face. (Now she knows what it felt like when I have dropped her here, when she has departed Manchester airport to spend summers as a 18-30’s rep in Bulgaria and Kos……..)
I breeze through the usual handing over of luggage, security (no alarm bells as I pass through the metal detector) and no liquids in my hand luggage…….easy. I have 90 minutes to now kill so I peruse the usual shops pick up some sandals, a holiday read, magazines and water, then head to Bar Mcr in terminal 1, where I purchase a glass of Prosecco and take a seat.
My phone has beeped several times whilst perusing and so I retrieve it from my bag, returning text messages of ‘have a wonderful time’ and I post the obligatory Facebook ‘Lisa checked in at Manchester Airport Terminal 1 travelling to Sri Lanka, with a status update of ‘Hello midlife crisis!!’. I savour the glass of Prosecco and then make my way to the Emirates Airbus designated gate with mixed emotions.
My thoughts are full of…..’shit this is a big plane, how’s it going to get off the ground’……..’shit this is going to be a long flight’……’shit what if I’m sat next to someone who wants to talk for 7 hours!’ I get a grip and consider my colleagues at work reminding myself that I could be sat in the office right now writing a Pre-Sentence Report. This puts things into perspective. I board the plane and take my window seat, which was pre booked and as the plane fills I begin the hope that the two vacant seat beside me remain that way and I can enjoy the first leg of my journey in my own company.
I watch the steward that is assigned to this particular section of the plane to see whether he gives me any indication that the doors have now closed and I do indeed have enough room to stretch my 5ft 4inch body all over the seats next to me. The captain’s voice comes over the airwaves as he tells the cabin crew to cross check and I feel myself inwardly smiling, that’s the three seats all to myself then….
I wake the following morning in a state of despair, thinking ‘Oh my god what have I done!!’ It takes me a while to recover from the ‘Mum guilt’ as I break the news and try my best to convince the offspring that I would be fine travelling solo, when in fact I was more worried than they were.
My departing flight to Colombo was booked for March 8th 2017 and so I had 8 weeks in which to work out the logistics of what 6 nights in Sri Lanka would look like, as well as make a decision on which island I would stay on in the Maldives.
There is so much information out there in terms of travelling to the Maldives it’s easy to get bogged down with all the conflicting reviews on Trip Advisor , Booking.com etc. I had a budget to stick to and knew that I didn’t want to travel all that way without being able to experience the indulgence of what the Maldives has to offer so I got to work planning my trip.
Like some people, when holidaying, I like to enjoy an alcoholic beverage and I didn’t realise that the Maldives is in fact a Muslim country, so whilst researching I work out that on the big island resorts you are able to enjoy a ‘Gin and tonic’ in their all-inclusive packages and on the smaller islands you’re having ‘dry days.’ With this in mind I decide to split my 5 nights in the Maldives into two different islands. Two nights on a smaller island and three nights of indulgence on an island resort, which balances out the expense.
I research the Direct.gov website for travel visas and vaccinations needed when travelling to both destinations and I’m informed that British Nationals can obtain a tourist visa for up to 30 days on arrival in the Maldives and that I can apply for a 30 day tourist visa for Sri Lanka online. The recommendation for vaccines is to contact your GP 4 to 6 weeks before your visit. (See useful link section)
After contemplating which islands to visit based on their proximity to Male, the snorkelling factor, Trip Advisor and Booking.com reviews, I finally decided on a B&B in Maafushi and then an all-inclusive on Biyadhoo.
Once again I find myself staring at the computer screen, credit card in hand weighing up the pro’s and con’s, I remind myself that I’ve already booked the flights so this has to happen! I hit the confirm key and as the Booking.com confirmation email comes through I feel the familiar pang of ‘Mum guilt!’
After recovering from this second bout of ‘guilt’ I now need to work out how I get from Male airport to Maafushi, onto Biyadhoo and then back to Male at the end of the trip. I find it interesting that the added costing of the stay on Biyadhoo for the speedboat transfer to and from the island, is an additional 180 USD per person. I hope that I can work out a cheaper option as the equivalent to this is pretty much my spending budget for 6 days in Sri Lanka.
In a nut shell you pretty much have three options in terms of transfers in the Maldives. One being public Dohni (little ferry) which is fantastic value albeit really slow, two being a speedboat transfer usually arranged by your accommodation and three being the most expensive option via Seaplane.
I email The Arena Beach Hotel on Maafushi where I have booked my first two nights, asking whether they can arrange a transfer and what the costing would be, I hear nothing back.
I then email iCom Tours which I have read about on several Trip Advisor reviews asking for a quote for the transfer to Maafushi……….I hear nothing back. I am beginning to get the sense that the Moldavians are a relaxed race and wonder how they managed before Booking.com ?
After spending the best part of two decades ‘single parenting’ and awaiting the 18th birthday of the youngest, I reflect on the demands that have been placed upon me and wonder how on earth I have survived !
I find myself seeking out more and more ‘me myself and I’ time quiet often preferring to spend time in my own company rather than in the company of others, finding solace in the calm and quiet that I have so longed for during recent years.
I begin to dream about the feasibility of being able to make travel plans, having only my wants to be mindful of. After the initial feelings of guilt, I embrace this new way of thinking and find myself working on breaking the emotional restraints of ‘Mum guilt’.
I spend a considerable amount of time day dreaming about where I would go and what it would feel like to be travelling solo. I realise that if I am lucky I may only have 40 years left in which to do all the things that I want to and I acknowledge that time is running out, which instils a certain amount of ‘middle aged’ panic !
There are numerous conversations with the offspring about my plans to book my first solo overseas trip and I am happy with their response which is supportive. After spending time in my own thoughts and accepting that it’s ok to behave so selfishly, I find myself pondering the pros and cons of taking the jump and booking my first international adventure. One dark rainy Saturday evening in January 2017, I pour a large glass of Chardonnay, fire up the laptop and begin my research.
As snorkelling is a big part of any holiday for me I am keen to make sure that wherever my first destination is, it has to be up there in terms of snorkeler’s recommendations. I have friends who are ocean lovers and had already asked about their favourite snorkelling locations, Mexico, Egypt, The Caribbean, Indonesia, Hawaii and The Maldives, were all thrown into the mix.
There was something about the Maldives that fired a spark in me, possibly the reality that as the sea levels continue to rise, due to climate change, these islands will not be around forever and I decide that if I really do want to go, then I need to go sooner rather than later. I begin my research and find there is more to the Maldives than I initially thought.
There are literally hundreds of islands, most of which are inhabited, with the tourist islands pretty much split into two categories. The first are the bigger island resorts that have a big price tag attached to them as they only offer all-inclusive packages and then the smaller islands, which after the tsunami in 2004 were encouraged to open their doors to tourists offering B&B accommodation as a way of helping the country recover from the devastation that was caused.
I realise that this was going to take longer than a couple of hours on a miserable Saturday evening and so revert to looking at what flight options were available when travelling from Manchester to Male, which is in the North Male Atoll of the Maldives otherwise known as ‘Kaafu’.
This airport at Male is literally a strip on land in the Indian ocean and visitors are ferried to and from the islands via Dohni (small ferry)/Speedboat or sea plane…… I work out that it’s more expensive to travel direct from Manchester to the Maldives and after some exploration I find flights that will take me to Colombo (Sri Lanka) with Emirates where I can stay for 6 nights and then return flights from Colombo to Male with Sri Lanka Airlines at a much lower price than flying direct.
This route is appealing as the money that I would save in spending less time in the Maldives will fund the time spent in Sri Lanka……..I begin to get excited at the thought of visiting both these countries and with another large glass of Chardonnay and a rush of adrenaline, I find myself staring at the confirmation emails from both Emirates and Sri Lanka Airlines, wondering……………..‘how on earth did that just happen?’