By Hans Ebert
It always seems like a good idea: Take a total break from the monotony and autonomy and lobotomy of it all. You can already smell the sand and sea and surf, and images of still to be discovered delights ping pong around your head. But all this is like premature ejaculation. Before that much-needed break becomes a reality, those who wish you the best, and know you’re suffering from burn out, still need that one more job explained, or better yet, done, because, well, as Robert Plant once squealed while grabbing his beloved Percy, they’re dazed and confused.
So, if a professional, one makes the time while the PA calls and asks if you have a visa to enter the country you’re visiting. What visa? As the visa takes 24 hours to be issued, the flight is delayed by a day. Then comes all that time to kill when your flight from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka takes off at 2am. You think, I could have just gone to Macau, or at worst, Discovery Bay. But the latter has recently become the new public toilet for Mainlanders who have invaded their recently found small slice of nirvana.
Plus as flights and hotels have been booked, you find ways to kill time by drinking a few jars of red before making it to the Sri Lanka Airlines airport check-in counter.
Drinking a few jars of red wine usually works, but not when counter staff point to the left for the departure gates when they’re actually way to the right. And so you schlep from one side to another and feel the alcohol pouring out of the system. Total sobriety is reached when you walk through the security area and alarms go off. Damn that Versace tab on your jeans and the crucifix around your neck.
Once that’s over, your carry-on bag is searched and your bottle of Listerine is confiscated. It’s too large. Also gone is the pair of scissors. Yet, during the flight you’re given steely knives and forks for your microwaved meals. Make sense?
Of course by now, any time to even inhale a quick drink in the airport lounge is gone. Your gate is 213 and the train to that part of the airport world stops running at 1am. Miss this train and it’s like Forrest Gump running forever dragging that carry-on luggage behind you. You’re now hobbling. No pain, no gain, you say and manage to keep walking and walking until cramps give in and you hide the fact that inside you’re crying for mama.
You’re finally in your Business Class seat, but with no First Class, you think what Economy might be like. Still, for HK$16k, it’s fine, and the price must have attracted many as those all around look like very budget conscious travellers from Hong Kong’s more local areas. Despite the gentleman sitting next to me dozing off and knocking over my glass of champagne all over my jeans- Versace jeans- at least the cabin crew are friendly.
The purser asks if I’m one of the Jetliners, below, Sri Lanka’s most popular musical export from the year nought, and who performed in Hong Kong for many years.
I explain that my dad knew them just to make sure that the purser has the generations correct. He gets it and then asks if I’m a rock star. I smile sheepishly, not saying no, but not saying, yes. I then rush to the loo before take off to check if I had suddenly aged.
The stewardess asks what I would like for dinner and am disappointed that the spiciest dish on the menu is a chicken burger. Not a curry in sight. Not even a string hopper. The chicken burger tastes foul. But it’s only a five hour flight and soon I’ll be cradled in the bosom of my motherland and able to gorge on everything a Dutch Burger born to parents from Ceylon, formerly Sri Lanka, was weaned on- patties, Sear Fish Curry with dhal, pol sambal, seeni sambal, lumpries, patties…
Of course, I had been to Sri Lanka a few times before, mainly with my then live-in girlfriends, one Danish, one from Germany and the other from the States. They were great sports. Unlike me who enjoys exploring the hotel I’m staying in, they loved to discover more of this fascinating island- an island hobbled by civil wars, internal politics, corruption, a destructive tsunami, many who took advantage of this, some terrible press, all of the above and extremely poor marketing by whoever should be promoting the very many tourist attractions of the island.
Whereas Hong Kong has succeeded by people making something out of a barren rock, Sri Lanka, with so much to offer, has failed by waiting for others outside of the island to make things happen. But there are glimpses of change. Very few, but it’s better than nothing at all.
Apart from a huge new Shangrila hotel set to open in October, and apparently funded by Japanese money, there are new areas for dining and just hanging out that begs for someone with vision to create a Lan Kwai Fong area- when this area was “trending” in Hong Kong and not the loser area it’s become along with something as daft as the LKFTV channel placed in the hands of Dumb and Dumber. Dearie me, Alan Zeman, oy vey. You should be worried.
Having said this, Sri Lanka is waiting for someone from overseas to rescue them from the boredom that’s now seen as nightlife. It has no pulse. Even the Eastern European hookers are from the relegation leagues.
As usual, there are always those with ambitious plans for Sri Lanka, but with little or no foreign investment, not much is going anywhere. It’s like some wanting to build a racecourse in Colombo, but, in return for the land, naively thinking the HKJC would pay for the development of a Group 1 racing facility. Ask questions and it’s always no problem. Quarantine? No problem. Horses? No problem. Fly them in from Calcutta. Jockeys and trainers? No problem. Prize money? Uh oh. Problem. There’s no money. Why on earth would the HKJC back this non-starter? There are replies, but they’re beyond stupid.
There’s “horse racing” at the Turf Club in Nuwara Elya, but it’s hardly professional with “the jockeys” often being young village boys atop some very slow animals and no betting allowed. Still, a few people show up and a couple of expats have been brought in to run the sideshow. It’s all half arsed.
Same with so much of everything in Sri Lanka. Projects are started, but they usually stall or lead nowhere. Why? As usual, a lack of funding, and, seemingly, due diligence missing from the business lexicon.
Ask about everything- from the pitiful performances of the current national cricket team to the whereabouts of some senior government officials- and nothing is happening other than internal changes having taken place due to the usual game of thrones. But there’s no hiding the unbridled enthusiasm of a handful of young entrepreneurs like my friend Suren, below at the brilliant restaurant The Ministry of Crab, mercifully lacking in the bullshit factor, with no need to be out there Big Noting, and determined to network and travel to attract this much needed foreign investment.
Where I’m staying- the five star Cinammon Grand- offers great value, hospitality, and some very good restaurants- possibly too many- and a rather busy lobby area.
Any possible defects are forgiven when enjoying a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast. And enjoying it with a first time visitor to the island from Brisbane is even better.
What’s interesting is that Sri Lanka is definitely attracting more and more tourists, mainly through word of mouth. My new friend Karen from Brisbane had decided to see Kandy, an area of Sri Lanka. Kandy had been recommended by friends. She then decided to visit Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo.
She’s surprisingly impressed at how modern everything is and that everyone speaks such excellent English. She was expecting someplace far more “rustic” and unexplored and needing to use sign language.
If there are any problems or irritants, these are the extremely slow internet connections and just how quickly the battery on your iPhone runs out of juice. Maybe this is a good thing: Freedom from being a slave to technology. Don’t also try to live on a diet of curries and pol sambal. Your stomach will revolt against this diet with a vengeance. One other small thing: don’t expect everyone in hotels or restaurants to be experts on wine lists and mixing drinks. Even ordering a vodka lime soda can become quite a saga. And though many bars stock up on Stolichnaya and Grey Goose, they’re kept in the background, whereas pushed by bartenders are some interesting designer brand vodkas.
Personally, far more interesting was researching the health benefits of Sri Lankan green tea. After years of being sold on the goodness graciousness of green teas from Japan and China, my friend Suren, a teetotaller, explained that Sri Lankan green tea had no caffeine and acts as a powerful detoxification drink. I’ve started to live on the stuff and feel totally invigorated though this might have everything to do with wanting to believe its benefits hard enough. Whatever works…
But these are quibbles. Sri Lanka has enormous potential. It’s had potential for decades. It’s a wonderful island to visit for so many reasons, but what it desperately needs is to attract the right foreign expertise to work with the locals in constructing more than just tall hotels. Tall hotels are springing up everywhere like those during the former glory days of Dubai.
Everyone in Sri Lanka who wishes to do business will tell you all about their contacts and who their family knows. This is a very Sri Lankan habit. Often, everyone knows the same people. They draw very obvious organisation charts for you to show the type of companies that the island needs. You, meanwhile, feel doubt creeping in and a sense of déjà vu. Déjà vu.
Those who wish to see Sri Lanka progress need to stop repeating the same old mantras. These aren’t needed. They also must realise that no smart business person is going to finance anything without seeing a very real and stable return on investment. Despite all the talk, this has always been missing from the vagaries of the bottom line presented.
Half arsed thinking only means drinking from that half empty glass. There’s a need for the other side to believe that everything presented is above board. This professionalism is somehow missing and which always attracts flim flam men from overseas with a story to sell and a background littered with bullshit success stories.
Having said this, those entrepreneurs from Hong Kong who buy cheap and sell high, or buy cheap and make the most of everything are slowly seeing the business potential of Sri Lanka.
Compared to what pays in Hong Kong for a shoebox in the city, one can own a very modern and spacious apartment in Colombo and a huge bungalow for very little money. There are some very good business opportunities and also new opportunities yet to be discovered.
In a world in turmoil and many asking, Where to next?, one can do far worse than setting up shop in Sri Lanka and making things happen with the right business partners.
There will be a sadness on that flight back to Hong Kong. One knows what to expect and the boredom of falling into the same old routine. Sri Lanka holds new adventures. It’s how adventurous one is along with being creative enough to look outside the square.
I’ll be returning to Sri Lanka sooner rather than later, and having been born on the island try to make it the success story it should have been over fifty years ago.
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