19 February 2010

Avoiding Elephants in Sri Lanka …

For today’s blog, I’m really going to switch gears and start documenting stories from my travels instead.

I’ve realised in my conversations that I do have a lot of stories to tell – some lighthearted, others serious, and some, even hard to believe. So I think it’s a great deal of material I have to work with, and it’s not hard to produce something out for the neglected, suffering blog.

My recent trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka is my 2nd ever there. The first time I went to Sri Lanka, it was still at the height of the insurgency – the Tamil Tigers have only acquired DIY planes and actually bombed the Colombo Airport the morning I was first supposed to leave for Colombo.

This time around, the hardest part about going to Sri Lanka was that it happened just prior to the Chinese New Year break, so the flights had to be timed properly unless I had a desire to spend Chinese New Year away from my family !

Anyways … one of Colombo’s main thoroughfare is Galle Road, which runs along the waterfront. Galle Road extends from one end near the Presidential Secretariat, through the main financial and commercial districts in the capital.

Along much of Galle Road is a promenade romantically called Galle Face Green. One day, having a little time to knock off after my speaking engagement was over, I decided to take a walk along Galle Face Green.

I was staying at the Hilton, but I decided to put my bag down at the Galle Face Hotel, the oldest hotel east of the Suez Canal, and start my walk from there. From the Galle Face Hotel, it was a short walk, Galle Face Green practically starts where the Galle Face Hotel ends !

The first 10 minutes of my walk was peaceful, and unobstructed … but halfway through my walk, this man came right up to me, looked at my expensive looking D90, and tried to strike a conversation with me.


“Sir, I know you. You are from the hotel, no?”

Nope, I’m not. But I decided to play along, just to see what’s it all about. “Yup, Galle Face … great hotel”

“I am barman at the hotel, sir … I remember you.”

Wow … must be really drunk last night. I don’t remember drinking, and I don’t remember being inside the Galle Face Hotel until about 20 minutes ago when I put my bag inside one of my colleagues’ room.

He went on telling me about this amazing festival with 40 elephants that is happening just in about 15 minutes’ time, and coincidentally was just around the corner. And then how lucky I would be to be able to photograph the festival, and how fantastically lucky it is for me that he’s on his way there too.

Would I mind sharing a tuk-tuk with him? He can be my guide …

Man … this must be one of the oldest tricks in the books. I was hit with this the first time I went overseas on a work assignment in Bangkok, and got big time scammed then. Whatever made this guy think I’m THAT stupid.

He actually stopped a tuk-tuk, told the driver to go to the Elephant Festival, and really tried to get me in. I made up some story about meeting someone at the Hilton, on the other end of the walk, and saw him off.

I thought … well … that’s the end of that. But seriously, I underestimated the rampancy of the problem.

Within 30 seconds, someone else came, and tried to strike another conversation of the same nature, this time, he even spoke Malay with me when he learnt I’m from Malaysia. Another time? No way …

So, this time, he asked me which hotel I stayed at, and I just made an answer up – The Taj. And, oh, what a coincidence, he was a cook there – I was the guy at the buffet last night, right ?

This is sounding familiar …

Temple Festival, 40 Elephants, once a year, lucky day in Buddhist Calendar …

This time, I decided to get inquisitive – where’s the festival? Which temple? Why 40 elephants? How come my Sri Lankan friends told me the festival is tomorrow? You know, red herrings to throw him off …

It worked … this guys understood that I got the conversation before. And wisely, he just walked away without answering my last question …

I got approached another 2 times by people trying to scam me in a similar fashion … and both times, getting tired of being harassed, I told them both that just moments ago, another two of their friends came and tried to make me part with my money in the same way, and both times, I found out they were lying and that there is no such Elephant Festival, so please stop trying to trick me, and please tell the other scammers in the area to stop bothering me.

If I had been foolish enough to board any of those tuk tuks, apparently, they would drive me to some temple somewhere, where nothing would be happening, and I’d be then promised another place where there would be some great things to photograph and see, and be taken on a merry-go-round around Colombo, while expected to pay the tuk-tuk fare. Sometimes, they would even drive people to gemstone shops or other shops in hope of earning some commission should their victim decide to purchase some overpriced goods.

It happened to me once in Bangkok, in the year 1999, when I was still a naive traveler, on my first overseas trip for work. Once bitten, forever suspicious !

I love Colombo, Sri Lanka. The people who hosted me were absolutely great, gracious hosts who showed us the world famous Sri Lankan hospitality, the spicy, but interesting food. I’ll remember Sri Lanka for that, but remember, if you go to Galle Face Green, remember to avoid the elephants !


Che-Cheh said...

Fascinating story.

For me, I think I'll run to the nearest hotel. Too afraid. Haha

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