CHAPTER 10. Colombo

 

When we retired late on Tuesday night, the 12th April, the exciting thought in the minds of the whole party was, Colombo to-morrow! It seemed to be the culmination of nine days thought. Nine days from Fremantle to Colombo! That was the exclamation made by many when we sailed from Western Australia. Those days passed slowly and the monotony was broken by deck games and good meals. There was nothing to see except water and sky. Fortunately, the water was varied, but even in that variety some were not satisfied, as it made them seasick. The sky was the same throughout the day, but a tropical sunset gave a splendour of colour of its own, although it was very short. And so we all said, “Thank God for Colombo to-morrow!”

reaching Colombo
Colombo

Before it was properly daylight we were awake and looking out of the windows to see the land. There was still nothing but the ocean. It was nearly seven o’clock before we approached the port. I suppose it is correct to call it a port, but that term as we know it seems to be giving it unworthy praise. If we thought of Wellington, Hobart or Sydney for comparison, there is no port at all. Slowly we went up to where several large liners were already anchored. We reversed and that told the story of the port.

Immediately I saw mud being churned up and I realised that although we were still a long way from the shore we were in very shallow water. As the port is a large open bay facing the ocean with only a breakwater for protection it would appear that the task of deepening the water to make provision for piers for liners would be too costly and probably impracticable. However, before the boat reached the spot for anchoring we were met by a couple of tugs and some natives in fast launches. It only took a couple of minutes to push us into position and to be securely tied to a buoy. Before that was completed we were quickly surrounded by natives in their boats.

At this moment there was a heavy downpour of rain, which made it impossible for photographs to be taken. This was very disappointing and most of the passengers thought they were in for a very wet day, each asking the other what to wear. They did not want to get wet and they certainly did not want to be hampered with a rain coat. Then the ladies were given an idea.

A native boat was passing. In the bow was a rather old and very black man standing up and leisurely rowing. Just behind him and taking the second oar was a smaller and younger man also with scarcely any clothing on him, who was rowing with one hand and holding an umbrella over himself with the other. It was an amusing sight, for it must have been the rain falling on his boat which he disliked, as I cannot imagine he would suffer any inconvenience from getting his scanty clothing wet. Elizabeth said, “There you are, we can get out our umbrellas!” and they did so when they went down to breakfast and carried them all day, but it did not rain again.

World Tour 1938
Colombo

We made a proper meal of breakfast, for we did not know what kind of food we would get ashore and it proved a wise decision. After breakfast there were the customs officials to pass, to whom we had to present our passports and got them stamped. We were ready for the shore soon after eight and we went down to board one of the launches taking passengers to the city.

As the launch was about full I sent the three ladies down the gangway so that I could take a photo. of them just as they were stepping aboard. I took a couple of snaps and turned the film as I followed them, and to my amazement, before I could reach the launch, she was away. As it went past the end of the pontoon I thought I would jump in, but I could see it was dangerous, and as I was not anxious to have the camera immersed in hot water I hesitated a fraction of a second, which gave one of the native officials time to grab me by the arm and say, “Next boat!” I said, “No! No! My wife! My wife’s on board and I must go!” Even while I was speaking he said again, “Next boat!” More determined than ever, and with all the force I could command I said, “No, this boat!” I won. The official whistled to the skipper and beckoned him to return. The engine was reversed and the boat was brought to the pontoon stern first, while the 60 or 70 passengers watched the fun. I jumped aboard and remembered my definite instructions of breakfast time that the girls were not to get separated from me at any time during the day. Of course, this was because I expected them to be interested in the shops and what they could buy. It did not enter my head that taking a photograph might have the same result.

World Tour 1938
Native boats at Colombo

It only took us a few minutes to reach the wharf. The fare was 10d. each and we went through a turnstile in the modern way. As we were all passengers from the Orcades none had native money, but that did not matter, as they accepted British silver and gave change in the same coinage. We had booked the trip to Kandy through Cooks and as there were four of us and I wanted to take photographs I arranged with Cook’s representative, who was on board, to have a private car to ourselves. We joined the crowd of passengers outside the wharf and for a few minutes we were content to watch the interesting scene.

We were facing one of the main streets of the city. On the corner was a large hotel about four times as large as any hotel in New Zealand. The street was carrying a heavy flow of traffic of all kinds. What caught my eye immediately were the small bullock carts and the rickshaws. I made up my mind I must photograph some of these, but after the experiences of the last photo. I had taken I thought it best to get on board the car before taking any more. I was told I would see the man from Cooks on the wharf, but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack and he could not be found. There were a number of officials hurrying the parties into cars and everyone seemed to be getting attention, but those who, like ourselves, were just standing aback and looking on. Thinking I had done enough of the latter, I went to one of the officials and asked where our car was. “Coming, sir”, was the reply, and he was so busy that I waited a little longer. When I asked again and got the same answer.

I could see I was going to lose half an hour if I stood in the crowd with the others, so I left the girls and went down the long line of cars asking as I went where the special car for Cook’s was to be found. I seemed to be making some progress as a chauffeur told me it was just down a little further. At last I found it and was pleased to see it was a good car, with a tourer body. That open air appearance pleased me at that moment, for although I was dressed in white trousers, shirt and light coat, I was already nearly wet through with perspiration. I jumped in and told the driver to go up to where the other cars were loading. When we had almost reached them I found Lo had got tired of depending upon me and she and the others had grabbed another car which was intended for four people and were actually getting into it. Before my car had stopped I was out and ran to the other car in time to drag them all out again and get into the proper car which had been ordered for us. With a sigh of relief from each of us we started off.

World Tour 1938
Rickshaws

By this time it was 9.15 and we should have been starting for Kandy, but there was still the question of getting some tropical clothes made and if this was to be done we would have to make the necessary arrangements and get measured, so that they would be ready by the time we returned to Colombo. When Jess Norrie came down to the boat to see us off in Sydney she gave us the address of a silk shop in Colombo which she had found to be very good for the usual silk articles required by travellers. I told the chauffeur we wanted to make some purchases from Mr. Lal of Chandiram’s. As my English appeared to puzzle him just as much as his troubled me, he either did not, or would not understand me. Then he said, “Yes! Yes! I know!” and drove me to a place with the name of “Lalchands”.  I said this was not the place, but before he could reply one of the many touts waiting outside every shop came up to me. I showed him the paper with the name of the firm thereon, but again there was that air of not understanding, but without any hesitation he said, “All the same shop. You come with me”, and like a lamb to the slaughter, we all followed.

World Tour 1938
Native Family Colombo

The shop appeared to be good and I thought we could at any rate see what they had to offer. I made some selections and the girls did the same, only more so. Then it came to the bargain time, and as previously advised, I made an offer well below the stated figure. “No”, said the assistant, “this first-class shop and no prices reduced”. I went on for a while, but without making any progress. I was beginning to think that I was misinformed or had found a shop where they were not honest in their dealing. Then I said, “Where is the manager?” The manager came, but said he could not make any alteration in the prices. As the advice I had been given came from a very reliable source I decided on one move further. By this time they had measured me for a tropical suit, some pyjamas, shirts and a dressing gown and I was still with my coat off. I said, “Very well, I won’t buy” and put on my hat and coat and went over to the other side of the shop where the ladies were spending a lot of money. I whispered to Lo not to pay full price for anything and out of the corner of my eye I saw the manager talking with the assistant who had been attending to me. Then he came over to me and opened up the question again. This time I pretended I was not interested and said, “No thank you”. Then I let myself be persuaded and he mentioned a figure half way between his and mine, which was just about what I expected in the first place. However, as Rozie was just about through, I asked what their total was and at the right moment I accepted the offer, provided the same discount was made for both orders. Of course, this was done and we left for Kandy promising to be back at 5.30 for the fittings.

By this time it was 10.45 and we had already wasted a lot of time on account of the manner in which these people transacted their business. Before going ashore I had been warned several times and had made up my mind that we would not be taken down if it were at all possible. Subsequent events proved that notwithstanding our efforts and decisions we were “done” to a certain extent.

World Tour 1938
at Colombo

As Kandy was 73 miles away we could see we were going to be late for lunch, or else I would not get any photos. The chauffeur did his best to make up time and wherever there was a good picture he stopped for me. It was all so different, interesting and amusing that I could have spent a fortnight on the trip instead of a few hours. We drove through the city fairly slowly without taking photos, firstly because the traffic was so heavy, and secondly to give us an opportunity of seeing the place.

World Tour 1938
Native shops Colombo

In the main portion, called “The Fort” there were some very good shops with plate glass windows nicely dressed. Other shops seemed to have open fronts with much of their stock outside the doors. Just out of the fort we passed what the driver told us was the native section “where there were many BAD people!” The street was narrow, the shops were all open fronted, fruit, meat, clothing, drinks and tea were displayed in a squalor and stench which could be better imagined than described.

World Tour 1938
Native shops Colombo

There were bullock carts, motor cars and lorries, rickshaws, handcarts, bicycles and native pedestrians all struggling to get along. The natives were dressed in various ways, from a loincloth and turban to a complete covering in reds, greens, puice and all the brightest colours obtainable.

World Tour 1938
at Colombo

As against this there were many who were dressed in nothing but white. These, we were told, were the Bhuddists who were fasting. I asked whether the streets were always as crowded and the driver told us that to-day was the Bhuddists’ New Year’s Day and of course it was a holiday.

World Tour 1938
Road to Kandy

The road was in excellent condition, and laid down in bitumen all the way. On either side there was tropical growth of trees and shrubs not known to me, but the main tree was the coconut palm, tall and stately with the fruit at the top out of reach except to the natives trained to climb for them.

World Tour 1938
The graceful palms of Colombo with their brilliant tropical green colouring made pictures which no camera can truly portray
World Tour 1938
Coconut palm climbers

There were thousands of bananas with their large wide leaves of a luminous green, the rubber trees darker in colour and growing much higher, breadfruit tree with its large olive green leaves and the fruit in clusters away out of reach.

World Tour 1938
Scene on the road to Kandy

The foliage on the whole was a brilliant green everywhere and the trees or shrubs in flower stood out from the green in colours which appeared brighter than I had seen either on account of the tropical sun under which they lived or because of the contrast which the green made.

World Tour 1938
at home

Every few miles we came to a village and these were interesting. As a general rule the shops and the homes appeared to be dirty and squalid, but there were some which were kept well and comparatively clean. The grass, trees and foliage everywhere had been washed by the heavy downpour of the morning, making everything beautifully fresh in the bright sunshine which lasted for the rest of the day. The New Year’s holiday was being celebrated in the country villages in the same manner as in the city.

World Tour 1938
Native shops Kandy

Most of the village shops remained open, but some were apparently sufficiently true to their faith that they closed. These Bhuddists were not only in the streets, but we passed them travelling in motor buses, cars and bullock carts. These carts, built in a number if different ways, fascinated me and I wanted to photograph them, but the desire of the ladies to get to the hotel at Kandy in time for lunch was responsible for leaving a number of good pictures until the return journey.

World Tour 1938
Colombo palms

The drive of 73 miles was interesting from several points of view, but principally because it was different from anything in New Zealand or Australia. On the whole the country was undulating and the last part decidedly hilly. Instead of our trees, we saw mostly coconut palms. I had seen bananas growing in Queensland, but these appeared to be much larger and a more delicate green than any I had previously seen.

World Tour 1938
Rice fields, Colombo

In every mile of the distance we saw rice growing. These “Paddy” fields were only just being planted in most cases, but here and there the plants were six or eight inches high, of a light green colour, such as we would see in one of our hot houses. Not every piece of land where there is water is used for growing rice.

World Tour 1938
Rice fields, Colombo

If there is a spring on a hillside (and there appeared to be many of them) the water is held in a miniature dam less than a foot deep. At a suitable spot it is allowed to run out, but is again held by another dam or terrace until it reaches the flat below. Then according to the land available, the area gathered by the damming process is increased until every available bit of land suitable for the purpose is used. Thus on the hillside we saw small terraces widening out as they reached the bottom until the lowest ones on the flat covered an area of about 10 feet square. The water is held in place by these mud walls, which are built in fantastic shapes according to the lay of the country and the point where the used water is to be released for the next section.

World Tour 1938
Water buffalo

The natives use the water buffalo for working these rice fields and we saw many of these strange animals lying in the mud and water as they were also allowed to enjoy the New Year’s holiday.

World Tour 1938
water buffalo – Colombo;

Although we appeared to be amongst hills for the greater portion of the drive the road was kept on the level by taking a winding course. This made the driving rather slow, as there were no straight runs. When a little more than half way we started to climb bigger hills until we were over 16,000 feet above sea level when we reached Kandy. When we got to the hill country we saw the famous Ceylon Tea Plantations.

World Tour 1938
Tea Factory Colombo

There was very little to see as they just looked like a hillside with some small green shrubs growing thereon. The plant is only two or three feet high and just the tips of the branches with about half a dozen leaves thereon are used. It is quite a tender leaf and is apple green Apparently the plant grows more of these tender leaves when it is not in an exposed position, as I noticed the largest plantation had another shrub about twice as high which was sheltering the tea plants from the sun. These tips are gathered and brought into the factory. The first process is to lay them out to let them partly dry. Then they are put into a machine which looked like a large churn which turns the leaves over and causes them to roll up. They are then dried by a baking process. The final operation is to sift the dry leaves. These sifters separate the leaves into several crates ranging from No. 1 to Tenderest. Unfortunately, we could only have the process and machines explained to us as the factory was not working on account of the holiday.

World Tour 1938
Palm Avenue
World Tour 1938
In the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya a few miles from Kandy

At Peradeniya, a couple of miles out of Kandy, we drove through the Botanical Gardens, which were well worth seeing.

World Tour 1938
Lo and the Banyan Tree, Colombo

A huge Banyan tree with its many roots was most interesting.

World Tour 1938
Palm Avenue Kandy

There were two palm avenues which, of course, could only be seen in a place like this.

World Tour 1938 It was 1.45 before we reached the principal hotel in Kandy. It was well filled with visitors from the ship and there was noise and bustle everywhere. It was large, modern and occidental. As we were only allowing ourselves one hour for lunch we did not have any time to spare.

There was a large diningroom, but it was crowded and hot. We were pleased to find our table had been reserved for us on the balcony in the fresh air. None of us seemed anxious to try any of the dishes we did not know and the final decision was simply cold meat and salad and fresh fruit.

While this was in progress we were entertained by native dancers, who were very highly decorated with ornaments and tinsel. They did some weird and wonderful jumping and prancing, put themselves in the most grotesque positions, worked themselves wet with perspiration in the hot sun, while the others of the party made a deafening noise by beating native drums and ringing numerous tiny bells secreted on their bodies under the flimsy cloth swathed around them. This was called a death dance and was supposed to be for our entertainment after dinner, but as we were so late getting a start it was all in full blast just at the time we were trying to make the native waiter understand what we required.

World Tour 1938
Bhuddist Temple Kandy

As soon as the meal was over we found our chauffeur waiting for us and started on the return journey. I photographed the Bhuddist temple at Kandy from the outside. I did not have time to go inside as the ladies were already telling me I was spending too much time on the photos. and not enough in seeing the sights.

World Tour 1938
Taking a bath
World Tour 1938
posing for a photo

On the way up I had seen several people taking their bath. Their peculiar method quite tickled me and I decided to have a picture. My first attempt met with a flat refusal from a man who was washing himself. A little later, as I had showed so much interest the chauffeur saw a lady taking her bath and accordingly stopped the car.

 She was more willing to be photographed, especially when I showed some English money, in fact, whenever we take a photo. of the natives there is always the tip to be paid. We all ran out of pennies, threepenny pieces and sixpences and I finally jibbed at paying 1/-.

World Tour 1938
“Bath Place”

To return to this lady in the bath. Let me explain that she was neither undressed nor in a bath as we know it, but was standing on a stone on the side of the road where there was a spring flowing which kept the hole full of water. She had a piece of cloth arranged on her body which covered her nakedness, notwithstanding its flimsy end and tendency to cling when wet.

World Tour 1938
Native girl taking her bath

She was stooping down and filling a bucket from the hole and then pouring the water over her head. This was done repeatedly. What happened after that I did not have the time or opportunity to ascertain, but apparently the cleansing process was satisfactory.

About 20 miles out from Colombo the film in my camera stuck and I could not take any photos. This did not matter very much, as it was getting very dull since the sun was setting.

World Tour 1938
Showing the reed holder for the candle which the natives burn throughout the night of their New Years Day

The last photo. I took was one showing a little reed receptacle which we saw them making at almost every house late in the afternoon. I asked the driver what they were making, as it seemed to me to be something like a round letter box which was placed at the top of three sticks about 5 or 6 feet high. He told me it was part of the Bhuddist’s New Year festivities. After the sun went down at a certain hour every Bhuddist would place a little light in this reed container and it would burn until the morning light again appeared so that their New Year’s Day would never end. There was more to it than this, but I could not understand all he told me.

We arrived at Colombo just before 7 o’clock and went straight to the silk store to get fitted for the clothes we had ordered. This took so long that we could not get back to the boat in time for dinner.

The purchases being completed, at about 9.30 we set out for a stroll to see something of the main street and to find the store which Jess Norrie had recommended to us. When we got into the street again we were swarmed with touts who seemed to come from nowhere immediately we left the shop. Each one screamed at us that his goods were cheapest and best. Try how we would we could not shake them off and rather than walk along with a number of these natives hanging on behind and in front we decided to go back to the boat. On our way we ran across the store of Chandirams and went inside to see how the prices compared. We found them cheaper on the whole and consequently a few more purchases were made.

World Tour 1938
at Colombo

By this time it was ten o’clock and as we wanted to get some refreshments on the boat before the man arrived with the goods from the store we caught a launch and went aboard. The boat was due to sail at midnight and it was just five minutes to twelve when the native messenger arrived at our cabin with the parcels. We hurriedly checked them to see if they were alright, but there was no time to scrutinise them very carefully. I firmly believe this was part of the plan of the native store for the arrangement made was that anything which was not up to our expectations could be returned. However, on the whole they were pretty good and everyone seemed to be satisfied with the bargains of the day.

At 12.10 there was a medley of yelling and shouting from the natives just the same as when the boat arrived in the morning and from this we knew that she was again casting off from her moorings to continue the journey.

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