Back to India

Even our final morning in Sri Lanka was an early one. Our decision to spend a night in Hikkaduwa meant we had to be up at 7 to bus the two hours to Colombo. We wanted to spend a couple hours at the market and then head off to the airport for our 2:30 flight.
Unfortunately, the two hour bus ride turned into three. We didn’t reach Colombo until quarter to 11. We wanted to be at the airport by 12:30. At first we gave ourselves a half hour to bus to the airport, but the English guy in Hikkaduwa had offhandedly mentioned that it took 1 hour to get there. Good thing we met him!
But when we arrived in Colombo, we were dropped off right in the center of town. The fort and markets looked lovely as we passed them, but with all the traffic, we wouldn’t have time to see them and get back in time. We wandered a market next to the station, but it was a locally geared market, selling daily household needs as opposed to touristy trinkets. After a half hour we were bored. Not knowing what to do next, we just decided to hop on a bus to the airport.
The bus was hot, and crowded. We squished ourselves onto the back of the bus with three other men on the same bench. Then we drove. We drove through the town, inching along with the traffic and picking up people every hundred meters. I remember seeing a sign that said “KFC 180m ahead”. I remembered the amount of KFC we’d eaten in Kandy three days earlier and felt ill. Nearly ten minutes later we passed the restaurant. I think that has to be a record for the slowest 180m ever driven! It was painful, every half hour I kept thinking we had to be there!
an hour and forty-five minutes later we pulled up to the “airport bus stand”. It’s 2 kilometers from the actual airport. From there you have to pay either a shuttle or a Rickshaw another dollar to get to the terminal.
By the time we reached the airport it was just after 1:00. Thank god we left early!
We rushed inside, had to make it through two security checks BEFORE reaching our ticket desk. When we got up to the counter we were exhausted, burnt out and sweaty. We handed over our passports and weighed our bags.
“Do you have a visa for India?” One of the guys asked Kelsi
“No, not yet. I get one on arrival.”
“You can’t get visa’s on arrival in India” said the man confused.
“Yes, for New Zealand you can. I was just there last week. They gave me a one month visa and said I had to leave then come back for a second. They will only give you two in a year.”
The man stood there unsure what to think. Then he turned to another guy and spoke to him. The two chatted and shrugged and then turned to another guy. He did the same thing. Then they stopped an agent from Sri Lankan Airways. She joined in the confusion.
“I don’t think you can get a visa on arrival in India” she said
“I was just there” said Kelsi “only a couple countries can do it, and New Zealand is one of them”
“Hmmm”
They called over the Spice Jet supervisor and explained the situation. We looked at each other with worried faces. Oh great.
“I’m going to call the embassy just to make sure. We have to check these things before you get on the plane. You don’t want to be sent back.”
So he called the embassy, explained what happened. Turns out, yes, New Zealanders can get visas on arrival. We now had a very minimal time to make it through security. They checked our bags, gave us our tickets and we ran towards immigration.
We handed over our tickets and passports to the first security check. Just as we were doing that, the Spice Jet supervisor yelled to us.
“Wait! Wait! Don’t go through!”
We stopped. So close!
“I’m sorry,” he said “they embassy just called back. They can do visas on arrival at all airports EXCEPT for Madurai”
“What?”
“Yes, Madurai does not have a visa processing area.”
“So what does that mean for us?” I asked
“You can’t get on this flight. Well, you can, but your friend can’t.”
Our hearts sank. Oh no. We were so exhausted, just spent 5 sweaty hours on busses that day and just wanted to get on the plane. We walked back to the desk with him to discuss.
“So where can we fly to?”
“Anywhere except Madurai”
The closest airports would be Chennai or Trivandrum. Trivandrum is where we were going next, so it would be perfect… Had we not left all our luggage in Madurai. Also, flights to Trivandrum stop over in Madurai first, so we’d have to go through immigration there. Chennai was our only option. It’s an 11-hour train ride to Madurai from Chennai. We had just done that journey in five days!
“Fine, can we change our flight to Chennai?”
“Yes, but there aren’t any more that go today.”
Awesome.
“Okay, then tomorrow?”
“Yes, but you have to go online to book. We can’t do it here at the airport.” Explained the supervisor.
He was nice enough to call his boss and ask for a refund on our tickets. She worked it all out to refund the money back to my credit card.
“Just use the wifi here to book a flight for tomorrow, then you can come back later”
Turns out the wifi was down that day. We’d have to go to a hotel and book it from there. The idea of getting back on that bus to Colombo was sickening.
“Okay, here’s my suggestion,” I said “we fork out the money and take a Tuk Tuk back to Negombo. Marshall was so helpful, the place was beautiful, cheap, on the beach and had great food. It’s only a half hour from the airport instead of two hours and we know they have wifi!”
Okay. Plan complete.
We walked backwards through security. Everyone stopped us.
“No, madam, the other way, you can’t come through here. Security is that way”
“We’re not getting on a plane thanks, we’re coming through.”
We pushed our way back through security and went up to the money exchange. We had just exchanged all our Sri Lankan money back into US dollars. The man we had dealt with looked confused when he saw us standing there.
“Hey! Remember these beautifully crisp US dollars you gave me just a half an hour ago?” I said smiling “Sooo, is it possible to just pretend that transaction never happened and I can get my six thousand back?”
He laughed at the state of us and handed back the money in full. Wow, that could have gone much worse. Our first win of the day.
We grabbed a Tuk Tuk to Negombo for nearly the same price as it would have cost us to get there by bus (Tuk Tuk to bus station, bus to second station, then Tuk Tuk to hotel.) we arrived at Marshall’s Guesthouse in a haggard state. When we walked in, the lovely guy who ran the place when Marshall was away recognized us.
“You!!” He exclaimed with a gasp “I thought you were leaving!” He rushed over to us with a worried look. We briefly explained the situation in broken English until he understood. He gladly showed us to our room, then we came back downstairs to book flights.
“All the Spice Jet flights to Chennai are booked for the next two days” said Kelsi when she finally got the website working.
“I found one with Sri Lankan Airways but it’s more expensive.” After a while we’d sorted it out. We found a reasonably priced flight to Chennai and then three hours later we found a Spice Jet flight from Chennai to Madurai. Hopefully that would give us enough time, and we’d still get into Madurai by the night. Perfect!
Kelsi went to pay for the flight to Chennai. We got all the way through the slow process, with the wifi cutting out a couple times, just to get a message at the end saying: this flight is unavailable for online booking. What?! Great.
We decided to call the airline.
“Can we use your phone?” We asked the guy that worked there.
He looked confused. “You want me to call someone?”
“No no, I just need to call the airline to book a flight”
He stood staring at us with a blank look.
“Your phone, can we use?” We tried again.
He smiled. “Hold on!” He said and rushed to grab his cell phone. We could see the hotel phone. We were just being polite before using it. We had even pointed to the phone when we described what we needed. Maybe he was going to give us the cell phone instead.
He dialed a number then handed us the phone. “Mr. Marshall!” He said with a big grin.
Oh great.
“Hello?” Said Marshall.
“Hello, I am here at your guesthouse, I want to know if it’s possible to us the phone to call a local number.”
“What? I can’t hear you”
“I’d like to use the phone here at guesthouse, is that okay?”
“What?”
Oh my god. This is the biggest process ever. After a few more times he understood and I passed the phone back.
“Ooooh! Yes yes!” Said the man when he hung up from Marshall.
Kelsi grabbed the hotel phone and dialed.
“Hello I would like to book a flight to chennai tomorrow… To Chennai… No, tomorrow… Chen-Nai… Chennai.” She looked over at me exasperated. No one in India or Sri Lanka can understand Kelsi’s accent. It’s become an ongoing joke between us. Even with words that to me sound normal, people get confused. I got up to talk to him.
“Hello, can we book a flight to Chennai for tomorrow?”
“Yes, what time”
“1:15”
“Okay, your names please”
I went through the process, spelling out both our names, giving passport numbers and confirming times and dates.
“Okay, I’m going to transfer you to an automated system so you can put in your credit card information”
“Okay thank you”
The phone went on hold for a while, I handed the receiver back to Kelsi. A few minutes later the man came back online.
“Hello, I’m sorry, we have a problem. We cannot process the flight on the phone if it is less than 24 hours away”
I came back on the phone “well what do we do?”
“You have to go to our booking agent in Colombo”
My heart sunk again.
“Is there a booking office in Negombo? That’s where I am”
“Okay, hold on ill check”
The man came back on five minutes later and gave me the address to another city that was NOT Negombo.
“No, no, Ne-Gom-Bo. Is there a booking office in Negombo?”
“Oh I’m sorry, ill check”
Five more minutes on hold.
“No, there is not. But there is a booking office in a place called Seeduwa. It is near to Negombo, on the way back to Colombo.”
“Okay, what time does it close?”
“5:00”
Oh god. It was 4:20. No time to get to the bus stop, so we tried to grab a Tuk Tuk. The man who ran the place’s son did most of the Tuk Tuk driving to and from Marshall’s. it was usually the cheapest price.
“Ok, I call my boy!” He said with a smile. He dialed him up and explained the situation. After a few minutes he hung up the phone.
“Sorry, he is in another city, it will take him a while to get here”
Time was one thing we didn’t have. So we rushed outside to haggle on the street. It took a while, but we finally agreed to 600 rupees for the driver to take us to the place, wait five minutes and then drive us home.
“We won’t be longer than five minutes!” We promised “all we have to do is pay the guy!”
We hopped in the tuk tuk at 4:35: 25 minutes to closing!
It took 15 minutes just to get out of the city. We were sweating with anticipation. There was no going faster with the amount of traffic on the road. We didn’t even know where Seeduwa was, but we followed street signs until we assumed we were around the right place. 4 minutes before closing Kelsi spotted a giant sign that read: Sri Lankan Airways.
“There it is!!” She screeched at the driver, “pull over!”
The guy stopped and the two of us jumped out into the middle of 4 lanes of crazy traffic. We ran across the street and saw the janitor setting the alarm on the building.
“Noooo!!! Please! Let us in!”
We burst through the front door breathless. There was one lady sitting behind her desk still. The janitor looked less than impressed at us. We smiled sheepishly as we went off to talk to the woman.
We explained our situation, gave her the reference number and handed over the credit card with a smile! I can’t believe we made it!
“Who told you to come here?” She asked us, when we’d finished talking.
“The Sri Lankan airline guy on the phone.”
“We’ll I’m so sorry,” she said “but we are no longer affiliated with Sri Lankan Airways. I’m just a travel agent. I can’t book these tickets for you”
Our hearts sunk again. You have got to be kidding me! How can so many things go so wrong in one day?
“I’ll try to see what you can do” she said. She picked up the phone and dialed a number. As she chatted away I looked out at our waiting Tuk Tuk driver. He did not look happy about the delay.
Eventually the lady turned to us again.
“Okay, to book this ticket you will have to go to the airport. The Sri Lankan ticket agents will book it all for you”
Oh my god! Isn’t that where we started this whole fiasco?! We were both exasperated. Now we had to deal with the Tuk Tuk.
The driver was pissed about the change of plans. He tried to charge us 1200 for a return trip when the airport was really on the way home. After a big fight we just had him drop us off at the airport and we tossed him 500 with a scowl as he drove off.
There was a huge lineup when we got to the Sri Lankan booking desk. Of course there would be. We pushed our way to the front of the crowd as best we could.
“Yes, I can book the tickets” said the man behind the counter, “just let me see your passports please.”
Oh god. We hadn’t brought our passports because we were only supposed to PAY for the tickets. We explained the situation and he let it slide. They had to check the passports the next day anyways when we checked in. Another five minutes and we’d booked and paid for the tickets. I never thought the day would end.
“See you tomorrow!” Said the man.
Even though the fiasco was over, we were still cranky. We had spent an entire day’s budget in transportation today and all to end up back where we began. We tried to grab another Tuk Tuk back to Marshall’s.
“Yes, 900 to Negombo beach” said the driver. I flipped out.
“Look buddy. Who do you think we are? I have done this trip four times today, I know what a Tuk Tuk should cost. I will give you 400 or ill find another driver.”
He paused.
“Okay, 850”
Screw off. I walked away as he yelled out 800. I saw another Tuk Tuk up the road.
“I’ll give you 400 to Negombo beach”
“500”
“400 or I’m moving on”
He smiled. “Ok, get in”
On the way home the driver got lost. We ended up having to call Marshall’s and the guy who ran the place came out to get us. Wen he saw our haggard faces pull up he started laughing.
“You!!!” He laughed again “it has been hours since you left! What happened?!”
“Long story” we said.
I paid the guy 400 rupees on the way out.
“500” he said “it took longer!”
“Only because you got lost, buddy.” We walked away with the hotel manager still giggling to himself.
What a day.
We crashed early that night. Worst day ever. All we needed was a good night’s sleep and the world would be a better place.
Tomorrow things will be looking up!

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