COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (FORMER CEYLON)
Nellie’s dates: December 8-14, 1889
My dates: September 7-11, 2014
Nellie was the first to step ashore in Colombo. Leaving the other passengers boarding a steam launch, she balanced on an outrigger that sped towards the small island once known as Ceylon.
“The island, with its abundance of green trees, was very restful and pleasing to our eyes after the spell of heat we had passed through on the ocean coming from Aden (Yemen), ” Nellie wrote. “We all stood impatiently on the deck waiting for the first opportunity to desert the ship. With all our impatience we could not fail to be impressed with the beauties of Colombo … we could see the green island dotted with low-arcaded buildings, which looked, in the glare of the sun, like marble palaces.”
The Grand Oriental Hotel
One of them was the Grand Oriental Hotel. Nellie had already engaged her accommodations there when the steam launch arrived with the others. My own accommodations at the Grand Oriental Hotel were ‘engaged’ on the internet a month in advance. I’d hoped to stay in the same room as Nellie; but records of her stay no longer exist.
“It was a fine, large hotel,” wrote Nellie, “with tiled arcades, corridors airy and comfortably furnished… (where one could) sip the cooling lime squashes or the exquisite native tea or eat of the delicious fruit while resting in an attitude of ease and laziness.”
I was also greeted with a cooling fruit juice when I arrived at the Grand Oriental for the Asian start of my Nellie Bly 125th anniversary world trip.
With an exasperating five-day delay between ships, Nellie became well acquainted with the hotel. In her day, the corridors were ‘colonised’ by snake charmers, magicians and jewellers. They have long since disappeared — and so has much of the charm that once characterised the Grand Oriental.
Only 80 of the original 300 rooms remain – the rest were sold for police headquarters. Even so, the management is fiercely proud of the hotel’s legacy – it’s a listed site. The multitude of plaques in the lobby attest to the glorious heritage of the Grand Oriental Hotel, including a visit by Anton Chekov in 1890, a year after Nellie’s.
What’s missing is a tribute to Nellie. Perhaps I should arrange a plaque commemorating her stopover. I think they would make space in the lobby; or perhaps in the hotel’s little museum on the fourth floor where it could take its place among the time-honoured photos, ledgers, crockery and silver from the Grand Oriental’s past.
With a little help from my friends
Sri Lanka is known for its hospitality and I experienced it big-time. A simple introduction by email from a mutual friend in London was all it took for Lakmini Raymond and her two sons Jévon and Devin to share their local knowledge, their home and their friendship.
We started with a cup of famous Ceylon tea in the former Dutch Hospital — there even before the British arrived – now a dynamic mix of trendy shops and eateries. From there we relaxed in Lakmini’s home near that of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister; before dinner at the Hilton which was also hosting the Japanese Premier in the country to inaugurate a second terminal at the Bandaranaike International Airport as I discovered upon landing there that morning.
Some of the sites Nellie visited in Colombo were evident, but Lakmini, her sons and friend Jagdesh Mirchandani formed the ‘Nellie Bly journey research team’ and managed to connect the current-day Ananda College with the Buddhist College Nellie visited 125 years ago. The big challenge was the Parsee Theatre where Nellie attended a theatrical performance so memorable that she spent two pages of her short book describing it. Even Jagdesh, whom Lakmini calls the Wikipedia of Sri Lanka, didn’t know. “Let’s ask a Parsee he said as he dialled a Parsee friend. We’re still not sure but Jagdesh’s friend thought it could have been at the Parsee Club under the pergola.
And that was day one in Sri Lanka.