COLOMBO, SRI LANKA
It’s a holiday!
Today is Binara Full Moon Day across Sri Lanka. It’s a public holiday where businesses close, no alcohol is served, and women in white flock to Buddhist Temples. A monthly occurrence, this particular Full Moon Day commemorates the value placed on women in Buddhism. How appropriate for my quest ‘to commemorate the value’ of Nellie Bly and her achievements in the Victorian age.
I discover this while reading the local paper at breakfast at 9 am in the Grand Oriental Hotel’s Harbour Restaurant overlooking the port where Nellie arrived at precisely the same time on December 8, 1889.
Colombo reminded Nellie of Newport, Rhode Island. “Possibly—in my eyes at least—Colombo is more beautiful. Their homes may not be as expensive, but they are more artistic and picturesque,’’ she wrote. I can’t see the connection between Newport and Colombo; but it’s nice to think that Nellie did.
Not sure exactly which temples she visited in Colombo, I hop a tuk-tuk and and head for one of the most famous, Garangaramaya situated around a lake. It’s brimming with women of all ages, shapes and sizes adorned in white to celebrate their day. Processions wind around the giant Buddha, the famous Buddha tree and throughout the park. The heady profusion of gold, gods, incense and icons is so intense it makes me wish I’d worn white.
The Mount Lavinia Hotel
The ‘smoothest, most perfectly made roads’ Nellie ever saw led to the Mount Lavinia Hotel. “Many of these roads were picturesque bowers, the over-reaching branches of the trees giving us telescopic views of people and conveyances along the road,’ she wrote.
The thatched huts lining the road in Nellie’s day have given way to rows of businesses – local and international like Pizza Hut, Mango and Burger King – on both sides of a congested road. But every trace of this disappears as the 19th-century splendour of the Mount Lavinia Hotel comes into view.
Nellie described the Mount Lavinia as “castle-like building glistening in the sunlight … on a green eminence overlooking the sea.” With is grace, gardens, history and fountains, the Mount Lavinia transports one back to the most lavish of Victorian times. I absolutely love it.
I am here courtesy of new friends and newlyweds Steffi and Moahan Balendra, again connected by my friend in London, who have more than kindly allocated their day off to tackle traffic on a public holiday to take me to the Mount Lavinia Hotel, 15 kms outside of Colombo. They have inadvertently, but with enthusiasm, joined the Nellie Bly trail. We explore the elegant hotel and wander down to the beach for a seafood lunch overlooking an ancient outrigger (called a catamaran locally as Moahan confirms on his i-phone) like the one Nellie rode to shore when she arrived in Ceylon.
The romance of the Mount Lavinia is flamed by the story of Ceylon’s second Governor Sir Thomas Maitland and his lover Lavinia, a dancer. Sir Thomas built the current hotel in the early 19th century as his residence including a tunnel where he could secretly meet Lavinia. Upon returning to England for his health, he purportedly named the residence for her. Steffi and Moahan tell me that many weddings take place at the Mount Lavinia.
Nellie found the Galle Face Hotel equally romantic. “Where the ocean kisses the sandy beach and while listening to the music of the wave, the deep , mellow, roar, (one) can drift – drift out on dreams that bring what life has failed to give; soothing pictures of the imagination that blot out for a moment the stern disappointment of reality.”
My only ‘disappointment of reality’ at the Galle Face tonight is the fact that it is being renovated so much of it is inaccessible — and cloudy weather has obscured what could have been a spectacular sunset. But just being here, enjoying the grandeur on a sultry evening after a day with friends at the Mount Lavinia, is just fine by me.