Right now, I could still be writing from Dubai, lamenting a spoiled couple of days that should have been lovely. Days where we should have been enjoying one of the most scenic train rides in the world, through the lush mountains of Sri Lanka, but were instead languishing in an airport hotel in Dubai. Thankfully, I’m not. Martha and I are checked into the historic Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in a (free upgraded) suite with a terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Our flight out of Dubai to Colombo, Sri Lanka, had about as much excitement as I ever care to have in any airport, foreign or domestic. We were packed up nice and early (for us) last night, and made it to the hotel breakfast service by 0615. After checking out, we caught a taxi to the airport, making it there at 0700 for our 0905 flight. This gave us an hour to get checked in for our Emirates flight, and another 45 minutes to get to the gate. Alas though, we were in a deceptively short line that just wouldn’t move, watching a young British couple with far too much luggage argue with a growing crowd of airline workers. The British man kept pulling luggage on and off the conveyer scale, and there was occasional animated yelling back and forth. The first hour went by with minimal movement, and we were finally seen around 0820. This is when we were informed, most unfortunately, that our 0905 flight was now “closed” and that we should get rebooked on the next one at 0935.
“Hurry, right now, and run to the booking counter at the front of the airport and then come back here with no wait.”
“Sir, Ma’am, hurry and run and we can get you on the 0935 to Colombo”
We hustled to the front of the airport to something like the airport perdition section. A place where people, without tickets, go and shed tears of the deepest anguish to unsympathetic automatons ready to charge thousands of dollars to book/reschedule flights. The moment the gentleman there told us he would have us on the 0935 straightaway for a small fee of $800 each, I ran, literally ran, back to the last counter and slid up to the place we’d just come from.
It was a ghost town.
That kiosk was closed, and all three of the people who had spoken with us were gone. Scanning the area, I saw one of the Emirates workers (with hair parted straight down the middle) trying to look busy directing some lost tourists and ran up to catch him. He tried some more evasive maneuvers, very kindly sending me further into the airport to an empty counter to talk to a person who would “help me and take care of it.”
At this point, maybe 0830-0840, I wasn’t screwing around, and I wasn’t wasting any time. I caught the middle hair part guy again and had him accompany me, very assertively, to where I’d get some “help.”
That’s when we ran into his boss, Aiden. Aiden was clearly a no BS kind of guy, and middle part guy displayed a fear that suggested Aiden was the kind of guy who, if provoked, might just punch you, or, failing that, have you fired and on the street.
“What’s going on?” Aiden asked middle part guy.
(Arabic infused with times, flight numbers, override codes, etc.)
Aiden directed his attention at me, “What time did you get to airport?” to which I replied “7 o’clock”
(More Arabic from middle part guy, mention of British guy, blah blah)
“WELL WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST OVERRIDE IT AND REBOOK THEM?!?! GO RIGHT NOW AND BOOK THEM ON THE 0935! RIGHT NOW!”
Then middle part guy and I were off, catching Martha and our luggage, after she’d been getting yelled at be the airport perdition guy about paying him $1600. Back at the counter, middle part guy tried in vain to contact someone at the gate to help him override and book us. The time ticked away, maybe another 15 minutes, getting us almost to 0900. Middle part guy basically gave up and said he was going to see about getting us on a 2:45 flight…. Oh, and that’s 0245, the next day.
Nope. Heck no. No way.
I asked middle part guy about getting Aiden and he pointed to where he would be, seeming a bit sheepish at this point. I booked over to where I’d find him and Aiden was double fisting an iPhone, a flip phone, and alternately yelling into a walkie-talkie. When I reintroduced myself, he immediately started yelling into the walkie-talkie to middle part guy and went back with me to that counter to take care of it personally. That’s when we had some real ups and downs. At one point, it seemed like they were gonna have us booked on the flight but they kept getting errors trying to finalize our tickets, and eventually gave up. Aiden said he would have us in a hotel and had middle part guy start booking for that 0245. Then, like 0915, Aiden went a few kiosks down and tried “one more thing” and got us on there, to our astonishment. He had us booked on the 0935.
But every step seemed to elicit more problems. Tickets wouldn’t print, bag tag wouldn’t print, ay dios mio, I could scream! Aiden had like four people getting us taken care of and yelled at another worker that “these two are more important!” After we had our tickets and bag tag receipt, Aiden sent a young, lean guy named Asim to get us to the gate.
“Asim! Run! Run now!” Aiden yelled across the airport.
Martha and I were running (seriously, a full sprint) through the airport alongside Asim with our MEI bags shoulder slung. He had us bypassed or expedited through immigration, customs, and then airport security. Then Asim commandeered an electric cart and punched it through pedestrian traffic with Martha and I in the back, taking us through thirty gates in the airport terminal. We made it to the gate for the 0935 flight at 0945.
“You two are lucky. We had a couple minute delay in boarding. Normally you wouldn’t have made it,” the gate attendant told us.
Sri Lanka has been a rapid reintroduction to some of the trickier places we have traveled. Once through immigration and customs, we were greeted with sights and sounds and smells reminiscent of India. The last main hall in the airport is framed with various local businesses, and passing through you’re hit with yells of “Sir” and “Ma’am” from all directions. As a rule of thumb, if someone is selling or offering something with aggressive attempts to attract my attention, I don’t want it. Whatever it is, I already have it, or I never wanted it. Even if it turns out that I do, in fact want it (or need it), I prefer to get my bearings first and confirm as much before proceeding.
There were no ATMs at the airport, so thankfully we had a little hard currency to exchange at standardized rates. The banks must get a cut in that exchange, as they’re pretty eager for you to change money. The taxis at the airport are an interesting racket as well. Booths offer prepaid airport-hotel taxi service, but what they’re really giving you is a printed quote. They get a third party taxi and take a cut. You pay the driver. A booth guy we used got slipped 200 rupees (about $1.50) for bringing us to the driver. One of the lurker-porters grabbed our big suitcase and put it in the trunk and had his hand out for a bill as we got into the taxi. What would the going rate be for lifting a single bag in the states? $1? This guy had a crumpled 1000 rupee note in his hand pointing at it, and for a second I almost reached for one of those notes. Clever, clever. Sri Lankan mind control, preying on jetlagged tourists who may not be calculating exchanges well or have any sense of what a normal rate for something like that might be. Dubai had not the slightest hint of touts or beggars or a need to be constantly on guard the way some places require. Sri Lanka seems to attract a grittier sort (from what we’ve seen so far), a bit rougher than the SE Asia “banana pancakes trail” crowd. It’s gonna be a nice way to get reacclimated to this sort of travel. We’ve been out of it for a couple years, but it seems like Martha and I are able to fall back into a rhythm of teamwork pretty easily. All is well so far and the country looks like very interesting, sprinkles of India and rural Indonesia and Malaysia along with a lot of Catholic iconography, which is a bit of a contrast with the Buddhist and Islamic monuments.
We’re supposed to catch a train bright and early tomorrow, tonight we’ll just be staying in with a nice meal and catch up on some sleep.