First thing you notice flying into Sri Lanka are the palm trees. Like zooming into an open-air terrarium of the things. Like spelling out the word "tropical" in their fronds and coconut husks, the little dusty lanes twisting in between.
Sri Lanka's visa system is a breeze, I was out in the swimmingly warm air in no time. I hoofed it from Bandaranaike airport to the local train station, about a kay down the road. I'd read you could take a train right into the centre of Colombo and save the price of a taxi fare. Traveling solo, I had all the time in the world. Bag plonked down, waiting for the train, I rolled some film into my trusty busted-up Pentax camera and snapped the train tracks. People's painted houses open up right onto them. You see people strolling up and down the tracks like elevated footpaths. My earliest memory of Sri Lanka is a photograph of my mother and father standing on the railway tracks under palm trees with dad's family, somewhere on the coast. Fitting then that my first frame of the trip is that same train line, straight off the plane.
The station master, a young gun called Nalaka, came out for a chat and soon we were drinking coconut brandy in the office with a couple of his buddies. Nearly two hours till the next train, it turned out, and by the time it pulled into the station I was reeling from the stuff. Having a great old time. We toasted our farewells and after promises to return on my way back in a couple of weeks and with another bottle of Mendis, I rocked back and forth with the afternoon commuters bound for Fort station in the colonial heart of Colombo. Rum-hued dusk swilled down over the houses and palm trees, cool air washing in through the open windows of the carriage.
Nalaka had called ahead for me and reserved a seat on the night mail to Jaffna. I figured I had just enough time to stuff my face at my old favourite, Pilawoos Hotel, world-famous no-nonsense food joint specialising in what is possibly the best street food invention of all time: the chopped roti, or "kotthu". Grilled chicken, cream cheese, onion, naan bread, all chopped up together with two great big chopping knives. It's a distinctive sound you hear up and down the country. Chop-chop-chop-chop-chop. I reached Fort, picked up my ticket, flagged down a tuk tuk and bee-lined straight for it, still buzzing on toddy.
I went to town on it, stuffed myself to the gills, washing it down with a sweet milk tea and a few pages out of old Kerouac, constant travel companion in my pocket, fellow Lonesome Traveller. The tuk tuk driver was tapping at his watch. I had a train to catch.
The plan was to spend a good couple of days up north in Jaffna, just opened up again to the outside world after decades of unrest and civil war. But apart from a few jotted-down guest house addresses and a vague idea of the city layout, I was pretty in the dark about what would be waiting for me once I got there.