Day 78, March 24:
After getting a big gulp of what Henry David Thoreau called “the tonic of wildness” while riding an elephant through a jungle trail in Phuket, Thailand, and afterwards enjoying two relaxing days at sea, we arrived at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, located just off the subcontinent of India and sometimes likened to a teardrop due to its shape or, just as poetically, to a pearl on India’s brow. Colombo is a place of contrasts: modern high-rises share spaces comfortably with a 100-year-old clock tower (the Lighthouse Clock Tower) and Dutch and British colonial buildings; tea plantations, rice paddies and temples are in counterpoint to bustling bazaars like the maze of streets making up the colorful Pettah district.
This being our first visit, Humberto, Duffy (our bear that went around the world) and I signed up for a highlights-overview type of tour called Contrasts of Colombo to orient ourselves and see the major points of interest. Sights included the Galla Face Green (central park) lining the south shore of the port; the old Fort District where colonial atmosphere pervades particularly in old buildings like the Old Parliament with statues of leaders in front; Independence Square with a monument, the Anglican Church and where a man approached us to see his cobra (sans fangs); and the University of Colombo and the Royal College, one of the largest schools in Asia with 7,500 students.
The Bandanarayake International Conference Hall is another point of interest, a gift to Sri Lanka from the people of China.
And mixed along with these sights, there were thousands of “tuk-tuks” or motorized rickshaws. Among the stops we made were at the Gangarama Temple, with a large collection of kitsch – a contrast to the normal austere ambiance of Buddhist temples.
There was a live elephant in the temple’s courtyard – Sujee, our local guide, explained it had been brought there to take part in an upcoming festival.
Buddhism, Sujee added, is Sri Lanka’s most popular faith, with 200,000 Buddhist monks. We also spent time at the Colombo Museum with exhibits about the history and culture of the city and the island.
Back onboard the Amsterdam we had a precious treat: a visit from the girls of the Balika Niwasa Orphanage in Colombo (there is also a separate orphanage for boys). The girls put on a talent show, singing and dancing for us in the Queen’s Lounge.
Unknown to them, for the past three days fund-raisers were held onboard to benefit the orphanage: a sale of greeting cards, a silent auction of watercolors painted by passengers in watercolors classes, and a fun Dunk For Dollars event with passengers purchasing balls to try to hit a target to dunk high-level staff members – all the way up to Executive Chef Bernie (wearing his big chef’s hat and all!) and even Captain Jonathan Mercer, the master of the Amsterdam – into the Lido pool. Altogether, the passengers raised nearly $2,500 for the orphanage. With an additional contribution from Holland America, the total donation reached $5,000. In addition to charity projects such as this one, Holland America also offers Cruising With Purpose shore excursions – we took one on Komodo Island with proceeds benefiting a school and village on the island.
Freelance travel writer Georgina Cruz and her husband Humberto are currently sailing on Amsterdam’s 112-day Grand World Voyage and will be sending in cruise diaries throughout their time on board. She has logged 174 voyages to all seven continents and visited more than 100 countries.