-Picture credit - google photos-
Unlike the present generation of kids who are far more advanced, bubbly and confident (as we see on reality shows on TV these days) we lacked that buoyancy in our childhood, may be due to over-protective attitude of our parents! When we were kids, travel from one place to another was normally done in the company of a parent(s) or escorted by a chaperon in the case of girls.
A visit from Colombo to Anuradhapura, for instance, was regarded as visiting a different territory altogether when transport was not so developed like today.
In such a backdrop, seated at a window seat inside an Air Ceylon plane for the first time, I appeared as a ‘frightened mouse’ until a young student travelling to USA came and occupied the aisle seat next to me. Within minutes the plane which took off from Ratmalana Airport landed in Bombay, and from there we were ushered to Taj Mahal Hotel by coach.
Taj reservation desk requested us to share a double room, due to an administrative bungling on their part, as we were scheduled to leave Bombay at 23.00 hours. The vastness of the hotel, waiters in colourful red turbans and smart uniform, an array of glistening cutlery displayed on the tables with bread sticks, soup bowls and wine glasses appeared all strange to us as kids; it must have been a scenario similar to ‘Banda going to town’!
My ‘student friend’ was full of beans and wanted to explore every facility afforded by the Airline. He used all the hotel stationery to write many letters to various people , made himself a nuisance by repeatedly ordering item after item from the room service, which included postal stamps, beer and even dinner on a trolley to the room! I felt rather embarrassed and sympathised with the waiter who had to push a large trolley full of food dishes (dinner) all the way up to our floor using the lift.
Finally, we needed to get ready in time to vacate the room and reach the airport terminal on time. In the meanwhile, my new acquaintance wanted to use the washroom first for which I had no objection, but wasn’t I stunned later with what I saw ? It could only be described as ‘a journey of a thousand miles began with a single step’ – outside the bathtub’! ( to be rephrased the saying).
I could hardly believe that the guy would step outside the bathtub after soaping and making a fool of himself by washing the soap on to the floor area! Thank Heaven! The bathroom floor was tiled and not carpeted, which prevented any water seepage to the ceiling below! Cursing myself, I ended up on my knees in mopping the bathroom floor with all the available towels and kept mum so as not to embarrass him about it.
Next it was time to leave the hotel. As we walked up to the reception area the concierge handed over a bill to my ‘friend’ for stamps, beer and other extras he had ordered from the room service. We did not carry any foreign currency with us in person as Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government permitted only 3 on a passport for foreign visitors, and a maximum allowance of Pounds 40 for students! My foreign exchange allocation had already been sent to National Westminster Bank, Paddington Branch through a Bank to Bank transfer.
However, to cut a long story short, after a lengthy lecture and stern advice, the Front Office Manager at the Hotel wrote off the bill with a remark:
” Well, gentlemen! TWA is always at your service”.
Like two beaten dogs with tail behind hind legs, we hurried to the plane looking forward to my next transit at Switzerland. Although we sat next to each other in the flight, hardly any conversation took place until I bid good bye to him at the Zurich airport.
It was a dark, gloomy, cold and wet evening completely covered with snow. Every where it looked like a sheet of white paper ! While passengers shivered in the cold, whilst wearing thick overcoats and ran to the terminal building, I walked at snail’s pace, only wearing a suit, to be greeted by a TWA ground hostess:
“Good evening Mr. Fernando”!
Momentarily it stunned me as to how she picked me up straightaway from hundreds of other passengers and even calling me by name! But soon I realised that I was the only coloured guy on the flight!
She escorted me to a counter and gave me 300 Swiss francs in cash, pointing at a parked coach saying:
“The driver will drop you to the hotel”! As the coach moved to some unknown destination, a few kilometres away from the airport, I felt rather marooned. Fortunately, I had a basic knowledge of German learnt at the Goethe Institute at Alexandra Place in Colombo, which helped me to get through with my broken German as no one in the coach could or wanted to speak in English!
There was hardly anything one could do in Zurich that evening as the whole environment was covered with snow and appeared like a white sheet of paper. That was my first experience of seeing snow, so I ventured on a short stroll and returned back to the hotel just in time for dinner.
A memorable incident that took place in that hotel restaurant has lodged in my memory bank forever. It was when I was struggling to understand the menu written in German that a young Swiss blonde of ‘Marylyn Monroe’ style, with a cigarette stuck on a long holder, came straight to my table and started puffing cigarette smoke at my face in round circles, winking and making funny faces, which brought my heart into my mouth!
I lost my appetite instantaneously and ran upstairs to my room leaving my plateful of rice and curry on the table, bolted the door tight and covered myself with a thick blanket and went to sleep ‘shivering in fright like a virgin’!
On the following morning a B.O.A.C plane took me from Zurich airport to my final destination Heathrow Airport in London. Even at the London Heathrow airport at the time, disembarkation was limited to a flight of steps, as there were no modern facilities connecting terminal buildings and aero planes through concourses, which give direct access to passengers between the terminal building and the aero plane.
The enthusiasm and eagerness I had to leave Sri Lanka to go abroad had suddenly vanished altogether in a jiffy and in a lonesome environment where not a soul was known to me! With a pounding heart I disembarked and walked towards the terminal building hoping that my good friend Samaranaike, who had gone to London three months prior to me, was waiting to receive and guide me at the arrival gate, once I came out of the immigration and baggage halls.