Days 1,251-1,257: The Isle of Serendipity

Mon 04.06.12 – Sun 10.06.12: 

AT LAST! COUNTRY NUMBER 198! And in the grand tradition of saving the best till last, it is my duty to report that Sri Lanka is officially several shades of AWESOME.

After sitting at anchor for a couple of days, the MV Kota Wirawan finally pulled into Colombo port on Monday afternoon. It would be 9pm before I was off and cleared. I said a fond farewell to Captain Heri and the crew and set off to find my CouchSurf host, the enigmatic Sachal Mir, owner of Sachal Mir’s Bed and Breakfast in Negombo, a beach town an hour and a half up the coast from the capital.

It was about 11pm when I arrived and if first impressions are anything to go by, I’m going to have a fantastic time here. Sachal greeted me like an old friend and introduced me to the Negombo massive. It’s low season here (on account of the monsoon, although it’s been remarkably dry) and so I’ve really got the run of the town. The beer is eye-wateringly cheap (£1.50 for a 600ml bottle of Lion at a bar, 75p in the shop), the food is magnificent, the people are hilarious and the transport costs are ridiculously inexpensive (three hour peak-time train ride in Sri Lanka: 95p, three hour peak-time train ride in the UK: £270.95).

Sachal put me in a room of my own, with air conditioning AND a hot shower. GRATIS. This me likey. To the Arabic Traders crossing the Indian Ocean a thousand years ago, Sri Lanka was Serendib, the ‘Island of Jewels’. It’s from where we get the word ‘serendipity’ from, meaning a happy stroke of luck. I see why they gave Sri Lanka this name.

Your parents probably know Sri Lanka as Ceylon, but ‘Ceylon’ was a bastardisation of the Dutch and subsequent Portuguese name for the island. This place was always Lanka. That name was restored in 1972 and to sweeten the deal they added the prefix ‘Sri’ – a respectful title, the Sinhalese equivalent of the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’.

I’ve often mused about how cool it is that Britain has a ‘Great’ in its official title (although yes I’m aware that it was originally to differentiate from Brittany in France), and wondered why other countries don’t do the same. Groovy Super Happy Funtime Rocket Japan or Mega Supersized Skyscraper With Fries USA. It would be brilliant! Much better than ‘The People’s Democratic Republic of BLUGH’.

Anyways, this week my task was clear: to get on a ship to The Maldives. There are three shipping companies that could help. They are Hayley shipping, operators of the Morning Viship which plies between Colombo and Male’ on a weekly basis, there’s Lily Marine Shipping, who also operate a weekly ship there and back, and then there’s our old friends at CMA-CGM. Unfortunately, their ship is one-way – I don’t mind being stranded in Sri Lanka where it’s cheap and cheerful, but if I get stranded in The Maldives for more than a week, the buttons that are left for me to spend off my credit cards are going to evaporate in less time than it takes to say ‘HOW MUCH?!!’

So Hayley was my first port of call, so to speak, and on Wednesday I headed over to Colombo for a meeting with Captains Mahendra Ranatunga and Lasitha Cumaratunga. They were spectacularly helpful, but alas the Morning Viship has a full complement of crew and since there would be no space for me on the life-boat if A Perfect Storm came along to ruin our game of cricket.

They put me in touch with the agents for Lily Marine, in the hope they would let me on their ship that was leaving on Saturday.

Before any meetings on Thursday, I got up extra early in order to watch THE TRANSIT OF VENUS: an astrological event that will not happen again in my lifetime. I had invested in a pair of welding glasses and at 6am I was standing outside Sachal’s B&B waiting for a gap in the clouds. A gap that never came.

Oh well, I’ll see if I can catch it again in 105 years…


Later that morning I met with Ikram Ghazali of CMA-CGM, the plan being that if I could get to The Maldives and back to Sri Lanka on the Lily Marine ship, I could then hop on a CMA-CGM ship to The Seychelles and onto Kenya: next door to South Sudan: the final country of The Odyssey Expedition.

Ikram was a lovely guy and said he would do everything in his power to get me on that ship – it’s a tall order: it would take me straight through the High Risk area of The Pirate Ocean. DANGER WILL ROBINSON!! MY ARMS ARE FLAILING WILDLY!!

On Friday had a meeting with Mr Raja from Neon Shipping, the guys who work with Lily Marine. He hoped to get me on the next available ship to The Maldives: however, the one leaving the next day would not be possible as there wasn’t enough time to organise everything. So it would be the weekend after. No worries say I, and begin to look forward to an easy week in Sri Lanka watching the Euro 2012 tournament which was due to kick off this weekend. Little did I know at the time, it would be a little longer than a week…

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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