Friday, September 16, 2005

The "travel buddy" game

The minute you get to the airport/bus/train station in a strange land, you start scoping out other travellers. It's just how it works. Especially when you arrive at 11:30PM, you don't want to have to fight off the horde of taxi-drivers nor have to find a place to stay by yourself. There is safety in numbers, and more importantly for the budget traveller, economies of scale.

At the Sri Lankan Airlines checkin desk, I spot two young ladies who, by their facial expressions and looks were British. However, they didn't seem to be too interested in having a chat, and so after a few attempts to befriend them, I gave up.

While waiting in line to have my passport stamped, I struck up a conversation with a Malaysian woman. I turned out she had run Glaxo Smithklein's factory in Kula Lumpur for a number of years, and had now retired to become a "woman of leisure" or, a woman perfecting the art of spending her husband's money (her words, not mine). I mentioned that my girlfriend was going to be working near to her in the Spring, and so she gave me her phone number, and told me to give her a call if I visited - she'd show me around, and answer any questions my girlfriend had. At one point, I mentioned that I too would like to live off my wife's money, and jokingly asked if she had any daughters... out came her family photos, and in particular, photos of her 20 and 22 year old daughters... I promised her I'd call in the Spring, at the least to say hi, and perhaps to meet my future wife.

So. At this point, I've met two unfriendly British ladies who are going to Sri Lanka, and a very friendly Malay lady, who is going home... Neither of these are going to help me cut down the cost of a taxi in Sri Lanka.

While waiting at the gate for the plane, I strike up a conversation with a young Israeli guy. Typical of most Israelis you meet on the backpacker circuit - he was fresh out of the army, and was trying to make his savings last as long as possible, as he travelled at a level of stingyness that even humbles me. We initially agreed to split a tuk-tuk (3 wheeled taxi) to the nearest town from the Airport, but I soon realized that he wanted to stay in a sub 3 dollars a night place...

However, I strike gold on the Airplane.

The chap sitting next to me is Finnish (although, I guess Swedish intially). He's one of the chief engineers for a Danish Demining NGO, working in the Tamil Tigers area of North Sri Lanka. We have a nice long chat during the 3 hour flight, during which I find out that there are over 900,000 mines in Sri Lanka (mostly of Chinese/Pakistani origin, with a few Belgian ones to boot). I learn a bit about the local politics, the bickering and corruption that has followed from the huge influx of post Tsunami aid, and what life is like for someone in an NGO. Quite educational. The best part, though, was that his boss's driver was picking him up from the airport and could drop me off after him.

Thus, at 1:00AM, I arrive at my guest house, in style, in a nice, air conditioned, brand new range rover (donated to his NGO by the Japanese government), and thus saving me a 10 dollar, 1 hour bumpy taxi ride. Sweet!

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