Seven kilometres further along the highway, after another taxi ride with a driver who thought we were German, we came to the imposing modern façade of the Covanro Hotel – where we were due to meet the rest of our tour group.
This place could not be more different from the Tamarind. Rather than existing apart from its urban surroundings, this hotel felt strongly connected to all the passing traffic. A big event of some kind – a family celebration and preparation for a wedding – was in progress as people rushed around in suits and dresses and with flowers and an overall urgency of things needing to be done.
A welcoming lady ran out to rescue us. She offered us cold flannels from a silver tray. Then she beckoned us inside a glass-walled, air-conditioned office to teach us elementary greetings in Sinhalese.
“We’re here to meet the Exodus trip,” we explained. “One night’s accommodation and then a fourteen day tour of the south-west.”
“I know.” Her smile was as big as the tray and just as radiant. “They aren’t here yet. Sujan’s gone to the airport to fetch them.”
We practised a few more words with the porter – a tall moustached man named Lucien – who beamed enthusiastically at us. He was strong too – with enough power to lift my suitcase which weighed slightly more than the plane that had flown us over. We didn’t get onto learning numbers though. Much too difficult for beginners at this stage, especially as our room number wasn’t one or two or even three but one hundred and nineteen.
Outside the cool of the office, the sun beat down like an anvil. Lucien led the way around the side of the hotel – past a swimming pool teeming with children, past more families who drank and ate and talked – towards a modern accommodation block at the back. Our room turned out to be enormous, big enough – had they wanted – for not only one, but six double beds. Plus we had half-an-acre each to walk around in and plant down our bags. And the bathroom at the back was huge as well – a two-metre long bath and a shower head almost at a plane’s cruising attitude. No balcony though. Nowhere we could look out onto the world outside. This was a room to regroup, stare at ourselves, learn a bit of Sinhalese and read through our joining notes before – later that afternoon – we met the others on our trip.
Then a tap on our door. No, not room service with my glass of Heineken beer. Nor Mr Barrowclough from Porridge to wish us a friendly word. But someone I had never met before, even though I could guess who he was. Our tour leader, Sujan, ready with a smile, a handshake, and a couple of Exodus business cards.
“Hello, I do hope I haven’t disturbed you?” His voice lured us both to the door. “We’re all meeting at six thirty above reception. I can explain everything and please if you can bring your insurance details.”
“The rest of them are here then?” asked Kate.
“Yes.” He smiled again, glancing inside at our prairie of a room. “There are eleven of you altogether. Sujan’s Eleven. You’ll meet them all later.”
Later turned out to be sooner. For as we walked over to the bar, we spotted a couple clutching a brand-new copy of The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka exactly the same as ours.
Then as we sat down then with them for a beer, two more comrades wandered up and introduced themselves.
They were followed by another couple, and then more, as the party began to come together. Everyone a little tired – jetlagged – yet looking forward to a few drinks, dinner, and seeing Sri Lanka together.