© Mark Lowey 1979, 2023. All rights reserved.

In September 1979, Mark Lowey completed a two-year stint working in the oil fields of the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia. Before returning home to the U.S., Mark spent the next three months as a solo backpacker exploring Nepal and India, and then headed to Sri Lanka, the island nation below the southern tip of India.

Leaving India

After a fascinating and hectic tour of Nepal and India, I arrived at Negombo Airport on a short flight from Madras, India. As I stepped off the plane, my head was still reeling from the confluence of sights, smells, sounds, people, cows, ups, downs. As fascinating as those two countries are, the cumulative experience can be exhausting and overload one’s senses. I needed to rest and mentally process all that I had experienced. Sri Lanka seemed like the right place to do that.

I was starved for news from home and tired of Indian food. I craved some quiet beach time and had heard from fellow travelers about just the place to go. But first I needed to stay in Colombo for a couple of days to sort out my banking needs, confirm an outbound flight, and retrieve mail from the local American Express office there.

Due to its large natural harbor and its strategic position along the East–West sea trade routes, Colombo was known to ancient traders 2,000 years ago. It was made the capital of the island when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire in 1815, and its status as capital was retained when the nation became independent in 1948.

Colombo has widely varying architecture that spans centuries and depicts many styles. Colonial buildings influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch and British exist alongside structures built in Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Indian, and contemporary architectural styles. [1]

Sri Lanka is famous for its exports of tea, rubber, coconuts, and wide array of spices. [2] In medieval times, spices, including cumin and black pepper, from the “Spice Island” were a precious commodity used to preserve food. [3]

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Map of Sri Lanka


The bustling city of Colombo was crowded, hot, and humid. I walked most of the time to get a feel for the town, the people, and the pace of life. Occasionally, I splurged and hired three-wheeled, open-air auto rickshaws to get around. [4]

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Colombo’s colonial flavor.
Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Colombo Streets.

Language and Food

It was easy to communicate in Colombo. Sri Lanka’s official languages are Sinhala and Tamil but, having been part of the British Empire for around 200 years until 1948, English is widely spoken. In many cases, all three languages were provided on menus and signage.

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
A road sign in Sri Lanka: from the top, Sinhala, Tamil, English.

I found the food in Sri Lanka similar to that of southern India from where I had just come. The main difference is that Tamils are mostly Hindu and Sri Lankans, Buddhist. In general terms, Hindus are vegetarians and those that do eat meat almost always abstain from beef. In Sri Lanka, a curry with rice can include beef, pork, chicken, or sea food.

Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, was known as the spice island, because of its abundance of spices, including cinnamon, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, and vanilla. Their flavorful dishes reflect this. As an American who grew up on mainly bland American food, I found that the spicy curries in Sri Lanka were ferociously hot. Once, at a local restaurant, after a few bites, my face turned red, and my scalp and forehead started to drip perspiration. I thought of my dad. He broke out in a sweat if he used too much ketchup. My situation was a source of amusement for the restaurant staff. Water only made things worse, so I quickly learned to make it a habit to order a bowl of curd (cow yoghurt) to help put out the fire.

After countless curry-with-rice meals, I found a welcome alternative at the Nanking Chinese restaurant in Colombo. It was a gathering place for young travelers and I visited several times. My go-to order was sweet and sour chicken.

Mail Call

Before departing Saudi, I had notified family and friends of my general itinerary and requested that any mail be sent to the American Express offices in major cities along my route. Long before email and Instagram, travelers relied on postal mail, retrieved at international American Express offices. Long-distance telephone calls, often made from designated post offices, were a rare and expensive treat, and usually had to be booked in advance.

So, my first stop in several Asian cities was the American Express office, where I might receive a stack of letters and thin, light blue aerograms, edged in red and blue stripes. It was a joyful pleasure for a somewhat homesick boy, and I would spend hours poring over the correspondence. It was at times like this that the most mundane things they wrote about were treasured and meaningful.

Airline Offices

While much of my Asian “walkabout” was overland by bus and train, I had an overarching itinerary that would eventually bring me home to California. A series of one-way flights had been arranged in Bangkok, Thailand, months beforehand. The dates of these flights were not fixed and needed to be confirmed as my journey progressed.

I had planned a two-week stay in Sri Lanka, so I paid a visit to the Colombo branch of Thai Airways to secure the flight dates. The ticketing agent made a few telephone calls, confirmed the date, time and flight number, and then, using a manual typewriter and a ballpoint pen, carefully entered the details on a paper ticket in red carbon triplicate. [5]

Botanical Gardens

My errands completed, I needed to beat the afternoon heat, so I hired a rickshaw to take me to the botanical gardens. The greenery and relative peace and quiet were a welcome refuge away from the teeming crowds and steamy streets of Colombo. As happened quite frequently while traveling in the region, I met a trio of friendly locals who wanted to chat and practice their English.

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Botanical gardens, Colombo.
Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Swarnapalie Hewavitharne and her sister and nephew.

Snakes and Chilis

Later that afternoon, back in the city, I chanced upon a street performer-cum-peddler entertaining a large crowd. I pushed to the front for a better view.

Wearing a colorful orange-and-white striped sarong and white short-sleeved shirt, the energetic man, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly coiffed, raised his arms and gesticulated as he worked the crowd, drawing them in as he made bold claims in a language I did not understand.

A Sri Lankan ethnic group, Telugus, or Sri Lankan Gypsies, as they are commonly known in English, traditionally made their living by fortune telling and snake charming – in this case, both. It appeared that this hawker was passionately extolling the benefits of a health potion or, perhaps, a virility elixir. To emphasize his point, he held a single red chili pepper.

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Street performer.

On the ground beside him lay an unfolded white cloth upon which were neatly displayed two prints, one was a drawing of a large snake, the other depicting several snakes in various positions. In front of the drawings were a small, square white dish with a heap of reddish-orange chili peppers and a lidded opaque orange jar. Propped up behind the two prints was a black and white photograph of the same man, surrounded by a crowd. He was younger, hair not yet gray, with a large viper draped over his shoulders. These were his meager props, along with a folder from which spilled papers and perhaps more photos in disarray. No matter, this display seemed to serve him well as the crowd around him grew.

In his traditional Sri Lankan sarong, he stood out amongst the gathering of mostly male spectators, who wore fashionable ’70s bell bottoms or western-style shorts and polyester shirts. They were captivated by his performance which included two live snakes, a cobra and a large viper, a chicken egg, and that plate of chili peppers.

The viper emerged from a turquoise wooden box with hinges and locks that had been placed on the ground and the lid carefully removed. It looked as if it might be interested in the chicken egg or someone in the audience. The large cobra’s housing was out of this photograph’s frame but three other wooden boxes lay at the man’s feet presumably to store his drawings and props.

Reluctant to leave before the end of this entertaining exhibition, I retreated and soon was on my way to the American Center library. I never saw the man again and looking back now, I wonder what was next in his act.

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Young snake charmers in Colombo.

Hotel Nippon

After spending a few hours at the American Center library reading back issues of American newspapers, Newsweek magazine and Sports Illustrated, I finally made my way to the Hotel Nippon, a budget hotel across from the Infant Jesus Church.

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Hotel Nippon

While traveling solo, there are many opportunities to interact with locals and meet random travelers. Fellow tourists gravitate toward one another to hang out and share information. On this night in Colombo, I met up with a Swiss guy and a woman from Colorado for a drink at the Intercontinental Hotel bar followed by sweet and sour chicken at the Nanking.

The next day’s plan was to venture to a small village a few hours down the coast.

- - -

Part 2: Early train to Hikkaduwa Beach


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colombo

[2] https://www.quora.com/Are-there-any-similarities-and-differences-between-Sri-Lankan-cuisine-and-Indian-cuisine

England, Holland, France, and Portugal sent their ships to discover the spice islands. When they arrived in Sri Lanka, they discovered an abundant array of many spices: fenugreek, cumin, cloves, turmeric, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, tamarind, curry leaves, pepper, coconut, and many more. Although Indians have access to all the same spices, they are not as abundant as in Sri Lanka. Consequently, Sri Lankan cooks use considerably more spices, herbs and condiments in both variety and number. This makes a Sri Lankan curry more aromatic, complex, and “spicy” than an Indian curry.

[3] http://www.mysrilankaholidays.com/spice-island.html

In medieval times spices played an important role as food-preserving agents. In the absence of fridges and freezers, people used spices to preserve meat during the long winter months. Before the 15th century, the spice trade was in the hands of Arab traders. Spices grew in abundance in the east and the Arabs took them to the Mediterranean ports via Constantinople and then overland to the West. The route was long, and spices were therefore a costly commodity. When European navigators found sea routes to the East, they broke the Arab monopoly of the spice trade. In Lanka, the Portuguese replaced the Arabs in the spice trade. But they did little more than bleed the spice-growing areas. When the Dutch took over from the Portuguese, they tried to improve the spice lands of Lanka. They employed local experienced cinnamon peelers to peel and process the cinnamon bark before it was taken to Europe.

[4] Auto Rickshaw of Colombo (modern day, photo courtesy of calflier001)

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo

[5] Example of the red carbon copy of a paper airline ticket from 1980, partly typed, partly handwritten.

Sri Lanka 1979, Part 1 – Colombo
Mark Lowey
The author with a Sri Lankan family.

About the Author: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.

A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.

Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.

Email: moloworking1@gmail.com

Part 2