Travel Reports


Phillips Hospital in Kalutara

After nineteen years of holidaying with kith and kin, we decided in January 2000 to trust our house and the children to a dear friend and go on a trip on our own.

Shortly before, I had experienced an ayurvedic massage and that was one of the reasons why we went to Sri Lanka.  I read several guide books, surfed the internet for information, and shared my new knowledge with Michel.  And so, we went perfectly prepared!  As newbies we booked a package and stayed at the Ceysands Hotel in Bentota.

To take a ferry over the lagoon to get to the reception, was an experience of its own.  Being open towards the culture and the people of Sri Lanka, we were introduced by the beach boys to 80% of the tourist scams within the first couple of days ………… and we fell for all of them.  We did not miss one herbal garden.  Later on, we were quite happy that a “friend” bought authentic spice for us, at the same place his grandmother used to buy and for only $20.  We didn’t hesitate to hand out our Swiss coins to collectors, gave the chef of our hotel some money as he was short of it at the market, bought milk powder for hungry babies and got our cigarettes at a special price.

And there was a clerk at the jewelry shop that did not even try to sell something to us.  He was only interested in my necklace, as he had never seen something similar before!  He wanted it so badly as a wedding present for his daughter.  As it was not a family treasure and I could easily replace it back in Switzerland, I finally gave in and quoted the price I had paid for it.  As he was not the owner of the shop, he would not be able to give me money but he could trade with jewels.

Well, how stupid can one be??  But it was a jewelry shop inside of the hotel and they could not afford to scam the customers, could they?  And then his daughter was getting a very special wedding present never seen in Sri Lanka before!

I got a big blue and four little white sapphires and some two years later the husband of my friend in Colombo had them set in a ring, telling me with a twinkle in his eye that they usually would not process jewels of that “quality”. J

The highlight was to get an offer of a boat ride back to the hotel after a never ending hike to a non-existent market in Bentota.  The boat was more or less made of two simple plastic canoes connected with wood logs.  We sat on top of them like on a flying carpet while four men seated themselves at the outer corners of the canoes, paddling us first through the mangroves and then in the direction of our hotel.  After a twenty minute boat ride, we looked forward to seeing the faces of the staff at the reception as they would spot our vehicle from hell.  

This came to nothing as the men steered into the bushes about 50 meters before the hotel landing.  There they wrote with chalk a price of 4,500 rupees on a piece of wood (almost 80 Swiss francs back then) and suddenly none of them understood a word of English any longer.  We refused at first, but they had a way of insisting on it.  With their vivid gestures they made it clear that they had worked hard and that it would be even harder work to paddle all the way back up.  We finally gave in and even felt quite cheap.

So you can’t say that we fell for the “Sri Lanka virus” on our first trip but sure enough we returned in February 2001.

It was supposed to be our last family holiday with our children Agnes, Alain and Annina.  The big variety of the country and the fact that we already had insider knowledge made it the ideal destination.

The whole family got vaccinations against all kinds of disease and with an extensive drug box, we went on our way.

I had planned the trip on my own and sent e-mails to a guesthouse in Negombo close to the airport to make arrangements for the first night and for a van with driver.  The driver picked us up at the airport at 4 a.m.  As we did not like the guesthouse too much and were quite wound up from our trip, we decided to start right after breakfast. 

Chris, our driver was in his fifties.  An excellent driver, he had a great knowledge about the flora and fauna and historical facts of his country.  That he introduced us to the remaining 20% of the scams occurred to us much later.

We went to the Gimanhala Transit Hotel in Dambulla and jumped right away into the pool.  From the snow to the 28 degree warm water of a pool in little more than a day was great and the whole family fell asleep on the pool chairs.

We visited the cave temples of Dambulla.  Climbed the rock fortress of Sigiriya.  Went on a two hour elephant safari in Habarana.  And looked at the ruins of Pollonaruwa.  We proceeded to Kandy (no Chris, no herbal garden) and visited the Pinnawela Elephant orphanage, a tea factory and bought at Cargills in Nuwara Eliya some Toblerone chocolate at a cheaper price than back home. 

On the way down to Ella there were large herds of monkeys on the road and we stopped several times to feed them.  When we ran out of nuts, we started to throw them some Toblerone chocolate triangles and we spotted a pregnant female that was always a bit too slow.  With teamwork we were able to separate her from the herd.  She finally got some chocolate, put it in her check, licked at it and stretched her hand out for more.  Too bad we were not able to get a good picture of the female to show it to the marketing division of Toblerone to prove to them that somebody else had the idea first of promoting the chocolate with the triangle shape sticking out of the cheek. 

We looked at the Hakgala Botanical Garden, and ate lunch at the Ambiente in Ella with an incredible view of the Ella gap.  From there, on to Tissamaharana on the south coast where we visited the Yala National Park, a big disappointment (also, on a later visit during another season).  But were rewarded by the Bundula bird sanctuary.

We watched Michel and Alain with their cameras encircle a water buffalo herd;  and then watched the buffalos encircling them!  It all was a lot of fun, but at the same time, we got tired of traveling.  After lunch at the Rest House in Hambantota, we planned to proceed right away to our beach resort in Bentota.  The food was horrible (we had great food there on later stays), and not even the cat went for my shrimp.  The rest of the family did not enjoy their choice as well.  We had eaten all along in local restaurants and street stalls without problems, but here, we left most of that food untouched!

Even though we had liked it at the Ceysands Hotel the previous year, we had made arrangements for the more luxurious Bentota Beach Hotel because of the special occasion of celebrating our last family holiday.  At our next stop, Alain was quite pale but he refused to take anything from our drug box and as he was drinking a lot, I let him off the hook.  As a committed vegetarian that even refused to eat gummy bears, he did not like drugs either. 

In the evening at the Bentota Beach Hotel he was not doing well and retired early.  The next morning it was evident that Alain was seriously sick.  His hindsight to take some antiemetic and antibiotics came too late:  he was not able to keep anything down.

The doctor on call came with little more than a stethoscope, a blood pressure unit and a couple of drug boxes that looked like sample packages.  His diagnosis was not unexpectedly, a bacterial food poisoning and dehydration because of extensive vomiting. 

He opened one of his sample packages and gave Alain some antiemetic, telling us that in case he was not able to keep it down, he would have to be hospitalized to get the medication intravenously.  He had not finished the sentence when Alain threw up again.

The doctor comforted us with the words “no problem” and that there was a private hospital in Kalutara, some 20 kilometers to the north.  At that time, I did not know that “no problem” was not meant literally in Sri Lanka.  It had to be translated to “not one problem”.  A considerable difference as it possibly could mean not just one problem, but several of them or even a disaster.

“Private Hospital” sounded also very comforting.  I was not seriously concerned about our son, as at 18 years he was in perfect shape, an active sportsman and had only once in his life, taken some mild antibiotics because of an ear infection.

We ordered a car and with a big towel from the hotel and Alain`s head on my lap, we drove towards Colombo to the Phillips hospital in Kalutara.  When we arrived there, we had the shock of our life.  I can’t imagine to this day how public hospitals in Sri Lanka would look, if this was a private hospital.

After Alain had dragged himself to the reception, we were told to wait in the hallway.  Several local patients sat there on shabby plastic chairs and observed us, quite interested.  It was terribly hot and muggy, very dirty and the outlook to have to wait for treatment for hours was more than depressing.  To ask for preferential treatment crossed my mind but I dropped the idea as most of the locals were also in pitiful shape.

Alain cut the waiting time short by vomiting repeatedly across the hallway and we were led to a 6 square meter examination room, consisting of a very young female doctor, a shaky desk and an even shakier treatment couch that was covered with a towel that must have been originally white.  When Alain laid himself down, the dark spots divided into two groups:  the first ones moved off at various speed;  the ones that stayed behind were stains of unknown origin.  I put the towel from the hotel under his head.

The young doctor came to the same conclusion admitting Alain to the intensive care unit.  There were no blood tests and no urine samples taken.  Only visual judgment.  To hear the words intensive care unit in this environment was not very promising.  Alain had to go there on his own feet.  At least he was flanked by two nurses.  Our worst expectations were exceeded.

There were two rusty beds, two rusty oxygen cylinders and a rusty, dripping air conditioner that cooled the room to about 30 degrees Celsius.  Quite an achievement considering the fact that there was a gap at the bottom of the door, big enough for a little cat to come in with its head held high.

On a shelf were different dressings stored in preserving jars and the very pregnant nurse drank her water out of a glass bottle that read “Johnny Walker Black Label”.  A rather grotesque sight.

I carefully observed that both needles came out of sterile packages and Alain was provided with antibiotics and a salt solution.  He kept vomiting.  Thank God he did not suffer from diarrhea at the same time, as I have no idea how they would have dealt with it in that environment.  As the infusions did not show any effect after more than an hour, they decided to give him a suppository.

It might be a bit off topic, but my children always enjoyed, let’s say up to their puberty, “when I was a baby” stories.  One of the top ranking stories was the varnished version of the sheer impossibility to apply suppositories to all three of them.  The only solution was to distract them and keep the thumb in place for at least three minutes.

They had called a male attendant for this task.  As he laboriously applied gloves, I asked Alain whether I should tell him about keeping his thumb in place for three minutes.  He cracked up and because of his terrible condition, there was only a grimace and severe shaking of his shoulders, which became worse when the nurse patted his head and promised that he would not suffer any pain.  At that point, I had to cover my face with both hands and turn my back at them as I was cracking up myself.  And all they saw were my shaking shoulders.  I’m sure they must have talked for days about that crazy Swiss mother with her 18 year old son, shedding bitter tears because of a suppository!

Alain`s condition improved and the pregnant nurse left the room repeatedly, leaving the door wide open.  At one of these occasions, I witnessed that the operation theater on the other side of the hallway was vigorously disinfected with a sign left on the door stating to not enter the room for the next 12 hours.  Only one hour later a nurse entered the room, slipping off her shoes first, most possibly for hygienic reasons.  I was able to see that she had been folding her way too big socks under the soles of her feet.

I had noticed before that the nurse’s uniforms were either too big or too small and that they were adjusted to the figures with the help of safety pins.  As the figures of the nurses were also quite different they might have been able to solve the problem by switching the uniforms.  There was not much to do about the socks, as not one of the nurses had a decent pair;  some of them not even a matching pair. 

At seven p.m., after five hours at the hospital, the discussions started as to whether Alain had to stay for the night and as though that was not bad enough … he started throwing up again.

The “no problem” as they would provide us a private room was not very comforting.  I had to step outside and could not help getting teary eyes.  I got the full attention from the locals;  and a doctor rushed in to reassure me that everything was under control, that my son would be fit again the next morning.  He even suggested that I should go back to the hotel and leave Alain in their care. 

I hardly could tell him that I did not worry the least bit about my son.  Nor that I was more than stressed by the outlook to spend the night in this environment.  To say the least about a shocked nurse that clearly did not want to be left alone with an 18 year old crying like a baby because of a suppository!  I disclaimed the idea to go back to the hotel. 

A short glance into the patients ward made us appreciate our private room, everything in life is relative.

Crossing an arcade, to the left the ward, to the right the garden, we made it to the said private room.  Alain was again flanked by two nurses and followed by the attendant that was carrying the infusion bags.

The room was about 15 square meters big and had an opening in the wall “this should be a window” and consisted of – what else? – but a rusty bed plus a wooden bench with a coconut fiber mat for me and a nightstand where the door was hanging on only one hinge.  They helped Alain into the bed, installed the infusion bags on an iron post and left us alone. 

Carefully, I opened the log door to the adjoining bathroom and I saw a sink, a luxury that had not been available at the intensive care unit.  Wash my hands!!  I turned on the faucet and wetting my feet at the same time, as there was no pipe underneath it.  The water dripped on the floor, making its way along the slightly declining floor towards a hole.  A hole which supposedly was the toilet;  and yes, one had to flush with the water of the sink.

After a short time, an old lady came to the room with a tray.  She was not fluent in English but she proudly made it clear to me that this was my dinner.  I knew that I was getting preferred treatment and too, that it is generally very impolite to turn down food in Sri Lanka.  A short glance at the tray made it clear, that this was not the time for politeness.  

I love rice and curry but the differently colored mashes in the compartments of the tray looked rather strange and I could not imagine that there was a hospital cantina or that they had access to a food processor.  The thick plastic that covered the tray kept the ants trapped from fleeing the scene.  With vivid gestures, I made it clear to her that I was not able to eat a bite as I was feeling sick to my stomach myself.  As if he wanted to add weight to my words, Alain threw up again.  I asked her if maybe somebody could get me bananas and a bottle of coke

You can like this company or dislike it, but the word Coca-Cola was understood by the lady as well as bananas.  A short while later she came back with the desired goods.  I was very hungry and when I put the peel of the bananas on the nightstand, it took only minutes until they were covered by different insects.  I quickly threw them out of the “this should be a window” much to the amusement of my son.

Later on, a cup of tea suffered the same fate.  When the old lady returned overjoyed with a pot of tea and a jar of sugar, I did not hesitate to accept it as it was merely boiled water, and was at first rather confused as there was no cup.  She nodded with her head into the direction of the nightstand and sure enough, there were dishes in there.  I could have dealt with that too, but at the time she stirred some sugar in the tea and the content of the jar was visibly moving, I changed my mind.

From time to time, I went for a smoke.  Because of the missing window I could have smoked in the room or in the arcade, especially as I had to hand out cigarettes to the guard of the hospital as well as to the guard from the bank next door.  In broken English, they wanted to know why I was staying at the hospital?  After explaining with simple words and clear gestures, they repeated a couple of times:  “no worry – very good hospital”.  I only nodded with my head and even if I would have been fluent in Singhalese, I would not have found words.

They went back to their posts with my cigarettes and I sat down on a little wall and had time to study those pairs of thin hair that appeared in every crack.  If I kept motionless the appending cockroaches appeared, numerous and of impressive size.  A short tap with the foot and they disappeared, staying motionless.  They reappeared and I was able to play this game about a dozen times a cigarette. 

Back at the room we entertained ourselves with the game: “I see something you don’t see” or made up stories about the various stains on the walls and on the floor.  One prominent stain with splashes to all sides made our fantasy run wild as it was almost up at the ceiling.

Alain was dozing off a couple of times while I could not think of sleeping on my wooden rack.  Even if Alain`s pillow did not look any better than everything else, he had to lay his head down on it.  I had decided when we made it to the private room that the hotel towel was mine, as I would not have been able to lay down on the bare coconut fiber mat.  I was terribly tired, sweaty and covered with bites.  While the smart animals left Alain alone, I did not even dare to think what all was feasting on me.  It most definitely was not only mosquitoes! 

At four in the morning Alain spoke the magic words:  “Mama, I have to go to the toilet.”

On a shelf in the bathroom were a bedpan and a bed bottle both enamel, that must have been left behind by the Portuguese.  When I showed it to Alain he climbed out of bed.  My attempt to move his iron infusion stand ended with my hands full of paint that peeled off from the rusty pole.  I took both infusion bags in my hands and held them up, following Alain to the toilet.  I did not have to go far as he did not dare to go too close to the toilet.

Alain`s condition improved by the hour and I was dreaming about a shower and fresh clothes.  At 7 a.m. they served breakfast and it did not look much different than the dinner the night before.  But this time there was a tray for Alain also, and to our delight we spotted a pack of crackers on each tray.  On his tray was also a straw, one half (the unused one?) carefully wrapped with paper.  Unrolling the paper we discovered that it was half a page from a phonebook.  Most definitely because of hygienic reasons they took the upper half, as everybody  knows that most people lick their fingers before turning pages.

We ate crackers with the rest of the bananas and drank lukewarm cola.

At 8 a.m. a doctor and a nurse made their ward round and asked about Alain`s condition.  After my description of the night and his improved appearance, they removed the intravenous needles.  I had already sent an SMS to Michel that he should pick us up and bring the video camera along.  I asked the doctor about the next steps, the bill and so on.

There was again a “no problem”, all we had to do was wait for the doctor that had admitted Alain to the intensive care unit and after a final check by her, we would be able to leave the hospital.  Already fighting to keep my countenance, I asked rather sarcastically when this would be ……….. around lunchtime??  

I admit that I can sniffle through entire movies but hardly anything knocks me off my feet in daily life.  However, when he very keenly answered my question that the doctor concerned would be at the hospital at the latest by five p.m., my jaw dropped and I was not able to fight back my tears.

If we would have been in desperate need for help, they would have given us this help and we would be endlessly thankful, BUT ………….. I chose my words carefully as I did not want to offend anybody.  I expressed that 20 hours in this environment would be the most I could bear, especially as Alain was doing perfectly well, thanks to them.  Most probably my odor and the fact that I had to scratch myself all the time helped to convince him and he told us that he would have the bill prepared.

In the meantime, the freshly showered family had arrived, after a short look the girls decided to wait out in the street.  Michel reluctantly got the camera out – where do you get to film an intensive care unit?  And after a quarter of an hour he started to tap with his foot on the floor.  I went to the reception to ask about the bill, but it was not quite clear whether they had already started on it or were about to start very soon.

At 10 a.m. Michel marched to the reception, pointed at the door and told the puzzled man polite but very firm, that this would be the door we would pass in exactly 15 minutes …… with or without a paid bill would be up to him.

I had been thinking of Michel several times during that night, picturing him in our beautiful hotel room with a cool beer from the mini bar, brushing carelessly the flower decoration from the spotless white linen of the bed.  Meeting him relaxed and fresh in the morning, did not really ease my grudge against him.  And it sure did not help that his impatience exceeded mine after only two hours at the hospital.  But on the other hand, I was glad that his appearance at the reception had the result that we were presented with the bill of 120 Swiss francs, a mere 14 minutes later.

The amount made me feel humble, once again in Sri Lanka, as it equaled about two monthly salaries of a local workman.  The number of people able to afford to go for treatment to the Phillips Hospital is very small.

Back at the Bentota Beach Hotel I took a long shower and then ordered a seafood platter for two.  Michel who can’t stand to even look at seafood went to the balcony while I was eating.

In the coming days, Alain and I entertained the rest of the family with tales from the hospital and as most of them were not very nice, we considered it poetic justice.  We have had great fun with the stories in retrospect.

By the end of the second week, Chris picked the children up and drove them to the airport as they had to go back to school.  Michel and I stayed for another lazy week.  We made, among others, a trip to Kalutara where we bought 30 pairs of white ladies socks that were happily received by the nurses at the hospital.

Chris also gave us a drop to the airport a week later and we gave him a big tip.  As it was mostly to his credit that we had such a great trip through Sri Lanka, we did not mind to overdo it.

Soon after returning home, he wrote us a letter and asked for $500.  He would have to undergo kidney surgery and lacked the money for it.  The sum and the account number were highlighted with marker.

While travelling together, he had told us that his mother had passed and therefore, the story with the urgent heart surgery for the mother did not work.  Most of the mothers of Sri Lankan Guides and Drivers suffer from heart disease that requires immediate treatment at high costs;  and in case they already passed, it really got to them (and their kidneys)!


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