About in Colombo from Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly (1890)

On her around-the-world adventure—becoming the first to complete what was imagined in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days—journalist Nellie Bly visits Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

I rode home from the theatre in a bullock hackery. It was a very small springless cart on two wheels with a front seat for the driver, and on the back seat, with our backs to the driver and our feet hanging over, we drove to the hotel. The bullock is a strange, modest-looking little animal with a hump on its back and crooked horns on its head. I feared that it could not carry us all, but it traveled at a very good pace. There was a sound of grunt, grunt, grunting that concerned me very much until l found it was the driver and not the bullock that was responsible for the noise. With grunts he urged the bullock to greater speed.

The drive, along tree-roofed roads, was very quiet and lovely. The moonlight fell beautiful and soft over the land, and nothing disturbed the stillness except the sound of the sea and an occasional soldier we met staggering along towards the barracks. At one place we saw a mosque with low, dim lamps hanging about. We went in and found the priests lying about on the stone floor, some at the very foot of the altar. We talked with them in whispers and then returned to the cart, which soon carried us back to the hotel.

Just as we turned a corner to go to the hotel, an officer rushed up and, catching hold of a wheel, tried to stop the hackery, telling the driver that we were all under arrest. The candles in one of the lamps had burned out and we were arrested for driving with a dark side. My companion made it right with the policeman, and we went to the hotel instead of the jail.

Among the natives that haunt the hotel are the snake charmers. They are almost naked fellows, sometimes with ragged jackets on and sometimes turbans on their heads, but more often the head is bare. They execute a number of tricks in a very skillful manner. The most wonderful of these tricks, to me, was that of growing a tree. They would show a seed, then they would place the seed on the ground, cover it with a handful of earth, and cover this little mound with a handkerchief, which they first passed around to be examined, that we might be positive there was nothing wrong with it. Over this they would chant, and after a time the handkerchief is taken off and then up through the ground is a green sprout.

We look at it incredulously, while the man says: “Tree no good; tree too small,” and covering it up again he renews his chanting. Once more he lifts the handkerchief and we see the sprout is larger, but still it does not please the trickster, for he repeats: “Tree no good; tree too small,” and covers it up again. This is repeated until he has a tree from three to five feet in height. Then he pulls it up, shows us the seed and roots.

Although these men always asked us to “See the snake dance?” we always saw every other trick but the one that had caught us. One morning, when a man urged me to “See the snake dance?” I said that I would, but that I would pay to see the snake dance and for nothing else. Quite unwillingly the men lifted the lid of the basket, and the cobra crawled slowly out, curling itself up on the ground. The “charmer” began to play on a little fife, meanwhile waving a red cloth which attracted the cobra’s attention. It rose up steadily, darting angrily at the red cloth, and rose higher at every motion until it seemed to stand on the tip end of its tail. Then it saw the charmer and it darted for him, but he cunningly caught it by the head and with such a grip that I saw the blood gush from the snake’s mouth. He worked for some time, still firmly holding the snake by the head before he could get it into the basket, the reptile meanwhile lashing the ground furiously with its tail. When at last it was covered from sight, I drew a long breath, and the charmer said to me sadly:

“Cobra no dance, cobra too young, cobra too fresh!”

I thought quite right; the cobra was too fresh!

At Colombo I saw the jinricksha for the first time. The jinricksha is a small two-wheel wagon, much in shape like a sulky, except that it has a top which can be raised in rainy weather. It has long shafts joined at the end with a crossbar. The jinricksha men are black and wear little else than a sash. When the sun is hot they wear large hats that look like enormous mushrooms, but most of the time these hats are hanging to the back of the ‘ricksha. There are stands at different places for these men as well as carriage stands. While waiting for patrons they let their ‘rickshas rest on the shafts and they sit in the bottom, their feet on the ground. Besides dressing in a sash these men dress in an oil or grease, and when the day is hot and they run, one wishes they wore more clothing and less oil! The grease has an original odor that is entirely its own.

One day I was going out in a ‘ricksha and an acquaintance was going with me. The man put his foot on the shaft when I got in, and as he raised it, ready to start, I saw my friend step into her ‘ricksha. She sat down and instantly went out—the other way! The man did not have his foot on the shaft and she overbalanced.

I had a shamed feeling about going around the town drawn by a man, but after I had gone a short way, I decided it was a great improvement on modern means of travel; it was so comforting to have a horse that was able to take care of itself! When we went into the shops it was so agreeable not to have the worry of fearing the horses were not blanketed, and when we made them run we did not have to fear we might urge them into a damaging speed. It is a great relief to have a horse whose tongue can protest.

From Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly*

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