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Potential Partners

February 4, 2014

February 2003

I ARRIVED IN COLOMBO at night. Wade told me he would sort out a ride from the airport. He showed up with three men in suits – a driver, a bodyguard, and a tall, lean, bearded man who was the grandson of an ex-Prime Minister. We got into a black suped-up SUV belonging to a casino owner who we joked and earnestly suspected was an arms dealer. “I’ll explain later,” Wade said, “This is not Nepal”.

I met Wade in Nepal at a basic rafting camp. The guy had left Canada with a backpack and $400, ended up working at, owning then selling a bar in Japan, and headed to Nepal with some money and a vision. In Nepal, with a Nepali partner and an Australian partner, they built Adventure Centre Asia (ACA) – a grassroots rafting, trekking and cycling tour company. Deluxe accommodation was a canvas tent, but most slept in nylon tents, usually on a riverbed. Wade had come a couple months earlier to set up ACA in Sri Lanka. Now here we were in Colombo, cruising around with middle-aged Sri Lankan bigwigs, heading to meet Nalin, Wade’s new friend, at his swanky Hilton Apartment. As we entered the elevator, a young pretty blonde Russian girl with a tennis racket joined us and selected the penthouse suite. Evidently, Russian girls are a well-known racquet in Colombo, and many cosmopolitan cities.

Nalin owned several clubs, including the late-hours Boom Club that was especially gracious in its Russian Madams. He just bought four hotels and was going to Moscow next week to buy four helicopters (M-17s) for the military. “I am Tamil,” he told us, and the UAE Embassy house was his, they rented it from him. He was ex-mafia and ex-military; with the ceasefire, he could not legally deal in arms.

This morning, Nalin took Wade to meet the Secretary of Defense, who is the decision-maker for the Minister of Defense, and the bearer of the needed signature to okay the balloon endeavor. ACA has plans to offer hot air balloon rides and he could not have met with the Secretary of Defense without Nalin. “You have to meet A,” Wade told me, “I will introduce you. Also B – I am meeting him tomorrow. Why not come along?” Amrik, the bearded hippy grandson of the ex-Prime Minister, is concerned about the environment and elephants. He introduced Wade to Nalin. These men were connected. They had money and time, and now that the military was less profitable, they were looking for new projects. Wade needed a new partner.

Wade and his Australian business partner, Peter, mandate that ACA have a third and local partner. Wade arrived to discover their third partner was all talk, with no money, no connections, not even a car. Nothing, that is, except enough talk to lure Wade here. Now here, he had to find a third partner, and was suddenly choosing between two large-scale options:  Bored and rich ex-mafia, ex-military types seeking new enterprises; and Maharaja – Sri Lanka’s biggest company, a highly political, huge family-run corporation that owned several TV stations, radio stations and soft drinks (Pepsi). “What do you think I should do?” Wade asked me. On principal, he was anti-corporation, but we were talking about heavy-hitting criminals with guns and helicopters. Pair up with arms traders during an alleged armistice or family-operated Pepsi? In Nepal, the third partner was a nice man who knew Nepal, its rivers and rafting. But, like Wade said, “This is not Nepal.”                                         

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