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Getting to know Colombo, Sri Lanka’s chaotic capital

In this extract from his latest book, ‘Elephant Complex; Travels in Sri Lanka’, JOHN GIMLETTE explores the country’s exotic capital.

If Alice had ever wanted another Wonderland, she’d have come to Colombo.

Hindu cow sculpture

In those first few weeks, I went everywhere. Sometimes, I’d walk for miles and feel I’d never left the place from which I’d started. The worst street for this was Galle Road. It plunges through almost thirty-seven miles of suburbs, the city changing only imperceptibly throughout its length. At one end, it’s a canyon of billboards, glass and mildewed concrete, and it’s the same at the other. It didn’t help that I couldn’t understand much, and that everything was written in dainty curls, a bit like seashells. In some places, the only way I ever found my way around was by recognising the things on display. Amongst others, I remember Sari-town, Bra Street, and Car Wreck City.

But even with recognition, something still seemed odd. Eventually, it dawned on me that somehow the city had managed to turn itself inside out. The things that ought to have been on the inside – forts, parliament and embassies – were now scattered around the edges. Meanwhile, things that ought to have been safely out in the country would suddenly turn up in what should have been the centre; huge army camps perhaps, or pelicans and a giant lake the colour of pea soup. Everyone, it seemed, was playing along with this little urban joke. It wasn’t uncommon to find cows in the street, or men chopping logs. On poya or full moon days, the streets would sometimes close altogether, and little games of cricket would erupt across the city. At times like this, the elephants had the place to themselves, riding round in trucks.

Of all the sudden, unexpected spaces, my favourite was Galle Face Green. It was slap next to the ocean, and was so long that the far end often vanished in the spray. Although never quite the hub of Colombo (nowhere is), it’s always been thought of as the natural place to fly a kite, display an army, or walk off a dish of mulligatawny. In the evening, half the city would be here, crunching up roasted crabs, or tottering into the waves, saris hoiked up to the waist. Alice would have loved it here. One of the gypsy’s monkeys was always dressed as an Englishman, and, up by the lighthouse, all the anti-aircraft guns wore little quilted jackets.

Boys parading in beards

But there was also a hint here of a city that didn’t quite fit in, and was made up of everywhere else. From Galle Face Green, I could set off in any direction I wanted and still end up somewhere foreign. It might be a complex of Portuguese moats (‘Fort’); or a huge Dutch camp for their African workers (‘Slave Island’); or the solemn landscapes of the British. If Victoria’s empire had been allowed to grow any further, much of our planet would now look like Glasgow. Colombo has all the usual details; kirks and clocktowers, pillars, porticos and a touch of gothic; a town hall on the scale of Capitol Hill, and the full range of department stores in various shades of claret and cream. In 1875, the British even walled off a square-mile of ocean to create a port that would be busier than Rangoon, Calcutta and Bombay combined.

With no obvious heart and such foreign fabric, it’s taken Sri Lankans a while to appreciate that Colombo is theirs. Even now, a collective spirit is in short supply. There’s no obvious pulling-together of a million people; no ‘Big Apple’ or ‘Colombo United’. Although there’s a Colombo Cricket Club, real loyalty is to be found elsewhere, in clubs like the ‘Tamil Union’ or ‘Sinhalese SC’, all loosely based around race and class. Often, if I asked people where they were from, they’d come up with the village of their ancestors rather than the suburb they’d lived in all their life. As for their collective name, no-one seemed sure. Are we Colombans? Colombites? Or even Colombeiros? For a lot of people, it wasn’t a question they’d even thought about before.

Amidst such ambivalence, it’s often been outsiders who’ve made it their home. Colombo is lavishly foreign even to those that live there. It’s said that, once, this city babbled away in a hundred different tongues. Even now, the language can change from street to street, sometimes Tamil, sometimes Sinhala, and always with a smattering of something else. Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, Tamils and Muslims are scattered to the north and east, and make up a precarious minority. Not here. Almost a third of this city is Tamil, and another quarter Muslim. Meanwhile, there are all the others who’ve arrived in the wake of armies and empires. It was once wrongly assumed that all these people were merely passing through. ‘Everybody makes their fortune and leaves,’ wrote an English planter, in 1948, ‘Afghans with usury; Chinese with silks; Indians Coolies with rickshaws; Sinhalese make their money and go back to their village; the British work only to retire …’

Looking round, it seemed to me that no-one had left, except the British. There were still Arab faces in the crowd, and Baluchis hammering pots in Pettah. Once, I had a Chinese tuk-tuk driver who said he was from Bambalapitya, where his father was the pastor. Another time, I met a guide who was blonde. ‘No one can believe I’m from Colombo,’ he told me, ‘until I start to talk.’

parade, ColomboAll Wonderlands have their white rabbits, and this city has over a million.

They arrive every working day, a twitching mass of neurosis. Clinging to buses and trains, they’re all already late, and a light panic settles over the city. For a few hours, its arteries are rammed solid, and nothing moves. It’s a curious moment to take a snapshot of Colombo; a city built by invaders, and besieged by its commuters.

Then as trading begins, something gives, and the trucks start to flow again in torrents. This wasn’t a time for me to be on foot. As an American writer put it, ‘Merely crossing the road seemed like a strenuous karmic experience’

Then, at dusk, the whole process is thrown into reverse. Once again, half the world is on the move, no longer rabbits, but a hot, angry reptile, snaking out of town. Tomorrow’s papers will announce those who’ve died in this daily rout.

Tikak pissu, people say (It’s a little crazy).

Whilst Colombo may not have a centre, it’s often felt that all roads meet at the Galle Face Hotel.

Almost without thinking, I booked in for a week. Outsiders have always been drawn to the ‘Galle Face’. This is partly because it’s so obvious; a monumental slab of cream-of-ambrosial pink. With the sea to one side, and the green stretching out front, there’s always the sense that this is the place to watch the drama unfold. Occasionally, it’s been part of the drama itself (a lock-up for Tamil MPs, or a roost for kings and queens). But, mostly it’s been a place to observe – duels, perhaps, or departing armies. Had I been out on the steps on 5 April 1942, I’d have seen eighty Japanese bombers arrive over Colombo. The city had little to celebrate that day. As the bombers departed, a lone Zero swooped over the Green in flames, before pancaking into the sea.

I always enjoyed it here, even if I wasn’t quite sure why. The doormen looked like Ruritania’s Praetorian Guard; the brasswork flashed, the doors were theatrically huge, and everywhere there was an air of noble discomfort. At the end of the garden was an anti-aircraft battery, which was always manned, through tropical rains and midday sun. Out here, at the back, Colombo paused, and the ambient sound changed from congestion to surf. Each morning, breakfast would appear on the terrace like some magnificent durbar; vast silver tureens of kedgeree and porridge, and serried ranks of curry.

Galle Face Hotel, Sri Lanka

Jan Morris called this place an ‘imperial caravanserai’, but everyone seems to have enjoyed it. In the lobby was a long, marble list of memorable guests. I tried to imagine them all here together; Marshall Tito and Ursula Andress, Indira Gandhi, Noel Coward, and Colonel Gadaffi with Bo Derek. I even found Prince Philip’s tiny car parked on one of the upper landings, a 1935 Standard Nine. Once, when no-one was looking, I jumped inside. The duke must’ve had a curious impression of Colombo, seen from knee height.

For Britons, of course, the Galle Face feels like home, except with more to moan about. My room looked slightly tired and chipped, and was so cold that whenever I emerged into the steamy, bathroom-heat of the city, my camera fogged up, and wouldn’t work for hours. Elsewhere, the rainwater was being collected in buckets, and, at teatime, the terrace was overrun with crows. This must be the only hotel in the world that employs a professional scarecrow, dressed in a bow-tie, and armed with a catapult.

Here, I also got my first glimpse of Sri Lanka at work.

Book coverThe staff, it seems, were assiduous strikers, and – upstairs – there were framed pictures of butlers and waiters, unfurling their banners, and blocking Galle Road. ‘No one’s ever been sacked,’ said the barman cheerfully, and I soon came to realise he was probably right. Although the service was cheerful, it sometimes simply vanished. During my stay, it was the turn of the giftshop. Despite an enticing notice (‘high quality items for the fastidious visitor’) it remained stubbornly closed. Some subtle administrative affront, it seemed, had left it unstaffed. One day, I met an old resident, who explained how management works: ‘Consult everyone. Hand out titles. Make every development seem like promotion. Think two moves ahead. Treat no one differently, and yet manage everyone as if only they matter.’

Employing people, it seemed, was like chess, except with hundreds of pawns.

Read more by John Gimlette by buying Elephant Complex at Amazon or check out some of his very excellent travel books.


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