Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Colombo Revisited

Sometimes a lot changes in 25 years. Sometimes the fact that nothing changes can be the problem. There is evidence of both in Colombo as seen through the eyes of someone who last saw the place in 1981. A lot of what hasn’t changed is the result no doubt of being riven by civil war. The main part of town, Fort, is a high security zone – the Tamil Tigers have left their mark here. Bombs have left buildings destroyed and lots that once had buildings on them are left empty. Those buildings that do remain in Chatham St are left to rot – there’s no investment in an area that has few people filling it. The Pagoda CafĂ© was an icon back then – a stylish model of old-world charm that had the place thriving. People flocked to the Pagoda for the ambience, and the instant plate of cakes that arrived as you sat down. They, sadly, don’t do the plate of cake thing anymore. You have to go the counter and choose what you want like you do in normal places. But the Pagoda wasn’t normal. That was the whole point. And there’s not much point anymore. One waiter in the full length white attire (when there were once 6 – 10 of them) goes through the motions. The fans still turn and keep the place relatively cool but they are about the only thing providing any buzz.

The Pagoda’s neighboring buildings are all run down or half used. The traditional heart of Colombo is dead. I wasn’t able to record any of this with photos because of the ‘high security’ status of the area – no photos, no videos.

Elsewhere in Colombo I have been surprised at how poor the place looks. I don’t remember it looking like that. In ’81 Sri Lanka was considered one of Asia’s more comfortable nations – real poverty and hunger were scarce. People in the main still look well-fed, but it’s the infrastructure that’s suffering. The lack of paint, the overflowing open drains, the giveaway smells coming out of small laneways, rubbish on the streets, broken windows.… The typical little roadside stalls have a touch of well-being about them in downtown Saigon, or in Kuta and environs in Bali, but not here. It looks depressed. It’s as if no money’s being coming here and nothing has been spent on the basics for a long time. It could be that in ’81 Sri Lanka seemed fairly comfortable compared to other Asian countries, but it’s marked time and its neighbors have progressed. You can probably put all this down to the civil war.

One charming custom hasn’t changed. As you walk along Galle Face Green (under the watchful eyes of soldiers) young lovers still huddle under parasols on the park benches by the seafront. It’s the guy’s job to bring the sunshade to keep the one he’s courting sheltered from the surging sun, and it enables couples to steal pecks and kisses out of the sight of prying eyes of those who wander by.

Meanwhile, the soldiers train their eyes out to sea to make sure we don’t get any unexpected surprise from the Tigers. And in a lovely mash-up of commerce and military, they sometimes use the booths of companies like Commercial Leasing (who must have practiced there in the past) as their observation points. So heavily armed soldiers look like they’re at a trade show ready to answer your questions and lend some advice about your financial future, but I doubt they’d get the joke.
In other areas much has changed. The hotel I’m staying in for one. It’s all a Western traveler could ask and the price is fine. WITH IN-ROOM BROADBAND!!! at a reasonable extra charge. There’s now a World Trade Center for heaven’s sake. And yes that’s what it called, and it has twin towers. So money is being spent on development at the top end of town, but I haven’t seen much evidence of the average punter getting much leverage out of it. But I’ve only been here 24 hours and may not know what I’m talking about! :)


arthurB said...

From what you describe it's got a lot worse since we were there in 2004; more like our first visit in in 1989. The recovery post the cease fire was really in full swing in 04, but renewed hostilities and the tsunami have really blown it apart.


Vance Stevens said...

Hi there Michael. As you know I've got a writeup on my recent visit to Colombo and as you say, similar impressions. This URL might not be good for very long, but here it is: