Back in November I decided I needed to go somewhere far far away, and booked my first ever solo holiday and first ever trip outside of Europe to Sri Lanka, Singapore and Thailand.
Here is instalment one of my holiday mementos: 2 days in Colombo, capital city of Sri Lanka. Places highlighted in blue are pinpointed on the map.
My first impression of Sri Lanka: heat, rain, palm trees EVERYWHERE. Driving from the airport to my Airbnb, I saw nothing but dense greenery on both sides of the road (and the occasional crop of huts).
My place was within walking distance of Viharamahadevi Park. It’s relatively unremarkable, so a good place to begin to acclimatise. It’s not very busy, but there are plenty of young couples around. Unlike the airport staff in their bright turquoise jersey saris printed with peacock feathers (which I loved), and in spite of the humidity, the young women wear jeans and t-shirts. At one point I am accosted by a teenage boy. It’s his toddler brother’s birthday and the whole family is posing for pictures alongside the cake. Inexplicably, they really want me to be in a picture with the cake and the toddler. I comply, but I don’t like the undertones. It’s as though they think I’m rendering them an honour. When I reach a big Buddha statue opposite the national museum, another two boys want a picture of me. This time, I decline. I’m beginning to feel horribly conspicuous in my magenta maxi-dress (my attempt to be appropriate) and ghostly white skin. I haven’t yet seen a single tourist.
Next stop: Gangaramaya Temple. It starts tipping with rain, so I get into a tuk tuk for the first time and pay the equivalent of £1 for a hair-raising five-minute journey. The driver agrees to wait for half an hour and then take me back.
This was a cool place. It was with difficulty that I gleaned that it was actually Buddhist (there were some many-armed deities knocking about too). It’s not a single building like a church, but a cluster of buildings of various sizes and styles, alongside open courtyards, a garage, and other semi-covered constructions, linked together by a jumble of wooden flooring, random balconies and stairs exposed to the elements. When I first walk in, I see an Aladdin’s cave of artefacts everywhere, but can’t tell what they might mean or why they’re there. There are Buddha statues, other gods, elephant tusks, ivory carvings, plates, jugs, candles, abandoned chairs, cushions, a life-size elephant (taxidermied or plastic?!), a heap of new mattresses still in their plastic wrappings, and even some vintage cars and a cannon. The cars are marked ‘do not touch’, but they’re also sitting out under the rain… I later learned these semi-curated museum pieces were all offerings from the faithful. It was so odd: the least congruous items (cars and cannon) were in plain view of the street, while the three standout structures I found later were hidden among the jumble.
Firstly, there was a giant tree near the centre, its large low branches allowed to grow without restrictions, with the artifice of terraces and buildings constructed around it, not restricting its movement, supported and embraced by man-made cruxes where necessary. Around this tree, a small group of worshippers sits chanting in front of a sparkling Buddha statue nestled among the tree roots. I was yet to learn about the Buddha-tree links.
Secondly, there was the regulation dome coming directly off the ground; barefooted labourers were doing something to the floor around it, presided over by an orange-garbed monk.
Thirdly, tucked away at the very back of the temple was the best bit: a beautiful stepped wall of Buddhas.
It’s still dripping with rain when I get back into the tuk-tuk. I discover the tuk-tuk driver doesn’t have change for my notes and I’m not confident he understands that I have coins to pay him once I get home; however, this doesn’t become a problem until we divert from the path that I know takes me home. For a minute, I’m merely uncomfortable as I realise we’re at a petrol station (is he going to make me pay to refill the tank?!), but the feeling deepens when the driver comes back with three other less than reputable-looking men, all insisting in terrible English that I hand over 5k Rs (far more than we originally agreed but still possibly only about £5). This is a scary moment for me. I’m in the back of a tuk-tuk surrounded on all sides by middle-aged men, all of us struggling to be understood and increasingly raising our voices with the effort. Eventually it transpires he was proposing that they change the money for me. I get back home unharmed.
I’d noticed a civilised-looking hotel on the main road next to my Airbnb, called Cinnamon Red. I go there for dinner and eat a three-course buffet for less than a tenner. Follow up with a chocolate cocktail on the rooftop bar, trying to avoid my fellow English tourists.