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.
I spent my last morning in Sri Lanka wandering around a criss-cross of streets that I’m fairly sure was described to me as a ‘buzzing local hub’ – must stop assuming it will be anything like an Italian piazza, shabby chic but picturesque and full of cafes. The run-down housing gives this part of Colombo a similar feel to Pettah, but much friendlier. Perhaps I’m acclimatising. At the intersection between Church Street, Malay Street and what I think is Union Place (it’s a little hard to tell because all the roads have one ‘Sri Lankan’ name [although note two languages are used here], and one colonial English name), a cute row of multicoloured colonial housing catches my eye:
The bright colours seem to be a feature of Colombo. Church Street’s more delapidated housing has them too, as well as some interesting architectural features (the shape of the balcony railings and columns for example). Amid the poverty, it feels sort of spirited and defiant.
People here seem to live their lives much more publicly than we do. The bottom floors of the houses are often open to the street and there are people sitting inside crafting things, perhaps to sell later. It doesn’t appear to be a regular shop, but is clearly not a private living room either. Trade spills out onto the street, with fruit sellers right on the pavement or someone’s doorstep. Most strikingly, one woman is selling (raw! unrefridgerated!) fish from a wooden pallet, just right out there on the street. She allows me to take a picture, but doesn’t want to be in it herself (possible faux pas on my part again). And yet – it doesn’t smell, and people are buying it.
I am still in two minds about Colombo. It was an interesting, shocking, frustrating, colourful experience. I didn’t want to stick to where other tourists might be; I wanted to see how other people lived and I liked doing things differently (e.g. walking barefoot in the temples). Yet I didn’t immerse myself fully (for example, by buying street food), because I felt so out of place, so stared at, so vulnerable to being accosted, and I didn’t want to exacerbate this by taking up the locals’ space. But that meant I felt uncomfortable walking around, experiencing the vibe and taking pictures – and not engaging or contributing to their lives – because to an extent that meant I was viewing the locals’ way of living and practise of religion as a cultural item for consumption, instead of as a bunch of people struggling along, their beliefs a facet of the universal truth that all belief aspires to. I was shocked by the poverty, and I don’t think it’s patronising to feel sorry that there are people who have to live in the kinds of houses I’ve snapped – but I’ve still edited my pictures to make them as pleasing as possible, because I know that there is a charm to the messy-colourful aesthetic. Perhaps it would have been hard to do otherwise when I was only there for 48 hours.
But perhaps my mixed feelings are natural, because the city itself has a very mixed cultural feel, and you can see the inequality: nice hotels vs fish being sold on the street; Neo-classical vs Hindu temple architecture; tuk-tuks displaying pictures of the Virgin Mary, others with Angry Birds seat covers; lack of development by most standards but they have coca-cola, selfies and a restaurant called ‘Burger’s King’; you’re as likely to see jeans and t-shirts as saris or hijabs (although the one constant is that no one shows their legs); I’m told by the lady who sold me my elephant trousers that some Sri Lankan Buddhists worship at Hindu temples.
Seeing different religions being practised was one of the most interesting parts for me. It seems to me that places of worship are not so different around the world: they are always semi-dark, kept in respectful semi-silence, with candles, incense, flowers, offerings. While the philosophical underpinnings of these religions are clearly very different, what surprised me was that the basic practise of religion itself seems to be the same everywhere: all around the world there are people employing their best architects and artists to build and decorate covered areas where they can go to kneel down and speak aloud to the Something out there. I get the feeling they would do this whether or not philosophers had given their proofs of God or rambled about angels and pinheads, and will continue to do so even where doctrine is absent (look at the rise of secular ‘churches’). We just can’t help it. Early Christianity and modern Catholicism look so different because we just couldn’t help ourselves from building a calendar of feast days, constructing fantastic cathedrals, and putting the holy of holies back where we seem to need it – in a candlelit room under a vaulted ceiling – instead of, perhaps, walking among us.
Every time I smell incense or jasmine flowers now, I’m immediately transported to the back streets of Colombo. I’m not sure I would actually go back there, but I would like to see the rest of Sri Lanka – the beaches! the elephants! – and venture across to India too.
My two days are up – next stop, Singapore!