Culture and Diversity; How Sri Lanka caught my heart
21/07/18 – 8 minute read.
A different morning
Saturday morning. It’s already close to 11am when Amir wakes me up, yet I feel like sleeping more. The whole day possibly if we didn’t had to get out. I guess the 17+ hour journey to get to Colombo is taking its toll today. It’s cold in our room, freezing almost. The air-conditioning forcefully blows cool air on our skin, we quickly turn it off to heat up a little. Warm Sri Lankan air embraces me when I open the bathroom door to take a mild-warm shower, as the cold in our bedroom causes goose bumps on my skin.
‘Good morning Sir, I would like to know until what time the Iranian embassy is open today’ I speak in a kind tone. ‘The embassy is closed today, come back Monday’ a man in proper, but hard to understand English replies though the phone. Great, it looks like we are stranded in Colombo already!
The room heats up quickly, oppressive almost, while we prepare to go outside. Our bellies rumble and fancy some breakfast. To save the trouble of searching a good place, we take seat in the hotel restaurant, where it seems we are the only foreign guests. It’s quiet in the dining hall and people curiously stare at us while an impatient waiter shoots suggestions. As rice and curries feel a bit heavy in the morning we order overpriced potato chips and a greasy omelet. A direct reminder to better eat local when traveling.
Exiting the old, 70 year hotel we get our first impressions of Colombo in daylight; the streets are busier then when we arrived last night, but still nothing compared to the chaos I’ve seen in other countries. Large, decorated busses, tuk tuk’s and cars pass by, the walkways are close to empty.
At an old railway station staff manually alters classical clocks and hand-painted destination signs on old wooden panels. Indicating the destination and departure times of upcoming trains. It feels nostalgic, as if we traveled in time. Yet the casual appearance, as well as the movements and modern clothes of the passengers remind me of the present.
The people we meet are kind and welcoming, and there’s an overall relaxed vibe that is often seen on islands.
From people pausing at the railway station, making way to take photos, to warm greetings of by-passers on the street and random conversations with shop keepers. One middle aged man even treats us on a free CD as we stop at his music shop, chatting and listening to old Sri Lankan music, while joking about finding an Iranian wife for his friend. And another man stopped just to explain the concept of a metered tuk tuk, and stressed to always use them to avoid paying ridiculously high fares. Great advice, well noted.
Celebration of diversity
Roaming around without any concrete plan we ask locals their places of interest. The first thing that comes up without hesitation is the Viharamahadevi park, the oldest and largest public park in Colombo. We hop in a metered tuk tuk, get stuck in traffic. And happily listen to our driver, who points out some beautiful buildings that are a direct heritage of Sri Lanka’s colonial past. He drops us opposite of the town hall, at the entrance of the green park, where a shining golden Buddha welcomes us along with century old trees.
A gardener, the head of maintenance, introduces himself as he walks along a little. ‘I’ve been maintaining this park over 20 years’ he says proudly ‘I know every tree here’ pointing at the large, jungle-like trees that look both naturally wild and sophisticated. Beside their magnificent appearance they provide shadow for visitors and are home for singing birds and loud croaking crows. It’s a good place to relax, meet people or to simply have a stroll.
People gather around a water source to refresh their selves and fill their water bottles. Young Muslim girls in white school costumes stare at me with big eyes and curious smiles on their faces while I wash my hands in the source. ‘Hello, how are you?!’ I try with my kindest smile. They push and encourage each other to say something back, but nobody dares to come up front. ‘Did you just finish school?’ I try again, but other than shy laughter they remain silent.
We move further to a large open space in the park. The smell of sweet corn and spices coming from small stalls around us works on our appetite. With new tastes to explore we take seat at one of the benches overlooking the area ground, and almost burn our mouths to the fast amount of chili-flakes served with the sweet potato.
Around us children are running, play football or tag. Parents chat, eat something in the shadow of a large tree or join their children in the play. Coming from Iran it’s a delight to see people play and move freely. One boy flies his kite and does an exceptional good job at it. His playfulness, freedom and openly joy is liberating and even touching in a way.
I take in the environment; a celebration of diversity. Ladies wear dresses, t-shirts, long sleeves and pants. Heads are covered and uncovered. Some ladies fully veiled, with only their eyes visible. A Christian nun, in white veil and light-grey tunic sits just a stone’s throw away. Men are wearing trousers, jeans or shorts. Tourist walk around with bare legs. And everything goes together. Without frowning upon. Freedom of religion and successful integration between different beliefs and personal convictions. A beautiful standard.
The day is still long. The air warm and humid. Clouds blocking the sun make it yet pleasant to wander off. We peek at Pettah, Colombo’s bustling market in the heart of the city, where the first signs of chaos unfold before our eyes. And explore the cities surprisingly easy bus network, which leads us along scruffy shopping streets, mighty colonial buildings and countless jungle-trees throughout the city.
As locals guided us so well today, we decide to follow another suggestion; Galle Face Beach, roughly three kilometers away from Colombo’s city center.
The sun has already set. Wind and darkness come in. Long before the first ferocious sounds of the Indian Ocean reach, it’s salt and moist already stick to my glasses. Blurring my vision into a hazy view. Although humid, salty and windy, small lit market stalls still operate and the people are many.
‘when does it close here?’ I ask a popcorn salesman, overlooking the vague line of booths selling deep fried shrimp cookies, chips and street food along the shore. ‘It’s open 24-hours’ he replies with a rough, serious smile on his face. We buy some artificial pink popcorn and continue in search for a dinner.
It’s tempting to walk back to the fancy Western restaurants, conveniently located on the main road, away from the wind. But curiosity about Sri Lankan street food wins it. A distinctive, rhythmical sound of metal blades chopping on steel intrigues us, and is our introduction to Kottu; a mix of chopped up roti, vegetables and spice, served with a piece of grilled chicken. Surrounded by families and couples we take seat in the brim-filled open air restaurant. The plastic armrest sticks. As do my hair and fingers. I can almost taste the salt from my lips, yet I’m excited to be here.
The waiter, wet with salt and sweat brings us water to wash our hands. ‘do you want a beer sir?’ he asks to our surprise. In Sri Lanka it’s not common to drink in public. ‘it is okay?’ with little hesitation he accepts.
Rhythmical sound of Kottu
For the second time today we experience the relaxed vibe of the island. Families smile at us as we enjoy our meal. Children fly kite in the background. People walk, eat, relax, enjoy music and company as far as the beach stretches. In the same diversity as seen in the park. And we, we just take everything in and enjoy in the same carefree spirit.
A promising start of a new adventure.
– The Viharamahadevi park is open 24 hours, free
– Galle Face Beach is open 24 hours, free
– Metered taxi’s run throughout Colombo. Starting tariff 50/60 rupees. (day/night)+ 4 rupees per kilometer.
Tip: visit on Friday evening and weekend to see local life.