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How I learned to stop worrying and love the tuk-tuk

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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Friday, 1 February 2019

On previous overseas holidays, I have rushed around from place to place like a madman. On this holiday I intend to slow the pace a few notches on my locomotive throttle. So I spent much of the morning in my hotel room updating my blog and searching for accommodation a few destinations hence.

Whenever I travel I pack a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.3 that I bought in 2014 before my trip to Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea. To call this tablet a buggy, glitchy, crashy, laggy unadulterated piece of crap would be a charitable statement. Programs crash constantly, both web browsers freeze, the tablet refuses to charge when I plug it into the wall or my power brick, whenever I switch between apps it forgets everything I did in the first app so browser fields are cleared or unsaved edits are deleted, and the only reason why I bought this Samsung tablet was because it has an SD card slot that makes it easier to upload photos. But now that my camera screen is busted and I am just using my iPhone to take photos and videos, I don't even need the SD card slot anymore.

I had fallen behind on my blog and I was tired after yesterday's massive public transport adventure so I decided just to chill out and update my blog and book some hotels. But the Samsung Galaxy Tab refused to cooperate. I do believe the whole of Kollupitiya may have heard me scream sundry obscenities at the blasted thing. This stupid piece of dog poo is so bad that I am considering just using a pen and a notebook to record my adventures which I will type up when I get home.

In the end I gave up and went to search for brunch. As much as I love spice, I am still a Westerner and therefore my gastro-intestinal tract does need a break from time to time. There is a Burger King close at hand on the other side of Galle Road, a roaring, shadeless four-lane one-way traffic sewer where the stream of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks is ceaseless. Galle Road has even less charm than Parramatta Road in Sydney, and that is saying something.

I eventually managed to cross the road by finding a clump of people also desiring to participate in the simple act of getting to the other side, and I crossed with them at a time when the traffic was thinner and consisted mostly of tuk-tuks that can go around everyone. I went into the Burger King and ordered my Whopper with cheese value meal with Pepsi for the drink.

"I'm sorry, we don't have Pepsi, only 7-Up and Mirinda," the girl at the counter said.

"But I see Pepsi on the post-mix machine there."

"Sorry, but we don't have it. Only 7-Up and Mirinda."

"OK then, I'll just have a Mirinda then."

"OK." And just as she was dispensing my cup of Mirinda, the customer at the cash register next to me ordered a Pepsi, and his server went to the post-mix machine and poured forth a gushing brown stream of delicious, caffeinated Pepsi into the other customer's cup. This kind of thing happens a lot in Sri Lanka. It feels as though nobody in this country is capable of giving a direct, honest answer or accurate advice about anything. Nothing, NOTHING, makes sense here.

After eating my brunch without the caffeine hit I so desperately needed, I took the plunge and did something I had promised myself I wouldn't do. I hailed a tuk-tuk. These things are basically motorbikes with two rear wheels and a boxy shell-like cover covering the driver and the passenger who sits on the rear seat. There are no seat belts and there are no railings to keep you inside the shell in the event of an accident. The tuk-tuk drivers are also absolutely fearless and reckless. These buzzing little fart machines swarm everywhere like mosquitoes with wheels, and any white person who walks along a road will soon encounter a tuk-tuk stopping every thirty seconds with the driver beckoning you to get on board.

The reason why I chose to take a tuk-tuk was because I was going to the National Museum, about half an hour's walk away. I am not averse to walking, but Colombo is hot and very, very humid. It isn't much worse than Sydney this time of year, if anything it is a litle bit more bearable here because the sunlight isn't so oppressively harsh, but it is still unplessant and sweaty to walk around in Colombo even in flat terrain. Also, finding maps and timetables for the bus system is impossible and I have no idea which buses will get me to the museum. So I hailed a tuk-tuk.

Oh my goodness, what a scary adventure. The tuk-tuk driver darted down the narrow interstices between moving buses, weaved at speed through throngs of pedestrians crossing the road both ways, and a thousand other things that in Australia would see his driver's license suspended for decades. I found that the world took on an ethereal dream-like quality, like I was watching a movie or imagining something that another person was talking to me about. Psychiatrists have a word for this experience - "derealisation", and it is apparently a common defence mechanism the brain produces when in traumatic life-threatening situations.

The tuk-tuk cost about Rs. 60 - about fifty Australian cents - and I disembarked only to find that the tuk-tuk driver had delivered me to the street behind the museum, not in front of it. It was still a good half a kilometre via a circuitous detour to get to the front of the National Museum.

At least there was plenty to look at. All along the road running behind the museum, Green Path, dozens of local artists had set up stalls selling their paintings. Some of it was talented stuff and I would have bought one or two of the paintings if it weren't for the practical troubles of how to get them home to Australia.

The National Museum is an imposing alabaster-white palace in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo's most elite suburb full of spacious parks and embassies and important cultural institutions. I paid my Rs. 1,000 admittance and went into the cool, dark exhibition halls. The National Museum is concerned chiefly with Sri Lankan archaeology and the halls are full of statues, figurines, bas-reliefs, agricultural implements and shards of broken earthenware accompanied by dense, dry, earnest interpretative texts intelligible only to those few people who have written PhD theses in Oriental Studies. I found the texts incomprehensible being so unfortunate as to only have an Honours degree in surveying and mapping so I got rather bored.

There were some highlights though. Pride of place is taken by the Royal Throne of the Kingdom of Kandy, Sri Lanka's last indigenous kingdom. The Portuguese had only colonised the coastal areas, and when the Dutch kicked the Portuguese out they didn't expand too much into the interior, leaving the Kingdom of Kandy in the hilly inland regions largely intact. It was only after the Dutch were kicked out by the British during the Napoleonic Wars in 1796 that the Kingdom of Kandy was finally conquered by the Redcoats in 1815, subjugating the whole of Sri Lanka to European colonial rule for the first time.

The golden throne along with the Kandian crown and royal sceptre is reverently displayed in a glass cube. The throne was donated to the Kingdom of Kandy in the seventeenth century by the Dutch United East Indian Company in a spectacular act of diplomatic brown-nosing. It is still a wonderful sight.

I also enjoyed the working models of the irrigation systems developed by the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the first millennium AD. The Sri Lankans were world pioneers in irrigation, even today the countryside is dotted with dams called "tanks" built in the Anuradhapura period. Palaces, temples, cohesive bureaucracies, giant irrigation networks spanning the entire island - the Sri Lankans had an advanced civilisation at a time when my Britannic ancestors were presumably chewing on wooly mammoth bones in a freezing cave while communicating with each other using monosyllabic grunts.

After two hours at the National Museum I ambled past the modern Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa zThestre, an imposing entertainment venue shaped like a scalloped flying saucer, and then through Viharamahadevi Park, a large dusty park with patches of welcome shade under sprawling fig trees. There is a golden Buddha statue in the park opposite Colombo City Hall, a large white domed palace built in 1927 that could easily be relocsted tl Washington D.C. and not look out of place.

Another tuk-tuk ride with another episode of derealisation brought me to Fort, the historic commercial centre of Colombo that dates to the Portuguese era. There are many stately Edwardian buildings dating from the British era in the early twentieth century; department stores, shipping offices and the faded grandeur of the Grand Oriental Hotel. This place must have been amazing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Ceylon, with its commanding position off the southern tip of India, was the linchpin of the British Empire. All shipping routes and submarine telegraph cables connecting Britain with its Pacific and Far Eastern possessions passed through Colombo. Generations of immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia passed through Colombo.

The southern portion of Fort has less historic buildings and more modern architecture such as the striking Bank of Ceylon tower, a soaring white cylinder. I headed west to the Galle Buck Lighthouse which at a distance looks like an ancient stone beacon but in reality is a cement aggregate tower built in 1950. I climbed the small knoll up to the base of the lighthouse which is soon going to be pretty useless as it is now stranded inland by a gargantuan land reclamation project currently underway. When it is finished, Colombo will be extended several kilometres seaward.

All that walking made me a little exhausted and sweaty. I went to the Dutch Hospital, built as a healthcare facility for Dutch colonists in the seventeenth century but now a restaurant and entertainment complex oriented towards tourists. Its courtyards and colonnades were full of Western tourists enjoying themselves and I joined them. I grabbed a pizza and a few Lion beers at a sports bar with satisfyingly frigid air conditioning. The icy air was delivered through small vents in the floor that looked like bath drains. I pulled up a seat at the bar, strategically placed the seat adjacent to one of the vents so that the cold blast went right up my shirt, and enjoed a few restorative brews while watching Qatar cream Japan in the Asian Cup football final. Beer snobs might look down on pale light lagers - I should know, I am a beer snob much to the disgust of my late father - but let me tell you that such lagers like Lion are made hand-in-glove for countries with humid tropical climates and spicy food.

A few hours later and I tumbled out into the stifling evening air and into the warm embrace of a waiting tuk-tuk.

Posted by urbanreverie 08:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged parks architecture beer fort museum sri_lanka colombo tuk-tuks

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