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The lotus position

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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Saturday, 2 February 2019

The day began surprisingly with no evidence of a hangover. This is a good sign. Lion is a crisp, pure, refreshing drop, truly the nectar of the gods, and I won't have a bad word said about it.

I had brunch at Britannia Fried Chicken - a giant mound of egg fried rice - and found another tuk-tuk that took me to Bambalapitiya, the next suburb south of Kollupitiya along the coast. My destination was the Geoffrey Bawa House, a house designed by Sri Lanka's most famous modern architect as his residence in 1960.

The tuk-tuk dropped me off in a cul-de-sac in a wealthy neighbourhood full of mansions surrlunded by luxuriant gardens shielded from the outside world by tall whitewashed walls. A resident who was walking down the street saw a white tourist looking perplexed outside some random house and waved down the tuk-tuk driver and waved for me to come. The resident explained that the driver had delivered me to the wrong street! These bloody tuk-tuk drivers are absolutely bloody hopeless!

I got back into the tuk-tuk and this time he took me to the right cul-de-sac. I went up to the Geoffrey Bawa House, a striking white house full of sharp angles and protruding decks. It also looked very closed. I checked my Lonely Planet - yes, there are definitely tours at 10am, noon, 2pm and 3:30pm Monday to Saturday and it was now 11:50am. I searched for a doorbell, I found one in a recess. There was a sign beneath it saying that there were tours at 10am, 2pm and 3:30pm Monday to Saturday.

Damn! It was at that moment that the electric garage door opened. A polite elderly man emerged, he had seen me scratching my head on the CCTV camera. He explained that the Lonely Planet was wrong, I was more than welcome to come back at 2pm, he was so sorry, but in the meantime I might care to explore another of Bawa's works nearby? The nice old man gave me directions to the Paradise Road Gallery a few streets away.

I thanked him and took his advice. The Paradise Road Gallery is a modest, neat little building with archways and cool, shaded courtyards with fishponds and bark roof tiles. The gallery specialises in some seriously good graphic art, typically ink on board, with price tags to match - expect to pay around Rs. 100,000 for a typical work.

Out the back in a shaded yard was a restaurant, bar and café. It was well patronised, exclusively by wealthy Western tourists. I ordered something called a "chocolate nemesis", a warm chocolate pudding covered in whipped cream and drizzled with peach coulis, accompanied with a most welcome iced coffee. It was quite lovely and a nice place to escape the heat but at Rs. 1,951 was probably just as expensive as what I would pay for something similar in Sydney.

I then went suddenly from posh to pleb. I made my way to Galle Road and caught the 101 bus to Fort Station for Rs. 40. If I could only say one thing about that bus trip, it would be this - the driver should be in jail for a very, very long time. For the forty-minute journey he tailgated other motorists, barreled towards red lights only to slam on the brakes at the very last second, blasted his horn at the slightest provocation, and swerved from one side of the road to the other without so much as a single blink of the indicator.

"This f×÷#in' maniac is gonna get the whole f×#$in' lot of us killed," I exclaimed more times than I care to count. The other passengers didn't even blink. The defence mechanism of derealisation that made my tuk-tuk journeys more bearable failed to kick in on this bus ride. The conductor made his way up and down the bus without even holding on, stopping his fare collection frequently to lean out of the open doors to shout something that sounded like "olla olla olla olla olla olla olla olla olla!" at people on the footpath.

It was with considerable relief that I alighted at Fort Station. I am leaving Colombo tomorrow and I wanted to book a reserved seat to my next destination. This is how you are supposed to buy tickets at Fort. There are large signs at the entrance telling you which counter to go to to buy a ticket for a particular line or a particular group of destinations. You find the counter which matches your intended destination, wait in line forever even if the counter is attended (which it usually isn't), and when you are finally served you will be told be some rude, surly bastard that this is the wrong counter and would you please go to some other counter in some distant nook of the station if you wouldn't mind?

Which is precisely what happened to me. I was told to go to this counter for intercity reservations - actually, an airless, cramped, stuffy room with several counters, one for the northern lines, one for the eastern lines, and so forth.

There were lengthy queues for each counter but there wasn't enough space to keep the queues separate so all the queues kind of spiralled around each other. There was a pillar in the middle of the room which didn't help things. I thought I had found the queue for my intended line, but it actually went to a different counter. I waited forever in another queue only to be told that the only train to my destination with reserved seating departs at 6:55am and that for all other trains I could only buy tickets on the day of travel.

Disappointed but not surprised - I am slowly getting used to Sri Lanka and its ruthless inefficiency - I left Fort Station and crossed the road into Pettah. Pettah is one of the oldest suburbs of Colombo and is basically one huge street market. It is also one of the most multi-ethnic suburbs of Colombo being home to vibrant Tamil, Hindu, Moor, Malay and Christian communities.

I stumbled through the narrow, pulsating streets. Market stalls spilled out onto the streets. Emaciated, impoverished labourers, many of them quite elderly, would carry four twenty-kilogram sacks of grain on their shoulders or push handcarts with at least a tonne of merchandise thereon. I was in awe. These labourers had ribcages sticking out of their naked chests and thighs with the circumference of cricket stumps. I do not know how they possess the strength to perform such Herculean tasks.

In the end I couldn't wait to leave Pettah, though it kept drawing me in to its spiderweb of alleys and stalls and pyramids of fruit and vegetables. If you are in the market for genuine imitation Levi's or licenced knock-off Dora the Explorer schoolbags, boy, do I have a deal for you!

Pettah isn't just markets though. It is also an intensely religious place. There is a street with a row of three Hindu temples like giant rainbow croquembouches set on the table at a Parisian dinner party. There are sparkling mosques, a Jesus grotto, and the Wolvendaal Dutch Reformed Church with its curved gables that wouldn't look out of place in some market town in Holland. I finished my tour of Pettah by walking the full length of the covered Federation of Self Employees Market with its staggering variety of fruits and vegetables, most of which I never knew existed and couldn't name for the life of me.

I grabbed another tuk-tuk to see the Lotus Tower. Most Colombo tuk-tuks have meters, but a large proportion still don't. For these tuk-tuks you need your bargaining skills. I am an Australian and I have never bargained in my life. In my culture bargaining is often seen as crass and demeaning. The price you see is the price you pay.

The tuk-tuk driver wanted Rs. 500. Ha! I know how far away it is, I knew it wouldn't be more than Rs. 150. I offered Rs. 200 and he refused it. In the end a metered tuk-tuk appeared and it only cost me about Rs. 130.

The Lotus Tower is the newest addition to Colombo's skyline. In many respects it is your typical communications tower like Berlin's Fernsehturm or Sydney Tower, but it is unique for having a turret styled as a lotus blossom that has yet toopen with bright purple petals and dark green bracts. The petals are also illumknated in bright purple lights at night too.

I got out of the tuk-tuk and took some photographs of the Lotus Tower soaring some three hundred metres above me. There were plenty of other tourists doing likewise. However, none of us could go up to the observation deck. The Lotus Tower isn't due to open until March 2019. I was shattered. I love towers and I love collecting tower models, but I do have a very strict rule - I only collect models for towers I have climbed. Waaaaah!

Another tuk-tuk with yet another episode of derealisation took me to Galle Face Green, "Colombo's front yard". Galle Face Green is a vast treeless expanse of dirt and dead brown grass along the coast south of Fort. There were dozens of army trucks and mobile missile launchers and tanks in preparation for the National Day celebrations on Monday. The Green is a fairly dismal place watched over by an impossibly tall flagpole flying the national flag but it is a popular place to stroll or play frisbee or fly kites or watch the sunset. I did precisely the last of these things. Watching an ocean sunset is something people who live on Australia's east coast rarely do, for obvious reasons, and indeed I had not seen an ocean sunset since 1992 when I visited Western Australia in my teens. It truly was a magical sight, watching the sun get redder and dimmer as it descended towards the horizon before finally being extinguished. I said my own private farewell to the day and my own private farewell to Colombo, a city that for all its faults has worked its enchanting magic on me.

Posted by urbanreverie 22:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged buses sri_lanka colombo tuk-tuks pettah bambalapitiya

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