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Namo, namo, namo, namo Matha

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Galle, Sri Lanka
Monday, 4 February 2019

February 4 is Sri Lanka's National Day, also known as Independence Day. It commemorates the anniversary of Ceylon, as the country was then known, becoming a self-governing Dominion within the British Commonwealth with the same status as Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in 1948. (It wouldn't be until 1972 when Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka with its own President.)

National Day is celebrated with a massive military display and flag ceremony on Galle Face Green in Colombo every year, but there are smaller celebrations in every city. In Galle, there was a parade in the streets around the Galle International Cricket Stadium just north of the Fort. A rather relaxed and indifferent-looking procession of military cadets, marching bands, school students in uniform and women in colourful traditional dress marched on the streets around the stadium as local VIPs looked on from the shade of marquees on the road shoulder opposite the central bus station. There weren't too many spectators. I asked a few Sri Lankans during the day how they celebrated National Day and they told me it was just a day off work for them.

In other words, it is like what Australia Day used to be before the bicentennial celebrations of European colonisation in 1988. I have now witnessed the celebrations of national days in four countries - Australia, Brunei, the Netherlands and Sri Lanka - and none of the last three are anywhere near as unpleasant as what Australia Day has become. Of course not everyone who participates in Australia Day celebrations is a drunken racist sunburnt bogan with a brain cell count smaller than their shoe size who openly revels in the fact that January 26 is a day of calamity for Australia's first peoples and thinks the day is a great opportunity to harass foreigners with impunity. But it certainly helps if you are such a person. As for me, the only good thing about January 26 is the fact that the Sydney Bus Museum runs their vintage buses around the city centre for the general public to ride on. Otherwise I cannot wait until the date of Australia Day is inevitably changed. The sight of xenophobic alcoholic thugs' empty skulls exploding in apoplexy shall be too marvellous for words.

After I checked out the modest National Day celebrations, I went on a self-guided walking tour around the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Galle Fort. Some travel puritans look down on Lonely Planet and travel guidebooks in general but I would be utterly lost without my Planet. My Sri Lanka Planet is already showing signs of wear and tear. I shall be pleasantly surprised if it survives my three week holiday without disintegrating.

There is an excellent map on page 113 with a self-guided walking tour that mostly followed the Fort's ramparts in a clockwise direction. I started at the Old Gate, a narrow opening in the walls near the northeastern corner. This gate has the British coat of arms with the lion and the unicorn above the outer portal while the Dutch United East Indian Company's coat of arms graced the inner portal.

The fort is shaped like many European forts of the era, essentially a large pentagon with bastions on salients at each corner. The bastion at the northeastern corner, Zwart Bastion ('zwart' being Dutch for 'black'), is the oldest portion of the wall and was most likely built by the Portuguese in the late sixteenth century.

I had trouble finding the Zwart Bastion. The only way up there seemed to be through the grounds of a police station. Surely that couldn't be right? I certainly didn't want to risk being charged with trespassing on government property. I then saw an elderly white couple coming down the driveway. I asked the man if this was the way to the bastion. He confirmed that it was in a slow, broad Australian accent that sounded Queensland or perhaps an inland rural area. I said something like, "thanks, mate. Wow, another Australian." He was the first Australian I have met in Sri Lanka so I thought he might respond positively. He just grunted and walked away.

I walked up the steep police station driveway, a policeman in the sentry box waved me through and said "number eleven, that way" as he pointed to a path that led behind the station building. There must have been very many people with the same Lonely Planet map asking where number eleven was over the years.

I checked out the bastion with its crenellations and embayments and continued on past the long white arcades of the Dutch Hospital to Lighthouse Beach. This small, sheltered, child-friendly beach was much more popular with the locals than the tourists and was full of young families enjoying the public holiday in the sun and water. It did look very inviting and I promised myself I would return later.

The beach is overlooked by a tall white lighthouse built in 1938. The lighthouse is at the southeastern corner of the Galle Fort and here I turned west. The ramparts descended straight down to the sea. It was a hot, sultry, sunny day and I felt like diving off the ramparts and right into the crystal-clear turquoise sea.

The next corner at the southern tip of the Fort is Flag Rock. The Dutch took this natural feature and built a bastion on top of it. A flag was flown from here to warn passing ships of the dangerous shoals and skerries just off the coast. There were also scam artists trying to charge people for the right to jump off Flag Rock into the water below. Why anybody would want to participate in such a dangerous activity, much less pay for it, I do not know.

The next bastion was the Triton Bastion, and it was here that I descended off the ramparts and into narrow shady alleys lined with alleys Dutch colonial houses. If the temperature was thirty degrees lower and the houses made of unpainted brick rather than whitewashed stone, you could easily imagine it to be an inner neighbourhood of your typical Dutch city. Another Dutch thing about Galle - it's the only place I have seen in Sri Lanka where cycling is a popular mode of transport for both tourists and locals.

I ascended the ramparts again at Clippenberg Bastion at the western corner of the Fort. North of here, the ramparts are bordered by a rocky, barren valley. Inside the craggy crevice are various doors leading to underground chambers. Until recently, this part of Galle Fort was a Sri Lankan army base. Some derelict, presumably abandoned modern depot buildings border the valley to the northeast.

By this time I was thirsty and exhausted. Galle is renowned for its ghastly humidity in a country that is itself renowned for its ghastly humidity. Several people in Colombo warned me about Galle's torrid climate when I told them of my plans. My theory is that Galle, being located on a peninsula with water on three sides at the far southern tip of Sri Lanka, is the place where moist maritime air masses from the Arabian Sea to the west and the Andaman Sea to the east converge. This would explain the frightful storms I have seen here.

The humidity in Galle is so bad that mere static existence leaves me drenched head to toe. Genetically I am a Briton. My DNA evolved on a cold, rainy, cloudy island off the northwestern coast of Europe at about fifty-two degrees north of the Equator. I think it is fair to say that tropical climates and I are not a perfect match. I must have been a human sprinkler when I arrived at a nearby park kiosk to buy a bottle of soft drink and a doughnut and another litre of iced bottled water.

I found an outdoor table and sat down to drink my 7-Up and recuperate. After I had rehydrated I bit into the doughnut expecting the most tender sweetness. Instead I got a surprising dollop of chilli. Yes, the doughnut had a sambal filling. Other countries put jam or whipped cream or custard into their doughnuts. The Sri Lankans put puréed chilli. I love spicy food, but Sri Lankans really do take it too far.

While I was sitting at the table in the park I watched Sri Lankan families having picnics or playing cricket on a welcome public holiday. There was one family playing cricket with makeshift stumps on a flattish pitch. Every player in the family was bowling the ball with bent arms. Chuckers! Most Australians would remember the famous Sri Lankan cricket player Muttiah Muralitharan and the massive controversy that erupted around twenty years ago about his unorthodox bent-arm delivery style. A procession of videographers and physiologists and forensic scientists and what not were brough out to prove or disprove the fact that Murali was a chucker. In the end, the International Cricket Council ruled in Murali's favour. Based on what I saw in that park, I think it's fair to say that every Sri Lankan has taken the ICC ruling to heart and is bowling as they please.

After the 7-Up and the water had replenished all the cells in my body I made my way to what is probably the largest and most impressive bastion, the Star Bastion at the northwestern corner. There is a great view to be had over the coast to the west of Galle. A short distance to the east is the Clock Tower where the ramparts bulge out to their greatest width. There is a large flat grassy area from where I could watch a cricket game in progress at the Galle International Cricket Stadium, one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world. The stadium is located on the isthmus between the Fort to the south and the New Town to the north and is hemmed in by water to the east and west. The sea breezes that come in off the ocean must make for some interesting play.

I walked down a steep side street to the Main Gate where I first entered Galle Fort yesterday. This was built in 1873 by the British to allow larger, heavier vehicles into the old town. At the northern corner east of the Main Gate is the Sun Bastion. It was while I was on top of this bastion completely exposed to the elements that the heavens opened. Again.

I didn't bring an umbrella from Australia, I wanted to cut down on bulk and weight, but I did have a Macpac rain jacket that collapses into its own zippable pocket. I didn't bother getting it out, it is worse than useless in a humid climate. I wore it during the rain storm the previous night when I went out to get dinner and I ended up even wetter than if I hadn't worn it because it it so stifling and sweaty.

I tried finding shelter in some chambers in the ramparts that might have been prison cells or barracks or casemates. However, the locals had been using these cells as illicit rubbish dumps. The smell in those chambers was indescribably obscene.

I ended up sheltering with six other people in this archway between two open areas. The arch was probably one metre deep and two metres wide. In the end I thought to myself "stuff it, it's only water, it won't kill me" and continued on my way.

I went down Church Street past an open grassy rampart where three cows were grazing, then found myself in the political heart of colonial Galle. In this small nook of the fort along Church Street you can find the Amangalla, formerly the headquarters of the Dutch administration of Galle and later used as a hotel. There are two major churches - the Dutch Reformed Church, and the All Saints Anglican Church that looks like it had just been teleported from Cornwall or Adelaide.

My last stop on the self-guided walking tour was the Dutch governor's residence. Above the door is a triangular tablet with the inscription "ANNO 1683" and a red rooster. The rooster is the symbol of Galle. 'Galo' is the Portuguese word for 'rooster'. Galle? Galo? Geddit?

I went back to my guest house and had another one of their excellent rice-and-curry buffet lunches for Rs. 650. I then retired to my room and cleaned myself up. I was sodden from head to toe and I must have been a distressing sight to anyone who had encountered me on the street.

While I was relaxing in my room on such an exhausting though fulfilling day, another storm broke. The power went out for a long time, the wind buffeted the windows, thunder constantly rumbled, the roof roared from the heavy rain falling on it. This isn't good rain. It's not rain that purifies the air or brings relief from the heat or the kind of rain that brings me joy and comfort as most rain does. This is sticky, soupy rain that makes the heat even more unbearable and makes all my possessions and clothes stick to my body like Araldite. Swimming at Lighthouse Beach in this storm was out of the question. It wasn't until well into the evening that I ventured out for dinner.

The restaurant I picked was on the expensive side, Rs. 2,400 for two courses and a soft drink. Galle being so oriented towards foreign tourists has prices to match. The restaurant, Fortaleza, has free Sri Lankan newspapers for guests. I picked the Daily Mirror, a top-selling English-language daily broadsheet. I tried reading about Sri Lankan politics and failed miserably. Is there anything on earth so confounding, so perplexing as South Asian politics? It is a hodgepodge of acronyms that are far too similar, party splits, party reunifications, more party splits with even more hyphenated suffixes to differentiate the new parties, politicians with impossibly long surnames and up to four initials before the surname, politicians crossing the floor, politicians crossing the floor back to where they were before, and even for a brief period in Sri Lanka in 2018, two competing Prime Ministers both claiming to be in office at the same time. Then there was news of strikes about this, strikes about that, work-to-rule campaigns in protest of some issue the antagonists had long forgotten, accusations of corruption from one side to the other and the very same accusations going the other way. I can read a Dutch or German newspaper in their respective languages and get a better understanding of the current state of things and where the major players stand on the major issues of the day.

The weather had thankfully cooled down a lot so I went for a post-prandial stroll, I decided to check out a few lanes I hadn't explored yet. I came across a troupe of performers, young Sri Lankan men in traditional dress outside a hotel beating drums and twirling torches and doing somersaults and breathing fire for an appreciative audience. Traffic was held up and some tuk-tuks were beeping their horns but the performers were not to be deterred.

It is with some regret that I leave Galle and its magical little fort tomorrow. Staying here was just what I needed. This walled gem is like its own little tropical snow-dome, a world within a world where all the hurt, all the worry, all the frustrations of the world outside can't reach. Within these eternal ramparts I feel safe, I feel relieved, I feel soothed. Galle is a most welcome holiday within a holiday, away from the frenzy, the exploitation, the madness, madness, neverending madness that awaits me outside.

Shells and coral inlaid in Galle Fort walls

Shells and coral inlaid in Galle Fort walls

Galle Fort crenellation

Galle Fort crenellation

Old Gate, Galle Fort

Old Gate, Galle Fort

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort ramparts

Galle Fort cows

Galle Fort cows

Sri Lanka National Day parade

Sri Lanka National Day parade

Sri Lankan orange coconuts

Sri Lankan orange coconuts

National Day parade

National Day parade

All Saints Anglican Church

All Saints Anglican Church

Main Gate, Galle Fort

Main Gate, Galle Fort

Parawa Street

Parawa Street

Galle Dutch Reformed Church

Galle Dutch Reformed Church

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Galle Fort Clock Tower

Sudharmalaya Temple

Sudharmalaya Temple

Star Bastion, Galle Fort

Star Bastion, Galle Fort

Lighthouse Beach

Lighthouse Beach

Galle Lighthouse

Galle Lighthouse

Dutch Hospital

Dutch Hospital

Dutch Governor’s house

Dutch Governor’s house

Posted by urbanreverie 21:33 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged fort weather sri_lanka galle national_day Comments (0)

Galle bladder

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Galle, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 3 February 2019

Four days after I arrived in Sri Lanka culture shock, or something like it, has finally set in. It's not like the sudden traumatic shock that I had soon after arriving in South Korea or Brussels, but a more gradual build-up of a thousand little frustrations, chief among which would have to be the hordes of touts, con artists and tuk-tuk drivers all contriving to part me with my hard-earned money.

To take an extreme example from last night. I was leaving Galle Face Green after sunset intending to return to my hotel via a one-station train ride from Kompannavidiya station. At the busy intersection opposite the Galle Face Hotel a friendly man about my age approached me. He showed me what he claimed to be an official employee ID card from the Galle Face Hotel. We made innocent small talk until he told me about this temple festival that I just had to see! It was the biggest Buddhist festival of the year! Hundreds of thousands of people will be in attendance!

"Oh wow, I didn't know about this festival thingie, where is it?" I asked.

He gave the name of some temple I hadn't heard of.

"I might be able to walk there, so show me where it is," I said as I opened Google Maps on my iPhone.

"No! You can't walk there! You must take a tuk-tuk!" And what do you know, a tuk-tuk driven by somebody who by pure chance happened to be this man's best friend appeared out of nowhere.

"But I don't want a tuk-tuk! I would rather walk or take a bus. So please tell me where it is."

"It's in Colombo 7," the so-called hotel employee said as the tuk-tuk driver revved his engine to tell me to get a move on.

"Cinnamon Gardens? That's not far, so please point to me on this map where it is."

"It's there!" he exclaimed as he pointed to a location in Slave Island in Colombo 2.

"Hang on, you said it was Colombo 7, but you're pointing at Colombo 2. So where is it? Please zoom in to where this festival is."

He zoomed into some random location in a whole other postal district where there was certainly no temple, not one visible on Google Maps in any case.

"Listen, I had other plans, I'll go to this festival some other time."

"No! You cannot miss this festival. There is a giant Buddha with a giant necklace made of blue sapphires. This festival is only one night of the year and it goes for one hour, starts at 6:35, it is now 6:30. Do you know what sapphires are?"

I made some sarcastic remark about how Australia has a functional education system and that I was therefore familiar with the major gemstones of the world.

"So you cannot miss this festival. It is the biggest Buddhist festival of the year. You cannot miss it! The festival costs forty-eight million dollars!"

My bullshit detector, already going haywire, melted down after short-circuiting. Even the Sydney New Year's Eve fireworks on the harbour costs less than six million Australian dollars.

"I'm sorry, I had better go now, I will miss my train."

"No. You must not go. You cannot walk away. You must go to this festival!" that scumbag shouted at me as he and the tuk-tuk stalked me from close behind. I quickened my pace and ended up in a district of expensive business hotels with dozens of soldiers standing guard outside protecting the VIPs therein. The sight of so many soldiers and policemen with high-powered rifles standing in stern martial poses must have scared them off because they stopped following me.

Not all the dozens of touts and hawkers and scam artists who approach me every single day are quite so noxious, but it's bad enough and extraordinarily tiresome when it happens so often every day. Needless to say I missed that train and took some other tuk-tuk back to where I was staying in Kollupitiya.

These ratbags are turning me into a terrible person. A cynical, distrustful, anxious, unfriendly person. The day before I was trying to navigate through Lipton Circus on foot, a dizzying complex of two roundabouts and roads radiating in every direction. I was looking at the map in my Lonely Planet trying to make sense of this nonsensical junction. A random stranger came up to me and offered to help.

"No, thank you," I said sharply.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir. You looked lost so I was just trying to help. Please have a nice day."

I instantly felt gut-wrenching remorse. But truth be told, it's hard to tell in this country who is honest and genuine and who just wants to stick a vaccuum cleaner in my wallet.

I got back to my hotel, was pleased that my shitbox Samsung Galaxy tablet was now fully charged - saints be praised! - finished a few more blog entries, and had a satisfying sleep before the alarm woke me promptly at seven in the morning. In my ordinary life I am a terrible insomniac and it takes me an hour to drag myself out of bed after the alarm goes off at half past seven. Why can't I be such a morning person all the time?

I packed my bags and checked out of the City Holiday Bungalow, a hotel I can certainly recommend. It's close to buses and trains and food, had wi-fi, air conditioning, was clean and secure and the management was reasonably diligent, and my room only cost about fifty Australian dollars a night. What more could you ask for?

I caught the inbound 8:30 commuter train from Kollupitiya to Colombo Fort, grabbed some roti, dhal curry, coffee and an apple for breakfast from a café on the station forecourt, stocked up on water for the train trip ahead, and went to buy my ticket to Galle. I looked at the big sign telling me which counter to go to to buy a ticket for the line to Galle and Matara. I went to the Slave Island to Matara counter at Counter 13 and waited, and when I was finally served I was told that this counter only sells third-class tickets, and if I wanted second-class tickets I would have to go to the All Railway Stations counter at Counter 4. Sigh.

I had a wait of about an hour for my train. Platform 5 was a mixture of locals and a large number of foreign tourists with enormous suitcases and bulging backpacks on their way to southern Sri Lanka's famous coastal resort towns. A lady smiled at me and we struck up a conversation. Her name was Natalie and she was from the Greater New York City area, an intelligent and engaging young woman who owns a gourmet cheese wholesale business back home and spends several months a year travelling the world. We talked about our travel plans, where we had been before, our observations about Sri Lanka, shared hints and tips. One of the things I love most about travelling is about meeting all the kindred spirits along the way, my fellow oddballs for whom the curiosity to see as much of this world as we can before we die burns just as brightly in their chest as it does in mine.

The train arrived, a lengthy rake of ancient-looking red carriages with tiny rectangular windows hauled by a sooty M4 class diesel locomotive that looked like it would be eligible for the age pension by now. Both Natalie and I had bought second-class tickets, all the carriages along the part of the platform where we were waiting were third-class so we ran with our backpacks down the platform towards the front of the train where we had seen second-class carriages passing us as the train arrived. As we got to the second-class carriages, every door was a jumble of suitcases and backpacks and people. The doors and vestibules and aisles were so narrow nobody could get on board. Natalie was in front of me on the top step and I was right behind on the step below with my backpack and body hanging out of the train. There was no way in which I could move forward. I have ridden on enough Sri Lankan trains by now that I know that trains start moving with little warning. I had a disturbing premonition of my early death caused by my backpack striking a signal post as the train passed it at speed.

Thankfully, a short time before the train moved off, enough space opened up in the vestibule for me to lunge forward. Natalie and I squirmed our way into the saloon. Every seat was taken, as was nearly every standing spot. We managed to carve out enough space for us to stand in the crowded, airless cabin. Electric fans ineffectually swivelled on the ceiling above us. The train was so crowded that very little airflow came in through the open doors and windows. It was made so much worse by the fact that every couple of minutes, hawkers made their way up and down the carriage. Every time one of these hollering salesmen passed with buckets of soft drinks or fruit or peanuts balanced on their heads, everyone had to bend over the seats to make way for them.

Natalie and I continued talking as we made our way down the coast, the Indian Ocean lapping at the rocky seawall to our west, scattered suburbs and villages and farms to our east. Occasionally the train would slow to a crawl as it passed along a truss bridge over wide, smelly estuaries. At other times the train would get up to 95 kilometres an hour. That's faster than some Australian trains. The track quality was mostly very good. I suspect that the Coast Line was comprehensively rebuilt after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. A crowded train along this very track was washed away by the tidal wave. At least 1,700 people died on that train, the deadliest railway accident in history.

Natalie's destination was Hikkaduwa, well before my destination of Galle. We said our goodbyes, promised to keep in touch, hoped that our paths would cross again.

I eventually got a seat as more people got off as the train increased its distance from Colombo. Some two and a half hours after leaving Fort, the train arrived at Galle. Galle station is on a terminus stub, trains continuing on to Matara have to reverse direction, so I took pleny of video footage of the shunting procedures.

It was a short walk through yet another swarm of tuk-tuk touts who wouldn't take no for an answer before I arrived at the Main Gate of the Galle Fort. The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (my first in Sri Lanka), was built by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. It is located on a small rocky peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus.

I walked through the Main Gate and found myself in the most charming little place. Imagine your typical small Dutch town with straight, narrow, cobblestone streets. Throw in a few buildings with curved Dutch gables and long floor-to-ceiling windows just to increase that amount of Dutchiness. Now transpose all of this to a tropical location with whitewashed walls, terracotta roof tiles, verandahs, luxurious green vegetation with gardens full of orchids and vines and epiphytes, the aroma of tropical fruits. Tropical Holland - that's Galle.

Another thing that is typically Dutch is that in this historic town centre, entry to motor vehicles is heavily restricted. Except for tuk-tuks and privately owned motor scooters and a very small number of cars, the streets belong to pedestrians. After the madness of Colombo which would have to be one of the most hostile places for a pedestrian to walk I have ever seen, this place is just paradise.

I checked into the Old Dutch House guesthouse on Lighthouse Street. My room was already prepared with the key in the door. The friendly owner showed me around and gave me a complimentary bottle of Coke Zero. The Old Dutch House has a large courtyard that reminds me of many of the backyards of houses I lived in in Brisbane - a verdant riot of orchids and aloes and pawpaws and palms and hanging pot-plants. Lizards dart to and fro through the foliage as hundreds of invisible birds sing their quiet songs.

Four days in Colombo and the train journey had left me a nervous wreck. I sat out in the courtyard for a few hours, just listening to the birds tweeting in the cool garden. This place is a refreshing balm and I feel better already.

After two hours I felt I had recovered enough to start exploring the Galle Fort. But I could hear thunder in the distance. I went to open my phone's Australian weather app to check the radar until I realised it wouldn't work here. I tried searching for a Sri Lankan weather radar online to no avail. I could only find Japanese satellite imagery which only shows upper-level mass cloud movements across continents which give little indication of ground conditions in a particular location.

There is so much we take for granted in the West. Public transport maps and timetables available online in PDF format. Universal map literacy due to geography classes in every primary school. Safe, clean tap water that is as pure as anything from a bottle. Weather radars that allow the common citizen to see an approaching thunderstorm and gauge its severity, what time it will arrive and how long it will last, so they can plan their day accordingly. How did we Westerners ever survive without these things? It wasn't so long ago. I don't think I ever saw an online weather radar until about 1999.

Sri Lanka is a country that is going places. I have never seen so many cranes and construction sites as I did in Colombo. But there is still such a long way to go. I have no doubt that Sri Lanka will get there eventually and will take its rightful place in the world's list of developed countries. But not just yet.

I patiently waited for the heavens to break. And boy, did they break. A torrent of water fell from the grey heavens. Without a weather radar I had no idea when it would stop. The storm eventually stopped about half an hour before sunset, too late for me to go for a walk on the Fort's ramparts. Exploring Galle would just have to wait.


Posted by urbanreverie 21:37 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains fort sri_lanka colombo railways galle Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

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