This is Colombo: I Am But A Stranger Here..

Someone wanted me to write about Colombo, so I did. I discovered this post many weeks later, when both that someone and I had forgotten this ever happened. Anyway, here goes.

Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, is a pretty small city. In fact, seen from above, it’s not so much a city as thirteen different towns stuck together, neatly numbered: they spread out from Colombo Forts (aka Colombo 01) to the carefully maintained urban sidewalks of Colombo 03, 04 and 07, where land is at a premium and studded with everything from expensive hotels to nightclubs to coffeeshops to late-night kottu stands. The roads twist every which way – into the dry expanse of Maradana, for instance, or the maze of schools and apartment buildings that forms the Havelock town area.

All of this fits in an area that’s just 37 kilometers square. Can you hear New York chuckling?

Colombo 01 is the living, beating heart of Colombo. Some 2000 years ago, Colombo was the crux of East-West trade, a natural harbor which became a nexus of trade. Today, Colombo 01 plies that same function. Ships rumble into the port, long since extended past its natural roots. Cargo is unloaded, containers shipped back and forth: a stone’s throw away, Galle Face, a sea of green grass ringed with hotels, looks out over the sea. Around them, just out of sight, sit pubs, restaurant, bars – you name it. Often, this is the first thing that any tourist sees.

But the best time to hit this part of the city is during the evening. That’s when the sunset casts its golden glamour on this part of the island, and the lights come alive, and people loosen their ties and either go home or go have some fun: that’s when bars and restaurants shake off the shackles of sleep and welcome their clientele with open arms.

Instead, I start off at a slightly unorthodox place:  the Independence Square.

This is a large strip of turf at Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo. When I say strip of turf, I mean a sizeable chunk of well-maintained grass and trees for shade. It fronts Sri Lanka’s monument to the declaration of independence and has some of the best walking paths around: it’s positively riddled with them. Often you find other walkers – some formidably brisk and active, others clearly in need of their morning coffee. It’s quiet here – and shady, and above all, welcoming: it’s the sort of place where you can run as long as you want with your headphones in your ears and nobody will look askance.

From here, it’s a straight shot down Independence Avenue – past the curve of the road, past the Lion statues,  made more enjoyable by the rambling paths that take you all the way to the curving patch known as the Torrington walking path. Cut across this and you end up in Racecourse Avenue, which makes for a strangely picturesque contrast: old colonial buildings and old, towering trees ringing the road, circled by the hue and cry modern traffic – a motley mix of Indian three-wheelers side by side with Korean SUVs and German luxury cars.  A McDonalds – thankfully, one of the better-maintained Mickey D’s anywhere – makes for a great place to sit and sip a cup of hot chocolate while watching the traffic pour through Rajakeeya Mawatha, past the brick-and-white sprawl of Royal College, depositing their daily doses of white-clad schoolboys at the school gates.  One can almost image a quieter age fitting in here, with horses supplanting the BMWs, Mercedes and the Toyotas passing by.

Follow Rajakeeya Mw, follow the curve, and you come to the place where Royal College melds into Thurstan, its ancient rival in the annual school wars. Then Thurstan gives way to the University of Colombo.

I personally love Queen’s Road, just a little further down this place. This strip starts from the Colombo campus and takes you past a couple of really nice houses that I wouldn’t mind owning (someday – hopefully). There’s a beggar on the pavement here who spends his time writing in a notebook: I don’t know what he writes – perhaps a more elaborate version of my ramblings here? After all, he’s had years to perfect his art. I am just a gawker here, tripping along these streets with my music in my ears.