Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Alone in Colombo

Alone in Colombo

I rarely take the buffet because I'm a small eater. But last night, I decided to become a glutton and tried the seafood buffet at my hotel. The spread was sumptuous: massala crab, prawn and calamari curry and a host of other culinary delights. I helped myself to a few large servings and washed them all down with two glasses of red wine. After that I crashed to bed early.

Before dinner, I had a chance to take a walk up Marine Drive, watching the evening sunset. There's a nice lighthouse perched majestically at the end of the road. Unfortunately the romantic setting was spoiled by the sight of many barbed wire checkpoints along the way, manned by armed soldiers. Sri Lankans have been accustomed to living under the shadow of terror due the decades of civil war between the Sinhalese government and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) separatist movement.

The World Trade Center opposite my hotel and the Bandaranaike international airport at Katunayake have become terrorist targets before. So it is not unusual to see armed soldiers manning critical sites in the city. They don't even allow you to take pictures of some of the places--like the old parliament building along Galle Road, a beautifully grand building with a distinctive Greco-Roman architecture. But I feigned ignorance during my last visit here and managed to snap a couple of pictures before the guards stopped me.

The touts have been harassing me again with their offers of becoming my tour guide ("you're lucky sir, there's an elephant festival downtown and today is the last day"). Fortunately they don't venture up Marine Drive because I think the guards would not allow them.

The area where my hotel is located is also known as Colombo Fort, which used to be an old Portuguese garrison. It's surrounded on three sides by sea with a moat on the remaining side. It's the oldest part of Colombo with a lot of old colonial shophouses. It's kind of like a more lively version of Sunda Kelapa and Taman Fatahillah in Jakarta. Sunda Kelapa today unfortunately looks like a garbage dump.

Unlike my previous trip when I had a couple of Singaporean friends with me, I am completely alone in Colombo this time. Usually I get to know a city better when I'm exploring it myself. Reclusive people like me likes isolation and are perfectly happy being alone in a strange city.

Unfortunately work occupies my entire day and I only have one or two hours of daylight everyday to explore the area near my hotel. But I'm slowly getting to know the city better. At the moment, my feelings are still neutral but who knows, someday I'll be in love with this city too--like how I fell in love with Jakarta. And to be able to fall in love, one needs to be alone first.

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