Do you ever meet some people along your travels and think “what the hell are you thinking?” Take for instance the man I met on-board a train bound for Colombo today. Choosing to sit next to Niki and engage her in a smile and nod routine as neither of them spoke the others language, the elderly man eventually decided to latch onto me. Grabbing the inside of my hand he kissed it before clasping his hands together as if I was a miraculous person who just cured him from some horrible foot disease. After a brief lull is his escapades and just before pulling alongside a urban rail station where he was about to disembark, the man then grabbed my hand, looked deep into my eyes (which is when I thought he was puckering up for another kiss) and chose to snot on the back of my hand….yes, you read right, snot.
Sitting there as if I just been slapped in the face with a tuna fish, going over it in my head wondering if I missed some local custom where snotting in another person’s hand brings them good-luck, I contemplated how I was going to clean my hand or cut it off all together. My dilemma though was how to do it without offending the other passengers on the train who may misconstrue my overt hate for other people’s snot on my hand, with thinking the locals were dirty people. It was about this time I start contemplating my visit to Colombo and tried to work out where all this started?
The first time I ever heard about Colombo was when I was working for an airline and there was a message left on everyone’s phones saying that some type of surface missile had been fired at a plane on the runway at Colombo airport. The message informed us that any current aircraft on the ground were told to get off the tarmac and into the air immediately to avoid being destroyed. I also remembered thinking at the time that the name ‘Colombo’ seemed mundane for a city name and couldn’t help but associate it with the image of an old detective program. Not to mention always getting it confused with Colombia! So why was I here being snotted on like I was in some Kleenex commercial from hell? The answer was simple, because the island of Sri Lanka had captured so many hearts and minds of many of the great travellers in our history, I had to visit to understand why!
So ten years on from the message on my phone and in a time which has seem some stability return to Sri Lanka, Niki and I would begin our four week jaunt around the island in Colombo. As soon as we arrived we understood that whilst the war may have ‘ended’, the local military presence across the city was still unnervingly tight. This brings us back to me standing at Fort station in central Colombo for 30minutes scrubbing my hand like a crazed man. Colombo is chaotic at the best of times which when stifled by the humid weather made the traffic fumes intoxicating as you walked throughout the city. Coupled with the heavy military presence, which considering some of these military men and women only come up to my shoulder but looked like that could a do a Rambo on my arse, I started to realise that Colombo wasn’t some pretty tourist town.
Since our arrival, there has been military everywhere; from bridges, airports, schools, train station and the list goes on. It’s not just a couple of guards either; its full blown bunkers, road closures, vehicles and weaponry. However the city is still thriving and I think their presence is more for precaution then necessity. The tourist attractions in the Fort area are small and limited to a ramshackle collection of furniture at the Dutch Museum, the various streets in the Pettah district selling all sorts of bits and bobs as well as a clock tower surrounded by the military. Which, incidentally, if you try to photograph you’ll have weapons pointed at you so quickly that you won’t have time to even think about peeing your pants!
Niki and I finished the day visiting the National Museum (south of Fort) which houses a unique collection of statues depicting the various religions of the island, unique archeological relics and heaps of great history displays to help us understand the regions we were about to visit. Overall Colombo is a city that is a faded relic of a time gone past. Modern buildings sit next to dilapidated shacks, retro buses push past the latest Honda however everywhere you look there is something to feast your eyes upon. From the colorful dresses that drape the women, to the buzzing three wheelers that own the streets. Yet the town, to me, just felt like a rundown city with too much pollution, no waste management and a clear divide between the rich and extreme poor. This is the real Colombo in many ways. After two days in Colombia, sorry Colombo, it was time to head north to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.
This post is part of the India and Sri Lanka: The Search for the Forgotten Tree blog series.
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Colombo to Anuradhapura by Train