Aug 29, 2010

On The Badness Of Colombo And Other Matters

Inc. Rude Manners, The Insanity Of Indian People, and The Sexual Necessity Of Umbrellas

At first when I arrived in Colombo I was impressed. It was so clean! And the people were so friendly! As far as third-world cities are concerned, Colombo has a lot going for it. The only real stench is the cloud of automotive fumes in the air, as opposed to giant pools of festering water, exposed and clogged sewers, and man and animal alike defecating where they will. This is is significant improvement. There isn't even much litter, something unthinkable in an Indian city. Public transport is swift and efficient. Buildings are bland, but not ugly, towers of glass and concrete, rather than plastered brick hulks with the bent steel reinforcing bars still jutting out of the walls. Traffic follows the rules of the road (more or less), and the city is full of policemen and soldiers keeping order and safety for the citizens. What, you may ask, is not to like?

Colombo is massively boring.

The city offers something of a glimpse of the future. It looks out to all the other South Asian metropolises and says "You know, if you do things right, you can be a well-ordered expanse of featureless concrete as well! We can be just like America!"

Local people are very proud of Colombo, though it seems the rest of the country thinks it's hot and lacks a pleasant atmosphere (in both senses of the word). It's hard to argue with them about these things, because it would be rude and Sri Lankan people are so polite you feel bad for even thinking about slighting their hometown. Dealing with Sri Lankan people has been nothing but a pleasure. From time to time I catch myself being something of a jerk, a paranoid side-effect of living in India for almost a year. In India, people often treat other humans, especially those "lower" than them, mostly as physical obstacles (which on the Indian street, they are) or in the case of employees, livestock. Additionally, as a foreigner, there is the fact that a large minority of those who approach to speak with you are going to turn out to be some sort of hassle. Thus I've become accustomed to being a little curt to random people on the street, lest I spend my entire life telling people I don't want antiques. So, in Sri Lanka someone will come up and ask me a question and I'll say "I'm busy" or something, and then they look a little taken aback, so I use what has become one of my all-purpose excuses for uncivil behavior: "Oh, sorry brother, you must forgive me. I have been living in India." This always works.

Sri Lankans don't much care for India. Besides the fact that India is their overbearing neighbor, they tend to view India as a massive, teeming bowl of chaos. Gee, I wonder how they got that idea? Various people I've spoken too have also complained (in low whispers) "You know.... I don't like Indian people." I was curious why. An extension of cricket rivalry perhaps?... The whisperers continue, "They are such big rude peoples!" Aha! that's it! The first time I heard this I finally put my finger on something I had been trying to define with all the other long-term travelers I met there, the one thing about India that made it impossible for us to truly commit to spending a life there, some sort of strange and ethereal phenomenon we couldn't name. This was it. Indians are rude. You would never think that while you're there, because apart from the obvious assholes, people are very warm, generous, and deferential in conversation. But here's the twist: beyond the intimate context, in the wider social arena, Indian people just don't give a fuck about the people around them. Playing old Bollywood soundtracks into the dead of night (and there is no volume but full volume), using communal places as rubbish disposal, pushing to the head of any nascent queue and instigating a mob atmosphere. The list goes on. In a nutshell, no thought is giving to the effects of one's actions on others.

I make this long, harsh criticism of Indian manners for two reasons. One, it has at long last crystallized in my mind and needed outlet. Two, I wish to applaud the contrasting Sri Lankan attitudes, and the positive effect it appears to have on the entire country. For instance, everywhere I have seen in Sri Lanka, even the poor outskirts of the big city which in India would be a hellish slum, has been generally more prosperous and well-ordered than India, despite a comparative dearth of resources.  Money here seems to go to making things actually work right, creating and improving infrastructure and doing so in a way that is genuinely useful to people.

My curiosity was piqued and I went on asking about Indian people. "Why don't you like Indians?" I asked one man, a gardener. "Indian people are crazy! We are only like that at a cricket match!" (Sri Lankans do love their cricket). So, having established that standard Indian levels of madness constitute peak insanity here, I couldn't help pressing on. "And what about Indians at cricket matches?". "Friend," the gardener replied, "this you can not even imagine."

So I knew I would be getting along well here. Anywhere where the people think India is crazy cannot itself be utterly insane, at least not in the same way. I was deeply reassured to know that any of the absurdity I am guaranteed to find on my way will at least be a little more mellow. I'm in the mood for mellow. After great feats, a man needs his rest.

Colombo is not mellow. Colombo is about as laid-back as you could ask for any 3,000,000+ Asian city to be, but that is not saying much. After several days out of the hospital, mostly spent tossing about in my bed, sweating up a stink, and reading ridiculous thrillers about Nazis, I set out on my first day of exploring Colombo's "sights" (as opposed to the approximately half-dozen unaesthetic suburbs I had ventured to so far). I quickly realized my first day exploring the wonders of Colombo would also be the only day.

I started out with the "worst". I headed to the Pettah bazaar neighborhood, which is reputed as the most crowded and teeming commercial district on the island, and is supposedly one of those excitingly cluttered and vibrant places. What I found was indeed hopefully the teemiest place in Sri Lanka, but there was absolutely nothing to set it apart from the central bazaar in any modern, industrialized Indian city save for a marked improvement in English spelling. So much for Colombo's characterful bazaar district. Next I wandered over to the historical heart of the city, the "Fort" neighborhood, which is now Sri Lanka's little baby version of Lower Manhattan, with its few soaring financial towers, heavily guarded government baking agencies, and a few streets of slightly pretentious eateries and cafes catering to people with belts and ties. Like Lower Manhattan, there also isn't a whole lot to do, but the strange sight of soldiers guarding the side-alleys behind curtains of razor-wire adds a touch of the local. I also picked out the spot- it's hard to miss- where the Standard Chartered Bank, now a windowless and fortified-looking little structure, gaily advertises that "We're Here To Stay". Well, the building looks empty, which is a bit ironic given that all the other business that fled the neighborhood in panic seem to returned first. The thing that made them abandon the entire area for over a decade was, by the way, an enormous truck bomb that blew the shit out the Standard Chartered Bank and killed hundreds of people.

Thence I turned south to Galle Face Green, the pride of the city, Colombo's seaside park by its old colonial government buildings. I've seen better. For starters, "Green" is a bit generous. Let us just say that a lawn one lay there and is currently being attempted. The sea breeze is nice, but Colombo stretches along the sea for mile after mile, so really it's a long way to come for that. You can however get a pretty decent view of the towers in Fort and the endless, soulless ribbon of middling glass office buildings that run down the coast until they fade in the distance. One curious thing about the park was that all the couples (and it was mostly couples) were carrying umbrellas on a sunny day. Why, I wondered, was this necessary? Do Sri Lankans share the Indian obsession with pale skin and need umbrellas to protect lovely ladies from the sun's cruel rays? Are umbrellas themselves some sort of symbol of romance? I thought it might be this as countless pairs of romancers sat on benches with umbrellas unfolded  over their heads. Then I saw it... in the distance a large umbrella lowered diagonally, completely obscuring the holders' uppers bodies, leaving only a pale of male legs and a pair of female legs leaning over at a telltale angle, revealing without a doubt that umbrellas are for making out. And then I saw it over and over. Yup, in Sri Lanka you cannot put your tongue in another person's mouth, no matter how obviously and publicly you do so, unless you've got at hand an umbrella. I may have to consider replacing my rain jacket.

And that is all there is to say of Colombo, unless any of you know a fabulous and obscure word I don't which means both busy and bland. I've seen more than enough of Sri Lanka's biggest city, and there is one obvious way to proceed: Going to Sri Lanka's second-largest city.

'Til next time...

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