'Who are you if nobody knows your story?' - Thisuri Wanniarachchi,
We watch our ship pull into the Colombo’s ancient natural harbour and wait somewhat impatiently for the bureaucracy to unfold. All the ‘Ts’ must be crossed and ‘Is’ dotted before we get permission to leave the ship. We have selected the two-hour Sights of Colombo tour, which will give us the remainder of the day to explore under our own steam. What we do not anticipate as we board the tour bus is that there is a lengthy drive to the front gate of the port. A drive that has us joining a line of trucks carrying containers from here to somewhere else. I don’t know where the old passenger terminal is – the one that Dad saw when he visited Colombo in 1950 during his voyage to England. In those days there would have been many more passengers entering through the port. Today, however, we are in the old port; the one that is still owned by the Sri Lankan government. The busy modern container port next door is currently being built by the Chinese as part of their Belt and Road Initiative. With 500 acres of land reclaimed from the sea, they are also building a hotel resort and casino on the property.
But this port and natural harbour is old – really old. Because Sri Lanka is on the spice trade route and because there is nothing between it and Antarctica, the Port of Colombo has been used for over 2,000 years by Indian, Greek, Persian, Arab, Roman, and Chinese by sea traders. Portuguese traders arrived in 1505 to trade in cinnamon and they set up forts along the coastline to guard against invaders. In 1638, the Dutch arrived and gained control of Colombo and the cinnamon lands from the Portuguese – in not a gentle manner. Along came the British, who captured Colombo in 1796, turning it into a military outpost and by 1815, had control of the whole of Sri Lanka until 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence.
Our tour today takes us through streets where we not only see the architectural influences of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, but also of Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, and Indian. These co-exist along with the many new and contemporary styles, making Colombo a modern city that has preserved much of its colonial heritage.
Turning into a narrow road, we find ourselves in the heart of Pettah Market. a hive of busyness with traffic to match. Crowds of people flock here to buy cheap goods and the streets are filled with tuk-tuks, cars, buses, trucks, and crowds of people. Tiny shops are filled to the brim with household goods, fruit and takeaway food stalls attract crowds whilst men pushing or pulling carts stacked with boxes compete with the rest of the traffic in these narrow streets. We pass shops selling textiles; brilliant pink, emerald green, and peacock blue fabrics trimmed in gold are sold in saree lengths for Hindu women to wear on special occasions. From the bus window, I can only imagine that the air would be filled with traffic noise; beeps and roars of engines, whilst exhaust fumes melded with pungent ripening fruit and curry and rotting garbage would not be kind to our noses. But we cannot hear or smell anything from our bus, nor can we absorb the atmosphere that one can only experience by being immersed in if they are on the street. This is a distinct disadvantage (for me) of being on a bus tour.
I am in awe of the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque; brilliant red and white horizontal and diagonal stripes cover every inch of this huge building, which is nestled between the market shops. Magnificent architecture: its domes stand tall – well over the height of the surrounding buildings.
We are lucky that we have arrived in Sri Lanka during the Buddhist celebration of his birth that occurs around this time in May and which lasts for a week. The first day coincides with the full moon and during this festival the city is decorated with the multicoloured striped Buddhist flags and lanterns. We pass by Buddhist and Hindu temples as well as mosques and Christian churches during our drive through the city.
The bus takes sporting fields, cricket clubs, performing arts centres and many museums that have taken over some of the most iconic of colonial buildings and many parks and gardens that provide shade and entertainment for the locals. Of course, the Sri Lankans are very proud of their cricket team and although cricket is not the national sport, it is the most popular.
We stop at Independence Memorial Hall, where we are allowed to alight briefly to take photographs. It was built to commemorate the independence of Sri Lanka from British Rule on4 February 1948. It is located within the magnificent Cinnamon Gardens, named for the cinnamon plantation that once was here.
After two hours, we find ourselves in familiar territory as the bus stops outside the Galle Face Hotel, one of the oldest hotels east of Suez and located at the end of Galle Face Green. Since we want to make our own way back to the ship, we gain permission to leave the tour at this point and walk along the promenade facing the water.
We stayed close to this location when we were here in 2019 and by taking the opportunity to explore this region, we see that much has changed during the last three-and-a-half years. Like everywhere else, COVID has had a negative effect on Sri Lanka and Colombo in particular. We can see, like Melbourne and like Singapore, empty shops, buildings half built and abandoned, and people trying to get back part of what they lost during brutal lockdowns.
We do not see any evidence of the recent famine caused by the removal of chemical-based fertilisers, but I suspect the smaller villages are still feeling the effects of that decision.
We spend a pleasant couple of hours wandering through the Chinese-owned Galle Face shopping centre beneath the Shangri-La hotel before returning to the ship. Here, we discuss that our tours have obviously had the 'sensitivity editors' at work. We are not getting the information from our tour guides that we once did. Historical facts are being glossed over and replaced with pointing to random things that people at the back of the bus have no chance of catching. We have to fill in the gaps through searching for wanted information online. Sport is obviously considered a 'safe' subject and our tour guides so far enjoy discussing the merits of their international teams. However, by glossing over facts and downgrading the obvious advantages gained through colonisation, we are missing vital information and the guides are not doing justice to their countries. We all know that history is filled with ugly stuff, but we can never understand a nation unless we hear about it.
This evening we need to eat early as we are all (600 passengers) attending the AzAmazing evening at the Taj Samudra Grand Marquee, located in the grounds of the Taj Samudra hotel. Here, we will experience Sri Lankan culture through music, dance, and costume. I’m really looking forward to that.
Later, as we pull away from the harbour we watch the night lights of the city gradually fade as we head in a westerly direction towards India.