Military Bent: My Sri Lankan Lament

by wandering freditor / Aug 01, 2009 / 1 comments


And it all started off so well! A gleaming white Boeing 747 carrying the national colours of the Bahrain VIP Royal flight, a veritable Air Force One, with boudoir, lounges, food and smiles in abundance, more gold fittings than Fort Knox, the “old style” of flying with pretty, and efficient hostesses who brought food and water in profusion. An easy flight across the Arabian Sea, an air kiss with India, and lowered flaps as a beachy coastline greeted us just north of Colombo. Inland there was a carpet of palm and rubber trees, and villages that looked rustic, quaint and miniature from the air, anaconda- like rivers with bridges that looked as though they had come from the film-set on the River Kwai. Everywhere there were red and white radio masts indicating that in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, big brother was out for your ear with as much regard as Mike Tyson. A smooth turn to starboard, quarries and factories, a bump, and we were down at the Bandaranaike Airport, named after the world’s first female Prime Minister, long years before Golda, Indira and Maggie T. I was instantly reminded of the Australian Prime Minister who got into trouble by talking about the Asian twins, Mrs Gandhi and Bandy, and finding it on the front pages in India and Sri Lanka. Ooops! His subsequent meeting with Mrs B, was decidedly frosty.

At the airport there was a large military contingent as well as a brass marching band and enough red carpet to think we had landed on the Red Sea. There was the twenty-one gun salute, as befits the arrival of a Head of Government, and then a brisk convoy into town, led by a police car with siren wailing and blue lights flashing. The airport fringes were heavily guarded with pill boxes and sand-bagged embrasures, from which pointed highly lethal hardware, and every hundred metres, a heavily armed combat soldier stood watch while overhead a helicopter thwacked. While it may have looked a bit OTT, it wasn’t so long ago when LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamal Elaam) terrorist groups assassinated both Indian and Sri Lankan leaders and only in January, light aircraft had carried out suicide bombing missions against Colombo. Even though the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated in May 2009, much of the country remains on a war footing as there are still plenty of Tamils calling for maintenance of the struggle for Tamil independence.

We raced past huge factories which form the heart of the garment industry which carry such items to the world, even though the ‘finished labels’ might be French or Italian. Then we struck the main dual carriageway into town, and found two lanes blocked off in our honour, with a whistling, waving cop every two hundred metres. The other two lanes held a vast number of the Sri Lankan populace, now traveling in both directions, till in parts, as Sod’s law would have it, ‘someone’ forgot to tell the others, and it all looked like a giant head-butt! In Australia and many other countries, there would have been fists in the air and probably a couple of ‘moonies’ too at such crass inconsiderateness, but here people just looked blank and accepting. We just followed our squealing cop and the flag festooned roadway the 37 kilometres into the down-town area, and only once did we need to slow our pace at a point where some recalcitrants, heading home after a hard day’s slog, sought to bite the long arm of the law by joining in with us, with unsurprising results as they were weeded out and notebooks were produced!

It was not a salubrious drive, but it brought back all the ramshackle memories of my earlier time in Asia, the strip development with shops and houses as close as arm and armpit, the stands of fruits, pineapples and coconut, the blazing braziers, the sequences of advertising signs and hoardings like a vertical veranda that ran the entire length of the roadway. There is simply no need for supermarkets and large department stores when everywhere there are tiny fix-it or buy-it shops, and everyone knows where to find them! And everywhere too, there are people; walking, standing, gawking, working, squatting, washing, selling, eating, clearing throats and nostrils, the bearded and bent, the sari-ed and small-fry, here and there a goat a-staring, or a mangy, skin and bones mutt, lifting a floppy ear to the fuss. These parts of Asia could be in Indonesia or Thailand, India or Vietnam, places where it seems as though anything can be found in places that never sleep. When we arrived at the Hilton Colombo, it was as if we were wrenched from Asia and again into the cool languid location of a first world wadi. A bit like Marco Polo suddenly returning to Venice.


Sri Lankan Dancers


While it is hot in our desert kingdom, it is generally a dry, searing heat, as if you are a piece of meat on a barbeque. You know that you are in the tropics however when your armpits spring a leak, your head starts to look and feel like a melting ice-cream cone and your clothes none too subtly start to change colour. As soon as you step outside, the air is though it has been released from an empty old wine bottle that has been lying in the sun, all musty and full of wetness. It is the sort of air that you cut with your hand in the hope of generating a small breeze and while the locals always manage to look cool, I never succeed, and always manage that disheveled, glued-down look which robs one of aplomb and stature. It just has to be the genes that have so many Westerners perspiring like a porky when they hit the tropics. So we ran for the air-conditioning as a sanctuary although in most cases, you feel like Amundsen in the South Pole, and it packs all the subtlety of a Rocky Balboa hay-maker.

In the morning, I threw back the curtains of my eleventh floor aerie, and beheld a wonderous view outside. Directly below was a garden of lush and verdant growth, a myriad of greens, with a brown fountain seeping from an assortment of clam-like shells, showering red and gold carp, and sporting black and white swans. In mid- distance there was a blue watered swimming pool and beyond, a crocodile-green lagoon where I swore I saw an unblinking eye amid the khaki coloured weeds. A train traveled slowly along the tracks, “off to the refuse station” I thought, till it drew closer and I realized that all the cloth flapping in the breeze were actually commuters. There too was a great, grey-brown, granite and sandstone Greek revival building, which had once housed the Colonial administration and subsequently, the Parliament. It was the sort of place which could easily take residence in Whitehall, with its red-tiled pitched roof to ward off winter snows, its girdle of Corinthian columns with triumphal porticos, where men in togas and laurel wreaths, even today would not look much out of place. Although it is greatly in need of a touch up, it still retains its imposing ‘toodle-pip’ Colonial majesty and while there were still people inside who appeared to be working, I was saddened not to see a winged collar not braces among them.


Old Parliament and Beach, Sri Lanka

Old Parliament and Beach, Sri Lanka


But for me, the joy lay beyond the old Parliament building. There, to gladden the eye of any Australian, was the sight of a yellow sandy beach, and rolling in from all the way across the Indian ocean, was a marvelous surf. From my room it looked like a little three or four foot wave, just right for riding to the shore. To me, it looked like a sensuous Angelina Jolie, beckoning with a smile and a crooked finger. I grabbed my swimmers and the towel (which had all the properties of a dragged-through-broken-glass loofah), and headed downstairs. But there, much to my consternation, and soon after I started walking towards the object of my attention, I was stopped by men who could well have been Angelina’s minders, all in uniform and with very big guns. Orders were barked, and I was frisked quite intimately, and by somebody I knew hardly at all, just in case I had a rocket in my pants. By way of introduction, however, he did smile a lot! The beach was out of bounds, he told me, although I could come at it another way, but the manner in which he extended and then flapped his arm, I realized that it was an awfully long way around! So, rather gallingly, I turned my back on Angelina, just as Jen might have done, and left her to her Lankan Pitt. Secretly, I hoped that she would have felt some sadness at not having had her frolic with my body!


There were other frontiers in Colombo to explore, and like Davy Crockett, I “lit out agrinnin’ and followed the sun”. I sought a pocket map from the hotel but the only thing they had was a version which fitted into a steamer trunk, and many rips and tears later, I was ready to roll. It did not take me very long to discover that Colombo is not really made for walking, or even that ambling shuffle in which I like to explore a new town. It took me only a few short moments to feel a great sympathy for Queen Elizabeth because I waved and smiled just like she did. “No thank you very much, I don’t want to ride in a tuk tuk”. “No thank you, I don’t want to change money”. “No thank you, I don’t want to buy a carved elephant from your shop”. “No thank you, I don’t want to meet your sister”. “No, I have no money”. “No, I don’t want to ride in your f***ing tuk tuk either”. Everyone called me over to ‘do a deal’.  I was wet and bothered and had no sanctuary of a Rolls Royce, and everyone wanted to be my friend or to know where I came from. Oh you start out being ever so polite but Questioner 22 gets short-shrift, and as do all the following ones and I leave them scratching their heads and wondering where Oonagallahbi is, and why in twenty years of touting they have never heard of it. Manfully, like Tarzan, I battled on in the jungle of ignorance – mine and theirs – with nary a swinging vine to hasten my trip, plunging ever further into the rot and rubbish in search of the old Ceylon that I had seen in that wonderful movie Elephant Walk, way back in the 1950’s.  

Alas, however, Colombo appears under military siege and even in Israel, I have not seen so many military personnel and guard posts. The area around the Old Fort, which is where the ‘modern city’ of Colombo originated by its port, is almost completely sealed off with military barriers, frisking points, and big signs saying “No Photography”. That is a huge pity, because there are some superb examples of Nineteenth and early Twentieth century architecture, old hotels and commercial properties with gargoyles and griffins, magnificent portals, colonnaded walks and all set on broad streets with names like Chatham, Duke and Bristol. Alas now the streets are rubbish strewn, the buildings soiled with the mould and gunk of decay, the air thick and blue with the haze from tuk tusk, and the sweet sickly smell that reminds you of vomit. Trees and bushes grow out from crumbling brick-work, there is that dank gloomy darkness that oozes out in the tropics when cleansing and painting are no longer done. I passed a YMCA hostel which looked like a set from a ‘lost in the jungle’ movie, more like a cockroach convention centre, and I shuddered for the unfortunates whose circumstance required them to seek a bed there. There was an architecturally interesting mosque beside a Buddhist stupa, and some wonderful houses which were freshly painted and showed what Colombo could look like if spruced up a bit.

Roads which once would have been pristine and well maintained, with painted kerbs and proper guttering and drains, now lie almost fallow. Pavement bricks are missing and roads and footpaths have that earthquake ripple appearance which makes walking hazardous with the need to constantly look down, the feet sending signals to the brain, “hey help me out here” less you stumble in a hole, and get Hep A, B and C from the resulting graze. There are the pavement sellers who virtually live on the street, their ‘shop’ being slightly bigger than a matchbox with oddments like rubber gloves, knives, clothes pegs, bras and corsets and other incredible stuff to fully equip your house, or dress you for that job interview! And again, everywhere there are people and amid them, steepling black ravens hurtle to the ground and pick up the wayward scraps thrown out by the food sellers. No, better to see all this ‘earthiness’ from the back seat of your air-conditioned Mercedes as you flit from meeting to meeting, with nary a whiff of pong.

And indeed, the next day, a flag-fluttering Jaguar was at the door of the hotel for the Prime Minister, and twenty cars back, a little Kia for me and two Arab colleagues. But it mattered not, for we were all in the same convoy led by a Sri Lankan Jenson Button, whose blue light and screeching siren led the way. Not that it was necessary, mind you, as the roads and streets were totally devoid of traffic and at every side-road or laneway, there was a soldier with a gun, his back pointed to the roadway, just like those security guards that you see during the last minutes of the Grand Final football match, staring across the pickets. There were simply thousands and thousands of them. People had lined the footpaths to see who it was flashing by and at every main artery, the traffic stretched back, I am sure, for kilometers. We passed by some wonderful, though in many instances, now run down, colonial era buildings and also bungalows that looked almost sugar-spun, with little turrets and cupolas, standing in a many-treed garden surrounded a patch of restless lawn that reminded me of Boris Johnson’s thatch. Occasionally, where there had been maintenance or restitution, the place looked simply wonderful and serene, as it reflected past glories. Oh if only more countries, as part of unemployment relief, adopted a policy of Pay a Painter, then I am sure that many more of these cities would look like … well Singapore, and the tourists would come a-flocking. Few of the wealthier tourists have the time for grime.

We visited a wonderful white-painted museum, set in among sprawling grounds shaded by huge fig trees. There, right out the front, on his plinth, was a bird-bespattered statue of Sir William Henry, then British Colonial Governor of Ceylon, who had established the museum in 1877. It was a wonderful structure with teak floors and ceilings, a majestic stairway befitting a building of grandeur, and a contemplative Buddha statue to greet you on the way in. There was a roller-skate tour of the many exhibits, and then back in the motorcade through the traffic-swept streets, past mile after mile of shops, more brac than brick, and to the 200 year old Mount Lavinia Hotel for lunch. The hotel was once the ‘get away from it all’ mansion of four British Colonial Governors (presumably, sequentially) but one, Sir Thomas Maitland, somewhat darkly courted a sensuous mestizo dancer named Lovinia and the hotel that the mansion has now become, trades heavily on that romance, allure and mysterious assignations. There is a stunning ‘golden sands’ beach outside, with a roiling sea, and at night, no doubt, a crescent moon, if fact all the props necessary for an interlude, or to be wooed, and definitely screwed when one looked at the prices. Not that we even glanced, mind you, as we sat down to a eight course lunch in a banqueting room looked over by paintings of men in wigs and military posture, while an army of white-suited, pith helmeted, plus-foured waiters took care of our every whim, and the orange juice flowed like wine.

We drove back the way we came and I hoped that the people we held up this time, were not the ‘still waiting’ crowd from before. We went along the sea-front where I had first ‘seen’ Angelina Jolie calling me like the Lorelei, but it was deserted save for barb-wire, heavy machine guns, pill-boxes and the ubiquitous guards. Old cannon pointed out to sea and in the distance was an old lighthouse that must have comforted mariners from Lisbon, Leiden and London in the glory days gone by, or the mosquito fleet of the Tamil Tigers in the gory days gone by. Oh how it all called for a host of tourists, and the Sri Lankans themselves, to enjoy this beautiful spot. At the front of the majestic old Parliament building, a dozen or so grey stone statues, now devoid of recognition, stood looking forlornly out to sea.. Even the seagulls seemed to have given them a miss.

We left the way we came, in a speeding convoy, the airport road our racetrack. Crowds, many no doubt cursing, and mangy dogs watched our passing. Everywhere too, there were pictures of a smiling President Rajapaksa, with his Saddam Hussain moustache, extolling the citizenry that the Government was there to help them. At the airport, white clad soldiers did what soldiers on parade do best, raising and lowering rifles and stamping feet as one. There were handshakes amid the photographer’s flashes, the aircraft door whumped shut, and out of the window I saw the troops marching away and two little men rolling up the red carpet like a coiled spring. As we lifted off, the airport again looked busy and the roads were again choked. It was as though we had never been.


Sri Lanka Airport

Red carpet farewell


I spent forty-eight hours in Colombo, a mere taster I know, like merely dipping into the froth on a cappuccino, but to me it was like visiting the old Asia, the teeming, dirty, congested, noisy, steamy, smelly, torpid city, but this one with only a few redeeming features. Yet it was a place that oozed history and interest and was located in a picturesque setting. It could all be so different. But then would it still be ‘truly Asia’ for it would be unappealing to those who now find places like Singapore sterile and septic, and too pandering to Western concepts of cleanliness, sameness and order. I am sure, from the pictures that I saw, and the brochures in my room, that Sri Lanka has some beautifully entrancing attractions and places to visit. It is just, that there could be so much more to its window to the world, its capital Colombo. Paint and preservation could do so much to lift the city. In time, hopefully, much will be opened up again and the military presence shall disappear. And then maybe, just maybe, I will come back and look for the embrace of my Angelina Jolie beach!         

Winfred Peppinck is the Wandering Freditor Editor for Wandering Educators.

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