The market is the heart and the busiest place of every city. And railway stations, too. Since these two are side by side in Colombo, the chaos is doubled. The Pettah quarter is in the northern part of Colombo and every street is a separate world. You can find every shit on Earth there. But each product has its own separate little street. Like in Tesco. There’s an electronics section where you can find anything from dead mouse to dismantled TV sets. Cables, floppy disks and other very useful stuff. The vegetables and fruits are separated from the fish market by heaps of iron rods and other building supplies. I wandered into the fish section and it took me 14 sec to sprint out as the stench was unbearable. I went back to the electronics section as I needed a new battery for my shitty expensive Suunto watch which turned out not so waterproof after all. I entered the first store that looked like one to sell batteries. Sometimes it is difficult to tell what the main profile of a shop is even if it looks like a shoe shop. For example, I saw a place which looked like a grocery store but I could easily buy gravel, provided I had a bucket with me, as there was a huge pile next to the front door. Buy a pair of shoes and get 10kgs of gravel. Nice touch.
I took my old battery with me as I thought it would make the communication easier. “Do you have any of these guys?’ ‘No, sir, opposite shop.’ ‘Great, thanks.” I left and went straight to the shop accross the road. “Guys, battery, something like this?’ ‘No, sir, opposite shop.” But I just came here from the opposite shop where they said you have it.’ ‘Not that opposite, that opposite, sir.” Ok, I try over there too.” I enter, ask the same question and surprisingly I get the same answer. “Opposite shop.” Like in a shitty comedy I was zigzagging between shops. In the 4th shop I didn’t’ even ask if they had any battery or not, I just asked if I should go to the opposite shop or not. ‘Yes, sir, opposite shop.” I thought so. I only had to find the 6th opposite shop to get the battery. I quickly bought two as I just couldn’t believe the price of one. The two cost around £0.30. I left the shop with a big triumphant smile and with batteries in my pocket. As I left I could see that the guy in the ‘opposite’ shop was just as happy as I was as if I had bought it in their shop. I got what I wanted. And that’s the main thing. No matter who sold it or who made the money out of it. The problem is solved. And this is true for every situation I’ve encountered. If they do not have it or they don’t know something there must be someone who has it or knows it. And they won’t rest until they find that person. They never say no. Never. Fucking. Ever. If they really have to say no they just don’t answer. Or just leave you there with your question. It’s like all the people in this country are ONE united person. Doesn’t matter who does what as long as someone does it. My problem is your problem and their problem too. Let’s try to solve it together. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Simples.
I carried on wandering around. You can wander a lot in a market. For the time being I was only an observer and tried to see the little details and the mechanics of how the market worked. It was way too much to absorb and to make something out of it. It didn’t make me anxious, it just surrounded me. Everybody was busy with something: shouting for no reason, packing, stacking, unpacking, loading and unloading something. Sometimes I had to get out of the way of a honking truck or another time I was obstructing the way of an unbelievably dirty guy who was pulling at least a ton of something on a very flimsy thingy. After half an hour of swirling I had enough. There was so much stuff going on that even an 8-core IBM processor would have failed to process. I needed fresh air and some rest. As usual, I found a nice-looking sewer opposite the market. It worked last time so it should work this time, too. I was right. I watched the birds with delight as they pecked the floating rubbish from the shitty water. I needed a reset. ‘You should just go back and take some pictures’ – I said to myself. And my fear was back again. Just hit me right in the face. Fear of what? No one is going to kill me. No one gives a fuck about me! My own never-ending mindfucks. I took a big breath and stood up, pulled my camera out of my bag and went back to the market to face my fear. It happens every time when I feel alien or an outsider in a place. Maybe it’s a common feeling. I don’t know. That’s my feeling. Also, it is hard to blend in with my pure white skin which comes with beard and silver polished nails, but still. I have to fight this battle every time, every day. But once I’m over it, magic happens. As I start taking pictures I start to be part of their world. And since I’m part of it I’m no longer an outsider or an alien. Catch 22.
I found a place which looked like a café. Not like Starbucks. It was a 2×2 meter hole in a wall next to a welding shop with two plastic stools, a hardly working fridge and two merchants in slippers. A food hygiene inspector would have closed the café down just by looking at the entrance. Or they would close the whole market for that matter. Even the whole country. Actually, that would be great fun. To send an inspector to Sri Lanka for holiday. Just for fun. And see what happens. They wouldn’t get out of the airport terminal without getting into a fit. Anyways, back to me. I always follow my intuitions. I never ever just walk around and take photos. Of course, I do walk around and take photos of everything but those are just practice shots. I know instantly if a shot is going to be a good one or a shitty one. Once I see the opportunity fear kicks in and I have two options. I walk away or stay and face it. My first reaction is always to walk away. Fear. Let’s run. The second is to stay and face myself. Yes, It’s a battle with myself. And I want to win! So I have to stay. That’s my battle. And it’s really interesting for me that I can fight with myself through photography. /sidenote: I’m writing this post early March while the events I’m writing about took place mid February, but I have to add something to the above story about my fear. At the moment I’m up in north Sri Lanka in a holy place. I spend most of the day around monks, holy people and sacred ruins. And there was a monk in particular. A devoted monk. Not the one who takes selfies while chanting. He was standing in a corner with his eyes closed. Still. He didn’t move at all. First I thought he was begging for money or something. As I was approaching him, I took out 300Rs and wanted to give it to him. And then I saw a sign saying: “I don’t ask for money as I don’t need it. Photo and video is ok. And please don’t talk to me between 3pm and 7pm.” He was standing there, silently, meditating. I passed by him and walked away. And then it clicked. I must take a photo of him. I would never ever photograph a monk or religious people while they are praying. It’s just not nice. They are devoting their feelings to their gods and I believe I would disturb them. At least that’s what I think. So there was my challenge. To take a photo of him and going against what I know is right. But he said photos are ok. I waited about 10 mins to gather enough strength to walk back and face him. I stood in front of him, looked right at him and took one photo. Only one. When I pressed the button and once the photo was taken I started crying. I started crying out of the blue. But it felt good. It felt honest and right. I walked toward him with my wet eyes I put my hands together next to my heart and I bowed. It was a bow for him. And it was a bow for me. As I walked away I realized he was just a mirror. HE wasn’t there. The person who lives inside that man wasn’t there. He was in such a deep meditative state that he couldn’t interact with the outside world. That’s why he was just a pure mirror to anyone who looked at him. He just reflected back everything around him. Right back at me. And that’s mediation for me. When YOU are not there. When YOU cease to exist and no one can reach you because YOU’re not there./
Anyhow, I ordered tea. Sweet milky stuff. The older guy invited me to sit down and drink my tea in the shop. I walked in and sat down in a corner to have my small cup of tea which I could have drunk in half a minute. 4 seconds later I was asked the same questions as before, country, name etc. We exchanged a few words and then left each other in peace. And then suddenly I was part of the place. I was part of their reality. It was my reality, too. I wasn’t standing outside or wandering around. And I don’t mean it physically. I started to notice the delicate details of the place. The older guy was responsible to sell the different kinds of deep fried food showcased in dirty display cabinet, he was also managing the money. The younger guy was the tea maker and the kitchen porter. I wouldn’t call it a kitchen but he was doing the dishes. I also wouldn’t call it cleaning as he was just dipping the used cups or glasses in a bucket-like thing full of soapy grey water. Then more people arrived. Some of them had tea, some ordered roti (vegetables or meat wrapped in a pancake) some just came for a cigarette. They could buy cigarettes individually. I was 17yrs old the last time I saw cigarettes being sold individually. There was a really shitty pub in my hometown where I used to drink with my buddies. Regulars came and they had their shot of ‘palinka’ with two cigarettes. Here you go, enjoy. It was surreal. But it’s still real in 2019. A couple of days ago I wanted to buy two boxes of cigarettes. It’s hard to name these places as they are not shops. They are just places where you can buy stuff. Water, cigarettes, plastic toys, banana. They have 3 or 4 walls and there is a half-naked person within these walls. Well, maybe it’s a shop, I guess. So back to my cigarette story. The guy gave me two cigarettes. I told him I wanted two boxes. “ah, no sir, no box.” So how many you have? “12”. Good, give me 12 cigarettes. I never ever bought 12 cigarettes in my life.
Anyways, back to the tea room now. Two more guys came in and one sat next to me. I should say next to me on the same chair. Basically, he sat on me. There isn’t much space left in 4sq meters if you have a fridge, a massive 100l pot, shelves and boxes and 5 guys. We were sitting there drinking our tea and smoking. Another guy arrived. Without uttering a word he bought 3 cigarettes and a roti. Without saying a fucking word. He handed over the money and left. In London it would have taken at least 5 minutes, 6 questions and 8 answers. I could sit there for the rest of the day but I had to find another little world to be part of it. I took a last photo of the younger guy but I was more interested in the half-naked guy eating his muffin at the back.
Altogether, I spent a week in Colombo as I’m back here for the second time. I have to say I like it here. I could live here. Not for a long time but maybe for a few months or even a year if I could use that time for something. During this one week I tried to walk around in some of the inner districts. And they all have their own charm. One day I went into Victoria Park which is in the city center. Ah, the center. That’s my favorite. I mean favorite is how it is marked on the map. The maps says “City center (under construction)”. What? I mean every city has a center. How can it be under construction? Anyway. So that park is filled with ducks, geese and other two-legged creatures. The grown-ups doing their romantic things and the kids ride ponies. There is a building at one end of the park that looks as if someone had combined a factory with the Capitol in Washington. White and has a dome and other stuff. I sat there for an hour or so and then got up to have something for late lunch. Within half a second a guy approached me and asked about my country. Nothing special. I hear the same question at least twice a day. That or “can I have a cigarette sir”. And then the other question. “Do I know this Victoria Park?” Well, actually I know this is Victoria Park. No sir, it is no Victoria Park, now it is Viharamahadevi Park!” Well, thanks for the update. “And you know name that tree?” Come again? Tree? Name? No, why or how should I know that. “I do not know. But I guess you know.”, “That’s cinnamon tree.”. No idea it was a cinnamon tree. Actually, I didn’t have any idea what a cinnamon tree looked like. We went to the tree and he broke off a bit and shoved into my face to smell it. (fun fact: The park is a district called Cinnamon Gardens). “And what is that?” I don’t know. “Guess sir”. How should I guess If I only know 5 tree varieties? “Guess, sir!. Ok, fuckit, I make a guess. “Willow?” “ No, sir, no willow. It is … (and the name of the tree I don’t remember now). And it went on for another half an hour. It turned out he was the gardener, Rajiki. And he had a PHD in botany. He said it at least 13 times. And he knew the name of every tree in this park. That’s about 5,000 trees. About half way intoour little tour I thought something was off. I mean he was really the guardian of the park and he knew the trees, birds, mammals and everything in that park but still something didn’t add up. Once we started talking about ants and bats I decided to say goodbye as we could continue indefinitely. And then I realized. He did it for the money. Nothing is free in this world. I mean he knows 5000 trees so it’s reasonable to ask money for his knowledge.
I left the park and completely forgot that I was en route to have lunch so I ended up at the seaside. It was almost sunset so I stayed as the colors are magnificent at that time in this country. It’s similar to the usual European vanilla sky but has a different shade. And only lasts for about 10 minutes. That’s my window. Right on the waterfront there is a railway station. But no one gives a shit about the coming trains so everyone is walking on the tracks to get to the station. If the train comes don’t be on the track. Easy to remember. I sat down onto a broken rusty abandoned track and waited for the right moment. I’ve been back to this place 3 times now. Nice open vista, trains are coming and going, people fishing and kissing. Lots of stuff happening there. One of my favorite places in Colombo. While I was sitting there and watched the time fly by I saw a few dark clouds gathering around. In 5 minutes I spotted something I only saw in a movie. It was exactly as in the last scene of Ghostbusters. Although no dark demons this time. The darkest, fluffiest, thickest clouds ever. Lit by the sunset from the other side. Never seen anything like it. But as nothing happens without consequences in another 5 minutes I was soaking wet. But for that moment it was worth it.
I got myself into a tuktuk and headed to a place called Chutney for my early dinner. My guidebook said good things about it so it was an easy choice but forgot to mention that the restaurant was in a lobby of an 8star hotel. Which is fine but I looked like someone who just stepped out of a washing machine right before spinning. My dirty feet and my slippers weren’t helping my entre. But at least I was wearing a shirt. A wet shirt. I heard somewhere that wet shirts are sexy. To my surprise I was welcomed, though I was sat down in a darkly lit corner next to the toilet. I really needed a gin and tonic. It was harder to get than I thought. The guy was very friendly but he just didn’t get the concept of gin and tonic. He asked twice that I ordered a gin and tonic. Yes, I did. Gin and tonic. At the end I got a glass full of gin, a jug of tonic, an ice bucket with ice enough for the rest of my life and 2 kilos of lime in a basket. Here you go. Here is your gin and tonic. And the rest. Enjoy. Thanks. The food was really good but massively overpriced. I ended up paying more than 6000Rs (£30) which is my daily budget in Sri Lanka including accommodation, travel, food and alcohol. I spent all of it on one dinner. Thanks Rough Guide! I ate so much I had to walk for an hour as I didn’t want to leave half of my expensive dinner in a tuktuk.
It is easy to find overpriced places in Colombo and all over Sri Lanka. They count on the rich or people from the west. OK, I’m not searching for these places, I’m happy with my fried rice for 200Rs, but I didn’t think there was so much Western stuff. For example, Sri Lanka has a coffee culture. I thought Sri Lanka had tea only. But turns out they have their own coffee. It’s called Riverstone Coffee which is 100% pure Arabica blended with a touch of Bourbon and Catuvia varietis. Here you go, you coffee geeks! Flat white can be bought almost everywhere. Of course, it’s not cheap but at least it’s really good. I went to a café recommended by my friends to have lunch. (Café Kumbuk). I felt like I was in Europe. Vegan food, fucking good coffee, healthy bowls and there was even a yoga studio next to the cafe. Guests were mainly white humanoids. They arrived with their little yoga matts and drank their smoothies. Yoga wasn’t cheap either. It was around £80/month. I guess the teachers aren’t locals. For the first time in my life I saw metal straws! Yes, they pay attention to not using plastic straws. This ‘no straw’ thing is just about to take off in Europe. Way ahead of us. Of course, there are places where you get 4 plastic straws for your cocktails but you can always ask them not to bring one with your next drink. I have to rewrite my ideas or preconceptions about this part of Asia. If you can’t give up western comfort and luxury you don’t have to. Recycling was another shock for me. They actual do it! And there are no bins on the street, like back in London, and there isn’t any rubbish on the streets, unlike back in London. Even in smaller cities. Sri Lanka is surprisingly clean. Messy, but clean. What strikes me most is the contrast between people. You can have dinner from a paper plate for 100Rs or from a porcelain plate on a silk tablecloth for 2000Rs. It’s 20 times price difference. It’s like having a quick meal in London for £10 and having a similar meal for £200. I mean there are many expensive places in London, too but at those places I wouldn’t be served by a young kid who earns minimum wage. And that’s the big contrast. Or at least for me. For them I guess it’s normal. Rich and poor live next to each other.
I already have a favorite place. It’s a café/restaurant called Barefoot Café and Gallery. It also looks like a western place but at least it’s not full of white people. I see more locals than tourists. Locals and local white people. Curry is good, coffee is go(o)d and they have beer instead of smoothie. No yoga matts, either. And I saw a white waiter for the first time. A guy from Australia. He must be in his early 50s and he’s not even the manager. There is a small Sri Lankan dude giving him orders. The café also has a shop. Or the shop has a café. Whatever. My weakness. A bookstore. I try to travel with as little stuff as possible but I’ve already bought two books. I am planning to buy shit loads of books and send them back to London before I leave Sri Lanka. They have books I’m buying for £12-15 in London for £2!!!! There is also artwork, clothes, homeware section. All nice and colorful. I managed to get myself a big shawl which is useful for everything. And it’s made locally not by little slaves somewhere in China. I actually saw the woman who wove it. She sits and weaves opposite a toilet.
On another night I walked right into a street festival in a small park somewhere near the ocean. I was really hungry and luckily there were many food stalls. We, westerners, call this very fashionably ‘Street Food’. Food bought on the street. Nothing new as food has been available on streets for many thousands of years, but WE like to give names to old things to make it look new and cool. I ate fried crabs and drank a can of beer wrapped in newspaper. It was wrapped because it is frowned upon if you drink alcohol on the street. But since it’s wrapped nicely you think no one knows that you’re drinking beer. But because the only can they wrap in newspaper is beer everybody knows. Really smart move! I bought it like I was buying some illegal substance. I asked a guy who asked another one, I gave the money to a third one and I got the beer from a fourth one. And it was really expensive. 5 times the regular price. I sat down and watched the white people strolling up and down while drinking their beer wrapped in newspaper.
Next to this park there is a long avenue or road like Andrassy Street in Budapest. (It’s one of the main streets in Budapest with lots of shops, cafes, theatres and it’s also a World Heritage Site. I didn’t know that, just found out. Thanks wiki.) I saw fashion retailers, jewelry stores, banks, bars and liquor stores. Nothing wrong with that but I wasn’t expecting anything like it. The only other Asian country I visited was India. In Mumbai I saw a completely different cityscape. Dirty streets and rubbish everywhere, chaos, miserable people lying on the pavement if there is a pavement at all. I was expecting something similar. But Sri Lanka is different in that sense. I had a chat with a guy from Jaipur the other day and he said the same. Sri Lanka is similar to India but it’s much cleaner and nicer. So, if you want to visit the east part of this lovely planet and don’t want to get into a shock after 5 minutes of your arrival, I recommend Sri Lanka. And I recommend Colombo, too. It’s still different from Europe but not as overwhelmingly as India. The suburbs are a bit different though. I got lost and I wandered into a district where I guess I was the first white person to be walking along. It is completely off the tourist trail. And that’s why it was fucking interesting. It was a long slightly narrow street next to a sewer where people were busy fixing tuk tuks. It was more like a junkyard. Half-naked guys were welding without any protective gear. Kids were hoarding metal things to make a massive pile in the middle of the road. Hundreds of tuktuks were waiting to be fixed or scrapped. Really interesting stuff. Shitscary as well. Everyone was staring at me. Guys soaked in oil and dirt watching you as you walk on their turf in clean white shirt and sunglasses on. Who the fuck is he? I had to take a few photos. As I was taking out my camera a guy started waving at me. I waved back. And then he ran upto me and asked to take a photo of them. Sure, my pleasure, thanks for asking. I took the shot and the guy insisted that I send him the image. No problem. What is your email address? I gave him a piece of paper and a pen to write his address down. He gave me his physical address in Tamil language. Bro, there is no way I can send it to you. I cannot fucking read this thing. Then he found someone who could write his address down in Latin letters. Great. Now I have to print this image and physically send it to these guys. When was the last time I did something similar? Last century? But I definitely go back there and photograph the shit out of that place. If I ever have a photo essay printed in the National Geographic magazine that’s going to be one!
In my next post I reveal the real reason, apart from taking nice shots and surfing, why I’m here in the first place. Or why I picked Sri Lanka instead of Thailand. Me and my friends wanted to find out if the story we read in a newsportal was true or not. It turns out there is a place somewhere in the southern part of Sri Lanka which was bought buy a British couple. Nothing unusual so far, but apparently they got so drunk they bought the place. Brits. Well, after meeting the previous owner, who is the manager now, and seeing how he runs the place… well… we weren’t surprised.