Downtown Colombo is a strange post-apocalyptic scene – full of troops, barricades and crumbling, shuttered buildings. After shattering bombs from the LTTE at the Central Bank and planes flying into Inland Revenue, the whole place has been and remains locked down. But, like the road to Jaffna, things are loosening up. It seems like someday the roads within Colombo 1 and 2 will open up and people can freely walk around again. I mean, you can actually walk around now. You can buy Saddam-era dinars and visit the ruins of White Horse. You can shop at the first grocery store or just walk under arches that feel like old Mumbai. A bit further, the entire colonial era Municipal Council is preserved in wax figurine, at the edge of Pettah. A bit like Fort itself.
A watch from Ahmed’s Jewelry, Rs. 15,000
The place is frozen in time. It’s like a bomb went off and everything went Pompeii, buried under a layer of security. Not that it doesn’t make sense, but it’s eerie that Colombo’s downtown is, essentially, a ghost town. Businesses and people fled into the suburbs, Kollupitiya and Cinnamon Gardens, Havelock Town and Galle Road. In old maps, however, those areas were literally cinnamon plantations and provincial towns, Fort was where it’s at, where the ships docked and people and goods get off. Now it’s just goods, and people constantly patrol to keep out the bads.
Shopkeeper in Fort
You can have a decent lime and soda the Grand Oriental Hotel’s Harbour room overlooking the Port, where it all begins. The old Ports Authority Building is there, intact, a vestige of colonialism in front of modern container traffic and Israeli Dvora attack craft. No pictures are allowed. There’s rarely anyone there, you remain outnumbered by waiters in faux naval garb. The lobby is full of Indians here for some conference. The halls smell musty, the elevator music is deeply out of date.
Abandoned property, downtown Colombo
From there you can walk along the arches of buildings, place the Criminal Investigations Department. A light shines out of the crumbling edifice as the sun goes down. It’s not a place you want to be otherwise, just visiting. A bit further is the icon red and white Cargills building, I think the first grocery store in Sri Lanka. Inside it is way too big, the offerings look meagre and mediocre. It’s hot. You could play cricket in the place and the dry goods look hopelessly out of place. There are display cases full of nothing, a KFC looking preposterous, led to, inexplicably, by antique wooden stairs.
Off a side street you can visit the Pagoda Tea Room, where Duran Duran filmed the video for ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’. In it Simon Le Bon overturns a table and chases some random African-American woman through Pettah market. In reality the place is empty, haplessly modernized and running perilously low on short eats.
On the street there are shoe fixers, cops on horses, people on cell phones, occasional tourists clutching Lonely Planets like crucifixes, visiting our central tomb. Down the side streets there are barricades, now moved a bit further in. There are dodgy bars like the Golden Nugget, which apparently still operates. There are jewelry shops, money exchanges. We buy some Iraqi Dinars with Saddam’s image on them, Rs. 100 for 50. The man says they’re still legal tender. I look up the exchange rate later. They’d buy a slap in the face.
A watch from Saddam era dinars
The vendors say there’s no business, what with the armed men patrolling just outside their doors. But they stay. If only as offices. The defense chaps keep saying the roads will open – today, tomorrow, next month. One big issue is that the President’s House is here, though he doesn’t live there. That road is where the old iconic White Horse bar is (I think). It’s near a clock tower and the Central Bank. Officer workers stream out. The give us a pat down at the checkpoint. Across the street there’s a lovely colonial edifice, now with soldier’s jungies hanging from the windows. We take a peek inside, there’s think marble pillars and a circular atrium with stairs winding down. It looks like the site for some abandoned debutante ball, now a soldiers bunk, after the zombie apocalypse of 1929. As we leave a huge military lorry backs into the entrance. The only parked cars are military jeeps and a campaign bus for Namal Rajapaksa.
Heir to the throne, near the commercial crown
On the way out we leave through Pettah, the village, where everything from the Port seems to be unloaded and sold. At the end, near the lamppost junction, there’s an old yellowing building. You can go upstairs, no one seems to notice. There, behind dirty glass and stacked chairs, are life-sized wax figurines of the entire colonial-era Colombo Municipal Council. At a meeting it seems. They are still there, taking minutes for a time that never came.
Municipal Council Meeting, last century
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