Colombo is weird. I don’t know how to describe it, but every place we go is empty. It’s like visiting the ruins of a city, but in reverse. It’s the ruins of the future. It’s the emptiness of possibility. We have always wondered what could have been and this alternate reality pervades our imagination. We wander the ruins of what could of been. Now, seemingly, what will. One can imagine skyscrapers, boutiques, posh houses, metro rail. Yet we wander through slums, soccer games, abandoned warehouses, the skyline of the World Trade Centers reflected in stagnant ponds, feral cats and abandoned streets.
As we hop over a fence to explore some houses a security guard asks us what we’re doing. Just looking around we say. Everyone seems to find this odd, but he just follows at a respectful distance. We wander from dripping, cavernous ruins to what appears to be a normal business. I think this is or was some part of Keells. Then we’re back on the street, in front of the barricades, in sight of the Taj Hotel and hotel row.
Slave Island was once literally filled with African slaves and Malays, moated in by crocodilians. Now it’s a mostly Muslim/Malay ‘slum’, in the center of the city. As it were. There is the old abandoned city on one side and the commercial IDP camp we call Colpetty on the other. Slave Island, between bulldozings, is a teeming hub of humanity, home to big companies and small abodes. You can get burgers, tripe (baabath), and marrow bone soup. There is a charming public toilet guarded by bunnies and a military supply store that can sell you paratrooper patches. There are also a plethora of charming, dodgy bars, the best being the Castle Street Hotel.
Slave Island, the name has always made me grin. I can’t believe we actually had slaves here, but I also heard that the Galle Fort was built by them. What’s left now are a few Kaffers in remote villages, with their curly hair and traditional dance. Besides the Kaffers, the colonials also brought Malays, who were soldiers I think. They still live down Java Street, Asiatic women in head scarves, men with dyed beards.
It’s really not a slum, the houses are quite habitable and the people seem gainfully employed. But it’s certainly not gentrified. There is a huge gap between the land value and buildings on top. This gap looms in our imagination as we wonder and wander around.
The Metro Line
We duck through some back alley and end up on the train tracks, follow them into the station. The arches are painted and the place is clean but there’s really no one there. In 10 years this could be a metro line but now we’re just wandering through, hopping on and off the platform, looking around, balancing on the tracks. My friend wonders why they pile rocks under the tracks. To prevent erosion? I don’t know.
We’re back in the houses on the streets, narrow alleyways, ladies selling achcharu (fruit pickle), dudes on bicycle, kids playing cricket, a few junkie types staring vacantly. There’s a towering film theatre, now abandoned to soft-core porn. They’re showing Black Sand, featuring Black Starlet, directed by Norbert Meisel. The poster features Heidi Klum. Outside a gaggle of Muslim aunties have gathered, chatting, one grinning a big toothless smile. Further on some men are hanging out behind a grate, light comes from what looks like a parking entrance. There are no cars.
This place is supposed to come alive during Eid. It is certainly Muslim enough. The places is dotted with mosques, though some houses proclaim Jesus the risen lord. Certainly an Abrahamic kinda place. Down the second cross carcasses hang from a halal butchery. We eat some offal at the old baabath place, marrow bone soup that’s been boiling for 24 hours. Fat grained pittu with tripe curry, cow intestine, broth. I’ve been trying to go easy on the flesh and it’s a bit heavy for me. We duck across the street for a shot.
There’s a glass fronted hotel, belying the usual darkened dodge. Some guy outside is selling small flashlights, 50 rupees each. I buy two for the kids, shine them into my arrack and soda. A man insistently finds us a seat. My mute self and my Pakistani-looking friend are incongruous, but the locals respond to this with kindness.
We’re at a table with a grinning guy in an orange polo. Someone with a grey-streaked mullet, drinking a beer. There are no women, I forget what women look like. I feel very far from my wife. I remember that I don’t have one. As I get up to leave a gentleman gestures at my unfinished drink and gives me the universal head bob. I bobble my head in return. Finish the drink and grin. We bobble our heads some more, both smiling. I pat him on the shoulder and leave.
These guys live here, in the past, the future, the present. This particular Colombian test tube that never got stirred. I suppose you could look at it that way, or another way, or any number of ways. Alternately you can just be, wander the slums in the shadows of the skyscrapers that were never built. You can walk the rails that never sped, touch the crumbling facades, buy pickled jumbu and let the sour awaken you from the heat.
A toothless man sits in front of his gate, behind his improbably verdant garden, set back a ways from the brick brick brick of the street. There’s a For Sale sign hanging above the potted plants, yellow flowers, some grass. There’s a house wedged in there, we ask if we can go inside. It’s pretty big, bit dark. Some military photos, images of Jesus Christ. His wife his cooking with firewood on the stove. He wants a hundred lakhs, a hundred thousand dollars, about. Could probably get him down to eighty. What would we do here?
This is the city but it’s not. These are the narrow veins, the arteries that feed the grand Army house, the hospital, the hotel row, the temple set in the middle of the Beira Lake. It’s Saturday. I’m on the corner. It’s getting hot. I’d like a cool drink, maybe something to eat. No more fucking intestines. I’m heading back to the city, away from the future and the past, into the suburbs of today.
For a walking tour of Slave Island try heading down Union Street and parking on the side of the road, before the turn right past the burger stand into hotel row. There is a lot around the train station. Castle Street Hotel is directly along the tracks. If you walk down Malay Street (past Burger’s King) there are little shops and eateries. The best street is the second one in, turn right. There’s a military surplus store as well as the babaath shop, whose charming owner will gladly chat. There is also a well-kept public toilet down one of those lanes with fat bunny rabbits outside. Worth a visit.