Replacing a lamppost near the new Performing Arts Center. Photo by Dhammika Heenpella
When I lived in America we’d come back to visit Sri Lanka once every three or four years. In my memory, it never changed. Same buses, same cars, same streets, same stuff to do. In the last year, however, Colombo and Sri Lanka have changed dramatically, and these changes seem to be picking up steam.
In the past month we’ve seen the first proper highway, the first proper development in the city center and now the first 3D theatre. There is construction everywhere and new businesses popping up left and right, including online. This is just stuff I’ve seen and interacted with, literally off the top of my head.
Independence Square had not changed since Independence. Now there’s a full promenade leading to the planetarium, and more recently a bike path. I was leaving the Cinnamon Gardens police and I was like WTF, an actual bike path. The place is peaceful, beautiful, and you can take families there without worrying about dog shit, cow shit, or any shit at all. It’s just a lovely shit free space for the people. And I say this not for color. Where I live in Dehiwela there are two parks, one is also a cow grazing ground and the other is somewhat randomly home to dead, headless crows.
For over 30 years cops have been on checkpoint duty. Now there are almost no checkpoints and they can do actual cop stuff, like policing traffic. Colombo now has a one-way system and flyovers and you can generally pipe in and out of the city. What is neglected is public transit and people moving around within the city, but it’s still better than the non-moving that was going on before.
Provincially, there are now decent roads throughout the country, and a highway. The A9 to Jaffna is open, itself a generational wonder, and they’ve even set up a dedicated (temporary) bus stand at the end of Marine Drive. The roads in the East were improved years ago, though flooding really raked them. The next expressways planned are one around Colombo, a new Kandy Road and one to Trinco in the East. There’s also an Indian funded train planned for Jaffna.
I drive up and down the zoo road a lot. Seven months ago there was a plot of bare land saying for sale. Then it was bought and there was a hole in the ground. Now there’s a building, with another for sale or lease sign on it, for four floors of commercial property. You see this all over Colombo and Sri Lanka. I was in Matara and they have the biggest Arpico I’ve ever seen, plus the best kept guesthouse. In Colombo there are now like 10 coffee-shops. I remember when it was only Barista and that shit-paste tandoori sandwich. Now you can pay Rs. 500 for a sandwich all over town.
For the lower end, I also remember seeing Burgers King in Slave Island go from some dudes on the street to a huge signboard and all the functionality of a sit down restaurant. If by sit down you mean sitting on plastic chairs in an alley, but still. Really big sign. Other stuff includes the Gonuts For Donuts chain and countless small home sweet shops, and in the same time I think ODEL has opened like 5 outlets.
Online, Anything.lk is pimping all these small to medium businesses. Through them I’ve learned that we have enough new hair salons for me to go someplace new every week. I got some clippers to save myself the trouble, but still. I know at least two friends who are starting businesses, a few friends who are DJing and organizing parties, and there are now multiple arts events, like Pecha Kucha.
This December international acts Chicane, Basement Jaxx and Avicii are coming down. For the first time these are acts I have heard of and not in an ironic way. As a child I remember seeing Poison posters, and more recently we’ve gotten Englebert Humperdinck and Jay Sean and some sort of rash. Slowly, however, we’re getting bigger and bigger acts and, even if promoters are kinda fumbling about, a scene is coming up.
Online I still hear hyperbole about how Sri Lanka is a basket-case and going the wrong way and things have never been worse, which is completely disconnected from reality. Seriously, just walk or travel around. We have a sushi bar, a Ministry Of Crab and actual sidewalks on the Galle Road. I lost my ID months ago and still haven’t replaced it, nor have I had any problems. You don’t know how amazing this is. My childhood memories of Sri Lanka are almost all the same, but now I see the country changing literally every day. And for the better.
Is inequality a problem? Are some changes wasteful? Yes. But these problems I’m actually happy to deal with. For once its not like, are we killing each other again? Was there a bomb on the bus? We’re having second or first world problems now, and the papers are talking about policy and issues rather than bodycounts.
Hence, I don’t discount the problems, but I’ll be damned if I don’t see things getting better right before my eyes.