March 15: Colombo, Sri Lanka.
This morning, we docked in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. This is a vibrant port city at the crossroads of many religions and cultures: Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian. During the morning, we went down to the pier to see what the vendors there had to offer. We were not impressed with the quality of their goods, and the temperature was quite hot in the sun, more comfortable in the shade. There was no need to stay outside in the heat since walking anywhere in the port area was out of the question, so we went back on board. Our excursion today was our first afternoon tour, and we wondered if we’d made a mistake because of the heat. But we were OK. It turned out to be a great tour, with among the best guides we’ve ever had. Mark and Ruvi Forbes, husband and wife, were residents of Sri Lanka, knew the history well, and were committed to making us tourists new fans of their country. I think they succeeded. Our walking tour encompassed only a small area of the city, but we got to see the main market area, Pettah, and the downtown business and shopping area built on the remains of a Portuguese fort from the 16th century.
In Pettah, we walked through narrow streets lined with stalls that were selling everything from textiles and electronics to dish detergent and spices. It was a lively space, and everyone seemed to be busy doing something. The vegetable market was amazing. Vendors were sitting next to piles and bins of every possible kind of vegetable, from shallots to kohlrabi to potatoes to cucumbers. Even though it was Sunday, the guide said, everything would be gone by the end of the day, ready for the next shipments from the growers early Monday morning. Making these shipments possible was a fleet of fantastically painted and decorated trucks (see Denise’s picture). Along the way, we stepped into the Old Dutch Museum, a colonial-era mansion with a quiet courtyard decorated with cinnamon and cardamom plants, which were so important when this country was involved in the spice trade.
In the old fort area, which had been settled (after the indigenous people, of course) by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British, we walked along wide streets with colonial-era buildings which are gradually being restored. A terrorist bombing in the 1990s damaged a few buildings and killed 300 people and caused businesses to abandon this area for a number of years. However, the government has commissioned the armed forces to be in charge of doing renovations in the district, and so far everyone thinks they’re doing a great job. [Make buildings, not war: what a concept !] We had a break in a wonderful old hotel, the Grand Oriental Hotel, which had a great view of the harbor where our ship was docked. Of particular note were the wooden stairs made of some rich dark wood, I presume teak. When we continued our walk through the old business district full of these majestic, old buildings, we peeked into Cargill’s, a 19th century version of a department store, and walked past a Lloyds of London building, an abandoned Bank of India building with massive pillars, a renovated HSBC building, and a former lighthouse which now holds a clock and marks the zero mile for Sri Lanka. As we were walking, our guide told us stories from both colonial and modern history and made us feel that Sri Lanka is a country well on its way to developing what’s needed to reach its full potential as a modern nation.
We ended the tour at the Old Dutch Hospital complex. This was a functioning hospital in the 17th century, but today it holds nice restaurants, bars, and shops. One shop featured high-quality, locally made products and gave me the opportunity to buy a t-shirt (as if I needed another one) with pictures of tuk-tuks on the front. By the way, I haven’t mentioned traffic in today’s post, but it wasn’t like what we’ve been seeing in other countries. It was Sunday, so that would have made a difference, but cars and tuk-tuks were the dominant vehicles, not too many motorbikes or even taxis. The explanation may be that we were in a less busy part of town, but being able to cross a street without fearing for your life was something we haven’t felt for a while.
Back at the ship just before all-aboard time, we had a short nap, then prepared for our evening activities. There were no cocktails tonight because the evening was so busy. At 7 we had the Amsterdam Singers and Dancers in a terrific show. Their moves and precision and energy are extraordinary. It’s hard to believe that Broadway could have anything better. At dinner with our tablemates, we shared the experiences of our day. At 9:15 in the Piano Bar, we listened to our pianist’s program of war songs, starting with early English ones, through the American Civil War and then the 20th century wars. At the end of the program, after honoring the veterans by playing songs for each of the armed forces, she played The Star Spangled Banner, and we all stood up. After that, we went back to the show lounge for a ballroom dance program, featuring dancers from Belarus with “inventive choreography, dramatic dancing, and spectacular costuming.” It was quite a busy day for us, and we returned to our room exhausted.