For us third-worlders an ideal vacation is to a country that looks nothing like ours, some place rich and glamorous to forget for a while the streets that flood at the slightest hint of rain, the dust that perpetually lurks on the horizon and the footpaths that are as broken as our dreams of pedestrian joy. If you are a woman, the craving is to get out and experience the freedom that often feels like an abstract, bookish notion in Pakistan. The rich go to Europe, the middle class save up for Dubai. Towards the east, relatively economical vacations a decade or so ago were all about Malaysia and Thailand, but of late Sri Lanka has steadily crept into the Pakistani imagination as a cheap and easy holiday hop.
The best part is the visa process. Used to being made to feel like a criminal for the colour of my passport, I was most surprised to fill out a short form online and then forget about it, till three days later the visa slid into my email as smoothly as a smart guy’s pick-up lines.
Upon arriving in Colombo, my first impression of it was of a city made up of the more rundown areas of Lahore. Cramped shops, rickety signboards, muggy weather. In short, nothing to write home about: for why would you write home about a place that looks so much like home? But in the middle distance I could see high-rise apartment blocks sprouting up, still under construction, and a tall colourful lotus-shaped tower that served as the city’s lodestar. This is how Colombo revealed another side of itself by and by, one made up of wide, tree-lined boulevards and a grey-blue coastline, high-end hotels and traffic far more civil than India and Pakistan’s.
Galle Road in central Colombo is the city’s affluent heart and the Galle Face Hotel, my home for three nights, its centre. Although featured in the book 100 Places You Must See Before You Die, and hyped on the internet as the best place to stay in Colombo, I am not sure the price I paid for a sea-facing balcony room was worth it. The only time a room with a view deserves double the normal price is if the said view is directly opposite your bed and the window affords an uninterrupted panorama of this scene. The rest is just a con.
Sri Lanka: colonised thrice, by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British is an island of remarkable diversity. Within a few hours’ driving distance you can find pretty beaches, expansive tea gardens and dense green forests on rolling hills. Signs of Dutch colonisation still dot the country, chief among which are the two Dutch Hospital Shopping Precincts, one in Colombo, the other in Galle.
For a Nosocomephobiac like me (that’s a fancy way of saying fear of hospitals, and no I don’t know how to pronounce it either), a shopping district in a hospital didn’t sound like a particularly inviting prospect. But its name should not serve as a deterrent: the lovely quarter with colonnades, arches, sloping red roofs and a cobbled central courtyard bears no resemblance to the modern hospital as we know it. Local brands Odel and Barefoot are as far from the dismal innards of a hospital as possible, their shops a burst of joyous rainbow colours in coarse local cotton and silk: deep purple saris and turquoise tablecloths, red dresses and bright yellow bedspreads, stuffed elephants and turtles in loud primordial colours entirely unapologetic for their existence.
Tucked away in another corner of Colombo’s Dutch Hospital Precinct is Ministry of Crab, often included in lists of top restaurants in Asia. It is so popular, and the air it cultivates so exclusive, it is hard to get a table here without reservation, but we walked in on a Monday afternoon when business was slow and were lucky enough to be showed a window table almost immediately.
Ministry of Crab is an experience. An expensive one, but an experience nonetheless. Its high, high ceiling was adorned with sturdy wooden beams that run all across it, and two elegant chandeliers offset by classic black ceiling fans soundlessly whirred away Colombo’s humidity. Strings of creamy pink-and-white Birds of Paradise flowers filled the room and a small black pedestal fan transported one to a romanticised version of the Raj.
The restaurant serves only fresh crab (never frozen or refrigerated) and a discreet electronic signboard lights up the particular kind available on a certain day. We ordered an Avocado and crabmeat salad flavoured with wasabi-laden mayonnaise. Experiencing wasabi outside of a sushi context was a first for me and this concoction’s subtle zing made me wish I had ordered more. This was followed by a red-pepper crab curry and though we were afraid crabmeat that tends to be difficult to scoop out would not be enough for two, the traditional Sri Lankan bread that came with it made it a more than fulfilling meal.
It was such a delight to know former cricketers from other countries turn to healthier pursuits than politics — the restaurant is owned by former Sri Lankan cricketers, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumara Sangakkara.
Beyond the culinary and shopping experience, Colombo had Hindu and Buddhist temples that offered insight into a multi-religious society, always a bit of a jolt to one from a country whose population consists of 97 per cent Muslims.
Sri Lanka is a country of three major religions, of which Buddhism is by far the majority. There are 70 per cent Buddhists, 12.6 per cent Hindus and 9.7 per cent Muslims. This diversity is reflected in the country’s religious architecture. Statues of Buddha dominate the landscape but Colombo also has many Hindu temples and mosques.
On a short tuk-tuk trip around Colombo, our tuk-tuk wala brought us to an intricately carved Hindu temple whose beauty we admired as the Zohar azaan wafted through from a nearby mosque. Colombo’s Hindu and Budhist temples offered insight into a multi-religious society, always a bit of a jolt to one from a country whose population consists of 97 per cent Muslims.
Beyond Colombo we wanted to experience the different climes and terrains of the country, and the difference between driving down to Kandy and Ella, our next planned destinations, was so great: 13,000 LKR for a car and 400 LKR for a train that we decided to take the less comfortable but more scenic train route, an experience so rich it deserves to be expanded upon separately.
To be continued.