Colombo – censorship, a snake-charmer and a wonderful scam

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for the photos of there.

Christmas passed by this year in an emotional whirlwind of celebrations, officiating butterflies, a wedding with a full heart and a mischievous proposal, champagne toasts, first-meetings and wonderfully long catch-ups over endless cups of tea. Perfect simplicity, camera forgotten. I threw myself body and soul into all those little “home” things – a constantly boiling kettle, the different character of the fire depending on who set it, the particular colour of early morning through my bedroom curtains, the texture and warmth of wonderfully unhurried technology-free chats, and long walks on a windblown beach, empty but for us. Time, a trickster, evaporates in flashes. Never more so than now, this Christmas.  My friends, glittering and beautiful, are buoyed by the new steps and turns in their suddenly grown-up lives, somehow the pros and cons of attachment parenting has become a viable topic of conversation, a glimmer of a new generation embraced, and there was my rucksack, doubtedful and unpacked, in the corner of my room. I think it’s fair to say that panic was creeping around the corner of my consciousness. I could see it out of the corner of my eye.  I was finding it hard to leave and I didn’t feel ready to stay, caught between possibilities. Finally, nerves thoroughly jangled, I kissed my people goodbye again, loaded up my mispacked rucksack, grabbed the Frenchman and boarded my Saudia Airlines flight to Sri Lanka. In adventure, clarity?

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Maybe the comfort of returning home had gently eased me out of the travelling frame of mind. Within moments of taxying down the runway, my travel curiosity had sprung back to life. I was surrounded by veils, abayas and thobes. Dark, kohled eyes glanced doe-like from between swathes of black fabric and men, to my eye, business-like and assured in their masculinity and pure white tunics,  moved purposefully about the cabin. A cavernous move-quality “God” voice bellowed out an Islamic blessing over the p.a. system. Oh this was definitely different from my average RyanAir flight! The in-flight entertainment started and to my stunned glee, the censors had been at work – those busy little pixies! Random, seemingly innoculous words such as “legs”, “gay”(in the context of “happy”!) and “bed” were snipped right out of films and entire scenes disappeared, muddying the plotlines more than a little. So does the hero pluck up the courage to kiss the girl? Who knows? Well, nobody in Saudi Arabia, that’s for sure! My absolute favourite censorship though came in the form of pixilation – a key female character wearing in Western dress? No problem, Saudi censors can just pixilate out her legs, shoulders, arms, décolleté… or replace her entirely with a coloured blob! Were my chosen films particularly racey? Eyebrows needn’t be raised –  “Penny” in The Big Bang Theory was one of many Western hussies who met this befuzzled fate – entirely blurred away! Ah, some would argue (hello censors *waves*) that it only added to her charm!

Finally, tumbling off the plane into the heat of Colombo was divine. The air was delicious. My nose, the part of my body I have always loathed, suddenly became my best feature as I sniffed delightedly. The scent of jasmine, oh my! As our tuk-tuk raced Kamikaze-style through the traffic, my nose poked happily out the window into the breeze of flowers and spices. We arrived at our guesthouse where the staff welcomed us with such warmth, and sleep-deprived and happy, I spent hours watching translucent gekkos skim along the shadowed walls munching on mosquitos.

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Revived after some incredible home-cooked rice and curry, Damien and I set off to explore Colombo. It was the first time either of us had ever set foot in Asia and with our heads filled with romantic notions of hessian sacks overflowing with spices and lengths of jewel-coloured silken saris, we dove into Pettah Market, or where our tuk-tuk driver dropped us for a more authentic experience, Manning Market within the Pettah Market district. My God! It is hard to describe the odour there, like every breath was suffused with vomit. In the searing heat, the pervading gloom and the press of people, my gag reflex was thoroughly activated and I walked with my stomach sliding unnervingly about my throat. Pools of water stagnated in hollows in the makeshift walkway and the air was heavy with poverty. The people there were unbelievably thin, crouched low to the ground,  stick-like arms gesturing to their  small mounds of produce. It was the dark labyrinth of a nightmare.

Blaming cultural disorientation, we regrouped and settled our roiling stomachs over some Sri Lankan short eats and lime soda (a bizarre sugary salty drink) by the Dutch hospital. Ok, it wasn’t the Asian market we had been dreaming of but it was, without a doubt, “an experience”. Feeling slightly more prepared this time, we tumbled back out onto the teeming streets to wander our way around and get to grips with this new and strange place.

And wander we did, through Cinnamon Gardens, the Fort District and by the World Trade Centre. Men in sarongs clustered on street corners and women dressed in rippling, vibrant saris ducked in and out of pools of shade. Choruses of “hello” surrounded us and delighted smiles and waves made us compulsively grin and wave enthusiastically in return. A gentleman fell into step beside us in the business district. He was just on his way to temple and he suggested that we join him for the evening puja. He gestures to a tuk-tuk and before I know it Damien is piling in, beaming. “Damien, I’m pretty sure this is a scam,” I hiss under my breath.  “Ah so cynical”, the confident reply. Ah but it turns out that a scam it was, taking the form of astronomical tut-tuk fees and pressure to visit a sapphire emporium that “Princess Diana loved”. To be honest though, it was a hugely enjoyable scam involving a trip to the Hindu temple, Kathiresan Kovil on Sea Street, which is dedicated to the war god Murugan, some red bindis, a snake-charmer, Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple, a Buddhist wedding, Beira Lake Buddhist Temple and a daring escape.

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That evening, breathless from ginger beer and revelling in Damien’s fortunate naivety, we watched the sun set pink over Galle Face Green while families flew kites and little boys practiced their cricket bowls.

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2 thoughts on “Colombo – censorship, a snake-charmer and a wonderful scam

  1. Finally found your blog and going to backtrack to catch up on your South American advebtures!
    I hope you’re having a blast, fun side-tracked scam & all.
    A

    • Hi Aoife!
      Thank you! We’re having an absolutely amazing time – scams and all! We’re in Kerala in South India at the moment floating through backwaters and trying to figure out what we’re eating. It’s definitely an adventure!
      I hope things are rolling along nicely for you in lovely Luxembourg!
      xx

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