Learning to Stay Curious in Colombo

Seeing your city from another's perspective can be illuminating.  
Colombo railway line Sri Lanka
As urban residents, we often take the charms of our cities for granted. Photo: Patty Ho/ Flickr/ Creative Commons (bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

Two-year-old Maya stepped on to the gardens of Colombo’s Independence Square—a green oasis surrounding a monument built to commemorate the country’s independence from the British— and took in the vast open space that stretched before her. Never one to be thrown by a new experience, she took purposeful strides on the soft grass, a slight smile on her face betraying that she did actually like all this—the trees, the birds, the breeze, all so difficult to enjoy back home in Mumbai where she lived. I’d been to Independence Square a million times before but seeing it through a toddler’s eyes gave me pause.

Until that moment, I had perhaps taken Colombo’s beauty for granted. After having lived here for six months, the city’s green spaces had become as much a fact of life as the warble of birds outside our balcony; the mango trees laden with fruit gracing the city’s sidewalks, and the bougainvillea flowers casually draped over the walls of whitewashed villas.

“This city is like a cross between a European and South Indian town,” said Arun, a dear friend. That’s when I noticed how the centuries-old buildings with art deco facades commingled amiably with its chaotic, modern-day charm. “I love that the autorickshaws are so colourful,” said another friend, Menaka. Walking along the outer periphery of the Viharamahadevi Park, a sprawling green space in the heart of Colombo, I noticed, perhaps for the first time, the red-green-blue-yellow colour palette of the tuk-tuks that I had taken so many times before.

It wasn’t like I had been completely oblivious to Colombo’s charms. When my husband and I took the plunge and moved our life from Mumbai across the Palk Strait, I had decided to leave my notions and comparisons behind and just appreciate this new home for everything it was worth. Within just a couple of days, I had my first taste of the ambarella, or the hog plum, a small, sour-sweet tropical fruit with a flavour unlike anything I had tried before, and fallen headlong in love. I feverishly began to seek it out as if it were the first clue to solving the crossword puzzle I found myself at the centre of. Since I couldn’t find any decent chaat in the city, I satisfied my craving for dodgy street food with isso vade or lurid orange, deep-fried lentil diskettes studded with whole prawns (eyes and all), served with a spicy, nameless sauce, of which my mother would wholly disapprove. I learned to keep a keen eye out for the green tuk-tuks that ferry fresh paan (bread) every evening. At teatime, I would sometimes tear small pieces of kimbula banis, a crocodile-shaped bun studded with sugar crystals, and dunk it into a cup of black Ceylon tea, which I only learned to love after moving here. In the months since I arrived, I have plotted my own unique path around the city, one guided by fragrances and flavours rather than maps and street names.

Seven months later, my traveller’s enthusiasm for new experiences has been replaced by something mellower. I know my way around the aisles of the supermarket, and I know where you can find the best avocados, but I’m still awestruck by the thunderstorms that bring rain to this tropical land almost every evening. I may be more familiar with Colombo now, but I haven’t lost myself in its tapestry just yet. I want to stay curious—just as much as I want to call this city home—and it helps when an astute friend drops by, opening my eyes further, so I may be seduced yet again by Colombo’s hidden graces.

Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “A Different View”.

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    Vidya Balachander is a food and travel writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Having called Mumbai home for several years, she recently decided to go on a real-life adventure. Colombo is the first pit stop of many she hopes to make in the years to come.

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