Sri Lanka wraps you in a thick, steaming blanket of humidity, diesel exhaust and culture shock the moment you step out of the airport. Nishan, the driver sent by the Fulbright Commission to fetch me from the airport, careened, lurched, stopped, sped, dodged, inched and swerved through the rush hour trucks, trishaws, jaywalkers, vans, sedans, pedestrians, SUV’s and motorbikes carrying entire nuclear families, that choked the two lane highway south to Colombo. A jungle of Singhalese signage, all vines of vowels and curlicue consonants, totally unintelligible to me, threatened to overtake the road before the sun burnt itself out and collapsed behind the Indian Ocean.
In April I learned that my proposal to photograph Sri Lanka’s architectural heritage through the hole of my pinhole camera, begun a year and a half ago, was accepted by the J. William Fulbright Commission. It's October now. Sweat rolls down my back while I look out over the Indian Ocean from my balcony in a rundown resort outside Colombo.
25 September-3 October A week in Singapore
Thinking that I could recover from jet lag in a first world, air conditioned country I transited to what was once Ceylon through Singapore.
Slurping noodles at a small food court, with The Temple of the Tooth Relic looming above us, Marilyn, another sixty-something runaway, described what it took to get dental implants done overseas for half of what it would cost in the States. In between treatments in Thailand, she roamed around South Asia. I roamed around Singapore, jet lagged and spent from the heat, and took pictures of Amir amidst his oriental rugs and Tahar surrounded by silks, of the mint green mosque neighboring the church where AA meets, of Sri Thendayuthapani Temple and of Lau Pa Sat, an enormous lace ironwork gazebo housing yet another food court.
Singa -ain’t-hardly-poor. High-rise financial complexes dwarf diminutive temples, shophouses, some of which are crumbling, some primped and newly polished, white washed colonial churches and well trafficked hawker centers. Are these magisterial towers the twenty-first century’s answer to nineteenth century immigrant prayers for prosperity offered up the tiny Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple?
With my life shoved into one crappy suitcase and even crappier backpack from the discount store at home, I flagged down a taxi for Changi airport. The cabbie flung the baggage into the trunk, and hustled me into the back seat. He remarked about the city-state’s ever increasing wealth. “The poor will die,” he said. “Then only rich in Singapore.”
It had taken eighteen months to get to Colombo from Cambridge. It took four hours to fly from Changi in Singapore to Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike Airport.
20 October 2011
Singhala letters seem to be arranging themselves into if not words yet, at least into recognizable symbols that actually represent sounds. When I walk down Hotel Street to my apartment above the Angler Restaurant, serving European and Sri Lanka food, I feel I’m going home. Colombo may be a real rubber glove job, but the light in Mount Lavinia is luscious and pearlescent at dawn, iridescent in the afternoon.