My taxi driver drops me off at the Colombo City Hostel. As he hands me my bag and I leave him a tip, he offers me his phone number. “For whenever you need me again, my friend!” I thank him and we part ways.
I planned five days for this city. I figured I had to still plan out my journey and have some rest as well, because, like I said in chapter 1, last year had been a busy one. So the first thing I do after I get settled, is go to my lower bunk bed and take a nap, but before I do so, I encounter one of my roommates. It’s a woman of about forty years old. She’s reading a bible as I walk in. She used to be the manager of this hostel, I’d later discover. Now she just seems to live here instead. I don’t remember much from our first meeting, but I do recall her complimenting me on my ‘big and bright smile’.
I wake up late in the afternoon and I have a word with the hostel manager Olivier. He’s from France and tells me about the city and his life. He’s been here for a couple of months now, but hasn’t seen much else from the country yet. He was forced to look after the hostel in Colombo, so he only knows his desk and this city. His plan is to go work at another hostel from the same company (City Hostel) for a while, preferrably the one in Dambulla.
Something else that quite strikes me, is when I ask him where the beach is at. I point to the ocean, which is visible from the roof of the hostel itself. He nods. “Nobody goes to the beach here,” he says, with a thick French accent.
As we talk, the sky gets darker and the evening sets in. It’s also getting more crowded on top of the roof with backpackers who just arrived from all kinds of places. Olivier then asks me where I want to go to and to be honest, I haven’t really got any idea yet. I do know I want to go see Trincomalee, so I tell him that. “Oh, Trinco! I know somebody who just arrived from there. Would you like to meet him? He could tell you all about it.” He guides me to Matthias, a young man from Switzerland.
He’s a couple of years older than me and he tells me about his time travelling. He hasn’t been home for six months and he’s about to go back. He’s only got two more days left in Colombo before he heads back again. We hit it off and we talk about music, graffiti artists and a bunch of other subjects.
We decide to go to bed a bit early, at around 1:00 a.m. He wants to go to the National Museum with me the next day and show me around Colombo. We both agree we want to go a bit early.
Me and Matthias in a tuktuk.
It’s 10 a.m. when we’re having breakfast at his favorite diner. I wasn’t used to eating spicy food for breakfast, but I must say I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. It wouldn’t take long for me to see that I could learn a lot from this guy. He’s good with bargaining over a price with the tuktuk drivers and as we walk around town, he knows exactly where we needed to go.
“How long have you been here?” I ask curiously, for it looks like he’s been living here for well over a month.
“In total? Two days.”
I don’t know what to say, other than that either my navigational skills are totally rubbish, or this guy is some sort of wunderkind who swallowed a compass when he was six years old. He looks at my face and laughs.
“It’s okay, I don’t know what it is. As soon as I’ve been to a place just once, I immediately know where to go. You’re not the first to be looking like this at me.”
First stop is the national museum. At the start, there’s a room about elephant mutilation. It’s made to raise awareness about the tough battle that’s still being fought against poachers in Sri Lanka. We both look at it in disgust.
As we go on, we see that we’re walking through Sri Lanka’s history chronologically. We start at thousands of years B.C. and go on until the colonial times. I knew this might be somewhat confrontational for me as a Dutchie, because Sri Lanka used to be a colony of the Netherlands for about 150 years. It was strange to see entire rooms full of Dutch historic artefacts that the colonizers had left here. Signs of the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie translation: Dutch East India Company), Dutch clothes, Dutch guns and swords, a Dutch throne and crown, Dutch cutlery, Dutch money: you name it.
Dutch clothes (male)
Seeing this Dutch legacy leaves me conflicted. For one, I’m not proud of how western countries used to colonize others, so seeing this Dutch presence of it isn’t a pretty sight. However, it’s got something positive as well. Seeing all this makes me all the more aware of the shared history between Sri Lanka and my own country. In a way, I feel more connected to this place now, albeit because of something I strongly judge. It’s a weird cocktail of guilt and compassion which I only knew from history books and never experienced in real life outside Europe.
We eventually sit down and talk about ideas to change the world – as all travellers do. We both advocate individual freedom and speak about how nations of today are actually an outdated system. We speak about left-wing libertarianism, which we both appeal to. We speak for more than thirty minutes.
Matthias eventually says to me: “These are the kind of conversations I hoped to have for so long during this trip, but I never had them. And now, just two days before I go, I meet you.” I’m flattered as he says this. When we get up, a class passes us by and the kids are waving at us, staring at us as if we are some kind of alien life form they only saw in movies. What strikes me, is how almost every kid is laughing and how they want to give us high fives.
When we leave the museum, Matthias decides to show me round town. As we pass the local market place, I see his knowledge of Sri Lankan fruits is incredible. He tells me about the bananas, for example. They’re a lot smaller here, but they taste so much stronger than the ones we’re used to in Europe. He also shows me the mangostine. It’s a fruit with a hard shell and I’d never eaten it like this before. After my first bite I’m hooked though, and it immediately becomes my favorite fruit of all.
Watching him negotiate with the people at the market is inspiring. He knows exactly what he wants and never goes with the price that’s being offered. I watch him do it and try to remember his tricks so that I can use them myself later.
As we move on, we stumble on some festivities. There’s a tractor pulling some kind of decorated cart. In there is someone sitting in traditional clothing. Men and women are walking around it. Some are trying to push the tractor, which seems quite unnecessairy to me, but hey, who am I to judge?
The men and women look beautiful though. They’re wearing all sorts of clothes. Some are dressed like peacocks, a man is dressed like a woman (we first think it’s cross dressing, but later we figure the reason for this might be a bit shady, because in certain traditions, women still aren’t allowed to play a role in these festivities, so this went from ultra-progressive to ultra-conservative pretty fast).
Parade in the streets of Colombo.
We ultimately figure we’re done walking round the city, for it’s late in the afternoon and we’re both done wandering around here, so we decide to head back to the hostel. It’s Matthias’ last night, so we have some drinks and stay up until late.
Goodbye and a new start
The next day, we have breakfast together and take a little walk downtown just before he has to go. Back at the hostel we say goodbye, telling each other that ‘we’ll keep in touch’, both knowing that that’s not going to happen, somehow.
After he’s gone, I start planning the rest of my stay in Sri Lanka. I’m being helped by some people staying in the hostel and make some new friends. This time, it’s Flore from Canada and Gabe from Australia. I’d take them downtown the next day, the same way Matthias showed me around. But that’s something for in the next chapter.
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