'Poya' - Full Moon Day!
It was 'Poya' or full moon day. Of all days we had to pick a festival to open our innings in Sri Lanka. No wonder the place was deserted; and all the while I was under the impression that the Lankans took their weekends seriously.
The significance of 'Poya' went beyond my understanding of it being just another festive holiday. It's a practice to cease worldly pursuits and everyone engages themselves in religious activities. Shops are shut, restaurants are closed, which meant no beer-lunch. Worse was when someone mentioned that killing fish was taboo too. However, fish killed yesterday and cooked today didn't qualify. What a relief!
Okay, so no point complaining. We were here and might as well make the best of it. I decided against traveling by train. I couldn't stomach one more cultural restriction to the "can't-do-today" list, and what better place than a train for local gossip to throw up one?
A Tuk-Tuk pulled up at the shop where we were buying mineral water and Mentos. India or Pakistan, the driver asked? I confirmed my Indian identity lest he have any further doubts on my nationality. Need transport, he asked. I said we did. How much to the Fort area? "Ah! You mean 'Pettah'," he replied? "Yes, yes, whatever it's called," I replied. Fare settled at 350 Sri Lankan Rupees, we got in and were off.
The driver-cum tourist-guide (his name was Rosario and claimed his ancestors were from Mangalore) drove us through Colombo's major roads, past Embassies, High Commissions, star hotels and the legendary Galle Face Road. I was amazed to see a golf course alongside the seashore. I imagined Tiger Woods hitting a shot into the sea and then deep-sea dive to retrieve the ball. No? Well, I don't know much about golf, anyway.
This is the heavily-guarded Parliament district. Even a fly couldn't get past without being noticed by the Sri Lanka Security Forces, always on full alert against any possible attack from the LTTE - The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - arguably the most lethal and well organized terrorist group in the world. In the past they have attacked non-military targets including commuter trains and buses, farming villages, temples and mosques, resulting in civilian deaths.
This place looked as though it was at the brink of war. Every few yards were sand-bag bunkers, men and women soldiers in camouflage outfits, toting high-powered machine guns, grenades slung from their hips. Every vehicle that went past got a hawk-eye scan. A few were stopped and thoroughly checked – inside the boot, under the bonnet, the chassis, looking for anything that resembled a bomb strapped to the vehicle.
Despite some recent failures, no one was taking any chances with the LTTE.
I quietly shoved my camera back into the bag. Not the place to indulge in photography; certainly not in a war zone.
Next: Pettah - Colombo's Bustling Bazaar!