Oct. 28, 2001
in Colombo, I felt more than a little apprehensive. Three
months back, the airport had been attacked by Tamil Tiger
terrorists. Three passenger jumbo jets were blown up, along
with much of the Sri Lankan air force. Dozens of soldiers
died, and confused passengers fled into residential areas
surrounding the airport in the predawn hours.
we were allowed out of our seats, we were sprayed by the
flight attendant with some kind of pesticide, allegedly
required by the World Health Organization. As I stumbled
off the plane into the muggy subtropical air, I wondered
if I'd ever get enough of a handle on this place to tell
a coherent story.
The airport was filled with soldiers and a couple of empty
"duty-free" shops that wouldn't pass as bodegas in Brooklyn.
I'd been told that you couldn't really feel the war in
Colombo. But, as my taxi passed checkpoint after checkpoint
and giant statues of Buddha encased in bulletproof Plexiglas,
I begged to differ.
next morning, I felt quite a bit better, waking up in
the somewhat faded but nonetheless splendid colonial hotel
called the "Galle Face." It is perched right on the Indian
Ocean, has immense ballrooms, a gorgeous entry, sweeping
staircases lined with red carpets, old-fashioned hand-operated
elevators, and a picturesque staff (the doorman's been
working there for 60 years). You take meals and tea in
a courtyard nestled a few feet from crashing waves. Not
bad for $35 a night. The hotel is almost completely empty
now, following Sept. 11, the airport attack here.
From my room, I look out at the Galle Green. Think of
New York City's Battery Park. And I mean that quite literally.
It's an immense expanse that runs along the water, and
in the background stands Colombo's only skyscraper, The
World Trade Center. Twice, the towers have been attacked
by suicide bombers. They are only 37 stories high, but
that is towering here, and they are in many ways the spitting
image of their former twins in New York.
Walking around the Galle Green was a real treat. Hundreds
of residents flocked to the park to fly kites and take
in the sunset. It was a remarkably welcoming crowd. An
old man grabbed me by the arm and said, in broken English,
"Many nations, one world. You are welcome here, sir!"
It was a very easy scene to photograph. People didn't
pay me too much mind, so I took dozens of close-up shots
of kids playing in the waves, an old man flying a kite,
and people buying snacks of shredded coconuts and shrimp
cakes. And all this with those two towers looming in the
background. The scene reminded me of happy Sundays I'd
spent in Battery Park.
This is the paradox of Sri Lanka I'd heard about: on the
one hand, turbulent and violent; on the other hand, welcoming
and beautiful. All paradoxes aside, I was glad as hell
to be here
Angela Morgenstern; Designed by: Susan Harris, Fluent
Studios; see full