Colombo was white hot and turbulent slate by turns.
We picked Sri Lanka on a whim. It was somewhere neither Flemming nor I had been before, and didn’t cost a fortune to get to from Singapore, where we were at the time. I was looking forward to my habitual approach to anywhere new: walk around the city everyday, get to know its rhythms, and learn something about it. Hopefully make a few decent pictures along the way.
While I generally do a fair bit of walking everywhere I can, two things slowed the frequency of daily peregrination: first, the weather. Colombo in its cool season scorches the way Singapore does in July, the height of tropical heat. The ceaseless wet heat sucks the energy from your bones with every step that you take. I was not as appreciative of this as I should have been, and on the second day we were there, stepping out at 2pm, we both admitted defeat after an hour of walking down the coastal road with no shade, collapsing gratefully into a metered tuk tuk that brought us to our door, speechless from the heat.
Adherence to common custom after that seemed wise, braving the sun before 10.30 am or after 4 pm, when it was kinder to mammalian life. The evenings gave us too, the slanted, golden light that made every snapshot an award winner aglow with wonder.
When the sun wasn’t beating down on us, thunderstorms were. At some point, after the wet was over, clouds would mass at 4 pm like clockwork, skies would yellow from the weight of the impending storm, and whether or not you got battered with hammerfalls of inter-monsoonal rain depended on the fancy of the wind pushing the storms around. It was a spectacular show every time.
In the last few days of our stay, we’d watch these storms gallop from the horizon to shore, from the fifth floor of our lovely apartment, gathering mass and fury until it hit the coast with an almighty howl and tried to wash the city away in a torrent of tears. It came close to doing so, two days before we left. Then, inevitably, the power would go out (some poor cable on a pole giving up its ghost, said the security guard), and the generator in the apartment block’s carpark would rumble to life, sending the fans whirring again, and making the still, wet air light enough to breathe again.
The second thing that kept us from walking the city as much as we would normally have, were the trains.
The first time we got aboard a train was at the local station: Dehiwala, named for the suburb. We hopped onto a red regional train for 10 rupees (about 6 US cents) each and were immediately charmed by the loud clack of the carriages, their red, blue and green interiors criss-crossed by the wear of many bodies over the decades. That a large part of our journey into the central station ran along the coast, added to the novelty of it all.
It was the only time we would get on this train – the regional trains never stopped at Dehiwala station after this, its proximity to the city center making it the province of more utilitarian (though no less aged and colorful) commuter trains that held more people.
That first afternoon though, against the high backed seats of the oldest train I’ve ever been on, the spell was cast. In the weeks after, we pored over train schedules, catching the train at a variety of times, in a variety of weather – hanging off the carriage doors like a lot of the men do at rush hour (to the amusement of everyone), packed in the sweaty masses at the busiest time of the evening, where I was once pushed so hard from behind at a station I (and forty other people in a 2 metre square space) were fighting to get off, I thought my back would break. “I’m getting off here too!” I yelled over the hiss of the slowing engine. “Stop pushing me!” The crowd behind me eased off (in shock?) at the racket and we all spilled out onto the dark platform in a bubble of epic humidity that was mercifully dissipated by the cool ocean air blowing in from the other side of the station.
Flemming and I stood there after the train pulled away, a beacon of smoke and light beams shining out from the carriages into the darkness of the tracks as it went.
A few residents from the shanty town on the beach-side of the tracks watched the blond foreigner and the woman who could have been a local but strangely, wasn’t, that they saw getting in and out of the train everyday, with idle curiosity. I imagine they’ve seen it all before. Slightly out of place around Dehiwala in November with no other foreigners around, we were just another pair of people from somewhere else when December rolled around and dormant beach bars came to life again for tourist season, seared by the heat of their ordinary.
All images were made with the new XF 35mm F2, on the X-T10 and X-T1.