Postcard from Galle

In Sri Lanka, a colorful frenzy in the equatorial gloam

By / February 2015

I thought the bus ride down the coast might kill us all. A rusty blue ball of fire, thundering down the constricted road, dodging wobbly bicycles and knots of distracted pedestrians, blasting feverish island music all the while. Sometimes we swerved so near the surf that I swear I could feel salty spray coat my arms through the open windows. But our driver was an experienced student of calculated risk with catalogued knowledge of every curve in southern Sri Lanka. We made the central bus stand in Galle without incident.

It’s a schizophrenic little city, Galle. Areas of frenetic congestion give way to swaths of empty desolation seamlessly, instantaneously. Downtown, locals dart between cars and up winding alleys, barefoot and focused, toting watermelons and chattering on cell phones. Police blow whistles and speakers boom from Buddhist temples, filling the heavy air with droning chants and tinny music. Rickshaw drivers call to us from unseen perches, hidden among the traffic. “Where do you come from?” and “Where are you going?” they shout. Hawkers of relocation, desperate for a sale.

Just a hundred yards away, this all begins to disappear. Water laps and swirls among huge black rocks lining the shore, where circumspect fisher-folk balance in the Indian Ocean breeze, bouncing their lines time and again, bouncing and waiting, waiting until something below takes the bait.

Their better equipped counterparts bob in the waves out in the bay, their wooden boats overflowing with woven nets.

Dominating the southern end of town, Galle Fort is a monolithic celebration of Sri Lanka’s despised colonial past. The Portuguese stacked up the huge stones in 1588, roping in an area large enough for an entire village. Gradually, it started to fall apart. There was no reason to worry about it. The local folk didn’t care, and during the civil war, foreigners were sparse and wary. Now the fort has been refurbished. The inside is all cobblestones and gas lamps. It’s like the French Quarter in New Orleans, minus the smut.

Inside, more crowds. Elderly Germans in sandals and sunburned Russians, their skin glowing a deep Soviet red. They wander around snapping digital photos and licking gelato, while a handful of local boys entertain the crowds by leaping from the walls into a broad basin of seawater thirty feet below.

From up here on the parapet, I can see it all. I can hardly believe the colors! The sun going scarlet. The blue ocean frothing white. Blankets of green, stretching into oblivion. Ochre houses, gleaming white buildings, brown earth, black roads, orange flames beneath silver cooking pots. All of it slightly distorted by the equatorial gloam. Sometimes a vista is so striking and complex that I forget to breathe. Coming to, I hear my stomach rumble.

I smell meat grilling. I think I’ll follow where it leads.


Chris Watts is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.