For the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, an invasion has been taking place. I think of it as the Invasion of the Pink Pavements.
This has not been a quiet, surreptitious, barely noticeable invasion as in Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, which was filmed four times beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956. No, it’s been a full-on, noisy, destructive invasion, like the one conducted by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, filmed most recently by Steven Spielberg in 2005. For a long time I watched it rage in the busy coastal neighbourhoods south of central Colombo, in Kollupitya, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta, along two of the main traffic arteries there, Galle Road and Duplication Road. New pavements were being installed at the sides of those roads, but what’d been there before seemed to put up a hell of a fight against them. As I wrote in my notebook in the autumn of 2014:
“The objective seems to be, eventually, to replace all the old pavements with new, smart, corporate ones consisting of neat, level surfaces with small, pink bricks organised in geometrical patterns. And in places, segments of new pavement have appeared; but they’re like small islands of sanity amid the chaos and carnage of yawning holes and trenches, former holes and trenches that’ve been unevenly filled in, hillocks of excavated earth, trucks, JCBs, noise, dust, guys working with shovels, guys idling and leaning on shovels, warning signs, barriers, barricades, milling pedestrians, awkwardly-manoeuvring three-wheelers and confused street-dogs.”
And yet, somehow, suddenly, the work ended and the new pavements were complete. As I said, they’re composed of small pink bricks, though with occasional zigzags of grey brick woven into them. They also have yellow seams of grooved or studded tactile paving running through them, to help the visually impaired.
I wonder if the unexpectedly quick and efficient manner with which the job was finished had something to do with the presidential election held in Sri Lanka in January 2015. I’ve been in enough places to know that, with an election pending, public construction projects that’ve messily meandered on for years suddenly buck up and get completed in a rush.
However, the third main artery in this area of Colombo had been largely untouched by the pink pavements. Marine Drive runs parallel with Galle Road and Duplication Road and, as its name suggests, follows the coast of the Laccadive Sea. It’s not quite on the shoreline, as there’s a coastal railway track between them. Until recently, a pavement existed on the northern stretch of Marine Drive between Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya Stations; but for the whole way down from Bambalapitya Station to the drive’s end at the southern edge of Wellawatta, pedestrians had to trudge along a dusty, earthen roadside.
However, Marine Drive, which goes past the bottom of my street, experienced a transformation this summer. I returned from a holiday and hey presto! I discovered that a new pink pavement had planted itself on the drive’s hitherto-bare seaward side.
I suppose this was unsurprising. The past few years have seen the once-shabby drive get a dose of gentrification and it’s had fancy new arrivals like the OZO Hotel and the neighbouring NDB Bank building. No doubt some better-heeled Colombo-ites are walking on it these days and they don’t appreciate getting dirt on their shoes, having their elbows brushed by too-close-to-the-side traffic and having to avoid smelly, open roadside drains.
The new pavement also allows you to properly pause, look out from the shore and admire the sea. Previously, if you didn’t want vehicles honking at your back, you had to clamber into the middle of the railway tracks to do this.
You can also stop and study the interesting new safety signs that the Sri Lankan railway authorities have erected alongside the train-tracks. Check out the poor guy in the picture in this sign’s top right-hand corner – actually, it looks like it was designed by the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, the subject of this blog two entries ago.
But this doesn’t mean that pedestrians can navigate all of Marine Drive by pavement now. A kilometre’s gap still exists immediately south of Bambalapitya Station. Though the new length of pavement runs up through Wellawatta and part of Bambalapitya, it suddenly stops dead in front of the Westeern Hotel. There it gives way to a muddle of excavation work.
Coincidentally, the pavement’s current end-point, the Westeern Hotel, is home to Harry’s Bar, which is one of my favourite spit-and-sawdust pubs in Colombo. So for now it feels like the city authorities have installed a pathway for me personally, so that I can walk with ease to the door of a treasured drinking hole and back.