Surrounded by the old-world charm of the hotel I’m staying in, I look out from my room over foaming breakers rushing in from the ocean and dashing themselves against a sea wall. A national symbol gyrates in a steady breeze on the face of a flag the size of a pair of drapes from a towering post over the entranceway. A humid haze hangs grey-brown over the city-centre, blurring the transition from sea to sky far on the horizon. But between me and the rest of the world is a sign, stuck to the glass, that reads, “Security prohibits photographing the precincts of the hotel from windows”.
This is still a city at war.
My hotel room is magnificent. Chocked full of colonial decor, it dates back to an opening in the mid-1800s, and with its prominent sea-front location considers itself a part of the city’s history and character. Yawning white-arched corridors run from the grand open-fronted reception, while worn red carpet lines sweeping curved staircases that wind their way to higher levels. Darkwood banisters and wall panels carry the tang of varnish in the dim, atmospheric mezzanines, and the scent of tropical must lends the place an impression of age and maturity. Where wood has split in the moist clime, it has been polished and smoothed. Like a ripe cheese, the hotel is old but loved.
I’m fairly sure I’ve never been in such an enormous room. Ever. I feel like a dust-mite in the corner as I enter, my eyes sweeping across acres of treaded brown floorboards. The rich teak furnishings are like an afterthought to minimalistic space. A pair of queen-sized beds pushed together barely makes a dent in vacuous emptiness. A ceiling-fan the size of a Catalina’s propeller hangs low from the roof. An air-conditioning barrage as big as a Mini Metro is flush with one wall but hardly intrudes. I look up and cavernous ceilings lurch dizzyingly above me. A family of Andean Condors could be roosting up there and the place would still feel sparse. When I turn off the lights to go to bed, it feels like minutes to reach the wall where the switch is. The hefty writing-desk in the corner by a window and the tasteful assortment of ornate furnishings smack of a colonial-era governor’s headquarters.
I’m paying fifty bucks a night to be here.
At first glance, the city is an easy place. Landing at the airport, the plane swoops beneath bulbous white clouds and hangs above a lush landscape of palm plantations and dark soil dotted with settlements. The two-lane highway that runs into the city-proper is congested but moving. Traffic is hectic but there is an order to it. Shopfronts cram every inch of streetside space but the sense of an overwhelming mass of humanity is distinctly absent, replaced instead by a steady but unthreatening melange of skin-hues, as fair as light caramel and as dark and rich as roasted coffee. Clothing styles range from traditional outfits in pinks and verdant greens to the dull greys and blacks of contemporary suits, from sacred robes to the profane emblems of print t-shirts and jeans. Although there is doubtless urban poverty in all its guises behind the backalleys and side-streets, you could not look at the city’s bustling face and call it a third-world city without some reservation.
So many places I visit carry an inherent contradiction, but few so stark and confronting as here. Despite its initially easy-going facade, there is an undercurrent of tension and control that is utterly inescapable. Armed checkpoints mar thoroughfares, boys with large guns checking drivers for identification and purpose as they walk down rows of stationary vehicles attempting their daily commute. Along main avenues, uniformed soldiers with assault-rifles two-thirds the length of their slight bodies stand guard, facing into the busy streets every couple of hundred yards. Recruiting posters with dramatic silhouettes of armed men and indecipherable slogans are splashed up on billboards and the bare faces of office-buildings. Barbed wire and barricades restrict access from properties and sidestreets. Despite spending time in such charming environments as eastern Chad and Sudan’s Darfur region, I’ve never been in such an intensely militarized city.
I watched the sun set last night from the hotel grounds, a bottle of chilled beer beading dewdrops beneath my palm. A watch-tower sits at that corner of the property, visible fifty paces from my bedroom window, and inside, a soldier shifts his weight restlessly. At the other end of the hotel is some restricted installation. On a wall overlooking the swimming-pool paces another Kalashnikov-toting guard, ignoring the tourists and business-travellers one storey beneath him enjoying their buffet dinner. Silhouetted against the pale sky, a heavy machine-gun is mounted among sandbags and brickwork atop an abandoned tower-block just two hundred yards away. As the blood-red ball of the sun settles into the sea, it silhouettes a sleek patrol-boat, low and insidious and bristling with cannons. The vessel does lazy loops a quarter of a mile off-shore, lurking like a shark might near a school of fish while waiters in crisp white suits serve chilled wine from ice-buckets and the whir of large ceiling-fans whisper over the small but oblivious crowd of foreigners settled into manicured lawn seating.
Some distance north of here, a battle continues for control of a few square kilometres of terrain. It’s the unspoken reality that is reflected in every nervous checkpoint and every restless sentry here, but about which nobody talks publically.
Please think of the people affected by the fighting at this time.
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What city was this?
This was Colombo, Sri Lanka, some years back.