Friday, August 17, 2007

Watching The World Go By

The drive from BIA to the centre of Colombo after landing always feels much bigger and much more meaningful than just a 45 minute road journey. It's a trip that connects me from the internationalness and cosmopolitan nature of the airport and London to the localness and charm, the "villageness" of Colombo.

As I did it a couple of weeks ago I was filled with a burning desire to get to the heart of Colombo as quickly as possible, to see the sights that have become familiar and comforting to me. I got stuck in one of those miraculous traffic jams, the type that has no evident cause and no proper reason, and my impatience wore thin as tiredness crept up.

The sights along the road were a gradual welcome to my destination and the idiosyncrasies of Sri Lanka ceased to be unusual as my mindset began to catch up with my body. I still remember one of the times I did the journey when I was about 10, my eyes must have looked like they were kept open with matchsticks as I tried to take in the visual sweetshop that confronted me; cows wandering along the middle of the road, palm trees everywhere and pedestrians with so little apparent regard for road safety.

These days I still marvel at the sights but I don't get that feeling of shock and surprise, I feel I'm coming home and that I'm being welcomed by old friends with food and drink that I love but can't get where I live. Although I can get it where I live now, but you get my drift.

One of the most Sri Lankan things I know is the way that people, old or young, can stand or sit around and happily watch the world go by. It's something that is particularly Sri Lankan and can be seen on every street and from every building. People stand in doorways just looking at life, chaps sit on the pavement and give their undivided attention to everything that passes them and no one thinks anything about it. It's usually men who do this, I don't know why, perhaps women are more sensible and have better things to do, perhaps they're the ones doing all the work.

In most other countries people would get arrested and beaten up if they did as much staring into the street as happens in Sri Lanka, there'd be funny looks and aggressive stares from passers by, shouts of

"Oi, what you looking at?"

and all kinds of insults would be exchanged. I know this because my Dad regularly looks out of his front window and gets the shouts already.

As I was heading to Colombo from the airport I lost count of the number of professional observers I professionally observed. These people who spend all afternoon watching, sometimes huddled in packs, sometimes solo, always doing nothing except watching.

Then it hit me, with some kind of blinding flash, like a sharp piece of blancmange wearing sunglasses and coming at me from a dark alley.

The whole watching thing is a symbol of so much that is both good and bad about Sri Lanka. It's a reflection of the many ways in which Sri Lankans take a laid back and calm approach to life, a comparison with the way that there can be wonderful tolerance and acceptance of some stuff. It's almost unbelievable that I can type that sentence yet, in so many ways, I believe it totally.

Yet it's also a strange comparison with many of the things that can be improved about Sri Lanka. The way that many people just spend their time and their days watching the whole world go past them. They don't do things, they let life and opportunities sail by. It's so easy to accept things as they are, particularly when the status quo gives you a lifestyle that others can only dream about. I've heard and seen so many who just accept things as they are, who don't want to change things.

OK, it's not just in Sri Lanka, it's everywhere, it just seems common in Sri Lanka. That shoulder shrug, that acceptance of things being the way they are, of change being something that other people instigate. But it's a characteristic that represents all the good and all the bad in so many people.

As I thought of Sri Lanka, its problems and its opportunities, I thought that maybe, just maybe, there are a few too many people standing around and watching the world go by.



confab said...

sri lankans are great at watching the world go by...we love staring...we love ppl watching...but i dont think thats a quality to be envious abt. i personally hate it when ppl stare at me or anyone else for that matter...
ur probably right abt us not wanting to change things. we're too busy staring into other ppl's lives to be worried abt making our own better.

Darwin said...

I have to agree with confab. The watching thing isn't really a plus, it just impedes progress. It extends even to the gossipy relatives that snoop into each others lives but don't have the humility to face upto their own personal shortcomings.

I also *HATE* being stared at. It's one of the few things I like about living here, I can wear a short skirt and walk outside without being made to feel self-conscious about it due to unwanted stares.