Monday, July 27, 2009

The difference in Colombo

Back in Colombo. As you drive down from Peredeniya, which is only a couple of kilometers from Kandy, to Colombo, you feel the temperature rising. By the time you hit the Colombo suburbs, it's a good 10 degrees Celsius hotter than up country.

Colombo is also noticeable for three other things: the traffic, security and Chinese road builders.

The Colombo traffic is permanently heavy, as though anyone who has a car just loves to be out in it, sitting in the semi-chaos, sounding their horns. Trishaws, buses, lorries and vans compete with cars and bikes and a new phenomenon - 4x4s: there seem many more of these leviathans on Colombo's roads than even three years ago when I was last here. Maybe it's a sign of rising prosperity for some.

Security is much more noticeable in Colombo than elsewhere in the country. On many street corners heavily armed soldiers stand and watch, various buildings have guards posted, some in sand-bagged constructed machine gun posts. Some roads around government buildings are closed; others have been made one way. Occasionally the checkpoints on the edge of the city pull you over to check your identity - though vehicles with foreigners tend not to be stopped.

The Chinese are here are building all sorts of things. The road coming in from Kandy is being widened by gangs of Chinese workers with sparkling new equipment. This is part of China's investment in the country, which includes a new port near Galle. Again, this is a sign of rising prosperity for some.

Around the Galle Face Hotel, complexes of apartments and hotels, with restaurants and leisure clubs, as well as the ubiquitous shopping malls are going up faster than in the gulf states. The skyline in this part of the city will resemble Dubai in no time at all. The question is: who is all this building for? How many of Colombo's current residences can afford to live in such places? As we sat in an Italian restaurant last night, eating reasonable versions of Italian dishes, all the diners, bar one couple, appeared to be foreign, many eating alone on a Sunday evening, indicating that they were business people staying upstairs, here for meetings and deals.

This country feels that is on the cusp of something. Let's pray that it'll be good for all its people.

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