For the foreigner, this is what travel in much of urban Asia is: peering beyond the unsightful, coming to grips with the dirt and the smog, picking out the interest from the monotony, separating the individuals from the crowd, the flash of color from the black and grey and white. Getting past first impressions ("Ugly! Noisy! Smelly!"). Going against the instinct that advises sheltering in a cool, quiet, travellers' cafe. Putting oneself out there. Prying open the oyster to find the pearl.
A sense of humor helps. They may belch black clouds at thigh level but buses sport names that are priceless; the Bangkok tout with tall tales of sparkling gems at bargain prices (does anyone really fall for this scam?) elicits a chuckle and a roll of the eyes. One can only admire the persistence of the Saigon street salesman trying to peddle sunglasses to sunglassed tourists.
A special interest focuses the eye. The architecture-obsessed stroller rarely watches his feet, focusing eyes straight ahead and up instead, searching for the one shuttered shophouse surviving amongst a block of dull concrete boxes. Textile afficianados revel in the riot of vibrantly hued and richly pattterned batik, songket, and ikat that decorate many of southeast Asia's streets. Food-focused travelers, ever on the alert for the unknown nibble, approach the inhospitable Asian urban landscape as if on a treasure hunt. For us chaos is good; the most desirable destinations will always be those where snacks and meals can still be had streetside.
Colombo has all this. Yet somehow, three days after we'd arrived, we were still looking for a reason to like the place.
It may have been the heavy air. We were travelling in May, the city's second wettest month, and five minutes on the hoof saw our shirts stuck to our backs. Perhaps it was the city's confusing layout. Except for a two block-wide area paralleling the waterfront there's little discernible order to Colombo's sprawl. Leafy sidestreets dotted with pretty red tile-roofed Dutch bungalows give way without warning to mean, exhaust-fogged streets absent of sidewalks; some parts of the city, scarred from the 1983 riots, resemble pre-cease fire Beirut. We were targeted by hustlers at every turn, and there was no humor or gentle ribbing in their approach. In spite of a couple of excellent restaurant meals we couldn't get a bead on the local cuisine, not even its street food. Even the vendors that materialized at dusk seaside, on the sprawling cricket green fronting the historic Galle Face Hotel, offered little to pique our interest.
On our last afternoon we visited the Dutch Period Museum, a beautiful stuccoed building that, in the 17th century, served as the Dutch governor's residence before it was transformed into a seminary, and then a military hospital, and finally a post office. High ceilings and thick walls keep the museum's interior cool and muffle traffic noise. We spent a couple of hours poring over its exhibits, admiring the colonial furniture housed on its second floor, and lingering in the green and shady courtyard.
Afterwards, lacking both transport and a map, we wandered east and then, I think, north. Twenty sweaty minutes later we came to an early 20th-century church fronted by trucks piled high with produce, parked amidst mounds of rotting vegetal refuse - the loading 'dock' for a wholesale market.
We followed the roughly U-shaped road extending to the right, from the front of the church. Most of the market's stalls were closed, but a few small retail vendors - Tamils to a one - cried out to late-in-the-day shoppers. Dave pulled out his camera, we engaged a few hawkers, and suddenly Colombo clicked for us.
Small, ragged, and far from bustling, this market just barely qualified as picturesque. Though the produce was lovingly arranged in gorgeous displays we saw nothing unfamiliar (and thus titillating), nothing that we hadn't seen before at other markets in other tropical Asian countries.
Still, whatever it's name (I've not been able to locate it on a map), this market rates among my Top Ten. It came along - or we did - in the nick of time, welcoming us just as we were beginning to doubt whatever it was that had prompted us to head to Sri Lanka in the first place. A week later we returned home to Saigon regretting that we'd not had more time on that lush teardrop-shaped island.
Heading west from the market, towards the ocean and Colombo's landmark lighthouse, we traversed Sea Street, a specialist lane of goldsmiths. Shopkeepers pursued us aggressively, a few even following us a quarter of the way down the block. It didn't annoy as it might have a few hours before. Near the end of the street we stopped at a small open shopfront for bottled water. We chatted with the gregarious owner, mopped our faces with the napkins he offered, and downed a few Indian sweets. "We like this town," we agreed. We'd found the pearl.
Colombo wholesale (and small retail) food market, somewhere northeast of the Dutch Period Museum, perhaps near the junction of Sea Street and Abdul Cader (Sea Beach) Roads. Mornings, presumably.