A Tale of Two Cities: Tourism and Imperialism in Sri Lanka
Among Sri Lanka’s abundant visual delights, there is no more Instagrammable place than the town of Galle Fort. Jutting out from the island’s southern coast, the town was founded by the Portuguese in 1588, redeveloped by the Dutch starting in 1649, and appropriated by the British in 1796 before rightfully falling into local hands with independence in 1948. It has the churches (Dutch Reformed; Anglican), mosques, and stupas to prove it. The fort—which was a walled town rather than purely a military garrison—occupies a Qatar-shaped peninsula of roughly one square kilometer.
The original Dutch colonists who came to Galle to serve country and seek fortune were surely among the loneliest souls on the planet, some 11,000 nautical miles from their homeland. But at least they lived well. Behind impressive seaside ramparts, the exigencies of defense against threats both terrestrial and maritime created a townscape of a dozen or so narrow streets and surprisingly gracious architecture.
Today, the colonnades, courtyards, terra cotta roofs, and woodwork of Galle Fort stand firm against the predictably functional architecture of the rest of Sri Lanka, a developing country with rich culture but no money to build with much more than cinder block and rebar. The fort’s walls—ten meters thick in places—famously survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami unscathed. The city’s bus station, less than 300 meters from the fort’s main gate, was washed away.
Today, Sri Lanka’s growing tourist population—which itself has become a tsunami following the 2009 cessation of the Tamil-Sinhalises civil war—has fallen in love with Galle Fort. Among the Ayurvedic massages, plates of curried seafood, curio stores, and ice cream stands, professional photo shoots have become a favorite attraction. Teams of photographers and lightening technicians can be hired to follow tourists around, shooting candids and directing poses against explosion of bougainvillea, in exquisite courtyards, strolling down nearly car-free streets, and, occasionally, against the few ruins that have yet to be restored.
To use a technical architectural term, it’s adorable.
Galle is the delightful, and predictable, result of history and density. The irony of contemporary city planning is that, of course, our contemporary accumulation of knowledge and technology mean nearly nothing. Galle could not be built today. It wouldn’t have enough parking. It would be too dense. The walls would block someone’s ocean view. And so we treat places like Galle as rare, precious jewels, as if they can arise only from the furnaces of the Earth.
In the first chapter of The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs describes the process by which the hypothetical first city might have arisen. It started as a crossroads between trips or civilizations. It would have hosted a market where merchants could trade one exotic good for another. It grew to a hut, then to a garden, and to more huts and more gardens. And so on. We never get to witness this process today, any more than we get to hear a language being born or a species evolving. Except in rare places, like Ella.
Ella sits in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, at an elevation that would give most Dutchmen altitude sickness.
Ella, in its current form, has been around scarcely longer than Instagram has. Until recently, it amounted to little more than a train station along one of the world’s most harrowing and beautiful rail lines. But in the past few years, Ella has become what Lonely Planet describes as “everyone’s favorite hill-country village.” There are, probably, more bars, restaurants, and white people in Ella’s half-kilometer main drag than there are in the rest of the Sri Lanka combined. Prices are inflated, and the architecture is, well, classic cinder block. I don’t think I saw a word of Tamil or Sinhalese in Ella. It has a bar called Chill and a resort with a helipad.
My Jacobs-esque origin story for Ella revolves around an expat who, after undergoing spiritual self-discovery in various ways along various trails, took a deep cleansing breath and, upon seeing the spectacular peaks above and valleys below, decided what Sri Lanka’s travelers really needed was a bar. And when you have a bar, you need a place to sleep off the drink. Whoever he was, that barman (or woman) was obviously cool. Other cool people followed. It became a virtuous cycle. The locals got in on the act, turning their backyard plots into guest houses and selling their roadside properties to restaurateurs. Today, every building in Ella seems to be adding a second story or building a front patio.
Today, Ella amounts to 30 restaurants connected by a traffic jam. It’s a great time, if you’re in the right mood.
When I think about Galle’s past, I think about those colonists, marooned on an island of their own choosing. I think about how many weeks or months might have passed between ships. I think about the cannons and their targets. I think about the natives, wondering what those Europeans were up to. I think about the refinement of those Europeans, and their savagery too.
Right now, both cities—the new and the weathered—are having their moments. For completely different reasons.
On face, Ella is ugly, corny, and as congested as it is remote. People go there largely for a circular but powerful reason: other people. It is a classic backpacker town, where tourists gather to meet strangers, swap stories, have drinks, and, yes, engage in the sort of revelry on which locals might frown. But its human density gives it a spirit that belies the cinder blocks.
Galle Fort is lovely, historic, placid, and—as of yet—not overrun. People go there for the architecture, the cityscapes, and, yes, the photo ops. Its built density gives it a spirit that belies its imperialist history. Indeed, both of these places are racially and ethnically fraught. Like so many other tourist attractions, they balance the wonders of cultural exchange and the ravages of capitalist exploitation.
What does the future hold in store for these towns, one but a few years old and the other facing its fifth century? Maybe Ella is just beginning. Two-story buildings could turn into three and four and ten. It could become a combination of Cancun and La Paz. Or it could become uncool in an instant. Today’s packed bars could be tomorrow’s ruins. I wouldn’t want to be the last one in.
Galle Fort cannot grow. It’s protected by UNSECO and by those old battlements. But it can get saturated. The final building could be renovated. More tourists could pack into the walls. It could become untenable. Or, just maybe, the surrounding city—the much larger one outside the walls —could take a cue from its namesake. It could turn the new city old and prove that good urbanism need not apply only to wealthy tourists determined to #eatpraylove.
As Charles Mudede wrote recently in The Stranger, Seattle’s alt weekly, all cities are either Seattle or Detroit: “A city losing capital or attracting it. There is no alternative.” True as it may be, that dichotomy is incomplete. There are variations among those two poles. In the “Seattle” category, there are the Seattles and there are also the Houstons. Even in Sri Lanka, this process of urban development plays out in microcosm.
The semi-palindromic nature of the names Ella and Galle, while coincidental, are poignant nonetheless. They are two sides of the same coin. The question is whether that coin is a guilder, a pence, a rupee—or the almighty dollar.
Sri Lanka faces bigger challenges than that of developing authentic places. It’s still recovering from war, and it’s annual per capita GDP is $2500. And yet, the battles between the Ellas and Galles of the world may be the central one of our urban age. As global capitalism builds enormous new cities and sub-cities—in Shanghai, Moscow, Riyadh, Jeddah, Lagos, and, not coincidentally, Colombo—will any of them ever become something authentic? Will any of them ever honor the places that host them?
And, as the world’s antique cities—Paris, Venice, Tbilisi, Istanbul, Savannah, San Francisco—preserve their stones while shutting out more of the world, can they preserve their souls? Or have they already been captured, if not by the Dutch and British, then by the cameras of so many tourists?