"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City
thirteen: pause in Mirissa
tonight I am living my anti-proposal: non world-cities in non-motion. I'm staring out at my dimly lit room through the faint green haze of a mosquito net in Mirissa, Sri-Lanka, after an exhausting, steamy 4 hour train ride south from Colombo where I arrived at 6am this morning. Colombo, being a layover point between Mumbai and Hong Kong (my next city), and also home to Geoffrey Bawa, whose Mirissa house was my 200a case study, seemed like a good place to recharge, make sense of my time in India, and do some Bawa building scavenging.
the southwest coast of Sri Lanka is a paradise that was pummeled by the tsunami in 2004, now getting a second wave of hardship in the form of severely reduced tourism due to recent fears about political instability from the LTTE (who executed a bus bomb last year in one of the most thriving tourist towns along the coast). it is somewhat difficult to imagine either of these devastations; travel here has been shockingly seamless, from arrival at a sparkling airport with granite floors, to a train ride that carried us through a tunnel of dense green foliage to the east, and open blue sea to the west, small houses huddled beside the track where inhabitants stood and watched as we careened through their otherwise tranquil backyards. the quiet after India is startling, even in Colombo: there are far fewer horns, and while tourist-touting is still rampant it is easy to smile and say 'no thank you' and receive a half-laugh in return. exhausted from a middle of the night flight I have spent the day listening to the sound of ... nothing. a 4 foot lizard walked past my door in the afternoon sun, and right now I can hear night insects and see stars. unfamiliar, almost unsettling. it is one thing to be alone in a city where your solitude disappears amidst chaos, quite another to be alone in paradise along a wide stretch of white beach and turquoise waves, French couples here and there elegantly smoking and drinking beer, bohemian arms wrapped around cherubic babies.
Mirissa is an odd sort of town by the sea – in many ways congruent with other coastal paradises I have seen or been to (this admittedly not too many). ponytails, boardshorts, broad surf-shouldered locals, generous happy hours, palm trees and always the sound of water. walking the stretch of beach tonight though the differences are noticeable. guesthouses/hotels all have their own small restaurants which invariably spill out onto the sand, tables added and taken away as need be. the beach becomes the quiet 'main street,' where subtle billboard communication takes place. the restaurant having the bbq will light its fire early for all to see. fireworks signal a late-night party. as a traveler looking for lodging or a place to eat you would walk not on the street, where the entrances are, but on the sea side, where the life of the establishments takes place. most places play a variety of rhythmic world music when the sun goes down, while in the back where the food is cooked local radio blasts traditional Sinhalese tunes. citronella candles glow in pockets of varying density down the length of the beach, making an establishment's popularity readily advertised. for the tourist, life happens right there on the sand, and it is an appreciable miracle that the beach manages to remain so pristine.
it is surreal to spend a few days in this corner of the earth between two metropoli, but perhaps somehow a fitting reminder of the compression of place and the preservation of difference that make our feet continue to move.
2:30 am at the Colombo airport, in The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shop, of all places, my first Americano in awhile, everything priced and paid for in dollars as soon as we cross the security threshold. Nicole Kidman's feline face is staring at me across the escalator, next to an ad for the in-house airport ayurvedic spa. the shopkeepers are all struggling to stay awake at this ungodly hour as the world of airborne transit continues, oblivious, a temporal & spatial glitch of consumerism. still, a couple of massive mosquitoes are finding the airspace around my computer appealing. I took the 4 hour mini-bus from Mirissa tonight, and completed the last 1km journey to the airport on foot (public buses are not allowed to approach for security reasons). i was walking in total darkness with my bags, cars zooming by on the high security road lined with armed guards.
Mirissa got into my skin in the form of a sunburn, long, salty swims and a serendipitous ending to my short stay here. having come to Sri Lanka to seek out Bawa's Mirissa house, I was told it was inaccessible, even though it was 1.5 miles down the road from where I was staying. 'wait, wait' was the word; the owner's friends were there for the weekend with strict orders not to be disturbed ... pictures of the model we built in 200a weren't convincing, nor were descriptions of the gorgeous doors that I knew so well but had never seen, so I waited until finally, 2 hours before my bus tonight ... it's a project of minimal gesture that is so pared down, refined, and powerful. a cliff, a roof, and rooms that descend into the earth. rooms: ground, roof: plane of sky and sea, columns: trees. like so much of the architecture I have seen here, it expresses the bare essential of what is needed for living comfortably in this climate. vernacular houses here are inadvertently beautiful, drawing wind into themselves under the broad eaves of shade-providing roofs and generous patios. doors and windows, with protective screens for shading, materialize and dematerialize as the sun's movement across the sky dictates.
it's easy to see why foreigners are buying. in the Dutch colonial fort city of Galle, about 1 hr (by bumpy bus) north of Mirissa, thick-walled, 18th century, hybrid Dutch-Sri Lankan bungalows are immaculately preserved, often by their European owners. in an odd second wave of colonialization, the town is fast becoming a bubble for well-dressed travelers who patronize the stylish boutiques and galleries. prices inside the old walled city are inflated compared to the new part of town , and I wonder (fear?) if this trend, should it continue, will push out the remaining local inhabitants and shopowners. although Galle is not corporate, the presence of a more subtle global capital is detectable; I overheard a couple of conversations between Europeans and Sri Lankans discussing business and land deals in semi-hushed voices. even walking through a small village nestled in semi-jungle near Mirissa, I was asked if I was interested in buying land. I surmise that this coastal area, and in particular, Galle, where the historic real-estate is, will see much change over the next 5 years.