Pleasant Days in Colombo
( Originally Published 1903 )
DURING our first evening in Colombo harbor I managed to get a little sleep before beginning my watch at twelve o'clock, and when I was through at four in the morning, I decided to go ashore instead of going to bed again. I was anxious to see something of the city while it was still cool, and before the sun made it unpleasant to be out in midday. I waked Timmie at four-thirty to ask if he was willing to go along, and though he slept only four hours, he readily consented to the early start.
We called one of the queer catamarans, which were already on the watch for passengers, and in a few minutes we disembarked at the wharf and walked out into one of the principal streets of the capital of Ceylon. We looked about us in surprise. There ahead was a double-tracked trolley line, with up-to-date cars whiz-zing back and forth, and in the same street were dozens of Japanese jinrikishas, darting hither and thither, on the look-out for passengers. I hadn't expected to find any trolleys in Ceylon, and certainly one wouldn't look for a double-tracked system. Two tracks are possible on account of the width, and level well-paved condition of the streets. Even at this early hour the cars were crowded with natives, who seem to appreciate the advantages of modern electrical development. The fares are exceedingly low. For two cents the native can ride almost anywhere within, the city limits. Timmie and I discovered that Colombo is a city which covers a wide area, and is divided into several sections by small lakes, so that a street-railway is a great convenience in going from one neighborhood to another.
The street in which we found ourselves was lined with handsome stores, and there were several office-buildings which would do credit to small American cities. The stores were not open at five o'clock, so I suggested that we ride around the city for a time and endeavor to get an idea of its characteristics. " And let's ride in a jinrikisha," said Timmie. " I've always wanted to ride in one of these queer arrangements, and didn't suppose that I'd ever have the chance, unless I could visit Japan." There were numerous 'rikisha men demanding our patronage, so we selected two who appeared to be strong, and started down the street. I knew the name of a hotel situated on the beach outside the city, so I told the men to go there. " This is simply great," exclaimed Timmie, as we moved rapidly past the stores, and I was quite as enthusiastic as he over the pleasures of jinrikisha riding. The 'rikisha men ran like well-trained racehorses, and I saw at once that this little man-power vehicle was superior to carriages for going about cities like Colombo, where the pavements are in excellent condition. It is possible to stop instantly, whenever necessary, and one can go in and out of the narrowest alleys without being bumped or thrown against the wall. Several times we felt sure we were going to collide with other men who were dashing along the street, but though we had narrow escapes, there was no accident, and we witnessed not a single mishap with a 'rikisha during all the time we were in Ceylon.
Ceylon's Sunny Isle
The fares for jinrikishas are twenty cents for the first hour, and fifteen cents for each succeeding hour, so that almost anyone can refrain from walking in Colombo. Many of the residents, we learned, keep their own 'rikishas, and hire regular men to pull them about. This makes them independent of the licensed vehicles, and of course it is much cheaper than keeping a horse and carriage. It is easy, however, to get 'rikisha men at any time of the day. They fairly swarm throughout the city, since the natives have discovered that it is profitable work, and in order to decrease the number, the government is about to double the license fee. Timmie and I thought it must be hard work to pull one or two men about in the hot sun, hour after hour, and we inquired of an Englishman how long the 'rikisha men can continue the work. " Here in Ceylon," he said, " they seldom keep at it any longer than is necessary for them to obtain what they consider a competence. When they acquire two or three hundred dollars they retire to a life of ease, and considering the work they do to earn it, I hope they enjoy their retirement. In Singapore and other ports where Chinamen do the work, they run themselves to death, for the Chinese are not so easily satisfied with a little money as are the Singalese." • We boys decided that the Singalese are the wisest people of the two, for it isn't a cheerful prospect to look forward to hauling a jinrikisha all one's life.
Many of the foreigners in Colombo occupy picturesque and attractive residences, and are wealthy, having made their fortunes in trade and the exportation of tea, cinnamon, and other products of the island. The ruling class is English, but centuries ago the Portuguese and the Dutch were successively in possession of Ceylon, and many of the present inhabitants are descended from those two nationalities. It was evident to us, as we rode through the streets, that the population is a mixed one nowadays. There were the native Singalese, with their pure brown skins, and they were easily distinguished, because they go about without any headdress except a comb, and both men and women wear their hair long and done up in a knot at the back of their heads. The two sexes dress so much alike that at first we were unable to distinguish the men from the women. Timmie thought it a great joke to see the men with long hair, but I thought them rather attractive than otherwise.
The People and Their Ways
Beside the Singalese, there are hundreds of thousands of Tamils in Ceylon. They are natives of Southern India, and are used to work on the great plantations. The Singalese make good house-servants and artisans, but they have no fondness for hard labor, so it is necessary to import the Tamils to keep the country under cultivation. Beside the working classes there is the merchant class, and this embraces Moors, Parsees and Chinese. The Parsee merchants dress in an elaborate fashion, and we soon learned to distinguish them from the others. Most of them are quite wealthy, and live in beautiful country places outside the city. The Moors were not different from those we saw in Tangier and in Cairo.
We noticed in passing through the business streets that many of the signs bore Portuguese names, and thousands of the natives still retain the cognomens given to their ancestors by the early settlers of the island. We were told that DeSilva is the most common name of all, and an English boy said he used to have great fun when traveling on the railway. He said that when the train pulled into a station he would put his head out of the window and cry, " Hey, there, De Silva!" A dozen or two natives would be sure to come, running, thinking they were the De Silva meant. We saw three jewelry stores in a row, all kept by people named De Silva.
We were less than an hour in reaching the beach after making a tour of the city, and we didn't want to leave the 'rikishas. We were calling at the hotel to see if Howard and Kenneth Eddy were out of bed. They had come ashore the night before, determined to live at the hotel while the transport was in port, and we agreed to meet in the morning and go around the city together. I found them at breakfast in the hotel dining-room, and while they were finishing their meal Timmie and I walked up and down the beach. There was the finest surf either of us had ever seen. The waves were fully twelve feet high as they came up the sand, and we thought how fine it would be to bathe and be rolled in by such breakers. But the beach at Galle Face is no use for bathing. There is an undertow that would entrap the strongest swimmer, and people have learned by experience to keep away.
A Friendly English Boy
When Howard and Kenneth finished eating, they came out to where we were and brought with them an English boy, about nineteen, named Sidney Webster. His father was one of the Government officials in Ceylon, and he had made friends with the Eddies as soon as they reached the hotel. " Sidney says he'll be glad to show us around the town," said Howard, " and he thinks we'd better start out right away." Timmie and I were ready, for we had our jinrikishas there, and as soon as the three other boys had found some sturdy men, we set out on the return to what Sidney called " the Fort." " You see," he explained, " what we call ` the Fort' was always the quarter where the foreigners lived, and it used to be surrounded by a high wall. Now, however, it is the business part of the city, and the walls have long since been razed to the ground. The natives are so peaceable and the harbor is so well defended that there is no longer any necessity for a walled town to protect the foreigners."
Sidney explained a great many interesting things as the five jinrikishas moved along the shaded roads. He pointed out the different castes among the natives for one thing. " Why,"_ he said, " it is too funny the ideas they have about themselves. They may all look alike to us, but they know what their ancestors did, and they are determined to do no work which is degrading. Only the lower caste would be guilty of pulling one of these 'rikishas about town, and if you should ask any but the lowest coolie to climb a cocoanut tree, he would be insulted. Yet they will steal chickens night after night, but they wouldn't think of accepting money for doing anything they think debasing."
Round About the City
The little native children, up to ten years old, were running about the streets without a stitch of clothing, and apparently they didn't mind the heat. Sometimes we saw them bathing in one of the lakes, and they splashed about like veritable water-babies. The shores of the lakes were lined with natives engaged in washing clothes. Their process was to wet the garments, lay them on the bare stones, and then beat the dirt out with other stones. " I shouldn't think the clothes would stand many washings like that," said Timmie, when he observed this operation. " This is worse than using a scrubbing-brush like we do on the McClellan." Sidney laughed. " Well," he said, " our clothes don't last long, but we've become used to the native laundries now. There's to be a steam laundry opened here soon, and we hope then to drive some of the Singalese washerwomen out of business."
Sidney took us to see the Pettah, or Black Town, where the poorest natives live, and we visited the great market there. The display of fruits showed that Ceylon has a wonderful climate for agriculture, and the great quantities of fish showed us the wealth of the surrounding seas. Fishing is indeed one of the chief industries carried on by the natives, and they can always make a comfortable living by it. Some of the fish were strange in shape and color, the like of which we had never seen before, and some of the fruit was different from any we had eaten so far on the trip.
We also visited some of the native shops and viewed the wares they had on sale. These were chiefly the products of India and Ceylon, and consisted of shell-work, carvings in ivory, ebony and sandalwood, Indian jewelry, and quantities of the false gems with which we had experience on the transport. I bought a model of an outrigger-boat, which I wished to bring home, so that I could show the boys what strange craft they have in the waters of Ceylon. Timmie bought some carved elephants which the dealer said were ebony. He discovered later that they were merely blackened cocoanut-wood, but as he paid only a small sum for them, he didn't feel cheated.
The afternoon passed rapidly. There was so much that was interesting to see, and Sidney gave us so much information about places we saw, that the hours seemed only so many minutes, and evening arrived long before we felt like returning to the transport. Howard and Kenneth insisted then that Timmie and I go to the hotel for dinner and return to the transport just in time for the midnight watch. So it was then settled that we would all eat dinner at the hotel, and we had the good time we expected. Nearly all the ship's passengers were staying at the hotel during the transport's stay in port, and I had an opportunity to visit with those among them who were my friends. It was delightful for us to be together and exchange our experiences of the day, and there were many amusing incidents recounted.
A Delightful Evening
During the evening there was a concert at the hotel in compliment to the American visitors, by the British regimental band, and we boys were permitted to join in the dancing. This was more fun than we had experienced for some time, and midst all the merriment I forgot that there was any such thing as a transport or any such person as a master-at-arms. But at eleven-thirty Timmie said we must return to the ship if we were to begin watch at midnight. So we rode down to the wharf again, and in a few minutes we were telling Mr. Casey all about our delightful first day on shore. Then we arranged that I should go on watch until two o'clock, and that Timmie would relieve me then and until Mr. Casey was ready to begin at four. In this way we could each get some restful sleep after our long fatiguing day ashore.