Don’t rain on my elephant parade

Full moons have special significance to Buddhists because the most important events in Buddha’s life and early Buddhism occurred during full moons. In majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka, every day with a full moon is a national holiday and celebrated with prayers and festivals of varying importance. The largest full moon festival in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo is Navam Perahera, held annually in February. The highlight is a parade of dancers from different parts of the country and about 50 colorfully decorated elephants. We were lucky to be Colombo on the special day and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch it.

Getting ready for the parade. Is that elephant smoking a giant cigar?

We had spent the day exploring Colombo on foot (more on that later) and were very glad that the parade was to start after dark (at 7pm) because spending even more time under the blistering sun probably would have done us in. Because the streets around the parade close down as the appointed time approaches, we had to arrive about 6:00, get in position and wait for the fun to start. And wait. 7:00 came and passed. Somehow after the sun went down, the humidity went up, so our nighttime respite from the heat never arrived. We sat dripping with sweat, watching the crowd, until the parade started at about 8:15. After a troop of acrobatic dancers and a elephant in a glittering robe passed by, we felt a few sprinkles of rain — finally some relief from the heat! People around us grumbled and scrambled for umbrellas but we were enjoying it and wouldn’t let a little rain interfere with the exotic scene in front of us. Famous last words. The rain increased in intensity until it was like literally pouring down like buckets. The dancers and elephants retreated and the parade ground to a halt before it really got started. Here’s a video to give you a taste of the rain.

We know that tropical showers pass quickly, so we sat patiently and waited. And waited. At some point it became so ridiculous how wet were that we had to laugh. And laugh, and wait, and soak. The downpour kept up for almost an hour. Finally it tapered and the parade resumed, with more gusto than before because they were behind schedule. Dozens of troops of dancers in different sparkling ethnic dress, most performing with props of various kinds: deafening bull whips, spinning plates on tall poles, stilts, musical instruments, hoops, you name it. Between groups of performers, an elephant would come by with its handlers (and pooper scooper). Most of the elephants were covered in ornately sequined costumes, their eyes peeking out through cut-out holes, looking like they were heading to a Venetian masquerade ball. A few of the elephants seemed to have a role of special honor, decked out in electric lights and carrying what were possibly holy relics (it would have been nice to have a play-by-play announcer telling us what was really going on). Around 11pm it became clear that the parade wasn’t going to end any time soon, so we left, still soaked to the core.

A few more videos from the parade:

Colombo is a surprisingly easy city to get around in, by foot or in the ubiquitous 3-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks. The roads and sidewalks were well maintained and drivers kept to their lanes and followed familiar rules of the road. If it weren’t for two factors, we would have found it a joy to explore: 1) the heat was unrelenting and 2) an endless parade of people (no elephants) wanting to give us a city tour. We couldn’t walk a block without someone approaching us. About half the time, the approach would be a friendly “welcome, where are you from” which would always end eventually with the man (always a man) pulling out a city tour brochure from his back pocket. Laurel eventually came up with a brush-off that worked better than the “no thank you” we had been trying: “we did the tour yesterday.” The most sophisticated tout chatted us up for a couple blocks without letting on about his motives. He told us about his time in Colorado going to school, joked about how white we were, subtly informed us about a chance to see the parade elephants getting dressed. But eventually we became suspicious (and very hot) and begged off to take an air conditioned break in a tea shop. It was only as we tried to pry ourselves away that his motives finally became clear. The faux-friendliness left a bad taste in our mouths and made us appreciate the tuk-tuk drivers who pulled-up and just asked us straight-up if we wanted a tour.

Hopeful tour guide noting Brian’s Seattle pallor

Sri Lanka is developing fast, apparent both statistically and visually. The tuk-tuks idle along with Mercedes and BMWs in the traffic jams. A whole new downtown is currently under construction just south of the old colonial downtown. The project is massive, with dozens of partially-built highrises and another huge area of new landfill that is being prepped for more. The details of the financing are a bit murky but China is heavily involved. Sri Lanka does seem to have a lot going for it, but it isn’t clear whether this “if you build it they will come” strategy will transform Colombo into the next Singapore or leave them with a ghost town and a mountain of debt. We have visited more than one developing country lately that has had to surrender valuable assets to China such as fishing rights to settle debts from ill-advised “development” loans.

A few miles from the new Financial City, Colombo’s Lotus Tower is now South Asia’s tallest self-supported structure (1,150ft) and lights up at night.

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