Routine has been a constant driver for me over the last year, I've kind of needed it. Having been previously lead by the hands of chaos and malfunction, routine has been a much needed and welcomed ally and I've clung to it pretty tightly; I wake up at the same time, I do the same habitual yoga session, my morning juices are the same, I train at the gym on the same days, meditation in the evenings has become common practice, I always take a holiday to India to go and visit old friends and although I travel for work I've managed to keep to a routine whilst doing this.
If I was to be completely honest I got so settled into routine that the idea of doing something different was a little frightening, the unknown which I once welcomed held an uncertainty that I wasn't sure that I wanted to deal with.
Despite the fact that order has seemed to work well for me I couldn't also push away the lingering thought that I needed something different, to experience something new and fire the senses that I felt were becoming too settled.
So in a moment of impulse I booked a flight to Colombo with the aim of exploring a bit of Sri Lanka for a week. It had been a place that I'd always been interested in visiting, I didn't have a great knowledge about the country which actually made it more appealing. I had friends who knew the place so I'd avoid too much reading online beforehand, I'd trust their recommendations and just go, sounds as good a way as any to eschew routine.
The first error in my ways presented itself upon landing into a monsoonal rain that would have had Noah scampering to build an Ark, who knew that May was shouldering the monsoon season for much of the country and when it isn't raining then one can expect sweltering humidity and heat? Well I would have if I hadn't been so naïve to just arrive in a place. See although much of what I do now is set to a timed routine or practice I can still be ignorant to the specifics of a place. It hasn't been uncommon in the past to land into Shanghai only to discover it's the middle of winter at which point I'm left scampering the city, normally late at night, with an icy wind belting my face as I search for any type of clothing that will better suit the climate than my shorts and t-shirt.
Maybe it was the rain or maybe that upon landing the reality hit that for the first time in my sobriety I was going to be in a new place, without being in direct contact of friends and pretty clueless about exactly what I was going to do for a week but my head started to do a few cartwheels. The kind of thinking that I had managed to avoid now for a few months started rushing back, that old anxious feeling; the sweaty palms, the questioning oneself, in short being way too focused internally and residing in fear. The ride in from the airport was relatively easy but my head was racing, did I have my passport in my bag, would the hotel be open, did I have enough money, every little moment that could go sideways was thought of, crazy really and hardly the start of brushing off routine that I anticipated. I finally arrived at the hotel to find that it was indeed open (of course), that my passport was safely in my bag (hardly a surprise) and that the chaotic events that had unfolded in my mind had not eventuated. Bed could not have been more welcoming.
Rising quite late that first morning I decided that the best way to throw off any internal anxiety about being in a new place was to just hit the streets. I didn't have much of a plan, a few sites to see, more that idea of just walking around and getting a feel for the city. I visited some temples and walked the streets however that nervous feeling would not be shaken. It was as if I was almost trying to protect myself from some invisible threat that had absolutely nothing to do with the city or it's people. Had Singapore, corporate travel and routine sucked a bit of that adventure out of me, had my past indiscretions really made me that guarded?
Colombo itself was a really beautiful place. My first thought was that this is Bombay on Valium. That's not a criticism of either mind you, nor am I trying to compare them, but it seemed to be the only way that I could put a finger on the pulse of the place. Stunning colonial villa's and buildings were dotted throughout the streets, it was designed rather geometrically, from what I could see, with the ocean as it's defining feature, it had the traffic, the horns, the rickshaws, the people and the markets but everything was turned down in volume and intensity from what I had experienced with my 4 years in Bombay. Despite what my head was doing I was taking it all in, Colombo had all the elements of a beach side village whilst still retaining it's big city vibrancy.
Early on in the day, in an attempt to fight the sweltering heat that just seems to sit over the city whilst it awaits its next downpour, I ducked into a local snack shop to buy a couple of bottles of water, with every intention of replacing the litres that were pouring out of me. It was your typical subcontinent style snack shop, I'd imagine what used to be quite bright pastel blue dulled down through years of monsoon humidity and the rush of customers, low ceilings that warranted anyone over 5 feet to watch every step, low lighting, loud chatter and finally that close resemblance to a sauna, damn it was hot! The guy behind the counter who introduced himself as “I am a Muslim, you won't be able to pronounce my name but you can call me Johnny,” started up a conversation with me that went as follows; where was I from, who was I with, why wasn't I married and a few others I can't remember? He seemed friendly enough and asked if I would like to join him for some tea. He was interested in my take on the current IPL and the state of the Australian cricket team as well as my thoughts on Sri Lanka. I'd love to say it was the heat but honestly I just didn't feel it, there was something in me that put up a shield, he seemed interesting but I just didn't want to give any of myself away. Quite dejected with being a bit guarded, I nailed the water, passed the money to Johnny and left.
I spent pretty much the remainder of the day walking around, camera in hand exploring the city but my thoughts kept coming back to Johnny, and the offer of tea that I so quickly rejected. It was only a very small moment but for me it summed up where my head was at, although I was here to throw off that idea of routine and explore somewhere different much of it was surface wear, it was all good to say this but I had to actually follow through with it.
I used to live for this stuff; a new city, local places, having discussions with random strangers! But all of that felt like a distant memory, there was a huge part of me that just wanted to retreat to my room and get away from it all. I longed for my routine, my meetings, my friends and yet here I was alone in a city where I didn't know anyone and further still was running from the chance to get to know people.
By mid afternoon I had retreated back into the comfort of my room, I had every intention to stay in, maybe do some meditation in the hope that the fear and anxiety that I was experiencing would dissipate, maybe the next day would be better.
I'm not sure what caused me to contemplate heading back out but through the slits in the blinds I did notice that much of the cloud that had draped the city for most of the day had dispersed and the sun was piercing through. The choice of either sitting in the room or getting out was being presented and I picked myself up, grabbed a rickshaw and headed to Galle face to watch the sunset. I'd heard about this being something worth doing and I was definitely sure it was better than being in my room.
Galle face is simply a large open field located on the ocean in the centre of the city. Scattered with grass but mainly consisting of dirt it's surrounded by colonial buildings and the odd high rise and on a weekend afternoon becomes an amphitheatre for congregation and revelry. The clouds hadn't fully cleared so the colours on the horizon were spectacular. Kites being flown by children and families dotted the sky and crows and other birds took possession of the aerial real estate that was left behind. The esplanade itself was heaving; make shift seafood stalls lined the edge and there wasn't a spare seat in the house while the smell of wood and charcoal from the home made grills wafted into the air. One of the things that had definitely grabbed me about Colombo was it's subtlety amidst what was a larger subcontinent city. The colours, the smells, the noise had definitely existed in other cities I had visited but in Colombo it was almost as if they had more space to be themselves. Individual smells from kerosene lamps or charcoal fires were distinct and separated, a far cry from the combined sensorial overload in places like Saigon and while it was packed with people I could still hear individual conversations and laughter or the friendly arguments that arose out of the many popup cricket games that were going on around me.
I hadn't experienced this type of coming together since I had been in Bombay. It was truly a mass of humanity and I'm not sure what clicked inside of me but I loved it. A young Muslim family, complete with mother in a Burkha sat on a seat facing the ocean and talked, Buddhist monks gathered near the pier deep in conversation, young lovers sat with their legs hanging over the esplanade, almost willing the ocean to come and whisk them away, it was chaotic and thriving and I was in awe. Every one of my senses was being teased, the wild palette of colours, the sounds, the smells, here I was sitting in the middle of life.
The clouds on the horizon meant that the sun didn't completely pitch into the ocean as it does most of the year but the sky was lit up with a collection of pink, purple, blue and red hues. I found a small patch of dirt, sat down and basked in the humanity that was around me. It was a touchingly beautiful moment, far removed from the earlier parts of the day when I was mulling in my own thoughts. I sat for almost an hour taking in the scenes around me and acknowledging that not only earlier that day but for a while I had abandoned the idea that had helped me so much over the preceding year; that I'm a small part of a bigger picture and lucky enough to be on for the ride and I can either enjoy it and see where it takes me or be a miserable knob and still be on it. It was a truly humbling moment.
Once the clouds had swallowed the last remnants of the day and darkness began to take hold I got up and started a very slow walk back to find a rickshaw. In some ways I didn't want this feeling of connectivity to dissipate, I had a grin on my face, I'm pretty sure it looked a bit weird judging from the awkward glances people walking past were throwing in my direction but something had changed, I felt as if I had been reacquainted with an old friend. I found a rickshaw and started the journey home. By this stage my shirt (initially grey, which was a minor oversight in itself) was drenched through for the 3rd time that day rendering it closer to a piece of cardboard than the cotton that the tag indicated, the money that sat loosely in my shorts was now almost unacceptable tender, I was dusty and dirty, far from fragrantly beautiful and my knees were now back into the familiar position of being pinballs against the metal bars in a rickshaw. But I was in love, both with Sri Lanka and the idea of travel.
Over 10 years ago during my graduation, a man I admired by the name of Rick Le Plastrier gave a speech where he pushed the rather romantic idea of packing a bag with some clothes, a camera and a sketch book to go and explore the world for 10 years, only then to come back and work. At the time I was torn, the idea grabbed me but I'd also just spent 6 years studying an architecture degree that had driven many person to the brink of madness, maybe it made all that effort sound pointless. But I get where he was coming from, he wasn't necessarily saying it had to be a set period of time away, more he was getting to the point of removing oneself from their comfort zone and learning, both about humanity and who you are.
I'd love to be able to say that I am still the same person I was 10 years ago when I left Sydney, that I can shed routine and my everyday practice to arrive in a place and go all native, sitting at random coffee shops and the like but the truth be told that's probably not me anymore. I'm older and a bit more guarded than I once was, it's not quite as easy for me anymore to shed routine, it's safer to find a balance and I'm fine with that.
As I settle for the night and try and take stock on the roller coaster of a day my mind drifts back to Johnny and his offer to sit and chat with him, I have no idea what tomorrow brings, but I know at some point I'll be pouring sweat over a tea with him.