Around the world, families settle into their sofas on a Sunday night, brought together by the black mirror in the living room, whether it’s blaring out the latest Bollywood film or the Strictly final. It’s a unifier, a common ground, bringing people together in comfortable silence. Here in Colombo, Galle Face Green does that job.
As you step down from the concrete steps, you’re not sure whether you’re walking on grass or sand. Its sprawling, scrubby, greenish surface is the lovechild of a beach and a park and was originally turned into a promenade in 1859 by the British governor, who believed there should be a space for the ladies to take the air.
Today, and on Sunday evenings in particular, it plays host to a never-ending parade of everyday families. Down on the sand, kids dig themselves into holes and squeal as the not entirely clean sea soaks them again and again. Groups spanning generations just sit and watch the waves crash, occasionally throwing spray up and over the wall at the passers by for entertainment. Everyone under the age of twelve has a kite, the sky filled with nylon superheroes on strings. We haggle Olivia a rainbow version for a pound and she joins in, grinning from ear to ear as she learns to fly the kite above the palm trees, and we wonder why we've never done this with her before.
As the working day slumps to an end and the clocks start edging 6pm, the people start to arrive en masse. Because this, the Sri Lankan version of Havana’s Malecon and Brazil’s Copacabana, is where the main event happens. The greatest show in town. The sunset.
Buses of schoolchildren spill onto the promenade, messing around in their pristine white uniforms, the girls with their perfect braids flying around their heads. Everybody, old and young, rich and poor, stops to watch this most natural of spectacles. Because above the towering skyscrapers and helicopter buzz of the city, the sky is on fire.
And then, as the sun goes down, and the blaze of orange and lilac and gold fades to black, Galle Face Green takes on a surreal new lease of life. The long line of food carts along the promenade are starkly illuminated against the dark void of ocean. The only evidence of the water now is the rhythmic thwack of the waves and the hot tang of salt in the air. Curiously, almost every stall sells identical isso vadei, unnervingly orange lentil cakes topped with tiny grey prawns. There is an old man selling chips too, though to call them that would do them a disservice. More like the French frites allumettes, these sharp, crisp shards of fried potato form a tempting mountain in their steamy glass cage. Snack shops are neon affairs, all lurid soft drinks and billows of cartoonish foil packets, overblown like helium balloons. Further along, the rightly popular Nana's makes a joyful racket with the huge metal teppanyaki blades used to make its signature kottu, a stodgy and comforting concoction of fried shredded roti, vegetables and meat which has seen off many a hangover and replaced curry as Sri Lanka's favourite dish.
Galle Face is a strange place, lit like a Lynch film, a Hopper painting on an epic scale. And just to add to the effect, a horse inexplicably wanders past, alone. However, the one thing that's entirely normal here is the families. Showing no signs yet of heading for bed, they are eating and drinking, playing and chattering, bickering and joking. This is the place that brings them together. Their normal Sunday night. And that, surely, is better than any tv show.