Friday, October 21, 2016

Arrogantly shabby or Dilapidatedly picturesque?

Ugh. My flight to Hong Kong is delayed until 2:30 am and I am stuck in an overly air conditioned, shabby, yet somehow also still managing snooty, airport lounge in Colombo, Sri Lanka.  The perfect atmosphere (arrogantly shabby?) to fire up a bit of enthusiasm for writing a blog post.

I spent a few days here this week attending the Asia Pacific Adaptation Forum. Apparently the Brits called this island the pearl of the Indian Ocean, and I guess there are parts of the country that may still evoke such encomium. But frankly Colombo is, like almost all cities in the developing world, a dump. Striving for GDP growth at all costs third world cities reek of the ugly by-products of "progress." At least this is true outside their rich denizen's compound walls.

This said, there are certainly some dilapidated picturesque sites here and there. The Wellawatta railway station, right on the beach, just across the road from my hotel, is a good example. The nearby post office of the same pleasantly doubly double consonant and alliterated name is too.

Bored Railroad Clerk and Customer
Dilapidated yet Picturesque Wellawatta Station

Sri Lanka Letter Box
Welcome to the Wellawatta Post office
I really liked the railway station. The tracks and wall paint appear to date to the British heyday, as does the bored yet gainfully employed railway clerk. But don't be deceived by the general look of decay, there has been progress and change. The station has free wifi. And, even more importantly, they separate their trash into three colors of bin (though there appears to be trash everywhere, as a sort of ambient accoutrement, so it is a bit unclear to me if anyone is actually using these bins).

Modernization: Free WIFI and sorted trash
So upgrades and improvements are clearly possible, but what does not appear to happen in wellawatta - I don't really know for Sri Lanka actually, but it is certainly true in some other countries I have lived in such as Kenya and the USA - is a sense of pride in exactness or beauty in public works, and maintenance of them.

Japan is precisely the opposite. As far as I can make out they lavish funding on quotidian public works, and clean and maintain them intensely.  See for example my recent blog post on public lavatories in the Osaka subway stations.  Or how about these incredibly beautiful manhole covers, decorated with egret and stork motifs. This is not an art exhibition, these are sewers!

Japanese Manhole Cover
Another Japanese Manhole Cover
As a contrepose here is a manhole located in the road just next to the wattawalla train station in Sri Lanka:

Sri Lankan Manhole Cover
Will it fix itself some day? Or is the stick with red cloth tied to it considered job completed?

Maybe the key to sustainable development is not the cliche solutions development gurus are always rabbiting on about (money, mainstreaming, technology transfer, knowledge platforms). Maybe it is instilling a culture of appreciation of beauty, precision and maintenance.

I'm doomed to miss my connection in Hong Kong and spend another 8 hours in another airport lounge there waiting for my connection to Osaka. Hong Kong Airport is, like so many others in Asia these days, glitzy and comfortable so that will be comforting. Yet, somehow, simply too boring to spur me to write a blog post.

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