Barefoot in Colombo

Just another day in paradise

As I sit here in Barefoot Garden Café, I am happy to be in Colombo. Is the place a tad pretentious and slightly overpriced by Colombo standards? Yes it is, no doubt about it. But it’s also completely and utterly delightful: scattered wooden chairs and tables, plenty of potted plants, tall trees growing in between stone tiles, dappled sunlight falling through large tropical leaves, brightly striped tablecloths, eye-catching canvases hung on walls, a bloom-laden hibiscus tree hanging over a small green pond, and a general sense of space and calm….

Yet, it isn’t all bright and sparkly. Faded, broken wooden and stone statues dot the perimeters of the café courtyard, old-world wooden chests and cabinets line the corridor, and the shingled roofs are heavy with fallen leaves. The new and colourful meets the old and slightly ruined: the overall effect is charming. Mellow strains of music (mostly an instrumental blend of local and Western influences, with an occasional Enya number thrown in) play in the background, while constant chatter fills the air.

There’s a mix of the usual suspects sitting at the tables: groups of expat catching up over a late lunch, Colombo’s well-heeled out for coffee, bookworms sitting with a novel and a smoothie, and those like myself – armed with a laptop and enjoying a quick bite while working on something or the other. The café has free Wi-Fi for customers, which makes life for us Internet junkies so much more convenient.

The service is unexceptional – a few waiters are friendly and smiling, others appear rushed and not particularly eager to take orders. Westerners do get quicker service and wider smiles – perhaps an inevitable result of sizable tips in dollars compared with tips in local currency. However, this is certainly not limited to Barefoot Café or even to Colombo – nearly all tourist-heavy destinations in the subcontinent are characterised by a distinct preference for Western customers. (If you’ve been to Pushkar, Old Manali or the northern beaches of Goa, chances are you’ve come across this already.) Call it racist or economically expedient – there’s no escaping it!

The menu is a single-page affair, and not particularly inspiring: there are plenty of beverages, but the food options are limited. Pick from a couple of sandwiches, salads, and side orders like potato wedges or falafel with pita bread; all food items on the menu are in the range of LKR 200-700. A cup of (excellent) cappuccino is for LKR 300, while the fresh juices and milkshakes are priced between LKR 280-400. Make sure to check the daily specials if you’re going for a meal. Some of the dishes are delicious albeit pricey. I highly recommend the grilled prawns with rice! The desserts are all between LKR 400-500. (Please note, all menu prices are inclusive of 10% service charge and government taxes.)

The café is entirely open air, so there’s no air-conditioning. However, the sea breeze and the shade of the trees ensure that it’s nearly always pleasant, even on a hot summer day like today.

Adjoining is the large Barefoot store, which, amongst other things, stocks a collection of select titles. There are plenty of Michael Ondaatje’s novels – Sri Lanka’s favourite home-grown, English-language author, settled in Canada for the last several years. There is also a huge range of funky local handicraft items, including furniture, toys, and home décor items. The pricing is inconsistent and a little difficult to comprehend: I picked up a beautiful pen-stand cleverly created out of old newspapers and splashed with pleasing shades of green for LKR 200 (something a Delhi boutique shop would charge at least thrice as much for); on the other hand, a painted mug is inexplicably priced at a LKR 2000.

There’s also a small art gallery that’s accessible through the café courtyard. You can browse through the painting at leisure – and don’t forget to sign the guest book on your way out!

As I watch the water lilies swaying in their big stone pots and sip my coffee, I am filled with a strange sense of nostalgia and possibility, all scrunched together. I now have a phrase to assign to this feeling: “barefoot in Colombo”.

Who can say where the road goes, where the day flows, only time.