Hundreds of Sri Lankans jostle to use the vast array of exercise machines in the private gym of the President’s House, lifting weights and running on treadmills inside a facility that was, until now, the exclusive domain of the country’s beleaguered president.
For many, this was the first time they had seen a residence so grand. The colonial-era structure is a staggering sight, with airy verandas, plush living rooms and spacious bedrooms, a garden swimming pool and neatly manicured lawns.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters descended on the residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who they blame for an unprecedented economic meltdown that has been catastrophic for the nation’s 22 million people.
They turned over barriers and then swarmed over the lawns to enter the palatial house and occupy it.
Days later, people continue to stream in, flocking to it like a tourist attraction, marvelling at the paintings inside and lounging on the beds piled high with pillows.
Alawwa Ralage Piyasena, a 67-year-old farmer who arrived by bus from outside Colombo, was stunned by the president’s gym. “I never thought I would get an opportunity to see these things,” he said, gesturing at the equipment while trying to hop onto a treadmill.
“Look at the pool and this gym. We can see how they enjoyed a life of luxury here while people struggled outside. Our families are suffering without food.”
People peered into each room, settling into beds and taking copious selfies. But no one dared to dip into the pool on Monday, after videos on social media showed crowds splashing in glee over the weekend. The once clear blue water had turned a muddy brown.
In the lush green gardens outside, groups gathered with snacks, sipping on soda and tea, as though they were out on a picnic with friends and family.
Not all were relaxing, however. Groups of volunteers banded together, sweeping up broken chairs and glass from damaged windows, a sign of the rage that swept through on Saturday. They tried to control the throng, saying some people were vandalising the property.
Nearby, people waited in a long line to enter the president’s office, now taken over by the protesters who had hunkered outside it for months.