Sri Lanka Part Ten
Sri Lanka Part Nine
They told us we would find elephants on the road to Hambantota at dawn. It was six-thirty, and in the air that hung with a heavy mist and a distinct paucity of elephants, we pushed west. And when we got west, elephants, as they had for so many days, were not.
In Hambantota, the fast paved road continued through northwest to the ancient city Anuradhapura, famous as an ancient capital of the island nation, and not at all known for having elephants. Let down, I turned off onto an uninviting dirt road just to have a peek and to turn around. And lo, the giant hindquarters of our proboscidean friend materialized, just down the path.
The wild elephants everyone had mentioned that would be on the roads at dawn, finding food and stopping traffic, were right where they said they would be. Except that they weren’t stopping traffic, and they really weren’t wild. A man guided the elephant, who carried a massive bushel of palm fronds with his trunk, down past a hotel that sprung up by a foggy lake.
We kept driving, past the hotel and onto the narrow pathway that circled the lake (it actually didn’t — it dead ended past a clump of elephant droppings). And down a rocky driveway another massive elephant swayed, swatting itself with a flyswatter made of palm, and picking its teeth with a spear it had shattered from the trunk of a tree with its foot — a foot that wore the anklet of a heavy chain. A man in a sarong tended to it, stoking the fire whose smoke kept the mosquitoes away.
I can barely remember the maze of 2500-year old monasteries and pools and colossal domes dressed in scaffolding. When we arrived in Anuradhapura, all my brain cells were tied up trying to remember the elephants and preparing for the final task ahead: fixing the car. Since I had run it off the road into a drainage ditch, it had been relieved of two hubcaps and the structural integrity of the bumper. Even before that, we had chipped off a small patch of paint and broken a headlight — all on the same side. But, man — those elephants. We’d still done well.
The man had let me approach it, and I felt long, bristly hairs that poked out stiffly from a tough hide. As we drove back on the narrow dirt road, an endless chain of white people on elephants pushed past. Every handler stopped to wave or to ask: “Elephant ride? Elephant ride?” We have a car, I said, as iron fetters clanged like wind chimes. That was the last thing I ever wanted. But still: “Elephant ride? Ganja?”
In Anuradhapura, we spent hours hunting for parts, negotiating and arguing with a mechanic. He was the friend of the tuk-tuk driver’s friend — the one that had sold us tickets in Polonnaruwa. And in fact, he wasn’t a mechanic at all. He just knew where some were, and offered to sit in our car and point them out. But for all of about 120 dollars (and five hours), the light and all four hubcaps had been replaced, and the car washed and prepared to go back to Colombo in better shape than it had left. Except for the bumper, which still sagged.
So goes Sri Lanka, and those who travel through it. It’s damn near impossible not to come out a bit bruised, but its harder still not to end up more together than when you left. At 2 a.m., we parked the car at the airport to wait for the man from the rental company to pick it up unaware of how intimately it had come acquainted with the island roads. A group of drivers from another company had waited with us, giving lessons in Singhalese pronunciation, and making fun of my last-minute packing job. They found the broken headlight I had discarded far away in an attempt to hide the evidence. They also fixed the bumper.
Read everything from Sri Lanka from the beginning.
See all the pictures from Sri Lanka here.