Sri Lanka: After All the Tigers Have Gone
Part One: “Busy Busy, Fucking Busy”
I left for Sri Lanka in less than perfect conditions.
The only weather reports I had seen showed thunder and lightning in Colombo every single day of our stay. Our car rental company discouraged “self driving” — and I could hear over the phone the jaws of owners of hotels, rest houses and shacks drop when I asked for directions for myself. I tuned in to news about the island’s flooding… after buying tickets.
What goes wrong is often better fodder for storytelling, I was reminded. But what about when what goes wrong epitomizes something so mundane, so completely life-unaffirming, that it denies the entire essence of “a problem”, and contradicts what it is to even be a person that has problems?
I’ve booked a hotel too early. How now can I change plans?
I’ve paid too large a transaction fee. Why do I ever listen to third-party travel agents?
My vacation days from my job that pay a salary that permits me to casually observe your (by my standards) substandard living conditions — I may not be spending them efficiently.
These are the burdens of the overprivledged. One lesson learned is that in a trip planned last minute, confirmations (of route, lodging, goals) are the enemy — if you know nothing at all, don’t ever get certain. But more importantly is that when it comes time to take a vacation, no matter how precious (in opportunity, in dollars and cents, in sense of accomplishment), we do well to learn from the message of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama — chill out, bro. It’s not an angel on my shoulder giving counsel; it’s just a guy in shorts telling me not to be a douche.
We left the Emirates on a red-eye flight for Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island not free from its share of trouble. The UAE is a country that just discovered money. Sri Lanka is the opposite: money has just discovered it.
Of course that’s only true to some degree — the tourists that come to Sri Lanka are often those with less dirham on hand, thrill-seekers, surfers looking for good waves and a bargain. But the influx of western visitors has made quick work of certain spots along the coast, where the greater the number of discoverers, the less there is left worth to discover.
Still, with a letter-sized map of the country laid out on a tray table, we discussed a change of plans with a new friend — an Israeli surfer familiar with a little town in the south, not yet overrun by Western tourists with Western palates.
Why not. We ditched our poorly-researched five-day plan (and a hotel booking) for a counter-clockwise dash across the teardrop. The first stop: a surf shack at the center of several breaks in Midigama, a town so small it could hardly claim a center for itself.
That was where we buried our sandals for the first night. It wasn’t easy to get there (stay tuned), and we hadn’t bought ourselves any more time (the gods of airline scheduling had no alternatives to delay our return flight), but shelving the semblance of a to-do list made time less hostile. Instead of on the road, I spent the first afternoon in the Indian Ocean waiting for the sea to move. I sat out in the lineup with tourists, locals, and their longtime buddies. One Midigaman paddled out, vexed: “Busy busy, fucking busy.”
I looked back at the beach: Coconut palms. Sunset. Okay.
Part Two: Fool of a Tuk-Tuk (Or, The Carma Sutra)
You drive like a local is everywhere both curse and compliment, a label given to one that has just saved a life or nearly lost one (or both). To earn such damnation/praise in Sri Lanka, a driver must adopt all of the English sentiments toward the left side of the road while rejecting every ounce of their trademark restraint, propriety, and unexcitability.
Almost every road in the country is two-lane (one in each direction), always curvier than topographically necessary, and rarely with room for central Asian third-laning between your lane and oncoming traffic. Passing has got to be fully committal, usually before a blind curve and with no shoulder for aborted missions. Honk honk.
The local fauna: sprightly tuk-tuk — three-wheeled doorless taxis with a backseat just wide enough for two fat Europeans, or three squished surfers, or five little children, or a local family of six; fearless bikers, slow but quick to raise the stakes — okay after a couple of swipes from your side mirrors, but fodder for some serious counseling after anything more physical; tourist vans (with local drivers) — always in a hurry and quick to form a grudge; other cars — unusually rare in most parts of the country, likely transport solely for tourists and cityfolk; and giant buses — the big game of the Sri Lankan roadscape. Challenge a big bus only from behind; pass only when the time is right, and only when you have obeyed the unspoken laws of the road.
First: never check your mirrors. Chances are you won’t like what you see. Common practice is that if you beep when passing, your prey will not attempt right then to pass the car ahead, shoving you farther right into the grill of an imminent fruit truck. Honk before curves and trucks and tuk-tuk know you’re coming; honk on (rare) straightaways and antsy drivers might politely shift left an inch or two.
Second: hold your line. Everyone is always trying to pass everyone. If you let a big van pass — or worse, a huge commuter bus — you’ll be smoking diesel fumes for miles. Suicidal bus drivers barreling around mountain curves seem to operate under the assumption that oncoming drivers are more attached to life, have done the math, and have determined who wins if they don’t move. But when you’re in leapfrog position with a battered, red fifty-seater on your tail, guard the center line and keep moving forward.
One van marked only with the number 13, an X, and the drawing of a leaf took unkindly to this challenge. After a round of passing and repassing, Thirteen Leaf overtook us around a curve. An angry passenger stuck his entire torso out the window and shook his fist back at us — I responded by trivializing his frustration and videoing him right in the face. They pulled ahead but we caught up, jockeying for perfect pass position. Finally we parted ways as they pulled off to the side with a hand raised from the van — a sign of mutual respect, a salute to a worthy opponent. (We discovered later that a number with some Xes and a leaf or other symbol was a mark of a political candidate — local elections in Sri Lanka were only days away and politicians raced around their districts to speak to less peripatetic constituents.)
The bright side of having just one lane per direction is that the action is focused, and there are no surprises coming from the left side. Except for bikers. And folks out for a stroll. And tiny children. But if you save one honk for everything that moves and respond to the offerings of the road, safety is at no risk greater than your dignity. In some moments, it may be tempting to put one on the table in a play for the other: what use is security if you’ve been passed by the slow campaign van of a corrupt politician? In some moments, you may look back to that left side and contemplate the inside pass — one that might coat your wheels with dirt and gravel and force commuters and orange-mongers to de-bike. This is not to be taken lightly: the left-side pass is for vengeance only.
It is a race, and the whole country is running. People are on (or in) the road all of the time, apparently just going places for the sake of going places. Tourists in many parts of the country are Sri Lankans from other parts; most places are not anywhere anyone has been and Western tourists are always something of a novelty. Asking for directions, a common response to “where is” was “tell your driver…”. I’d hold up car keys. Cocked heads. Big smiles.
We drove out of the airport parking lot and into the congested Colombo traffic at six a.m, the spirit of Dirty Harry in the backseat constantly inquiring about my estimated level of luckiness. After five hours as both predator and prey on the coast-road (the alleged “best road in Sri Lanka”), we passed the Dutch fort town of Galle and parked outside the string of surf huts in tiny Midigama. The car was missing a little bit of paint from an unexpected encounter with a tuk-tuk (“no damage,” we told the driver… and the policeman looking on), and the intactness of its left headlight was compromised after a light lovetap to the bumper of a red bus (I’d soon do it much greater damage) — but we had earned every one of those 200 kilometers (5 hours in Sri Lanka, 1.5 hours in the UAE) in the true spirit of the South Asian communal driving experience. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Part Three: +94
I grabbed a board from the rack of worn but rideable rentals and walked to spend our first evening in Sri Lanka in the water, in the lineup of a reliable break known as “Plantation”. The beach is the backyard of a large McMansion owned by Danes and has only one entry into the surf, a narrow channel where the jagged rocky fringe along the shoreline is less wide. If you look like you’re about to paddle out from anywhere else, you’ll get a heads-up shout from a few local onlookers or a photographer — everyone else has been here before.
The view from Plantation is wild — even though it has been discovered and christened by Westerners, the view of the coast from the water (if you put your thumb over Elsinore) is a picture postcard of an untouched tropical island. Very different from my last year’s outings in the sea just off 91st Avenue in Queens.
But in the other direction, where there’s usually just ripples and pelicans (here the occasional sea turtle), Plantation looked out on all the surfers in Weligama. So I looked in the other direction. That’s probably why I was a bit inattentive, distracted enough to ride a wave in too far to where the rocks began, and to put my feet down as defense against the current pushing in — from the shore, the beach looks sandier than others, so I’d left my booties on land. Sometimes in life, silly mistakes go unpunished. Other times, sea creatures do things to you that really, really hurt.
I looked at my foot — a number of thin, black sea urchin spikes had perforated my big toe and broken off too deep to pull out. In Singhalese, the language of the ethnic majority in Sri Lanka, these creatures are called ikiriyya, a name with likely roots in the old Indo-European word for “Ow ow ow, what the m*ther fu*king christ.”
I showed a few other surfers.
“That’s not good.”
Most of them had gone through urchin treatment before, but they didn’t take it lightly. Left in too long, the urchin’s poison could make a nasty mess of your insides, making parts of your body that are supposed to do one thing do something very else.
One option was the hospital — probably five hours and a trip-razing trip to Colombo away. But we’d come too far for that. The general advice endorsed by this western medical council: take a few swigs of local brown coconut arak, sterilize a sewing needle with a lighter, and dig. And best of luck finding a needle in town; the other option is a penknife.
So I shuffled on to shore and smiled hello to a few locals sitting on the stone wall outside the Danish villa.
“Are you damaged?”
A girl in jean shorts, dark wavy brown hair.
I hadn’t said a word — she just knew.
Soon her brothers and cousins had gathered — the girl Jannu and her brother and her cousin whose name meant “moon” — and and her uncle had appeared and gone away. And this man — I learned his name was Gijanta — returned quickly carrying long flowers with stiff green stems and pink violet buds. Without shirt and wrapped in a beautiful, faded sarong, Gijanta’s face had the perfect number of wrinkles and teeth for inspiring confidence; this was better than any hospital, more mollifying than any insurance.
He made a pink paste of the flower buds, twisting open the stem and mixing in the green drops that fell out. I forgot the names of the two flowers — huna or hura or hana — that his nephews repeated, but it wouldn’t’ve mattered. The next day when I tried to smush the flowers to make the paste Gijanta had made, nothing came out.
Gijanta left me, surrounded by his family, with a thick layer of rose-colored cream on the underside of my toe, and returned a moment later with a lighter to broil it. For minutes he cooked the floral concoction, killing the toxins in the needles, communicating advice to the others to translate. For the medicine man and I, the only common language was eye contact, his exuding unfaltering tranquility, mine drifting off…
Before I left (on the motorbike of the cousin whose name meant “moon”), Jannu had found another untreated needle and they repeated the whole process from the beginning.
In the morning I rinsed off the paste in a few dawn waves. It was rush hour in Midigama. Jannu waved from the same spot outside the Danish mansion. She called us to breakfast in their grandmother’s house, behind which sat theirs, large and brick and with no doors, open to all the monkeys in the forest.
And a picture looked down from the dining room cabinet: a familiar face, younger, with the same soft eyes. It was Gijanta — it had to have been. And that’s the way I’m going to remember it.
That’s where the story would have ended in a different age, in a time before text messaging and lingering connectivity. I should have left with Jannu’s face and Gijanta’s faces and that of the cousin whose name meant “moon” silkscreened onto my memory like hazy apocrypha, to idealize and mythologize for eternity. But in Sri Lanka, the norm is to ask for travelers’ phone numbers, addresses, emails — and in their country and their debt, not wanting to offend, we yield.
The innocence is not lost, the simplicity of the first interaction is not complicated, but frequent texts and phone calls from the +94 country code (and the sincere entreaty for investment in renovation of the house/hostel that would amount to tens of thousands of American dollars) stitch the would-be ideal to reality.
The night before, over luke warm Sri Lankan beers that never got cold in Sri Lankan freezers, Jannu’s brother and the cousin whose name meant “moon” talked about their studies in busy cities with no beaches. Even though their presence on property meant for tourists was supposedly prohibited by law (“foreigners only”), the beachfront just down the steps from our shack was made for chilling. You can’t beat this, said the cousin whose name meant “moon”, who told me he was called Teri, for short.
Open ocean and the lights of fishing boats strung along the horizon.
“I like to feel the freedom,” said Teri.
There’s a video of the urchin operation out there somewhere, on the underwater camera of a fellow surfer. If you’re out there bro…
Part Four: Tall Buddhas, Orange Coconuts, and People Talking
We left the island’s south-south-west coast a little before one o’clock with our only goal to make it to any hotel in Tissamaharama (Tissa, for short) outside Yala National Park before five the next morning. It was the one real event we had planned (read: paid out the nose for, in advance) — a hired Jeep to take us into Sri Lanka’s most famous nature preserve where elephants and monkeys and buffalo and leopards roamed free. We had only 200 kilometers to go and easy directions: keep ocean on right.
Heading out of Midigama, we passed the fishermen perched in their traditional fish-hunting post, baking in the sun and waiting to spear fish in the water. And slowly but surely, traffic on the roads eased. After we passed the bold-on-the-map town of Matara, the pressure of the capital seemed to dwindle — our lightly battered Nissan cruised at fifty or sixty kph. The roads still had curves in places the land didn’t, but at least driving no longer made us feel like Mr. Bonaparte at Waterloo.
Click, listen and read the next ¶
In a park near Tagalle stands a stone Buddha hundreds of feet tall. Cows graze nearby and visitors bring flowers to lay in offering. Camera in hand, it was more than impossible to blend in. Even in a sarong, even standing silently in meditation, our faces did not fall in the very narrow spectrum of local looks. I had no idea whether or not my picture-taking or my stupid, loud plaid shorts (I bought them in your country!) were offending anyone’s spiritual sensibilities. I didn’t know the customs — how could I? So, I tried to tell myself, anxiety doesn’t help anyone. And neither does worrying about when we’re going to get somewhere. The giant statue served as a reminder — don’t stress!. With the smell of incense and birdsong in the air, the jingle of a passing ice cream truck made one thing very clear: anxiety is culturally insensitive.
The towns rolled by; we turned north off the coast at Hambantota, missed a few turns to Tissa, and finally cut east through park territory towards Kataragama. I stopped the car to take a picture of a silly sign that explained, at least in part, the essence of Sri Lankan driving. And piles of orange coconuts called out from a stand on the other side of the road, so (duh) we ran across to have a couple macheted open.
We met the family working in the roadside hut. The oldest man opened the coconuts with automatic dexterity, slicing open the top to unlock cups of the life-saving juice. Other men looked on: “What country?” A mother holding her baby daughter offered us a hard, super sweet candy to eat with the white coconut meat and watched intently as we tested the combo. They laughed no matter what faces we made — Americans, in sarongs, eating foods kids eat.
Between the two of us travelers, one was wearing a Muslim sarong (the majority population of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, but Islam and Muslim styles are also common) and the other was wearing shorts and a sarong draped like a toga (it’s comfy for driving). I wondered what our hosts must have been thinking: Oy, American’s have no idea how to wear our clothes. Or maybe, Told you, bro — Americans do so wear sarongs! How different do we assume each other to be?
I still get calls from the piles of orange coconuts on the side of the road, just now it shows up in my caller ID. They had encouraged us to take their pictures — we did and exchanged numbers, bemused but not yet tired of the habit. The connection continues, but what is there to be said?
We overshot Tissa until we hit the sea, where a brightly costumed group danced in celebration of the new moon on a rocky outcrop, and where waves crashed onto an old beach, grains of sand as big as cooked couscous. The sun set and we turned back once again towards the town outside the park.
Before we found the one hotel we knew enough to ask for, we passed the large domed temple at Tissa, like most, a huge white hemisphere crowned by a steeple. The gates were open, and for a few cents we bought flower offerings to bring in and lay at the Buddha’s feet. It was, as is every full moon, a holiday. Families gathered and prayed meditating, seated; groups of men and groups of women circled the dome chanting, or silently; an old woman knelt palms pressed together by the statue of a bodhisattva. Gnats droned around the temple’s floodlights. The country was so beautiful in the moonlight — they asked us where we came from but there were no wrong answers — there weren’t even any “strange” answers. The old woman, now at the top of the stairs at the feet of a large seated Buddha, said words to me in Singhalese.
Part Five: Carrots in a Cage
Yala National Park is not fun. It may have once been fun, but it is certainly not now, and I’m mad at everyone Google found that tried to convince me otherwise. Except, actually, now that I’ve followed their bad advice, I wouldn’t redo it all any differently.
It is supposed to be one of Sri Lanka’s prime destinations for wildlife spotting — thousands of kilometers of open area where majestic island creatures roam, discoverable only from the back of a hired Jeep. Buffalo, leopards, beautiful wild elephant — Yala is your gateway to a personal, personalized experience with Sri Lanka’s wild fauna. Yours and five-hundred other tourists, in six-hundred jeeps, making every breath feel like sucking from the back of an exhaust pipe.
Our tour began outside a hotel we hadn’t stayed at 5:30 in a pitch black morning. It all started so well — a private jeep, gutted, gunning down dirt roads that seemed deserted as the sun came up. But then we pulled up to a circle of identical parked jeeps with tired looking people just waiting. The best part of the day came and went after our driver (wheezing and coughing) disappeared to redeem the tickets we thought we already had, and as the hot sun rose over an area more National Parking Lot than National Park. By 7:30, we were moving, and at the official militarily guarded entrance, an elephant lumbered in the far distance.
“Lucky!” sneezed the driver.
I hadn’t yet turned completely sour. “Yes… lucky lucky.”
Later on, we roared on up to a sleeping leopard, nestled deep in a thick forest. This, our driver impressed upon us, was very lucky. Everyone else though so, too — at least thirty jeeps squeezed into the narrow dirt road, spewing fumes and rumbling, tourist trapping us in a zoo of sweaty day trippers and digital cameras. I didn’t want to look at the tiny far away sleeping leopard head anymore. If everyone else was looking at it, right then and there, it wasn’t wild anymore… I pointed my camera back at the other tourists.
Before the end of the leopard’s nap, we escaped down a road less traveled. I was complaining as our jeep blazed a path guarded by nothing but tall, thick shrubbery. “Elephants don’t live here,” I said. “They’re big. They like big spaces.”
And then there one was. Big and grey, just like they are supposed to look — and actually, I had to tell myself, in the wild. For the first time all morning, there were no other jeeps in sight.
“Can we get out?”
The driver didn’t seem to respond, so I popped open the back door. I eyed the big, grazing animal no more than twenty feet away.
Every part of me that is good at anything told me to run — to run into the brush, to find out if elephants are hairy, to find out if they’d never forget me. But I made the mistake of looking back, of seeing our driver making urgent hand motions and looking pained. It’s a lot harder to break a rule when it’s being explained to you than it is to pretend you never knew there even was a rule, that it was against park rules to cow tip or elephant hug.
And then came the jeeps — mine and the park’s wild side muffled in clouds of tourist dust.
“Tourist trap,” could never be more accurate. We’d pulled ourselves in the direction of something we thought was attractive, like a hapless rabbit hopping for a carrot in a cage. We cut short other half-baked plans to allow for this, the one thing we had really heard of. Still, though, without a doubt, it was all entirely for the best (and not just because of the really cool monitor lizards hanging from trees). Our trip to the southwest brought us to into the town of Tissamaharama, where the night before we’d met people (in a waist-deep riverbed) that made the whole trip worth it.
Part Six: Smell This
We asked for Tissamaharama, the town everyone called Tissa, and pulled up to park outside its painted white temple under the full moon. We had taken the long road from Hambantota past the right turn at Wirawila, up and around through Kataragama. We asked for the hotel, “Tissa Lake View” and followed fingers that pointed back where we came from — back to “Tissa Lakeside,” a hostel blasting music and completely full for the night.
The manager, a burly Sri Lankan with an unrequitable love of high-fives, bustled out to help us make a U-turn back on to the street, and to bro it out talking about America and how awesome Sri Lanka is and how his place is totally the place to stay except that there is no room. He pointed toward “Lake View”.
Starving and exhausted, we followed convincing directions and reinforcing points from passersby, but all we found was a riverbed. The good traveler in me was fading — the one that says, this is what you came here for and not, McDonalds, please, I’m a quitter — but there was no way we weren’t stopping. Dozens of native Sri Lankans, splashing each other and bathing in the riverbed, jumping off the banks and the stone blocks of a small dam. Whatever it is, this was it.
In boxers, we jumped in to packed pool of cheering dudes — young women, covered, were washing themselves at a small distance. I found myself in a circle of friendly questions, inquisitive faces, and really good English. Some who talked to me first seemed inclined to stick by my side, to make sure I didn’t feel lost in the chest-deep river water.
It looked like the whole village had found away to keep bathtime alive. Remember when you were a kid, and your parents maybe washed you in the tub or a pool with a cousin or two? And it was the only way cleaning could be fun? Multiply that by twenty. I thought I found a strong, bristly plant used for washing. I held it up to the jokester sitting on concrete stairs that sloped down into the water and mimed scrubbing myself. He lost it.
Look! in Singhalese, he was guffawing to his friends in the water. This is just a plant from the river (pine-like, I found one floating later) and he thinks we wash ourselves with it! Who does he think we are, savages!?
Uh-oh. These chefs thought bathing in the river was just as much of a country bumpkin novelty as we did. I wasn’t just the guy from America anymore — I was turning into a bigtime tourist. The kind that doesn’t see the bar of soap on the step because it’s too boring. Or the one that follows clues to a town populated by tigers (the animals, not the separatist group), that all disappeared decades ago (more about this later).
“But it smells good.” I put the bristles to my nose. (It actually did, like a dangling pine tree air freshener).
I held it out to him — Smell this. He took a whiff. Gotcha.
The swimmers exploded laughing. I made a note to self: making people smell things is funny here.
Except that the thirty guys in the water weren’t actually from “there”. They weren’t locals, and they sure as hell weren’t bathing with trees. They were the Cooking staff from a fancy hotel in Colombo, and they were driving around the country for three days in one of the giant buses that spread heart arrhythmia to the whole island.
Their friends were some high-school students and old buddies. A monk with a shaved head waded up to me in a Playboy t-shirt. Aside from his head, every limb and uncovered patch of chest was carpeted almost in human fur. Everyone rubbed his head, “No hair! No hair!” He had escaped from the monastery for the weekend.
To one side was a perfect footbridge, and downriver was a woven canopy of overarching tree limbs and dark water — I tried to soak it all in as picturesque as it was. But after a long while, the bad traveler in me still wanted to go to bed — to be ready for our five a.m. pick-up for the National Park. I got out of the water to think about changing, and voilà: the Tissa Lake View Cottage. It had been there all night, right above the footbridge by the river.
The pull of easy tourism was intense. After a whole day on the road, and no food, a hotel restaurant was like a Jacuzzi to colonial English sailor. But we were invited to spend the night with them — “You can get up at 4:00!” — and to barbecue with them back at their camp. They were starving, too. This is what you came here for, goddammit.
We followed, to a compound of a few large buildings and no one but Sri Lankans. They brought packaged boxes of noodles with foods with no names plastic-wrapped for freshness, to eat with our hands on mattresses in a big common room. Spicy, savory — not bad to room with all cooks. And then came the barbecue, shrimps and meats, until we had forgotten what hunger was and why we ever would have thought twice about following the hotel staff from Colombo.
I set an alarm for 4:00 a.m., a necessary wake-up call for a mistaken reservation in a hypercrowded national park. But when we all squished in together on a row of mattresses in a big common room, I didn’t care at all what animals we were going to see.
“Subha ratria,” I said. Good night. These days in a Sri Lanka the tigers have left, it’s all about the human connection.
Part Seven: Speed Bumps
The day we left Tissa for Yala and Yala for Kandy, the former capital, was so long I remember only flashes and the dull impressions of strange and bad things. It started at three-thirty in the morning — I awoke before my alarm in a comfortable line of passed out cooks squished together on a smaller number of mattresses. Minutes later, pounding on the door, and others from the same bus hustled in to remind us we had to get going. They were so aware, as an entire group, of changes we had made to our “plan”, and were making damn sure we suffered no sightseeing consequence.
It was easier to get up than to explain the concept of the snooze. We were, of coursed, headed to Yala, which, as we remember, sucked.
As we got into the car to leave the compound, a stocky man in between two friends made motions for us to wait. “What?” I called from a cracked window. “Wait, wait,” he said.
It was four o’clock and we were running on fumes and the memory of grilled shrimp. “We have to go.”
He put his hands on the hood. I felt in my heart the sound of the door handle lifting. Fuck! Nothing. Chest-pounding, at least I knew the doors were locked.
We were trapped in the compound, with only one narrow driveway leading back on to the main road. Our only the safety of the car — but in those black, predawn hours, a few windows didn’t seem the strongest protection against someone willing to act crazy.
I still didn’t know how crazy he wanted to be.
“Move. We need to go.”
He pressed harder, sometimes saying words that meant nothing, sometimes looking off in a direction something might come from, some backup, someone with a bad plan.
“Move. MOVE. Minutes had passed and there was still only one way out. I inched the car forward. He set his feet into the ground and pushed back, yelling through the windshield. This was someone waiting for help to make quick work of a few tourists. Or, as confusing as it was, was he somehow trying to help but lacking in enough English vocabulary to help unterrifyingly? But we didn’t need help. I inched the car farther forward.
He dug in his heels, howling. I tapped the gas pedal. I scanned the eyes of his friends — were they waiting for someone, too? or was crazy guy just being crazy again?
The car was moving slowly but he was still braced against the car, daring me to hurt him. Don’t lay down. Don’t you fucking lay down. He didn’t.
I revved fast enough to push him to the side — he wasn’t willing to die for the catch. He slammed his fist against the car as we drove past, victorious, pulses racing, around the buildings and toward the… shit: gate. A lock hung from a chain.
I felt like Usain Bolt on a treadmill, trapped, waiting for trouble to get even. A figure emerged from the still dark shadows. He stared through the windshield — I looked back at an unfamiliar face. He swung open the gate.
And with that, we reached the meeting point with the driver who took us into Yala National Park, which, once again, sucked.
[This is when Part 5 happens.]
That afternoon, it took too long, considering every single non-driveway road in Sri Lanka can fit on a map no larger than a centerfold, to find our way up the island. Badulla was our North Star, not more than 80 miles away on an A-class road. But the road signs had other plans, and, trusting in them, we veered off onto a C-class road. Giant potholes carpeted most of the track, with single paved lanes (the Cricket World Cup was starting in a few weeks) sometimes running alongside behind traffic cones and caution tape. Soon there was nothing but the orange dirt and its deep trenches.
In our rented station wagon/hatchback, the suspension was shown no mercy — sometimes it felt smoother to speed, skimming over the tops of the gaps in a constant, chattering rumble and suffering the occasional large smash, than to absorb every dip and hollow gingerly, cautiously. Yards felt like miles, meters felt like… nautical miles. From the top of every hard-earned hill stretched more and more C-class road.
And as is custom, produce sellers — men, women, the smallest of children — mongered their goods dangerously close to future tire tracks. Some held mesh sacks of oranges, one fisted some lemons; another, two onions.
The road went on like this hump after hump — the car roaring, shaken like Bond, James Bond’s martini; us, rifling toward a main highway too fast, trying not to hit fruits and the humans holding them, trying not to harm the hatchback whose machinery we could handicap, but whose outside we couldn’t scratch.
Ass to foot numb, promising-looking turns yielded more of same. After miles of empty fields, we pulled through a quiet town with every adult listening attentively to the rhetoricky, gesticulative speech of a political candidate shouting from a stage. No one I’d ever talked to seemed to like any politician that had ever opened his mouth, but this man had a polite audience, in chairs, standing by the street, straddling motorbikes, leaning towards him with elbows on counters. Some looked at us. White folks driving through from nowhere, laughing exhaustedly at bad jokes. “Should we ask him where Badulla is?” I wondered.
But after too long, the road tilted up a hill, towards a zinc hut with canting sides and a vast, calm lake beyond. We reached a T. The only trouble was that we needed to head North. The road we had followed, we thought, headed west. And a right turn at the T was a dead end.
A family passed in a tuk-tuk. “Badulla?” we shouted. They pointed left, smiling big, big smiles. We were almost there. That is, we were almost on the right way there.
Completely exhausted and relieved, I drove us down a road so scenic it demanded perfection — it asked you to drink and quench your thirst, to massage weary muscles, to prepare yourself to experience the absolute undistracted. Past a deep stone drainage ditch, a grassy hill dropped away to wide open fields and endless palm trees, asking me to quell the stress of the cramped dirt road with ultimate relaxation.
And in this state of relief, feeling for the first time in many months the absence of any real pressure, I crashed the car into the ditch.
Seconds earlier, I had begun a train of thought so perfectly mindless that I can remember it word for word. Not because it was profound or because it merited life-threatening distraction — because it is on film.
“Drive with my foot out the window. Oh I cant! Oh I can’t because — ”
I wasn’t able to finish the thought, that in left-lane driving with wheels on the right, a right-footed driver cannot stick his foot out of his own window, because I had let both left wheels of the car smash their hubcaps and grate their axels until the car came to a grinding halt leaning toward the steep hillside. Here at our most rural address, I feared the worst: a broken chassis, thousands of dollars of fines, a trip without seeing Kandy.
We got out of the car. Um.
A couple cars passed.
Very, very soon, a truck pulled over and bands of men streamed out. Another van had stopped ahead, teenagers and whole families — everyone on vacation. Instantly, a few heroes had taken charge, directing the dozen of us to places around the car. Everyone shoved and the car lifted. A few stones under the wheels. Over and over we heaved until the wheels were level — one more shove and the body of the car lurched back fully onto the road. It had been ten minutes.
The spare tire was cranked from under the trunk using tools I didn’t know we had. A miracle: only one tire was flat. One man jacked up the car — so many others watched offering commentary, asking us questions. “Tired?” they laughed. “No problem. No problem.”
After days with murderous drivers, treacherous curves, and pedestrians strolling in dark streets, it was the calm that got me. And after this, a small shock to the system of needing-to-get-there, the calm came back. The car started and all four wheels took back onto pavement — the road that lead to the road that lead to Badulla.
Part Eight: Into the Woods
It was in the town of Hali-ela, where I thought I’d lost the car keys but had them in my pocket, where I had bought packets of spices that I really did lose and never cooked with, that we turned west, away from Badulla, up into hill country.
A sundried man gave driving directions: it would be two and a half hours, he said.
But the A5 — it’s an A-Class road.
“It is thirty-two miles,” he articulated, too much like a soothsayer reading a bad omen.
“Okay, fifty kilometers.”
“Yes. Thirty-two miles.”
“So… about fifty kilometers.”
“Yes. Thirty-two miles.”
Three and-a-half hours later, we were there. If you are ever in Hali-ela, you mustn’t argue with the man outside the appa stand.
The road up to Nuwara Eliya (NOOR-elleeya) climbs thousands of feet through stepped rice paddies and valleys lusher than anything the coast has ever touched. A young girl in pink brewed a small, open pot of tea in a lone hut by the roadside. Someone who might have been her brother laughed with her at everything we did.
Two-way stretches are squeezed into one-lane free-for-alls around omnipresent construction sites or scraped up dirt roads that pretend to be getting work done. Heavenly swathes of asphalt spring up at random, as if certain towns decided to pitch in, once and for all, and pave the living shit out of their one-hundred meters.
We drove past the towering waterfalls that line the “highway” at times, and the many monkeys that guard them, our car bleeding green coolant.
Closer to Nuwara Eliya, a region known as “Little England”, every few minutes is the driveway to a tea plantation, perched higher up in the hills. We followed one detour that lead to a closed factory, guarded by a man with very few qualms about letting us explore, and even fewer teeth.
The roads grew crowded, and darker, and most every turn still haunted us with a version of the deep drainage ditch that had nearly swallowed the car whole only hours earlier. The hillside threatened to crumble in places made of clay, and from greenery, spouted water from streams or faucets to make rivers across the road.
But once it was completely dark, and signs to Nuwara Eliya became signs for Kandy, the mission was focused: no scenery to see, no more dirt roads (near Kandy, highways show some respect). We were determined to make it to a real place to stop; we had been awake and driving since nearly five a.m. (except for when the car was steaming in a hole), but the feeling of almost-thereness was like the finest coffee, or a mild cocaine.
Most bends down out of the nighttime foothills are complete U-turns, many of them guaranteed neckaches at more than 270-degrees around, but the tar is smooth, the signs are clear, and the buses are all asleep.
Part Nine: Entran¢e Fees
Kandy revealed itself in the morning, pressed against a wide sunny lake invisible the night before. We left our hotel — the cheapest of a certain class in Kandy, with dark gray carpet and heavy curtains and clearly designed for vampires — for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The entrance fee: more than 10 US dollars — a shock after driving through towns where so much could buy dinner for a week. “We’ve come from America,” we suggested, readjusting our sarongs. Half price. Is it okay to get a deal at a temple?
The temple is stunning, not for its size or for the goldenness of its Buddha statue, but for the smells of floral offerings on the second floor, and the beautiful devotion with which they are laid. Common practice is to touch the flowers with flat hands and fingers outstretched, to lean forward to touch them again further along the table, then to pray with palms pressed together above the heart, and lift them to the forehead. I stayed bent over to smell the flowers. “Wow, this American is very devoted,” they might have thought. “Mmmmmm,” I was thinking.
North of Kandy are the 200-odd stone steps that lead to the cave temples of Dambulla. The climb is hot with sarongs below the knees in anticipation of temple dress code, but tickets, they told us at the top, are sold at the bottom. Maybe next time.
Close to the bottom, every few steps is one of Sri Lanka’s impoverished, begging, demanding that you ask yourself why give to some and not to all? I gave to some and not to all. Not a very good karmic track record that day.
Further north is the giant climbable rock, Sigiriya. Twenty-two hundred steps carved into the magma climb to a terraced plateau. That, too, with its one entry guarded by government patrols, had an entry fee: thirty-three hundred rupees, the teller told us — more than 30 dollars. To climb a rock.
“But I’m doing the work!” I squabbled with the nice woman. “You should be paying me!”
She smiled good-naturedly, but told me that’s just how it was. “Sri Lankans have to pay, too,” she added.
It was hard, after many, many hours of driving toward this rock, sustained over humps and ditches by the future satisfaction of having crested it, not to get a little belligerent. The saintly teller smiled calmly throughout.
“In your house, are their stairs?”
“When people come and visit, do they pay you to climb them?”
No, she told me. No they do not.
I apologize, if she’s out there, but I don’t regret struggling against the nearly seven thousand percent tourist charge. A traveling group of local highschoolers wanted to help, but we could never look Sri Lankan enough, they said, even though we wore traditional Buddhist sarongs and flip flops — they were in shorts and jeans and t-shirts that said Pepsi.
So we drove around the side of the giant area, along a dirt road that circled the moat. Signs made it very clear: crocodiles swim here. We parked the car, poorly hidden, and snuck across a grassy land bridge that lead over a hill and down into a muddy thicket, run by mosquitoes, which, I thought, if we headed the right way, might open onto the big rock. Shoes sank into the soup of the overgrown underbrush; thorns clawed at skin and clothes and drew blood to attract the tigers that, if we believed that sort of thing, might be lurking. A clearing never appeared. Maybe next time.
We drove away, further north to where my mom had warned of tigers on the prowl, thirty years ago when rocks were climbed for free. But now, said a tuk-tuk driver, this ancient town famous for twelfth-century ruins and the massive figure of a sleeping Buddha is home only to monkeys (and people, and buffalo). “Tigers?” he laughed. “No, no!”
Polonnaruwa was also home to our only good deal. The portly friend of the tuk-tuk driver was selling package tickets for all the major sites in Sri Lanka, including the stupid rock we had left far behind, for a fraction of the price. It looked suspicious. The scrawny driver stuck his head in the driver’s side window, bartering, but was immediately rebuked by the fat man in harsh Singhalese. The fat man’s brother worked in the park of the sleeping Buddha, he told us. (Doesn’t everyone’s brother?). “I am Buddhist. I don’t lie.”
And so it was. It was evening, and the park was slowly closing. Sunset orange and pink closed over the tops of 800 year-old temples and the faces of the many Buddhas, sitting, standing, sleeping. We put our cameras down and climbed ruined staircases to nowhere to jump off them. The tuk-tuk driver let me drive.
<h2Part Ten: Forget-me-not
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.