What woke me was the noise. It was a sound like something being slid down a metal table. Having grown up near USAAF bases I knew instantly what to look for and where to look. The fighter banked to the south and its silver wings caught the Sun.
“You were snoring”. P is admonishing me. She is sitting with her legs in the pool reading a novel. Across the beach a man is shouting at me: “Hello Sir”. He is holding up a Sri Lankan cricket shirt which he is very keen to sell to me. My mother-in-law is ordering a Diet Coke from a hotel waiter and a suicide bomber is making his way through the outskirts of Colombo to the centre of town.
We have stepped outside of the hotel during our stay. I set off in search of a shop on the first evening. The air was hot and still and within in a few yards of the hotel front door it picked up the characteristic South Asian fragrance of decay. Around me the brittle industry of trinket sales stirs as I am noticed by shopkeepers, street vendors and tuk-tuk drivers. All are polite, all are insistent. A tuk-tuk pulls up beside me and a man jumps out:
“Hello Sir! Are you German?” It is clear I need to lose some weight. “No? You are English? Where shall I drive you?”
“Actually, I’m out for a stroll but thanks”.
“Jump in – I will drive you for your stroll”. I pause to consider this idea but decide it will not help my Germanic waistline.
“Would you like to buy a suit – I am a tailor” He hands me his card. It says he is a tailor and a tuk-tuk driver.
“Not today thank you”.
“We go to my shop now”
“No – I have to get back the hotel. I have a massage booked”
“A lady massage?”
“Your masseur is a lady?”
“I have no idea”
“I will do your massage – just here in this house, come on”.
Sri Lanka is full of this entrepreneurial energy. It is poor. Not poor like Nepal but a country of half built buildings and mopeds.
Our second trip away from the pool, to Kandy and the Elephant Sanctuary, was arranged with Malinthe, our cheery holiday rep. Leafing through the brochure he would give us a burst of dismay and tell us that a particular day trip was not possible “because of the people who make trouble”. The newspaper by his right hand had the headline “Victory Imminent” and a picture of a tank.
Our driver welcomed us into the Japanese minibus and helped us squeeze our knees into the seats. He turned on the ignition, ignited his charm and began his patter. His English, he apologised, was not good. Being British, we insisted it was excellent. Generally we understood each other eventually. P had a tangled conversation with him that suffered from the fact that she had misheard “Ayurvedic medicine” as “highway demolition”.
He drove with the recklessness of the truly religious. The cold sweat ran from my palms as bumped and roared our way northwards. There are rules to Sri Lankan driving. If you are on a moped make sure you are carrying at least two passengers. If you are overtaking move out and hang in the blind spot of the vehicle you are trying to overtake. Once you are satisfied that the vehicles coming in the opposite direction are smaller than yours, sound your horn and accelerate.
Perhaps sensing our terror, our driver would, from time to time, look round to reassure us. I am not sure how he was able to take his eyes off the road – I know I wasn’t. It seemed to make no difference to his driving though.
We asked him if he was married: “No! Haha! I am only 27”. It became clear that he had a route carefully planned that, in addition to taking us where we wanted to go, took us to a series of businesses which specialised in tourist goods for what he termed “looky looky”. It emerged that he had taken to the terrifying work of navigating Sri Lanka’s pitted roads at high speed because his job as a policeman had become “too dangerous”. He pointed to a long facial scar – “The bomb” he said “my parents wanted me to stop”.
In Kandy the talk was again of explosives. The “Tooth Relic” Temple had been substantially rebuilt after an attack. Reassuringly, Buddha’s tooth had survived. Several centuries earlier it had survived being crushed by a hammer by rising into the air and glowing like a star so the Tamil Tigers were always onto a loser. With better timing we could have been there for the Elephant ride the tooth takes every year. I gather, however, that the tooth does not take the ride itself any more but sends out a double instead.
The Tooth is known to bring rain. Once, after many years of drought and in the face of mass starvation, the tooth relic was invoked at which point the rains fell and floods swept away whole villages. Either the Tooth has a rather black sense of humour or it pays to be very specific about what you ask it for.