(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Speed Bumps

Sri Lanka Part Seven

Sri Lanka Part Six
Sri Lanka Part 5
Sri Lanka Part 4
Sri Lanka Part 3
Sri Lanka Part 2
Sri Lanka Part 1

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.

Tons of pictures from Sri Lanka right here

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