Closer to Colombo

As you stare out the window of the third-class train carriage, and you get closer to Colombo after weeks in the countryside, the first thing you really notice is a Massey Ferguson tractor.  It is in a rice paddy to the left of the train, parked at an angle on a hill.  Two men are squatting in the mud a few meters away, looking at something in the tall grass, and in this extremely agricultural scene, a tractor looks very out of place.  You wonder why, then realize that up until this point, you haven’t seen any farm machines at all – the only tools you can remember seeing are the omnipresent long, broad hoes that men use to hack away at farmland, or clear drainage channels between tea bushes, or mix concrete or grout on building sites.  Otherwise, everything seems to be done by hand – like the man you saw pulling up giant kolrabi in his roadside farm, or the quiet armies of women picking tea leaves for a few dollars a day, their caloused fingers delicately pinching and pulling.  Looking at the men in that field, you marvel at how much money they must have to afford a tractor to do work that, everywhere else, is done by hand.

You realize that there have been subtle changes up to this point, changes that have kept you from reading on this seven-hour train journey to the capital.  Houses have grown bigger, and you’ve even seen a few two-story mansions.  Your neck craned when you first saw the large glass windows, and tile roofs, instead of open shutters and open doors and patchwork corrugated iron that you’ve grown used to over the weeks, but after a few kilometers you stopped noticing them.

The station you got on, Habarana, had two employees: the station manager was 20 and couldn’t spell the names of other stations when he wrote them for you on the back of an old envelope.  Instead of a platform, the station master at Habarana had stacked bricks every few meters, which was often enough that at least a few had the chance of lining up with the doors of an arriving train.  At Habarana, you waited for ninety minutes, just sitting on a bench, swatting at flies, watching stray dogs lying in the shade.  All the other people at the station were engaged in some way with mangoes, either peeling, slicing, or bagging them up for future sale to train passengers.  They paid for third-class carriage, but the manager knows that they’re going to walk up and down all of the carriages, offering the freshly sliced mangoes, samosas, peanuts, yogurt, coca cola, water, roti, chocolate malts, and whatever else people will buy.  After a few hours, they will get off the train and grab a train back, doing the same thing all over again, a ten-hour day of walking and hawking.

At the stations nearer Colombo, though, there are wide concrete platforms, and people rush between platforms to catch trains; they don’t wait around with nothing better to do.  The passenger you will most remember is a young man, dressed in an all-white school uniform, with his right foot placed ahead of his left, his left hand resting on his right elbow.  He has a faint moustache, as if he is trying to look older, and has a resentful teenage look on his face.  Behind him is a woman in a full black hijab, pulling a child toward a carriage, and behind them all is the station master, sitting oustide at a giant wooden desk, his lined ledger in front of him, a colonial relic record of everything that has happened over the last days, weeks, months, which will someday be added to the annals in the office.

As the new passengers get on, some of them decide to stand, even though there are empty seats.  You shift, and realize that perhaps it’s because of the filth caked into the fabric of the cushions, turning the formerly blue fibres black.  If the fabric hasn’t fallen off the armrests, revealing shiny stainless steel, then the pads are slick with decades of elbow grease, which at first made you cringe but, now, seems as normal as the smell of exhaust from the caboose.  The boy you saw on the platform is one of those standing – a wise move for someone wearing all white, and you wonder what institution would force its members to wear all white in this climate, in this country.

As you get closer to the city center, you notice a freeway overpass – a hunk of concrete, modern, high.  In any other place it wouldn’t attract any attention, but moving in from the country, where you’d navigated dirt roads with speed bumps and potholes that slowed down even the farm trucks, you realize that an overpass is a symbol of prosperity; two roads need to pass each other without stopping, and this is the expensive solution.  Next to them are slums – with people as poor, perhaps, as the ones you’d seen in the tea fields, but more densely packed together, with and with far more trash scattered in their yards, in the street, and on their roofs.  In the country, rubbish is burned in piles in fields, the smoke taking it over the hills and then the ocean.  In the city, it just becomes part of the houses.

When you hail a tuk-tuk at the train station, you show him where you’re going on a map, and then ask how much it’s going to be.  “I have a meter,” he says, “but probably 100-150 rupees.”  It takes you a moment to understand that he won’t give you a starting price and then haggle for a minute before agreeing to a final price.  There’s an actual meter above his windshield, and it has a digital screen with the speed, the wait time, and a total trip price, which he resets as soon as you sit down.  For the rest of your trip, you will only use cabs that have meters, and, when someone tells you the meter is broken, or they suggest a fixed price, you walk away with a curt “thank you,” and maybe they understand that you know their game.  As he turns a corner, you notice that the second hand on his watch isn’t working; then you realize that it’s actually a Seiko with an automatic sweep hand, and it must have cost a Sri Lankan fortune.  You remember the soldiers you sat next to on the train, and the gold watches they had that were only accurate twice a day, but of which they still must have been proud.

The first night, you’re anxious about paying city prices.  A “hotel” in Sri Lanka is actually a greasy spoon diner that sells kottu, roti, fried rice, and rice-and-curry; on the side of the road in countless small towns, you’ve become accustomed to getting an entire meal for 100 or 150 rupees, or just under a dollar.  You are worried that Colombo would cost more, but you find a hotel by a busy intersection that gives you a takeaway packet of Rice-and-Curry for 100 rupees, wrapped in plastic and paper.  You bring it back to your room and eat it on the coffee table, mixing the sauces in with the rice, smiling at your thrift.  But that’s the last of that sort of meal that you will eat for the rest of your trip.  The next day, you’ll pay 2,000 rupees for two wraps and two juices in a cafe, which may have been almost offensive except that you remember it is less than half of what you’d pay in London.  That night, a few drinks and snacks with a couple of friends comes to 23,000 rupees, or more than a rural farm worker makes in a month, and you don’t even feel buzzed after three gin-and-tonics.  You got more drunk on a 100 rupee bottle of coconut palm toddy in a bar in Haputale full of tea plantation workers.  They smiled when you showed them the betel nuts you were learning to chew, then offered you bidis and, upon learning you were from America, kept mentioning Hulk Hogan, as if, in November 2016, a retired pro-wrestler was the most famous and well-regarded of your countrymen.  In this city bar, though, women in tiny dresses are out in groups, smoking cigarettes and flirting with the waiters while trying to attract the famous cricket players who supposedly frequent the rooftop.  You wonder what the short, thin men in Hapatule would have thought if a woman – especially one with her legs uncovered – had walked into that bar and ordered a Manhattan.

At breakfast the next morning, you notice that there aren’t as many flies in Colombo.  In Sigiriya, whenever you sat outside on the balcony to drink tea or eat rice and curry, flies would gather within seconds, four, five, sixty, playing tag with your legs and arms and head as they circled the food; they would settle on the toast, the margarine, the jam, the sugar, the crumbs, each other.  You rarely saw the more subtle mosquitos, which left massive red welts that would itch for days.  At night, massive bats would swoop within inches of your head to eat whatever insects they could get.  In Colombo, though, there was no jungle to constantly feed and breed these insects, no standing water that could produce a pestilence.  The first thing you noticed about your room, in fact, was that your hosts didn’t even put a mosquito net above the bed.  Instead, the colonial builders of this B&B had built a building without gaps under the roof to let the heat out, and had installed windows that were flush with the walls, and you wonder if this is what civilization felt like a hundred years ago.

But today, when you walk into a cafe, there are glass doors that you push to open.  The menu is on a chalkboard; the giant communal table is supported by two Singer sewing machine bases, their pedals immobilized.  Iced drinks are served in mason jars and your cappuccino has a leaf carved into the foam.  Along the back wall is a blonde working next to a Chinese girl, both speaking English; at the table next to them are two women in head scarves chatting loudly; and on the other side is an Indian girl, typing on a MacBook and occasionally taking calls on her iPhone.  A man comes in and says hello to them all, and you suspect he’s the owner, because who else could just walk up to a woman and speak with her so casually?  You could be anywhere in the world, in New York, in Sydney, in London, in Berlin, and this scene wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but when you pay almost 1,000 rupees for two drinks, you calculate in your head that this is twice what you paid for three entire meals just a few days ago on the side of the road – a giant bowl of chicken fried rice, shared between you, your wife, and your driver, with curry sauce and bottled drinks.  You look around and see that this cafe has bookshelves, too, with books, and you realize you hadn’t seen anyone else with a book – not the children on the road sucking on iced popsicles and begging for school pens, not the family in whose house you were staying who ran a free English school for the children of tea plantation workers to try to give them better job prospects, not the university students you met at the train station who told you that they dreamed of a strong and vibrant Sri Lanka and pledged to never move outside its borders.

At the beginning of your trip, a policeman had to teach you how to hail a bus.  You learned to pay with the brightly colored notes, and get a receipt, and avoid injury as the bus slammed from left to right, then sped up, then screeched to halts, the horns tooting various signals – warnings, “I’m coming,” “I’m here too,” “I’m overtaking you,” “I’m going slower so you should overtake me,” “Dog, keep lying down in the middle of the road, I will go around you.”  In a random two-minute period during that first bus ride, when, for fun, you decided to count, the driver used his horn 24 times.  In Colombo, almost all of the horns are angry, like they are in America.  As you leave Colombo to go to the airport, the tuk-tuk driver brings you to the central bus depot, then uses his tuk-tuk to trap the over-crowded airport bus in its berth to keep it from leaving.  You get your bags on board, then wedge in between two men, one of whom sings along to every song that comes on the radio in a clear, strong voice.  You pay the conductor, and, as people get on and off, you switch seats, surfing in the aisles when necessary.  Despite all the strangeness and frustrations, the differences, the inequality, and the ugliness, there is far, far more beauty in Sri Lanka than you’ve seen almost anywhere else, and you think that you could live here, quite happily, if you had to.

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