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On the Road Again…in Sri Lanka

Posted by on March 9, 2014

Out of the darkness came suddenly thousands of sparkling fairy lights, twinkling on and off as the plane slid by, giving the impression of houses and streetlights amidst dense jungle, because why else would they flicker like that if not flitting between trees and vegetation? But really I never knew what I was looking at in the night.

And all this as the unmitigatable pain splitting my earlobe (swollen closed), throat, sinuses and other parts of my face I didn’t even know existed until they started hurting, is reaching its unbearable crescendo. Clenching my teeth and trying to claw open my ear – a process which needed to be repeated every few seconds in order to feel any relief from the pressure building in my face, under my skin, in my skull, threatening to blow the whole thing open – I felt the plane hit the ground running.

Stepping out of the plane I felt the 25 degree heat – at four in the morning! What should be the coldest time of the day – I can’t remember the last time I experienced 25 degrees – and also that sweet, sickly smell of loose earth, street food and garbage, all mixed into one, instantly awakening in me a sense of déjà vu, the surety that I’ve been here before even though I “know” I haven’t, hundreds of vague travel memories I would never have remembered from England, where it is impossible to recall this kind of hot, clammy night because it has never happened there. Was it Hong Kong? Kuala Lumpur? Belize? The senses have a way of bringing memories flooding back like no amount of effort ever can. And I realised then – as I’m sure I have done many times before and forgotten again – that you cannot be said to possess an experience if you are not there in it. Memory is for numbers, words, names, faces, humourous anecdotes, and can sometimes surprise you, but it is no substitute for the sensations, emotions and the experience itself. I’m not sure where we got the idea that it is.

Colombo airport was alive like a kind of bazaar, with white-goods and musical instruments and manner of things on sale side-by-side.

Nobody checked my visa, which I paid £35 for.

So many wobbling signs read “Welcome to Sri Lanka” that if your name was on one it seems you’d never find it amidst the crowd.

I saw sleep here would be impossible so pushed out into the waiting hoards and the sweaty night where I was hounded in the usual way for “taxi” and “tuk tuk”, though luckily I was still half-deaf (and still am actually) which made it all the more easy to act whole-deaf.

To the right I found an ATM (it’s 212 LKR – Sri Lankan Rupee – to the pound at the moment) and Departures, where a guard was asking for tickets and so getting a few hours kip in Departures was off the cards too.

To the left was a booth selling “tickets to the airport” for 300 LKR – which explains the crowds waiting right outside, and which, it’s also worth pointing out, is no different really to our airports of the West, where McDonalds and so on pay millions to “sell their wares” inside the airport, since an airport is after all a business venture and not a public service (nothing is really a public service). The only difference being that in the UK this whole process is behind the scenes and easily forgotten, as everything back home is behind the scenes compared to this, because façades cost money to build –

and the public buses. I found myself tied up with a group of European tourists who’d been led out of a side exit, down a path lined palms, rock-gardens and little squares of sprinkled grass (and after everything I just said about façades) to a fenced off compound with waiting buses, all of which, it turned out when I asked someone, were reserved for private tours, much like the tours we sell at work. Infact, maybe this group was one of ours.

So back out on the road I finally allow myself to be “helped” by one of my harassers, who tells me buses won’t come until 6:30 – pointing to and telling me to wait at a car park which is obviously not a bus stop – but that he can take me by taxi to Negombo, where I should change to go to Anuradhapura (actually I want to go to Ratnapura, in near enough the opposite direction).

So instead I walk off – about 100 metres – to the main road, where I find a bus waiting. I paid 200 LKR (less than a pound) which I suspected (and now know for sure) was too much, but for a journey of 30 kilometres was hardly a rip-off.

Bus at night in Colombo, Sri Lanka

I didn’t take any photos, but this one, by Dennis Kopp of is spot on.

We set off with a spluttered roar and crunching gear changes, accelerating very slowly like a decades old skip-lorry, fully-laden with sand and brick, and rocking gently from side to side as we went – both the young guy hanging out the door and the driver from his window hollering “C’lumbo, C’lumbo, Columbo!” just like the ringing out of “Flores, Flores, Flores!” and other placenames across Central America, to the point where I wonder if there is a bridge between here and there that I don’t know about or why the poor, hot places of the world (most of it) are so similar.

Take away the elaborate, fraying red and gold Kashmir-esque drapes with which the windows are hung, exchange the little stone Buddha rocking on the dash for a card with the Virgin Mary on it or some other Saint or Idol and we could be anywhere.

These poor guys – possibly a family team – up at God-knows-what hour every day, only managed to get five people (me included) on their bus during the whole length of the journey to Colombo. There was a lot of competition. I only hoped that fuel here was cheap.

Down the road I kept seeing the same backpacking couple, who obviously felt that whatever price they were being quoted was too much (says their guidebook, probably), bouncing between bus-tollers with the low-down, dog-tired, stubborn, proud faces of those who feel outnumbered and surrounded by conmen and thieves yet adamant they won’t be ripped off – an expression I’ve worn a hundred times and no doubt will again, just not today, on the first morning of my trip.

Around the world, backpackers are falling out with ‘locals’ over money – because the ‘scam-artists’ look like everyone else, and we all know all backpackers look alike.

They put on this cheerful local music that I don’t understand, on loop, as we bounce along in morning traffic fumes and pot holes, honking horns and the stop-start slamming on of brakes for brave tuk-tuk drivers and moped riders and actual old skip-lorries that have now appeared as the dawn light strips the land of its romantic darkness and illuminates the shanties, the crumbling, tumble-down and half-built buildings, unpainted or painted out-of-sync, unwashed – dirt and rubbish everywhere. This bus journey, if nothing else, has taught me what an irredeemable shithole Colombo is. (Colombo, not Sri Lanka, as you will soon see. – Big cities and “third-world” poverty are the worst mix in the world – though a sad ‘necessity’ when people want to go “where the money is”.) In fact, the only “nice” building (meaning one up to “Western standards”) I saw was a Mercedes dealership.

I got to wondering what I’d do if the kid, who’d already taken my 1000 under the premise he didn’t yet have the 800 change (less than four pound) (not sure where he planned to get it from) and was now in one of the seats in a pepetual state of nodding off and jolting up again, tried to screw me for it in the end. I would of course put up a fight, but to what extent? Would I go to blows? Would I try to get the cops on side? Thing is, I’d happily pay that for a bus in the UK, and these guys could do a lot more with it than I could. I used to say “I can’t afford to…” because I had a long trip planned and if I got ripped off like that a few times I wouldn’t make it to the end (in fact, I did get to Guayaquil airport in Ecuador with no cash and a balance of zero on all cards, only to be hit by a God-damn $30 departure tax) but nowadays my “trips” are looking more and more like the play-things of a lucky kid from a privileged country. I can live this life that everyone dreams of because 80% of the world are working their arses off for nothing. So looking at it like that, doesn’t the 800 rightfully belong to them?

Some would say – and in fact this was my first justification – that it’s a matter of ‘principle': that they didn’t ask me for it but took it. But then it occurs to me, it’s easy to have ‘principles’ when you can afford them.

Also, if they had asked, would I have given? That’s called begging, and we hate that even more.

Some would say all people have a sense of right and wrong, some religious system to guide them, to tell them not to steal. But not everyone’s religious, and, again, it’s hard to follow a religion (when the purpose of a God is to protect you and your family) when your kids are dying of hunger. I know, clichés.

I think of those Swiss guys on that bus in Peru, who amongst babbling, shrivelled-up old Inca ladies and their chickens explained to me how it’s a bad thing that their economy is one of the best in the world because it means people might stop buying things from them and the Swiss Franc may lose value…or of Aussies and their “bubble” that they’re so afraid of…or the complaints I’ve had to listen to countless times back home – in bars and from friends and family – that immigrants are “taking money out of our economy and sending it back home to their families” (said with such anger and outrage) and as I look out the window I think: Seriously? Too fucking right! Are we really going to begrudge them that?

“Them”, “our”… I’ve never understood national pride or patriotism, this idea that we are one thing (human?) and “they” are most certainly not. I also don’t like gang culture for the same reason – gangs that, established to unite and protect the weak, soon become the bully – but that’s a whole different thing.

Anyway, if things were reversed – if I was poor and at the bottom of the pile – wouldn’t I think that money rightfully mine? Wouldn’t I want to steal from the rich, like the Robin Hood that we so admire and on whom our society and ‘principles’ are supposedly built?

It’s these kinds of thoughts that once led me down a Che Guevara, Socialist road towards rebellion, revolution, even anarchy.

But it’s no secret that “A revolution without guns…would never work” and anyone can see that violence only begets more violence.

There is something natural in Capitalism and if it is evil it is because a large part of all of us is evil. You can’t stop people from wanting things (an iPad or a new Mercedes even) and you can’t stop people from fooling other people into wanting them. The world is full of advantages and disadvantages. Intelligence, physical strength, a big pair of tits…

Look at the river that rolls a pebble a hundred miles from its home but that has to divert its course for a rock. Look at the tree that for no reason other than chance gains a little extra height and grows tall and flourishes at the top of the canopy while its brother dies and rots in the shade. Look at those things and then try to tell me we live in a fair world where you stand even a small chance of making everything and everyone equal.

So I came to the conclusion some years ago, and have come to it again now, that the world’s problems cannot be solved; that things are half good and half bad, always have been and always will (because you have to have bad to know good) and though you can find enjoyment and sadness here, you won’t find meaning or purpose.

And it’s because of all this that when people tell me something or somewhere is too dangerous I don’t understand because I genuinely don’t fear death – although sometimes I forget this – only ‘not-living’, and I don’t think I’m guilty of not having lived – in fact, probably guilty of having lived too much and probably deserve an early death – because it’s all the same to me if I live or die and it’s all the same to the universe if there’s one less speck in it. I’d only feel sad for the people who love me (very few indeed), who don’t think this way and would be sad.

But you came here to read about Sri Lanka, not the self-obsessed ramblings of a jumped-up arsehole, so that comes next. Just thought we should get to know each other better first.

Oh and of course the guys gave me my change without problem.

2 Responses to On the Road Again…in Sri Lanka

  1. John

    You did not drink Ceylon Arrack when you were there??

    Arrack is the equivalent of Whiskey in Sri Lanka.

    It is their local spirit distilled using coconut sap.

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