Sri Lanka 8: Road Trips

Traffic Hazard
Traffic Hazard

We started late—always late.  This was as common a feature on our trips as Jaliya’s stops for single cigarettes and cups of coffee that looked like they just crawled through the apocalypse.

The culprit was the Sri Lankan breakfast.

In the West, we’re used to cereal and milk, or maybe a bagel, probably a coffee or possibly an oatmeal.  I know, I know, we’re reputed to have mounds of scrambled eggs and slabs of dripping bacon every sunrise, but in my experience, the only time that’s on the plate is weekends at Mom’s or special treats at Southern-themed restaurants.  I’m pretty sure the last time steak and eggs and biscuits and gravy was standard fare there was still only one World War, overalls were a fact of life, and bow ties were not limited to retro-chic hipsters.

I had that for breakfast.  Seriously.
I ate that for breakfast. Seriously.

Sri Lankan breakfast, as I was saying, involves fried fishes and fire-breathing curries, chickens laced with chilis and hoppers crisped golden, oil-rich concoctions of coconut milk and palm sugar, plantains and dahl and rice and the ever-present polsambal—a fine red blend of grated coconut plus chili plus dried fish that elicits berserker behavior in the populace if ever a meal is served without it.

Breakfasts in Sri Lanka glug your waking belly with all the flavors of a rainbow smorgasbord dipped in chili paste.  So leave the bland and timid oatmeal in the kitchen, Mr. Quaker, ’cause a drive-through muffin and latte just ain’t getting the job done here!  Kick down the kitchen door, get a good whiff of those frying onions, and serve up the spice!

And don’t forget the milk tea after.

But hey, you’ll say to me, the happy islanders probably eat a breakfast like this about as often as I have a hunk of pan-fried ham and eggs over easy and an omelet made to order.  Well, all I know is that our morning meals in Sri Lanka were glorious and gluttonous.  Well, that and our Ceylon road trips barely kicked off before noon.  Seriously, it takes awhile to cook it up and scarf it down clean the collateral damage away.

When the breakfast gorging was finally finished, we’d waddle and grunt to the car, then promptly, politely, putter out the driveway, pull into traffic, and wait.

We’d start the waiting early, and we’d practice waiting longer, and the finish it up, we’d wait some more.  Ceylon traffic is a loosely choreographed chaos of tuk-tuks and mopeds, pedestrians and BMWs, ox-carts and ancient buses, and mounds upon mounds of shops spilling across the sidewalks, leaving patrons hoofing the street—all to be dodged by a white-knuckled and wide-eyed driver.

Navigate that.  I dare you.
Navigate that. I dare you.

Of course we never arrived anywhere before sundown.

Speaking of sundown—a Ceylon road trip at night is an especial treat.  Try the villages, for instance: the two-lane road—often no stripes or markers anywhere—slips through foliage so thick you can taste the chlorophyll.  Sharing the road with you are not the jungle beasts you might think, but rather a thousand night-wandering loiterers who see absolutely nothing wrong with strolling three wide on the non-existent shoulder.  These guys effectively cut out around 82% of the highway width.  And they won’t move, either—they’re perfectly content to saunter along as if a black-night promenade was exactly what this asphalt was laid for, and they expect you to squeeze your car through the remaining twenty-three centimeters of pavement.

You get past that gaggle and another pops into the headlights for you to brake and negotiate.  It’s slow going.

In the towns, the story’s much the same—too few street lights, midnight shops spewing clouds of smoke and fried-food steam into the streets.  We often stopped at these for Jaliya to buy a solitary cigarette and sip an apocalypse coffee—grungy, shaggy dregs fly-specking the sides of the yellowing cup, smelling as if it were brewed by the Weird sisters after unmanning Macbeth.  apocalypse coffee—you hold this brew and you you surely think, this here, this in my very hand, may well usher in the end of Time.

Parking? Jaliya carefully lurched the family SUV up over the curb and onto the sidewalk.  “There,” he said, “now would you like a coffee?”

“But isn’t this a hotel?  The sign said—”

“No. no,” he laughed, “not the kind of a hotel with rooms.”

I was confused. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s see.”

So he ordered a stick of cigarette and a coffee. The cigarette was slid from the soiled pack with fingers greased from chicken fat and too many sweaty Rupees.  The coffee looked…well, apocalyptic, as usual.

“No thanks, Jaliya.”

Jaliya shrugged, then we chatted.  We observed a sweaty chef chopping Khotu, both hands flying across the griddle in the infernal clanging of the noisiest cooking method ever invented, then we watched some parathas spun and flipped and folded by fingers apparently immune to the volcanic heat waves spilling off the griddle.  Flies and mosquitoes buzzed in the glaring lights; men in sarongs stared at us over the tips of their tea cups.  That food, despite what you’re probably expecting me to say, was amazing.

Then Jaliya remembered, “Do you see any rooms?  Hotel rooms?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a hotel without rooms.  Just the food.”  He was smiling and handing the remnants of the coffee back the sarong-ed proprietor.  “It’s very bad coffee,” Jaliya explained to the man. “I can’t finish it.”

Then, turning back to me, “Only some hotels have rooms.”


Night Melee
Night Melee

I’ve met some interesting fellows on late-night stops as these—one I won’t forget was a slim man my age with an arm in a sling and both eyes glazed in poinsettia red.  He bowed three times and took my hand and said thanks for coming here and that he was very glad to meet me.

“He’s drunk,” Jaliya stated the obvious after lighting his cigarette.  Then he spoke to him in Singhalese a moment.  The man answered, still gripping my hand in his, and then waited while Jaliya translated.

I watched the man’s face as Jaliya recited his story:  He was a bus driver through these roads, but had a wreck and broke his arm.  His daughter was at home with her grandmother.  The girl’s mom, this man’s wife, had died of cancer two years ago.  In the swirling gnats and the buzz of raw electricity humming through the ragtag wires overhead, the man’s eyes were glistening uncried tears.  Now he’d start work again next week, but till then he came down with his friends to sip the fermented coconut milk through the long hours of the tropic nights.  He thought often of his wife, he said.

The man’s face was creased by deep wrinkles, and his round eyes set deep in the glaze of his drink.  The blue shirt he wore was sweated though.

“Is he telling the truth?”  I asked Jaliya.

He shrugged and headed back toward the car.

Before the man would let me go, he raised my hand and pressed his coarse lips to it—he kissed my hand.

I don’t know if it was the dark of the night or the tears in his eyes or if I thought it must be some sort of tradition in these parts, but I bowed to him, and I raised his hand, and I kissed it.

I hoped he’d washed them that day.

Another loveable trait of Sri Lankan roads trips are the route markings—or lack thereof.  Road signs are kind of hard to come by: about one every eighteen intersections, I’d say.  So we had to rely on Jaliya’s GPS—not the Global Positioning System, the Gazillion People Stops.  For this, you just stop about a gazillion times each fork in the road and ask around.  As soon as the various accounts start to jive, you could be pretty sure that was the route.

It worked pretty well until it got late and no one was left on the streets.

Here’s what I mean: on one trip out of Kandy, one afternoon as we spilled ourselves down the mountain hills and along the churning waters fueling hydro-power dams, we found ourselves tempted with a shortcut.  Jaliya, you see, used to be a project manager on these dams, and as we wound around the jungle roads, would remember stories for us of his younger years when he was fresh and lithe and still sported a mustache.  He would regale us with tales of the British or the Germans imported for the construction, of their late nights in the lonely jungle, of the shacks and shops and workers’ barracks that used to line the roads where now nothing more than rain-thickened jungle brooded under drizzling clouds.

We carefully sped round bend and twists and past elephant crossing signs.  We rolled through villages where rice fields were carved into the contours of the earth and the people stopped and stared at a stranger’s car using this road.  Apparently they didn’t get much outside traffic.

And as the roads narrowed and the villages shrank and the people’s gawking grew, we started to wonder whether or not this road would take us through after all.

“Watch closely here, please,” Jaliya said in a low voice, “I don’t want to hit an elephant.”

Rural Gridlock
Rural Gridlock

We nodded and kept watch.  He stopped for a cigarette at a swimming hole where he and Ganga last came when their kids were still too young to drive.  They grinned and relived their sons and their daughter splashing in the waters.  Overhead, we saw the treetops shake and chatter in the unseen ruckus of swarming monkeys.  The light was fading, and the clouds were growing darker.  The shaking, screaming branches got closer.  Jaliya tossed the last bit of his sandwich into his mouth.  “Let’s go,” he said with a careful eye toward the swimming hole being reclaimed by the jungle.

The road led us to an army camp.  The few soldiers we saw were getting spruced up—their finest polo tees and crispest sarongs and freshly trimmed mustaches—for a night out in who knows what town lay closest to here.  They waved us through and said the road would take us through alright.  Faithful GPS.

A few more miles in, we came across a pair of sarong-ed cyclists struggling their rides up a steep incline.  Jaliya slowed to put his GPS to work again.  The aging men were silent.  They thought. They pointed each way in the dying light.  Jaliya nodded and asked something again, pointing ahead.  They thought, they nodded, and they started in again in the ninety-miles-an-hour-over-speedbumped-and-pot-holed-pronunciations that is the Singhalese language.

Andy and I looked at each other.  It was almost dark, and we were hours from our destination.  Then the men trudged on uphill and Jaliya began turning us around on the narrow strip of pavement.  “They think the road is closed ahead for construction.”

We traced our tails back out through the same curves, now in lower light and a little more drizzle, and came across the same small troop of soldiers on the roadside.  We fired up the GPS again.  OK, maybe the old cyclists were right.  That road may be closed after all.  Maybe some soldiers closed the road to protect the wildlife.  Who knows?

We headed back out, by now with headlights burning.

And then we saw him.  His great gray bulk nearly invisible in the dusk: Just as Jaliya warned, an elephant straggled alongside the road.  A lone male, immature and solitary, plucking and whacking shocks and stalks along the shoulder.  We stopped and photographed in the low light.  He stepped onto the road.  He watched us as he thrashed his next meal across the pavement.  He was wild, free, open to roam the hills without confinement to roads or light or any rules of any soldier.  Proudly he marched across the pavement.  We were late, but we didn’t mind to wait on this guy.

Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing

We didn’t try to GPS the elephant.

Later that night, we decided to stop for some snacks for the morning’s breakfast.  It was a narrow street through tight stacked shops and shacks; it was inky dark and swampy humid, and we pulled in next to a crowd under a street light.

Bread and jam, just bread and jam for the morning, we said.

Jaliya and I politely shouldered our way inside the milling crowds outside the bakery to look for the goods.  It was shadowy, crowded, sticky.  A middle-aged man bustled behind the counter, looking for the items the crowd was calling out.  We added our shouts to the chaos, and the man kept rummaging through the shelves of bread. A line was forming, but no one was checking out.

“Excuse me,”  a gentleman at man elbow said, “but where are you going?”

He was a faded man, shortish and in glasses, in a crisp shirt and a green vest.  Somehow I knew he had to be a professor of something at some sort of local university I’d never heard of.

“Ah, yes.  The US.  Not many of your people come here these days.  It’s been hard, since the war.”

I was sleepy; my eyes itched from the half-sleep on the roads, and I felt sweaty and disheveled.  He adjusted his precise little glasses, and motioned toward the register, where the man was still stocking the counter with bakery items.

“Even now, you see, it’s hard to maintain reliable electricity.”  He spoke slowly and cautiously, conscientious of all the grammar he must have once taught young men and women.  He adjusted his glasses.  “Hopefully we can get you on your way soon enough.”  He smiled and shook my hand.  I imagined him lecturing on Hamlet.

Then the power came on, and a mad flush of bills was waved to the man behind the counter.  Now the transaction could be recorded in his precise little register.  Now we could each be printed a tiny little ticket that we could throw away on leaving the shop.

I was tired that night, and I didn’t feel like chatting.  We got our bread and our jam and we left.  But now I’m curious about the polite little professor in the bakery. It’s too bad the lights couldn’t have stayed out longer.

As much as anything, that professor represents the Sri Lankan road trip—no, I don’t mean a journey here is precise or polite or even well-groomed. But it tires to be—despite the jungle pressing in and the population pressing out, it maintains a sort of dignity in the chaos.  A dignity that depends on all the others around it.

Colombo Car Full
Colombo Car Full

You see, in the states, road trips are about escape and independence, about shutting yourself up in the car and letting your eyes and your body roam the expanses of a storied land that really, until several generations ago, was still sparsely populated.  It’s a land whose wildness lives on in the imagination, and who can be traversed with a $3 map from any gas station.

Just twist the key and speed down the on-ramp and feel the wind in your hair past a thousand mile-markers of solitude.

Sri Lanka, you see, does the road trip different.  Here, it’s more like inserting yourself into the swollen artery of humanity, joining your own honk and headlights in the great throng of travelers,  Not escaping society, but by the fire of stress of the drive and the danger, melting yourself into it.

Will Sri Lanka’s roads ever widen?  Will they even cut straightened paths through the mountains and run streets in parallels and perpendiculars through the towns?  Will the traffic ever be tamed, or the shops confined to the buildings, or the populace corralled into neat and tidy lines on sidewalks?

Will an interstate-cruising, windows-down-and-hair-flapping-in-the-Arizona-sunset road trip ever be possible here?

Not really.  But is that really a bad thing?  I’ve got to get the drift of the Ceylon road trip, roll it under my tongue and hold it in the pocket of my consciousness, know it for the pearl it really is: Revel not in the distances travelled, but in the lives intersected along the way.

Lesson one: don’t rush it—get a good breakfast before you start.

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