Fear and loving in Sri Lanka

Serendipity is the traveler's best friend.

Published January 12, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The airline deal was sweet -- visit any city in Southeast Asia you want, for one generous, almost silly, fare. A flight map with crisscrossing routes arcing like spider legs showed me how far and wide my options spanned: From Bali beaches to Tokyo towers, virtually all of Asia could be part of my travel history. How far could I go? I traced the longest spider leg, by far, and my eye landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

I wasn't sure if Sri Lanka was a separate country or more of an Indian province, sort of like Italy's Sicily. I'd always wanted to go to India and odds were that the little tear-shaped island dangling off its southern tip would have that kundalini, curried, eight-armed Kama Sutra sort of vibe. I also liked the Peter Falkian stumbling-onto-the-answer feel that the name Colombo suggested.

That's how I fancied myself -- an adventurer with no more adventures in his bag, a detective with no case and no clue. Sitting in my cubicle, clicking the airline Web site, it was clear that the farther away I could be carted, the better. And so I tapped in my credit card number and off I was on a vast journey to the Land of Ceylon.

As the trip approached, I dutifully researched. The tourist and travel agency literature touted rugged beaches, bug-eyed saber-toothed wooden masks, huge temples carved into cliffs, fishermen silhouetted against the sunset pulling in the day's nets, bright-smiling sun-blackened children holding up colorful trinkets. The usual come-ons, inviting me into a postcard world filled with postcard times and postcard people.

I skimmed some history. It turned out Sri Lanka was indeed its own country. Settled by the Sinhalese, it was soon swept down Buddhism's middle path. Then the Portuguese set up a spice trade and put the island in an economic deadlock. The Dutch helped expel them, only to be colonized, along with everyone else, by the British. The Arabs called Sri Lanka Serendib, from which we get serendipity. How, um, serendipitous that this was my destination.

But soon a dark side to the little island reared its bug-eyed saber-toothed head. As countries mature, one ethnic group always seems to be left in history's dustbin. In Sri Lanka's case, it was the Hindu Tamils. Fed up with unjust laws and inferior rights, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had been formed. When the LTTE secessionists massacred an army patrol in 1983, they kicked off a wave of looting, mob attacks and eventually, internment camps and ethnic cleansing. Since then, the country had never really settled down. The northern segment is officially at war. I'd booked my vacation to a war zone.

As with any paranoia, I began to see connections where none existed. The Internet is especially useful for finding these psycho-mirages. The more news-group articles I skimmed, the more it seemed as if LTTE separatists staged car bombings so regularly you could set your watch to them. An excerpted chapter from a book titled "Fielding's The World's Most Dangerous Places" told me to avoid men with dark amulets around their necks, dispatched to stab and maim hapless Americans. One posting:

"I thought it would be a peaceful paradise. On my first day I was almost killed in a shootout in Colombo. On the second day I was robbed at gunpoint by an army deserter. Then on the fourth day there was a bomb explosion near my hotel that killed several people. On the fifth day I had canceled my visit and was on a plane back to sanity."

Oh, stop being such a granny, I told my clenched chest. Chin up, you're a New Yorker! The foreboding newsgroup post, my voice of reason assured, sounded more like a Schwarzenegger plot than reality. It must have been planted by an anti-government citizen with rebel sympathies, intent on scaring off precious tourists. Right?

But what about the other messages assuring me in sunny, gooey speak how utterly safe I'd be, how perfect and beautiful every last thing in Sri Lanka was? Weren't those a little too friendly? Wouldn't those have been written by pro-government flunkies eager to suck away my dollars with no cares about whether I lived or died?

This did not bode well -- adventure was great, I was all for it, but this was not the brand of serendipity I had in mind. I tried changing my ticket, just in case. I even tried canceling and getting back most of my dough. But like most good deals, the airline pact was inflexible. I could write it off as a loss or face the sitar music.

And so, off to Colombo I was carted.

My fellow travelers were all stiff-faced nationals, with subcontinental features and hues. People neither friendly nor malicious, just strangers on a plane. But there seemed to be no tourists. No Mr. and Mrs. Idaho with matching Hawaiian shirts and camera cases dangling around their necks. The guy in the next seat was a lawyer for Amnesty International. He drank vodkas by the gross. He told me there was supposed to have been a conference in Colombo, but that it had been canceled due to lack of security. He was flying in for a quick exchange of papers and flying out "as soon as I goddamned can."

From the moment I stepped off the jetway, fear, as they say, was my companion. The YMCA I'd planned to stay at had been shut down months ago -- no one seemed to know when exactly, or what had happened to it. When I asked about other hostels, you'd have thought I'd said "hostile." It was past midnight and everyone was eyeballing me. A swindler sitting at a makeshift table with a penned "Sri Lanka Tourism" sign tried to sell me on a hotel -- "The best in Colombo, my friend." I checked for a dark amulet, sighed and signed over a traveler's check.

The cab driver, who told me he'd just been released from jail, drove me past the rubble that "used to be the Hilton." I asked him if things were as dangerous as I'd heard. He didn't hesitate. "Oh, worse. The government, they are idiots; the Tigers, they are idiots. Everyone wants everyone to be dead, and then they will be happy. Idiots."

I asked him why he'd been put in jail. "I robbed money from a tourist." His eyes flicked to the rear-view, caught my uninviting expression. "You try to make money here!" he barked, swerving to avoid a pothole, then swerving immediately again to avoid a nonchalant family of four. "You think I make money driving? No, I give all the money you give me to my boss. I get nothing."

His response didn't invite further conversation. Eventually he said, "You are rich, you spend more money to come here for fooling around, getting laid by little girls, or maybe boys, yeah? More money than anyone here sees in all their life!"

I tipped generously.

I spent the entire first day cloistered in my hotel room, reading "The Year of Living Dangerously," ordering room service, watching the ceiling fan whir. It was too hot outside, was my excuse. I was jetlagged to boot. I listened closely for bomb blasts.

The second day, I ventured out. Old crones along the sidewalk sold various dried animals, vegetables and minerals, none of which I could identify, all being buzzed by flies. A man with round Gandhi eyeglasses, a white suit and a friendly smile approached. "Are you lost?"

I decided to try trusting him. "A little."

"Are you American?"

I sensed something awry. "Canadian."

"Ah, very nice. Where are you heading?"

"Town center."

"Oh," his smile faltered. "You shouldn't go there. Very dangerous. Not good to go there."


"Oh, yes."

He stood for a while, awkwardly watching me.

"Come, I can show you something very nice, very nice, a very famous temple."

He led me around the corner, about half a block away. A simple Buddhist shrine sat in the middle of a mucked lake.

"Wow," I said. "Thanks."

He then folded open an album he'd been clutching. Inside were photocopied, fuzzy images of rows upon rows of children. "I run a school for blind and infirm children," he said.

"That must be satisfying, if tough, work."

He flipped to the next page, where there was a long list of handwritten names. Next to each name was a number, each indicating about $50 to $100. "These are people who have donated money. Would you like to donate a few rupees?"

I slipped him a small bill. He looked down at it. "This will not do much for the children."

I began to move away. He screamed after me, "Is that all you think of the children?"

I retraced my way back to the hotel. Along the way I was stopped by two more headmasters from the school for the blind, a Tamil man who kept repeating "Praise Jesus" and implored me to buy a box of milk for his child, and several veterans with missing limbs. One man had permanently crossed feet and hobbled along the sidewalks by swinging himself on matchstick arms. Unbalancing the economy and undercutting self-reliance and other such cautions be damned, I was as generous and sympathetic as I could be, knowing it wasn't nearly enough, relieved to see that none of the people wore dark amulets.

I decided to flee. The town just wasn't big enough for the two of us -- my cowardice and me. Colombo was home to the most bombings and the fewest genuine attractions, anyway. It was an airport city, a gateway, and I shouldn't have stayed there at all. Everybody I talked to urged me to skip off to Kandy, land of elephant pools, ceremonial dances and the Temple of the Tooth.

And so I arranged a cab -- a sort of sawed-off taxi, like a metal basket on the back of a diesel moped. I could make it to Kandy by dusk, the oversized driver promised. It was only once we'd gotten going that I noticed the man had some sort of ebony locket dangling from his necklace.

The sky suddenly blackened. Almost instantaneously, sheets of rain sliced down. The driver kept bumping along as fast as before on the one-and-a-half-lane highway, avoiding endless strings of pedestrians and car-sized potholes. He passed every car he could, opposing headlights twisted into streaked demon's eyes by the ruthless downpour. It was totally fun, an amusement park ride and video game rolled into one. It was the first time since the cubicle that I felt like I was on an actual journey. I relaxed in the bubble of dryness and felt my body tense up at each close call. I trusted myself to serendipity.

Serendipity loves a fool. One bad curve of road, a man walking in the middle of the lane carrying a hoe, an oncoming cola truck, a small river of rain and bad brakes were not a good mix. The next thing I knew I was spitting something nasty and gritty out of my mouth; I wasn't sure if it was mud or blood. The mini-cab was half-tilted in a ditch. The driver was walking around in a tight circle, cursing and muttering. The man with the hoe over his shoulder kept on walking past, like a silhouette of death.

I tried to move but couldn't. Nothing hurt, but I was sure I'd broken a few important bones, somewhere. I swore if I only survived this thing I'd change my attitude. I'd walk where I wanted to walk, ignore naysayers and town criers. I'd talk to everybody that stopped me. I'd shoo off con men. I'd visit every chipped street and crusty monument and ramshackle temple, soaking it all in, living, letting the danger course through me. What a fool I'd been! The balance between the feeling of danger and actual jeopardy is what good travel, what good anything, is all about. Genuine fear is such a hard thing to court, such an impossible thing to manufacture, and I'd had it. In spades!

I tried moving again, and this time I was able to shift my arm. I grunted to a standing position. Bending my knees, then my elbows, I ran a quick inventory on myself and concluded that my bones were pretty much where they used to be. I helped the driver heft the cab back on the road. The rain immediately washed the mud and blood off me, making the crash seem like a distant memory. He turned the engine over a few times, then finally got it started.

"Frightened?" he asked, almost scoffing.

I gave him a wry Sri Lanka smile.

By David Fox

David Fox is a novelist and game designer who lives in New York.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------