Sri Lankan weekends meant more tuk-tuks, more confusion and more hilarity. As I was gathering my clutter and clobber to board the bus, my driver Carl gave me strict instructions: ‘Harry, tell bus driver to let you out before the sea junction’. Given that the engine had already started gurgling its way into motion, it didn’t seem like quite the right moment to ask my all-smiles-no-details driver how I would know where this was, the name of the junction or even how long it would take to get there.
Once aboard the pungent smelling, bustling bus, I was greeted with stares from men, men and men. Perhaps women have a separate, rose-scented bus. Or perhaps they were just all busy at 2pm on a Friday. Or perhaps it was just my luck. Good job I’d agreed to have my hair lopped off before Sri Lanka. Looking like a lost schoolboy wearing a dress, I slipped into a window seat and tucked into my now-sweaty salmon sandwiches (far too much butter, but I wasn’t going to complain). I was relieved to see that a couple of cereal bars had been stuffed into my bag, too. Nothing like a few Fruslis to calm the nerves. (For the record, they’re disgusting, but at that moment were quite delicious).
The bus hurtled along the highway in what I sincerely hoped was the direction of the sea. No Citymapper here. Trying to play it cool, I looked out the window and even put my headphones in. Adele and a frusli; quite the recipe for stress-relief. Suddenly, we swerved left and I stifled a gasp; I hardly needed to draw more attention to myself and my panic picnic. A man was working his way down the narrow aisle squawking instructions at the driver, pitch rising, arms already raised – to the visible distress of those in his odorous wake. Plastic bags crinkled, squawks multiplied and soon enough the aisle was packed with passengers. They were all readying themselves to hop off. Adele’s emotional turmoil was mine; I couldn’t see the sea, I was rolling in the deep unknown of Sri Lanka…
We had come to a stop, but not a stop as you or I know it. For starters, it was more like an emergency stop – it could easily have been death by frusli had I not already guzzled all my supplies. Secondly, there was no stop in sight. In Sri Lanka, you make your own stops. It’s ‘Just after the cashew stall on the left’ sort of stuff. Talk about power to the passengers! I peered and peered and still couldn’t see the sea, so I followed my beginning-to-feel-travel-sick gut and sat tight. Rumble rumble, jolt. More not-real-stop stops. Repeat.
A sharp bend jolted me out of my Adele-induced tragically emotional, fatalistic daze. Sea suddenly in sight, I leapt up – to the surprise of the youth next to me, hitherto absorbed by the non-stop buzzing of Whatsapp messages. Shouts from the front. But where on earth was the junction. The bus was slowing. Practical Harriet awoke. (Apparently she comes to life in places like Sri Lanka.) Maps. Maps! Those maps I had printed off earlier. Where were they. Rummaging, buttery crumbs flying, frusli wrappers floating to the floor. Youth starts speaking. He’s taken his earphones out. Right, I probably should, too – bye, Adele. We exchange lots of words but I’m not sure what any of them mean. He must be helping, he’s pointing to the front of the bus. Map in hand, I shimmy into the aisle muttering my apologies, not quite sure what for, let alone who to… Smiles, peers, more squawks. I am ready to hop off. But I linger, confused. The driver raises his eyebrows, signalling to the door he has just opened for me. (Stupid tourists.)
My imagination had unkindly prepared me for an obvious T junction, with a shimmering ocean backdrop. The noisy tangle of motorway ahead was an unpleasant reality, but I could hardly slink all the way back to my seat now. Feeling extremely stupid, I clattered down the steep steps, doing my best ‘yep, I know where I’m going’ saunter. Self-assured I wasn’t. Aha, my phone is buzzing. Thank goodness, something to focus on as I realise that the bus has already pulled off to join the tangle ahead. ‘I did tell the bus to drop you at Negombo junction. Ok. Have fun time.’ I scroll up and down, hoping another message is loading. … Nope. Ok, then. Goodie. I laugh, raucously, alone. Thrilled and lost. Cheers, Carl.
‘You can tell by the driver, read their face, judge their weehicle’ (a funnier example of v’s pronounced as w’s). This had been the second part of Carl’s instructions. I walked along the edge of the road where I was relieved to find a tuk-tuk rank. The drivers were gabbling away to each other, giving me that all-important time to read and judge. It turned out I didn’t really have much choice; only one of them managed a few words of English, so the broken roof and face-so-young-he-should-be-at-school had to take a back seat in my decision-making. After trying my best Sri Lankan accent to make the name of the hotel more comprehensible, I figured it would be best for him to drive and for me to yell out the directions I had printed from the website.
It turns out that landmarks such as ‘a temple near the road’ aren’t so useful in religious areas. Thankfully, a quick glance at Google maps that morning had shown a train line near the destination. Turns out I do a pretty good train impression. It saved the day. The last line of directions had me nervous: ‘Sound your horn at the gate and staff will appear’. … My driver asked to see the map. I was sure this must be it. A few, very long minutes passed. A clanging of metal and, to my utter relief, someone crept out of a side gate. I leapt out of the tuk-tuk, threw far too many rupees at the victorious driver, and scampered on in. The most grateful guest ever.
Palm trees waved me welcome as a rotund, beaming chap greeted me with a mysteriously delicious cocktail by the pool, clouds drifting across its glassy silence. Not bad for 5pm on a Friday afternoon. Splash.