“My friend!” – On the road from Dambulla to Trinco

Dambulla has been my stay for about three days. I’ve seen the Cave Temple, I went to the Rose Quartz mountain – Jathika Namal Uyana – and the highlight: I saw the sun rise over Sigiriya from Pidurangala Rock. It’s been a great stay and up to this point of my journey, I’ve met a lot of people and barely had a moment alone. But making friends on the road wasn’t the only reason I came to this place, so it was time for me to go see the rest of this country and go my own way. I set out for Trinco, all the way northeast of Sri Lanka.

I pack my bags and say goodbye to one of the girls from my hostel with whom I’d had some good conversations in the last three days. A last warm hug and then I’m off again. I wasn’t in a hurry, but I figured that if I wanted to reach Trincomalee before sunset, I’d have to go right now. It must be about 3 p.m. when I leave.

I’m at the Dambulla bus stop where I was dropped off by my tuktuk driver, who’d pointed at someone he knew, telling me: “he knows what bus you need.” I thanked him, and while I was just getting my bags out of the tuktuk, the man who my driver just pointed at was already standing behind me. “Hello my friend!” I heard him say, as I turned around. If I’d gotten a dollar for the amount of times people have called me their friend in Sri Lanka, I’d be a millionaire by now. It’s grown on me though, and I’ve even used it myself as well in certain situations. It’s a fun way to get by and people smile at you immediately when you say it.

He tells me what bus I should take, but, he adds: “I don’t think you’re going to like it. People are sitting very close to you, and they’ll be touching you. I can take you there as well, you know. I have a car.” I know what he’s trying to do; it’s not the first time someone has tried to rip me off – and it wouldn’t be the last as well. I decline kindly. He doesn’t go away, although, it’s not disturbing me, because up to this point he’s just trying to have small talk. Still, I feel his urge that if he could come up with another reason to let him bring me there, he’d propose it immediately – as he does, multiple times.

The view from the Cave Temple in Dambulla.

After waiting for 30 minutes, my bus finally arrives. I tell the man goodbye and get in line. The bus is crowded though and more people are lining up to get in. Just when I try to get my foot on the bus, the guard of the bus blocks me, saying that he’s got no space for me anymore. Then, they drive off. I don’t feel like waiting another 30 minutes, so I walk back to the man I’d been talking to with my tail between my legs, and I ask him for how much he can get me to Trinco.

We decide on a price (I’m definitely overpaying him) and we walk over to his tuktuk. First, we drive to his house, for that’s where he’s parked his car. We go down the main road of Dambulla and right before leaving town, we take a left into a bumpy side road. There’s tall grass on both sides and the road is curvy, so we can’t see much. When we get there, I see his wife working in the garden. She’s picking fruit. My driver later tells me that’s how they get by; by having as many jobs as possible.

Their house seems to be nothing more than a shed. After greeting his wife, I’m being invited into their home. The interior is grey, the walls don’t look very isolating and the only bit of decoration they have are some hindu posters and a lot of candles. The man offers me a plastic chair. “Sit down,” he says, smiling. It’s the best piece of furniture he has. Then, the two leave and they’re getting the car ready. As I sit there waiting, I look around the room and I realise it doesn’t take a genius to see that these people are barely coming round. This might sound weird, but in a way, I feel a lot better about overpaying this man.

A mother and her son walk home, Dambulla region.

No lucky man

When the car is ready, we drive off. It’s a red Suzuki and it’s not much bigger than a tuktuk, so we also just could’ve taken the tuktuk instead, but it’s a long way to Trinco and he has to drive all the way back as well. It’s up to this point that we really start having a conversation. We’re talking about sports, about where I’m from, he tells me about himself and we laugh.

Honestly, I can’t remember what the jokes were exactly, I only remember that we had a lot of fun during that ride. As we both get comfortable, he eventually tells me he loves Europe. I tell him that it’s overrated; tell him it’s not that big of a deal (as a joke). But he insists and I ask him why. “Everything is just so beautiful. The cities, the people, the houses…”

I wonder if he’d ever really seen the place, because the way he describes it, isn’t the way I remember it to be. I mean, I love Europe, don’t get me wrong, but he seemed to have a utopian place in mind, which it’s not; I don’t think utopian places exist at all, it’s more often than not a romanticization of some place that we only know from movies or that we’ve been to only once. So I ask him: “Have you ever been?” He answers: “no”.
“Would you like to go some day?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
“I’m just no lucky man. Just no lucky man.” He smiles as he says this, and as he does, I feel a strange feeling in my stomach. It’s a feeling I recognise, for it’s an indication for me that I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed for asking him this, because if I’d paid any attention at all, I already saw this man was struggling to come round when he invited me to his home. I’m silent for a moment.

Deep blue water decorates the Dutch Bay in Trincomalee.

A haunting past

Luckily, it doesn’t take long for us to go back to normal, and we’re talking again. But, as we get near Trincomalee, the horrible past of this island becomes clear. For thirty years, there used to be a civil war here, dividing the Tamils in the northeast and the Singalese in the southwest. Many of the Sri Lankans lived through it and it’s left a deep, bloody scar on entire generations.

We drive into an open field, and there’s a line of trees about half a kilometer in front of us. We’re heading right towards it. My driver points at it, making a horizontal gesture. “Do you see that? That’s where they used to be.” I ask him who, and he says “the enemy”. The fact that he uses this word is a sign that the war may be over, but the mutual resentment isn’t yet. “They would sit and hide there, shoot at people from the village behind us. Many people died here. Many people died here.” He seems to repeat everything he wants to emphasize, I notice. It feels strange passing this place when you have the historical context in the back of your mind, also knowing that it hasn’t been a lot longer than ten years. I don’t dare to ask him if he’s lost anybody during the war; everybody here has, I discovered.

It’s about 7 p.m. when we arrive in Trincomalee. My driver looks a little bit uncomfortable, giving me the impression he hasn’t been here very often. He also can’t seem to find the addres, so after calling, I get us at the place. I thank him, he hands me his business card. “For if you ever need a ride again, my friend!” he says. We say goodbye and I walk into the hostel. The hostel owner looks at me, a bit confused. “Did you come all the way by taxi? How much did you pay him?” I tell him the price and ask him if I paid him too much. He nods. “Way too much.” I act naive, but from the inside, I’m smiling.

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