We had moved on early this morning to down Galle, a few stops further along the train line. This city, with its colonial-fortified old town jutting out into the Indian Ocean, was about as far south as we were to head on this trip, situated on the South-West tip of Sri Lanka. There was a long Portuguese history on Sri Lanka, and they were amongst the first westerners to arriving here in the 1500’s; almost six hundred years later, the Iberian influence can still be felt in Galle’s narrow streets, whitewashed, airy houses and heavy, defensive-star fortifications. Walking along the thick three-storey high ramparts, I was vividly reminded of the type of city-state defensive constructions seen across Italy, complete with protruding turrets with slits in the ramparts. Now, though, these secluded turrets are more littered with dusty, used bottles of cheap coconut liquor than muskets and Portuguese soldiers.
Through the main gates of the old city that were set deep under the ten-meter-thick walls, a university cricket match was being played on the Oval outside. When we approached, however, the exciteable school-kids in their all-white uniforms instantly seemed more interested in us than the game. Too late, we realized that we were surrounded, and proceeded to be mobbed be hordes of these children, pushing each other to offer high-fives, hanging on to our arms, mischievously pretending to delve into our pockets and holding out empty palms, expectant of Rupee-notes for screamed compliments:
“Orange very beautiful color”, said one kid, pointing to the logo on my shirt and then holding out his hand.
We had to physically push past this mass of waist-height brown faces. It’s a lucky thing these kids were so light- we could literally lift them up and move them out the way. The only hard part was doing the moving quicker than they could run back in front of our path out of there.
On the way over to the market across town, we are approached by a very friendly fellow introducing himself as Rhassi. We were outside a small shop of some sort, pumping out Eminem’s first album on a pair of gorgeous free-stand speakers to his assembled crew outside, sprawled out in the shade of the roadside, leaning on motorbikes, feet poking out of open car doors, all drinking from plastic cups and looking drunk.
Apparently he used to live in Sheffield and was into the party scene there. He spoke of a beach party that night back over in Hikkaduwa that we were very welcome to get down to. He had a set of very funny mannerisms and a comical way of talking, as he was clearly struggling to offset his excitement at the prospect of getting high with some potential western druggies like he seemed to be aspiring to, with the hushed caution of attempting to keep his voice down in a quiet alleyway full of open windows. It was like he was hatching some sort of conspiracy. ‘We drive over to pat-tie, maybe get something to smoo-ooke, to dreeeeenk, then go to the pat-tie and get some draaaags and do some as-eed and treep-treep-treeeep all night!’
His excitement reached a peak and the last three verbs were punctuated with the thrusting of his arms above him with each repetition.
Giving slightly evasive responses to the finer points of his plan, we agreed.
When I mentioned in passing that I was having trouble getting some money out anywhere, he gamely insisted he take me into town on his bike to go find a cash point. Ignoring the nagging voice in my head telling me not to get on the back of a bike with someone who was almost certainly drunk, I got on. This was the first time I had ever ridden on a motorbike, so it was destined to be a fairly hair-raising experience. All I will say is that being at truck engine-level, wearing only a vest and shorts, having no-where to put your gangly legs away from the rush-hour traffic, while you watch the drunk driver of a bike that weighs less than you stare straight ahead out of the only helmet available gives a new significance to the security offered by a seatbelt- not that one would have done me too much good.
Once parked up, only one of three cash points was working. A short walk later, we are lost.
“Rhassi, I thought you said you knew where we left your bike. Don’t you live here?”
“Yes, but, you see…I am err…little drunk, you see.”
That night was a bad night.
Okay, I lie. The first half of the night was great. Our host had laid on a feast of freshly-grilled fish with hot tomato salsa, curried jackfruit, rice, salad, poppadoms, a tall frosty Three-Coins. However, it became a bad night once we were getting schemed down the local grog-house.
The first downer- Rhassi wasn’t home. We gave him a ring, but he was already in Hikkaduwa, doubtless, several stops further down the line from when we last saw him, if you get my drift. The bus station had pretty much shut up for the night and a rickshaw to Hikkaduwa was plan Z; an option if we were desperate to get there by sunrise.
Whilst we were loitering at the bus station deciding what plan B was, we found ourselves in the company of new, curious friend- talkative, toothy man named Nalin. A fisherman by trade, he seemed like a genuine guy- a devout Buddhist, eager to espouse the good word to us, the honest Joe waiting for the next bus to Nirvana. He gave his best attempt to help us out on our decision-making dilemma over what to do with our night.
“Okay, well maybe you go tomorrow, yes? For now, just get beer”, he suggested, in smooth, conversational lilt. What else what were we gonna do? I had been ready to discover the next full moon party phenomenon and lose it on a beach somewhere. The least I was going to do was go to bed with a slight headache.
He took us to a local, out-of-the-way, back-alley bar just around the corner. It was a welcome change- lit with a single bulb, full of brown staring faces, no cheesy decorations on the bare blue walls, no tablecloth, certainly no westerners. A fleet of tuk-tuks were parked up outside in a broad semi-circle, like credentials to the spit-and-sawdust nature of its clientele. The bare minimum. We got four beers, one for each of us and one for his mute friend. This small show of generosity on our part was on the naïve assumption that a local establishment such as this would not hurt the bank like it did in Hikkaduwa. However, travel lesson number two had obviously not sunk in yet, and we handed over two One-thousand notes for the twelve-hundred they were asking. A pound-fifty for a beer; not expensive, not cheap either.
We waited for the bartender to return. Meanwhile we engaged in the cultural to and fro that was slowly becoming familiar with these interactions. Despite the monopoly that Bollywood has over this small, satellite island, we were able to have a good laugh over the likes of Mr. Bean and Austin Powers. Nalin had a particular enthusiasm for describing his favorite scenes with ‘the baby’- Mini-Me. In time, however, our reckless curiosity irrevocably turned the conversation towards the Tsunami and tragic circumstances that it left him- his little boy didn’t survive and his wife lost a leg. All pretty raw stuff.
Eventually, after much proclaiming of his honesty and good-heartedness (unlike, apparently, those around him), he tried practicing his English handwriting on us, and we had an attempt at the twirly, squiggly Sinhala script that he wrote in. Even his silent friend joined in. As often happens in these kinds of exchanges, he was curious about Britain and what life was like there, and he asked us to write our address.
Then he offered us his.
“Perhaps soon, you will visit me at my tent in the Tsunami housing camp?”
Perhaps Alec felt something much more honorable or brave or compassionate. I just cursed myself and my childlike curiosity for walking into such an obvious corner.
In all honesty, were we going to visit him? No. But I say with true conviction that there and then, I had every intention of sending a supportive letter of goodwill to this helpful, friendly victim of life, with a few Rupees tucked inside. I remember thinking how hard it will be sending so many small tokens of goodwill, whether they money or meaningful items to all these hard-up characters I’ll come to meet over these coming months.
No sooner have we left the bar, change now pocketed, than a slightly more slurring Nalin offers us the necklaces off his very neck. And not offered in the polite, because-I-should way, but in the impoverished-but-heartfelt, offended-if-you-don’t-accept way. We were friends, he said, and friends helped each other.
This was so unreal, such an alien show of stubborn generosity that I think Alec felt as humbled and uncomfortable as I did. We accepted them with a shocked awkwardness and bashful round of thank-yous. All that was left was for us to take his address. Enthusiastic for any potential visitors, he insisted on getting some paper from the local restaurant, which we headed off to. While the waiter looked for a spot of paper for us, Nalin fussed, as Sri Lankans often do, over the waiting westerners. No, its fine Nalin, I’m not hungry thanks. No really, I’m good, no beer. Okay, maybe just some water. Yeah, two please.
Off he goes to fetch the water, while we wait on the street with his mute friend and some of the various other local gents. One of the assembled, a middle-aged guy with a slick moustache and empty glass of hooch sways over to us with a sickly grin, almost provocative in its falseness. He starts mumbling letters to us, tracing them on the table.
“Oh, tsunami,” Alec mumbles flatly.
So what, you want money? What do you want from me? You want money? Go home, you drunk, I think to myself, as he lurches onto our table. We rise to leave as Nalin approaches, water and scribbled address in hand. We were both ready for bed by this point. All he wants, he says, is a pack of smokes for his troubles. Not as unreasonable as Sebastian’s final request, I quip to Alec. Go ahead, I tell him, giving him my one-thousand note. Two minutes later, he returns, twenty Amber-Leaf in hand, with a clutch of notes.
“Hang on Nalin…I gave you 1,000 rupee for two bottles of water and a pack of smokes, you’ve given me 150 back. Where the rest?! Where’s the rest of my change?!”
“No no, never, I no fuck you! I good man! I give you what they give me!” he says, indicated to a now-shut shop.
Ahh, sht! Screwed over again!
I was furious, barking at Nalin for my change against his desperate and slightly pissed whines of his innocence. Again and again he protested that it was the shops fault, and the he was a good man! A good man!
Alec gave his necklace back, I chucked mine in the river, sick as a dog that I’d had half a day’s budget nicked right in front of me. What seemed like an overwhelming show of generosity had turned out to be a cheap, trust-winning ploy in an instant.
But was it headed that way from the start? Who knows? Alec thought that Nalin was out to con us from the very beginning, but I was more taken by the idea of a genuine guy turned rotten by the seductive, corrupting temptation of a crispy, western 1000 rupee note in his hands. At the end of the day, I didn’t observe Travel Lesson number four: check the change as soon as you get it. Had I taken mine back and then forked out for Nalin’s smokes, no drama would have ensued and I wouldn’t have made an ugly show of myself for having four pounds stolen from me. It pales into insignificance when expressed in real terms, but I can’t afford to do that every other day, or else my trip will end a month earlier than when my flight is, it’s simple as that. In that situation, no emotion should override caution, not even the most compelling of trust and companionship, especially after only having known the guy two hours. Were all those stories of his family and his home true? For sure, I believe it. But it’s an explanation but not an excuse. Another day, another lesson learned the hard way.