In their timing, my arrival in India and Sri Lanka were very similar. Each journey carried with it a new year. India 2010, Sri Lanka 2013. Both landings were a few hours before first light.
If you are lucky, India will test you from the first pitch. Make you tired, hot, and jaded. Pounce on your jet lag by putting you in a queue with no real line. In the hours that you watch some sneak and others blatantly push past you, you will be forced to make a decision. The sweat, the heat and the unrelenting questions about taxis and Jonty Rhodes and marriage, will make you want to go home. You may consider me weak for thinking of home so soon after touching Indian soil but if you have spent some time there perhaps you will understand, if only a little. People told me what to expect, but I dismissed their warnings with the arrogance of someone who thinks they are stronger. When the thought of home comes to you, you have to decide whether to give in to India. You must instantly learn what Kipling meant when he said ‘if you can wait and not grow tired of waiting,’ because there is no time for adjustment. You must accept it at the outset or you should rather go home. For if you don’t, you will return to your routine and speak only of its dirt and squalor, of its poverty and claustrophobia, with no mention of its splendor. It asks its visitors for something, refusing to reveal itself to those too timid to let go of the obvious. The filth is blatant and takes nothing to see it, even less to call it what it is. But to look past it, beneath the layers of dust, towards its more subtle beauty demands something from you. It can be likened to signing, where the same sight to one is a combination of hand movements and to another, a language. Only those who are willing to learn its art will unlock the hidden nuisances of its meaning. What is more, is that she will keep making you work for it.
Finally through customs, my friend and I found refuge in our pre-arranged taxi. If our peace of mind lasted 20 seconds, it was a lot. Chaos is too light a word to explain Delhi’s roads. The side mirrors of cars are folded to hug the windows, allowing them to pass closely. And that is all there is on these streets, close misses. Moving deeper into the city, our taxi took a turn for the worst. We curved with a road that narrowed suddenly, the lights overhead disappearing, our casual, almost bored, driver dodging tuk-tuks in the dim light. And then it stopped. The road. Unperturbed, our driver got out of the vehicle and began to take our backpacks out of the boot:
“Now we walk.” he said.
Picking up our belongings, we walked the next hundred meters to our ‘hotel’ which tried to save itself by inserting the word ‘international’ in front of Rakk. The only thing international about Rakk was that its standards would have failed global health regulations. From the doorway of our room we could see that the linen was dirty. We recovered from this setback when we remembered our neatly folded sheets that each of us had packed. Before our reassurance settled, we found the bathroom. There was a particular growth of orange and brown that monopolized the wet floor, spreading onto the lower half of the toilet like an infection. Mocking us, a piece of chlorine blue anti-septic soap sat in the far corner. Without question, each knew that the other was questioning our choice of destination but we were civil enough not to speak of it. So we did the only thing we could, we covered what we could with sheets and sarongs and put our developing flu to bed. That’s when the pheglming started. In your ear loud, it molested us every second minute. Like a switch, it woke the rest of Delhi. The scooters and jackhammers. The tobacco chewers and screeching babies. They all came to life as we tried to fall sleep. Somewhere between the pheglm and the hammer our exhaustion won and each of us drifted off. In the mid morning when we woke, we parted the dull curtains to find something that resembled beauty.
In adjusting to its difference, I have found Sri Lanka kinder than India. It would be easy to say, since I have been vocal about it, that I am at ease with being alone but that is not wholly the case. I wake with a few seconds of calm and then I am shaken by my aloneness. Then slowly, that fear is replaced by something similar to amazement. Every time I wake it is less though and soon I will wake fully aware of it. The definition of rally that attracts me most is, ‘an act of returning to a strong position after a period of difficulty or weakness.’ In my experience, the ability to make a sharp rise after a decline is the determining factor in the fine balance between tears and laughter when things appear bleak. On that first morning in Sri Lanka, unable to fall asleep, my ability to gather my strength, to rally, must be attributed to the proximity of the ocean, which will forever sooth me. Its soft break upon the shore somehow became more than the overpowering squawk of what I recognised as crows and eventually I was asleep before I knew that I was even falling.
The sight of it in the morning, reaffirmed me. The water in Negombo is not clear. It is warm and mirky but pleasant nonetheless. The shore starts like any, a continuation of the soft shore and then transforms into a firm velvet carpet beneath your feet. So much so that I wondered whether it was one, the Sri Lankan hospitality deep enough to consider it. I may not have admitted to that thought until a Canadian farmer who, with an offering of a hard-to-come-by cold beer, responded to my suggestion:
‘Maybe it is one,’ he said, making us both laugh, knowing that the possibility could only exist in this part of the world.
It is hot here. Sweltering. The first gift of my day was the sight of a woman’s bareback on the beach. She stood and confirmed my hopes, she was wearing a bikini, which meant that I could abandon the idea of swimming fully clothed. Though there are a fair amount of tourists here, my presence on the streets is nevertheless an anomaly. Never before have I had such a winning smile, with each receiver entirely delighted by it. Out of the corner of my eye I see glimpses of children with caramel skin imitating my wave to their amused mothers. Walking is an insult to the tuk-tuk drivers, who I have to decline every 20 meters, which refusal makes known my second gift: the word ‘no’ holds currency here. This acceptance is as welcome as the lukewarm water I sip on every few steps. The significance of it may be lost to those who have not ventured to India. Motivational snippets like ‘you have not failed, you have just a thousand ways that won’t work’ seem to have been whispered into the very earth of the country. Though that kind of persistence deserves admiration, it can be harrowing and unrelenting to travelers. It would be incorrect to conclude that I have no affection for the place, for I have found it to be like liquorice to me, unsure whether I liked it or not. Each day when I tasted it, I decided anew that it is not for me but when my initial reaction faded, I felt a craving for it again. For all its hassle, starring and uncomfortable attention, India is in equal parts full of wonder. It is a girl who tries to recover with her second impression after failing miserably with her first. And if you let her, you will find that, like liquorice, it is completely unique.
The gratitude I feel for my second gift frees me to take in the quaint houses whose families overflow onto the dusty streets, sharing their lives with neighbours and then a temple, that a rainbow vomited on, catches my eye. Occasionally I pass groups of learners sitting quietly at a table working and I feel the common pull to teach as I reluctantly walk by. The faded, chipped and then reapplied bright paint is the natural effect copied on over-expensive frames from home. The artificial creation of old has not been contemplated here. The lives of animals and people intertwine in a way that is lost to the western world. Crows pick at the remains of pineapples, competing with clay coloured cattle for small bits of nectar. A tiny monkey is held captive on a leash, replaced by a snake whenever their master feels the audience bored. Manged dogs, as loved as any, guard their makeshift fences. Circling around the ocean and the fish it offers, its people tie lines of gut together with the anticipation of a bite, rest in the slim shade after the morning catch and assemble at the fish market with a stench so thick it leaves a layer of rancid oil on your skin.
Sri Lanka has recently been listed on the ‘top countries to visit in 2013′. That is how I meet Sri Lanka: full from fish, dripping in colour and with the self confidence that comes from always knowing something that the rest of the world has only just figured out.