The First Twelve

I’m slapped awake by some German fella who’s already stolen my seat tonight and has as much hair above his top lip as my testes did when I was 11. To be fair, we were disembarking flight AK47 and I was holding up row 23 from joining the hustle of frothing backpackers to get their shit from the overheads. I guess that’s what you get when you steal an Aussie’s seat, ya German kook.

I was through Visa check, through Passport check and had my bags over my shoulder in less time than it took to shuffle off the plane. I even got a nod from the Swiss babe that ignored me back in Malaysia, maybe it’s because I wasn’t lugging Dune Messiah through baggage claim.

Jumping in a cab was sweet, squeezed my board into a sedan but had to chuck my backpack on my feet – didn’t mind though, the driver had the aircon cranking at about 15 degrees. The aircon doesn’t cut the musty spice smell from the air, however, though as I write this I’ve learned to love the smell of Sri Lanka. It’s like a powdered ball of thick, cinnamon musk with a splash of spiced paprika or some shit. But at the same time it’s fresh.

As those who’ve visited Sri Lanka would know, the drive out of the International Airport is smooth sailing (especially at 11PM). One straight road coursing through jungles and abandoned buildings. Half-hour in and above the taxi driver’s portable DVD player, attached to the dash, appears Colombo. In all it’s… glory? There’s a couple high rises. No lights on. At least the roads are… nice? We nearly destroy a tuk-tuk and it’s driver. At least there’s… trees? The trees pull back and I’m so devoed I left my 9 Mil at home (that I don’t have) because I’m in the ghetto. It’s like driving through Poppies II at night except all the stalls are open, powerless and shirtless Sri Lankans are peddling bananas to stray dogs. Luckily every third turn brought us to a lit, billboarded strip that reminded me of how Surfers Paradise would’ve looked in the ‘90’s, it made me feel less like I was ghetto struck.

My hotel was across the road from an abandoned car yard with all the signage still out the front and a street back from the sea, which hosted the infamous Fort Rail. I’d had an email from the hotel that morning saying my room was cancelled to which the front desk had no idea about and I was in my bed with Bollywood cranking by 12AM.

I’m awake by 5AM, I think it’s something like 9:30AM back home so the body clock wants me moving. I facetime El (she was on Sunrise singing Waltzing Matilda that day) and start my day with a curry, nahn and a few lady fingers. I’m staunching streets of (the ghetto) Colombo by 8AM and frothing. What originated as a hunt for a 7-Eleven or the like turned into a sweat-fest, 5th gear tuk-tuk pandemonium where the finish line was a blessing from Buddhist Monks.

First of all, fuck yes to ravens. Not only are they Odin’s spies but they’re the sick-lads of the bird kingdom who don’t take shit from no-one. If you think ravens are just crows you’re kidding yourself. Ravens would destroy a crow. They’re bigger, and have that blue tinge to their oil-slick feathers that screams “I’m a slippery bastard that’ll feck you ep.” Anyway, there are literally ravens everywhere in Colombo including that giant random park they have in the middle of their city. So rad.

In the park there are squirrely squirrels and ducks the size of geese (maybe they were just geese), but the best thing about this park was the lone stump in the middle of the grass. I saw it and thought it intriguing; had the might of nature boycotted Colombo’s attempt of holding onto to sanctity? Perhaps, but philosophy had boycotted me by the time I was close enough to shoot a frame. Little puppies were in the roots just chewing on each other’s ears, yelping and shaking their booties as my knees dug into the dirt and fell to their level. I was welcomed like I was their Papa. There were six, seven puppies just cruisin’ in the stump living the life I was living – under a stump in an unknown world full of ravens.

I reluctantly left the pups and continued exploring the ghe-Colombo. It was on my way back to the hotel that I got talking to a Sri Lankan fella from Kandy, one wife three kids. He had a moustache that hit mine for a 6 and wore a button up shirt that a 18 year old from Cooly would wear to Rattlesnake.

“Where you heading?” I asked. I had my customer service voice on. “Wanna split a tuk-tuk?”

He, gratefully, jumped in the first one I hailed down. Such a shame I hailed down Vin-fucking-Diesel from Fast and the Furious: Sri Lanka Drift. This guy was charging, he was the raven of tuk-tuks. He didn’t even bat an eye when my new buddy suggested chucking a U-bolt to the temple. It came about because he asked whether I was religious and I hate lying to people so I said, “Kinda. I believe in something bigger than us but I don’t think humans have or will discover it.”

All he said was, “Let me help you.”

I was barefoot, in a grey robe, on all fours bowing down to a giant Buddha in one of the biggest temples I’d ever seen 20 minutes later. I hate dramatising, but the way my new Sri Lankan buddy dropped in worship to these Buddhist Monks was inspiring. It almost made me see for the first time what true worship is. Not just reading from a book or doing what said book says to do. This man lived in Buddha’s name, and thanked the disciples (monks) for doing what he hadn’t the strength to do.

He took me through the 4 layers of the Buddhist temple of Colombo. We finished by entering the Monk’s Quarters, a polished stone floored hall with a centred, varnished bench top equipped with twelve hand-carved chairs neatly tucked respectively. I can’t explain the scent of the burning oils though the hairs on my arms stood tall seeing the orange robed men incline their heads as we entered. There’s this glass box at the far side, under a sun light and full of relics of the ancient past. After offering my thanks I was permitted into said box and was gifted with the rite of blessing. A golden plate was held to my head as a monk whispered prayers that enveloped me in a what-the-shit-is-happening-right-now kinda trance. I left the monks and their temple with a red bracelet equipped with 5 white stones on my wrist, a blessing that granted me luck through the perils of life.

Now of course, there’s a price to such luxuries because next thing I know, “Are you married?”

“Nah. But my misses is back home on the Gold Coast.”

“Oh, are you going to buy her a gift?!”

“Of course,” I say. “But it’s my first day. I have to scope out the markets first.”

He says, as we whip doughies down Galle Road in Diesel’s tuk-tuk, “No. We go now. I show you how to barter. You Australian. Sri Lankans always help Australian.”

Long story short I bought a Sri Lankan blue sapphire something-something and knew I was getting jibbed. But at the end of the day at least my old mate was (probably) getting a cut.

We parted ways at the train station. My mate, who I’ll probably never see again, had to catch the 10:30 to Kandy.

I collapsed in the aircon of my tiny room a short while later. My grey shirt was dark with sweat, camera full of 78 mediocre photos and the mirror in the bathroom held the only white man I’d seen since the Airport.

Now, as a student of literature I’ve been told by a coupla tutors that every story has a moral consequence, not just a purpose. I like to challenge them most days (because they’re fucking wrong) but assuming today they’re right I’ll sign off with this: I’ve been here 12 hours and learned more than a text book could ever teach me. Information is knowledge and knowledge leads to power but experience is bliss and bliss is a treasure of the wise. Visit Sri Lanka or you’ll never be able to beat my story.

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