Being on the road has shown Daniel that he has trouble without the comforts of a good life– good food, well-brewed coffee, hot showers. These can be done without, if the tortoise is receding its limbs into its shell, but the ascetic, poor-man’s lifestyle isn’t really for Daniel. No, he’s used to nice things, and to renounce them– for a while is all right– for a long time is hard.
So when he finds a nice touristy strip, where he can get a pot of Sri Lankan coffee and wifi and eggs and toast and papaya juice, that satisfies. Ella and Negombo were welcome after the small-city untouristy (and kind of unpleasant) nature of Kandy. It was in Ella that Daniel met Ivan and Morgan, French business students studying in Singapore. They met at the Downtown Roti Shop, when one glance turned into one question and one question became a round of questioning. Even though their invitation to stay with them in Singapore came shortly after they met, Daniel took them up on it– he could tell they were real dudes, and it was the perfect opportunity to visit one of the world’s most important, and to him, interesting cities.
When Ivan asked him if he wanted to go for a beer, it was obvious. They went into a restaurant up the street, called Nescoffee, which turned out to have great coffee the next morning when Daniel ordered an americano. They drank beer in the upstairs loft while nearby the manager hosted the local police to a banquet. Morgan and Ivan are French, so the whole time they were smoking Lucky Strikes. The boss of the place kept having to borrow their lighter for the fat drunk cops. They were leaving when the boss came to them while outside trying to figure out where Daniel’s hotel was, and invited them back upstairs. He bought them a round, gave them a spliff and said he’d join them soon– if they’re happy, he’s happy.
While the manager entertained the by now very drunk local police, one of the waiters sat with Daniel and his friends. He was handsome and young, tall with big brown eyes and coffee colored skin. He told them how he wanted to go to France to make a better life. Daniel remembered Vicky’s friend who married an American girl in hopes of living the Dream, only to wind up working at a 7 Eleven and calling Vicky to lament his forlorn state.
“It’s not as good as it seems,” Daniel said. “You live in paradise here, with the eucalyptus trees, and the nice tourist girls coming in. Sure you may work hard, but trust me, life is good compared to what it could be in Europe. You would work just as hard there, and sure you’d make more money, but everything is more expensive, so it’s not like you’d be able to get more. You’d see how much more everyone else has and you’d be unhappy, you’d miss home, and people wouldn’t treat you the same way here because of your skin color. Trust me, you’re living the life here in Ella. It’s a tropical paradise.”
He looked at Daniel with glossy eyes and nodded. “Thank you.”
“Of course. The grass is always greener. That’s the human condition.”
“Thank you.” Daniel felt kind of silly then, like maybe the beers had been getting to him, and he moved the subject away. But looking back, he enjoyed being so honest. People like honesty. They remember honesty.
Morgan and Ivan were planning to catch the 7 o’ clock bus to Galle on the morrow, but it was one-thirty already and it became apparent that maybe it would be better to wait another day. After they ate the leftover noodles and curried veggies the police couldn’t finish, the boss wanted to see them downstairs. He was drunk and watching the Sri Lanka-Pakistan cricket match. When Daniel told him he was American and had come from India, he said he hates India. “Americans always come from India and want to compare it to Sri Lanka. It’s totally different.”
“I know!” Daniel said. “Why do you hate Indians?” They stand up for Tamils. The boss kept staring at Daniel, cockeyed. Daniel drank his brandy. He thought to himself, This man does not like me, and recognizing this helped him enjoy the man’s kindness. It was a convenient adult circumstance. Eventually their conversation wound down, and they stood to leave. Daniel knew Ivan and Morgan wouldn’t get up early enough to leave the next morning.
The next day the boss had a headache and bought them papaya juices. He taught them a tabletop billiard game called carom. He was very good, of course, and the guys only tried to mimic his fillips. When Daniel’s computer died and half the afternoon was spent, the French guys went to the temple, and Daniel went out for roti and who did he see but his old Chinese friends from Kandy! Casey touched his arm and said something in Chinese about his moles, and Chin Me said jokingly that she was a horny dirty slut when Daniel asked him what she said. He decided to make his departure.
He hiked up a road, through barbed wire and along a tea factory, saw the granite peak with smoke rising after a brush fire got out of control, touched the shiny eucalyptus trunks, and slid down the steep hill in his sandals. Then he washed his towel, which puddled brown water in the shower, and his white tank top, aqua elastic CK boxer briefs and shorts, which were also filthy. He went to Nescoffee and met Morgan and Ivan, ordered a pineapple lassi, talked more about Americans’ misuse of freedom, played carom, and they stayed for dinner: delicate sausages and mashed potatoes. Then they left that Nescoffee, which had been recommended by Lonely Planet as the best thing to do in Sri Lanka, with its wood paneling and good sound system and tasteful art, never to see it again.
Daniel woke early hearing a frog’s croak, in his dream as the voice of a man. He had an hour until he had to leave. He turned on the hot water and listened to Sonny Boy Williamson, and waited for the water to get hot. It was very slow, and he realized that for every minute of charging the hot water tank, it delivered maybe thirty seconds of hot water. He finally got the water hot enough to run over his face and down his back without shivering.
Many buses arrived in the early morning. Daniel got there early and decided to eat a buffalo-curd and fruit and honey breakfast while he waited. The curd shop owner said the bus to Galle was number 31, and came at 710. Daniel finished and walked to meet his friends at the stop. They chatted. Angel, the talkative British woman from Kandy was there too. At 7, a bus rolled up and Ivan asked if it went to Galle. The driver said no. As it drove away, Daniel saw the bus’ number. It was 31.
They waited almost another hour for what could have been the 710. Then they chose to skip Galle and go straight to Negombo. Ivan had to leave the following night. There wasn’t time for the six hour ride today, and then the three hour ride to Colombo the next day. They hopped a tuktuk to Badawala, ten k away, and then got on the bus. They stood for the first 20k, winding bobby-pin turns. Daniel sat on the steps of the bus with the door open, holding on to the bar as they drove over the valley. They could see for twenty miles distant; two thousand feet below the hills gave way to flat forest and small lakes. The farther away the hazier and bluer and grayer the view became until it was indistinguishable from the horizon and the sky. Then a well-dressed man offered Daniel a seat next to two old ladies. For two hours Daniel was unable to combat the gruesome shifting of the bus. He finally fell asleep as the bus rolled to a rest stop.
The old ladies asked him the basics, “Where you from? When did you get here?” By her addition of “ago,” after she repeated his answer, Daniel knew her English was good. When their conversation faltered, he set to reading Mr. Trollope and after 30 pages, he rested. The woman asked him about his religion.
“My mother’s Catholic and my father’s Jewish, but I don’t practice. I like to believe that all religions are the same.”
“They’re not. I’m a Buddhist. Buddhists believe in karma, which is very different from Christianity. There is no creation story either.”
“Yeah, I guess I meant I like to take a little bit from each religion, like the karma of Buddhism and the turn the other cheek philosophy of Christianity, and the work without rewards of Hinduism, and the…” He struggled to think of what he takes from Judaism.”
“Yes you can take a lot from Buddhist philosophy. But most important are the five precepts: telling the truth, not committing murder, no sexual deviance, good action, and no alcohol.
“I drink alcohol.”
“That’s the root of all evil.”
He nodded, looked out at the green-lined road. Their conversation ended. He remembered the evil inside him.
All in all, the ride was seven hours. They had biriyani in a “hotel,” as they call restaurants in South India and Sri Lanka, before getting on a bus to Negombo 30k away, which took another hour. The bus driver was solemn and relaxed the entire time, his betel-stained lips pursed in concentration. There were many stops along the two lane road; there are no highways in Sri Lanka. When Daniel and his friends arrived a tuktuk took them to a quiet little hotel just off the beach.
Daniel dove into the water headfirst and all of the stress from the long journey evaporated. Each wave pushing against him was a wave of stress falling away. The tumble of green-gray water ever-encroaching on the orange sand under a gray sky, palms soughing nearby, was all so paradisaical. Daniel put his head down and let the waves crash over him. Then, like a bullet, something– a shell or piece of glass– sliced his foot. Just after he had dissuaded his friends from believing that there are any sharks in the water, he found himself the subject of a sea-accident. Not as bad as Ivan’s story of being stung by the tiger fish in Thailand, having his hand swell up and feel like needles ripping into it for six hours. The nurse at the hospital had said that if the fish had stung him with its other stinger he’d be dead. “Watch out for the tiger fish when you’re in Thailand,” he said.
Daniel views Thailand as his last hurrah before he goes home to work with Max in the Hamptons and Ithaca. If he can go there and soak it up without getting into trouble, he’ll be satisfied. At dinner, Ivan told him of how he last time he was in the islands of Thailand, he was poisoned at a bar, and wound up walking through the jungle, feet bloodied, to wake up in sand the next morning, his back pockets slashed open and his buttocks slightly cut. The bartender who had served him was working in tandem with the two men who had stolen his wallet. Morgan agreed– “Don’t go to the full moon parties. I had six friends who went, two guys, four girls, and they all got robbed.” Daniel grimaced over his chicken kotthu. He isn’t afraid, but he’s definitely not willing to take on the help of strangers in such a country. It’s one thing to do it in India or Sri Lanka, where the penalties for harming tourists are extra harsh, but in Thailand, where it’s more practiced, he plans to be careful.
They traded more stories of drunkenness and extreme living, California and Honk Kong stories, while the restaurant darkened and the wait staff watched, waiting for them to finish. They walked home in the darkness, finding their hotel closer than they remembered. Before bed, they played a game on Morgan’s iPad, effectively known to Daniel as “Name That Brand.” Morgan and Ivan were pleased to have an American’s help, since so many of the brands are from Daniel’s motherland. They unlocked all the levels and once that challenge had been vanquished, it was easy to fall asleep in the comforts of Sri Lanka’s tropical warmth.