The bus-station this particular morning was deserted save for a few people dotting the concrete seats built into the walls of the station. I knew that I had to take the 4.30 bus to Kandy, but I didn’t know which exact bus to take. I was in the mystical foreign land of Sri Lanka that my ancestors had under their grasp a few decades short of a century; however, people that could converse well in English (and not send you on the wrong route, speaking from personal experience) were almost nowhere to be found. Undeterred yet, I decided to ask the stationmaster, or who I assumed to be was the stationmaster.
“Hello,” I said warmly with a tinge of tentativeness in my voice. The little man in a beige shirt and black pants looked at me in an unwelcoming manner and returned to the piece of paper he was holding, which he was staring unblinkingly at. “Uhh…which bus do I have to take to go to Kandy?” I asked.
“Two bus,” he said, his eyes glued to his paper.
“Which bus, sir?” I pressed on.
“Two bus sir. One 4.30 now. Two 6.30 night.”
“Right,” I said, and feeling unwanted, decided to sit down and think about what I was going to do. It was still 4 and I had half-an-hour for everything.
After hunting around for a decent seat, I sat down rather gingerly and carefully placed my backside in a cleaner spot; the seats here were unclean and looked as if they were home to all the micro-organisms and fleas in the whole wide world. Remembering the map that I had purchased a few days ago from a rather fancy souvenir shop, I dug around my backpack. I took it out gratefully and opened it. To my dismay, all the lettering was in the local language. “Guess it was just a souvenir shop,” I thought, sighing. I took a deep breath in. “I am a writer and my objective of coming here was to experience life in the rural areas to help me write my newest project. I can’t go back now." I was only a normal guy trying my hand at writing and trying to experience the rustic side of life, having being accustomed to, and grown sick of my cozy and predictable lifestyle. And so, I decided to go where my adventures took me.
I listened to the singing crickets as I waited, looking off into the distance where I could make out clumps of coconut trees here and there in the distant darkness. I looked at my map once more to see if there was anything that could give me some idea of which route I’d be taking. A while later, a small-made man with graying hair sat down next to me. I acknowledged his arrival with a nod and friendly smile. He returned a smile and said, “Good morning.”
I said, “Good morning,” back, comforted at hearing a greeting in this rather unfriendly part of the town. I started squinting at my map, confused by the snaking roads everywhere. “Are you lost?” asked the man. I looked up in surprise, but quickly hid my emotions.
“Yes, I am. Do you know which bus I should take to Kandy?”
“You’re going to Kandy?” he inquired.
“I’m going the same way. I’ll help you find the bus,” he said helpfully.
“Oh thank you so much,” I said with gratefulness. “So do you live in Kandy or something like that?”
“No, I live here in Hambantota. I work in Kandy though.” He had excellent command of the language, and I thanked my lucky stars for meeting him.
“What do you do?” I asked. It might seem as if I’m being nosy, but it’s perfectly fine to know everything that’s going on with the people around you here, as I learned.
“I’m a clerk. You?” he asked. We shot questions back and forth at each other, until I got to know that his name was Sunil, had a family and from my observances, had an optimistic look on life.
Suddenly, another man in a beige shirt started shouting something in a continuous string of Sinhala. People started to stand up and move in one direction. There was no fire or any reason to move. The conductor’s barking herded the people out of the station like sheep. I probably looked very startled because Sunil started to laugh. “He’s telling us to get onto the bus, don’t worry.”
“Oh right,” I said rather sheepishly. I had been so awe-struck and engrossed in conversation that I didn’t notice the huge crowd that had gathered over the course of 30 minutes. There was such a crowd that I wondered how on earth we were all going to fit into one bus, but then I remembered that people hanging off the footboard of the bus is normal here.
“Come with me,” said Sunil, and I, standing up, followed him. The little man disappeared in the crowd and I’m sure I’d have lost him in the crowd if it weren’t for the dark red cap he wore. Following Sunil’s trail, I found myself scrambling into the bus amidst the fast-moving crowd.
And a few minutes later we were off. I couldn’t find Sunil and ended up next to a grumpy old lady that was in a constant conflict with her handbag, for some very curious reason. The bus rattled on haphazardly weaving its way over bumpy roads. It’s said that Sri Lankan buses are known for breaking down, and knowing that I was in an old, rackety vessel, I hoped that I wouldn’t fall victim to one of those situations.
Looking out the window, I could see the slightly lightening sky. I settled back comfortably into my seat in hopes of watching a tropical sunrise. The sky was a deep blue now, instead of the black it was moments ago. The grumpy old lady next to me finally gave up looking for that something she had been for the past hour or so.
All of a sudden the bus shuddered and came to a halt and the engine started hissing viciously, confirming my earlier suspicions. The bus conductor started repeating a word over and over again and the grumbling group of people got out of the bus one by one, and I followed, because what else could I do? I looked around for a boutique or a house, but saw nothing; we were in the middle of nowhere. The people started asking the conductor questions in complaining tones and he either ignored them or motioned them to go away. Looks like he was having a rough day.
I saw Sunil standing watching the commotion from a less dense corner. I moved over to him and he smiled a warm smile. “Hello again,” I said.
“Hello. We’ll have to wait until they either fix the bus or until a replacement comes along. Will be a couple hours at the very least,” he said.
“Right. That was very helpful,”
“So, where were we?” I asked, in hopes of starting the conversation once more, and he chuckled. I smiled. I liked this little man. He was, in fact, the nicest person I had met ever since I came here, and I was truly enjoying his amiable company.
“What made you visit Hambantota?” he asked.
“I’m a writer. I wanted to try going out of my comfort-zone and base my story here, in a rural area,” I explained.
“Okay…but then why are you going to Kandy?” Kandy is a developed city in the central part of the country and has a strong Buddhist culture and a lovely climate that cannot be found elsewhere in the country, which, quite obviously, aroused my interests.
“I’ve never been there and I’ve heard that it’s a really popular tourist destination so I might as well go and see what all this hullabaloo is about.”
“Interesting. And you don’t look over twenty-five,” he observed. Not knowing how to respond to his statement I stared blankly.
“I’m-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” he stammered.
“No, not at all. But what exactly did you mean?”
“I meant that the tourists that we usually see here aren’t very young ones except for children. I just found that out of the ordinary. Sorry.”
“No offence taken,” I said with a reassuring smile.
Feeling that I might’ve made the situation rather awkward, I turned my attention to the situation of the bus. Some people were sitting on their bags with their head in their hands. Some were shifting from one foot to another. And some hovered over the conductor and now the driver as well, like some flies they just couldn’t swat away.
Turning back to Sunil I said, “So, tell me about yourself,” not willing to let the conversation die.
“I’ve been alive for nearly fifty-five years, young man. What part of my life would you like to know?” he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Mm…the very start…? Oh wait, how’d you find the tsunami? Were you affected?” The twinkle disappeared and was replaced with a sad, faraway look. I should’ve known that this would be a sensitive subject. It was my turn to apologize. I stuttered out some words apologetically.
“It’s fine,” he said with dismissal. “Yes, the tsunami was quite the devil. I lost my brother,” he sighed. Now I felt like a total sack of cat crap.
“I’m so sorry,” I murmured.
“No, it’s fine. I have to learn to face my fears someday. There’s nothing wrong in that day being today,”
“Yeah, I said, words failing me.
“Well, it’s a long and boring story, but I’ll cut it short for you. That morning people were busy shopping and having fun. Then came some news saying that the sea was going back. People started running towards the beach and setting up new stalls, when at like 9 in the morning the wave hit us. My brother was busy helping the people out of their homes and when he was just about to make it out of a house, the wave came and took him away. At least, that’s what I heard. And that’s that. We never found his body and even if we did, it would probably be beyond recognition, and neither my parents nor I were prepared to see him like that,” he sighed. “I was a teacher before. I lost all my documents of proof and contacts. Luckily, I had a few relatives in Kandy that helped me get this job. I come back here because I have to support my mother because she simply refuses to leave this wretched place,”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and that was all I could manage.
“Hehe, it’s alright. Hey, you’re an author. Maybe you could write something about this you know?” I nodded, feeling sick from the pits of my stomach. There was this deep feeling of regret and pity within, that I felt for Sunil. I didn’t know how I could help him.
The conductor started yelling a different word now in his loud, brash voice. “They’ve fixed it. You’re lucky,” said Sunil, smiling. “God I don’t know how you even manage a smile after all this,” I thought. “Hurry up or we won’t get a seat,” he said and I rushed through the heaving and pushing crowd and finally found a place to sit by the window. It wasn’t dark anymore. The sun was shining brightly through pink and peach-colored clouds. Seconds later, Sunil slid into the seat beside me. I couldn’t help but grin.
“How about I show you around in the evenings?” he asked.
“Really! Can you?” I blurted out. Laughing at my abrupt enthusiasm, he chuckled.
“Sure. By the way, where will you be staying?”
“I don’t know. Everything about this trip is impromptu.”
“I lodge at a relative’s. I wouldn’t mind sharing,” he said.
“Really?” Now I was just staring in disbelief.
“Yeah. I don’t mind. And I’m sure my relatives would be more than happy to have you,”
“Thank you,” I said.
“No problem,” he said as the bus roared to life, and off we went, delving deeper into the unknown adventures of the future.