I leave the club after my morning workout and one of the guards helps me flag down a tuk tuk. As I climb in, he says, “You’re lucky. God bless you.”
I’ve lived in Sri Lanka just over two months. Things still confound me. People confuse me. Is the guard referring to the luck of getting a tuk tuk quickly? But they’re ubiquitous. It would be unaccountably bad luck if one hadn’t stopped. The “god bless” is likely just a translation from his own language, Sinhalese or Tamil. People around the world wish each other god’s protection when they part. There was a time when we westerners did the same. Yet his parting troubles me. It stays with me as we pass now familiar mansions, heading for my own.
I saw an Asian Paradise Flycatcher yesterday morning. The bird life in Sri Lanka is the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world but even here this bird is a rarity, and it was a white one, which is rarer still. With a lush tail, twice the length of its body, it contrasted vividly to the unremitting greenery of our yard.
In the evening, I attended a barbecue with some aid workers. We sipped wine by the side of a pool. “People still disappear,” said one. “You can’t prove it. You can never prove anything but the white vans appear and people are gone; anyone who questions the government. They live in fear.”
“I saw an Asian Paradise Flycatcher,” I said.
My tuk tuk whizzes past a wizened, emaciated woman sweeping at the side of the street. Can she really be as old as she looks or has poverty desiccated her? Colombo is a very clean city by any standard. The old sweepers, with their tattered brooms, toil with the single-minded industry of ants, all but invisible on the wide tree-lined boulevards.
Three brothers run this country. Last week, one of them invited my husband and me to a dance performance. It was a long evening, punctuated with many speeches. The festivities didn’t start until after our host’s late arrival. When he entered, followed by his cumbersome entourage, everyone stood and clapped. There was much shifting of seats as space had to be made for his retinue to surround him. At the end of the performance he came on stage and the entire dance troop bowed low to him, one by one, touching their heads to his feet. This same brother is responsible for keeping the city beautiful, and ruthlessly winning the war. His success is undeniable.
The tuk tuk driver wants to practice his English. I’m used to locals engaging me in conversation but I often find them hard to understand. He tells me his daughter attended a youth rally organized to end lingering hostilities between Tamils and Sinhalese. His daughter met a boy whose father was killed in the fighting.
“The boy asked why his father died,” says the tuk tuk driver.
There are estimates as many as 80,000 people died in the war, many of them civilians, some used as human shields or cannon fodder by their fellow Tamils, or shot by the military while trying to surrender.
“Did he get an answer?” I ask.
“He asked why,” repeats the driver.
I search for a response and consider telling him about my flycatcher; its tufted black head, an unnecessary extravagance, atop its elongated silhouette.
“Money is stolen,” whispered another aid worker last night. “We can’t prove it. The bureaucracy is so complicated we can’t figure out where all the money goes. We try to monitor it but if you ask too many questions you get deported.”
The boy who lost his father won’t be deported. He’s Sri Lankan. But he asked a question. Will a white van come for him? Should someone warn him? There’s no shortage of false truths. He’d have his choice of answers, if he’d only pick one and be satisfied.
The road to Galle is littered with abandoned homes, their walls breached, their roofs ripped off, by the tsunami. “The people don’t want to rebuild,” a taxi driver assured me, as we drove past them, several weeks ago. “They’re afraid of the sea now.”
His is a common belief, though it differs from the reports of journalists and aid workers who saw victims forced into makeshift camps, barred from returning to the coast. Homes were promised, deep in the jungle, safe from the waves, far from the fish that were the only livelihood the victims knew. Money was donated. No-one seems sure where it all went. Few homes were built.
The postcard perfect azure ocean laps the golden beach, mocking the skeletal remains of villages strewn across the sand.
The fly catcher’s tail is glorious but it causes him to bob in the air, struggling to stay aloft as the weight of it drags him down. I wonder if he revels in its grandeur, admires himself as he preens, or if he wishes he could yank it out, start over with something more practical, perhaps the stunted tail of a pigeon. Maybe beauty isn’t everything.
We drive alongside the high wall that surrounds my home and pull up to the gate. A guard emerges from the guard house to let me in. I climb down from the tuk tuk and pay the price on the meter, though I can see the driver’s jimmied it. I’ve travelled this route enough times to know the price should be half what the meter reads. I add a small tip. The driver and I exchange a look. He smiles sheepishly. Today, he shares my guilt. We are both lucky and perhaps god blessed.