When I landed in Kuala Lumpur, I was definitely past the point of rational fatigue. That didn’t help the case. Eight hours of sleeping on a highly air conditioned airplane without a jumper or a blanket, plus a few more hours of sleeping on the floor of the highly air conditioned KL airport. It was a vulnerable situation, a glaringly lonely situation.
So after the first five hours of that layover, as I moved to the departure gate and sat in a big, comfy chair outside the locked gate that I looked up from my book and straight into the face of my lonely reality.
I took a deep breath, told myself I was doing this for a reason. I told myself I wasn’t going to cry; something I should always know better than to hold myself to. After a ten minutes of deep breathing with my eyes squeezed shut in a private stall of the women’s toilet, I picked myself back up and marched myself back to that big, comfy chair. As I sat there with my book open, I wasn’t reading many words, I was watching as the Sri Lankans filed in around me. I was observing these people that have likely lived among me and I’ve never taken notice of. I was suddenly hit with an overwhelmingly feeling of excitement and an unstoppable urge to smile at every man, woman and child that happened to look my way. I was doing this. Solo.
Rather than burying my head in my book or my latest playlist addiction as other passengers boarded the plane, I caught myself observing every single person who passed me by.
Is she alone too?
Do they live in Sydney or in Colombo?
There are so many couples here, maybe I should’ve travelled with someone.
I read ever single page of the newest issue of Frankie. Every story seemed meant for me. Young women talking about solo travel, about strength in the face of uncertainty, about taking big risks.
I’m going to write a letter to the editor about how much this issue set me up for my first solo trip. Bet I’ll win letter of the month and get one of those really cool prizes.
I never wrote that letter, the words got lost in three weeks of chaos, of squeezing on buses, of tuk tuk rides in the rain, Sri Lankan hospitals, hours on end spent staring into the Indian Ocean, being pummeled by countless waves, and friends with unpronounceable names.
As we neared Colombo, we started flying over the tear-shaped island and I could see lush green trees and long stretches of beach, all I could do was tell myself the story of my next steps. Get off the plane, get a SIM card, get a taxi to Hikkaduwa, don’t pay more than 3,000 rupees (I was misinformed), know where the train station is in case everyone tries to rip you off. I just kept saying it over and over in my head, telling myself that story. Willing myself not to think any further than that. Just get the SIM card, get the taxi.
The SIM was easy, just like Thailand, just like the US. I walked to the government taxi stand; 8,500 rupees to Hikkaduwa they said. I couldn’t believe it, I’d expected 5,000 maybe, and I could talk it down. But 8,500, that’s nearly $85 AUD.
I walked out into the sheer heat surrounding Bandaranaike International Airport. Everyone wanted to take everyone in their taxi, well all of the white people. The Sri Lankans all huddled in some kind of holding area, I tried to see what they were waiting for, see if there was some kind of shuttle service on offer. Everyone wanted the 8,500. I was approached by a tiny Sri Lankan man who asked for 6,000 and pointed to his car already holding two middle-aged German women. He was going to get up to 6,000 out of each of us. There was no way, I was sure that it was only mean to cost 1,000-2,000 rupees for that trip.
Determined not to give in, determined to be a strong, independent, white female traveller. I trekked over to the giant blue coach buses and approached the one with a the ‘Colombo’ sign in the window. A tall, dark man with only a few teeth and a face pinched with cynicism looked at me, Colombo?
120 rupees, you pay on the bus.
So I got on, sure to keep my backpack at my feet. But as I looked around, ashamedly, I noticed I was the only white person on the bus. I made a quick, biased decision to exit. I asked the driver how to get to Hikkaduwa from Colombo.
At least two buses, he managed, after continually repeating 120 rupees and showing me the figure on his phone. English was not his strong point, nor was Sinhala mine.
I wandered back to the front of the airport, somehow still determined not to pay the 8,500 rupees. Someone asked for 9,000. I stood my ground.
He came out of nowhere. There he was next to me, excuse me, Miss. Instantly, I turned, to protect my bags.
You want a taxi?
I had begun to just say no because I was tired of the answer. But I asked him how much. Originally he’d said 8,000 but eventually I asked for 6,000 and he’d agreed, as long as I’d paid the highway tolls – 450 and 200 rupees.
Erahnga. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to introduce me to the people of Sri Lanka. As I texted Elaine to say I’d just gotten into a ‘private’ taxi with a Sri Lankan man and this was the number on the sticker in his window, although it would do her no good, my phone died silently. I pretended to be looking at the map that entire car ride, thinking I was fooling him into believing I knew where he was going.
The ride was over two hours. He took me through Colombo, and stopped at a fruit stand to buy me a king coconut and some bitter fruits of which I can’t remember the name. He wouldn’t let me pay for them.
As we finally pulled into the narrow dirty bit of Galle Road that housed my guesthouse and I handed him the final 4,000 rupees (he’d asked for 2,000 to buy petrol), he gave me a card with his name and number scribbled on it.
If you need anything, he’d promised, I’m certified for tourism, I’ll help you with whatever you need.
Although I never saw him again, it’s likely he is the reason that I opened up to the kindness of the Sri Lankan people.
It’s funny how you can be so tainted by the way the world works, that you can constantly question people, wait for the catch. But there wasn’t one, not this time.