At this point, on the road next to the place where the guerrillas and elephants were said to lurk, our vehicle broke down. Then the car was started up again, by a wild-looking mechanic dressed in nothing but a sarong and an explosion of frizzy hair, and the driver started going faster, into the path of oncoming cars, swerving and then veering off at the last minute. “No problem,” he said. “I have never had accident.”
But–I didn’t need to remind him–it didn’t matter if he was a flawless driver himself. If anyone else on the road, many of them driving without licenses, or while drunk, made a mistake, we would be history, and if we hit anyone else, the blame would fall on us. The sensation of rolling and rolling in the car, ever closer to the precipice in Bolivia, came back to me with unwanted intensity.
“You have brothers and sisters ?” I said, to distract myself.
“One sister, sir. But she died, fifteen years old. Driver, too many drinking, hit her on the road.”
Then the car gave out again. Night began to fall over the jungle. The people riding bicycles began to fade away. We were alone in the chattering darkness.
For twenty years now, I’d taken great pains not to visit Sri Lanka, paradisal though it was said to be; it was the one spot in the world where I was directly implicated in a savage revolution. My father was a Tamil, after all, from South India; my name, my very face branded me as a member of the group tearing up the island with terrorist attacks. I’d decided, when I made my plans, that such issues were irrelevant: but now, in the weeks since I’d bought my ticket, new outbursts of violence, on both sides of the war, brought Sri Lanka into the headlines every day. A kind Englishwoman who had invited me to look in on her when I visited Colombo–her life had been changed, she said, after she found herself on holiday in Sri Lanka when the tsunami arrived and decided to abandon her job and work on the paradise island–had come down with dengue fever. Indeed, most of the ambassadorial corps in Colombo was said to have contracted the rare and famously horrible disease.
My first day in the country, two days before, the third highest man in the Sri Lankan army had been picked off by a suicide bomber only minutes away from where I was having breakfast. Only weeks before, six sightseers had been shot dead in a national park, and sixty-four more civilians died when their bus ran over a mine. The Temple of the Tooth, the previous day–the holiest shrine in the country–had been more full of soldiers and of guns than monks.
Now it was pitch-black, and the absence of lights coming from our car matched the absence of lights all around. The leopards, the wild elephants, certainly the guerrillas–all the attributes of what the newspapers called the “teardrop island”–seemed very close indeed. The driver tried to use his cell phone, but all he heard was static.
“You have phone, sir ?” he asked.
“On the far side of the world.”
The trip that followed–a man had emerged out of the darkness from a barn of rusty spare parts and had done something, after an hour of fumbling, to jump-start the car–never happened, I tell myself now. We were able to drive, so long as we never slowed down and didn’t turn our lights on. Through the teeming darkness we careened, like kids on a roller-coaster, into the face of coming trucks, down narrow country roads crowded with bicycles and cows and children walking back from school, around turns, the driver taking both hands off the wheel to demonstrate how he’d slept with the guerrillas, closing his eyes in his delight at his bravery.
Faster and faster, because to slow down meant what sounded to me like death.
The roads grew narrower as we climbed up into the hills around Kandy, the curves grew more frequent. Children, it seemed to me, were everywhere–not least behind the wheel of our car and in the passenger seat. I didn’t travel in search of fear, and yet here I was, still unrecovered from my bloody moment in Bolivia.
By the time–somehow–we got back to the hotel, snakes and precipitous heights seemed very far behind me. I had had enough of the teardrop island, though in fact my trip was just beginning, and I had ten days of driving across it still ahead. I wondered why I travelled to such places, except maybe to take myself through my fears and come out the other end.
And then I thought of the driver, risking his life every day on the same roads that had already claimed his teenage sister. I thought of the man in the rusty garage, surrounded in the dark by guerrillas every night. I thought of the children walking along the roads every day, on their way to school or back again, in between cars that never slowed down and had no headlights on. It didn’t have anything to do with me and my everyday fears, I thought; travel was the only way I knew to find out what life was like for most of the rest of the human race.
More than six billion neighbors in the global village, and for most of them my day of terrors had been just one more day among ten thousand such.