Today, while the rest of the students accompanied our professor to look at some famous Sri Lankan architect’s work, three of us took the train a short way to Colombo. We had been emphatically warned against going, on account of the fact that there is currently a civil war of sorts going on in this country between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. It is very complicated. And tomorrow is Sri Lankan independence day, where there will be huge parades in the capital city celebrating 60 years of sovereignty from the British. Violence is expected, in the form of Tamil Tiger bombings.
I lead the charge of rebels, in spite of a Sri Lankan friend warning me yesterday not to go to the ‘Fort’ in Columbo. He was certain that it would be fine elsewhere, but that this particular place was unsafe. I don't even know where the "Fort" is. Oh, how we laugh when the ticket master at the railway station hands over our tickets, which clearly read: Columbo Fort. Like moths to a flame, we have gravitated straight to the epicenter of danger.
As we wander by foot, we are approached by a seemingly endless number of Sri Lankan men, armed with a smattering of barely-intelligible English, all eager to ‘help’ us out in some way, the generic, “My friend, let me show you a good place for to shopping” routine. My companions are a still a little wet behind the ears, and unfamiliar with the hustle that naturally accompanies the white visitor to a brown country. I take a step back, and allow us to be led by a particularly ‘helpful’ guy to a sari shop, where I must admit~we get some pretty good deals on a couple of gorgeous saris.
We finally shake our helpful guide, who seems disappointed with the generous tip that we gave him, after much bellyaching about how much help he provided us. We gave him $5 dollars, in a country where a meal too large to eat in one sitting costs 50 cents.
Free at last to wander, we buy fruit from a dense vegetable market, the ripe, oily smell of dried and spoilt fish hanging heavy in the stagnant air. A soccer stadium provides myself and lady friend Ashley a respite from the sweltering heat and sun. I slice chunks off a fat, salmon-fleshed papaya, and we eat them, drenched in lime juice, right off the knife’s blade--while watching our companion, Josh, playing a friendly game of soccer with the locals.
As we seek out an ATM, broke from our sari shopping and visit to the tailor to fit us with choris (the sari blouses), a thunderous -BOOM- split the nearby air. I feel it in my feet, through my shoes. “Josh. That was a bomb, it had to be. Nothing else would do that.” I am vaguely concerned, but choose to focus instead on extracting funds from the ATM, which proves uncooperative. When I emerge from the bank booth, Josh is wild-eyed, and a tone of panic underlays his normally cavalier tone, “Francesca, everyone is running, people keep telling me we need to leave.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine. They just don’t want us to be freaked out, since we’re foreigners.”
He seems unconvinced, as we trace a funny, winding path through the streets, in search of another bank machine. Shopkeepers are pulling their roll-doors shut, street vendors are packing up their wares, and the streets are suddenly swarming with military personnel.
Ashley turns ashen, her fists clenched tightly, knuckles bone-white. “Everyone is closing, everyone is leaving. What do we do? What do we do?!”
My calm is still intact. “I’m sure they’re just closing for midday. It’s hot, shop keepers always close up midday in this sort of climate.”
We take our money from a bank machine and head back to the tailor. We are two hours ahead of schedule, but my companions are desperately ready to head back. We note, at one point, that we are walking in the opposite direction of everyone else, three glowing, white pearls trickling against the steady flow of mahogany bodies.
A tall, studious-looking young man walks up to us and says, “There has been a bomb, at the station, you should leave Columbo, it is very dangerous.”
The tailor asks us to return in an hour and a half. My companions are actually beginning to look very afraid. We grab a tuk-tuk (awesomely noisy, 3-wheeled taxi ubiquitous to SE Asia) and I ask for him to take us somewhere where we can get a beer. As we navigate the streets, it is impossible not to notice that the same city streets that had previously been a colorful, mad melee are now magically transformed into a tense, sparse ghost town. Military barricades have been erected hither and thither, and all of the streets that were 2-way thoroughfares have been converted to one-way escape routes.
Our little corner of Colombo is no longer a vibrant, functional body. It is vomiting everything, everyone, out of the vicinity of the violence.
We are delivered to a hotel where a Japanese man and a hotel clerk sit glued to a TV screen. We sit beside them, and watch the *Breaking News* footage of the bomb blast. We had assumed that the blast was at the market, near the bus stand, or at the bus station, as much of the rebel violence is centered around the busses. Nope. The Colombo Fort train station, where we had landed only hours earlier, had suffered a serious bombing. A shaky hand-camera relays footage of the the floor and pillars of the station, splattered with the blood of innocent civilians, their broken sandals and bags of vegetables strewn about~ a tragic end to many a benign trip to the market. People died, just now, right there. I felt the shock of it in my feet. We were that close.
For the first time, I feel uneasy, and a little sick to my stomach.
I brought these people here, my friends, on the brash assumption that our professor (who is a native of Colombo) was simply being paranoid when we forbade us to go into town this weekend. They trusted my authority as a seasoned traveler who refuses to worry about anything.
We sit, sipping our beers, ordering another, and another, until they go to work on the frayed nerves and disbelief, lulling everyone into a softly alcoholic sense of reassurance. The main problem now is that the trains are not running, and we have to find an alternate form of transport to Moratuwa, the township where we are staying.
We take a harrowing tuk-tuk ride back to the tailor, where we catch them just as they are closing up shop. The streets are now entirely empty, save for men and women in military dress, many with their enormous guns slung over their shoulders. On the long, and comparatively expensive (15 dollars as opposed to 30 cents by train) tuk-tuk ride back to Moratuwa, we vow to not tell our professor, or anyone in our group, where we had gone. This is the sort of lie that protects everyone from a truth none of us want to consider:
Like bad soldiers, we disobeyed orders, and were rewarded with the realization that sometimes orders make sense. We were wrong, and the authority figure of this trip was right. We risked our lives to sight-see and go shopping.
In spite of it all, I must report that I was strangely unafraid throughout the entire ordeal, leading me to believe that I am at least part-robot. Maybe I should be a war-correspondent, as my temperament seems to be rather well-geared for it.
Nevertheless, I won’t be playing around in the war zone so carelessly again. Some wake-up calls are louder than others, and this one is still reverberating beneath my skin.
I count my blessings, once more, as always.
Even paradise is haunted by the promise of violence, the lions & tigers & bears of jungles and forests. Here, it just happens to be Tigers, with a capital T.