Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Last Shuttle Out

 "Attention in the building!  Attention on the compound!  This is the security guard! There is a large gathering of protestors in front of the building!  Both north and south gates are currently closed!"

The noise starts on the periphery of your awareness, like a tiny thread wiggling in the back of your brain.  You hardly know it's there at all at first.  Like background or elevator music.  Once you notice it, however, you can't not listen anymore.  The music swells, growing in intensity until it becomes a crescendo of cars honking and Sinhalese chants strained through megaphones.  Before you know, the sounds of protest infiltrate your office until those, too, become somewhat routine.  Again, background noise.  I have to work through those now, too?  Just one more distraction.  Announcements like this one come over the loudspeakers at my office on a more or less daily basis for the last week or so. 

The Sri Lankan staff rush to the front window to investigate.  You can't see anything over the wall, but you hear them as they go by -- our office building isn't there destination.  I grab my running shoes and clothes and head down to the gym for a run on the treadmill.  It's close to lunch time, and the appointed hour for cardiovascular escape.  Recently, the power outages have been shutting down the treadmill mid-workout and I get thrown forward in the dark before the generator kicks in and power restored.  

When I return to my office an hour later, I check my work phone.  A string of WhatsApp messages rolls past my eyes.  I flick through them quickly with my thumb.  The Prime Minister resigned.  Wait, no he didn't.  That's just a rumor.  No, it isn't.  He really did resign.  Or did he?  Pro-government supporters attack anti-government protestors in front of Temple Trees, a non-descript compound next to a Chinese take-out place and behind one watchtower with a policeman resting his cheek on the palm of his hands, his khaki cap crooked, and his eyes fighting sleep under the oppressive tropical humidity. The crowd makes its way from Temple Trees to GotaGoGama where the police use this cover to dismantle the tent city, fire water cannons and tear gas into crowds.  

And all hell breaks loose. 

At this point, school is about to let out.  Only the road to the school is barricaded and one of the apartment buildings where many kids live is now completely enveloped in pandemonium.  In the span of less than five minutes:  the kids will leave school one hour late at 4:30 and go directly to the recreation center, the kids will spend the night at the school, the kids will stay until 7 or 8:00 at night then reassess, and back to the kids will leave school one hour late, full circle.  Somehow, Peter calls me from a teacher's cell phone to ask why they haven't left school yet.  He seems in good spirits.  Perhaps, putting on a bit of a show for his friends.  He tells me in no uncertain terms he doesn't want to spend the night at school, "This place is a dump."  Yep, putting on appearances. 

The front gates are still blocked.  Firecrackers pop outside.  Eyebrows raise.  Heads cock to one side to decipher the sound.  Firecrackers, right?  Not gunfire.  A chorus of cheers follows the staccato tak-tak-tak-tak. We make plans to evacuate the building mid-afternoon, going through a construction site, out a rear gate, to where a van will pick us up.  Thoughts to ride my bike home are instantly dispelled by a breaking news feed of rioters in the street toppling buses and setting them ablaze.  A crowd of 20 huddle around my office door.  Somehow, my office became the epicenter of activity.  Everyone stares into a cellphone or furiously taps on its screen with their thumbs, the electronic light reflected on faces fraught with worry and eyeglass lenses.  

Live reports pour in.  The kids are leaving the gym.  They're boarding the buses.  The buses (a convoy of three) has pulled out of the school.  I relay the same information to Elise.  She'll walk from our house to the recreation center to pick up the kids, a short three-block jaunt, armed with a bamboo stick and bags of chips for starving schoolchildren.  She reports traffic getting out of the city is a nightmare.  Traffic signals are out, swaying blind from their wires.  Traffic cops have abandoned their posts.  Cars are driving up on sidewalks, across medians.  People hop out of their cars and start directing traffic themselves.   

When it's time for us to leave the building, I quickly throw my things into my backpack and sling it over my shoulder.  We rendezvous at the front of the building, make our way to the chain link fence, and slide through one by one.  We enter the construction site next door and into a brand new building.  Our dress shoes clop across new, but dusty, tiles.  Doors click open.  The path through the buildings is labyrinthine.  We would easily get lost if not for the security guards posted conveniently at corners, point us right, then left, through doors, down stairs, until we make it to the basement, down the hall, and out the back door. 

Meanwhile, Elise is corralling kids at the recreation center, doling out snacks and making sure all the kids have places to go.  Clementine was the first one off the first bus and runs at Elise, arms outstretched.  Shaken, but otherwise all right. 

We slip out the back gate to a road facing a rough and angry ocean, as though channeling the emotion of the city.  Wind whips dresses.  We clutch our notebooks a little tighter and shade our eyes against the sunset bouncing off the waves.  There are about 30 of us boarding a coaster bus built for half that number.  We make it work.  The last shuttle out. 

The shuttle, too, starts heading toward the recreation center on the opposite side of town.  Traffic is leery, tentative, confused, almost.  Tuk-tuks wobble between lanes more than usual, also nervous.  Black flags hang out car windows, flapping in the late afternoon -- almost evening, now -- sun.  There is a car honk now associated with the movement, two short blasts of the horn, to which the response from other cars is three in return, meant to mimic the caw of a crow.  The story goes the previous finance minister misinterpreted the word for 'crow' as 'airplane' in a media interview.  The protest took up the faux pas -- the finance minister unwittingly played right into their hands -- and adopted the crow as a symbol of their movement, because it takes things and likes shiny objects (both jabs at corrupt politicians).  Now, papier-mâché crows are seen on floats in marches. 

Young men in motorcycle helmets drift into the street like vessels blown off course.  They wear motorcycle helmets against the tear gas.  A bearded Sri Lankan in a denim vest and red, white, and blue (appropriately enough) motorcycle helmet waves our shuttle down.  The driver slows, then stops.  We yell at him to continue.  "Don't stop!  Keep going!"  Protestors gravitate toward the stopped bus and slap the palms of their hands against the windows.  We wave him on.  I tap on his shoulder, "Don't stop again." 

As the bus moves forward, I glance up.  A swell of humanity crests before us as though the street were lifting from the ground.  The intersection is blocked.  Protestors are surrounding cars and buses, waving Sri Lankan flags in the air.

"Turn around."

"It's a one-way street."

"Turn the bus around." 

The driver does a U-turn in the middle of the run, blocking it momentarily, before skirting the curb against a gradually slowing column of vehicles.  We dart down a side street, splash through puddles.  It starts raining.  Long, Coaster van wipers struggle to cross the windshield. 

As soon as we get off the main roads, it is immediately quieter, a hush fallen over the city as it empties, curfew in place.  The rest of the drive is quiet, uneventful.  My coworkers chat behind me, laugh, tell stories, try to figure out where they're going to spend the night.  The long, Coaster van wipers squeak before my eyes.

When we reach the recreation center, the bus empties.  We stand in the blue light of dusk, some wondering what to do next.  I receive final instructions from my boss, then head out into the twilight, home. 


Thursday, April 28, 2022

Under the Stars


Sunday, April 24, 2022


The protests and demonstrations have swollen and ebbed. For the moment. In outrage over a hike in gas prices, a crowd in Rambukkana set tuk-tuks and tires ablaze. When they turned their sights towards a fuel-filled bowser, the police dispersed the crowd with live rounds leaving many injured and one dead, not the first -- but hopefully the last -- death of the current crisis. 

It's been quieter since in what has become a war of attrition. A trickle of diesel shortened queues at service stations for a day or two and, perhaps, mollified the populace for the time being. Yesterday morning, I ran down to the tent city, dubbed "GotaGoGama" (the president's name is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and "gama" is "village" in Sinhala). It was serene, devoid of the usual raucous crowds, though there were more than the usual number of youth in black t-shirts milling directionless about, almost as if in a haze. Banners and flags flapped in the light breeze coming off the Indian Ocean. I was impressed to see medical tents, the Red Cross, and water stations set up throughout the village. 

Most Sri Lankans I talk to never fail to mention the crisis has brought Sri Lankans together.  Most any narrative on Sri Lanka references the bloody 26-year civil war and the deep ethnocommunal divisions. And yet, the people have come together. 

We try to maintain some semblance of normalcy around the house. For two years, every decision was predicated upon whether it was safe enough to do a certain thing because of the coronavirus.  Now, every decision is predicated upon whether we have enough petrol. Plus, a weekly -- if not daily -- hunt for provisions, milk, butter, eggs. Frankly,  it's exhausting. 

This week, it looks like we'll make it to the end of the school year. Two more months. We'll see what next week brings. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Return to Dodge

We reluctantly, yet inexorably, pulled through the giant wooden gates protecting the peace and solace of Uga Bay from the outside world. The long stretch of road running the length of Pasikudah Bay, dotted with seaside resorts, was deserted. A plastic purple ice cream cone teased from across the street, standing crooked in front of a hut with its metal rolling door closed.

Greeting reality was like a splash of cold water to the face; on the east coast of the island, economic calamity was quiet. We drove near the town of Batticaloa in search of petrol before turning inland toward our next destination, Ella in the island's mountainous interior. A length of rope strung across the drive of the first gas station we came to. Orange traffic cones blocked the entrance to the second. A man sitting on the black and white striped bollard in front of the inert gas pump returned our questioning look with an upturned, empty palm. 

The drive inland was surprisingly peaceful. The road less crowded than normal. Either due to the lack of available fuel or the long holiday. Perhaps, some combination of the two. The landscape gradually rose. Wide expanses of scrub suitable for roaming cattle gradually gave way to low hills and islands of palmettos. The two lane road became more sinuous. Jungle palms crowded the asphalt, edging out the long plain of the east coast. 

We eventually found an open gas station and waited 45 minutes for 5,000 rupees, or about 11 liters, of petrol. I asked for more, but was told that was all I could have. I wasn't in a position to argue, as 30 men on motorcycles stared me down from beneath their helmets with yellowed, hallow, hungry eyes beneath, another 30 with gas canisters crammed in behind them. They carried two liter soda bottles and milk jugs. They would fill their baby's bottle with petrol if they could, and the pump attendant would dispense petrol into your uplifted palms for a 500 rupee "tip". It was enough to get me to 3/4 of a tank which would get us to Ella.

As we neared the last turn to Amba, the tea estate where we stay, the sky darkened, lightning flashed, and fat raindrops splattered the windshield. Soon, the skies opened up, and we rushed up the mountainside against a torrent of rushing water. We made it a kilometer from the main road before meeting a wall of water gushing across the road as though freed from a fire hydrant. The road had been washed away. We parked behind a tuk-tuk, idling alongside the newly-created riverbank. Two motorcycles stared us down from the opposite bank, their cyclopean headlamps barely cutting through the rain. One of motorcyclists braved the raging water once. Then, twice, rainwater running over his blue jeans and up to his knees. Eventually, the rain slowed to a drizzle, and the water slowed. First, the motorcycle crossed. Then, after some times, the tuk-tuk, too, before we were confident enough to attempt our own crossing. 

The next three days were restorative. Clove Tree Cottage is perched on the edge of a valley overlooking tea plantations. Across the lush green valley, Ella Rock guards the north end of the valley, a stone protuberance jutting into the sky. Opposite Ella Rock stands Eagle Rock. Over breakfast of toast and mango-ginger jam, one can watch the clouds roll over the face of Eagle Rock. Later in the day, as thunder rumbles ominously at one of the valley, and curtains of rain hide Ella Rock from view, a rainbow leapt over Eagle Rock. 

Peter and I climbed Eagle Rock with his friend and his father. Then, when we reached the bottom, immediately set down the trail leading to the slot cave, a narrow passage between one rock leaned against another, eerily reminiscent of the wadis in Jordan. The city is harsh and not conducive to outside play. When the kids get too loud, we aren't able to banish them to the yard. Ella was the panacea all had been seeking, a curing tonic. The kids ran away from themselves, chased by a more fearful version of themselves, wild, care abandoned. Yes, they mainly ran through the knee-high grass to escape leeches, but they also shed the shackles of school and the constraints of the city, the wind whipping their hair, splashing in cool mountain watering holes, and petting the farm's menagerie of cats and dogs. 

We finally had to leave Ella on a Friday with but a half a tank of gas. We heard reports the service station on the highway was empty the day before. We decided to pull off the freeway outside of Mattara and join a queue of cars easily more than a kilometer or more long. We waited two hours and 15 minutes. Fortunately, the queue stretched past a small supermarket where we could all go to the bathroom and Elise could buy crackers and processed cheese wedges to tide us over. 

The protestors in Colombo have erected a tent city near the President's palace. Last night, the streets were full and the green clogged by the demonstrations. It remains to very seen what the police will do to break ot up by Monday morning, the end of the long Tamil and Sinhala New Year week. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Get Out of Dodge

It was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time, really. I accidentally found myself in the middle of a protest.

I was riding my bike home from work. Galle Road converges in front of Kolpetty Market, two rivers of vehicles flowing together at the muddy confluence, and every car coming from the right wants to go left, and every car from the left wants to go right. It sounds crazy, but the safest path is to ride right in the middle of all five lanes. Sometimes, the calmest path through the rapids is right down the middle of the river. Plus, I'm as fast (or faster) as anything on the road anyway.

I weave between buses and tuk-tuks. Traffic crosses in front of me, first from the left, then from the right, like a video game, until I'm face to face with a drab khaki-donned policeman standing in the middle of the street. The first thing I see is the white of his outspread glove. I slam on the brakes. The second thing I see is the crowd of protesters on the curb in front of Liberty Plaza. Shit.

The demonstrations have been and continue to be peaceful. I had nothing, really, to he afraid of and I wasn't scared, per se. I knew they weren't mad at me. I didn't do anything. I didn't have a hand in causing their country to crumble around them. But it is crumbling. Around all of us. A natural disaster or pandemic knows no sides. No difference between castes, creed, or class. They take down all equally.  That's perhaps putting too fine a point on it. It's more nuanced than that, but when the bricks fall, they will strike you or me or the protestors with equal force. I think that is the reality Sri Lanka is waking up to.

The country has a long history with trauma. All you have to do is reference the 26-year civil war. But what we are seeing, and what people are discovering, is the ethnocommunal lines are blurring. And the country, perhaps, isn't as divided as many were led to believe. Myself included. 

The old are joining the young. The salaried, middle class stands with the daily wage worker. Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslims line up shoulder to shoulder. The protestors carry dates with them for Muslims when they break their fast and bottled water for the police.

The crowd wrapped black bandanas around their head and waved placards on the air. They shouted a few feet from me. I turned the other way and mentally begged the traffic cop to do the same so I could bolt past him. I doubt the protestors even saw me, but I could feel their anger rippling off them like the waves of heat coming off hot asphalt.

We left Colombo Saturday morning.  It's the kids' spring break. We rolled the dice and drove to the other side of the island, hoping we could find enough petrol to get us back. That morning planned protests were to bring 100,000 to central Colombo, and though we fled in the opposite direction, we hoped to beat the rush. The crowds were smaller than predicted, but trucks with water cannons guarded like ready sentinels and antenna looked like the vames used by Tatooine moisture farmers scrambled social media and kept bloggers from livestreaming the crowd.

We are fortunate and found solace. For now. We will have to go back to Colombo eventually, and like everyone else wondering what we will find when we get there. 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

The Not-So-Calm Before the Storm

We came home after the Easter party, stopping for gas on the way. We got a hot tip there was no wait at the LIOC station on the way out to school. Sam watched "Friends" and cooled off after a morning spent in a fur bunny suit. Peter did French homework,  Clementine and I watched "Night at the Museum" (again). 

At some point in the movie -- when Ben Stiller is trying to tame all the creatures and historical persona that come alive in the museum at night -- the president announced a curfew from tonight until Monday morning, an effort to silence a protest planned for tomorrow morning.  We grabbed our scooters, bikes, and skateboards and hit the streets.  

We walked to the end of the block while Peter rode his bike, Clem on her scooter, and Sam on his skateboard as people closed shop and rushed home. A gardener, seemingly oblivious to current events, diligently went about his business trimming the hedge outside a high-end hotel. A couple of young Sri Lankans came at his heading toward the heart of where the protest would originate, carrying a sign that read, "Evil will prevail, if good men don't stand up."

At 6:00, the hour the curfew went into effect, firecrackers erupted outside. We remain unsure what they portend.