"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.
"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.