(edited by Kathryn Hummel)
To be having an adventure / is a sign of incompetence.
~ Anne Carson
Gold Coast to Colombo
Just before we get on the plane, my sister Jamie tells us she’s been having panic attacks. She’s studying psychiatry, so her admission feels almost like the start of a bad joke — the dentist with bad breath, the pilot with a fear of heights — but Mum and I aren’t laughing.
Richard is unaffected by Jamie’s news: he plays Solitaire on the iPad for hours and tries to convince the flight attendants to sell him another mini bottle of gin without the tonic (they won’t). I am already furious with him and we haven’t even arrived.
On our connecting flight, we check on Jamie so often I worry we’re making ‘the situation’ worse. ‘I just wish she’d told us before,’ Mum hisses to me, ‘but at least all the hotels have a pool.’ I don’t ask what this has to do with anything. As we land, the man opposite me vomits into a paper bag, like a child.
In Negombo, there are welcome signs everywhere that read Ayubowan!, wishing us a long life. There are people asking for donations for the blind. Mum promises to give them money on the way back, but Richard says, ‘What have the blind ever done for you?’
The humidity is breathtaking. The long freeway into Colombo looks like any old freeway until two tuskless elephants hurtle by on the back of a truck. The sky is grey and low. Their salutation for a long life seems like a sly joke in this traffic. At the hotel our relationship to Richard is difficult to explain to the staff, so he ends up calling us his daughters and Mum his wife. ‘Thanks Dad,’ we say, laughing, although we’re not sure if this is funny either.
We get directions to a place for lunch but we get lost and walk in circles: we hate each other and the holiday already, like a real family. Richard believes he’s God and can stop traffic with one hand. The waiters at the Western-style café avoid taking Mum’s order but call, ‘Sir, Sir’ to Richard across the room. They don’t make eye contact as they bring over the coffees. We discover there is no milk in this country, only UHT, and prepare for two weeks of withdrawal.
On Galle Face Green that evening there is a fair, which makes us kinder to each other. Serpentine kites ripple overhead, green wooden stalls all sell the same fried snacks. The ocean on our right slams against a rock wall. Further on, we see parents and children swimming in their clothes. We watch the sun set from the Galle Face Hotel balcony. I find out that Duke Ellington once stayed here and Mum steals a coaster. Richard gets drunk.
Later, I refuse to get in a tuk-tuk despite the heat. I decide my goal for the next two weeks is not to die.
Colombo to Sigiriya
Mum says, ‘Do you mind if Richard sits up the front girls? He just loves trains’. The parents and children at the back of the carriage are wearing matching t-shirts that read Blessed Family. ‘Just like us,’ I say to Jamie and she pulls a face. Four Sri Lankan girls sit on each other’s laps and shriek for the whole two hours, although at one point they move down near the toilet to sing travel songs. The Blessed Daughter is enchanted by them.
At Kandy Station, a man picks us up in a minivan with maroon velvet seats and no seatbelts. The road to Sigiriya is winding, treacherous. The driver answers his phone every ten minutes. He tells us that eight people a day die in traffic accidents in Sri Lanka: Mum covers her ears and says, ‘La la la’. I close my eyes and use willpower to keep us on the road. Even though I fall asleep we arrive at the hotel without incident.
In the morning, Richard teases the young waiters by mispronouncing their names. We are brought platters of fruit and I discover papaya tastes like vomit. I say ‘thank you’ to the waiters so many times it loses all meaning.
We are up early to climb Sigiriya Rock but we find out that Richard is afraid of heights and has to go back halfway. I am afraid too but I force myself to the top. ‘It’s called flooding,’ my sister says, ‘when you expose yourself completely to the thing you fear.’ This holiday is a test for her, I know; the ultimate exposure therapy. There are stray dogs everywhere, even here, and dog shit too. It’s windy and beautiful. A Japanese tourist takes a photo with Jamie and me like we are celebrities. Mum is worried about Richard so we head back to the hotel and find him three beers deep, playing Solitaire by the pool.
There are lots of Dutch people here and Germans with kids. We’ve read up on colonialism in the Lonely Planet, although I find the radical Buddhists more interesting. No one mentions the civil war in conversation. If there’s still unrest it’s supposed to be in the North, an area we are avoiding.
Richard refuses to come with us on safari that afternoon and Mum is upset he’s not ‘making the most of it’. Jamie almost panics, then doesn’t. Our driver Lakshmidhar picks us up in an open top jeep. He has very dark skin: he might be Tamil. He shakes all our hands to introduce himself and I wonder whether he’s embarrassed to be dealing just with women. On the way he stops unexpectedly at a Ganesha shrine, deposits a coin and says a quick prayer. Mum whispers, ‘Do you think that makes it okay?’
Kaudulla National Park has big open plains like the Serengeti. The elephants keep their babies in the centre, away from the tourists. They have delicate pale-spotted ears and funny knees, like they’re wearing saggy grey suits. One of the matriarchs charges a jeep when it gets too close. Overall, Mum is rapt. We drive around the park for three hours, stopping once so our driver can have a smoke. That night I find a map of red bug bites all over the back of my thighs. I try not to think about malaria.
Sigiriya to Anuradhapura
Richard comes this time, probably to appease Mum. In the ancient city there are hundreds of barefoot pilgrims dressed in white, bearing offerings to a two thousand year old tree. I’m impressed by their devotion but uncomfortable taking photos. Mum gets annoyed: ‘You just need to capture the humanity Jess’. We get lost again in the heat. A tuk-tuk driver picks us up and one of us has to sit on Richard’s lap. Mum faints from the diesel fumes. There is a dagoba that houses the right collarbone of the Buddha, but by the end of the day we’re all too tired to care.
Richard tells us that his young niece has divorced her rich husband. Last year, Ryan fell off a ladder and ended up with a traumatic brain injury. He’d only recently woken up from his coma but Beth had been by his bedside every day. They warned her that he might not be the same person he was before. ‘Basically, he told her that he couldn’t believe he’d ever married her, that he didn’t love her anymore. Even that she was stealing his money. She still loved him but she knew it was over. Even his bastard parents turned against her.’ We all murmur in disbelief. That he could become a totally different person seems both sad and impossible, like grieving for someone who hasn’t died. Jamie offers technical details about how frontal lobe injuries affect our inhibitions and sense of self, but I can see Richard getting more and more miserable and actually feel sorry for him. I hold tight to the seat each time the tuk-tuk teeters around a corner.
Sigiriya to Dambulla
The driver who takes us to the cave temples learnt English from a year of driving taxis. When Richard asks him how old he is he says, ‘Guess,’ and laughs when Richard says fourteen. ‘I am twenty eight sir,’ he says. ‘Well, keep your hands off these two beautiful girls, they’re taken! These three beautiful girls,’ he corrects himself, and Mithra laughs again and shows us a picture of his wife and daughter on his phone. ‘When I was young I thought I’d marry an English girl, but in the end I married a Sri Lankan girl.’ He is the first man to be friendly to us and he uses the indicators. I almost feel safe.
We see the temples. We see a vat of sacred water. We see the decorated feet of a reclining Buddha. A piercing alarm is played to scare off wasps. It pours with rain. At the bottom of the hill is an enormous Golden Buddha with a wasp nest adhered to its cheek like a black tear or a scab. Jamie tells us that you can be deported for having visible tattoos of the gods. ‘Sri Lankans are so religious,’ I say. Mum says, ‘They have so little, but they have their spirituality’. I hope that Mithra doesn’t hear her.
Kandy to Ella
The traffic to Kandy is vile. Jamie almost panics again, then doesn’t. I get my period. We can’t check into our hotel yet so we visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. A toothless man offers to be our guide, but when we refuse he curses us and tells us to go back to Australia. We take off our shoes and the ground burns our feet as we wait in line to pay someone to mind them. Richard somehow encourages another guide with bad breath to follow us around; he repeats himself and asks for too much money. Jamie and I giggle at a misspelled plaque that reads “plomp and glory”. In one room, for some reason, there is a stuffed elephant.
We walk to the markets later without Richard when it cools down. I’m worried about being hit by a car and Jamie berates me for it: ‘Jess, I’m the one with anxiety!’ The trees are full of ravens. A man wraps me in a Kandyan sari the same toxic yellow colour as the sunset but Mum says it’s all polyester so I don’t buy it.
On the morning train to Ella we get seats in second class and spend six hours staring at mountains, tea plantations and other passengers sticking their heads out the windows. On arrival, our hotel balcony has a spectacular view. Rohan, the manager, tells us there should be a waterfall across the valley but it was diverted by mistake into a new tunnel being dug for the train. ‘Do we get a discount then?’ Richard jokes, but Rohan says, ‘Sorry sir,’ as though it’s his fault.
We want to climb the mountain but Richard doesn’t. We assume he’s going to get drunk in the hotel again but Mum doesn’t say anything. Outside, we get lost immediately. Guides keep popping out of the bushes to tell us we’re going the wrong way but they know the right way and will show us, for a fee. We ignore them and make our own way up following Mum’s mud map. There are four beautiful Moroccan girls at the top who sit right on the cliff edge. We take their picture. I wonder how many people fall off this mountain every year.
It is Jamie’s last day. She is flying back early for uni and Mum takes her in a taxi to Negombo. Mum will meet us at the beach tomorrow, so I spend the whole day with Richard. Neither of us wants to visit a tea factory so we have lunch in Ella on Rohan’s recommendation. It is a Western restaurant, which is lucky because so far Richard doesn’t like Sri Lankan food. ‘I’m getting rice fatigue!’ he announces. He drinks a rum and coke with extra rum, then gets a massage. I sit alone in my hotel room for hours. Without Mum around, the link between Richard and me is tenuous at best: we’re basically strangers and the holiday has thrown this into sharp relief. Later, we share an awkward dinner at the hotel, like a couple, and the waiter gives our piece of uneaten curried chicken to the hotel dog.
Ella to Tangalle
I can’t think of anything to say to Richard during our three hour taxi ride to Tangalle, so I just sleep. He and the driver take turns naming different cricketers; Richard keeps mispronouncing ‘Muralitharan’. At the hotel there is some confusion as the booking is under Mum’s name and they think Richard and I are husband and wife. ‘No, no, Trish is my wife. Jess is my daughter,’ he explains. The lie makes me flinch. When Mum shows up she is haggard from her own long drive from Negombo, and Richard laughs as he recounts our arrival: ‘They must have thought I was some dirty old man with his young floozy!’
This is because the resort is filled with couples. We are the only family. The beach is too rough and dangerous so I swim in the pool and don’t talk to anyone. There is a lone woman who walks around the hotel cooing to her pet pigeon. She’s not Sri Lankan but she has an unplaceable accent and a shaved head. We find out later she’s the chef. ‘I hope she washes her hands,’ whispers Mum. ‘I don’t want to get bird flu or something.’
That night we go turtle watching and Mum pressures Richard into coming. ‘It’s an adventure,’ she says. I don’t know why she bothers. Our tuk-tuk makes it down the pot-holed track from the hotel, but breaks down on the main road. We stand in drizzling rain waiting for the driver’s uncle to show. Half an hour later, we arrive at Ranna Beach. There’s already a quiet group of tourists waiting for one of the tour guides to spot a turtle and lead us to it. Eventually we’re motioned down to the water. The sand is grey, the waves thunderous, the sky clouded over. It feels magical and wild, like an experience we’ll never have again. We have to wait for the turtle to finish digging its nest before we can approach it. It digs for a long time. We run out of patience and sit down in the sand. Everyone opens their umbrellas. Richard is pissed off and says in a stage whisper, ‘Can the little fucker hurry up already? Does it need some help? I’ll show you how to dig a fuckin’ hole, mate’. We collapse in embarrassed giggles. It gets cold, the turtle moves to another spot and keeps digging. We wait and wait. She finally gives up on laying her eggs and starts pulling herself back to the ocean. The crowd follows a step behind her taking pictures like they’re the paparazzi. The whole situation is absurd.
Tangalle to Galle
It keeps raining. Mum is nervous because I’m the only one without a seatbelt. ‘There was a bus crash yesterday on the road to Ella. Twenty six dead. That could have been you!’ she says. The traffic begins to thicken at the bottom of the mountain until it is at a standstill. Horns blast. There are people everywhere. I think I hear sirens. Policemen in khaki wade through the traffic, gesturing at the drivers. Cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks execute complicated turning manoeuvres and we painstakingly do the same. Mum taps the driver on the shoulder. ‘What’s going on?’ she says. ‘Accident, madam,’ is all the information we get.
In Galle, Richard refuses to eat roti or curry for lunch. I am sick of him, sick of the heat and walk off into the street. Mum follows. I want to ask how she stands him but say nothing. When we reach the fort wall, all she says is, ‘He’s missing all this history! We’re standing where the Dutch and Portuguese stood hundreds of years ago’. I snap, ‘We went to a two thousand year old temple last week, Mum’. When we find Richard again, he is already drunk. Only two days left, I tell myself.
Galle to Colombo
At the station, Richard almost gets on the wrong train. Mum panics until we see him waving from third class. None of us get a seat and are crammed in with our suitcases. ‘Cattle class,’ says Mum. We both want to kill him. The train fills up the closer we get to Colombo. A woman rests her whole body weight against me for the last hour.
The new hotel is stark white and spotlessly clean. I look around for somewhere to plug in my phone charger, but all the power points are the wrong size. I end up pushing it into the one in the bathroom; there is a sharp crack and all the lights go out. Mum rushes in. ‘What did you do?’ I pull the charger from the wall; it is black on the inside and smells like burnt plastic. ‘Jesus Christ, Jess,’ says Mum, ‘lucky this exploded and not you.’ I’m shaking. The holiday is finally over and I almost killed myself. I feel weak and stupid. The air con is out now so we sweat our way through the last long night.
Negombo to Gold Coast
Mum turns to me at the airport. ‘So, what did you think of Sri Lanka?’ As though it was a movie or a play we’d just finished watching. I’m stumped; I want to tell her it was fantastic, that it changed me, that it was worth it. I want to tell her, ‘Richard ruined everything.’ Instead I say, ‘It was poorer than I thought. Hot. Very religious’. My answer is inadequate and she laughs in a strained way. ‘We’ll look back on it in two weeks and think it was a great adventure,’ she says. ‘Won’t we?’
Emily Riches is a writer from the Northern Rivers, currently living in Sydney. She won the Monash Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize in 2014, and has since been published in Seizure Online, The World to Come (Spineless Wonders), the Newcastle Short Story Award Anthology (2016) and Southerly. In 2016 she was shortlisted for the VU Short Story Prize.