My train journey continued through tea country. The terraces weren’t nearly as wet as the rice paddies in Southeast Asia but their structure was similar. As a Midwestern boy used to corn and soybeans, the overlaying latticework of crops contrasted heavily with the table-top farms of southern Indiana.
Due to both the landscape and the nature of the tea bushes, it is difficult or impossible to mechanize the harvest. Instead, groups of women with bags strapped to their foreheads pick the tea by hand. The man there to supervise them emanated overtones of plantation slavery. I’m not sure if he deserves that reaction or not. That’s one of the difficulties traveling to new cultures. Moral navigation can be tricky.
I finally arrived in Ella. It was gorgeous and soothing, but also the definition of how the journey is frequently more important than the destination. It’s a small town nestled in the lowlands. I mostly remember my late night walks on the dirt roads. The jungle sounds were the soundtrack in my mosquito-netted bed. The next day I went to see a waterfall a short tuk tuk ride away. Its beauty gave me pause and contrasted with the urban and urbane landscape I was used to in Singapore. The simplicity of flowing water made me happy.
From here I went down to Yala National Park on the southern coast to go on safari. I stayed in a tent, but a fancy one with a shower and 300-thread-count sheets. As I’ve aged I’ve graduated to more luxurious settings.
The park is quite arid and reminded me of Arizona. Craggy rocks, brush–an earthy moonscape with sparse greenery. Think tumbleweeds. The elephant skull that greeted me was a great example of why Ancient Greeks believed in cyclopes.
We drove through the park in a Jeep. I soaked in the terrain and encountered water buffalo, elephants, meter-long monitor lizards and troops of monkeys playfully gathering fruit. We soon were clogged in a traffic jam of fellow visitors. A leopard was resting in the shade and everyone was desperate for a glance. She was about 500 yards away, visible with our guide’s binoculars, but not with my camera, sadly.
The park borders the ocean. I do like fishermen and boats. I don’t know why. I don’t like being on the water. Flimsy wooden vessels with old engines popping oil as they chugged along. Honest folk doing honest work to provide for their families. Teaching English in Korea, I viewed my work as being very supplementary. It’s humbling to watch people do something so essential. It reminds me that mine is a life of luxury, and how almost everyone in the world has it worse off than I do. It reinforces why I refuse to complain until bone pierces skin.
On our way, elephants blocked the path. This is perhaps the best reason to have to stop your vehicle. The people in the Jeep ahead of us were idiots–they had left a bunch of mangos out in their open cab and agile trunks were being forcefully frisky about obtaining them. A backpack was ripped from the vehicle by the tremendous animal.
After my stay at the park, I continued clockwise around the coast to Galle–a 16th century Portuguese fortification. It is very reminiscent of Spanish forts in Florida. I briefly met up with my coworker here for dinner on a chance encounter. We had pasta.
Galle was very dreamlike. I knew I was in Sri Lanka but it felt so European. I felt the same way in Montreal when my brain thought I was in Paris. You have to jolt yourself into understanding reality. It’s like when your eyes and inner ear don’t agree and you get dizzy–it was difficult for Evan in Wonderland to parse out the alien familiarity of his surroundings. He walked around the stone walls calmly, tired after traveling for a week straight. Surrounded by an eerie silence, Evan was able to absorb vibrations you otherwise ignore.
He loved the fortifications. How the earthworks strengthened the short, fat stone walls. Being alone gave him time to think about how fort design changed as offensive technology advanced. High walls keep out foot soldiers. Cannon destroy high walls. Fat walls stop cannon. Foot soldiers storm low walls. And so on. An endless game of paper, rock, scissors.
He walked by a schoolyard where some boys were playing cricket. Someone overthrew the ball and it bounced higgeldy-piggeldy on the cobblestone. Athletically scooping it up, Evan relayed it back onto the pitch. He assumed they were astounded by his ability.
I woke up with a pleasant calm. As perfect as it was, I knew my trip was over and it was time to go home. I took a train up the southwest coast back to the airport in Colombo. One was wiped out here on the same route in the 2004 tsunami. About 1700 people died upon derailment, the deadliest train accident in history. Apparently the waves were ten feet over the top of the train car. They all drowned.
Three months after this trip, my coworker and infrequent travel partner–through friends of friends–became acquainted with my then-girlfriend. My ex thought that I had been cheating. The flint needed to ignite our inevitable downfall was sparked.
I was wholly innocent of cheating on her, but I did make the mistake of not being candid with her, and many others to boot. Our loose knot, tied with frayed rope, was too fragile for any further stress. I thought that my lie-by-omission wasn’t so bad and that it could save us, even if only for a stupid short while.
We treaded water in choppy waves for the next few months before getting too much in our lungs. My bad judgment finished the trick that so many nasty nights and thrown knives couldn’t. Knowing that this trip was the final strain is harsh and biting.
Looking back, we were both the problem. I’m not trying to throw her under the bus–if anything I was the biggest obstacle to our solvency. But it was like being bound by superglue–we had to sacrifice a layer of flesh to separate from one another.
Adventures are such for a reason. Their nature involves severing ties to the familiar and the comfortable, all in order to grasp at something new.
I finally was able to tick off another box that I had squared as a child. I will never be able to divorce this trip from the dissolution of something that singular, but time has worn away that coarse stone. It’s been polished into an irregular, yet beautiful obloid of a memory.
Everything condensed into a teardrop.