Sri Lanka #2: Driving With Dr. Sus

One of the main differences between India and Sri Lanka, and one of the first things we noticed after arriving here, is how clean Sri Lanka is compared to India. Flying in from somewhere like Singapore, Japan, Canada or most other rich countries you wouldn't think so, but flying in from India (a filthy country with garbage - and cowshit - absolutely everywhere! Though, of course, not in "Delhi Canada") the difference was striking. The main difference is that they have street cleaners here, ironically, I read, imported from India since they can pay them less than locals would work for. Why the Indian government can't also hire some street cleaners (not just for the rich areas) or even put out some garbage cans is a mystery to me. But, if you put out garbage cans then you have to hire people to empty them. Better to just let the cows eat everything - plastic and all! Oh, and for anyone who's mistakenly thinking the Indian government is poor and, therefore, has no money for things like garbage cans or street cleaners, you really should know that India, like China, has a plan to send a mission to the moon in the next few years. Millions illiterate and not attending school; tens of thousands dying each year of treatable diseases; horrible poverty everywhere and they're spending billions of dollars to go to the bloody moon?! Priorities! But, hey, I'm supposed to be writing about Sri Lanka and I was just wanting to say that it's a relatively clean country - but I guess I got a bit carried away. A relatively clean country with some real priorities, that is: free, universal education and medical care. And A Man Named Bunny too!

Thursday July 31st, our third day in the country and the day after we first met Dr. Sus ("Seuss"), was a quiet day. We did little besides having a Van and Beer Party, but what a party it was. No, not that kind of van - we didn't drive around town drinking beer in a van. Much better than that, I'm talking about Van The Man, yes Van Morrison, together with a few Lion Lagers in our "No Liquor Allowed" room at the YMCA. The beer, which I smuggled in from the Cargill's supermarket across the street, was cold and delicious (much better than the beer in India) and Van was sounding great coming out of our little stereo system while, out our window, the sun slowly set behind Colombo's very own "Twin Towers" of the World Trade Center. There are few things like Van at dusk with a beautiful orange sky and some delicious cold smuggled beer. But it wasn't just Van. For 3 hours after the sun had set we enjoyed beer, snacks and lots more music. Finally at around 10PM we pulled ourselves up and went out for some dinner. Never had a Van and Beer Party? Try it sometime. Few things go better together than Van and beer. And that's a fact!

The next morning there was a knock on our door at 9AM and we were informed that "Dr. Susanta is waiting for you downstairs." Two nights earlier when he had dropped us off he'd said he'd take us out sometime, perhaps to the zoo, but we had made no definite plans. Now here he was downstairs at the YMCA saying "Let's have breakfast in the cafeteria here and then we can go back to my place." Well, ok, sure, it sounded great to us. After breakfast and then drinking the juice/water from a couple of "king coconuts" (orange-colored coconuts) out on the street we went with him back to his place. Actually he took us on a tour of more of the city before heading back to his home - a very nice all-wood house with a little garden with its own coconut trees. While he took a shower we watched CNN and drank some milk tea prepared by his maid, a young Tamil woman from the Hill Country. His home is only a couple of hundred meters from a big busy street, but it's perfectly calm, peaceful and quiet there. Not only inside the house, out in the garden as well. He now lives alone there with his eldest daughter and their maid/servant, his wife having died of a stroke just last year. He talks about her quite a lot and, as would be expected, gets a bit choked up at times. He also talks a lot about his younger daughter who has lived in Texas for years now and who has a little 6-year old boy. (That's his family: 2 daughters, aged 27 and 31 and one grandson). He's been to Texas 3 times to see them and he's also traveled to many other countries, at times as a tourist, other times to attend dental conferences. He even visited Tokyo for 3 weeks 2 years ago.

So we had much to talk about and besides hearing all about him, his family and his travels we also learnt a lot about Sri Lanka, its culture, history and his opinions about the war, etc. He definitely likes to talk, but he's by no means a talk-talk-and-never-listen type like we encountered so often while in Nepal and, especially, India. Aside from occasionally having a bit of trouble with his accent (which is particularly hard for Son to understand), he's so easy to talk to and hang out with. He may be 69, and thus nearly double our age, but when we hang out, especially over a few beers and especially with A Man Named Bunny (but I'm getting way ahead of myself again), he seems like a friend from our own generation. Though, of course, very few friends from our generation continuously refer to "the good ol' days."

Dr. Sus not only wanted to show us a good time, he wanted to show us all over the city. And he did! Not just that day, but many other days since. However, before heading out from his place that first day we had to have a shower. Perhaps we smelled, but more likely he simply imagined what the showers were like at the YMCA (Gross! Unless, that is, you like green slimy floors and walls, with a strong stench of urine coming at you from all sides!) and he wanted us to actually feel clean and refreshed after a shower. Either way, he insisted ("Take a shower. No, no take one. Here's a towel") and we both had wonderful green-slime-free showers. And did indeed feel clean and refreshed.

We then embarked on a tour around the whole city of Colombo. First we drove out to the Japanese designed, built and funded Parliament Buildings on a lake on the outskirts of town. They look just like a Japanese temple. We then went for lunch at a fancy Chinese restaurant where we had a wonderfully delicious - and huge - meal together with some more of that Lion Lager. It was definitely our turn to pay, but he simply wouldn't let us no matter how hard we tried. I understand treating guests, as I enjoyed doing the same when I had visitors come stay with me in Japan, but those were friends or family members - Dr. Sus had just met us 2 days before.

After lunch we visited Viharamahadevi Park, formerly known as Victoria Park. It's understandable if they wanted to get rid of the old British colonial name and replace it with something local, but did they really have to choose such a long unpronouncable name for the city's largest park? One solution: Be like Dr. Sus. He simply still calls it "Victoria Park." After a walk around the park we drove to the big Gangaramaya Temple in the Slave Island district of the city, which, incidentally, isn't an island in any way.

There was one aspect of this amazing city-wide tour that was a bit (or sometimes much more than a bit) scary: Dr. Sus' driving. He'd drive so slowly that we'd often have people passing us on both sides - on a 2-lane street! He'd often be talking to us and pointing to or gesturing about something; meanwhile our car was drifting back and forth between lanes. Then there were the roundabouts, which he simply drifted in and out of without really looking at the on-coming traffic, seemingly just hoping the other drivers would give way. It was all a bit frightening, especially considering the two places where his car had been hit in the past. But, to think more positively, his style of driving made for a much more excitement-filled city tour: "Will we crash?", "Will we survive?", "Oh my god, that huge truck is coming right at us!", etc. And "Hey", I said to myself as we entered another roundabout and just narrowly missed being hit by yet another bus, "This somehow must work seeing that he told us he drives every day and he's obviously still alive." As I said before, he's 69 but he seems much younger. This probably has something to do with the fact that during The Good Ol' Days at university he was a member of the school rugby, boxing and swimming teams and after graduating he continued playing sports throughout his life, until his wife got sick. He may seem younger than his 69 years, but his driving feels like that of a 90-year old!

After visiting the temple we drove around town some more and then headed down to Galle Face Green, a small park next to the beach, where we ordered coffees from a vendor and sat together next to the sea talking and watching the kids and parents play in the water, while the sun slowly set over the ocean in front of us. Throughout the afternoon we suggested that he was probably tired and, since we'd already seen a lot already, perhaps he'd like to go home, but he always said, enthusiastically, "No, no" and told us that he felt great. However, after more than an hour sitting there talking he asked if we'd like to go and I thought he was finally a bit wiped out and ready to go home. Wrong! We walked along the beach to Colombo's and Sri Lanka's oldest and possibly most splendid hotel, "The Galle Face Hotel (est. 1864)" where he proceeded to take us inside for a full tour. He simply told them at the front desk that he wanted to show us the hotel and they said sure, probably hoping we were potential customers. Yeah, that'll be the day! Luckily we were still stuffed from our huge lunch because our tour included walking through the all-you-can-eat outdoor banquet next to the sea, which looked and smelled pretty damn good.

After touring the hotel he asked us what we'd like to do next and this time he took our suggestion that maybe after such a long day he was probably tired and should go home to rest before having to work the next morning. He dropped us off outside the YMCA (Everyone sing it: "It's no fun to stay at the Y M C A") exactly 11 and a half hours after he had arrived unexpectedly that morning: 11.5 hours of visiting his home, touring all around the city and enjoying the thrills and excitement of Driving With Dr. Sus.

And so ended our 4th day in Sri Lanka. There's nice, there's really nice, there's unbelievably nice and then there's Dr. Sus. What a man! All you've got to do is just close your eyes, hold on tight, ignore the wild honking of the incoming trucks and buses and enjoy the ride. We never expected this when we thought of "traveling around Sri Lanka", but, hey, it's the unexpected that makes traveling the joy that it is. And the joy was about to get even better.

To be continued...

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Monday, September 29th, 2003