click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY
  • Photo by leslie anthony

After returning from a four-month Asian sojourn, friends naturally had questions: Best place? Best food? Craziest story? All difficult to answer, but for the latter, one came to mind.

It began in Debarawewa, Sri Lanka, where after a morning safari in nearby Yala National Park, we retrieved our packs and lit out for Saraii Village, a tree-house hotel we knew to be located some eight kilometres west. On the drizzly main street, dodging phalanxes of uniformed schoolgirls, a wild-eyed old man piloting a swerving tuktuk honked and called out to us. I raised my hand in response and he pulled over.

"How much to Saraii Village?" I asked. With a blank smile I mistook to be a glimmer of recognition, he held up two fingers and said, "Three."

"Two hundred rupees?" I countered, hoping he understood. A head waggle suggested we were on.

Stuffing baggage and bodies in we first zipped past a line of lounging tuktuk drivers who, in a recognition lost on us, audibly cursed the old man. Tossing an emphatic "Haha!" over his shoulder he stepped on the gas like he was driving a getaway vehicle, wheeling through a roundabout fully leaned over onto two of three tires. As we headed east back toward Yala, however, I realized it couldn't be right.

"Saraii Village?" I prodded.

With a banshee laugh he stopped to ask at a welding shop. After much mumbling, head shaking — and occasional concerned glances our way — the annoyed welders sent him packing. Pressing on in the wrong direction, the old man's head swiveled constantly, his nose pointing to buildings, hoping to passively divine where it is we wanted to go, all the while cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. Though enjoying the absurdity, we nevertheless had to halt the farce to sort it out; pulling over at a restaurant we showed the staff an address on a smartphone. No one had heard of Saraii but they recognized other names.

"Ah, Weerawila!" said a cockeyed man with coke-bottle glasses to the bewildered driver, "Do you know where that is?"

Negative head waggle. Much pointing. As our faces all came together over the phone I registered the strong smell of alcohol from the driver...

Though it was established we had to reverse course, we oddly kept on toward Yala, the driver chortling and making odd hand motions. Ah: we had to gas up, it seemed. In a large service station with a half-dozen empty pumps the old man offered a handful of crumpled bills only to be pointed across the road to a disorderly crowd of scooters and tuktuks jockeying at a single pump manned by a laconic attendant gripping a wad of bills. Though it appeared our driver had never done this before, he clearly relished the adventure of a half-hour spent fighting in the Darwinian fray for $1.20 worth of petrol, talking to everyone around him to no effect while renewed rain dripped onto our legs from the tuktuk's roof.

Leaving, we retraced our route, re-passing the tuktuk lineup at which the man laughed even more defiantly, and on down the open, rain-swept road toward Weerawila. All the while honking randomly in a land where honking is de facto language, he confused everyone by the roadside; when they looked up, perplexed by the inchoate sounds, he offered a wild Haha!

Flying along over swollen torrents we looked wide-eyed at each other, convinced we were accompanying a mad but harmless escapee from some institution on a joyride in a stolen tuktuk. In Weerawila the absurdity continued: no one in the town's only service station knew of Saraii Village, which, I insisted, must be close by.

"And I don't think this guy's actually a taxi driver," I said in an aside to the manager who sat us in his office to help. "Oh — he's not," he replied.

Amusement fading, I was about to clamber back into the tuktuk when I spotted a faded sign across the intersection lined with entreating verbage: food, spa, relax, nature, Saraii Village 1.2 km.

Even with seemingly definitive information it took diligent searching, with doubts as to whether we were even travelling the direction indicated by the sign. Eventually I recognized the hotel logo on an even-more-obscure posting and we made a perilous, rain-slicked U-turn to scoot down a muddy path into Saraii's jungle compound.

The endearing mountebank grinned like he'd found it himself. Still, not killing us meant he'd more than earned his 200 rupees, so I offered him the 300 originally requested. His rheumy eyes sagged with disappointment. He might have been a loopy imposter, but he was neither too drunk nor too crazy to know when to leverage sympathy — even for wrongheaded efforts. Looking at it as an afternoon of cheap entertainment, we handed him 400.

The old man grasped our hands in gratitude, bowed, laughed like a hyena, and ripped out of the compound, doubtless to spend hours trying to find his way home and locate 400 rupees worth of coconut whisky — not necessarily in that order.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.


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