It rained the day I arrived there. A lashing, beating, tree-tossing rain over the Indian ocean. Waves swelled and crashed outside the Galle Face Hotel. The air was hot, sticky hot. Tiny signs stuck to the windows of my room: “Do not open the window.” I opened the windows all the way. I lay beneath one of them on a stiff bed covered in a cotton sheet. The rain felt cool on my face.
In 1864 the hotel opened for the well-heeled in Ceylon. Ceylon, so long. It must have been grand. The Emerald on the Green. Danish princesses drank tea and Pakistani prime ministers bustled about. That was then. That was when the owner made jokes with astronauts and hosted parties for his author friends. That wasn’t when planes fell out of the sky and fell into nearby hotels. That wasn’t when men and women were cattled off into camps in the north and editors of newspapers were killed for taking a stand against a government. That wasn’t when the price of bread skyrocketed and you could hardly afford to buy an egg. Times change, though.It is a little less well-heeled these days. But I liked the carpet zig-zagging through the hall. And I didn’t mind so much the water-stains on the ceiling. No war had been fought for four months. Four months without bombs and checkpoints and suicides. Four months was long enough for hope to set in.
Night fell and the rain stopped and a four-man band played songs from Old West movies at the SeaSpray Restaurant. Two guitars, a rubber band attached to a box, a tambourine and a guy who whistled Rawhide. There was a seafood buffet. Japanese businessmen drank beer and smoked cigarettes. European families compared sunburns. I drank white wine that went to my head and I felt light and lovely and happy. A white-bearded, German man stared out to sea. He stared. And stared. Forlornly over his Irish coffee. I wanted to say, Come drink your coffee with me, but it didn’t seem right to interrupt his sorrow. I looked to where he looked and an army boat floated off-shore with machine guns peering over the side. I felt very tired all-of-a-sudden.
The next morning, without a look back, I jumped a toy train and headed south.
It was a holiday weekend. What holiday? Who knows! It could be the full moon (the Buddhists love that). It could be a Hindu holiday (they have 3,000 of them). It might just be a government-sanctioned day (for any reason, they won the war!). No one knows. But everyone knows, they were getting out of town.That meant there were no seats left on the bus. I mean, on the train. The toy train. The rattling, clattering, wonderful toy train. So I squeezed in tight next to a small Sri Lankan man squatting at the open door and watched the world pass by.
Four years and eleven months ago, on this very same track, the ocean picked up a very similar train to my train. It picked it up and it tossed it about and it tore it up and 5,000 people died right there. Cars. Vans. Homes. Shops. All washed away.
But on my trip on that very same track, people waved from plastic chairs outside wooden huts built over the foundations of their old homes. Palm tree groves grew. Children dressed all in white left a temple. Two sisters in braids traded candy. Bridges spanned rivers. The ocean lapped peacefully along the shore.
I named my hotel the Sinktree Inn. The owner’s baby girl was four months old when he had to pick her up from her blanket and run from the wave. When I first arrived, she was scribbling in crayons on a sheet of paper underneath a twisted bough of branches, her bare feet kicking in the sand. “Hello! Hello!” she shouted. He wants to sell the hotel. Move away from the sea. Just across the road, at least. He looked at his little girl. She grinned up at him.
On a rented scooter, I flew down the coast at sunset. Cows grazed on the beach. The sun loomed heavy over the sea. To another Galle. This time the real Galle. The port of Galle. Where Dutch boats and Dutch soldiers once looked out west toward another tiny country on the other side of the world. Now boys played cricket in the overgrown grass and lovers held hands in the old bastions.I spied on Muslim boys offering their prayers and I broke my shoe and drove barefoot through the cobblestone streets. I got tired and drank a gin fizz in the Aman Galle and pretended to be very wealthy, or perhaps a spy waiting for my next directive. Until the full moon rose over the lighthouse and I drove home to the SinkTreee Inn. I chased storm clouds and caught up with them. And lighting shot through the sky and I got home soaked to the skin.I read and slept and ate rotties filled with cheese and onions and full cloves of garlic. I stumbled down the stairs and into the sea every morning and every night. I tried to ride the waves and I tried to float on my back. But the sea churned and boiled in front of my hotel. It’s too dangerous there, a man told me on my last day, after battling with the sea every day. There is a ondo there. An ondo, a current. It wanted to drag me down and pin me against the rocks. I thought it was dangerous everywhere here. But I walked down 100 yards and the water waited patiently, calmly for me. I floated on my back out to sea.
The beach was the road. I walked down it to the village. I walked up it to the fish market. Every day hiking in the sand. Every night playing in the surf under the stars. At 4 every afternoon the men pushed their boats out to sea. Eight to a boat until it floated in the surf, and then two board it and revved a motor. They would float all night with their nets wide open and then drag their haul in just before the sun peeks through. They hung a lantern from the stern and at night a ring of lights danced over the ocean, a necklace of lights wrapped around the island. I wondered if the two men talk all night. Or if they sit quietly smoking bidis and chewing paan. They made me feel snug; I’m wrapped up in their light’s embrace. A wall of fisherman guarding the beach.Twenty-something-year-old boys hung out at the beach shacks with their beautiful bodies and their sinews and muscles roiling beneath their brown skin. They wore board shorts and long hair and slapped each other high fives. At night they broke out drums and beat a rhythm into the night as they smoked Sri Lankan tobacco and drank Arrack. They surfed in the spray and it looked almost like a Sri Lankan Gidget movie. Only there were no girls. Until night fell. A few women appeared on the scene. Beer-glazed. Blond. Forty or older. Sunburned red skin. They gazed at the boys with hunger. And the boys lit their cigarettes and smiled bright at them.
Across from the highway, across from the beach, was where it all happened. Life lived across the street. I crossed the street and families gossiped, three generations thick, on their front porch. Men fished off the train tracks into the rivers. Stores sold yogurt and soup. Children flirted. The homes were fairy-tale beautiful. Picket fences and smiling grandmothers and vines over vistas and life was good. There were crumbled down homes and the jungle was eating it all up again. And there were big, long homes with hammocks filled chock-o-block with giggling kids.
My friend turned to me: They want to leave this, this!, for America. And they do. They ask, Can I get a job in America? Can you help in America? But I don’t want to help them. I want them to help me. It was more perfect than perfect there. It was a winding path in green-grown glory there. And they want to leave? For traffic lights and citations and fluorescent-grocery-store shopping? It was too confusing.