Dusk had already fallen as the train traversed through the outskirts of Colombo. It was Sri Lankan peak hour and we had front row seats to the entire spectacle. The serenity of the Sri Lankan countryside was shattered by the cacophony of horns and traffic. Overcapacity trains zoomed by on both sides, heading in various directions. Passengers dangled precariously from exit doors, jumped on and off moving trains without hesitation. It was chaos but somehow everything worked. All these sights and sounds reaffirmed that we were indeed back in the capital.
Capital cities are abound with little nooks and crannies and in these dark crevices, shady characters go about their daily business. Colombo is no different. A stroke of misfortune and carelessness on my father’s part landed me in the Colombo underworld – all alone.
We exited Colombo Fort Station to a horde of pushy tuk tuk touts, hungry for their next prey. It wasn’t my first time at the rodeo so I brushed them off with indifference and headed to the neighbouring street in search of a legitimate tuk tuk. I spotted a local alighting from one up ahead and glanced back to inform my father, only to realize he wasn’t behind me anymore. Panic crept in and I began frantically scanning through the crowd. I spotted him at the entrance of the station. A tuk tuk tout was hauling his luggage onto the vehicle. He caught sight of me and waved me over. I turned back to the neighbouring street and the previously available tuk tuk was nowhere in sight. At this juncture, my father was comfortably settled in the back of the tuk tuk tout’s vehicle. I reluctantly dragged myself into the vehicle. I had an uneasy feeling in my gut. This wasn’t going to end well.
” Hi I’m Muhammad. 800 rupees to your hotel. Sir (referring to my father) already say ok ” the driver grinned.
His attempt at appearing hospitable while ripping us off were both unsettling and inciendary. The quoted price was clearly a rip-off. However, the 8 hour train ride had drained both of us mentally and physically. Since we were already in the vehicle, I decided to let this pass. I was already fantasizing about the hot shower and crashing into the comfy hotel bed.
Our hotel is one of the few pricer accomodation options in the city. Galle Face Hotel is Raffles Hotel in the Singaporean context. (Actually both these hotels do share a connection but that’s a story for another day).The driver echoed a similar sentiment when I told him our destination.
” Galle Face expensive. Rich people stay there…I have cheaper hotel. Give you good price. Airconditioning and all at half the price! ” Muhammad advertised with the salesmanship of a tour agent.
I was too weary and grumpy to entertain him so I rejected his advances as politely as I could force myself too. He persisted in continuing small talk. I simply nodded along. He soon caught the hint and left us in silence. I did a quick check on our finances and realized we were out of rupees. The hotel was expecting payment upon check-in. Erring on the side of caution, I casually asked the driver if there were any money changers along the way.
” How much do you want to change? USD, Pounds? ” he questioned incessantly as his seedy eyes lit up with opportunity
Muhammad’s incessant questioning was an instantaneous red flag. I told him to forget I asked and that I’ll change it the next day. But Muhammad was a stubborn mule. He kept reassuring me that he had a friend who offered “higher rates” than normal money changers and that it was along the way to the hotel. There was no turning back now. He insisted on bringing us there.
We passed by countless money changers enroute to Muhammad’s recommended money changer. I requested him to stop at anyone of them but he simply brushed me off under the excuse that those money changers were closed or offered “bad rates”. Muhammad was a conniving degenerate. Those money changers were obviously open. Tourists were streaming in and out!
All this while, my father was sound asleep. We soon came to an abrupt stop on the kerb of a bustling T-junction. Muhammad woke my father up and told him he was bringing me to the money changer. He instructed my father to wait in the tuk tuk and left him with the following advice:
” If anyone ask why you park here, just say the driver went to toilet ”
I watched in horror as my father nodded in groggy agreement before returning to his slumber.
Traffic was still heavy and to make matters worse, the signalling system was out of order. There were no traffic police on duty either so vehicles simply went as and when they pleased. It was a traffic disaster waiting to happen but like with all chaotic situations in Sri Lanka, it miraculously worked.
Muhammad pointed to the alley across the T-junction. We were going to make a run for it. I turned around and took one last glimpse of my sound asleep father before Muhammad grabbed my hand. I muttered a prayer and the very next moment, I was running through a blur of vehicles and blaring horns. Instinctively, I stopped a couple of times only for Muhammad to drag me along. Thankfully, I made it across alive. But the worse was yet to come.
We made our way down the dingy alley. Only a few street lamps illuminated the way. We crossed paths with an ineberiated group of rowdy youths as we delved deeper. Besides that, we were completely alone. The grey dilipidated shophouses that lined the street were boarded up and seemed vacated for years. It was a ghost town.
After a 10 minutes walk, we arrived at our destination – a dull decrepit shophouse with its shutters half drawn. A bright flourescent light emanated through the gap. I hunched my way in after Muhammad. The shophouse resembled a restaurant judging from the arrangement of the tables and the counter display. We were definitely not here for dinner.
At the corner of the restaurant, a man in his 50s sat surrounded by younger men. The balding man, dressed in a dhoti and singlet was busy at work. Documents were sprawled across the table. The group was in intense discussion. Welcome to Colombo’s very own version of “The Godfather”.
I glanced over at Muhammad – A veil of trepidation had enveloped him as he approached the group.
The group soon acknowledged our presence. They paused their discussion and quickly dispersed to the adjacent table. Muhammad exchanged a few words with the balding man before signalling me to come over.
Muhammad adopted the role of interlocutor between the balding man and I.
” He asks you how much you want to change?” Muhammad asked.
” How much is the rate?” I replied
” No. You tell him how much you want to change then he tell you rate” Muhammad replied anxiously.
The balding man was growing visibly annoyed at our conversation. He rattled of angrily in Tamil at Muhammad.
” How much you want to change?! $100, $200? Tell me! ” Muhammad questioned impatiently.
I initially intended to change $400 but I already knew where this was heading from the moment I mentioned changing money so I lied and said $100.
Muhammad relayed the message to the balding man. He whipped out a calculator from under the table and began snapping away at the digits. Once he was done, he flashed the number at me.
The number on the screen was measly and way below the lowest market rate.
At this point in time, I had enough of this nonsense. I turned my back on the group and strolled out of the shop. A huge din erupted in my wake between the group and Muhammad. I was pretty sure vulgarities were hurled. Once I was in the clear, I peeked through the opening below the shutters.The balding men was standing his arms wildly gesticulating. He was pointing at the shutters (at me I assume), pointing at Muhammad. Muhammad was visibly shaken as he cowered in retreat. His arms were alternating between gesticulating an apology and calm down signs. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered if he came out dead or alive. He dragged us into this shithole.
Muhammad finally caught up with me as I was halfway to the main road. I instructed him sternly to bring us to the hotel and to cut the bullshit. The once stubborn mule was now a timid rat. He nodded obligingly. I figured he wanted the trip to end as soon as possible as well. He didn’t even bother dropping us off at the hotel lobby as initally agreed. He left us on the kerb opposite the hotel citing he was unable to make a U-turn. Unable to make a U-turn? I let this pass as well. I was just relieved that the hell ride was over. My father finally woke up from his slumber, oblivious to the events of the past hour or so.
” Where’s the hotel? ” he asked sluggishly
Featured image taken from http://nerdnomads.com/10-cool-things-to-do-in-colombo
All copyright belong to the respective owners and are used purely for illustration purposes