Like a Drifter in the Dark

“Do you ever walk alone, like a drifter in the dark?” – Ween, “Drifter in the Dark”

We were lost, lost, hopelessly lost, and our only lifeline, a string of digits scrawled onto a scrap of paper, was as apparently as much a dead end as the one our tuk-tuk was currently parked in. Here in the charcoal-black night we roasted in the sticky, suffocating Sri Lankan humidity and pondered our next move.

We’d led our driver down the wrong fork in these unmarked, unlit roads two or three times already, and now we found ourselves in the heart of this hillside labyrinth, alone, isolated, with a man who’d barely said a word from the moment he picked us up in front of Cargills Food City.

He turned the engine off, then the headlights, and plunged us into skittish silence broken only by the creaking of the crickets’ violins, the croaks of frogs, and the ravenous buzz of mosquitos. The driver reached into a small bag on the floor, pulled something out, and swiveled around.

Our first taste of Kandy was, indeed, anything but sweet.

Seeking out what isn’t there…

Kumar, the kind-hearted live-in manager of Kandy Cottage, assured us that it was an easy 10 – 15 minute walk from the guesthouse to downtown, where we planned to grab some dinner and a few beers at a local bar before calling it a day. It was nearly 8pm, and we’d just arrived after a sweaty, spectacular train ride from Colombo.

Easy enough, we thought, as he pointed us in the right direction and jotted down his phone number just in case we got lost. There were street lights up here, but they weren’t on. Why? “The power was down earlier and they are still fixing it,” he said. “Oh, the phone line is still down too I think. No problem, you will be okay… and maybe it will be back up soon.”

We made it into town without much incident, but the streets were emptying quickly. Stores were closing, lights were dimming, and the typically bare-bones map in our Lonely Planet guidebook offered little navigational assistance. A few wrong turns down a few dark streets later, and suddenly we realized we were the only foreigners in sight and probably looking every bit the cliché part—is there anything more embarassing than hunching over your guidebook on a street corner and looking like a clueless tourist?

Looks from passing locals I’d normally take as innocently curious suddenly seemed darkly sinister. Such is the sometimes-byproduct of exploring new, foreign cities after dusk; gathering accurate first impressions can be a fool’s errand. We kept walking in the direction that seemed most sensible, but found no restaurants open, no bars period.

We finally gave up and backtracked to Cargills, seemingly the only place in town still open, and grabbed a few Kinder Bueno chocolate bars, a bag of deviled cashews, and two bottles of warm water before hailing one of the tuk-tuk drivers parked outside. And that’s how we thought our false-start introduction to Kandy would end that night, on a quick, breezy jaunt back up the hill to the guesthouse.

Our driver knew the turn-off road, but didn’t know Kandy Cottage; the walk down seemed straightforward enough and we didn’t think we’d have trouble finding the place, but with no street lights, no signs, and choose-your-own-adventure turns in the road every 100 feet, our confidence soon faded into exasperation.

Like a shadow in the night…

For all I knew we were about to be mugged. Oh, god, he has a knife! No, a gun! No, a knife and a gun! We’re fucked!

Actually, all he had was a cell phone in that bag—two, thankfully, since the battery was dead on the first one—and with a smile he shyly asked if we had the number of our guesthouse. I doubtfully handed him the piece of paper, warning him that the line was probably down. He dials, the call connects, and Kumar’s crackling voice breaks the still evening quiet.

It turns out that we were just down the road and around a bend from the guesthouse, and as we pulled up we saw Kumar standing there in the driveway, fatherly, concerned, arms folded and a look of relief creeping across his face. We felt like teenagers out way past our curfew; surely we’d be grounded.

The next evening, after a fine, full afternoon in Kandy, we happened to run into the same driver outside of Cargills again; I think his name was Rastika. We all laughed about the previous night’s escapade as he wheeled us back once again, this time from memory.

He asked us how long we’d be in Kandy, and when we said that we’d take a day trip to Dambulla and Sigiriya in the morning, he offered to take us, by tuk-tuk, but we knew the journey would be much too far (and dusty, and hot, and cramped) and was best taken by car. He smiled wide, wobbled his head, and made his last, earnest pitch:

“Don’t worry, I’m good Christian boy.”

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