Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy in Colombo – Part I
The tuk tuk is brand new and the driver is young, lean and muscular, wearing a tight-fitting purple t-shirt. After gleaning that we’re going to Havelock Town, not far from the campus of Colombo University, he asks where we’re from. Australia. Very good, he says firing off the names of Australian cricket players he knows: Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden. Gunji, my companion, is Japanese but apparently the driver’s short of cliché associations for Japan so he changes the subject toward weed and prostitutes.
I know very nice place for drink beer and smoke marijuana. We chuckle but decline. Very nice ladies there. You have girlfriend? Yes, I say. Sri Lankan girl? he wants to know. No, Australian girl actually. Ahh but you should try Sri Lankan girl, he tells me: very very small, Sri Lankan girls. I’m assuming he’s talking about her body rather than her age, but I don’t ask. No, thank you.
He turns his attention to Gunji. Girls from every country, my friend—Sri Lanka, Philippines, Thailand, Laos, China, Russia. We give him a couple more no-thank-yous and then ignore him.
It’s a humid, sunny afternoon and the Colombo traffic is steadily thickening. After some time Gunji suggests the Pimp is driving us in circles and I agree. We tell him this, adding that we live here and hence know our way around the city. The Pimp mutters something about the new president and the budget, as if this explains everything and avoids looking in the rear-view mirror. We offer five or six more counts of protest while the meter steadily climbs but he ignores us, returning the silent treatment.
We are further from where we’re going than where we started and the meter is just shy of 300 rupees when I tell him to stop. This sort of thing happens semi frequently to those of us in Colombo who don’t speak Sinhalese and after almost four months here I decide I’m not going to stand for it again. Without bothering to address him we get out and begin walking away.
The Pimp jumps out and reproaches us, demanding the money. You took us in a huge loop and we are nowhere near where we want to go, I’m not paying. He offers no explanation but holds his hand out and furiously demands the 300 rupees. We keep walking, attempting to remain firm. He comes after us yelling angrily, grabbing at my left shoulder from behind. I attempt to continue walking normally but he’s in between my periphery and blind spot, in the perfect position to attack, grabbing and yelling. I become tense. His face is contorting with rage and his manner suggests that he’s good at violence. Pimpin’ ain’t easy I guess.
I’m head-and-shoulders taller than him and holding my skateboard, a fairly deadly weapon, but I’m nervous. Things are escalating and I’m not in the blissful satyagraha state that I usually adopt toward threats of violence; I’m edgy.
I turn to face the Pimp, now certain that this is going to end badly, and tell him to get back in his tuk tuk and get out of here, that I don’t do business with cheats or liars. He raises his balled fist above his head, not to punch me, more as a gesture of rage. I retaliate by pointing my stiff index finger at his face and repeat that I’m not going to pay him.
With sudden and calculated swiftness he runs toward the edge of the road, procures a piece of timber—about a foot long with a bent nail in each end—and turns back toward us. Gunji and I turn and leg it across the four lanes of traffic that careen across Marine drive and start sprinting south. We are both giggling nervously.
We look back, still running, to see him jump into his tuk tuk and start the engine. Still giggling, we quicken our pace, knowing he will inevitably catch us. To the left is the road, laden with traffic, to the right the train tracks, and beyond them a rock wall, against which the Indian Ocean slops. My mouth is dry. His tuk tuk is not a hundred metres away, speeding toward us. He slams on the brake and jumps from out, wooden plank in hand, and Gunji and I retreat in opposite directions.
I run back across the traffic toward an empty, open-air restaurant where a lone man in nothing but a sarong is preparing rotis on a service bench. As I jump over the waist-high concrete wall that separates the restaurant from the road, the man looks up from what he’s doing and fixes a nervous, wide-eyed stare at me. When I notice the Pimp hasn’t followed me I remember Gunji and feel a hot flush of guilt. I visualise myself having to save Gunji by smacking the Pimp across the back of the head with my skateboard.
I vacate the restaurant as hastily as I entered and within seconds, he pops out from a side street, running toward me, holding a large rock. It must be the size of a baseball and his fingers are fully extended in order to grasp it in one hand. He’s barefoot, nimble and glowing, ready to throw down. I’m sprinting up the road and he’s sprinting after me. When I look back he’s just metres away, slowing, cocking his arm to throw the rock. I lift my skateboard up and use it to protect the back of my head; my weapon has become a shield. I keep sprinting until I can’t hear him behind me, then duck behind a parked tuk tuk.
I look back and see that he’s almost back at his own tuk tuk, ready to get in and come after me. I want to keep running but can’t leave Gunji. I stand behind the tuk tuk, about fifty metres from the Pimp. We stare each other down, silently agreeing on a temporary armistice while we catch our breath and prepare for the next part of the battle.