I Was (Kinda) Scammed in Sri Lanka
It’s 43 degrees and I’m in a smog cloud on the streets of Colombo trying to find a restaurant I’ve heard serves killer crab. My compadre Jasper takes the last slurp of his coconut, and a passer-by smiles and points to the trolley of a street cleaner, indicating for him to dispose of his rubbish. Jasper obliges.
“Where are you from?” asks the man, oblivious to the screams of All Aussie Adventures radiating from Jasper’s Akubra.
“Australia,” Jasper grins, chuffed as always to be chatting with a stranger.
The conversation progresses as many conversations between tourists and random, middled-aged men in Colombo do – how long are you here, where are you going, I am Buddhist, I will take you there, I don’t ask for money, I just help others and, in return, Buddha helps me.
I’m not really in the mood to be escorted around town by someone who is unlikely to share my passion for spiced crustaceans, but my thighs are chafing and I have a smog moustache, so along I trot.
It isn’t long before our new friend develops a limp and insists we have to get a lift.
“Scam!” I scream internally, but I can’t exactly say so aloud in case the fellow is a genuine cripple who genuinely wants to show us a good time out of the genuine kindness of his genuine Buddhist heart.
“It will be so cheap – local price, because you’re with me.” He flags a tuktuk—at random, I cannot be sure—and the three of us bundle into the back.
Our driver approaches the crab restaurant, then passes it.
“I’ll take you to a Buddhist temple first,” our new friend interjects, smiling. I groan – I have intentionally worn a singlet dress to exonerate myself from having to visit any religious buildings. Sensing my reluctance, Jasper nudges me.
“Come on – it’ll be fun,” he says.
He has found my weak point. At four-and-a-half years his senior, I feel the need to prove that my idea of fun is more than just a game of bowls and a packet of Werthers Originals. I decide I am being a jaded old bitch for no reason, and if I’m not careful, I’ll end up one of those women who writes complaint letters to the Australian Classification Board about upgrading the latest episode of Jag from M to MA. I mentally pulled the wings off the butterflies in my stomach, and try to relax.
True to his word, the man escorts us around a Buddhist temple, then a Hindu temple, spinning rich stories about their histories and intricacies. He talks mainly to Jasper and largely ignores me, but I often find this is the case with men when I don’t straighten my hair, so I am not particularly offended.
The man isn’t from Colombo, but a village nearby, and is apparently waiting for his motorbike to get fixed. He regales us with tales of his family, and asks if we, from the kindness of our hearts, can send him postage stamps from Australia when we return. His 19-year-old daughter collects them, see, and loves to trade them with her friends.
Postage stamps, hey, I think, scanning my brain for ways this could be a scam and coming up with none. How quaint.
“One more temple!” announces the man. We have been driving for an hour and a half. “Then I will take you to my friend’s house for tea, and show you where to buy a leather bag and some jewellery.” He has overheard us discussing some stuff we’d spied that morning in Pettah, and is keen to offer his fatherly advice. “There are stores near your hostel that will be much cheaper than the market, as they sell at a fixed price – the same for you as it is for me.” We nod, tired and powerless.
“Now I will sing for you.”
He closes his eyes and starts up a loud, nasal tune, holding his hands in the shape of a microphone as his voice twangs up and down. I recognise the song instantly – it’s Crazy Frog. I bite my lip and think about dying puppies to stop myself from laughing, but Jasper is delighted. He claps his hands when the man finishes and assures him that, when we are in Unawatuna, we will stop by his house and listen to him play guitar. The man is very excited, and writes his address down for us.
“Just show this to any driver in the town!” he says. “Many people in the area know me. I am the television repair-man for everyone.”
My bare shoulders mean I am barred from entering this final temple, so I amuse myself by sitting outside and playing with a rabid street puppy until the boys return. The man feels bad that I can’t accompany them, so I reassure him that he has been a great tour guide.
“Oh no!” he wags his finger at me. “I am not a tour guide! Tour guides ask for money. I just do this because it makes me happy.”
Our next destination is a jewellery store, or gem-stone store, to be precise. The man touches my rings—cheap silver from Cambodia—and promises me I will soon have more. Barefoot, we enter to find air-conditioning and a collection of Sri Lankans fingering thousand-dollar gems. Money oozes from their pores; sweat and pollution oozes from ours. One glance tells us we are in the wrong place, but a determined staff-member ushers us to a chair and begins flourishing jewellery even our collective life savings (roughly $263) couldn’t purchase.
10 minutes of awkward refusals later, we depart, leaving damp stains on the chairs. I check my phone. I have a text from my mum – a reply to a message I sent her earlier about being driven around Colombo by a random in a tuktuk.
“Be careful” it reads. “I had a tuktuk driver try and scam me when I was 20 in Bangkok. They kept taking me to lapidary shops.” I Google lapidary. Gem-stone store.
Well and truly over it, we tell the man we’d like to go home.
“Okay – I will drop you at a railway station and then return to pick up my bike,” he assures us. We drive along the coast road next to the train tracks, when the tuktuk driver, evidently fed up with carting us around, pulls over. There is no railway station in sight. The man says a few words to the driver, then turns to us, laughing with feigned outrage.
“He says he wants $160USD! Ho ho. Don’t you worry – you are with me, a local, so I say we will not pay any more than $80,” he says.
Appalled, we stare at him.
“No,” says Jasper, addressing the tuktuk driver. “It cost us 2000 rupees yesterday to get from the airport to Mount Lavinia, and that took nearly two hours.”
A lengthy argument ensues, whereby the tuktuk driver rants in Sinhalese and our not-tour guide translates his demands, then defends them.
“We’ll give you 40,” I interject grimly, instantly recognising what has happened. The man sighs and looks sad. He continues to try – dropping from 80 to 70 to 60. We stand firm, and Jasper hands the man the equivalent of about $40USD in rupees.
“I guess I will pay the rest,” the man says, getting out his wallet dejectedly and gesturing not-so-subtly at his gammy leg.
“No,” says Jasper, nobly trying to bat his hand away. “Don’t you pay!”
“Who cares– he’s just going to get it back off the driver anyway,” I mutter in Jasper’s ear.
Jasper looks at me, confused for a second, then puts two and two together. His eyes nearly pop out of his head. A year or two ago, he was the victim of an elaborate jewellery-export scam in India, where he lost $1700 and had his trip cut short by months. I see the still-fresh wound of betrayal reopen.
“That’s not Buddhist!” he yells at the man, leaping out of the tuktuk and clutching his Akubra. The man mumbles something about stamps and playing guitar and good karma, and tries to shake Jasper’s hand.
“No way! I’m not sending you stamps! You dog. You’re going to be laughing at us as soon as we leave!”
Shaking in anger, he flags down another tuktuk. I laugh and shrug – I may not have gotten my crab fix, but we have barely lost any money, and to be fair, we did see a lot of Colombo. But Jasper will not surrender his anger, not until long after the sun has gone down and his belly has been filled with six different types of curry. The tuktuk takes us the 25-minute journey home, and stops to wait while we run into a supermarket to buy beer. The trip costs us the equivalent of $2AUD.