A Family Tuk-Tuk Ride
“Can we please ask a local for dinner recommendations for once?”
All through our three-week family holiday in Sri Lanka, I’ve been insisting to my parents and three younger siblings that we should be ‘immersing ourselves’ in the local culture and trying things we wouldn’t at home. Usually, they just roll their eyes and tell me I should try immersing myself on my own, then.
I’ve successfully worn my mum down this time though, and she relents.
“Where do you like to eat dinner?” we ask a woman working at a little beachside café.
She shows us a vague location on Google Maps, and shortly after, armed with a pretty poor idea of where we’re going, the six of us step into two brightly-coloured tuk-tuks. My Mum, sister and I are in one; my Dad, brother and other sister are in the other. We show the drivers our blue dot on the map, and speed off into the traffic, narrowly avoiding a huge public bus with its horn blaring.
I glance across at my mum and know she is already doubting my idea.
Along the dark highway we zoom. The light coming from passing vehicles and storefronts becomes thinner as we leave Hiriketiya further behind. Mum looks anxious and tentatively asks the driver to slow down. He doesn’t understand her, so she repeats it again. He flashes us a big grin and cranks the lever. Now we move even faster. I can just make out my mother’s anxious eyes in the dim light above the seats.
“Oh! He thought we said speed up! Haha!” I joke lightly, hoping to ease her worry. I don’t think it’s working. My sister hasn’t said a word since we left.
“Excuse me, can you please slow down? Slow down?”
He thankfully understands this time, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re headed towards Dickwella. We tell him we’re going in the wrong direction, and he nods and turns. Now, we’re driving past empty Buddhist temples and old men in dhotis herding goats along dusty footpaths.
Mum asks the driver to pull over. I can hear the panic rising in her voice. He again doesn’t hear or understand her. Mum probably thinks we’re about to be kidnapped by the unsuspecting man, or that we’ll have to be scraped off the highway before he gets the opportunity. I am less suspicious thanks to prior travel experience, but even I’m starting to have doubts. My sister’s face is as terse as my Mum’s.
Well, Zoe. Now it’s time to show off that traveller’s confidence you’ve been alluding to all holiday!
“Excuse me, can you please pull over? We’re not going the right way. It shouldn’t be this far. Pull over?”
My mum joins in, and we soon find ourselves parked on one of those same dusty footpaths. In the dark. Great. I’m still trying not to make assumptions, but now I wish I’d insisted on splitting up the boys between tuk-tuks. I feel too vulnerable right now.
Eventually, the other tuk-tuk arrives and we somehow clarify the way to the restaurant. It takes another 20 minutes, but soon we are pulling up to a tall, white block-like building with a ray of gold light streaming out the door. We hop out and motion to the drivers in a sort of See? It was right here and smile. Realisation creeps into their faces and they laugh. We laugh too.
Inside a restaurant held together by acid-yellow walls and bleary lighting, with a golden loveseat in one corner draped in streams of broken flowers, we sit down to eat. As we spin the lazy susan piled with plates of delicious hot kottu roti, I notice the colour hasn’t quite returned to my Mum’s face. She grips our hands tightly, turns her chin down and glances anxiously around at us like a goldfish in a bowl.
She later tells me that, in that moment, she just felt grateful we were all alive. I finally realise I might’ve pushed too far.
The same drivers take us home, this time without a hitch.
Cover by Lawrence Makoona