I’d gone to bed in Hong Kong. A night full of regrets. And a do-not-disturb sign left swinging grimly from my hotel room door-knob like the newly hoisted frame of a young Southerner who had been seen cavorting with the wrong woman in the wrong era of American history. I awoke unceremoniously, and without room-service, in the trunk of an automobile in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Like an indigent pharaoh, I shared this sarcophagus with aged-produce and still-clucking wildlife that looked less impressed with the present company than I was. Outside, the horns of tuk-tuks screamed as the three-legged chariots angled past each other in anorexic spaces. Above, the crows screeched through the city, their cackles simultaneously heralding my arrival and announcing my impending demise.
I had been imprisoned just long-enough to begin thinking of my newly acquired lodgings as a quaint Airbnb studio in a freshly-gentrified borough of New York City, when the ceiling receded above me. First, there was a searing white. Then, the sort of smog-tinged grey that seemed impossibly blue because I had come to accept that I’d never see the sky again. Finally, they came. The two of them plucking overgrown fruit and overwrought animals out of the trunk with the finesse of unsupervised baggage handlers at your favorite airline. I was an after-thought. Like the masks they hadn’t bothered to wear, for obvious reasons that related to my increasingly shortening life-span and inability to be a future witness.
While dragging me through a reasonably well-traveled alley in Pettah Market, they made small talk in Tamil…or Sinhalese…or something that I now regret not learning because I’d been promised my phone’s translation app would guide me through any negotiations I might encounter. Saris and sarongs milled around me undeterred. The occasional aroma of curry shouldered politely past. Everything was a stunning Polaroid of a place never to be revisited. With them upright, and me being pulled feet-first, we entered a maze of fabric shops, unlicensed street chefs and tea stalls that fondly reminded me of my last extended stay at Frommer’s most recommended opium den. Like my present excursion, it had come to an abrupt end.
The man they brought me to was an old friend. By “old” I mean world-weary and experienced from a lifetime luring naive Westerners to the sort of death that only comes after extensive exchanges with long-distance family members who have dutifully emptied their bank accounts. By “friend” I mean I should have probably found a better false-identity, and more remote time-zone to hide-away in, after deciding to rob him of a shipment of exotic Indian fabrics while plying him with too much Arrack at his under-age daughter’s arranged wedding. They looked on with an amused expectancy. Waiting for me to exhaust the same list of excuses, false promises and impotent threats that many had before me. It was a faithful audience awaiting a familiar punchline. So, I began with an old favorite.
The words shuffled forth, like desperate immigrants with distrustful documents in an airport customs queue. Somewhere, circling high above the dizzying kaleidoscope of tightly-packed Colombo rooftops, the crows began to cackle.