“You see the electric fence?”
My Sri Lankan driver Tilima points to pole-mounted wires running beside of the road we’re driving on. “That is to shock the elephants.” A few miles later Tili points to a bunch of boards nailed haphazardly to the branches of a tree at the edge of a rice field. “You see that small house? In the dry season, the farmers, they stay every night up in that tree. If the elephants come the farmer throws fire crackers to scare them.”
I’ve only been in Sri Lanka for a couple hours but I’m already forming an opinion of its people as, well, less than humane. Isn’t this place Buddhist, I think? What happened to the whole do no harm thing?
But as the palm trees speed by and Tili tells me more, my opinion shifts. He says in the dry season, wild elephants come into inhabited areas looking for food and water. They can smell water up to 15 kilometers away and will travel for days for food. Wild elephants do attack humans without provocation and Tili says each month in the dry season three or four people are killed. With no natural predators, the Sri Lankan wild elephant population has doubled in less than 10 years, to about 6,000 at last official count.
In the dry season, people living at the edges of the jungle adjust their living patterns to stay safe. Villagers rarely go outdoors after 6pm, even in vehicles, and electric fences are used to keep elephants out of the most populated areas.
Tili fills many more kilometers with dark tales of dangerous elephants. When he feels I’ve been thoroughly warned, he moves on to other jungle threats. “You will see two monkeys in this area”, he says. “The brown one – that is the macaque. He is dangerous – he will try to bite you.” I nod my comprehension and Tili continues. “The other monkey with the black face and the long tail is the gray langur. He is also dangerous. He will try to bite you.” Tili looks back at me. “Maybe he thinks you are fruit.”
Tili laughs at his own joke but he’s laughing on his own. I’m busy replanning my three day itinerary so I don’t have to leave the back seat of his Nissan Sunny.
Tili is thorough so he covers snakes too. He tells me that about a snake that lives in this part of the country – in the exact area I’m staying – that “if it bites you, you die in the instant – no chance.”
It’s Noah’s Ark reimagined as a horror film and I’m the college coed who doesn’t stand a chance. Tili finally cues to my nervous silence. He smiles reassuringly and says, “but now it is not the dry season so you will be fine.”
And then he suggests we do a wildlife safari the next day.
Tili is driving me to an eco-lodge at the edge of the jungle in Central Sri Lanka. Our destination is only 200 kilometers from the international airport near Colombo but Tili tells me the trip will take six hours. An hour into the trip I can see why. We’re on the only route between Colombo and the much-visited Cultural Triangle, and this ‘highway’ is a two lane road.
You have to give it to the Sri Lankan drivers though. They squeeze every millimeter of capacity out of those two lanes. Cars use the shoulder on each side as two more travel lanes, only snaking back onto marked pavement when they are about to hit parked cars, children or other obstacles. Infrequently, a short third lane is inserted in the center of the road so cars can pass slower trucks and buses. But Sri Lankan drivers make their own luck, and every car-length gap on the opposite side of the road is a chance to get ahead. I keep my eyes closed most of the time and trust that Tili will win at the endless game of chicken we’re in.
On the day Tili and I do the drive, one of the two lanes of this interior highway is being resurfaced. Crews of women in flip flops rake the red dirt in front of the paving machine like sweepers in a curling match. At pinch points, police control an alternating single lane of traffic. Waits are often at least 20 minutes, long enough to buy an ice cream from men on bicycles.
At one point, I ask Tili about Sri Lanka’s social programs so he will stop singing along quietly to Celine Dion. He tells me that Sri Lanka has universal free health care, and that education is free for Sri Lankans all the way through university. Post-secondary spaces are allocated to students with the best high school grades. Tili says the government even pays for accommodation during university for students who successfully pass their first year.
Sri Lankans seem happy but not rich so I ask Tili about taxes. How are they funding these social programs? Tili says there are sales, income and property taxes in Sri Lanka. His non-technical explanation – “the rich people, they pay more” – leads me to believe that taxation is graduated, and at least somewhat correlated to ability to pay.
Sometimes I do the talking because Tili is curious about my life in Qatar. He tells me that a few months earlier he had actually accepted a job as a limo driver in Doha. He signed the contract, completed the training and the tests, but then backed out right before he was supposed to fly over. I ask why he changed his mind at the last minute. “If I go for five years, I can have my own driving company here in Sri Lanka, just like my boss”, he said. “But I like my job here, I like to be close to my family. I think the money is nice but not worth leaving.”
I think about the generally racist, exploitative treatment of foreign labourers in Qatar – about as philosophically far away as you can get from happy, Buddhist Sri Lanka – and tell him several times that he made the right choice.