About 5 minutes into my walk, I was approached by a young Sri Lankan man who asked me, "My friend, where are you from?" I explained that I was from the US, and I had come to Sri Lanka to conduct research on environmental laws and the constitution (throughout our time together I attempted to paint myself as a lonely poor student, but this approach failed to garner sympathy thanks to the fact that I was staying in a nice hotel). The man said he worked for the Cinnamon Grand and wanted to thank me for my patronage and for the important work I was undertaking which would surely help the Sri Lankan people. As a courtesy, he would show me around Colombo, especially the religious sites, which were buzzing with excitement given that today is a major holiday celebrating the new moon. I already assumed that this was some kind of gimmick, but I figured it might be a good opportunity to see some areas of the city I might not get to see otherwise, and I would be glad to pay the man a reasonable fee for his services. This notion was at least partially misguided, as I would later find out.
The man flagged a random trishaw (a tiny motorized vehicle that looked like a tuk tuk mixed with a rickshaw) and we sped down broad dusty roads until arriving at a large Buddhist temple. Together we exited the red golf cart and removed our shoes at the entrance. In the center of the entryway stood a large ceramic pot of sorts with signs soliciting funds for "the children." My "guide" instructed me to leave donations for both of us. In the pit of my stomach I could feel my anxiety building as I was sure this was a test to gauge how much money I was carrying. Nevertheless, we walked into the temple and I was given a whirlwind tour of the place, which included clearly rehearsed commentary. The man led me swiftly through the temple on a tortuous path, stopping occasionally for less than 30 seconds to point out a relic, gem, or statue, implore me to take a photo (taking photos under duress is infinitely less enjoyable than snapping photos at one's leisure), and urge me on my less-than-merry way. With the speed at which we navigated the holy site, I was quite certain that my pal did not make regular visits here simply to pay his respects. At least he was kind enough to indulge my characteristically touristy inclinations by allowing me to return to the elephant we saw early on during my tour and photographing me several times in front of it. I should have interpreted the elephant's nervous swaying, as if entranced by some indigenous narcotic, as a bad omen. We retrieved our soles and returned to the little crimson tin can on wheels.
My involuntary friend informed the driver that we needed to go to the Lanka Gem Bureau, where surely exceptional deals on precious and semi-precious stones awaited us. This part of our tour seemed eerily reminiscent of the time I let my cab driver in Nepal take me to his friend's mandala workshop to "learn" about the ancient craft (as one might expect, I was offered "excellent" prices on unreasonably large paintings, with a portion of the sale likely going to my "friend" as a sort of finder's fee). Once we alighted at the gem shop it was all business. My guide informed me he had to go outside to have a smoke, and I was left to interact with a gem salesman who went to painstaking efforts to provide me with all kinds of discounts (did you know that students get discounts on gems in Sri Lanka? Now you do!) and assure me that I was getting one-time, wholesale-and-holiday-only prices. At first he tried to sell me small planets that would have set me back over a hundred dollars (US). Then, as I began to explain my financial situation, he relented a bit, offering me deeply discounted semi-precious gems which surely I could not live without. I carried on under the premise that the gift would be for my mother, but perhaps this was foolhardy because (1) it imbued the purchase with heightened significance since, when buying a gift for your mother, "you spend $1,000, but it's worth $100,000" in motherly love returns (as the man told me), and (2) the gem I was looking at was yellow, and, as anyone who knows my mother well will tell you, anything yellow is a non-starter. So there I sat, being cajoled into buying a small yellow gem stone for a mother who hates yellow with unwavering passion. I signed half the day's financial life away, and my guide suggested that we go to the beach. This sounded like a good idea because it was a public place and the opportunity for trouble seemed minimal.
Again we plopped into the little ruddy buggy and buzzed down Galle Road toward the beach. Without warning, my buddy told the driver to stop immediately, and he began to exit the car(t). He then requested that I pay the driver. I dug into my wallet and offered 1400 LKR, but the driver, a sullen man who held unspoken cab fare expectations, demanded at least 3000 LKR. This proved problematic because I had only 1400 LKR and a 5000 LKR bill (~$43 USD), which I desperately tried to conceal. I thumbed through the differentially-sized bills in my wallet and attempted to explain that I didn't have any more money. This did not sit will with either my guide or the driver. My new pal, being as keen as he was ruthless, spotted the 5000 LKR bill that was not well hidden in the back of my billfold. Proudly he assured the driver that, indeed, I had more money than I had let on (on a personal note, while I have never felt truly uncomfortable with the level of personal information of mine made available to either private companies [i.e. Facebook] or the federal government [thanks, Patriot Act!], this visual intrusion felt like the most unnerving violation of privacy I had ever endured in my adult life. If eyes are windows into the soul, my wallet was not too far removed, however metaphysically speaking). Caught between a rock and a harder rock, I struggled to determine the best course of action. Of course, my selfless friend made my decision for me. He told the driver that he would take the 1000 LKR so he could get a beer, and the driver would confiscate my 5000 LKR and drive us both to a bank where it could be broken into the smaller bills needed to settle the score. As mysteriously as my guide had entered my life he was now gone, 1000 LKR richer and cloaked in the warm fuzzy feeling one gets from swindling a foreigner out of his money. The driver, not one to delay the inevitable receipt of his payment, turned a hard right and we careened down the street into new and uncertain territory. It was at this point I decided to cut my losses and end this slide into a downward spiral by jumping the puny red ship. As we slowed down while turning around a bend I leapt out of the vehicle and sternly told the driver that he could have the whole sum.
Seeking to rectify what had thus far been quite a mixed day, I ventured to the beach where my guide had run off to chase girls with beer. I took several photos of the sparkling coastline and food huts which lined the cement boardwalk. I pondered the inconsistent messages that the developing world delivered me, being granted interviews and enthusiastic support from members of the scholarly community on the one hand, to being played for a fool during a national holiday at a Buddhist temple on the other. I paused to observe the beauty of the azure sea and its ironic gem stone clarity. It was a welcome contrast to the tall lanky man who kept glaring at me from several yards away. Perhaps I gave off the odor of a freshly wounded fish, and nearby sharks with killer instincts and an indefatigable olfactory sense hovered excitedly nearby, desperate to pounce at the first drop of blood. The serenity of the gentle salty waves began to lose ground to my burgeoning paranoia, so I turned my back to the wind and started up the wide lawn abutting the concrete walkway, hopping down the stone embankment onto a side street running perpendicular to Galle Road.
As I traveled purposively on the sidewalk, a middle-aged Sri Lankan man approached me. He asked, "My friend, where are you from?"