The mechanical melody of chains running over cogs vibrated through the bamboo frame, as the cold air cut through our clothes. We were cycling across Sri Lanka, from the southernmost Lighthouse in Dondra to the absolute north, Point Pedro.
"Why the hell are you guys cycling here?" yelled a laughing tourist, his words fading into a mist that disappeared with the van he was in. It was a cold morning on day seven, and we slowly ascended Horton plains towards World's End.
Everyone was silent, the unforgiving simplicity of the question rubbing salt into the painful task. While the purpose of this trip was to raise money for a charity that has contributed much to the development of communities in Sri Lanka, the real seeds behind it lay in the history of generations past. Balage Porolis de Silva was a young man when he boarded a wooden ship in the year 1869, with a pocket full of gems and sailed towards his future.
The company he founded still flourishes one hundred and forty years later and is unified under his conviction that circumstances cannot be controlled, but that the attitude with which one faces them can be.
"The Spirit of the Journey" was an idea pioneered by my great, great grandfather but it was one which I was struggling with. The steep road and blind curves were shrouded in an early morning fog. Each of the five cyclists was busy with the haranguing of their own demons.
Fires raged in our thighs, fuelled by the roughly two thousand meter climb up to Nuwara Eliya the day before. Tired and worn bodies pleaded with the masses of bamboo and metal to inch skyward. My mind sought distraction, and found it in the sweeping coastlines that we had passed through in the days before, to the fisherman outside Galle Fort.
His fingers tapped on the bicycle frame incredulously. "No..... No Bamboo". "Yes Bamboo!" I defended, explaining in a mix of broken Sinhalese and English that the bicycle was all natural, aside from the metal components of course. Speeding off and turning sharply into the path of a motorbike that horned in alarm, he wobbled back with a grin, obviously more comfortable on a boat than on two wheels.
He came from a family of fishermen, whose lives began and ended on the shores of Galle. His aspirations of following in their footsteps were shaken by his father's death, awakening a restless wanderlust or perhaps inspiring a life unlived. Bit by bit, he pieced together a vivid picture of Singapore through our conversation, and it was clear that he wanted to move there.
“Maybe I do lifeguard” he said as he bobbed in the water, clouds casting shadows over us.
The fisherman was obviously different from the others on that beach, who seemed much more content in their lives. The ocean in which he sailed was much bigger than his friends imagined, only because he saw possibility instead of uncertainty over the waves.
A future life was being examined and charted, despite the difficulties. Supporting himself and his family was essential, but he was searching for deeper meaning in his work. His simple, but measured aspirations made the excuses and complaints of those who had much more, fade into irrelevance. The only thing that separated us was an opportunity.
We were different only because of a cosmic roll of the dice.
Echoes of this idea would resonate in the green paddy fields we passed in a mixture of discussion and contemplation. The pulsing rhythm of spinning wheels fed our minds as Sri Lanka rolled by from the serenity of undulating hills to the chaos of cramped roads. Days passed and soon, the smell of diesel pumps mixed with mud filled our noses as we rode towards a large field. We were on the outskirts of Ratnapura.
The hole in the earth was about the size of a small car. Precariously braced on all sides with creaking wooden beams, trickles of water dripped into a shallow pool at the bottom, resting at the ankles of mud covered men. The sun was setting as the miners climbed out, washing their faces from a smoking water pump that had seen better days. The struggling machine was the only thing preventing the mine from flooding.
"You from where?" asked a short man, his wrinkled smile standing in stark contrast to a body battered by decades of manual labour.
He moved to Ratnapura from Nuwara Eliya after he got married, and started mining at a young age. The seduction of discovering glistening gems in the rough drew him in, and the necessity of supporting a growing family prevented him from climbing out.
Glancing at his children, he wondered if the people who could afford the precious stones thought about what he had to do to get them. As the years passed, money either flooded in when he got lucky or slowed to a trickle. Gem mines were dug and gem mines collapsed, people who went down didn't always make it back up.
Underground, the hands of fate and the will of gods made no distinction between race or religion. His history of Sri Lanka was peppered with rhetorical and philosophical musings. "They Tamil, me Sinhalese - but not drink one glass. Why that?" he asked sincerely. "I hungry, you hungry. We all same. You cut me, red blood. I cut you, red blood. We same."
The simple elegance of his mind reflected in the lightness of his being. He proudly introduced us to his family, and showered us with photographs from his past, biscuits and tea. The miner embodied a faceted clarity that was punctuated with hard truth. Death was never far from his words, not as a morbid finality, but acknowledged with a deep appreciation that he was able to exist in the world and experience life; if only for another moment under the light of a flickering torch in a crumbling wooden mine.
As he played with his children, it dawned on us that the dangers he faced served as a constant reminder of his mortality, and that he had no time to spend on anything but the relationships and experiences that mattered to him. The unadulterated joy in his eyes knew no bounds.
He had nothing, but was happier than world told him to be. The chatter of his pecking chickens and laughing children filled the air under the scarlet sky.
The beautiful insanity of the climb up Nuwara Eliya was now over, and we were back in the present. Time that was once stretched out in a surreal distortion with the agony of climbing, was rapidly compressing into itself. We rode towards Killinochi, a battle-scarred town emerging from the ashes of war. This was the longest leg of the ride, and we needed to cover the one hundred and sixty kilometres before sundown. It was about tempo now, the rhythmic motion of legs spinning cranks, sweat dripping off furrowed brows and onto oil-stained fingers that changed gears.
Things were not going well, and our collective patience was unravelling as we dodged smoke-spewing kamikaze buses while the bamboo bicycles bounced along long, unfinished roads. The farmer's family had spread chillis over a large tarpaulin to dry them in the sun.
He hilariously offered us some as a snack as we rolled into his garden in front of the farm, both physically and mentally exhausted. We barely noticed the disappearing light, as we sipped tea under the comforting blanket of stars outside his home; mish-mash conversations occasionally punctuated by the sound of our tents flapping in the wind.
I sat next to the farmer and his daughter who showed us her beautiful handwriting with a uniquely quiet pride. She was 10 years old and determined to become a teacher. We talked about our journey and the places we had been, trying to draw similarities between the tea estates and his land. While he nodded politely, I felt that the exquisite emerald hills of Nuwara Eliya meant nothing but a passing curiosity to him.
The romance of agriculture had melted away a long time ago. All that was left was hard land and harder sun, where only the toughest had any chance of making it through another season. Even then, he said, there were no guarantees. The farmer recounted how a price drop in the last harvest nearly resulted in his family going hungry, if not for intervention by the powers that be. His fate and the destiny of his family lay in the invisible hand of the market.
Despite all the difficulties he faced, his smile betrayed nothing but a sincere desire to share what he little had; the warmth of his family, beyond description. It was difficult to imagine that major battles occurred a few kilometres away just a few years before. His daughter made complete sense as we got to know the man, who himself embodied true grit.
His thoughts were planted firmly in the future; banding groups of farmers together in collectives to negotiate better rates for their crops, working with local NGOs to develop better irrigation systems, and providing the chances he never had for his young daughter. Dust and sweat couldn’t conceal a rugged disposition that knew that there was no easy path to success, a stubborn unblinking commitment the only way forward. He was a product of his environment and of his experience but always tempered with compassion.
Leaning back in his chair, he looked up at the sky and said: “You are almost there.”
Images and words of the three men were all that remained on the final push to the northern lighthouse under a crimson sunset. We sped through the streets of Jaffna dodging swarms of motorcyclists while racing each other, manic laughter the only trace of our fleeting presence. This was the end of the road. We would fold the maps. We would pack the bags. We would fly home to our comfortable normality. There was just one problem. “We” could never go back. The power of unique perspectives from the humblest of origins, and the hopes and dreams of people who gave us more than they should have would ripple through our minds.
These three stories were just some of many that transpired, but each and everyone served to erode sweeping preconceptions and stubborn prejudices. Latticed shadows of passing clouds sailed across sunburnt skin as evening wind kissed our dry lips. The question was always why. You could travel faster in an air-conditioned car, or experience a place from behind the glass of a frosted hotel window.
When choices are made that are contingent on the avoidance of potential pain, we might be left numb to the world, forever banished from experiencing the intimacy of humanity, or worse – never knowing the bottomless strength that lies within us all.
The Fisherman, Miner & Farmer.