Dear Ari, A Cautionary Tale

Dear Ari,

Hi, my brother! Or shall I say “Ayubowan”–that’s the most common Sri Lankan greeting, which translates literally to “long life” or “may you live long.” If this shows up on your computer screen, you’ll be able to see it in all its glory: ආයුඛෝවන් .

Many of the past letters in this series have been more general reflections on my trip; either depicting broad verbal brushstrokes of a place, or sharing about feelings that have arisen as a result of my circumstances. Today, however, I have one specific story to tell. It’s not a particularly pretty one. But in the arc of my travels, it feels important to share.

Let’s tell the story as if you were in Sri Lanka with me, yesterday. We had just parted ways with my parents, who decided to hop on a tuk tuk and forego the heat when heading to our next destination, about 2km away. You and I enjoyed the walk: stretching our legs and having temporary respite from traveling as a bigger group. We walked past the Sri Lanka air force base, where we were greeted jovialy by several guards: “hi! How are you?” The day was hot, but not suffocatingly so; we’d forgotten to put sunscreen on our sandaled feet, which was our biggest concern for a few moments.

As we were nearing a fork in the road, we came up next to a man in a suit, walking just slightly slower than we were. Nice slacks, white shirt and tailored buttoned-up jacket. Clean shoes. When we walked past, he noticed us and picked up his pace to match ours; made some sort of warm introductory comment. We wouldn’t necessarily have entertained him, but he was charming, spoke with good English, seemed genuinely curious and kind. He also seemed to understand American customs and manners, which made him feel especially safe. He was delighted to learn that we were from the United States, and told us his sister lived and worked in Canada. We asked what part of Canada–he shrugged and said he didn’t remember. He told us that he worked in the hotel just across the way, as a bar manager. But today, he was off for holiday, as it was a national holiday in Sri Lanka. And indeed, we knew it was a holiday: the Tamil Thai Pongal Day. What we didn’t know–and what he was shocked to learn that we didn’t know–was that it was the very most auspicious day of the year: the day of the elephant festival. Not only that, but there were live elephants available to view! Right now! Right this very instant! Would we like to go see? We should go see!

You and I, brother, we hesitated for a moment. We weighed our options carefully. We were curious; interested in seizing opportunities, fending off a mild case of FOMO (miss the once in a lifetime chance to see something extraordinary? How could we?). And this guy wasn’t dangerous. We have good spidey sense, good instincts. This dude definitely wasn’t going to hurt us. We were on busy streets, and there were people all around. We weren’t worried.

At that literal and metaphorical fork in the road, we made a decision. We looked at each other and thought, when will we next be in Sri Lanka? We turned right, instead of left. We texted my parents, telling them we were going to the elephant festival. We followed the kind guy, sharing conversation, chuckles, cheerful anticipation of the sights ahead.

Once we’d made the decision, and turned the corner in the opposite direction from where we were intending to go, there was a wide expanse of road ahead. The man told us we were still a distance from the ceremony, and since we were short on time, why don’t we take a tuk tuk to get there? Coincidentally, one pulled up just as we were discussing this. And, this time, we balked for a longer moment. We hemmed and hawwed a little more obviously. We were torn. Suddenly, this excursion was becoming longer and lengthier and more complicated than we had planned, and a mild suspicion began to arise. We decided to tell our new friend that we weren’t comfortable riding with him in the tuk tuk alone, and he told us: “fine! I’ll ride in a different one, right behind!” And, interestingly, after carefully gauging the situation, we assented. After all, we had a solid escape route, a working cell phone, a key in our wallet that we could use as a weapon if need be. We were likely not stronger than the guy, but we were both taller (okay, you were probably about his height). We had voices that we knew were wildly threatening when engaged to their full level of grandeur. And we were on a big busy street.

We had a hackles-up moment, however, when our friend hopped in the tuk tuk next to us, rather than riding in one behind as he’d promised. “It will be no problem,” he said, “just a short ride!” And it was, as he promised, but that short ride was unnerving. Suddenly, there were warning signs, and we didn’t feel completely in control: our primary escape route was blocked. The tuk tuk was licensed, but not running a meter. The guy continued to chatter on, but we stopped listening completely; kept our eyes on the road to make sure we were staying in populated areas, answered his questions only with quick assenting or dissenting statements. “You are so lucky to live in America,” he said! “She reminds me of my sister!” he told you about me. But he was not distracting us anymore. We were focused. Our thoughts were on one thing: there better be an elephant festival…

After 7 minutes or so, we arrived at our destination, tucked close to a famous temple we recognized. We knew where we were, and breathed a sigh of relief. We got out of the tuk tuk and were surrounded by people, which let us breathe even deeper. And, look! There was, indeed, a live elephant. However, there was just one. And unlike so many we’d seen on safari, she was chained in a small area–stepping back and forth with movements that we couldn’t help but interpret as distressed. She was just a baby elephant; trunk waving up and down as she chewed stalks of palm that her keeper thrust at her when we arrived. “Take pictures,” they told us! “Want to pet it?” We declined.

Our new friend then told us we could get back in the tuk tuk, and it would take us wherever we wanted to go. At that point, however, we were completely disenchanted, and had had enough. No, we didn’t feel unsafe. But yes, there were moments we’d felt afraid, and yes, we were pretty clear that this whole thing was a ruse. This sad trapped elephant was likely always there. The “elephant festival” was not a real festival. Did the man even have a sister? What was real, and what was not? We declined his offer to continue the ride.

And that’s when things got hairy. Our “friend” became insistent that we continue our Tuk Tuk ride; when we declined more forcefully, he became quite upset. We told him, “we’ll pay for whatever we owe you for the last ride, then be on our way.” He told us we were far from our destination, we couldn’t possibly walk, why wouldn’t we just ride? We stuck to our guns. Smiling all the way, but not giving in. Standing our ground. (All that grounding practice we’ve been doing served us well, brother.) We repeated several times: “what do we owe you, sir?” He finally barked out: “5,000 rupees.”

To give some perspective for a moment: a short tuk tuk ride typically costs about 100 rupees. The most we ever paid was for a drive across town, 6km or so, for 340. What he was asking was about 50 times more than he was owed.

So, brother, what did we do? We laughed. And this is the one part of the day that I am actually proud of. We laughed–not unkindly, but in disbelief. We said “I’ll give you 50.” He began to protest, loudly. We told him “We have never once paid more than 100 rupees for a tuk tuk ride” (slight fib, but what goes around, comes around…). He oscillated between scornful blubbering and mouth agape in anger and disbelief. We said: “here’s 100 rupees. If you don’t accept it, our “friend” here can pay instead. 100 rupees, take it or leave it.” Finally, we didn’t leave space for negotiation. We made our decision and stuck to it. We took out 100 rupees, waved it in his face, let him take it–with disgust smeared across his face–and then walked quickly away. With purpose and intention. Without looking back.

We noticed we were shaking a bit, less in fear than in anger (though those two are, admittedly, intertwined). We were glad we hadn’t lost our temper; that we’d stayed present, firm, without winding ourselves into that ever-alluring state of fight or flight. We were so glad things hadn’t escalated any further. But we were angry: with the men who tried to take advantage of us, yes, but also with ourselves. For being stupid enough to buy their lies. For questioning, but going along with it. For feeling like we’d been pushovers. For taking so long to be assertive, rather than dissenting.

And oh, brother. How I wish you were really there with me. Also, I wonder what we would have done, had there really been two of us walking together. Would we have gotten in that tuk tuk? Would we have let that man bully you? (Would he have even tried?)

I know you can’t give a straightforward answer, and that it’s reductionist for me to simply berate myself for “doing the wrong thing.” There’s not a right and a wrong here. There’s spaciousness for me to learn, and also, to be gentle rather than let self-inflicted shame devour me. You know about this, brother. You know about not standing up for oneself, being bullied into decisions or situations that didn’t feel in alignment. You also intimately know the feeling of shame–as I do, as so many others (most every? all?) others do. One of the things I respect and adore about you most is the way you share your truth with me, no matter how shining bright or painfully dark it may be. Seeing our journeys, separate and entangled, as we struggle through the throes of health and wellness, anxiety and freedom, fear and love–how supportive it feels, to know you’re right there with me.

And I imagine the men that tried to rip us off, brother, felt just as trapped as that elephant. I imagine some others in pockets of Sri Lankan society do, as well–especially women, who are traditionally culturally repressed. I don’t completely understand why our “friend” did what he did. I can’t decide whether or not he is friend or enemy; my current postulation is that he’s neither, both, an amazing confluence of projection and reflection and fear. And, I forgive him.

I love you, brother Ari. Looking forward to seeing you soon.

PS Today’s cover shot was taken from the back of a tuk tuk. Not the one described we were in together in the story I just shared, but our vantage point on that harrowing ride looked–for all intents and purposes–identical. (Though our driver to the elephant didn’t have such a fabulous shirt.)

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