Sunday, March 21, 2010

Feeling the Pull

Well I'm heading back to pack a bag
To head out on the road

Every time I travel, I'm asked what I take with me, how I manage with only a small backpack. I've got this backpacking thing down to a routine now, and have arrived at the right number of shirts, socks and toiletries to keep myself in humble yet reasonably clean shape for months on end.

Below is the contents of my backpack for this trip, arranged in my best approximation of my friend Ellen's style of arranging her groceries for her food blog.

Everything that I've taken with me is in that photo except for a small bag containing my camera and an extra lens, my shoes, the pair of pants I wore on the plane, and my small toiletry bag. The packing list is as follows:

Clothes (all quick-drying, moisture-wicking)
3 pairs shorts
2 pairs pants
3 pairs socks
3 pairs underwear
Sturdy shoes
3 T-shirts
1 collared shirt
Spare glasses

2 bottles Dr. Bronners (used as soap, shampoo, laundry detergent)
Deet 20% lotion
Razors/Shaving cream
Emergency toilet paper
Allergy medication
Doxycyclene (anti-malaria)
Cyprofloxacin (antibiotic)
Hair product
Fingernail clipper
Bandages/first aid
Travel towel (quick-drying)
Hand Sanitizer (2 bottles)

Tools, etc
Pocket notebook
Dust masks (I’m going to some pretty stinky and dirty places)
Retractable cable lock
Small combination locks
Silk sleep sheet
Bug nets (1 bed-size, 1 head-size)
Ear plugs
Watch with alarm
Maps & books
Ziploc bags
3 Clif bars (emergency snacks)
Medevac insurance
Sleep mask
Cell phone & charger
Travel clothesline
Travel pillow
Glasses cloth & cleaner

Camera bag
3 lenses
Point & shoot
Battery chargers
Spare batteries
Portable hard drive

That's it. As I packed and endured nearly 24 hours of flying to reach Colombo, Sri Lanka, I thought about how living light like this requires no small effort. The planning, the negotiation for the time off, the nightly washing of clothes, the sweat and the dirt, the discomfort for days-- in order to sign up for this stuff, I really have to want it.
And while I thought about all that I'd done and all that I would go through, I had to ask myself, do I really want it, or do I just do this stuff out of habit? As each year passes, I feel compelled to try something like this again, but I was asking myself why.

I'm feeling the pull
Dragging me off again
I'm feeling so small against the sky tonight

I arrived in Colombo at around 3:30 in the morning. I'd flown for the better part fo a day, stopping off in Bangkok long enough to catch up with some old friends from my first visit to Asia, as well as a daylong run through Asia's wildest marketplace: the Chatuchak market. After sleeping a few hours in Colombo, I awoke a little tired, a little confused. It had been upwards of 103 degrees in Bangkok and Colombo would be no respite. I took my last deep breath of air-conditioned oxygen and stepped out into the crushing heat.

I was staying in the Fort neighborhood, so-called because the Portuguese, Dutch and British jockeyed for ownership of the colonial fort located there, along with overall colonial domination of the island for production and trade of cinnamon, coffee, and tea.

Crumbling colonial buildings stood adjacent to the modern World Trade Center buildings, under which a people scurried about: some off to work in the office buildings, and many offering up food, tuk-tuk rides, or headed off to less fancy places of work.

Looking for a way to ease into the heat, I turned off the main street into an alleyway where I saw a truck being loaded with enormous bunches of fresh bananas. Behind the truck was a warehouse, and in the warehouse the noise of the city gave way to a gentle murmur of voices haggling over prices and quantities of the green-skinned fruit.

I chatted up the man overseeing the operation. He’d been in the business for a couple decades, taking over hi s father’s business. The warehouse itself was nothing short of atmospheric. The lighting and colors were surreal. The grimy walls were illuminated by sunlight sneaking through the cracks in the rotting ceiling. Green bunches of bananas were hauled from one trader to the next, while handfuls of grimy currency were handed back.

Banana Merchant, Colombo

As a kid, my favorite rides at Disneyland were those that created a world I could get lost in. Where each dead end had the sound of a dripping faucet, a creaking board, or something else that would suggest the rest of the story around that particular place. Warehouses like this are my grown-up version of Disneyland: I imagined the hundreds of years across which food and spices have been traded within this very same building.

Peppers & Limes, Colombo

I spent half the day exploring Manning Market and the nearby bazaar. I stopped for a couple teas, sweetened and frothed by pouring them at an arm's length from the cup. As afternoon arrived, I played marbles with some kids in an alley and Carrom board with some youths along another street.

Carrom Board, Colombo

Sleeping Tigers

My intent in Sri Lanka was to get north, though. I wanted to go to Jaffna, just recently declared peaceful after about 30 years of civil war with the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers.

The LTTE represented one of the two majority races in Sri Lanka: the Indian, Hindu Tamils, who vied for leadership and political representation against the majority Buddhist Sinhalese. The Sinhalese have led the country from the south for many years, while the Tamils have fought to secede Jaffna and the north. The armed struggle brought the concept of suicide bombers to the world, and took around 100,000 lives.

In May 2009, the LTTE admitted defeat, however, and the war was said to be over. Reports were conflicted as to whether the A9 highway was accessible and open to foreign tourists, but multiple articles published by the government-run Sunday Observer led me to believe there was a chance I could be one of the first tourists to see Jaffna in decades.

I took a long and circuitous tuk-tuk ride to the offices of AirExpo, an airliner said to serve Jaffna. One rumor was that tourists had to fly north and then could drive back south from Jaffna, so this seemed like a valid option. When I got to the offices, a young man with a shaved head overheard my request for an air ticket to Jaffna.

"Oh, I am sorry, broddah: we're not serving Jaffna right now. The government has restricted flights up north. Perhaps Aero Lanka is still serving Jaffna."

The man, who I later learned was named Ziyan, picked up hi mobile phone and started asking questions in Sinhalese of someone on the other line. Simultaneously, he snapped his fingers at another man who handed him another cell phone and Ziyan balanced both conversations while ordering me a glass of water, telling me to make myself comfortable, telling his coworkers he'd have a drink with them later and asking someone, anyone, for a cigarette.

"Here's the deal," Ziyan explained, after several phone calls. "With the election coming soon, no flights are going to Jaffna. You can charter a helicopter, but that is going to be massively expensive."

Tea stall owner explaining the upcoming election

"What about the road? How about I just start taking buses and if I get turned away, so be it?"

Ziyan then got down to business. It turns out that he has to entertain a lot of out-of-town guests for his business. Ziyan knows people. he explained that he knew a chauffeur well who could drive me wherever I wanted for a few days for the same price I would have paid for that one-way flight. Was I interested? "Excellent. First, let me give you a quick tour of my city, then you'll meet Harold the driver, and then you'll meet my family, have some dinner, and then we'll go for a ride in a propah kitted-up performance car. You ready for that?!"

I was. Ziyan is in the process of expanding a side business; a small car repair garage. We swung over to the garage and chatted with the grubby guys while they rebuilt a car engine. Cows ambled by while the guys used makeshift tools to resuscitate the car. We then cruised over to his home and met his wife and kids. He lives in a nice, suburban home with a large tile living room where his boy rode his training-wheeled bike in circles while we caught up on Facebook and ate some dinner his wife provided.

Ziyan introduced me to Harold, the driver, and explained what I wanted from my trip. And in-between stops, Ziyan convinced his boss' son that I was new in town, about to move here for a year on business and that I was in the market for a turbo-charged car. He needed Hassan to take us for a spin to show me the car.

Hassan has a souped up Subaru WRX, with turbochargers and all the racing kits. He took us to a quiet residential area where apparently street races take place on the weekends where the stakes are the car you're driving. Hassan hadn't lost yet.

With a flat affect, Hassan listed the sales points of the highly customized car, the asking price of 2.2 million rupees, and tips on how to make the most of the loud turbochargers. And then he punched it up to a mindbending speed within a block, and smoothly brought us back down to a tight, controlled turn around the next roundabout.

In one short day, I'd seen a lot. From poor, working-class folks trading food and spices in an ancient building, to up-and-coming suburbanites in race cars. I answered my own question that night: This is why I endure the heat and the hassle. If I had to stop traveling at some point, I could probably carry on with life, but full days of adventure like this make it tempting to push for these trips any time I can.


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