Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Tribute to TCF

Nothing makes you feel more like a giant than sitting on small wooden chairs surrounded by tiny first graders in their classroom.  For a classroom observation, we are supposed to slip into a class quietly and just sit in the back. We’re not to make any comments and neither is the teacher supposed to pay any attention to us. The idea is, of course, to observe a class as would be without your presence.

My favorite class to observe is always in the pre-primary section where the students weigh almost the same as their chunky book bags and want at any point in time to color in their workbooks. The children are curious and bright-eyed, they keep peaking over their shoulders and giggling when they catch my eye. “Are you our new teacher?” they would often ask (in their minds all females on school premises are teachers).

There is one special memory from these classroom observations that  sticks out and makes me smile even now. The teacher was walking around the classroom, talking about plants or insects when this cheeky little critter raised his hand – “Teacher! There’s someone in our class!” he pointed out the obvious.
The teacher smiled sheepishly. “Yes, that’s okay,”
“But teacher, you aren’t even looking at her! She’s right here, why aren’t you even talking to her or even looking at her?” he persisted and both the teacher and I burst out laughing.
I was so happy that the boy had noticed something and had the comfort and confidence to say it out loud in his classroom. In that locality, the only options for education are government schools, where the best case scenario might be a classroom without any teachers and the worst case scenario where a teacher kills the curiosity and creativity of her students, discouraging any critical thinking or questioning.

Working at The Citizens Foundation has given me this very special album of memories that I can sift through and feel a happiness that brings tears to my eyes. More than that, the organization has given me something that too many people never experience in their lifetime – a purpose, a feeling that my life has meaning. I am eternally grateful for that. For someone who was always angsty – as a teenager I teetered at the edge of the existential cliff, and growing up the inequity of life along with the emphemeral nature of everything always prodded at my heart. Joining TCF gave me an answer to the question of “but what’s the point?”
The point is, of course, to strive. It is not to make the world perfect but to continue to try and make little pockets of life around you better.

I was working at the TCF Head Office, which is full of good people led by great people (you do need good people to do good work – you can’t have one without the other), and for the annual results’ day everyone is required to go visit a school.

On one of these visits, the principal made a special mention of a student whose father had died recently but his mother had hung on and supported her son through the tough times and that day, the boy had achieved the highest marks in his class. As he went up to the stage to get his prize the mother stood up and clapped the hardest any mother can clap, her eyes shining with tears. The pride of the mother was palpable and it hit all the surrounding hearts with its strength. The principal called her up on the stage and later congratulated all the parents for their role in their children’s success.

Moments like these are not exceptions – the network of our schools is peppered with stories of success, struggle, love and labor: principals who have turned entire schools around, teachers who talk about their students with such affection that it melts your heart, students who are confident enough to come to the front of the classroom and talk about their favorite pet or to the front of the entire schools and debate on the rights of women.
I was blessed to have worked for an organization that gave me the chance to be surrounded by such hope. I listen to my family and friends talk about unfulfilling jobs, the stresses of waking up every day for something that your heart doesn’t participate in, and I think – well, yes, I do not like waking up at 7:30 am … but whenever I enter my office, the sight of our tea stations and the realization that there is great work to be done, makes it worthwhile.

And if I need to be reminded of it, all I have to do is book a rickety Bolan van and zip across the potholed roads and dirt-strewn streets to one of our beautiful schools. And therein lies something even more beautiful than our school buildings – hope in the form of honest principals, hardworking teachers and brilliant students. 

Ceylon Dreams V: Suffused in Tea

One of my favourite slogans, aptly carved on a wooden sign outside a chai shack in Karachi, is: “Live Life, Love Tea” and the drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is perfect for living life and loving tea.

Bernard had very kindly arranged a driver and car for us to take us on the rest of our journey (he told us if we wanted to keep it cheap, trains and buses was the way to go but a car was more convenient) and we had another wholesome Sri Lankan breakfast before leaving the next morning. Our driver was pleasant, providing interesting facts about the animals or plants at an interval of 20 miles.

The clouds were still low, a beautiful blue-gray that made the green of the hills and plantations stand out even brighter. The color of tea-leaves is a special green, so vibrant it’s almost gold, a fresh young green that seems to be lit up from the inside.
Our driver had promised to take us to the more famous of the tea factories that lay scattered around the hills, some shabbier than others.

The one we went to was beautiful. Originally set up by the British, it had been transferred over to the Sri Lankans and was now charmingly called Mackwoods-Labookellie (can you spot the British part of the name?). The factory stood sturdy and gray, three or four floors, and across a clean, cobbled driveway was the little lodge that housed the café and shop. The lodge with its sloping green roof and grey stone walls, shiny polished wooden interior and cute little portraits seemed more European than Sri Lankan but I absolutely adored it. There was a large Christmas tree inside and a fake Santa with his fake sled and reindeer in the courtyard; beautifully manicured patches of lawn with bright pink red yellow flowers and an outdoor seating area as well with heavy wrought iron chairs and tables painted an elegant white. Everything was wet but it had stopped raining, which meant the air was cool but we could still walk outside without getting drenched. The weather gods were being kind!

We could walk to the edge of the hill which overlooked the plantations below. Little splotches of color moved amongst the brilliant green, mostly female workers picking the leaves. A large ‘Mackwoods’ sign splayed the hills across in white block letters (the Hollywood of tea!).
We were served cups of Ceylon tea, a lovely deep red-brown color, and we asked for a piece of chocolate cake too. When the bill came we realized the tea was free and like any self-respecting economical Pakistani, I was absolutely delighted. 

Then we signed up for the quick 15-minute tour (also free!) where we learned the four main steps of making tea leaves. The only place that really cost money was the tea shop and since we didn’t buy anything, it turned out to be a very thrifty stop for us!
The drive through up and down the winding green hills to Nuwara Eliya was absolutely breathtaking. There was a viewpoint from where we saw three waterfalls at different spots gushing through dense trees, while the river snaked silver blue like a crooked smile on the earth’s brown face.

It was raining when we entered Nuwara Eliya, the tiny green town nicknamed ‘Little England’. We passed through what appeared to be a giant wasteland with sad swans parked on the muddy embankments. “Lake Gregory,” announced our driver. “It’s been emptied out for cleaning.”
It must have been an idyllic scene when the lake was actually a lake: the calm blue waters with happy sappy couples in the swan-boats that now perched empty and plasticky in the swampy land. Trickles of streams ran through the emptied out lake, whichwas wide enough to be on both sides of the road, cute bridges and paddle boat rentals silent and still as well.
Oh well, I thought.
A very muddy dirt road led to our first hotel, Villa Tea Fields, – it was more of a guesthouse with just four rooms in a wooden hut. There was a balcony that looked out on to a tea plantation and the keeper was nice enough to show me the room we didn’t get because it had already been booked out – the best part was its bathroom which had a pure white ceramic bathtub right by wide open French windows – everything was shiny white inside which made the bright green of the tea leaves outside stand out even more. What an amazing place for a hot bath!

Nuwara Eliya was a good ten, fifteen degrees cooler than Kandy and we quickly donned our sweaters.
We had lunch with our driver in a very busy Chinese restaurant and then we bade farewell to him for the day – we were going to walk around the city and find our way back to the inn. The next morning we were planning a pre-dawn start to Horton’s National Plains, a national park that led to the ‘edge of the world’ where clouds shrouded the spectacular view from the cliff if you went after 10 am!
I was very excited about it – a two hour trek to the viewpoint through grassy fields and smoky scented trees and exotic birds and streams and perhaps a waterfall or two, and then at the edge we would have our breakfast, with the whole valley laid out below in a patchwork of greens blues and browns!

And so, after lunch at Nuwara Eliya we told our driver to rest up. Who also gave us his umbrella, sweet man! We walked through the market which reminded me of Sunday Bazaar in Karachi or even Zainab Market in Saddar. There were plenty of secondhand winter clothes to go along, hanging woolenly outside shops, getting damper by the minute.
Nuwara Eliya was chock full of hotels and guesthouses, piled one behind the other in a cacophony of cement and color, but most of the construction was limited to a certain area. The rest of the town had beautiful gardens and well-maintained parks. We saw the cute little bright red post office and then took a tuk-tuk to Grand Hotel, a five-star beautiful hotel with wide lawns and animal-shaped hedges. It was very colonial with its sloping red roofs and brown stripes down the white walls and windows. The inside was grand as well and Fahad and I felt a wee bit conscious in our hoodies and sneakers (Fahad’s hoodie actually has a hole in it.) out from the tuk-tuk while grand ladies and gentlemen pulled up in their fancy cars with shiny umbrellas!

The inside was glamorous as well, high ceilings grand piano plush sofas a beautiful Christmas tree. As self-conscious as we felt,to their credit, everybody was super polite.We ended up having high tea right by the open door that looked out to the outdoor seating area and the gardens.

After macaroons, little sandwiches and creamy pastries, we walked down the grand driveway and took a tuk-tuk back to our cute little B’n’B. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ceylon Dreams IV: Sweet Kandy

You know the kind of vacation in which you wake up late, stretch luxuriously in a soft bed with creamy white sheets and feathery pillows and then keep lying for another hour or so, languid and lazy? The kind where you spend half the day indoors on a comfy couch in front of the TV or by the hotel pool ordering pink cocktails and mango juice? Yeah, I don’t do those.
I guess you could call me annoyingly perky and organized but I prefer the word adventurous or the phrase ‘making the most of a holiday’. And you might curse me when it’s time to wake up but later on you’ll like me – when we avoid traffic and long queues or see a beautiful garden or a quaint café all without getting lost more than once. Don’t get me wrong, I also enjoy getting lost and just strolling aimlessly in a neighborhood but I always have a plan A – and usually plan B.

Now my husband – not so much. It’s kind of like a see-saw, it takes a few tries but eventually you can reach that balance in which neither of you is stuck at the bottom (of course, if it was actually a see-saw then hanging in a balance is actually a pretty boring position but in life it feels good.)
So I was up, dressed and done with my first cup of coffee and conversation with Bernard by the time Fahad rolled out of bed. I also had to push our breakfast time to 10 am, apologetically lying that my husband wasn’t feeling well after our arduous (!) journey yesterday.

It was a beautiful day in Kandy, the sun was out, the sky was a fresh happy blue but there were plenty of large white clouds too, a morning breeze fluttered the green leaves and orange flowers on the trees in our garden. A stone bench and wrought iron table on a small square of grass overlooked the city of Kandy, probably the highlight of our Airbnb apartment.

Bernard invited us up for breakfast where his cook had laid out a scrumptious spread, string hoppers, potato curry, the fried coconut masala, curried jackfruit, scrambled eggs, toast, fruit and coffee.
Bernard’s apartment was also sparse, lots of open space, two dining tables for his guests and a couple of sofas. He had photographs of his daughters on a cabinet along with books and their degrees. Their bedrooms were on the mezzanine floor and the kitchen was the busiest looking part.

Bernard’s cook was also a tuk-tuk driver and he took us to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, a few miles just outside of the main Kandy city. We spent the entire morning in the gardens, walking the beautifully maintained paths through trees from around the world. The botanical garden had its roots in the 1800s (roots! get it? haha.) and there were some enormous trees with trunks so wide you would need five long-armed people standing finger to finger with their arms stretched out to go around it! Lots of palm trees and bamboo clusters as well, with the paper-thin barks of bamboo rolled up like rough parchment paper on the grounds, secret messages from the squirrels to the bees.
The friendly wind kept us cool and we had a lovely morning, ending it with iced tea from the café.

We went to the city center next which was chock full of buses – I had no idea Kandy was such a central point for travel. We went to the famous Kandy Muslim Hotel; I tried to calm Fahad’s apprehensions about the name, quoting my favorite travel website's reviews but it wasn’t till he actually tasted the food that he admitted it was a great decision. The hotel, which is actually a two-storied restaurant (perhaps it had some rooms too) in the bustling market area, was famous for its samosas, rice curries and parathas. We had a very buttery, heavy meal of soft doughy parathas broken into pieces and fried with chicken and veggies, absolutely delicious. A definite thumbs-up! The restaurant has a fairly roadside casual diner feel to it with dingy lighting, whirling fans and plastic table covers, but the food is delicious, the service quick and we sat by the windows through which the breeze kept us cool. By now the morning’s white clouds had turned darker, heavier.

We walked around the market, sat in the small square because we liked the song choice of some local boys who had set up a barbeque grill there. Later as we looked for a money exchanger, a man heard us and told us he knew of a jewelry shop that would give us a very good rate. I was apprehensive but Fahad said that’s just how it works – but the more the man talked, the more uncomfortable we got, and when he finally took us into a jewelry shop it turned out to be a Pakistani family’s and the men there didn’t seem too excited, they told us to come back later.

The man who had taken us there told us to follow him to another shop but we were pretty sure we didn’t want to – we tried to be polite and firm but he was one leechy man! It finally ended with us asking a tuk-tuk driver to take us somewhere and that man shouting ‘no, don’t take them anywhere! Find another tuk-tuk’ and a final farewell ‘fuck you!’
After the profusion of politeness and affection we’d been met with in the country, the rudeness of that man struck even more forcefully. The tuk-tuk man looked pretty embarrassed but we decided to just walk away. For some reason, one such fuck-you event seems to happen to us on each journey. Shows you that even the nicest of places have a couple of jackasses – evens the field out more you know!

Just before it started to rain we found a hippy café where the coffee was super expensive but served in beautiful china and the bathrooms clean, and there was wi-fi! Yay. And nice music. What better way to enjoy a downpour in the day than by a large glass window over a cup of strong creamy cappuccino and WhatsApping the perfection to friends back at home?

The rain stopped again and we walked to Sacred Tooth Temple, a lovely compound with fountains right by the lake. It was twilight by now and the light diffused yellow pink blue in the diffused soaked clouds, the air was cool and every now and then it sprinkled. We walked through the temple, read the story of Buddha’s sacred tooth, I got hit on by a 10 year old who told me he loved me and then we decided to head back home because it had started to rain again and I was deathly scared for my camera.

The man at the place where we had kept our shoes gave us a discount because we were their ‘Pakistani brothers’ and on our way back we stopped at a cute bar where we sat on the balcony while the old man in a cowboy hat inside played Christmas music.

We picked up sandwiches from our halal restaurant again, and ate inside our room, following the meal with a couple of rounds of Monopoly Deal.

Nothing like a lack of technology to bring a couple closer together and bond over card games. Not that we didn’t try – we went to a DVD store but they didn’t have USBs and the only thing we had was Fahad’s work laptop which didn’t have a DVD player (yeah, like what?!). The shop didn’t have any USBs so we made our peace with an early night (not much to do in Kandy at night but that’s what makes the days more fulfilling and beautiful). And really, one of my favorite things about Sri Lanka was the lack of TVs in the houses.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ceylon Dreams III: A Dramatic Train Ride

Hemingway stood crookedly by the sofa, his head bowed, his eyes droopy, his tail wagging sadly. He closed his eyes and wagged his tail with a little more enthusiasm as Fahad scratched his back and then flopped down, curling up contently on the cool cemented floor, nuzzling Fahad’s fingers.

It was a strange setting for a lounge, the couches and chairs actually faced one another, there was no TV for all eyes to congregate on and a beautiful wooden coffee table rested in the center, with an ashtray and two glasses of water (set without coasters, little drops of condensation cooling on the rim). The wide doors and all the windows in the house were open, but the clouds had drawn together in the sky like a thick gray woolen blanket so it was dark inside, the sweet dim light of a very rainy morning. A beautifully light cool breeze filtered into the room, the faint sweet scent of wet earth and freshly bathed green grass hung around us. The smoke from the Malay lady’s Gold Leaf hung lazily in the air, blue grey swirls, pale nostalgia.

We sat listening to the Malay lady’s stories about discovering what carrots look like – “I felt like such a donkey!” she said in her clear, loud accent, learning forward to ash her cigarette and smack her knee at the same time. “I thought they were ferns. The man looked at me as if I was the stupidest thing around!”

It was an interesting group sitting around the table, listening to the rain and talking about colonialism and organic vegetables: our host, her chubby preteen daughter with her sharp sudden giggle, her brother-in-law’s Malay wife and the Malay wife’s British-Pakistani daughter-in-law. And of course, Fahad and me, the sweet (they said so) couple from Pakistan.

We were all set to leave for the train station. By the time our taxi came, a few seconds after the latest o’clock that I had hoped it would reach by, the storm had dwindled to a forgetful drizzle. However it started to rain again by the time we were lugging our positively lazy floppy blue bag (it was a perfectly good bag till we stood it up - two seconds and it would plop down heavily, crushing bugs or a stray toe under its 26 kilos. It just wanted to lie prostrate all the time, or at least be leaned against a wall or leg for support.) down the busy platform in search of our elusive ‘F-C’ buggy.

The train station was busy and complicated with so many windows selling different kinds of tickets, it was a bit shabby but still clean. We were almost late and slowly getting damp from the rain that stole through the half roofs above the platforms, but we still managed to buy interesting local crackers and peanuts from a man near our bogey.

As it turned out, F-C was first class! It was quite a lovely cabin with leather chairs and apparently wooden floors. And its own split AC that made it too cold too soon. There was something very desi about the way the AC was put there – something a smart father would do at home to save money and provide comfort all together. The lights were very orange so it felt like we were viewing everything through a fire-tinted glass.

When the train started chugging along it felt like the driver was kind of drunk or that the wheels were crooked or that a giant boy was shaking our little cart from side to side in disgruntled play. The train ride felt too much like a boat in an incessantly choppy sea. “Will it be like this the entire time?” I asked Fahad and he presumed yes. I mean we got used to the rocking soon but I was getting antsy about how I would make my way to the ‘conveniently located’ bathrooms in the cabin with all this shaking and swerving.
The storm outside continued to thunder and glow, the scenery was a smudged painting of blue, grey and green, rivulets of water flowed down the window panes as if buckets were being overturned from above.

About two hours into our trip, our train slowed to a stop. The sudden calm and stillness was almost gratifying. Also, Fahad and I were absolutely starving by now. The Sri Lankan breakfast was wholesome and delicious but it had been several hours since and all we’d had were the snacks from the station. We asked if there was food on the train and were presented with a menu – we figured the instant noodles in a cup would be easy to eat.

A few minutes later the service boy came, propped open a plastic table right in front of us and expertly swished a black cloth over the table – he then laid down our plastic cups and forks on the table. It was definitely the most proper instant-noodle eating experience! And of course, nothing turns grub into gourmet like hunger. It was the most satisfying meal imagined on a train.

However soon a discontent started rumbling through the cabin, murmurs and whispers, predictions and rumors. Turns out a huge tree had fallen across the tracks because of the storm. We were halfway between Kandy and Colombo and so, either way help from the city would take a while to reach and it was expected the train was going to stay put for at least another 3-4 hours.

It was already past 5 pm – about the time we should have reached Kandy (where our kind host was going to pick us up from the station) and completely dark outside. We were at a small station in the middle of nowhere (well actually it was right between Colombo and Kandy but fairly small, rural and lowkey) and really not in the mood to wait another three hours.  Fahad overheard some local passengers discussing renting a van to Kandy and struck up a quick friendship. The strangers were kind enough to ask us to join them; they knew someone who called a van with a chauffeur willing to take us to Kandy for another Rs1,200 per head.
“It’s really dark and I’ve heard the roads to Kandy are quite dangerous, especially in the rain,” an anxious American lady said. “I don’t want to risk anything, I’ve got my children too. And we really don’t know where we are!” I told her I would have probably done the same if I had kids, wished her luck and waving goodbye, I hopped off the train into squelchy grass.

The way was a little treacherous, winding uphill with narrow sharp curves that the driver turned around as if his was the only vehicle on a private go-kart track, a driving style that is as familiar to a Karachiite as chai. There were no lights and every now and then it would start to drizzle. The Sri Lankan who had so generously taken on two complete strangers from Pakistan was probably a couple of years younger than us, recently graduated and in the business of gems. We talked the entire 1.5 hour ride to Kandy. He even helped us coordinate with our host and gave us his number in case we needed anything else.

When we got to Kandy our host was waiting in his blue jeep, in very good spirits despite the inconvenience of our late arrival – it was around 9 pm by now. His house was on top of a winding hill, halfway between the twinkling stars in the sky and the twinkling lights of houses below. The air was sticky but cool and our apartment was completely separate with a small lounge, kitchenette and bedroom. Our hosts, Bernard and his wife, lived a staircase away in their own detached complex. He guided us to food options and a few minutes later, we walked down the steep path, which was completely dark and crowded in on both sides by trees and bushes, to the main road below.  

There were a few roadside takeaway food carts and the restaurant we were told about was above a grocery store and served halal food so there were a lot of Muslim families sitting there. We ate mediocre sandwiches that we were still grateful for and got a small bottle of instant coffee powder, sugar and milk from the store. I always get very excited about making coffee – just the thought of a bright cup full of sweet, strong coffee – or tea – brings comfort to my soul and I beamed thinking about sitting outside our room in the garden, looking out at the beautiful lights below and breathing in the smell of coffee, the warmth of the cup in our hands, the perfect end to a tiring day. However when we got back I realized there was no stove or electric kettle in our kitchenette. Ah well! Coffee would have to wait till morning.

For now, our exciting train journey turned into a friendly bus ride had finally ended with us finally in bed in Kandy – which would open up like a bright book the next day.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Ceylon Dreams II: Temple Stroll

Breakfast was served in the kitchen, with the door firmly closed to prevent Daisy from eating our eggs. There were string hoppers, steamed rice noodles, to be had with potato curry and coconut, chopped and fried with onions and red chilies, an absolutely delicious combination. The bread was thick and charmingly uneven, wholesomely dipped in the runny yolk of sunny-side up eggs, fresh juice and a cup of dark brewed steaming Ceylon tea.
Just remembering the breakfast is enough to lighten the dreariness of a Monday at work!

Our hostess cautioned us to avoid the roads between 12 to 2, which is heavy traffic time due to the schools getting off around then and we promised to be back well in time for a taxi ride to the train station, since we were leaving for Kandy the same day.

We took a tuk-tuk to one of the more popular temples. Like Thailand, the tuk-tuks in Srilanka were snazzier versions of the Pakistani rickshaws, clean and neat, fairly standardized in solid colors save for a few outliers that had Bob Marley seat covers or elaborate tiger-printed backdrops. Most of the tuk-tuks had a subtle religious icon inside but there were many that had symbols of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam altogether, showcased next to one another, warming my heart and blowing some cool peace into my mind.

It was a humid day with some clouds and a forgetful breeze that stirred every now and then to keep the temperatures from soaring too high. As we walked towards the sweet white dome of Seema Malaka, a temple that rests on the placid dark lake, a gangplank distance from the sidewalk, we saw men string red, blue, green lights on trees, probably Christmas decorations that turn the area into a twinkling shiny happy town at night.

A beautiful dragonfly, a startlingly ugly duck with its spattered textured neck and bright red beak, a friendly, calm Buddha amidst the old branches of a large tree and the quietude of the inside hall – about 45 minutes well spent I think. Then up the road and across to the less solemn, eclectic Gangaramaya. The temple was huge with smaller complexes in between that included a platform with a tree as its center, pieces of red, blue, yellow cloth mystically blowing in the wind, the scent of incense sticks around the trunk as people sat and prayed around it; an indoor room with bright paintings depicting holy stories and yellow idols at the altar. There were two small museum/gift shops that housed small statues, paintings, antiques and brightly lit holiness, and inexplicably, two antique limousines that tourists could not sit in but lean awkwardly with for their compulsory photographs.

After our walk around the interesting compound, we decided to stroll around in the city, stopping by a shop to drink a brightly colored cola. It was icy cold, which felt excellent since we had started to sweat by now – seemed to be building up for rain.

I loved the polite traffic – even in the main city, people stopped their cars and bikes to let you cross the road, something which always fills me to the brim with overwhelming affection and gratitude (ah Karachi, how you make me appreciate things others take for granted!). We randomly came across Victoria Park with its many trees and manicured grass and slightly sinister uniformed guards who stood silently till someone sat on the wrong bench or lit a cigarette. In my case one serious guard (policeman?) came to tell me I was too old for the dancing fountains. And I had already rolled up my jeans in preparation for a run through the bubbling water spouts!

There was a strange cave-like aquarium (Rs20 per head!) that we went through with surreal fish staring at us from their blue-lit water tanks, green, red, transparent, with wide eyes and billowy gills. A short warm walk through the park and we were on our way home. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ceylon Dreams: A House with a Hundred Stories

The air felt washed, as if it had just rained. Things were quiet outside the airport – there were no signs directing us what to do or where to go like the solemn signs and arrows and officials of Bangkok so we followed the first man who offered us a taxi ride to the city.
He quoted us a number and we automatically chopped Rs1500 off it, he politely chipped back Rs500 and so we agreed on Rs3000.

As we drove towards Colombo, the taxi driver asked us what multiple taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers and one random man in downtown Colombo would continue to ask us all over Sri Lanka: “Where you from? India?”
“Pakistan,” we would correct.
“Oh, you are Muslims?” and we nod, me more surely than Fahad, and he asks us cheerfully, “Yes but you are good Muslims right, not bad Muslims who do bombs!”
“Yes, most of us Muslims are good and peaceful…” I trail off awkwardly. I guess if you’re a Muslim traveler it might help to have a few Islam-defenses prepared, to be whipped out and presented in a witty, relatable and affable manner at times like this.

Later our driver put on old Indian film songs and he and I both sang along under our breath as we headed to the residential area where our first Airbnb awaited us, a winding road into one of the older neighborhoods of Colombo, over a little stream and there was the house!
Everything was wet, our shoes squelched in the mud, there were no street lights and when we rang the bell, nobody answered – except for a few dogs who started barking and did not stop for the next half an hour. We alternated between banging on the gate, ringing the bells and trying the hostess’s phone but nothing stirred except for crickets.
Thoughts of fake Airbnb listings crept up and swatted around our heads in the cool, sticky night like gnats. The driver was (somewhat justifiably) annoyed, tapping his foot and telling us that these houses are not safe and do not even pay taxes and we should have gotten a nice hotel. About 30 minutes into the uncomfortable situation, a small car pulled up in front of the house and people toppled out of the car like clowns stuffed in a dinky. Turns out our host family had just gotten stuck in traffic due to the really heavy rain. The driver muttered his irritation to the family but Fahad brushed over the situation and shook hands with everyone – there was a European man with his mother, our Sri Lankan hostess, her husband, child, the husband’s Malay sister-in-law and Pakistani-British niece-in-law.

As all of us walked in to the house, us wheeling our trolley bags and hand bags and camera, Fahad whispered his urge for a smoke and I snapped in Urdu for him to wait till we caught our breath, and then I caught the niece looking at us, she whispered to me, “Mujhe bhi Urdu aatee hai!” and I laughed, thanking god I hadn’t said anything (too) inappropriate.

It was a beautiful house, not more than 10-12 years old, but somehow it felt older, wiser, as if it had been through a lot and survived with a good-natured smile. Every corner had a story: recycled railway sleepers, doors from a great grandmother’s bungalow, wood from the discarded piles in a junkyard near the river. One wall entirely made up of heavy wooden doors that slid open (they remained open the entirety of our trip), a skylight that opened over potted plants and wide windows. The floor was cemented, the walls whitewashed and rough, hung with beautiful paintings, old furniture and cabinets filled with books were placed around the living room. There was little furniture, several plants and a beautiful, archaic openness to the house.

We were shown to our room, the same floor, art and furniture, the bed had white sheets and blue cushions and a soft netting tied to the posts. “Keep the door latched at all times or our terrible dog, Daisy, will come in and eat your shoes,” the hostess had a lovely almost-British accent and a sweet anxious and apologetic expression at all times.  

Her husband ordered us pizza and we sat with the entire family in the lounge while our food came. The European guy had been a guest at the same house a year ago and had liked Sri Lanka so much that he had stayed for more than a year and gotten a place in Colombo. This year his mother was visiting and they had all gone out to dinner together.

We wished them good night and went into our room, where the fan whirled slowly and the mosquitoes bit us in the night till I got up sleepily and untied the netting, letting the soft folds fall around us, lulling us to sleep in a foreign city.