Midnight run to Sri Lanka’s international airport is one of the most dangerous, exciting and exhausting modules in the deadly game of driving in Colombo. Usually I end up playing this module during Sri Lanka’s December-January mating season. When overseas relatives descend for extravagant meat market pre-sex parties we Sri Lankans calls weddings. Their flights into Colombo invariably arrive at night. Mostly on late night Singapore (SQ), Malaysian (MH) or Cather (CX) flights.
A family tradition has evolved around the late night airport pickup run. So far it has worked out quite well.
The trip requires a crew of two.
- A male with supposedly swift reflexes behind the wheel.
- someone (preferably male) to ride shotgun and keep the other person awake.
Preparations for the journey include prepping the chariot with a full tank of gas, topping up the radiator and balancing the tire pressure. Joss sticks are lit to invoke protective blessing of assorted deities. The humans are fueled with high octane pre-departure Nescafe which has enough sugar to re-animate the dead.
By 11ish I find myself crammed behind the wheel of our tiny chariot. Hurling down the A3 towards the airport. Swerving with the road as it tunnels through the darkness. Ridiculously I insist on sticking to the speed limit and get overtaken by everything else on the road. Lighting conditions on Sri Lanka’s roads are consistently inconsistent. Sections of well lit road are interspersed with darkness that alternate with the blinding headlights of on coming traffic.
Yet it is in the roadside dimness the deadly stuff lurks. The stray dog or the staggering drunk testing their luck for the lack of anything better to do. The trishaw that darts out of a side road’s unlit maw. The newly made pot hole. Of course the most lethal are poorly lit check points inviting the inconvenience of a head on collision with lots of intrusive questions if you survive.
For most of last year the road to the airport was in eternal repair. Section of the main roads that goes past the Kelanitissa power station are closed some time after dark. Both factors contribute to detours — particularly through the slummy back alleys of Borella.
Getting to the airport with its machine gun bristling bunkers and security rituals is a relief. Sri Lanka’s only international airport has always had an oddly comforting chaotic third world feel. Exactly what it is I don’t know. Perhaps it is the whole thing about tickets for non passengers to step into the terminal. Or may be it is the tradition that calls for bus loads of people to turn up to pickup or drop off one passenger. Obviously the military presence contributes to the last days of Saigon like atmosphere.
In this chaos the two person crew of the airport run becomes useful. Particular on days when there are flights transporting slaves to the middle east. The other person gets off at the terminal to make contact with the passenger. I chariot on to the parking lot and try to find a spot away from the toilets. Then, roughly an hour of sitting in the mosquito slapping dark. Perhaps sipping the glorious necter of YFM. There is really no point risking a twisted ankle walking in unlit unevenness between the terminal and the chariot.
Eventually I’m summoned via mobile for the pickup. The area outside the terminal is in another bust of frenzy as fresh victims stagger out into our third world humidity after hours of recycled air conditioning.
The hugs are brief as bags have to be heaved and squeezed into the tiny chariot. It is a high speed origami that I have mastered well. Precious duty free liquor is off course handled with reverant delicacy. Fully loaded, the chariot feels less nimble as I make a rapid get away.
I try to focus on the road amidst the post arrival chatter. How was the flight? Guess who I met on the flight/in transit (very Sri Lankan no?). How long was the wait for bags? Did you have to wait long for me/us to come out? My, how the area has/has not changed. Beyond Ja-Ela the talk will transition into a doze or to non air travel gossip.
The traffic is slightly lighter but chariot is too loaded to approach the speed limit. Generally my anti checkpoint magic prevents me from getting stopped on the way into the city. I prefer to carry my ID card in my shirt pocket on these trips since I don’t belive in luck – just superstitious rituals ;).
It is easier and safer to find humour in the concrete details of the airport run. A perfect excuse to avoid mentioning the emotional landscape of the airport chariot ride. In December it is a cheery landscape, enriched by reunions with far away friends and relatives. Calendar clogged from continually juggled dinners, lunches, weddings and drop-ins. There’s something in the air that makes work seem an optional activity we pretend to do.
Then the magic is snuffed out with the last minute good bye hugs of January. Lugging overweight bags to the waiting chariot. Strained attempts at mundane conversation on the despairing ride to the departures entrance. I still can’t decide which is worse: the silent drive back to Colombo or watching Sri Lanka drop away from a window seat. Du Fu (in Dreaming of Li Bai – translation by Vikram Seth) put it with cruel bluntness:
The pain of death’s farewells grows dim
The pain of life’s farewells stays new
Not the most happiest way to end a post but such is life. Vut tu doo no?
This one is dedicated (with apologies) to Pericles who despite having to constantly fight off hordes of Persians took the time off to grumble( justifiably) about having to wait too long 😉