On Movement: Sri Lanka

A few days into my time in Sri Lanka, I stood by the side of the road in Mirissa, feeling the sweat creep down my spine, soaking my tank top around the straps where my pack clung to my frame. The gutter next to the bus stop was brimming with grey water the color of liquid mercury robbed of its sheen. A plastic water bottle and little girl’s fluorescent flip flop floated aimlessly. Across the street, a woman regarded me from behind her stacks of coconut shell tiffins containing the day’s lunch allocations for passersby. In the fifteen or so minutes spent waiting for the bus to arrive, a series of tuktuk drivers approached me, offering wildly variant prices for the trip to Galle. One quoted me a very reasonable 1,300 rupees. Another assured me I would be lucky to ride with him for 5,200. A tuktuk would have saved some time, but I wanted to take the bus.

Years ago, at Boston College, I took a Socratic style class on ethics with a Jesuit professor, relishing the punchy back and forth of the interrogative, on-your-toes learning he offered. One afternoon, Father Paris turned to me and asked, “Ms. Parzybok, if I were looking for a broad and inclusive sample of the population of Boston, where could I go to find that?” I looked at him with an out-of-character blank stare. He usually asked for my opinion, something I have perpetually ready, rather than a straight answer. He moved on to another classmate then another. My mind searched for the answer, scanning spaces across the city. And it came to me.

“The T! You could find all kinds of people on the T.”

Public transit has a way of assembling people with strikingly different stories. It also tends to be emblematic of a place — you can gather a good deal about the local economy, cultural norms and notion of time by hopping on a bus for a few stops. I’m interested in places because I’m interested in the people that inhabit them. So when I’m in a new place, one of my first moves is to spend some time moving around in that place with them.

The trains in Japan run with a precision matched only by the Swiss. In India, it’s not unusual for the train to be delayed a full 24 hours.

Lijiang, China

Chinese and Sri Lankan commuters move through the world to blaring soundtracks. On the overnight train from Kunming to Lijiang, overproduced female vocals over a jarring K-Pop beat were pumped through the speakers at high volume throughout the entire trip — even in the sleeper car.

In Chiang Mai, color-coded mini vans pick passengers up hitch-hiker style around town and deposit them at their destination for a negotiated fee.

In Laos, the buses pause for cigarette breaks hourly and frequently drop into local homes for greens stewed in fragrant meat broth and pickled peppers mixed with pork.

Yangon, Myanmar

In Yangon, I confess, I still have absolutely no idea how one gets from point A to B on the buses so packed that people stick their heads out the windows for oxygen, the ochre-colored bark they paint on their faces mixing with perspiration. Confusion wasn’t the only issue. The traffic in Yangon is so miserable that it was really the only city where I eschewed public transit altogether.

Luang Prabang, Laos

I won’t pretend commuter life is always comfortable. The third time I physically flew out of my seat and hit the dirty floor of a bus that bounced along a potholed Burmese road drugged on Benadryl and disoriented in the middle of the night en route to Yangon from the Thai border, I questioned my decision not to fly. I had a moment of apprehension as I felt the arms of the man next to me gently encase me during the 27-hour ride from Kunming to Luang Prabang I spent crammed between six people on a five person reclined sleeper seat. Though, in the end, I slept like a small child spooned between him and the woman next to me.

Discomfort is the rule in humid climates.

Waiting that day on the roadside in Mirissa, I watched the bus I needed to catch careen around the corner towards my stop. The buses in Sri Lanka make as many daily trips as possible and conduct their transit like a stock car race. This means they hurl at breakneck speed down the curved seaside roads, hustling to catch their competition. There’s no time table, so you just wait at the stop demarcated by a yellow line along the road and peer into the distance for your ride.

Sri Lankan hill country

The bus rolled past, slowing just enough for me to grab the handles mightily and hurl myself and my pack up the steps. A series of hands pulled me on board as we picked up speed. Seven buddhas, illuminated in their panel by Vegas-style flashing neon lights, gazed down at me from above the rear view mirror adorned with a plump bunch of plastic grapes. The driving beat of Latino music kept time, accompanied by the cacophonous rattling of the bus itself, which seemed to be trying to shake itself back into the assembly box as if to escape the nagging heat. It’s not just the race for a profitable day keeping the bus moving through stops; it feels vital that we keep moving given the temperature. Even a moment without the breeze moving across packed bodies feels unbearable. The olfactory experience is complex. The smell of the sea rolls in from the south, mixing with the body odor of other passengers, the exhaust fumes of the road, the pungent trail of dried fish that meanders off roadside stands, and the occasional whiff of trash and shit when we breeze past a makeshift dump along the road.

On our drive to Galle, we passed a jet parked on a gravel driveway. School girls in uniform white hats and dresses poured down the narrow stairs of the plane, hair braided according to grade year, hands clasping the rope handles of the staircase, faces aimed toward the sun as they emerged one by one. There were palm trees hanging over the jet and it was parked casually, as if it could take off the way a car turns off a dirt lane. It looked surreal and incongruous. I’m not sure where they landed it or how it got to the parking lot by the palms.

The man in charge paced back and forth collecting fares,meticulously tracking each person boarding as we hurtled forward like the Knight bus in Harry Potter, depositing jostled passengers at their allotted stop. He spent the ride hustling back and forth between seats, giving change and instructing the driver. For a moment in the middle of the ride, though, I watched him pause to gaze out the door of the bus. His hands fell by his sides and his lips parted as he looked out across the open sea spreading across the horizon a few feet from the road. Equal parts boredom and sentimentality poured out of his eyes just for a moment before he moved to collect the next fare.

Galle Fort, Sri Lanka

I disembarked in Galle Fort beside a stand peddling disembodied shark jaws, the dark wood offsetting bleached white bones cradling rows of jagged teeth. I paid 60 cents for the chaotic seventy minute ride. I was about as far removed from movement in Japan as it comes.

In Kyoto, the buses are also stuffed to the gills at rush hour, though it’s an orderly and polite kind of crowding. The shockingly high proportion of elderly men and women are dutifully granted the limited seats. Bored looking young people stare into their phones, a hand casually gripping the handle of the bus. Recordings announce each stop, first in Japanese and then in English, ad infinitum. Bus drivers then announce the stops again as they slow the bus, dragging out the ‘dessssssss’ at the end of their phrases in a way that makes them sound like disinterested emo teenagers.

On a commuter train from Osaka to Nara populated by exhausted commuters catching a few minutes of sleep with their heads balanced against the dark window panes, one man stood near the door, wide awake, going through an intricate series of movements.

Dressed in a suit and long trench coat, the man had a disheveled dapperness told by his messy hair and pocket watch. He stood, feet wide, in a martial-arts ready stance, riding the motion of the train. His torso formed a pendulum between the tracks, echoing the sway of the train car while his feet absorbed the changes in speed, distributing his weight between toes and heels with each thrust forward. His hands reached forward into the air in front of him, palms towards the sky, in intricate, careful sequence. The fingers curled slowly into the palm to be encased by the thumb. His wrist slowly bent as his bicep flexed, his arm curled and his hand made its choreographed approach to his body only to press out again, palm now facing out towards the world, fingers spread wide. He seemed to be doing some kind of energy cultivation practice. With a calm inner focus, he meandered through this detailed sequence as the world flew past outside the windows. In the midst of the series of movements, his hand seamlessly reached into a jacket pocket to retrieve his phone. The quick execution of a text message took on the intentional quality of his other gestures. His movement seemed pre-ordained in its ease as he replaced his phone in the pocket, a pit stop on the way to extending his arm in the next motion. He closed his eyes momentarily as if to drop in once more.

Kumano Kodo, Japan

There’s an anonymity and passivity that gives transit the feeling of an assembly line. On the one hand, to slip into the rote movement of a place is to become part of it for a moment. There’s something to be said for blending into the woodwork — as much as you can when you’re a foreigner of a different race who doesn’t speak the language — and allowing the edges to blur. In daily movement, we favor the big picture over the individual, the destination over the journey. Allowing the mundane to seep in leaves one with the flavor of a place distinct and apart from parsed out moments. You can get a sense of a people when the persons meld. When I reflect back on travel, I often find I’ve stored the sense of thing rather than its details.

On the other hand, zooming in on an individual anonymously and without context can give you a glimpse of their depth. In the midst of the crush, sometimes an individual stands out — a man stopping in the middle of a busy workday to contemplate the sea or a commuter turning mundane movement into profound practice. In that moment of separating from the crowd, a person can become human in an amplified way. I find it’s easy to fall deeply and inexplicably in love with individuals when they don’t know they’re being watched. In the comfort of anonymity, they let their guard down, their vulnerability and inner workings on full display. And while the place you’re in may feel foreign, suddenly another human being can feel familiar and full.

Author’s note: I’m currently making my way westward on a 6-month circumnavigation of the globe. This piece is in a series of musings from the journey. They’re informed by place — though more reflection piece than travelogue. You can find photos from the trip on Facebook and Instagram using #ParzyWalk