From Sri Lanka’s international airport to the Havelock Place Bungalows in Colombo, our cab driver pointed out what felt like every single landmark — the President’s home, Hercules’ Tailor shop, the Dutch hospital, the Portuguese fort, the Bristish architecture, the Hindu temples of the Tamil people, the Buddhist stupa of the Sinhalese people — on this island nation marked by centuries of colonialism and conflict.
The dense rush hour traffic turned the 32-kilometer distance into a 2-hour ride so we eventually grew numb to everything, including the sound of our driver’s voice.
The “we” being my son David and I — residents of the Northern Emirates for a year now — along with my dear friend Karen Jean (KJ), who served in Peace Corps Kenya with me back in the late ‘80s. KJ recently retired from a long career as a librarian at Duke University and is now serving in Peace Corps Armenia — which means she is a double-duty bad ass. KJ was raised in public housing in Detroit in the ‘60s (triple bad ass) and joined the US Air Force in 1975 when she was 18 (quadruple bad ass.)
KJ, David and I shrieked with joy, in unison. Our driver was startled by the sudden energy in his vehicle upon his utterance of an unlikely landmark.
“Taaacccooo Beeellll!” yelled David. “I haven’t seen one in years.”
“Taco Bell! Give me some of that,” yelled KJ who has been subsisting on potatoes in an impoverished Armenian village for a year.
“TACO BELL,” I screamed at the top of my lungs, since I was in the final hours of a month-long Ramadan Fast during which time I ate nothing between 4 a.m. and 7:12 p.m.
But one thing held us back from leaping out of the moving vehicle. One person, actually — someone who’s no longer on this Earth.
He wouldn’t go to Taco Bell in Sri Lanka, would he?
After a very short debate we came to this conclusion: If he’d been eating shawarma in the UAE or potatoes in Armenia for a year, he sure the hell would. He certainly liked to dive into Popeyes chicken whenever he was in Louisiana. So why not pinto beans in Colombo?
But our threesome was too tired to stop. We wanted our beds at the bungalow more than burritos.
The next morning, I enjoyed breakfast for the first time in 29 days. I savored my mushroom crepe and coffee as if they were gifts from Allah. Fasting during Ramadan teaches us that all food is, indeed, a cherished gift. The month also gives fasters the tiniest glimpse into what it feels like to have very little to eat. You emerge tenderer and thinner; angst-y and then Zen-y. As if a civil war had been waged between your brain and your bowels but your heart emerged as the accidental victor.
Our driver picked us up at 8 am for the 3- hour drive to Galle at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka. I found his CD collection in the glove box, which allowed us to enjoy the delicious sounds of Bob Marley, Whitney Houston and ABBA as we passed jungles and rice fields en route to see the men who stand on stilts to fish from the Indian Ocean.
Upon our arrival in Galle, our driver made yet another shocking statement. Nothing to do with fast food, but somehow related.
“You know the fisherman are just pretending, right?” He said. “They haven’t fished this way in 30 years.”
“WHAAAT????” We screamed, in unison, as we now do on cue.
Somewhat dejectedly, we made our way to the beach and forked over a handful of rupees to take a few pictures of Sri Lankan men fake fishing.
KJ and I got a little wistful remembering our swims in the Indian Ocean from the coast of Malindi, Kenya —about 3000 miles due West of Galle.
I got a more than a little rueful about a number of things:
How is it that 32 years have passed since those glory days in East Africa?
How is it that Anthony Bourdain passed away a week ago in France?
How did it come to pass that there is a Taco Bell in Sri Lanka?
Over a lunch of curry and rice, at Galle Fort, we planned the rest of our trip. We’d definitely go eat at Nana’s restaurant on the beach — where Bourdain enjoyed a meal. We’d definitely see the Colombo Museum to get a better sense of Sri Lanka’s place in the world — and ours, by proxy.
“And tonight,” I announced, “we’re going to Taco Bell.”