Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Treasure and things to stay away from

This is an excerpt from my novel about Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." This section explores trust, its limits, its origins. 


Trust and what to stay away from 

It is a treat to go into the field with a Treasure who knows all the plants and berries and birds and his younger colleagues telling me the whole time, chirping of his knowledge of these things: trees and berries and birds. And how many of these things do we stop to savor and taste (certainly not the birds!) but the object of this day, over which he and the visitor-foreigner have corresponded and for which they have hired a van (at someone else's expense--the visitor's), for which they have consulted maps and websites, for which The visitor came to this country actually months early so he could see it in the dry season, is barely skimmed over. It is striking how much more he learned from a local tuktuk driver, how much more focused their discussions, how merrily he, the driver, beeped at and talked to his fellow countrymen, cultivators, teashop owners, barbers, without ever talking down to them. Because the tuktuk driver was one of them. And he could answer emails that's how they arranged their visit. Count to ten. 

He did not talk merrily to brown shirted guards at the gates of Rajarata University (Main Campus, Mihintale, North Central Province) nor to the neatly uniformed brown shirts who stopped him by the side of the road. Papers? License? "Little something?" How nice it must be to be one of them and fill the kitty so conveniently with gently smiling jaws on pockmarked faces. Always pockmarked. Unfair to call that a sign of cruelty or brutality. Unfair I say!!

Things to stay away from: brownshirted guards, army people, or policemen. Other guards, army people, or policemen. Guard stations, army stations, police stations. Law and order is the breath of the nation here I know it because I read the signs in plain English. And proper. 

Also stay away from: electronics stores, Dialog outlets, astrologers', maybe dentists and doctors. Why is this? All these people deal in the unseen and they can pretend to see and do anything they want to you. "Take a tooth from the foreigner" can be translated as take a tooth from anyone, even your fellow Sri Lankan, "little something?" Big something? Take a tooth. Take away their bite. Take away something valuable. Rip them off. 

Also. Stay away from jewelers. Amazing how people flock to these places, all of them, but not to guard stations, military stations, or police stations. The jeweler will throw some ugly piece of worthless glass with a gold-coated setting on a scale and swipe it away in a moment and tell you "Rs 7000." That price is nothing for you, a foreigner with all his teeth or all her teeth or maybe one or two false teeth that cost USD 2000 so you may be willing to pay the price in a trice? Why not walk away with a bauble from Sri Lanka, pearl of Asia? That's a souvenir you can remember your ramblings by. It's something you can value. Trust. 

Trust. Rhymes with rust. Think: Corrosion. Diminution. Loss of strength. How strong does trust have to be to make things work? Can they work when trust is weak? What do you have to do to make up for lost trust? How much do you have to trust the checkout girl at Cargill's, depends how much change she has to make. But there's only so much, right? How much do you have to trust the electronic transfer of money? A lot. Or else you are using a mattress. How much do you have to trust your landlord and how much does he have to trust you? 

After he left the guesthouse, the owner called him. "I don't trust Michael." "Then kick him out of your guesthouse." He hasn't paid his bill." "Then ask him to pay or leave." It's Susantha's fault. He hasn't asked him for money. "Then tell Susantha to talk to him." "Michael is sneaky. He said he had a headache last night so he couldn't come to my party. Do you think he was in the insurgency in the 80s? Do you think he was afraid to meet my friends because he was in the insurgency? He is from the south. He knows our language. He has projects going in Galle. I don't trust him. He said he had a headache but the cameras showed him with a girl. He took a girl into his room and she was there until two." "Ask him to pay or leave." "He won't leave. We asked him to pay and he paid some today but he asked me for Rs 10,000 credit. Do you think I should give him credit?" "He has enough money for cigarettes. He should be able to pay you. I'd never ask for credit." "You, no. But he's trouble. If I kick him out he'll make trouble for me." "Then make him pay." "What if he's hiding out here? What if he's wanted? He says he was brought up here so he knows the language. What if he wasn't?" 

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