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.