The four of us sat on the porch as the first rain drops began to pitter-patter on the roof. A Mother was inside, a father sat in the chair next to me. Dinesh, older than me, and his brother, younger than me, leaned against the stone bannister.
We had known the rain was coming, and as the racket grew against the metal roof, Dinesh looked at me. He pointed to a door at the other end of the porch.
It was half a question, half an invitation, half a command. I smiled. Of course I’d be willing to stay the night if I couldn’t return home, but my motorbike needed to be returned that night. The family that seemed to adopt me without a second thought hadn’t even offered me dinner yet, but I felt I had already become enough of a burden.
Two hours before, I had taken a gamble. A shard of a mountain towered over the other mountains and hills in this bumpy landscape, and I thought I could scale it before sunset. I imagined blues and oranges and pinks ricocheting from the sky to rice paddies to an ideally placed location at a cusp between valleys.
One hour before, a group of men by the road told me I was headed the wrong way. I chose to place my trust in narrower roads. After I had climbed significantly in elevation, a man and his passenger in a flimsy, rickshaw encountered me. Neither party expected to see the other, so a chat was obligatory. Main road? No, was the answer. I pointed to the peak that rose up as the road bent but still kilometers away. One kilometer. What was one kilometer? I thanked them and continued.
The trees cleared on the hillside road. I peeked at the valley below me and a water reflection of the sun peeked back. I got off my bike, and my second step took me past two pink pillars dressed in vines. I had stepped into someone’s property.
Hidden behind a flower garden to my right, a son and his father sprung from their chairs. Oh sorry! I didn’t–
I didn’t bother finishing because it was unlikely they understood, and the five days I had been in their country provided me little time to venture beyond basics in their language.
I didn’t make it far before they caught me. A young, fit man with a face outlined by a well-kept beard and greased hair stood next to a stout, bald man whose few teeth shone through a wide smile. Each party knew their role in the conversation. I had to explain what in the world I was doing here, and their energy made apparent that they wanted to help.
I’m looking for the sunset. I pointed to the shard of a mountain at the end of their road. I pointed toward the mountain. Main road? They laughed.
Yet they motioned for me to follow them as they walked in the direction of the shard. Not two minutes down the road the trees finally gave way, but so did the road. One step dirt road, the next step tall grass. That must have been what “one kilometer” meant. They stepped across the grass and walked left off the ledge into farmland stretching down the side of the mountain.
Several steps down lie a boulder that cast a bald spot over the hill. A third young man had joined us, smaller than his counterpart. The four of us stood in the clearing and gazed across miles of open air cupped by mountains. The sun seemed an hour’s descent from the horizon, but clouds blanketed much of the sky. At one end of the valley, a dark cloud hid the forest and farmland below behind a wall of rain.
I pointed to the horizon. Sun. They seemed to express understanding. Phone service was close to zilch, but I coerced the connection to translate sunset. Ira besa yamayi.
That was the last time my phone would work, and I would regret it later.
My acquaintances read the land in front of them like a map. The name of this village, the name of that town, the river, the train tracks just below us, the capital city just across the horizon. One mountain stood prominently on the horizon like a overturned cardboard box hiding something. They told me there was indeed a unique name for it, but my auditory memory fails me.
The sun reflected off rice paddies directly below us. They were far, but it was still possible to make out livestock grazing nearby.
Harakah, and the bearded man made a cow’s sound.
He seemed to want to test his English. I said, bird? and made wings with my hands.
I was learning Sinhalese and he was learning English on a mountain at the center of his country.
He pointed to the wall of rain. Wahinowa. We still had an hour left before the sunset, so we moved back toward their house. We exited the tall grasses, entered his gate, and walked up the incline to his porch.
Two dogs greeted us. The small, long-haired one hopped over to us. He only had one front leg. The older, chubbier one didn’t bother to turn around, but his loud heaves from coughing up a hairball excused him. The father and two sons asked me to sit. There were only two chairs; the father took the second one.
There are only two words for tea in the whole world, and they said one of them. Only if others drink as well, I attempted to gesture. A mother emerged from the house with only one glass, milk already added.
There is only one gesture for eat in the world, and the bearded man used it. He clenched his fingers together and motioned to his mouth, Kanna. I gestured as before, but only one bowl of flour pancakes and a dish of spicy sauce was delivered.
This was a family and I had interrupted their afternoon, appeared on their doorstep without a common language. I did everything I could not to signal that I wanted anything. So we spoke about them.
Dinesh, the bearded man, was 26. His brother was 20. Father Smiles, who has seen his eldest son grow bigger than him, was in his fifties.
I give him that name not only because I forget his real one, but also because Dinesh and I were attempting to share languages and his only contribution was a constant grin. Come. Ende. Go. Yane. Dog. Bala. Coconut. Pol. Father Smiles periodically turned to me and said through his well worn teeth Ingleezi No.
His statement was always accompanied by an aggressive twist of both wrists to symbolize they were empty; he had no English. Don’t worry at all, I wanted to say. Your hands are far from empty.
Dinesh took me behind their house to show me another garden of theirs. A sea of short tea bushes sporadically islanded by peppercorn trees. Dinesh made a point to indicate they employ Muslim Tamils to harvest the tea. Dinesh also sold fish in a market in the main city one and a half hours away. His truck was already packed up with dried fish from Indonesia, Thailand and Indonesia.
We returned to the porch when we felt some drops.
The mother appeared and Dinesh asked: rice? Again my invitation to join me was rejected. They usually eat two hours later, the said. I took off my shoes and entered their home. The old dog was again straining loudly to get something inside him out. Faded red paint coated the concrete floor and bare stairs rose to another level above. A shaky cabinet stood next to the main table where seats lacked cushions and revealed the threaded base below. A deep blue sailboat picture stood out against the back wall. Dinesh and his brother likely had their earliest memories here. Had a foreigner entered their house before?
They arranged a place at the table for me. Bowls of rice, chicken, fish, and vegetables, and an empty one for me to fill. As I began, Dinesh burned incense and spread the smoke around the room, focusing on an icon of Buddha above the front door. I quickly finished, but Dinesh would not allow it.
Dinesh appeared to be a man most would not like to see in a dark alley. He was heavily built and his shirt seemed to accentuate his biceps. He took good care of his hair; it was slicked back and his neatly chiseled beard showed that he had put a bit of time into it.
But this wasn’t a dark alley. When he saw me slowing down, he jumped over, saying eat eat eat. He took the rice spoon, piled more than the plate’s capacity for scoops on it, and moved to the meats. I laughed and stopped him after a few spoonfuls of meat. It was excellent food, but I wasn’t particularly hungry.
We had missed the sunset. There was little chance the rain would allow it to be any more than a slightly stronger glow on one side of the mountain. But the rain was over now. I asked to used the bathroom then indicated that I should head out.
But not before we could take a picture together. A timed photo from a phone set up on the ground isn’t ideal, but at least everyone was present. I tried sending the photo to Dinesh’s phone, but it appeared as random letters and numbers.
What could I give them in return? I had come to their home, consumed some of their food, and failed to share the one memory I had with them.
As we dried off my motorbike, Dinesh ran back into the house. He reappeared with a notebook, only a few scribbles of which I could see. I got on my bike, and he looked from his notebook to say kom gen. His words were deliberate and reinforced by his notes, but I couldn’t understand. He was reluctant to show me the notes in the notebook. Forget it, he indicated.
In my best sign language I expressed thank you (istuti) and I’m sorry. I set down the muddy road back down the mountain.
It wasn’t until 10 minutes into the ride that I realized what Dinesh wanted to say. I cursed and almost stopped completely. Come again.
I wish I could have expressed some kind of understanding with him. Of course I would come back. If I go back to Sri Lanka, the family kind enough to adopt me for a night will be my first stop. And I’ll bring memories.