After roaming around the dark Colombo market and the bus station area, which is probably the worst place to be alone at night in the whole city, I’m finally sitting on the night bus to Jaffna. Sri Lankan buses, which I call “baila buses,” deserve a separate article because they are a significant part of the Sri Lankan experience. On these buses, you can smell a variety of aromas, from cheap “Aramanni” perfume to the sweat of the “Pettah” sellers who haven’t showered for a few days. In “baila” buses, you may feel like you’re on the verge of death and then miraculously grateful to still be alive after witnessing the driving skills of the bus driver. There, you might develop a love-hate relationship with the local “baila” music, as I sometimes suspect it’s played to hypnotize passengers and prevent panic attacks caused by the driver’s daring maneuvers. Additionally, you can make “close friends” on these buses, who may unintentionally fall asleep and lean on your shoulder or even accidentally touch your backside while trying to find balance during the bus’s sudden 90-degree turns. Some may even mistakenly grab the seat handle and your lap… I must say, “baila” buses are where you can experience the true essence of Sri Lanka.
But let’s get back to the story. The bus was scheduled to depart at midnight and arrive at 6 am in the morning. To make my overnight bus ride a bit more comfortable, I arrived almost an hour early to secure a seat next to the window. This way, I could enjoy the natural air conditioning and avoid situations where passengers on both sides would “accidentally” fall asleep on my shoulders. After a few minutes, a middle-aged man, nicely dressed and carrying a briefcase, sat next to me. It was a pleasant surprise, something unexpected. However, my pleasant surprise quickly turned into apprehension when the man, named Asker, started introducing himself and proceeded to share his entire life story. It became evident that this would be worse than listening to “baila” music, and any hopes of sleeping during the journey vanished. My “traveling friend” seemed far too enthusiastic about the trip and was determined to share his happiness with me. Before the bus started moving, Asker hurriedly ran to a shop to buy me some Mentos, probably sensing that I would need extra resources to endure his conversation.
My new friend Asker has two daughters and a wife. He was very excited to show me all the pictures and videos of his family on his phone. Luckily, his phone didn’t have a huge memory, so at some point, it had to stop. I politely tried to show that I was falling asleep by putting my head on the window, but I was woken up by his loud voice and the bright phone screen in front of my eyes. The screen showed his two-year-old daughter trying to take selfies. I finally gave up on sleeping during the journey as it seemed impossible.
Asker is a businessman who owns a jewelry business in Sri Lanka. He is going to Jaffna to meet potential jewelry buyers. Jaffna is famous for its jewelry and gems, attracting people from all over the country who are looking for some “blink-blinks.”
I thought to myself, “Okay, something new.” I was quite interested in learning about how his business works, so I started listening more carefully. He told me that he only sells luxury items like gold and Swarovski because that’s what’s in demand these days. From the moment he got on the bus, I noticed his shiny brown briefcase. I felt that it held something very mysterious and important. Asker kept brushing its surface and holding the handle tightly, which piqued my curiosity even more. I wondered what could be inside. Gold? Clothes? Important supplier’s documents? Or maybe his wife’s homemade samosas? Without me saying a word, Asker noticed my curiosity, leaned closer, and whispered, “I’m going to Jaffna to meet potential business partners, and I’m bringing my most expensive and valuable items to show them.” While other passengers were sleeping or mesmerized by the “baila” music, Asker secretly opened his briefcase and took out a clear plastic bag filled with some colorful, inexpensive Chinese jewelry: colored rings, “rainbow” earrings, and plenty of other trinkets that reminded me of my childhood, similar to the things I used to get with a chewing gum from the kiosks.
However, I couldn’t say anything negative. Inside, I was just laughing and curious about what else he had in his secret briefcase. After describing all the items, he handed it to me and said, “It’s for you, take it.” It was very kind of him, but all I could do was laugh and push it back to him, this supposedly “very expensive jewelry.” What would I do with it? Most likely, it would end up in the garbage bin as soon as I got off the bus. What would he do without it? Probably lose his business deal in Jaffna. After a long and politely boring refusal to take it, I eventually stopped and agreed, just to get him to stop talking for a while. After the jewelry, it was time for sunglasses. He was so proud to show me the small collection he was carrying, and without much discussion, they ended up in my hands as well. At that moment, I thought to myself, “I’m in Sri Lanka, it’s around 3 a.m., on a ‘baila’ bus on the way to Jaffna, and a fellow passenger is gifting me all his ‘expensive’ jewelry. How surreal!” I looked at all the cheap items in my hands and tried once again to hand them back to him. But, of course, I was naive to think it would be that easy. After explaining that without all of this he would return home with empty pockets for his family, he finally agreed to take the glasses back, leaving me with the cheapest things he had.
It was around 3-4 a.m., with still 2 hours left of hugging my backpack and nodding along to Asker’s stories. At least no one was trying to “accidentally” sleep on my shoulder, so I tried to stay positive. Just when I thought he had shown me everything in his briefcase, Asker whispered, “I have something else to show you.” He took out a wrapped piece of cloth, unwrapped it, and handed me two gems, saying, “These are Swarovski, very expensive. You should keep them. They’re my gift to you.” I examined them closely. There were two shiny gems, one yellow and one green. I’m no expert, but they didn’t look real to me. The details of what happened next and how I reacted are blurry in my memory, probably due to the sheer astonishment of the surreal situation. But what I clearly remember is that Asker was incredibly proud and excited to give them to me.
As the bus approached Jaffna, my new friend Asker took a piece of white paper, rolled the gems in it, and wrote down his contact information in case I ever wanted to reach him. I nodded and said, “For sure, I will.” I noticed he hesitated as if he wanted to change his mind. He took a pen again, wrote “Hi” on the paper, and handed it to me.
The bus was nearing Jaffna, and I started to feel more anxious. What should I do now? Should I leave all the gifts on the seat and walk away? Should I take them with me? Various scenarios were playing out in my head as I tried to figure out the best course of action. It was almost 6 a.m., and with the bright daylight outside, I didn’t feel as scared about the possibility of him following me after I got off the bus. So, as I saw the first buildings of Jaffna town, I made up my mind. I stood up, grabbed my bag-pack with the cheap plastic jewelry inside, and exited the bus. Asker waved at me through the window and wished me good luck. I saw him sitting there, happy with his journey.
Now, you might be wondering what happened to all the stuff I was gifted. Well, I decided to give the jewelry to some very poor girls on an Indonesian fisherman island. As for the “Swarovski” gems, they are still with me. I consider them to be one of the best souvenirs I have from my travels abroad.