Surf Punks and Soldiers
A carload of friends headed down the small, bumpy road toward the town
of Pottuvil on the east coast of Sri Lanka. They planned to enjoy a week
of surfing at Arugum Bay, which was billed as one of the world’s wave
riding hotspots. It was 2003, before the ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers
had broken down, so although a trip along the roads from the central city
of Kandy to Pottuvil was not a common way for foreigners to travel, it
was not unheard of. A year later, this same trip would become suicidal.
The group consisted of four friends who made up two unofficial couples, with Van and Shelly crammed in the back along with Lani. Cameron, who had leaped into the passenger side next to the driver before the car had even stopped rolling, sat in front of Lani and occasionally reached back around the seat subtly to play with her knee.
As the dusk slowly grew thicker with darkness over the landscape, the terrain became increasingly flatter and structures that sporadically appeared along the road seemed to be backing away through curtains like actors after their final bow. As they continued up the road, Cameron looked out to the left of the vehicle at three buildings on the other side of a wire fence near the road, which appeared to be completely disjointed in purpose. He was just asking himself whether this could be a farm, or a religious compound, or perhaps some type of official headquarters when suddenly the headlights of two trucks clicked on about 20 yards in front of them.
The sudden blinding brightness of these were augmented by matching pairs of spotlights mounted to the roofs, revealing six armed men in uniform spread out in front of them. Four of the men had their rifles raised, and the other two walked toward the car while clicking on flashlights. Each went to opposite sides of the car, shone their lights through the windows and walked in a deliberate counterclockwise circle around the vehicle, each’s movements completely synchronized with the other. Upon returning to their original positions on each side of the car, they instructed everyone to lower their windows.
Although the driver’s expression was unreadable, each of the four friends had become pale and wide eyed. Van felt a prickly chill along the back of his neck, and he could feel Shelly’s leg trembling against his own while her breathes became rapid and shallow. He wanted to hold Shelly’s hand to comfort her, but Van was frozen in place and afraid to move.
“I knew it,” he thought bitterly. “Cam always has to fly by the seat of his pants, like reality doesn’t apply in his orbit and this time he has completely screwed us. ‘Let’s just hire a car, no one is fighting anymore,’ and now we are sitting here surrounded by a bunch of Tamil Tigers. What a stupid @$$hole move this was.”
After exchanging words with the driver in the local language, the man outside Cameron’s window addressed him in English.
“We are National Police, tell me your names and destination, please? Please tell me what is your country, and the purpose of your trip.”
Although still running high, the tension level deflated palpably, and Shelly rubbed the front of her forehead as she inhaled and exhaled deeply. The driver’s expression remained unreadable.
Putting on a confident air Lani smiled, relaxed her shoulders, and said brightly, “Oh, we are just heading to Arugum Bay to do some surfing, do you want me to get my passport for you?”
She simultaneously made a move to reach back behind the seat for her bag, but was stopped short by Cam who hissed at her between clenched teeth, “Do NOT reach back there, the ones with the guns pointed at our heads can’t hear what is going on! Keep still!”
Lani froze, with a surprised look on her face, and then looked hurt as she leaned back against her seat.
The man at the window shone the beam of his flashlight on her, turned the corners of his mouth up into a forced smile under cold eyes, and said, “Yes please, only answer the questions.”
One by one the friends explained where they were from, where they intended to go, and what they wanted to do there. The man at the window then raised his right hand, signing something with his fingers to the four with weapons. He then lowered his flashlight and leaned his weight against the side of the car. The driver, who the man had ignored, sat still looking straight forward and was never asked to provide any of this information. Cameron noticed that none of the men had lowered their weapons.
Quietly, without turning his head, the driver said, “We are traveling to the Stardust Beach Hotel. I can provide you with the phone number to confirm we are expected.”
The man looked inscrutably toward the driver for a few moments, then raised his head and spoke to the man in uniform on the opposite side of the vehicle in their native language. They conversed for a few minutes, and then he leaned back down into the window and said to the driver in English, “Step out and come around to the back so I can inspect your vehicle, please. The rest of you to stay here, please.”
Slowly opening his door, the driver stood and walked around to the back of the vehicle without closing it. He used the key to unlock the trunk, and upon raising it, the view of what he was doing was blocked from his passengers. After several minutes, he closed the trunk, returned to his seat, and shut his door. He looked very much more relaxed, although Cameron was still unable to read his expression.
Before returning to the passenger side window, the man waved at the other men and whistled, upon which they immediately lowered their guns and the floodlights were extinguished.
“Have a good journey and enjoy your time with us,” he said, while waving them forward.
Once past the vehicles and around a bend in the road, Van said in a relieved voice, “Thank goodness they were the official police! I really thought we might be in trouble there for a minute.”
“No kidding!” said Shelly. “I’m glad they guard these roads like that. Yeah Sri Lanka!”
The driver looked sideways at Cameron and shook his head slowly in slight exasperation, fluttering his eyes.
“Those were not real police, they are Home Guard,” he said. “National police do not stay at these checkpoints, so they use local boys. Sometimes they are bored with nothing to do, and they are having no way to make their living. They think your girls are pretty and we are alone, so I wanted to tell them that Stardust Hotel knows about us. They agreed to receive a toll for 2,000 Rupee and we can go.”
The four friends gasped in unison, and Lani felt a slight shudder move down her spine.
“Dude, you must have some Buddhist meditation mind control going on, I didn’t see you break a sweat!” exclaimed Cameron. “How did you stay so calm?”
“I am actually a Christian,” said the driver. “I was praying to Jesus Christ all the time.”
-- by Steve McKennon, 11/26/14
**This was part of a Flash Fiction exercise put on by the High Order of Caratacos in the hopes of getting the creative juices flowing over the next week or so. The theme is “Outsider Looking In,” and I hope you’ll join in. I look forward to seeing what everyone comes up with over the next week or so!
Link to Flash Fiction exercise: