by The Telegraph, March 23, 2018
Megan Brownrigg wins £250 for her account of a how a bumpy bus ride led to a snapshot of rush-hour hospitality.
Asking everyone to sing on a speeding bus in a foreign land was always going to be ambitious. But this was Sri Lanka, where smiles and spontaneity seemed standard currency. A song should be a piece of cake.
We weren’t meant to be on a bus. We were meant to be driving a tuk-tuk – 932 miles (1,500km) in 10 days. Considering that we’d not yet made it to a checkpoint before nightfall, getting on a bus heading in the wrong direction was an indulgent detour. But as part of our expedition we’d been challenged to learn a local song. Our taskmaster would spot shortcutting a mile off, so it was time to get creative and pool resources: five idiots in two tuk-tuks.
“How about catching a bus and asking them to teach us a song?” Dave suggested. On an isolated road, with no idea if there were any buses, we agreed; it was a great idea. Twenty minutes later, three of us were surf-balancing in the corridor of a hurtling bus; the other two were in the tuk-tuks in hot pursuit.
We quickly clocked we weren’t the crowd-pleasers we’d envisaged. If our fellow passengers did understand our broken Sinhalese, they were doing a stellar job of pretending they didn’t. One woman spoke English, but her wary eyes persuaded a silent pact between us; I couldn’t expose her bilingual talents. Commuting, as it turns out, is a universally miserable activity.
As we alighted the bus in the next town, Sri Lanka’s magic returned in the shape of an afternoon monsoon. Glints of light danced across umbrellas and saris, in a tango of jewel colours. Through raindrops, we watched an afternoon rush forced into slow-motion.
But when we returned to our trusty tuk-tuks, my heart sank. My unzipped rucksack revealed the nook where my camera should be. The white noise of panic soon overwhelmed the beauty of the shower.
Ryan insisted we retrace our steps. We scoured the spot of our flying departure. Nothing. We trundled back to town in silence as I tried not to be just a sulky traveller who’d lost a gadget.
Ryan’s voice splintered my sulk; “You’re joking? We’ll be five minutes.” He wasn’t talking to me. He was on the phone. In the sweaty, euphoric confusion that followed, I met the Sri Lankan man who took the trouble to return something to a stranger in rush-hour. He would take nothing but a selfie as a thank you.
By jumping on a bus and flinging a camera out of a tuk-tuk, we gained a true snapshot of Sri Lanka; the people who live there.
A while later, we pulled up by a roadside shack. In the jungle dusk, the girls generously paused to teach us a local song. We sang it aloud in our tuk-tuk, long into the night after we’d lost our map.
Some things are better not found.
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