I met Kusumsiri outside Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo on a humid night. He had offered a free ride to our hotel since he was going to drive us around Sri Lanka for the next 3 days. We didn’t talk much and when we reached the hotel, he asked for our itinerary. He listened patiently and nodded. He left with the promise of being back at 8 AM next morning to pick us up. He was five minutes early in an ironed shirt and pants and greeted us with good mornings and handshakes.
My husband, as usual, started the talk, asking about the place and talking about our plan for the day. He responded meekly at first and then by giving us better suggestions as he felt free to express his opinions. As soon as we left the town area, we were surrounded by mini forests and open grounds on either side. He was on the lookout for breakfast – boiled corn, but none of the roadside ladies had it ready yet. After stopping at several points, he finally got one and bought us a couple too. We enjoyed the freshly cooked salted corn.
He must have felt weird when we were taking pictures of the empty grounds with small hills at the horizon but he told us to ask him to stop wherever we felt like we want to take pictures because, for him, all this was not so beautiful, as he was too used to the scenery. He had this broken English that we enjoyed the most and a nice way of interrupting us while we talked with each other because he had something really urgent to convey. Mostly it was about the place we were passing by or something he was afraid he will forget to mention later.
I could feel him analysing us and our backgrounds from what we talked about and where we ate our lunches. He understood we were locals of India and wanted to just feel like locals of Sri Lanka and experience everything on the root level. He adjusted his suggestions according to our preferences and I guess also felt now, more comfortable with us, knowing we were not so very different from him.
The next day we had a longer journey ahead of us and spent a lot of time travelling but that’s when we really connected. Even though we were travelling, it didn’t feel like a waste of time with him. He had adventurous stories to share about his experiences with other fellow travellers, how each one of them were different and wanted different things from the same place. He was an experienced driver and had driven along Sri Lanka with people all over the world. He summarised the whole journey with this:
I am lucky to be a tourist driver and I love my job because I feel like I have travelled the whole world by being in my own country!
He also had sad tales to share about his family’s suffering during the LTTE ruling, how his father was killed by the LTTE and how soon after they had to move away from their hometown and start calling a completely new one, their home. I could feel his anger, sadness and loss through his broken English. At some point, I and the husband shifted to his kind of English to put him at further ease with us. :)
During the trip, he took us to three beautiful places, which we would have missed, if we were travelling on our own or were with any other driver.
One was a beautiful waterfall, which could be accessed only from the inside of a hotel. He knew the hotel guys so they let us in t take a few pictures of the viewpoint. Second, was a tea factory we visited, where we got to know some really interesting facts about how the tea is prepared from scratch and the different kinds of tea that we have and how they should be brewed. Third and this was more exciting for my husband because he took us a to a hotel, which had a huge garage filled with old Rolls Royce, Porche and Benz collections, collected by the original owner of the house for decades. They were all well kept, a private museum, opened just for the two of us, thanks to our driver.
Oh and there is a fourth, how can I forget the amazing guavas he made us eat? We were passing through a small village and supposedly that was the only place in Sri Lanka which grew guava and we couldn’t get it as fresh as here from anywhere else. How would we have known this if not for him? I can still feel the crunch of the huge guavas in my mouth. Oh, I wish we had bought more!
While returning from Nuwara Eliya, the trip was much longer than we thought and mostly because the roads were downhill and had lots of turns and windings. He adjusted his speed according to the level of nausea we felt and at some point when I felt worse, he asked me to sit with him in the front and kept talking non-stop. I was in a daze then, so I hardly remember now what he talked about. All I remember is that he kept me busy, made me laugh like crazy, which made me forget that I was feeling sick and before we knew it, the winding roads had ended.
I realised only later the lengths that he went to to make sure his tourists are most comfortable and that he genuinely wanted people travelling with him to fall in love with the place and people. I realised how much joy this work brought him though he had to stay away from his wife and kids all the time. I realised he must also have bad days but his work didn’t let him show it and willingly he let go to make us have the best experience.
I found him to be one of the most genuine human beings I had met and that made him really special for me. I felt glad to have met him and felt home in a strange land with a stranger.
I could tell he was not doing or saying things because of his job, he was doing it because of who he was.
On our last leg of the journey with him as we drove into the sunset on an amazing expressway, I asked for his guest book and wrote a long loving letter to him, hoping he would find us at least half as good a human as him.