When I first laid eyes on Mohamed Niyas, he was standing in a sea of people waiting excitedly outside Colombo airport. To look at him, you could have easily thought he was awaiting the arrival of his first born child or the Queen of England. There was nothing on his face indicative of the through-the-night drive he had just endured to collect me. And if he was disappointed by his mere 10% share in the US$100 I was paying to be taxied 8 hours across the teardrop island of Sri Lanka, it certainly didn’t show. Our first few minutes together covered off the usual getting acquainted questions like “where are you from?” and “who is your favourite cricket player?”. Unfortunately for Niyas, the latter question didn’t progress into a conversation.
The day of my arrival was coincidentally a momentous day of national celebration. President Mahinda Rajapakse had declared the end of the nation’s 26 year civil war one year earlier and this was Sri Lankas joyous first anniversary. My long and jet-lagged journey to Arugam Bay was intermittently livened by parades and festivities boasting colour and excitement that could have given Brazilian Carnival a run for its money.
Niyas guided me through the country with a wealth of knowledge and opinion only afforded by a local. We drove past tea fields and waterfalls, through markets and fruit stalls and over ludicrously high mountain peaks; all on roads that seemed unlikely to manage a bicycle far less our van. Stopovers were highlighted by wild elephants, native flowers and an introduction to jack fruit – which deserves a sentence or two all of its own. With a texture like raw chicken breast, jack fruit is exciting from the very beginning. Pealing smooth fleshy pieces out of the giant jack fruit cocoon emits the typical sweet smell of a tropical fruit. And then the taste. It’s reminiscent of a perfectly seasoned mango mellowed out by a shot of coconut milk and infused with lychee. Bliss.
Niyas moved from driver to friend very quickly. A few days into my holiday and I was kicking back in his home reading his resume over a cup of tea, surrounded by his family and friends. These days, Niyas works at Al Boom Tourist Village in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. No doubt beaming his smile and showing tourists the sort of kindness most usually reserve for a longterm friend.
Sri Lanka opened my eyes to a warmth in air temperature and strangers I would have otherwise thought impossible.