The Colombo Kidnapping

It’s hot in Colombo. Damn hot. Stepping off the train you can feel the sweat dripping from your forehead. It rolls down your cheek onto your chin where it clings for a moment before cutting loose and falling onto the sizzling concrete at your feet. Your shirt, drenched from the stifling humidity and sticky sweat, clings to your back, gripping you tightly as you hoist your rucksack onto your shoulders and clasp the straps together. As your eyes adjust to the brightness of being outside you begin to take in the sights of Colombo train station. Women wearing dresses full of vivid colours that seem to dance as they move, the tiny shacks on the platform that sell newspapers and soft drinks to those awaiting their train and the children walking along the platform begging for food or perhaps a spare rupee.

Leaving the train station you’re met with the noises of Colombo. Tuk-tuks whirr past, honking incessantly as they try to attract your attention. A tourist talks loudly with a local after seeking help to navigate his hotel directions which are written in the local language. “No, we’ve just come from there and we’re trying to get to here” he says, pointing despondently at the map. It will be several minutes before everything is resolved, by talking so loud and interrupting at every available chance our tourist is only confusing the Lankan man even more. As you become accustomed to the sounds your eyes sweep the area, searching for the familiar cluster of yellow cars that signifies a taxi rank. There it is. As you approach the first car the driver looks up from his newspaper and a look of surprise crosses his face. He was not expecting you to be white.

As he exits the vehicle and opens the boot he motions for you to offload your rucksack into the empty space next to the spare tyre. Before you do so there is one very important step to complete, the negotiating. “How much to go to the airport?” you ask cautiously, awaiting a response that could range from 2800 to 8000 rupees. “Four thousand” he says, flashing you his best used car dealer smile. Good, he’s a not trying to rip you off. “Four thousand?” you respond sounding shocked. “But it only cost me two thousand to get here from the airport.” “Two thousand?” Now it is his turn to be feign surprise, nobody charges so little for such a long fair. “No, you must be mistaken, I can do no less than three thousand” he says, flashing the same convincing smile as before. “Three thousand?” you say, as if contemplating the offer. He looks at you for a moment as you weigh up the proposal. “Alright, alright” he says, “for you my friend two thousand eight hundred”. This time you don’t contemplate, two thousand eight hundred is fine. You chuck your rucksack in the boot and take a seat in the front of the car as a little smile crosses your face. You’ve just paid slightly less than what it cost to take the same trip from the airport five days ago.

As the taxi pulls out of the rank and sets off down the street your driver skips the usual chatter about where you’re from, instead informing you that he’ll drop you at a nearby location where his uncle will meet you and take you to the airport instead. It’s an odd proposition but you go along with it, after all you’ve got a bit of time up your sleeve as the twice daily train from Kandy arrived at an inconvenient time. He makes a quick call on his phone and five minutes later pulls into a side street next to a park. You exit the vehicle and collect your rucksack, shifting it from one car boot to another as the drivers lean against the waiting taxi and converse in Sinhala. After another couple of minutes the driver of the new cab bids farewell to his nephew and his attention turns back to you.

“Where are you from?” he asks as the indicator light flashes on and off, waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass before the cab can turn onto the main road again. “Australia” you reply, ready to go through the same old routine once again. “Oh, Australia” he says excitedly, “you have good cricket team yes, very good”. His English isn’t as good as some but it’s better than most you’ve encountered so far. “Yeh, it’s a shame you had injury problems throughout the test series, it could have been a lot more competitive otherwise” you offer up as a means of diplomacy. Lankans are incredibly proud people and the fact your country just thrashed their team 3-0 in a test series just a couple of months ago means you have to downplay your teams achievements quite significantly. As you turn off the main road and onto the busy side streets the cricket conversation continues and you find yourself tuning out as your mind begins to turn to the next destination.

Half an hour ticks by and you find yourself looking for signs indicating the airport turnoff is near. It was a brief 45 minute trip from Bandaranaike Airport when you arrived at 9pm the other night and, while the traffic seems quite a bit heavier at the moment, the driver has taken you a quicker way to avoid it, or so he says. The conversation has changed from cricket and you find yourself discussing the local foods which you assure the driver are much better than those you encountered in India. Sure, they might be the same thing, after all the two countries are right next to one another and share the same culinary dishes, but Lankans are proud people and you are a gracious guest. Admittedly the curries weren’t as spicy as in India and for someone with a low tolerance to spicy foods this was a welcome relief.

It’s been an hour since you first changed cabs on the tiny side street. You ask the driver how much longer to go and he responds that it’s not too far now, reassuring you that you’ll be there in time for your flight. The conversation has dwindled and he seems more focused than before, turning from one side street into another, changing paths to avoid cows, children and washing strung up to dry across the road. You start to wonder just how much further to go, sure the traffic is a bit heavier but you don’t recognise your surroundings at all, where’s the four lane highway that leads to Bandaranaike International Airport? Where’s that ridiculously large two-story furniture store you noticed on your way to the hostel when you arrived? You clarify the intended destination with the driver, just to be sure he’s going to the international airport and not the domestic one instead. “Oh yes, international is close, not far to go now” he says as he leads you deeper into the maze of shanty houses.

As darkness falls you check your phone for the time, you’ve spent an hour and a half in this cab, where the hell are we? None of this looks familiar and your driver has begun making phone calls, seeming uninterested in the journey and instead focused on his conversation with the man at other the end of the line. You interrupt his conversation to ask if he can pull over to check the directions, you’re not sure what’s going on at this point. He seems reluctant to do so and when you ask again he begrudgingly pulls over to the side of the road next to a small woman carrying a basket of vegetables. He asks her something in Sinhala and with her spare arm she points further down the road, the same way we are going. He thanks her and we resume our journey, turning right at the next exit and leaving the road the lady indicated to travel down.

What is going on here, why did we just ignore the old ladie’s advice? You find yourself taking mental notes of landmarks in case you need to find your way back, a chicken coop, the television set sitting outside a shanty house and a small fruit stall that’s closed up for the night. Your driver is still on the phone, sounding more and more serious as he immerses himself in the call. Suddenly he hangs up and looks at you with a smile. “Not long to go now, yes” he says before his gaze wanders back to the road in front of us. This is bad, very bad. Alarm bells should have been going off the moment the first driver offered you a reasonable fare, you’re white, they should always try to charge a premium. Now that you think about it why would you need to change cabs anyway? Why would the first driver turn down an airport fare and pass you off to his nephew for him to reap the lucrative windfall instead? Why is his nephew now spending so much time on the phone and why havent we seen a main road in almost an hour? Your mind is racing and a panic sets in as you realise the gravity of the situation. No one knows where you are, you don’t know where you are and the driver seems intently focused on getting to his destination as quickly as possible. You are being kidnapped.

The driver hurtles down the twisting, winding dirt road and the labyrinth of shanties rushes past you. You’re trying to calm yourself but it’s not working, your chest feels tight and you feel a cold chill tremble down your spine. You have to say something, anything. “Can we pull over and ask someone for directions again?” The driver looks at you while weighing up the proposal before swerving sharply to the left and pulling up next to a middle-aged man reclining on an old and tattered lounge chair. The taxi driver utters a short sentence and the middle-aged man responds with a sentence just as short. It barely seems like a conversation. With that the cab lurches back onto the narrow road and you’re off again. This time the driver doesn’t even fill you in on the conversation, he just wants to get to his destination.

Almost two hours have lapsed since you first got in a cab and you’ve come to the realisation you’re completely helpless. Your rucksack is still in the boot and you cannot leave the vehicle now even if you wanted to as the driver, who has gone very quiet, has found a main road and is going too fast for you to contemplate jumping out of the vehicle and making a break for it. You find yourself thinking about your friends and family back home, what will they say when they hear that you’ve been taken hostage in a country that’s only recently ended its civil war. Why would you even go to a country where kidnappings are commonplace? Even political leaders and businessmen have simply disappeared, it was silly to think that you’d be fine as a solo traveller. Your own stupidity has got you into more trouble than you could imagine.

Suddenly a poorly lit sign emerges on the road ahead ‘Bandaranaike International Airport turn off 500m’. You read it once, twice, three times as those words sink in. Bandaranaike International Airport turn off 500m. You let out something between a laugh and a cry, it’s ok, everything is going to be ok. The driver looks at you and smiles “see, airport!” he says triumphantly. “Traffic was bad, I take the quick way for you.” You can’t help but grin at the man who is completely oblivious to the amount of stress he’s just caused you. As the taxi pulls up out the front of the airport terminal you jump out before it’s come to a complete stop, eager to feel the ground beneath your feet and a sense of freedom once again. Your heart is pounding in relief. It’s the best feeling in the world. The driver gets out and hands you your rucksack from the boot. In exchange you hand him three thousand rupees, slightly more than the negotiated fair. He thanks you and scrawls his name and number on a piece of paper, handing it over to you and explaining that, should you ever find yourself in Sri Lanka again, you should give him a call as he will happily give you a good discount on your next taxi fare. While it’s a generous offer you know that it’s unlikely, perhaps next time you’ll just take the bus instead.

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