I find myself awakened by a sudden jerk and the ratchet of a handbrake. I look around the dark to find my colleagues sound asleep, still, snuggled up in their leather seats serving as make-shift beds. From my periphery, I sense Lakmal’s silhouette navigating his way towards me, past the heaps of camera bags dumped along the narrow aisle, the nimbleness of his feet matching his dexterity on the wheel. Both of us gesture for a smoke. He grins – milky teeth illuminating in the darkness like saltwater pearls.
It is our last night in Sri Lanka. For the past seven days, a multitude of sacred temples, fancy rooftop bars and placid tea plantations were added to our growing catalogue of travel experiences. In our minds, these places made Ceylon unique; ‘you have to experience this for yourself’ was the message crafted as we captured them on endless rolls of film.
I step out of the minibus with my eyes squinted, slightly disoriented still, and fumble around my pockets for my pack of cigarettes. A familiar scent of black tea pervades the air. Before me, an establishment fully decked out in rustic furniture, the signboard hovering above its entrance resembling a beacon of light. Teahouse. My watch tells me it’s 11.30 pm. Lakmal is already inside talking to an elderly man in nothing but a blue towel around his waist. He enters a small kitchen and comes out a moment later with a sizeable cup of tea for our driver. I hand Lakmal a stick and light it up for him as he walks out, making a mental note to get another pack at the airport before we leave.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“About two hours to Colombo,” he replies, sipping on his cup.
“Can you stay awake?”
“Ya,” he nods. “Don’t worry, your friends snore very loudly.”
The man in the towel inserts himself between us as we puff at our cigarettes, his thick grizzled hair spotting various shades of ash. He points his clasped fingers towards his mouth and says a few words in what I can only assume is Sinhalese. Lakmal declines, then turns to face me.
“Do you want to eat something?”
“No need,” I say. “Still full from the dosa.”
He lets out a smile, as if implying that I was a fool for refusing the offer.
“In Sri Lanka, drivers don’t pay for meals. They know it is tiring.”
I glance briefly at the old man next to us, for some reason expecting a reaction, but he merely adjusts his towel and disappears back into the shop.
“For seven years, all my meals are free,” he chuckles, clarifying that he buys his own food when he’s not on the road, of course.
The revelation humbles me, and my innards brew a smidgen of doubt. I’d traversed their national parks and devoured their fare, but what do I know about its people?
The old man returns three or four puffs later with an outstretched hand, resting on his right palm what looks like grimy, translucent, miniature pebbles. He gazes at me with a grin, made memorable by the absence of several teeth, and offers me one. I accept it and examine it briefly but find it rather unremarkable. With his hands, he advises me to hold it up against the beam of light above the teahouse. A bright purple illuminates from the inside. Nestled neatly between the crevice of my fingers, the colours dim and shine as my wrist manoeuvres; left to right, up and down. Only when I hear both men laughing do I realise I’ve let out an exclamation of sorts.
“Ratna, Ratna…” I hear Lakmal say. “It’s like money here.”
My attention goes back to the palm of the old man, and I find myself now ruminating over these stones as if I were eleven again; exploring the treasures of my neighbourhood game store, shelves stacked with freshly minted titles. Blue, another purple, red, another blue; the light a catalyst revealing their inner glow. The smoke from my cigarette reminds me to take a puff. I place the blue one back to a toothless smile.
“Where did you get these?” I ask the man, knowing Lakmal would help me translate the question. He does, then points somewhere beyond the dark horizon of the road, circling the ground beneath the outlines of power cables in the distance.
“We are in Ratnapura,” he adds. “Ratna means ‘gem’, pura means ‘city’.”
Just then, I picture a plenitude of colourful gems etched in the dirt and gravel underneath my feet. An entire world of harlequin diamonds sitting, unassuming, waiting.
I feel a slight twitch in my toes.
The land upon which we stand is a coliseum. Folks young and old, from towns and suburbs near and far, gather in her markets to buy and sell these lustrous stones. They grip in their hands torchlights, lukewarm underneath the morning sun, pressing their zealous eyes through a magnifying glass and hoping that by scrutinizing its hues and tones, its sheen and fluorescence, its cracks, clefts, culets and crowns, the secret to an incandescent life may come forth and reveal itself. We are awake in Ratnapura. The city whose people live and die by these iridescent objects.
“We should go now,” Lakmal says. He’s right. It’s almost midnight, and our flight leaves an hour after dawn.
We finish our cigarettes, then bid our farewells with a wave and smile. Lakmal jokes that he will drive slower until I fall asleep. But as I turn to leave, I feel a gentle tap on my left shoulder. The old man shuffles into the kitchen and reappears moments later with a single gemstone in his shrivelled hand. He holds it up against the light – specks of topaz hiding within – then grabs my wrist and presses the stone firmly into my palm.
“For me?” I ask.
He nods, then utters his first words of English that night.
“One cigarette, please.”
From my pocket I take out the almost bare pack and hand him its lone cigarette, accepting a delicate souvenir in return. We step back into the van to resume our journey to Colombo, and the tiny gemstone lulls, serendipitous, in an empty box of used tobacco.
I shift and shake in my seat as Lakmal barrels through the bumpy roads. I am jaded but my eyes refuse to shut. They contemplate the never-ending bends of amber streetlights and the silhouettes of the trees beyond them; sifting through swathes of memory to find gemstones in the rough.
Renald Loh is a freelance writer based in Singapore. He had spent most of 2019 in various regions across Asia, exploring narratives from lesser-known communities. His articles have been published in various entertainment and lifestyle sites including savour.online and The Travel Intern. He is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences at Singapore Management University.