The Return -Tales of an Opium Smuggler
Chapter Six – The Curfew Patrol
The curfew patrol’s move was classic. Forty minutes into the trio’s expeditious escape from the dusty confines of Jaffna – just as the air seemed to shed itself of the city’s congestive ether – a thin wooden beam supported by two young government soldiers in full parade uniform enforcing the curfew brought the jubilant travelers to a halt. It was Election Day for the warring parties. The Tamil were bombing railroad stations no more; suicidal attacks at bus stations occurred no more; hospitals and schools feared no more; hotels and fruit stands cowered no more.
Quickly Mr. Alana turned to Julian, “I will handle this. Remember, you are the rich tourist,” he said. “Do not worry. Don’t get nervous,” he said trying to impart calming words to Julian – thick beads of sweat running deep on his brown forehead. Instinct guides human action in situations there only the unknown is offered the participants.
Assaan brought the trusted vehicle to a slow and steady stop ten meters from the armed patrol. The long bayoneted rifles – as ancient as the Mercedes the cached escapers traveled in – leveled steadily at their heads. Julian thought and as quickly said aloud, “There are only three of them.” The Mohammedan twitched and almost turned to look at Julian; almost imperceptibly, he nodded in agreement with the Great White Hunter, who had already caught Mr. Alana’s eye steadfast.
When the soldiers saw the “tourist in the back seat, accompanied by driver and guide,” they relaxed a little. This was a scene familiar to them and everyone on the island. Assaan and Mr. Alana relaxed a little, also. Julian said calmly, lips unmoving, “Be ready!”
The curfew imposed by the terms of the cease fire agreed upon months earlier by the Ceylonese government and the Tamil commanders included a nation-wide travel ban. Not only did the curfew impose indoor restrictions on citizens and visitors to the Island keeping them within their homes and hotels from dusk to sunrise, it also forbid all travel outside the limits of the cities, villages and hamlets dotting the jungled landscapes.
Travel permits, though difficult to acquire, were specifically obtained for the trio by Mr. Alana weeks earlier – again with the assistance of that marvelous green paper that paves roads; that sprinkles dust in the eyes; that builds shadowy regions in the mind. Julian’s short telegram read: “Arriving on final charter for season. Need three travel permits for final three days only. Please make agreed payments as discussed.”
Four hundred US dollars had brought an agent of the powers-that-be, (a pencil pusher behind a hoard of moldy desks) a new lifetime of eminence on the Emerald Isle. Mr. Alana had in hand the travel papers for three intrepid travelers allowing the trio through her mighty, tiger infested jungles on an expedition ultimately conceived by, and now even protected by a half dozen new born infants for whom fate had destined to find a new adopted life among pale skinned strangers in lands far far away covered in snow.
The audacious travelers’ papers were in order. Julian’s subterfuge persona of the anxious potential father to one of the island’s destitute infants secured the travel documents “officially.” The financial consideration proffered by way of Mr. Alana expedited the transaction in a matter of minutes rather than weeks or even months in civil war ridden Sri Lanka. Palms raised up, Mr. Alana gestured towards Julian with a grin and the familiar tilt of the head as if explaining to the soldiers: “See, he is just a normal, completely regular tourist,” he assured them almost desperately, beads of sweat running deeper, eyebrows deeper, chin lowering deeper.
Julian thought, “He’s blowing it!”
The young soldiers examined closely the tattered travel documents, examined in detail the government issued identification cards of Julian’s indigenous associates; observed their beady sweat, their tight jaws and nervous grip on the door handles.
They had to search the car. The soldiers roughly pulled driver and guide out of the Mercedes after quickly opening the two front doors. They examined in detail under the dashboard, under the seats, in the glove compartment. Assaan and Mr. Alana stood straight as boards, fingers locked behind their heads and a sharp bayoneted rifle pointed squarely at their nape, while the third soldier dutifully pulled the side panels on the front doors and examined in detail the empty interiors; sliced open the sun-visors and banged loudly on the dashboard. Satisfied, the young man withdrew from the search of the front of the vehicle, gathered his ruffled uniform and as if suddenly remembering reclining Julian in the back seat, grabbed his delicate rifle and aimed its bayonet at Julian’s temple.
Then he smiled. He did not know to say, “Get out of the car in English.” His comrades grunted and hand signaled that they were unable to help with the translation. His bright white teeth exposed, he dropped his weapon to this side and calmly signaled with his hand that the “tourist should leave the vehicle”.
The empty trunk was opened. The young soldier directed Julian to open the trunk by means of hand signals and just as quickly as he had lowered his rifle a minute earlier it was again aimed at Julian’s head as he fidgeted with the key opening the trunk. With the trunk opened the corporal unexpectedly lowered his rifle and leaned it up against the rear flank of the trusty Mercedes. Julian caught Mr. Alana’s eye. “Yes, if necessary!” was quickly understood between those four eyes. Both men knew the other would not hesitate. If one acted so would the other. The mild mannered Mohammedan stood a little straighter, a little taller when he understood Mr. Alana’s signal: he was ready. The odds were matched: three on three.
After a quick search in the nearly empty trunk the soldier marched towards the back door on the opposite side of the car. Julian, now back sitting in the tourist position in the car’s rear seat sat up straighter. The soldier searched the floor and looked under the floor mat. Then he pushed hard on the springy seat. When his hand went to lift the seat cushion, just as Mr. Alana had done less than an hour earlier, Julian quickly picked up his camera from the backseat and jumped out of the car; a look of startled embarrassment colored the soldier’s eyes fixed on his bayoneted rifle leaning again the car – within Julian’s easy grasp. For one fiery instant Julian locked eyes with Mr. Alana, his fingers tangled behind his head.
Instinct guides human action in situations there only the unknown is offered the participants.
Suddenly, in a loud deep voice, Julian asks the young soldier lifting the springy back seat, “May I take your picture?” Equally as suddenly – as if Assaan’s livelihood had become infected with an incurable disease – the dutiful soldier bolted from the Mercedes, straightened his graceful, red-fringed with a red ball-on-top hat, and stood at attention with his two colleges who had matched their comrade’s photo enthusiasm and hurried to straighten their uniforms and flatten their hair for their photo shoot with the Great White Tourist. The soldier trio joined in on a new festive, very at ease and friendly atmosphere which had miraculously appeared amongst soldier and civilian alike – engendered by the mere suggestion of photography – but nourished by the young men’s longing for peace.
Reminiscent of an earlier time and an earlier journey to the island before the war when Julian laughed and danced with his newly wed Emma in their honeymoon paradise, at ease the young, inexperienced soldiers dropped their apprehension and happily welcomed the tourist; without hesitation they lost their fear and memory of war and even their bayoneted rifles fell to the ground as they groomed and primed themselves for their soldier portraits! For them the war was over for a few minutes. Gladly they welcomed the tourist. For them they returned for a few minutes in their mind to a time before the deadly battles covered the island and the tourists often and happily photographed up and down the beautiful isle. For a few minutes they would be younger again; would not have to hunt the enemy again; would not have to kill again; for a few minutes they would not have to be afraid again.
As the tension miraculously released its grip on the sextet, they busily prepared themselves for the impending photo shoot. Julian prayed the Mohammedan would stop shaking so fervently. Assaan’s locked fingers remained twined behind his head. When the elated soldiers momentarily relinquished their curfew duties Assaan nearly collapsed to the ground; but, saved by Mr. Alana who tossed the trembling man’s limp arm over his shoulder and nonchalantly edged him back towards his dusty vehicle. “Been having stomach problems every since those nasty curry stringhoppers this morning, have you?” Mr. Alana said loudly so the soldiers could hear. Then he added for effect, “I told you, little brother, to wait until we stopped at the hostel for lunch.”
The defending guardians of the highway lined up three abreast while Julian readied the single-reflex Pentax. Raising the view finder to his eye, he suddenly recalled that on the long dusty journey from Colombo a day earlier not a single town nor hamlet along the bumpy, often bomb-crater riddled highway carried the standard triple-A batteries needed to operate the device. Julian hesitated. The loud clicking noises produced by cameras of this type are notorious – surely the young soldiers would notice the soundless lack of shutter action. The automatically advanced film in the relatively modern device produced a noticeable grinding noise – when powered – between shots. Julian lowered the camera. The soldiers waited patiently. The corporal’s eyes narrowed. In addition to the long rifles carried by the three, the corporal also carried a side arm. With his trigger hand heavily on his holstered .45 caliber belted to his waist, he glanced nervously at the two armed teenagers under his command. Julian shouted to Mr. Alana, “We need to get their names and addresses so we can send them the pictures when we get home.” Mr. Alana’s face beamed with enthusiasm at the suggestion. He bolted upright, nearly flying into the air. “Right, Mr. Julian, right” he offered. “Of course, I’ll get that for you, Sir,” he lollied and lollied. “Oh, God, I love that man,” thought Julian as Mr. Alana stumbled forward and demanded in an on the spur of the moment, jokingly military manner: “Gentlemen. Attention!” he ordered and they snapped to in a line, red topped hats held high and proud on their young heads. “At ease,” came the next command and a wave of nervous giggles shared by the sextet gradually erupted into a cacophony of hilarious, relief filled laughter. “We didn’t think we’d see anyone on this road,” offered the corporal. “We were scared like little piglets.”
The camera’s batteries were on Mr. Alana’s to-do list. He had dropped the ball and realized immediately the danger they were in from the moment Julian had loudly pronounced his desire to photograph the young guardians of the road. Distracted – while Julian pretended to take picture after picture with his out-of-film, dead-battery camera, Mr. Alana sprang back and forth with paper and pen in hand noting names and ranks, noting home addresses and names of parents, noting ranks again and honorarium and laughter was in the air, and fowl screeched in the jungle and monkeys monkied – life was good on the island of Sri Lanka once again for young soldiers on patrol deep in the jungles far far away.
The pictures will come in the mail. No worries. Mr. Julian, “…the rich tourist will send multiple copies for the family. Certainly it will not take more that a few weeks. Yes, your parents and grandparents will see pictures of you proudly defending your country; pictures of you bravely sacrificing your youth on the fields of battle; pictures for your children and their children to know of your deeds,” Mr. Alana assured them that from the Great White Tourist’s camera all this and more will be theirs. Soon. Via photography without images the tension was broken. Via photography without film Julian was a tourist, again. Via photography the trio was no longer suspect in the battle zone of a war torn country. The young soldiers, longing for a time past when peace reigned, smiled broadly at the Pentax. They smiled gratefully for a distant moment of childhood long forgotten. They were happy and grateful like the jungle’s tit-fed little piglets in the morning’s Sun … before the hungry tigers strike.
Julian silently prayed the ardent soldiers would not notice the absence of shutter movement; would not notice the camera’s silence in the screaming jungle. The young Sri Lankan soldiers had never before been this close to a modem camera. If they had, they must have thought that the tourist carried the latest technology from the West – Julian’s camera was soundless! The straight as a board for their portraits young men were noiseless. They would show respect for the Great White Tourist. They would not question Him. They would “…soon have pictures in the mail.”
Mr. Alana gathered their names, addresses, ages, dates of birth, the schools they had attended, their military rank, names of parents and siblings, grandparents and more. In the incredible celebration of the moment, the military trio had neglected to collect Julian’s passport, and failed to retain and to take note of the documents of his accomplices. The soldier trio performed the duties the of the smuggler trio. It was in this moment they, the young soldiers of the national army, who were under siege by the Great White Hunter/Tourist. Unknowingly, in that moment, they were unwittingly tourists in their own land – they were the ones posing for pictures in the scenic landscape. The mothers and fathers would be so proud of their warrior sons -they had encountered and nearly captured the Great White Hunter. Instead, however, the Hunter captured them. The Hunter was incontestably, in their mind, an innocent, moneyed Tourist, and they “could categorically tell the difference,” they told their mothers and fathers; they told their sergeants and commanders. Yet, in the guise of the Tourist, the Hunter let Assaan’s loyal machine, with fresh, untouched succulent grapefruit under his comfortable backseat, roll into the cacophony of the jungle with his indigenous villains-in-arms sweating now – if possible – more profusely than in the heated moments before.
The young soldiers looked on as the black beast slowly accelerated into the still early morning jungle full of screeching fowl, ruminating monkeys, immobile snakes and 450 pound tigers capable of reaching speeds of up to 60 miles per hour in 1 and a half seconds.
Corroboration was in the photos that never came. The young soldiers’ transitory glory would soon become agony as they realize the Tourist was the Hunter. The escaping trio’s momentary anguish would presently become celebration as they realize their narrow escape. This was Julian’s moment of victory- observing the complementary full cycles as they unfolded. Julian reveled fearlessly in his youthful ignorance; danced intoxicated in the company of ever increasing risk; experimented unabashedly.
-end Chapter Six