The Return -Tales of an Opium Smuggler Chapter Six – The Curfew Patrol

24 Jun

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

The Return – Tales of an Opium Smuggler

7 Feb

The Return – Tales of an Opium Smuggler

Chapter One – Crumpled Brown Paper

Delivered to the buyer wrapped in crumpled brown paper, opium by the kilogram is the size of ripe, succulent grapefruit.

Shadowed in the sweltering heat of the sub-continent, Julian Marx rose before dawn. His guide, Mr. Alana, gently shook him awake from a near sleepless night. “It is time,” the resourceful guide whispered. Their driver had slept in the old Mercedes parked in the sun-burnt driveway. The secluded hostel that the unlikely trio had checked into the day before rests quiescent on the Southern shores of the Palk Straight – a narrow strip of sea separating the great, seething sub-continent from the island of Sri Lanka. Inaudibly to the North – a short swim in shark-infested ocean – reclines graceful India. The Bay of Bengal’s tacit waters sprawl haphazardly in the brusque, rising sun. Veiled away to the West, the cerulean sea incessantly calls from beyond the submerged mirage of mermaids and wooden sea vessels skipping wildly in the lonely ocean.

Yesterday, facing across the glassy water, Julian skipped smooth, ancient stones attempting to reach the Indian shores dancing in heaven’s reflection.

Civil war rages. The Tamil commanders have agreed to let their guerrillas stand down during a brief respite. The cease fire ensues. Julian is awoken for the task at hand and is uncharacteristically at ease. This inviting morning Julian must put into action his plan, and within the next 48 hours of cease fire – when the window of opportunity will close – succeed. On the third day the war will rage again; on the third day Julian Marx, like the spanghew, must fly.

The humid morning air randomly dissolves even the brightest stars in the East; finally, the endless war curfew dissipates like heaven’s Constellations fleeing the day at the beckoning of every new sun. For the next 48 hours the polls will be open, the wives will sweep the dust from the houses, the sons will fetch coconut milk and rice while the daughters care for the children and the husbands wring their hands; their Kalashnikovs closeted deeper than the Emerald Isle’s most precious stones.

In the midst of ongoing civil war politicians and warlords on all sides seek a show of hands in their favor. Their familiar message is a ballot quickly returned so the battles in the field may either continue or disband. Each political party claims the survey in their favor will mean an end to hostilities. The people know this can not be true  – for one party will not win; and as the defeated have sworn the war will continue until the next survey and the next. Fewer and fewer cast their voice in this bloody pond. In this survey most will stay within the safeguard of anonymity – within the relative safety of isolation in the home in the village far far away from the crimson fields covered with the slaughtered bodies of their sons and daughters; strewn with the rain washed blood of their newly inaugurated, most revered ancestors.

Yesterday Julian swam in the warm ocean indifferent to the teeming immigrant populations of Tamil decent; oblivious to the armies built on the backs of Tamil farmers and laborers; blind to the children and teachers, to the shopkeepers and fieldworkers. This Winter day the peoples and the armies; the housewives and the farmers; the dogs and the cats and the lumbering sacred cows molesting the public roads, and all the wildest and smallest animals deep within the paisley-shaped island’s ancient jungles awoke to an unusually lucid  and quiet morning in the slow Indian sun. All rose to the transiently cool dawn air while the fiery mortars rang out no more. All stood silently in the fields and on the hilltops, stood in the valleys and in the villages and the soldiers fired their rifles no more. The people all hid in the jungles and in their fields no more. The battle cries rang out no more this airy morning in lands far far away.

Julian stood in the morning’s earliest shadows, breathed the rarest salt from the waters of the Palk. He glanced across the dark room at Mr. Alana who quietly signaled the young man; then Julian, Mr. Alana and Assaan moved quickly through the door and quietly into the street. “Three days and like the spenghew!” Julian, Assaan and Mr. Alana aimed their steps resolutely towards an ancient Mercedes resting with her nose pointed South.

“Two to six weeks is how long I would stay,” mused Julian to Mr. Alana, “if it were not for this business we need to do today.”

Julian Marx and Mr. Alana had arrived the day before from swarming, war torn Colombo with Assaan, their driver. The four decade old Mercedes commanded by Assaan was an object of engineering wonder, and a dazzling icon to behold in the sunlight. Like most automobile owners in the region, keeping a vehicle running like new for generations is just something one takes for granted. The trio – from within the comfort of Assaan’s able stead, with their dark prize encased within – would be heading south within the hour – if all goes well.

Mr. Alana had hand-picked the driver. Every operation needs a fall guy. The fall guy who understands his job is worth his weight in gold – and then some.

The soldiers stopped the audacious travelers only a few miles south of the city on the road at the edge of malaria infested Jaffna Lagoon – with ten kilos wrapped in crumpled brown paper under the back seat of Assaan’s black Mercedes. The mild mannered Mohammedan thought he was irrevocably headed to prospects of life in prison – or better yet, death – in the province’s medieval, battle scarred penitentiary. Julian Marx and Mr. Alana – in accordance with unwritten, ancient traditions – would take care of Assaan’s seven children, two poor Muslim wives and ramshackle home on the Galle of southern Sri Lanka.

Familiar to every schoolboy and adventurer alike, Julian Marx at this moment was the Great White Hunter. Be it Kipling’s or another’s, the Great White Hunter of the interrelated regions of the subcontinent offered the outsider the opportunity to play a role not unlike that of the Godfather of European culture – and they share many traits. They both arrive an outsider. They arrange to care for the local population in ways meticulously contrived. Before long contrivance becomes necessity and the hunter/godfather becomes indispensable in the eyes of a few – which leads to the eyes of the many. After copious and ingeniously designed overtures select citizens pay loyal homage in ways inventively constructed and equally unproductive in a healthy society. Such is the nature of the beast: for forty American dollars Assaan offers two days of his life at the risk of twenty years in prison or imminent death. That is the arrangement. Like organized family everywhere, if there is an arrest someone will absorb the consequences. One prearranged individual will singularly attract the blow so that the others may continue to operate freely. The others will assume duties of care and diligence to the incarcerated or buried. In gratitude, the others will yet walk unchained, free to perpetuate their life recklessly or in grace as they chose.

Assaan is the driver. It is his forty-year old Mercedes. The crumpled brown paper wrapped grapefruit size kilos are under his back seat. Compensated up front before the consummation of the crime, he invests only his time, and potentially, his life. If caught he will plead guilty. He will be dealt a degree of mercy accordingly. Death may come swiftly.

It is yet shadowy in the dawn of this early February morning. Three men pour into the dusty black vehicle. Assaan directs his trusty livelihood towards the South – to the walled city of Jaffna. Riding shotgun tensely next to Assaan, Mr. Alana emanates the tour guide with utmost perfection. Julian Marx, in the essential and advantageous roll of tourist, commands alone the back seat. This young morning the antique Mercedes weaves up and down the antediluvian barricaded and deserted streets of Jaffna City at sunrise.

“We’re lost,” is Julian’s burning impression. The walled compounds and homes present the travelers with an endless monotone facade, there every street and turn and every walled house look just like every other. “Lost in place and time,” thought Julian uncomfortably.

Abruptly, the black Mercedes comes to a halt at a nearly imperceptible crack in the grey monotone; a fruit stand of a shop hidden within the walled fortifications of the dust covered streets. Mr. Alana quickly exits his comfortable position. He rushes into the mysterious interior of the dark catacomb. Promptly the anxious shopkeeper appears. Mr. Alana returns from the womb within and he and Assaan flit repeatedly up and down the dawn whitened streets. Only the trained eye could see when they signaled, “It is clear.”

Their marker passed unnoticed and indistinctly to the unobservant eye – yet unmistakably to the initiated. The shopkeeper suddenly fidgets open the back door of the Mercedes opposite the driver and Julian Marx sitting comfortably observing the well played transaction. “If only they would move a little faster,” prayed Julian. Uneasily Julian breathes in the millennium old dust brought to life by the shuffling trio in the fracas of the chaotic moment. Nearly tripping and falling on his long, unruly sarong, the fidgeting shopkeeper turns and hurries back into the dark interior of his emporium, and as suddenly, reappears with a large brown paper bag. Ten grapefruit wrapped in crumpled brown paper. Julian Marx, heart on fire, for a moment actually believes juicy grapefruit are in the bag – that is until Mr. Alana, pale as a ghost, grabs the noisy paper and as quickly as the Cobra strikes, stuffs the paper-wrapped clumps one and one securely under the springy back seat.

The heavy car’s steel doors are slammed shut. A sandaled foot presses hard on the gas peddle and the trio pulls out in a harried, screeching cloud of gravel and dust. A marvelous hail of stones and pebbles rains down on the perplexed, fidgeting shopkeeper watching his wares vanish forever away along the indistinct narrows of the city. Assaan’s able Mercedes maneuvers agilely the endless labyrinth only breaking their rambling escape every so slightly at the sharpest turns in the grey monotone. Mr. Alana peers deeply through the age-pitted windows, searching the grayness and directing Assaan “…now left! …now right!”

Nothing goes unnoticed in Jaffna; least of all three unfamiliar men in a deathless Mercedes. Yet, no eyes pierce their ragged departure. The impetuous, early morning children skillfully show their napes to the three outsiders in a city there none pass unseen. A few hundred-dollar bills keep the police spun out in their tired beds this cease-fire, sun-rise morning.

Mr. Alana had returned late to the hostel yesterday evening long after the ruthless sun had completed its torture of the steaming bay. While Julian enjoyed the roasting solitude – watching young maidens bathe in the salty waters of the Palk in clinging, cotton-thin sari, Mr. Alana paved the morning roads with US bills; tore aside the unopened barricades with sheets of green paper; sprinkled the dust of sleep with promises never to be honored on the eyes of officers and men charged to note the movements within the city. This shadow laden morning the city’s guardians faltered accordingly. Their clocks unsung, their wives silent, their children hovering, the citizens’ protectors sleep a while longer – while a black Mercedes passes the Southern gate to the unknown. In Julian’s mind the hours and the minutes are loudly ticking towards the third day. The cease fire will end “…but not before the spenghew flies,” Julian shouted to Mr. Alana as the trio rambled noisily down the impossibly unpaved road back towards Colombo.

end of part one ..

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