We were delayed in the queue for the visas as it snaked around the arrivals lounge. Why did they work so slowly? Before us stood 4 counters each with a glum looking officer sat behind it, glancing cautiously at the passports of keen tourists, then at them and back at the passport again before handing them back with an even more suspicious look. The queue grew faster but the pace of the officers did not. I looked over my shoulders to three tired children for this was the longest plane journey they had embarked and the furthest they had been from the comfort of their home.
Finally we were let free.
We caught the eyes of dozens of men asking if we were in need of a taxi. We were warned about them. Ten of them in shirts and ties surrounded us and came up so close as if we were animals at a petting zoo. There were about ten of them and they came up so close as if we were animals at a petting zoo. Our only instinct being to bow our heads and to walk straight ahead without taking notice of them. As I lugged my suitcase out through the air-conditioned airport, I was soon greeted by the sticky, humid air of the capital; its pressure compressing at my throat leaving me gasping for fresh air. It was 4am. ‘Great’, I thought, it could only get worse during the day.
We waited for what seemed like hours for our ride to arrive. We stood under a perspex shelter; a single sheet of plastic protecting us from the hundreds of mosquitos which were dotted across the early morning sky. It was hard to think through the constant interruptions of screeching tyres and the beeping of horns by frustrated taxi drivers. I couldn’t believe I was finally here after all these years. There were police officers, or traffic wardens – I couldn’t quite tell. They were wearing mud brown uniforms, exactly like you saw in the movies. They blew their whistles at regular intervals, one by one, as if it was the tune to a song. An awful song it was.
The sun was beginning to rise and the airport grew busier. There was a sudden flurry of locals and tourists wandering in and out of the airport in unison – a sight that was once just merely a dream. We stood still in the middle of it all, mesmerised for this was the place I left all those years ago and had never expected to come back.
We were picked up just before 5 and settled down for our long ride back to my old village. We were driven through the city which was once a place for the rich, now a way of living for everyone. Skyscrapers loomed over us, absorbing in the rays of the rising sun, preparing to start the new day. Just across the road were the waves of the Laccadive sea, crashing against the boulders of the seashore. Stall vendors were situated right along the sea front, preparing their goods for the busy day to come.
Every road we turned into we were met with an abundance of tuktuks*, motorcycles and school buses, each honking at one another at different tones, competing for their place on the road. The van swayed in and between the lanes, beeping its way passed a motorcycle on which they had managed to fit 4 people. You would think things would have changed since the war, clearly they had not.
There were still no big roads connecting the city to the villages meaning we had to drive almost three hours through towns and villages to reach our destination. It was an extensive and laborious journey. The children were now fast asleep beside me, wrapped in the arms of each other for protection in this unfamiliar environment.
My eyes strained from the sunshine which had now fully emerged and was beaming at full strength across the country. The air conditioning was blasting throughout the car but this still wasn’t enough to replace the humid air. Outside, the villagers were going about their day; elderly men in their lungis** huddled around the tea shops listening intently to the designated reader who was dictating aloud the morning paper. Women hurried around the stalls negotiating the best prices for vegetables and freshly caught fish whilst the stray dogs rummaged around searching for any piece of scrap food they could find, before being shooed off by market owners. I caught myself smiling with an overwhelming sadness. I was now a foreigner in a land where once my future was destined, nothing will change that now.
It was almost midday when we drove passed a familiar pillar. I immediately perked up from my seat, we were almost here. The same old dried Palmyra leaves were being used as fences to separate one house from the next. I opened my window and took a deep breath as the same ocean wind blew across my face, we were by the coast. Cows on the side of the road sat alongside with the stray dogs, taking shade under the looming palm trees. The driver began to pull up by a large blue gate. I was back. I was back after all these years. Back to my homeland.
*Tuktuk – A three wheeled auto rickshaw that is a motorised development of the traditional pulled rickshaw or cycle rickshaw.
**Lungi -The lungi is a type of sarong, that originated in the Indian subcontinent, worn around the waist as an alternative to trousers.