26 May, Dehiwela, Sri Lanka

By Kaushalya Kathireson

My maiden voyage after over two months of staying home: the tuk-tuk trip had been booked using an app. I was heading out to run some errands – track down a particular medicine for my father, of which most pharmacies didn’t have stock;  get new flip-flops both for him and me, my dog having destroyed our old ones midway into lockdown; and buy a few items – of the ‘this and that’ kind.

A message alerted me to the arrival of the tuk-tuk.

Mask – check

Hand sanitizer – check

Bottle of water – check

Cloth bag that had another cloth bag in it – Check (So I could wash them on return, plus avoid plastic bags)

I asked Janith (name changed) if he was alright making multiple stops. He nodded his head in affirmation. And so, it began.

The view of the road ahead was through a plastic film – a new form of protection inserted in tuk tuk taxis, shielding driver from passenger and vice versa – giving the whole outing a clinical quality. Masks on also meant minimal conversation. The variety of masks was the first thing I noticed – plain coloured and printed cloth ones; some looked like they were padded with additional filters, the blue surgical masks, a few N-95 masks, handkerchiefs and t-shirts tied across the face. While most covered the wearer’s nose and chin, others dangled precariously from the one ear, or hung at the neck.

I thought being out for the first time in 2 months would feel grander, but the novelty didn’t last long, soon I was preoccupied with my to do list.

Plus, a new plastic cover on the tuk-tuk seat also meant that bumpy roads and speed breakers had me sliding from side to side, my shoulder dangerously close to touching the sides of the tuk-tuk if I didn’t brace myself on time. I also hadn’t anticipated a crash-course in the art of tucking back escaped hair strands (a basic feature of tuk tuk travel) while maneuvering minimal face touch.

I also realized that I use a lot of hand gestures when giving directions. But the mask meant muffled voices and having to lean forward when speaking, which in turn meant my pointing fingers were bouncing off this new plastic obstruction. I wondered if the other travelers also had the same experience, and if so, how many hands had touched this separator? Maybe I should sanitize my hands once again. 

The stop at each pharmacy involved sanitizing hands before stepping in, showing the prescription on my phone, then waiting for them to check stock. 6 pharmacies later, still no luck – one suggested that I go to the state pharmacy, Osusala. By this point, Janith was as invested as I was in finding this medicine for my father and we were both on pharmacy look-out.

I finally managed to buy the medicine; next it was slippers. Stopping at a shop on the way, I rummaged through my bag for the piece of paper with the outline of my father’s foot – he didn’t know what size I should get, and I didn’t want him travelling just for this. The shop assistant and I spent a couple of minutes deliberating; my father had traced his foot on a paper that was too small, the top and bottom of the outline were missing. We finally settled on a size, then card payment meant another round of sanitizing hands, not just for me but also the cashier.

Buying the masks and the other necessities was a much shorter process. As Janith dropped me home, I thanked him for being so accommodating and waiting at each stop so patiently.  He nodded his head in the ‘no problem’ kind of way.

Then it was straight to the shower: the clothes I was wearing, and the bag were all washed right away and put to dry. The water bottled rinsed, the phone and wallet wiped down.  Though the entire trip took just over an hour, the whole process felt much longer, it reminded me that getting used to the bigger change also meant getting used to so many small things that I hadn’t really thought of.

I don’t recall my first tuk-tuk trip, I doubt if any of us brought-up in Sri Lanka do. But this one, the first tuk-tuk trip after a lockdown, I feel like it’s going to stick with me for a while.

P.S. – the slippers didn’t fit.