We’re in Sri Lanka, visiting K’s parents and staying in the beautiful orange house that K. designed and built next to the house he grew up in. Our kids have been here before but Malli doesn’t remember. Akka, however, has astounded me with random sparks of memory like recalling the details of striped sheets that she last slept on when she was two and a half.
For both kids, the differences between Toronto and Colombo are now apparent. What they notice most are breaches in the safety code they’ve internalized. ‘Dangerous!’ they announce, upon spotting a clutch of people standing on the exposed steps of a moving bus. ‘That’s not good’, they say, as a motorcycle speeds past carrying a family of four. We carry them to push through crowds getting on and off buses while they muse that the driver will wait for us (he won’t). We leave impressions on their wrists from holding them tightly next to the open door on a moving train. They gape as people disregard the sign and “entrain” and “detrain” before the train is stopped.
They’ve been attending the half-day daycare run by K’s aunt next door. On their second day they watched, wide-eyed, as their cousin arrived at daycare standing up in the front seat of a car.
“The front seat?!,” Malli inquires.
“Yes, kids sometimes ride in the front seat in Colombo,” I say.
“Can we try that?,” he ventures.
A couple of weeks ago, in Toronto, the kids were playing in the garage. I had to move the car and invited them to sit in the front seat, unbuckled, while I adjusted the parking arrangement. They were beside themselves. So thrilled! This tiny step outside the daily safety routines of car seats and seat belts and bicycle helmets and staying-on-the-sidewalk was an unexpected treat. And here in Colombo, they see a whole urban population flouting these rules, elevating bus and three-wheeler riding, car and motorcycle driving to untold heights of adventure.
Meanwhile they’re the only two kids in the city wearing seat belts. We even have a car seat that we left here when Akka was a baby. By Canadian rules, they should both still be strapped in to these seats but even I balked at carrying a second car seat around the world for a five year old child whose Sri Lankan counterparts are riding on dashboards. K. is good at keeping to the left and negotiating the motorcycles and three-wheelers and buses that head straight for you, lights flashing to signal that you’d better move out of the way because they are not moving out of the way. He knows the rhythm of the roads here. He understands that the lines painted on the asphalt are mere suggestions, not real lanes. Still, I can often be found twisting and squirming in my seat as we pass within a few centimetres of the next vehicle because I know the truth: he learned to drive in California.