I stared incredulously at the dull yellow glow of my headlights reflecting off the aluminum garage door. They looked like two fireflies. I stepped out and walked in front of the vehicle for the first time. They were like fireflies alright. This was unbelievable! Then the light outside the garage door came on. I got back into the van and waited patiently for the garage door to complete its leisurely upward crawl. Once the doorway was clear I drove in.
"Now I'm going to switch off the engine, okay? Everything's okay right?"
"Yes, she brought us all the way home by god's willing without an incident."
"Yeah, we were lucky today." I said and switched off the engine
We had planned to go to the blogger Alchemiya's mother’s funeral in the morning. But as the blogger Weni also wanted to join us, we had to make changes to our travel plan. As he had finished his quota of leave for this year, he had no way to take any more leave. And he could join only after work. And at the same time, as he had also organized for the bloggers Rana and Onaya's family to go with us, I had to change the original route to Kottawa through the High-level Road, too.
First we drove to Mulleriyawa, through Kaduwela to pick up Onaya, his wife and the kid. The rain started when we were passing Palawatta which soon had upgraded to a downpour by the time we hit the High-Level road. Weni and Rana got in at Kottawa somewhat drenched.
It was 7.49 PM when we got the token at the Kottawa toll booth at the entrance to the Southern Expressway E 01. I drove well below the speed limit, being extra careful because of the hostile motoring combination of rain and night. In addition to that there was this extra burden of carrying other passengers. And also taking into account the carelessness and erratic behavior of the other drivers in these perilous driving conditions would totally be beyond my control.
Deepa and I rode in the front and our son Hirusha was at the back with other passengers. As I was concentrating heavily on driving I was only paying little attention to the teasing and friendly but relentless bullying going on in the back. As our son Hirusha said later, Weni had been the butt of all jokes.
As we left the expressway at Kurundhugahathapma exit we had taken 57 minutes to make the 67.5km.
Before setting off I had checked the directions given in Alchemiya’s blog and had a rough sketch hurriedly made on a piece of paper. I had left it on the console tray between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat. I didn’t consult it much because Weni also had copied the same directions on an A4 sheet and he also had SatNav on his phone.
We missed the first turn to the left as soon as we left the toll booth, because just by judging the width and the condition of it we thought it would be an entrance ramp to the expressway. Unfortunately it was the correct route though we didn’t know it. Anyway drowned in the a rain of abuse aimed at Weni’s SatNav and his so called A4 navigation, which later would become a big time hit on Facebook, we were homing in on the destination through alternative routes.
While we were looking for a spot to empty our bladders we found this lonely and dark stretch of road running through a huge rubber plantation. I pulled over and parked on the shoulder of the road and joined the others who stood along the opposite shoulder of the road and relieved themselves into the ditch. Soon we finished the job and got into the van.
I turned the ignition and was amazed to hear the motor just whine and fail. The battery was brand new and the run on expressway was enough to charge the weakest of the batteries. This Toyota 2C diesel engine has never failed to start up except the day the wire to the diesel injector pump was gnawed off by a mouse. I switched on the headlights which gave off a weak light which soon faded out.
We went to the option of push-starting the van. The men got off and started pushing but it wasn’t easy because it was slightly uphill. And the road was in total darkness and there was the risk of running into the ditch. Somehow in the third attempt as we got enough momentum the engine sprang to life to everyone’s delight.
Once, all were on board, I drove off. I was worried to notice the the red battery discharging lamp on the dashboard, which was supposed to go off as soon as the engine starts, continued to glow. This meant the battery was not charging!
“This vehicle starts even after it stands still for ten and half months of the year when you put in the battery and turn the ignition. This is not possible,” I said shaking my head.
In a little while I discovered that the red discharging lamp turned on and off erratically. Once, when we made another wrong turn and one of us got out to ask the way, I switched off the engine out of habit. As it was on a sharp uphill I went to the only option available and started the engine on the reverse gear by letting the van roll backwards and letting in the clutch, which was a dangerous maneuver in the dark on unknown terrain, with the vehicle fully loaded. The engine started immediately, to my immense relief.
When we reached Alchemiya’s place I was careful to park at a place where it was possible to push start the vehicle. While the others were getting off, I removed the battery compartment cover behind the driver’s seat and disconnected the subwoofer from the battery by removing the fuse in order to relieve the battery of some extra burden.
Even though I was meeting Alchemiya in the flesh for the first time and the others were gathered around and were enjoying each other’s company, my mind was heavy with the vehicle’s technical problem. It wouldn’t have mattered much had it been in a day time. But driving a fully loaded vehicle powered by a non-charging battery, for over hundred kilometers in a rainy, dark night on an expressway was an entirely different kettle of fish. It was not my idea of fun anyway and something I should avoid if I could. But I couldn’t. I was only half listening to the conversation of the group.
“What are we going to do now?” Deepa asked in a low tone.
“That’s what I’m also wondering. It’s very dangerous to go back on the Expressway because we can’t stop there even the worst comes to worst. No hazard light either, because of the dead battery. It would be deadly to have a break down. And the other drivers would not see us before it’s too late, because it is a dark and wet and slippery night.”
“You do whatever is the best. It’s your call.
“And, on the other hand, if we take the Galle road, it’ll take three times longer to make it and we have to go an extra distance totally out of the way to drop off these people. And the longer it takes, worse becomes the problem.”
“So what do we do?”
“What we should do is to wait till the morning and deal with it. But we can’t do it because Weni has to go to work and Onaya has the little kid. It won’t be nice.”
“I go for plan B. We’ll take the expressway and hope for the best. We need to get home as soon as possible. Sooner, the better. There could be a point when the lights would black out completely. So expressway is the solution because of the time factor.”
“You do whatever it is with the minimum risk.”
After dinner and picking up some apricots from Alchemiya’s tree, we said goodbye to them and walked back to the vehicle. As I feared the battery was fully drained and the motor didn’t turn at all. We push started the engine. After everyone was on board we set off, this time on the correct route.
As I had made up my mind already we headed toward the expressway entrance. But making me wonder if I made the correct decision, this time the red discharge lamp continued to glow obstinately without going off a single time. If anything goes wrong I have no one to blame but myself.
The time showed 12.07AM when I got the token from the entrance toll booth at Kurundhugahahathapma. ‘We can now make it even in a total blackout,’ I thought happily regarding the brightly illuminated expressway.
That happiness was short live as soon as we left lit up area and plunged into total darkness. We realized with a sinking feeling that the expressway was illuminated only at the entrance exit areas, over the bridges and service areas only.
It was like hitting a dark tunnel after bright daylight. My foot automatically eased off the accelerator.
As the eyes gradually got accustomed to the dark we were able to see the dying headlights of ours reflecting off the luminous fogline on the left, the lane marking and the reflectors on steel median fence very weakly. Everything else was pitch-black. Even if an elephant was there in the middle of the road we’d never see it, not that it is likely. And more likely scenarios such as someone without lights like us was traveling slowly, or in the worst case scenario had had a break down in the middle of the night would have been disastrous. The mere thought made a shiver crawl up my spine. All I could do was to keep the vehicle between the luminous fogline on the left and line of reflectors on the steel fence on the right using the dull reflection of my headlights. It was like flying through space more than driving on the road. Just like an aircraft aiming for a badly lit runway in a lonely airfield in the middle of nowhere in bad weather.
Deepa, who realized the danger we were in, unbuckled the seatbelt and perched on the edge of the her seat with her face stuck in the windshield peering into the dark road ahead for better visibility. She helped with navigation through this nightmare warning me from time to time.
“You are little too much to the left, I think.”
“Move a bit more towards to the center, It’s too close to the fence”
The rain that spattered down from time to time made the visibility even poorer. The windshield wipers were useless as the battery had no power to work them. When I switched on the wipers when it became worse and couldn’t see anything, they just managed to drag themselves laboriously just one cycle and died. When the wiper worked the headlights faded out completely, making the guiding fogline and reflectors invisible. I sometimes had to slow down even further and switch off the lights for the wiper to work one cycle. As soon as the glass cleared, I switched off the wipers to save the already overburdened battery.
Though theoretically, when the engine revs up the lights should become a bit brighter, I discovered the opposite happened here. Our eyes had no chance to get accustomed to the dark and see the faint luminous marking continuously as the headlights of the occasional oncoming vehicles on the other side blinded us. Even the vehicles which came from behind and overtook us were more of a hindrance than help. I resisted the very strong temptation to tailgate one of them as I sensed the danger of it.
In a while I learned to speed up arriving at the illuminated short stretches and slow down well before entering the dark stretches. I entered the dark areas with caution till our eyes adjusted to the dark.
My passengers at the back seemed to be unaware of the peril all of us were in and the risk we were running by driving on a wet, dark expressway in a rainy night with malfunctioning headlights, tail lights, brake lights, turn signals and windshield wipers. Onaya and the family seemed to be fast asleep at the back seat. Weni and my son were engaged in some conversation about the latest smart phones with Rana who seemed to be drifting between sleep and wakefulness joined in the smart phone forum from time to time. Deepa, still perched on the passenger seat, peered through the windshield and helped me navigate. I was struggling hawk eyed to keep the vehicle between faint luminous lines.
I felt each kilometer we left behind as an individual victory. Fifty km more…thirty km more…twenty km more…
Finally I saw it was only one kilometer more to Kottawa exit. I passed the sign feeling like an Olympic runner, thanking all the unseen powers who helped us to make it alive through the nightmare and arrive in one piece at the toll booth. It was 1.20AM. As I paid Rs.300 and got the receipt in exchange for the token, I notice that we had taken 73 minutes to make 67.6 km. “Getting out of that without a major incidence is a great achievement,” Deepa reminded. As I expected, no one at the toll gates made any remark about our lights nor roadworthiness.
Anyway the worst part of the nightmare was over.
Even though the best thing to have done would have been to take the exit to the right towards taking the shortest way home, we couldn’t make up our minds to drop the passengers to take a taxi home, especially when Onaya had her little kid, too. So I swung left, towards Colombo…
First to get off was Weni.
I asked Onaya if there was street lighting where he lives. He said yes. I started driving towards his home. Onaya was a fraction of a second too late to show the right turn we were supposed to take and I overshot. I didn’t want to reverse or make a U-turn because of the two cops that were patrolling the stree at that time. I didn’t want them to inquire about my turn signals or reverse or tail lights. So I drove on until Onaya showed another alternative by-road to the right. Rana also got off with Onayas.
Now only three of us were there on our own. Now I that couldn’t afford to let the engine stall under no circumstance, I took extra care.
Driving dead slow through unlit stretches and we crossed Kaduwela and headed home. It was a great relief that the rain had ceased completely. I knew we were over the final hurdle too, when we saw no cops even near our police station. As I was turning off the main road into our drive, I remembered the neighbors who park on the road.
“If these idiots have parked anything on the road, we’d sure hit it today,” I said as I swung off the main road.
Fortunately the road was empty.
Once safely inside the garage, the I stopped the engine and slumped onto a chair and enjoyed the euphoria that swept over me.
“Actually Deepa none of these guys just called to check if we arrived safely, huh?”
“They don’t know what we’ve just gone through, I’m sure,” she said.
Well, I didn’t give it much propaganda either, because I didn’t want to excite them unnecessarily.
TO BE CONTINUED:
COMING UP NEXT:
WHAT EXACTLY WENT WRONG THAT NIGHT?
in Sinhala Language