Tuesday, March 1, 2016

posted on 3/01/2016

Sri Lanka 2016

Bandaranaike-Kammala, 17th February 2016

It's the turn of Sri Lanka who would have said! Promises of cheap and good food, smooth roads and hot winter temperatures and not too great distances and I was immediately sold! Quite a shock to be so suddenly thrown from a wintery Italian bike ride wrapped up with scarves, gloves and hat, to this sweltering anarchic traffic mess. With all the tiredness from the travel and after assembling the bike under the staring eyes of the Airport security, I proudly set out from Bandaranaike international airport, heading north and desperately trying to get to the coast. Ways to and from any airport in the world are always bound to be not the best of places for a relaxing cycling ride, this was not an exception. I had to quickly adapt to the wild rules of the road here where the largest of trucks rule the pecking order followed by buses and cars. I seemed to rank pretty low in their consideration probably well below those three wheels tuk tuk and Italian Ape tricycles that abound around here. I must say that the awful disorder was not too frightening after all with most drivers hooting well ahead and slowing down when overtaking and most importantly never doing it too close! I thought negombo beach would be easier to find but I followed the A3 longer than I should in the end finding some kind of coastal civilisation after turning into little country roads often getting to a dead end. Yes I admit it, I found a guest house by the beach, having dinner at a local restaurant yet still joyfully unaware of my exact whereabouts, just a tiny little lost! I am not alone as asking people's direction while cycling they all seemed to not be entirely clear of their location either, including the local traffic police which explain the total mess. Lots of stray dogs all over the place but so far they seem pretty tiny and exhausted, and have not taken the slightest interest in my spinning calves. They do seem to realise I am exotic around here and unlike locals I definitely produce more barking fits...time to rest my jet lag before the first full cycling day tomorrow.

Kammala-Puttalam, 18th February 2016

First full day of cycling and given the pretty constant head wind I am really happy that I managed to do the 90 kilometres that separated my not precisely known location last night to the town of Puttalam. My legs held on decently while my arse had a rough time adjusting to this new routine. Cockerels in Sri Lanka are pretty loud and by four in the morning you get an early wake up call. It is a little early but given the heat at midday, early mornings are the best for cycling. Not too scenic of a road today. I followed busy A3 Road going straight south to north along the western coast. I first experienced the convenience of buying coconut to drink the fresh water, a good and very cheap way to keep hydrated in this heat. Stalls selling them are found everywhere, one hardly needs to carry bottled water. After a few hours of kerosene therapy with heavy traffic the road got a little quieter. I stopped to get some sweet and savoury pastry and some cold Nescafé shake which I can see becoming a staple when I need to raise my sugar level. The savoury fish pastry was interesting to say the least. A few bites and the weird filling produced a syncopated bout of uncontrollable burping. Almost reached my goal I met Brian, my first cycle tourists an English bloke cycling for months here and in India. We cycled together for a little until he announced he would stop there and then to make himself a cup of tea. At first I thought he meant buying one from a nearby stall. Sri Lankan tea is top quality and I can't imagine how cheap a cup is going to be but no! He was brewing his own English stuff sitting in the dust on the side of a busy road, a true gentlemen. It was four o'clock after all...

Puttalam-Anuradhapura, 19th February 2016

I started to head inland, away from the ocean and towards the mountains. Maybe two more days to get fit on the plains before the brutal climb to 2000 metres. If it wasn't for the wonderful people of this island I would say it was an unremarkable cycling days in the tropics. I am starting to grow a particular dislike of endlessly straight stretches of road where you just keep pedalling to the horizon with nothing your eyes can get hold of and say 'when I get there...' Let's not talk about the wind either as I am building up some serious credits here after two days. Although pretty flat today's road was a long alternating of uphills and downhills and the constant heat made it pretty hard at times. This is where the people and why I love cycling come in. I often stopped to drink or eat sweets and breads on tiny stalls by the roadside and each one of them turned into the opportunity to have a chat with the people around, meet the owner family and so on. It's a young country, it strikes a European to see so many children around eager to try a 'hello' as soon as they realise I am a tourist. I find myself waving and answering them always being repaid by smiles larger than their faces. Adults are pretty friendly too only their standard English phrase is a little more grown up and often involves asking 'where you from?' and 'you have wife and children?' Their English though is soon over if I say that I don't or even worse tell them that the bike is my bride. Out of pity I have even said yes allowing them to get on with page two of their conversation book! I reached Anuradhapura, hanging on to life as I cycled through the centre traffic in what seemed hell on a particularly bad day. I arrived early in order to have some time to visit the sacred city. This was possible thanks to Vippalu who whizzed me around the main sites on board of his tuk tuk. The hotel room tonight is really a bargain, just outside town in a very secluded and quiet area. Upali the owner is half Italian too, having lived in Padova for almost twenty years before returning home in very good style!

Anuradhapura-Sigiriya, 20th February 2016

Fact. Sinhalese Dogs have a certain umpf in the morning. They waste most of the day laying flat on their side, desperately seeking shadows, panting furiously by the side of the road, ignoring the world. Early mornings are different; well rested and fresh they can give it a shot and test the stamina of foreign looking cyclists. That made for a quick start of my day, sprinting to get away from four raving mad dogs chasing me. Mind you they were the usual smallish size but the rattle they made, barking behind my spinning legs, made them seem bigger, therefore the increased speed on my part. I don't think they were trying to get me rabies, I was just being tested... As I saw the first mountains in the distance, the landscape turned lush green, with rice fields, tropical forests, lakes and finally a nice and quiet road, crooked and full of character! It was a glorious cycling day to say the least. On the way I also crossed three majestic working elephant and my first dreaded monitor lizard, thank god not crossing my road but rather still, in a shallow water ditch. I am sure they have all the good reason to be around but to me they just look evil, are far too large a lizard and should simply be banned. It took about five hours to Sigiriya with plenty of stops to chat with locals, drink, eat and of course dispensing 'hellos' to children receiving back lots of smiles and laughter. After five hours cycling I took a shower before starting an hour climb up to Lion Rock, a UNESCO world heritage sacred site reached after 1400 steps up the dramatic rock face and watched the last rays of sun bathe the forest planes. A duathlon let's say. Today I watched a couple of tourists getting off their speeding cars, briefly stop at a road side stall with their guide telling what each fruit or drink for sale was, before returning to the air conditioning of the car and blasting off to the next sightseeing or photo opportunity. Cycling I have less time for visiting attractions but I know I wouldn't want to miss the chance to spend hours each day breathing and sweating in the forest, hearing sounds I have never heard, smelling new scents or stop at a stall and find out how tasty and sweet a fruit whose name I don't even know, can be. And the smiles of all those children...priceless!

Sigiriya-Kandy, 21st February 2016

Life at 15 miles an hour is sweet! Fast enough when you don't want to stay and slow enough when you want to stop. I have also found out that the bike is a big help in limiting touting. If they try to sell me a carpet I tell them I can't carry it, a lift by taxi or tuk tuk, no thanks I have a bike. For other occasions I tell them I have so little money left that I have to cycle. Works a treat. Dogs this morning were in a good mood. Only one started a half hearted chase showing his teeth and it is then that I tried the 'old man yesterday at the temple trick'. Instead of pedalling like a maniac you slow down look the little menace in the eyes and shout 'shsh' or something along those lines and point a finger at them. To my wonder the furry menace suddenly stopped and turned into a poodle! Today I started to climb the first mountains reaching 600 metres before descending to 500 in Kandy. The landscape is getting ever more interesting and I could see some of the mountains I'll soon try to get over. The last climb before descending to the city was particularly hard also given it was the hottest time of the day. Running out of water and seriously overheating, I went into a little run down shop hoping for anything to drink but soon realised they were selling nothing of use to me so I just plonked myself on their chair in the shadow and refused to move until I cooled down. The two ladies didn't speak anything but Sinhalese still I was trying to convince them on the importance of selling bottled water. They must have been puzzled by this weird cyclist willing to risk an heart attack rather than paying a five dollar tuk tuk fee and get on top the blooming thing like almost everyone else does. Well tomorrow entails going up to 2000 metres so I decided I will ignore all children and save some breath by not dispensing all those hi and bye for free! Reached Kandy and after sorting out a reservation mess I finally visited the Temple of the Tooth Relic where it is said that a tooth belonging to the Buddha is held. The crowds were overwhelming due to tomorrow's full moon day a special Buddhist and National holiday here.

Kandy-Nuwara Eliya, 22nd February 2016

Today was my hardest as planned. Kandy to Nuwara Eliya will bring me from 500 to 1900 metres and from rice fields to tea! I left very early as I had to cross the city and I was trying to breath as little nasty fumes as possible and it took about eight hours of cycling. By now my backward side is fully adjusted to these long days on the saddle and it gets uncomfortable when I get off. The shsh dog trick in Kandy was a total failure, they just didn't get it. I was chased twice and both times I had to exhaust all my umpf to outrun the little rascals. I practiced another trick that seems to work but is rather risky. It uses reverse psychology and seems to puzzle the beast, it involves slowing down to walking speed. Somehow they don't find me an enticing prey if I don't look terrified, legs spinning like mad, they give up on me. Just before passing them I also ring my bell a little, I declare all my good intentions and smile at them. It is a little bit like playing Russian roulette, If it fails, I am doomed so I should use it with utmost care... As I started climbing the first mountains the bright green of rice fields gave way to the darker green of tea plantations. Literally mountains of them. Every plantation had its own grand colonial house, where the British owners were living in grand style I am sure. Ceylon tea is really good and Sinhalese have no doubt it is the best in the world. All the hours cycling up the mountain in the heat meant lots of stops. I must have drank at least ten litres of water and stopped for countless bites of local sweet breads and Milo, a chocolate and milk drink that is everywhere and keeps me cheerful when times are rough. Spotting a lady cooking coconut flat breads I stopped and asked for one. It was hot and tasted really good. My trouble with locals is that everybody I meet seems to have a relative working in Italy and they are keen to call them up and have me chat to them. Really kind of them but having a mountain to climb the time for hearing strangers life stories is rather short. Despite spending most of my day panting and out of breath I managed to avoid excessive cursing and managed to keep my cool and spread good will to the thousand children supporting my ordeal.

Nuwara Eliya-Ella, 23rd February 2016

Last night the guest house host, Neil for foreigners but something very much abstruse and long in Sinhalese was really helpful. A keen cyclist himself he seemed to know all the roads in the country and was so eager to help me plan my remaining days here that after one hour of taking out maps, Internet searches and calling up people to find out accommodation, he was still going strong. Nothing would have stopped him if I had not mentioned that after the slog up the mountain the stomach was rather full of sorrow and needed something to munch on. He was really generous and kept pouring cup after cup of coffee and refusing any money for it. At night it was a little hard to fall asleep and at five am sharp the morning Chanting contest started. The place up on a hill was very blessed by a nearby mosque and a Buddhist temple and both the Imam and the monks woke up in excellent form. Chants and bells galore for one hour until six, amplified by loudspeakers for the hardest of hearing. In the end they must have called a truce, settled on a tie and decided to reconvene tomorrow ensuring that Nuwara Eliya's population doesn't get into bad habits and decide to have a lie in until 7am or something as bad as that! Given the tension and conflicts that lasted until 2009 the island now is a wonderful example of Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu religion coexisting together. Today while cycling in the countryside I luckily spotted an exquisite temple with two young monks and their master happy to have a chat and later eager to take me into the little shrine. A couple of small rooms with wonderful tiled floor and wall paintings all around and of course at the centre of the altar the usual large golden serene Buddha. I arrived in Ella in good time and went straight into my routine of a little sightseeing, fruit juices and drinks, writing this diary before enjoying rather large portions of food for dinner. My room tonight is on top of a hill with a private balcony facing the forest. There won't be chants for sure but I have been warned about the presence of monkeys and forgot to ask the all important question...what time do monkeys wake up?

Ella-Haputale, 24th February 2016

Adventures sometimes start where plans fall apart. But before that, to the night in the forest chalet. Monkeys were never to be seen or heard of so I blame it on the birds. Nothing against them, I love watching birds and I rejoice when I hear them having a good happy chirpy day. The trouble is that there was no peace to be found in this forest. My bedroom was in the middle of a bird sanctuary. One particular bird I would name the faulty metronome was going on and on with his tik tok out of sync to which he would get a reply by another feathered specie that went chiii chiii or along those lines. They were obviously speaking different languages, misunderstanding each other, so why bother at all. To the adventure bit. Neil, yesterday's Sri Lankan tourism authority, had spent his time recommending me a road from Ella to Haputale that would only take 25 km. The stubborn in me realised that there was Rowena waterfall 7km going down the other way and I thought as the day was so short I would go there, come back and still have an easy relaxing day. Down I went and the road got steeper and steeper and by the time I got to the waterfall I knew there was no way I would want to go back up. I vaguely remembered Neil saying this way was too long but I rather trusted a tuk tuk driver suggesting I should continue on this road as it was not going much more down and then it would gently rise back to Haputale my final destination. Rule number one when you are cycling is never to trust the advice of motorised individuals. Their idea of a road going flat, up or down is completely skewed as all they need to do is push harder on a pedal or roll their hand. We cyclists are a different breed, we are much more sensitive to levels, up is painful down is joyful, flat is ...well, flat. Anyway there aren't many cyclists around here so I was on an unplanned route at the mercy of drivers, tuk tuk riders, passers by and whoever wanted to join in and mislead me further. Distances and heights of towns seemed an opinion. Haputale town height according to their answers varied between a mighty 5000 metres and a mere 1200. Distances were even more fun. I would get say 40 km from a person then ride 10, ask again and find out that Haputale was now 40 km away, meaning it was not only moving but it was doing so at my exact speed. Also on the map it was marked as an A road, meaning a major road but maybe this had been true in the 18th century because now it was a tiny bumpy messed up road waving up and down through a dense forests. The tarmac, when there was something left that is, had the consistency of rubber and seemed to be melting under the intense heat. Bronte with its little wheels was pissed off by the holes and bumps and I was only able to go at a walking pace or little more. Neil was right about the road being long but one thing he was wrong was the amazing sceneries. It climbed the ridge of a steep mountain and for hours I could look down as the mountains descended giving glimpses of the ocean two hundred kilometres away. Without even knowing it I stumbled on a fantastic waterfall that I later found out to be the second highest in the country dropping over 250 metres. The short ride turned into another long testing day but full of rewards. With Haputale getting further and further the more people I asked, together with the doubts of not making it in good time, made me take the wise decision to fold up my bike and get a tuk tuk to ride the last 7 or 18 km, depending whom you asked, that seemed to still separate me from my final destination. Few minutes later a mighty thunderstorm struck as I was peaceful speeding up the final stretch on board my three wheeled saviour.

Haputale-Ratnapura, 25th February 2016

Today It was time to rip the rewards of climbing up these magnificent mountains. I will head down to the plains and the city of Ratnapura. The landscape shrouded in a fine early morning mist was breath taking. The clouds of yesterday storm still lingering on but breaking up into all kind of weird shapes, uncovering the blue sky behind. I often had to stop to take in those images and try to freeze them in a photo or a clip. At Beragala noticing a bank I thought it was a good chance to quickly change some money to last me the last few days here. I parked Bronte right by the entrance triggering a quick reaction from the security guard that thinking I had come to Sri Lanka to do a pedalling bank robbery job, came out embracing his large rifle and told me I couldn't leave it right at the front. I said I just needed to change money and he turned into a gentleman escorting me right at the front of a crowd queuing. The cashier told me to sit down and while I thought she was just being polite and all in hindsight she new changing foreign currency at the Beragala People's Bank was quite an event. I was surrounded by a gathering crowd as the cashier stared at my twenty pound notes and then involved half the branch into what I can only imagine was a Google search at the back office, finding out what currency it was and whether it was real or fake. As the intelligence did its work in the office, my cashier started dealing with the rest of the crowd doing transactions while I sat right in front and had people practically sitting on my lap. Next I needed to show my passport and for ten minutes that disappeared too while I was witnessing withdrawals, cheque deposits mortgage payments happening to my left and right. Then it was deemed necessary for me to write down my address on paper. After the Google search the bunch came out with confidence and submitted my twenties to all kind of visual and tactile tests. The proof was sound they were indeed five notes of twenty British pounds. There was almost a cheer or sigh of relief while I was anxiously checking if the armed officer was doing his job and made sure that nobody was trying to pinch my unlocked bike. The transactions around me suddenly stopped and after a good twenty minutes I was produced a thick bunch of small denominations that everybody including me counted to make sure they were right. I have only met generous and honest people here, more than anywhere else but with half the village knowing that I was setting off with a good monthly wage on a bike I dashed out and sped downhill with increased zest! The road being downhill life was at 30 miles an hour and I couldn't satisfy the crowds dispensing as many smiles and some English wisdom today. Uphill I am slow and it pleases people. It takes time to pass them by and they can manage to throw in a good standard series of questions such as "hi", "where you going", "which country?", "where's your wife?", "you have children?", "how Sri Lanka?", "bye". You can tell I am on a flat if it goes like "hi", "which country", "bye". Well today it was "hibye" and I had already zoomed away to a distant horizon! I stopped by another lovely Buddhist temple by the road side today and after being asked to remove silly hat and shoes I could enjoy a guided tour with the resident monk. Half way to my final destination it was time to grab some lunch just before a large downpour, yet another lucky escape. Not that I mind getting moderately soaked here. It has been mostly sunny and very hot and rain is just at the right temperature to be enjoyed, almost a relief I wish I could pay for every now and then. It was still drizzling but I continued to Ratnapura where I found the secluded Deer Park guest house set in lush gardens outside the busy city and had a superb welcome by Mr Gunawardene offering the unmissable cup of Ceylon tea and a grand home cooked dinner by his wife. Tomorrow will be my last cycling day as I plan to arrive in Colombo and spend a couple of nights there too.

Ratnapura-Colombo, 26th February 2016

Final report from the Land of Smiles. The stretch from Ratnapura to Colombo was much more than the boring transfer to the capital I had imagined. For at least half of the way the road was winding through forests, hilly and often following a large river called Kalu Ganga. In the airline world we talk of ditching as a procedure when an aircraft has to do an emergency landing on water. The few times I had to deal with heavy traffic during this holiday my ditching was much more straight forward and literal. When I would see a large truck coming at me, hear another one behind me and the hooting growing into a crescendo, I would quickly turn and jump into the ditch at the side of the road. Very efficient if a bit humbling. When my ditching practice today started, reaching the outskirts of the capital, I knew it was time to call it a day; I sat by a fruit stall to savour my last sweet watermelon, before folding the bike up, dive for safety into a tuk tuk, letting his experience do the dangerous driving. Reached my guest house and refreshed it was time to explore Colombo. I didn't have high expectations as it is often not part of a Sri Lanka sightseeing tour. I really enjoyed the evening stroll through the Gangaramaya temple and the ocean sunset on the long beach but other than that it seems to be a city desperately trying to win a world chaos competition. I can easily say that my tuk tuk driver taking me back last night was an experience in itself. Everywhere else where traffic is tame and follows some civilised rules, this guy would have long been jailed and banned from driving anything that has wheels. In the Colombo evening traffic jams he was my hero! In the half an our it took to get me back, he was driving as if possessed by the devil, spanning all lanes and winding its way through cars, large trucks and buses like a gifted maniac. I thought we would crash at least five time, had to close my eyes a few but he was always in control, calm and unperturbed. What to say of Sri Lanka. It's been a wonderful setting for this adventure. Perfect it is certainly not. I haven't mentioned the pollution of its cities, the garbage one constantly finds thrown along the roads and the condition of poverty and squalor too many people still live in. Yet what has been imprinted most in my memory are those huge smiles and greet from all the people I crossed path with. Their generosity and good heart together with the island's wonderful tropical landscapes of forests and mountains that will make it hard to forget.