Never mine, never mind

Day 13 - Nuwara Eliya

It happened. Somewhere on the train between Peredeniya and Nanu Oya a romantic, idealistic, sure-to-be-disappointed dream of travel was made flesh. The butterflies in my stomach fluttered through valleys and hills blanketed with tea plantations. The land was verdant green and cool and there was an affinity with it I'd never before known. The trees turned straight and tall, their russet foliage contrasting with the lime of the shrubbery. The grass was no longer wide and indolent but prim and upright much as if the British had imported their own all those years ago. I talked about the country around with a Nederlander whose mediation related injuries suggested it was not always the calming experience it purported to be. Later, sitting in the door of the train I slipped into a whirlpool of feeling from which I would barely escape. All seemed possible even that which was not. Next to my beastly filth sat dark intrigue that intoxicated with tales of the world. I thanked chance and fortune as the realities of our nomadic existence began to dim. All these thoughts and fatal aspirations would whir ferociously around my head at the end of the world but for now the fairytale was still being written.
Gazing at the stars from our balcony the evening was a happy blur of Lion (beer) and laughter. The kaleidoscope of possibility had been turned and its pattern was most pleasing to the eye but so wretched to the heart. This was love spelled with a U, an S and a T but it drowned reason and choked reserve. And when the moment came I.....retreated. The fairytale could not be unwritten, my hands could not fashion what my wild imagination had conceived. I plunged from the precipice, rising fog obscuring the impact below. No half measures would tarnish the purity of my desire. Who chooses discomfort and deafening silence over warm embrace? That person, dear readers (optimistically pluralised) was me and I shall ever wonder at its logic. I suppose, in the final analysis, my questions were better left unanswered and my wants unfulfilled. It is a long life and it would be foolishly detrimental to allow myself to dwell in Nuwara Eliya, all things must pass you see.
I could only reflect back on the length of my grasp and the shortness of my reach as we departed the place. The thickened air cleared my head and somewhat restored my appetite. Most profound apologies for the alluding and fawning but this is the truest account I could give of an unexpected time. We were again 2 as the tea receded into the distance, the colours around seemed a little less vibrant, but only a little.

Trunk road (sorry)

Day 11 - Kandy

We bussed it back down to Kandy yesterday and for once arrived in a place at a reasonable hour to find accommodation. Leaning against a building next to Trinity College we decided to search again for the place where a bed for the night costs less than a bottle of Coke. Up into the hills again we went, a young Buddhist monk reoriented us and sent us back to the very building we had been leaning again. Finally we observed the small lettering of the 'Burmese Rest'. An exuberant puppy greeted us and managed to draw blood on my hand, he didn't look rabid so I should be alright.
We were welcomed at 'The Pub' with the familiarity of regulars which by flighty tourist standards I suppose we were. A beautifully cool pint of Lion on the roof terrace atop a nearby hotel ended the evening. Today (Friday) we struck out for the Elephant Orphanage. Intrepid ideas of connecting buses were forgotten with the chartering of a private taxi. We descended the hills at a decent lick, waylaid only by a political rally. There's a lot of money to be had in politics said our driver and I felt like a dreadful old colonial (natives? in government? good god!) for assuming that corruption was implied in his statement. The orphanage rescues abused or exploited elephants and....well...exploits them. At least they get something out of this deal and with a seemingly good standard of care I would guess that the former permits the latter. We arrived in time to see them bathing in the river after which they are driven up a street like some Sri Lankan Pamplona with the tat-wallahs hastily moving their goods. How can one ascertain the contentment of a Pachyderm? Certainly I would venture that their sad, wet eyes give no clue. They would seem to be afforded a reasonable degree of liberty with only a few chained for reasons unknown. I generally came out in favour of the place while still feeling that at times an animatronic herd would have sufficed given the contrivance of the photo opportunities. It's a manipulated encounter firmly on our terms rather than theirs but it does more good than it does harm. Getting people this close to these creatures (without a rifle in hand) can benefit both species.

Old bike

Day 9 - Polonaruwa/Sigiriya/Dambulla

Bemoaning the sedate pace of the train we switched to the bus for the journey to Polonaruwa. They are rattling old beasts but, judging by the crush of people aboard, the most popular way to travel. In this compressed way we passed the next few hours, the monotony only broken when my pack fell from the overhead rack onto a fellow passenger. He took this assault from above most amiably and offered me pineapple. I've found most Sri Lankans to be of this cheery disposition and how pleasant to be offered a warm smile for looking different rather than the traditional fear and suspicion.
Our landlady rather bucked the trend with her repeated attempts to extract money from us and indignation that we should choose to spend it elsewhere. She did tempt us into having our sweat-sodden clothes cleaned though the headband of my hat, stained betel juice red is surely beyond hope. I admire Sri Lankan's industry and constant efforts to earn a living wage. The sharp practice and deceit sometimes employed though leaves a more bitter taste. 'Caveat emptor' is a universal mantra but never more so here.
We stood atop the Lion's Rock looking out over all of Sigiriya and reflected on a worthwhile but draining 1202 steps in the April sun. A curious amount of blind people were being led up to the summit, quite what they got from the experience one cannot help but wonder. Certainly they would have missed out on the frescoes of the...pneumatic women on the climb. The Dambulla cave complex presented less of a climb but less of an experience with 5 shallow caves packed with a multitude of Buddhas, sitting, standing, reclining. Rinse (feet) and repeat.

Gran tourismo

Day 7 - Anuradhapura I hope

We tried our hand at hairdressing this morning, or barbary in Michael's case, my Nicky Clarke to his Sweeney Todd. Uncontent with a freshly shaved head he also removed a fair portion of his eyebrows. I am trying not to laugh too hard, I am failing. The staff at the Indian visa office didn't seem to notice the discrepancy between his picture and his actual appearance so no harm was done, except to his ability to look normal. The applications filed we were instructed to return to Kandy to collect in two weeks once the bureaucratic machine had spun its interminable wheels. That may not be time enugh given that the train on which we are travelling north has been broken for two hours...tbc
Engines came, engines went, the train spluttered forward, the train stopped. Heads were scratched. The mercantile vein ploughed its ceaseless circuit with all manner of foodstuffs from apples and nuts to, based on the seller's cry, 'showaddywaddy'. We reached Polgahawela with our connecting service long gone. I'm not sure if it was the welcoming committee of blacks crows squawking their sinister way, the Kafka-esque station building or our short foray into the town itself that made me most solemnly pray for another train that night. There wasn't an unthankful bone in my body that such a service existed and as the sun set over the passing rice paddies and we spied the occasional peacock in the fields I acknowledged that such disruptions must be the travellers lot. I passed the time by trading stories of our families with a food-wallah named Kumara.
The next day we obtained push bikes replete with baskets (but no streamers or spokey-dokeys alas) and pedalled off for the assorted ruins of once mighty Anuradhapura. Cool we weren't but the bikes were remarkably efficient at getting us around the disparate remains of temples, palaces and, of course, gatehouses. One of the two collossal stupas onsite was undergoing maintenance and with no internal staircase (what is inside these things? Answers on a postcard) a unfathomably scary means of ascent had been built up the outside of the curving dome. Much as I rail against overbearing health and safety back home a smidgen more in this particular would not be excessive. Considering they form part of the 'Cultural Triangle' in Sri Lanka the ruins themselves have a ramshackle organisation with minimal signage or direction unless you want to pay a tuk-tuk to take you around. Hopefully as tourism ever increases following the the end of the civil war more money can be found to invest in such places. We enjoyed the coldest beers of our trip thus far at a rest house, drunk beneath a canopy bespeckled with little geckos.

Kandy, man!

Day 5 – Kandy

Like it or loathe it, whatever your view of Kandy it can flip in a heartbeat. An 8 hour train from Galle (2 less than the journey that got us to Sri Lanka) does sensitise a person to the tribulations inevitable to unplanned travel but nonetheless our first evening in the spiritual capital was one of extraordinary frustration and rare anger. We searched first for the £3.50 a night guesthouse run by Burmese monks. Alas no trace could be found on its supposed road or in people’s local knowledge. We entered into the familiar tug of war with a tuk-tuk driver over where we wanted to go and where he wanted to take us. We checked into a mosquito-ridden guesthouse where the beer had run out by the ‘charming’ ethnic music being played in the garden most certainly had not. I don’t know if it was a man or a woman that ran the place but I do know he/she had a mightily impressive afro. Over a bottle of Coke we began talking to a well travelled Serb whose interest s clearly lay in the seedier side of South East Asian countries. After giving enthusiastically non-committal responses to his request to travel with us we retired to our malarial shoebox, sorry, room.
The morning brought a triumvirate of challenges, those being finding new lodgings, obtaining Indian visas and locating a bar to watch the cricket. Fruitless searches in the hills for a YMCA that existed only on a map left us desperate enough to ask a tuk-tuk driver for his recommendations. His drive back into the hills from which we had just descended was brought to a halt by already brittle tempers snapping in the back seat. His English deserted him just as ours reached full pitch. He stopped to pick up a friend ostensibly for advice, in reality probably for protection. The new guy secured us a ‘good deal’ (Sri Lankan for ‘bad deal’) in otherwise pleasant accommodation next to Kandy lake. The priciest place so far but it did boast paper in the toilet and a monkey in the garden. The staff at the Indian visa office had been given a day’s holiday due to the aforementioned country’s presence in the cricket world cup final but a sign on the closed door advised us of the preliminary paperwork we needed to complete. The forms being online there began a hunt for access. We completed the laborious details required for entry to India (Father’s favourite colour?) quickly and accurately with my addition of ‘Afghanistan’ as Mrs. Hartles’ second nationality being the only black mark.
Forms done, passport photos taken, the world cup final was about to start. The Sri Lankans made a good total (imagine this in Richie Benaud’s voice) but studied Indian hitting overcame them to the despair of our fellow patrons in ‘The Pub’. Our own beer total was no less impressive and we did nothing to dispel the English stereotype of inveterate drunkards, sorry England. Still, we were in better nick than most of the natives who ere clearly lacking our match practise.
Sunday brought sights. The Temple of the Tooth contains the aforementioned item retrieved from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and smuggled into Sri Lanka many moons ago. Or at least it is reputed to ‘cause ain’t nobody allowed to see it. An underwhelming experience shoulder to shoulder with visitors all to see a venerated box. Afterwards, I questioned the worth of visiting these famous places. What exactly am I getting from these experiences? An identical picture and a tick off a mental checklist, resolved to think harder about this in the future. A trek to the top of a hill overlooking Kandy provided a more rewarding experience despite the sun beating down on our already pinkened brows. We stood next to the giant Buddha and surveyed the teeming city as once Hilary surveyed the Himalaya (I may overstate slightly).
After tucking into our most authentic (menu in Sinhala or Tamil, your choice!) and extensive meal to date at the bottom of the hill we tukked it to the Peredeniya Gardens with little else to do. But what a highlight! Green and serene and a perfect tonic. Palm-lined avenues and orchid houses were a blessed break from the dusts and the car horns that we left at the gate. A massively broad tree shrieked with the sound of bird call. That is what we though until a jagged outline of leather cut through the sky above and the hanging brown leaves at the top began to writhe. Bats were suddenly all about, swooping this way and that in their hundreds. With the thre3at of rain in the air we returned to Kandy town heartened by nature’s uplifting touch.

Great Expectorations

Day 3 – Galle

Colombo’s inexpensive but inextensive (don’t check your dictionaries) charms receded into the distance as we pulled out of Fort Station. We traded urban bustle for serene blue sea and as our train hugged the south coast nothing lay beyond the horizon but water and ice. I sat in the door of the train to watch the altered world pass by. Shacks lined the track and dotted the beach, a meagre existence for sure but one soothed perhaps by the constant crash of waves. We passed a sign ‘navel gazing ahead’. Do they look beyond the horizon the people within? Or can any of us not? Aren’t we all born of a planet where a journey can only end in a practical or emotional sense rather than a geographical one? There is a need to push our imaginary boundaries even when the desert ahead seems endless. Perhaps it is courage to stay or perhaps it is courage to resist that urge to stray. I should think that our lives are long enough to do both.
Galle swelters on the Southern tip of the island and no sea breeze can challenge the sun’s overpowering glare. The headland is ringed by an old Dutch fort, we did the tourist thing and walked its walls. A few miles down the coast they drive poles into the sand beneath the surf for the purposes of fishing atop them. It’s an oft photographed act and in reality charging tourists for pictures has easily surpassed the income to be earned from the actual fishing itself. I couldn’t see the point in paying a man to climb a pole and pretend to fish so my shots have crashing waves, dusky sky and unadorned sticks. I did find myself in my first conversation with a member of the Sri Lankan armed forces who, it appears, employ half of the island’s population. (the other half being, of course, tuk-tuk drivers). Mrs. Wijeneke’s guesthouse was to be our abode, my head still bears the scars of her low doorways.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Day 1 - Colombo

The city awoke early and so, after 10 hours in the air, did we. The steaming heat had already settled on Colombo and the first drop of perspiration trickled down my brow. The Sri Lankans have embraced the Ryanair concept of airport naming and 'Colombo' airport is a full two hours taxi ride from the city proper, still at £12 for the fare our complaints were few. Glossy billboards extolling our Western mores marked our path, the abnormally whitened faces in contrast to the populace about. But here we were, drunken concept made real and many miles of (malaria) pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches lay ahead. I confess the long demanded excitement was quickly subsumed by practicality and the as yet, planning being what it was, unfulfilled need for accommodation. If only there were a place where we could have-a-good-time, possibly with a Native American, a Policeman, a cowboy and that other one? There was and at £3.50 a night represented a very good deal.
Colombo has a smattering of sights but nothing, that I can observe, to hold a tourist (ick) indefinitely. It wouldn't be long before we were on our way but we were immersed, we were removed from familiar stricture and structure, rule and regulation, in short the world was ours. This was a big society alright, it's sights and ear-splitting sounds shake the senses forcibly. It's seeming chaos but enviable unfussiness a much needed antidote to the place from which we came. I shall like it here.