Sunday, 21 January 2018

Leaving Sri Lanka

Heading up the coast the landscape changed and military presence grew stronger. Not in an intimidating way, it just became much more visible than it was elsewhere. The landscape also changed the further north we headed. First riding through lush green watermeadows full of buffalo, this soon gave way to a much more barren landscape as we passed dozens of abandoned, derelict buildings, not dissimilar to the north east of Mexico but without the sinister air about it. Arriving in Jaffna, my first impression was that it felt a lot less welcoming than the south. Maybe this was just my perception of it given how friendly everyone else we had met was, and it is also worth remembering that far fewer tourists venture right up to the north.

At one map-checking stop, a man marched towards me as I sat on my bike, a fixed stare on his face. A little taken aback, he stopped right next to me before thrusting his hand out towards me and broke out a huge grin, showing me a mouth was full of betel leaves and his teeth stained bright red. He grunted at me, I‘m not sure whether this was because he didn’t talk or just because his mouth was full, but either way I reached out to shake his hand and asked him his name. He caught me off guard a little by grabbing my hand really tightly and gently tickling the palm of my hand with his fingers on his other hand. He then released his grip, pressed his hands together as a thank you before waving and then marching off down the road. It’s encounters like this that make me smile, those odd connections you make with random people in the middle of nowhere. 

Tired after a long day’s ride, we caved and went for the easy option that night, grabbing dinner at Pizza Hut before spending the noisiest night we’ve had to endure in a long time. To be fair the guesthouse we were staying in was very nice, but unfortunately it was located inside a triangle of Hindu temples who were enjoying the last day of a three-day New Year celebration. This involved ear-splittingly loud music from around 10pm until 7am, the kind that is impossible to tune out. Luckily we were in a room nearer the front of the building, but our housemates for the night, a Canadian couple driving around the country in a rented tuk tuk, bore the brunt of it from their room. The following day, on our way out of town, we stopped to explore some of the old ruins in the town.

Our last stop before heading back to Kalpitiya was Mannar, a peninsula in the north west jutting out into the Bay of Bengal and the point at which Sri Lanka would join India if it were attached. The town wasn’t much to speak of, but a ride out to the end of the road brought us to a Naval Base and the remains of an old jetty where ferries used to cross to India until the mid 1990’s when, due to the threat of terrorism, the services ceased. Accommodation in the area is scarce and basic and we spent the night at a family homestay in the town. 

Stopping to eat some dinner of fish rice in a nearby cafĂ© we left our bike helmets outside on our bikes for the first time during the trip, only to find that when we came out someone had taken the clasp off of my chin strap. A joke perhaps, some young lad trying to provoke a reaction? I don’t know. It left a bitter taste for an hour or two, but really, in nearly a month spent in this beautiful country, that was the one, sole negative thing I can think of about that happened and that really is high praise indeed.

It was while sitting there that night that we made the final decision on our next destination. We would fly to India, buy bikes there and ride around the country. We completed the lengthy and intrusive visa application forms online and pressed the button.

Our final ride back to Kalpitiya took us along the coast on a dirt road right through Wilpattu National Park. Along the highway at intervals in some areas of Sri Lanka are brown signs with a photo of a camera and then next to it an icon of whatever it was that was photo-worthy. As we entered the park the sign showed simply a camera and an elephant.

The dusty red road was mostly dry, although heavily rutted, torn up by heavier vehicles that had used it during rainy spells. Nonetheless, it was a nice ride and we stopped from time to time to watch the various wildlife we encountered – a lake full of wading birds, including flocks of painted storks that would take flight at intervals, filling the air with their swirling patterns. 

As we reached the middle of the park, a local guy driving in the opposite direction waved to us frantically and shouted ‘Elephants! Be careful, don’t go near!’ Sure enough, about a hundred yards further down the road were a small group of elephants in the undergrowth, eating in the shade of the trees. We stopped to watch a while, enthralled by the fact we could be so close to these majestic creatures in their own habitat whilst simply riding our bikes down a public road.

Arriving back in Kalpitiya we returned to Kite Bay Resort, coming full circle. It’s a sweet little place, very homely and welcoming and somewhere I could happily sit and while away a couple of days whilst Evan went kiting. Despite the wind being a little low as we arrived, over the following hours it gradually built. For once we had our timing right and Evan negotiated a deal on some gear rental for the following two days. After a mostly sleepless night that involved a mosquito murdering spree at 3am because we’d failed to tuck our net in properly, the next day dawned bright and windy. Evan headed for the beach and I finally sat down to get on with some writing. In the afternoon I too headed to the beach and sat talking with some other people from where we were staying, watching the multitude of brightly coloured kites zipping back and forth along the lagoon. At one point we counted more almost 100. 

Our rental bikes now returned, we were once again pedestrians and when time came to leave we began the reverse of our journey to reach Kalpitya, this time by a luxury bus with AC instead of the train. Our final stop in Sri Lanka would be Colombo, the capital city and a place we had avoided by bike amid reports of horrendous traffic. In reality, it turned out to be no worse than lots of places we’ve ridden before.

Colombo is a very average city, nothing to write home about. We took the opportunity to finally see the new Star Wars movie, but found it, like the city, a little underwhelming. Our Indian visas, which we had been advised would take up to ten days to process, had been approved in a little over 24 hours so we had flights booked to India the following day. 

The only food less than $15 at Colombo Airport. The cheapest thing in Burger King was fries for $9!!

Sitting at the gate the following afternoon waiting to board our flight to Chennai I felt a fair amount of sadness to be leaving Sri Lanka. Sometimes a place really gets under your skin, the hospitality and the people and the scenery overwhelm you. In the few short weeks we spent there, Sri Lanka certainly earned its place on that special list alongside the likes of Honduras and Iceland.

Our next stop would be somewhat of a leap into the unknown. India, a country that almost everyone who has been there describes as ‘unlike anywhere else they’ve ever been’, would be our home for the next couple of months at least. I think it’s fair to say we both left Sri Lanka with a fair amount of trepidation about what we would find there, whether we would be lovers or haters and whether the culture shock would really prove to be too much for us. An hour and a half later we would land in a very different place to the one either of us imagined.

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