February 10, 2013
It’s Sunday and once we’re out of Dambulla we find ourselves cycling on a traffic-free road so newly paved that piles of red sand, waiting to become a footpath for pedestrians, are lying by the roadside. Indigenous huts, made of bamboo and mud with woven palm roofs, sit in front of emerald green rice paddies, giving us an impression of aboriginal Sri Lankan life, an aesthetically different world from the cinderblock and rusting tin-roofed huts we’ve seen until now. Groups of children dressed in festive white clothing, girls in saris and boys in sarongs, are seated in orderly rows in front of a stupa where they are receiving religious instruction from a monk. Further down the road other children are already returning from temple worship. The adults, none of whom are dressed in Sunday finery, are at work in their gardens, raking yards, dragging heavy buckets of wet laundry home from the river or hauling large plastic water bottles along the road. Brown uniformed guards in front of an infantry training center involuntary call up disconcerting images of the recent civil war, and we breathe deeper once we’ve left it behind us. Although we’ve been dreaming of peace and quiet ever since we got to Sri Lanka, having our dream come true is a mixed blessing. There is a saying that runs something along the line of,
– Be careful of what you wish for, it could just come true.
And we discover that the dream of peace and quiet isn’t as relaxing as we’d envisioned, it’s an eerie, uncomfortable feeling to be alone in the middle of the jungle. Occasionally we pass a truck that has stopped on the side of the road, and seeing its inhabitants, groups of rough-looking men, make us aware of how quickly a deserted road could become less than paradisiacal. Unprotected and without a vehicle, exposed to people about whom we know nothing, we remember the attorney-at-law’s advice to stay on busy main roads.
We are riding on the main road though and wonder, seeing the road littered with elephant dung, what the appropriate reaction to a stampeding herd of wild elephants would be. Oddly, we rather miss the chaotic diesel traffic of the past few days, which now feels safer than this eerie emptiness.
Monkeys congregate in the middle of the road, blocking it entirely, and as we slow down, unsure of how to proceed, luckily a car clears a corridor which we quickly use to pass through. A group of cows lying on the cool tar created by the shade of a large tree look too emaciated and weak to cause any trouble, so we are able to pass them without difficulties.
In Polonnaruwa, after looking at a small guest house on a back lane, too remote and run down for our taste, we continue towards town, shadowed for a number of kilometers by a young man on a moped. He apologizes for bothering us, explaining that he has no choice, his guest house isn’t yet in any of the guide books, which forces him to fish for customers on the streets. I take his card and say we might possibly stop by later.
As we ride into town, a crowd of men waiting for tourists swarm around us like flies, all of them trying to get us to come to their guesthouses. To shake them off, we pretend to know where we are going, and follow a large sign advertising a chic hotel. A newly paved road leads past a large reservoir where families are swimming and washing their laundry, which is drying on the bushes and grass while they picnic and play games.
Lunch at the hotel is appropriately called The Lake, a beautiful quiet spot on the banks of the reservoir where egrets feed, monkeys scamper through the trees and fishermen glide across the lake in the narrowest of boats. Lunch is delicious and surprisingly inexpensive, and because the atmosphere of the hotel is so alluring, we decide to spend the night. What a paradisiacal idyl!