February 4, 2013
65 Years Of Sri Lankan Independence
We’re on our bikes by 8:15, after a hearty breakfast of curries, chutneys, hoppers with eggs and onions, fruit, yogurt, juice and tea. A glance at the morning paper found hanging on our door reveals a host of self-critical opinions along the line of,
– What have we achieved in the 65 years of independence?
Trepidatious about navigating Sri Lankan traffic, we’re pleased to set off on a national holiday. Our hopes of cycling on a quiet day are immediately dashed. The roads are choked with holiday travelers, leaving us no choice but to throw ourselves into the confusing fray, a chaotic flow of vehicles, despite our anxiety about the cacophony, the pollution, and anarchic driving style. Our first impression is an indescribable chaos of wildly swerving vehicles all madly honking their horns. Mopeds, three-wheeled tuk tuks, buses, trucks, and cars pass each other, honking non-stop. On our bicycles we also pass obstacles, women walking on the roadside, old men balanced precariously on high, rusted bicycles, tractors pulling trailers, three-wheeled tuk tuks, trucks and buses built so long ago they lose momentum on even the smallest of hills. It is a heady feeling to swerve past motorized vehicles on a bicycle!
We soon recognize that honking a horn is the Sri Lankan way of alerting us to their presence, and is not meant as a signal to move out of their way. The honking drivers are actually being polite and considerate, saying something like
– Careful, I’m about to pass you, which they then do at a respectful distance.
The middle of the two-lane road is the contested province of the largest vehicles and the most daring drivers. The real danger stems from drivers on the opposite side of the road, who, intent on passing, tend to overlook us, swerving uncomfortably close to us in the process. Vigilant presence of mind is the only way to avoid accidents.
Half-finished dwellings, made of cinder bricks, bamboo poles, boards, bits of corrugated metal or whatever the builders have been able to scrape together, line the road. Almost every shack has a stand set up in front that sells vegetables, drinks, coconuts, papayas, bananas and pineapples.
We make quite a splash in our bicycle shorts and yellow, high visibility shirts, getting a glimpse of what it must feel like to be a star and the central focus of attention. Honked at by families, waved at by children, shyly smiled at by women, hands raised high in greeting by toothless old men, whistled at by young men, and laughed at hysterically and rudely pointed at by teenage boys. Exhausting choruses of ‘hello’ and ‘hi’ follow us down the road all day long.
Although we’re tired and thirsty, and the idea of drinking the water of a freshly cracked coconut is tempting, we’re too insecure to stop at one particular stand, with everybody on the entire street vying for our attention. The humid heat and steep hills are debilitating, and passing vehicles leave us covered in clouds of black diesel fumes, ringing for air.
A sign announcing a Drink Station founded in 1960 turns out to be a shop crowded with Sri Lankan families on holiday outings treating their children to freshly pressed juices. The menu has a wide selection of choices, pineapple, mango, papaya, lime, and many creative mixtures using banana and coconut as a base.
This is the perfect place to recuperate from our exertions, a safe shelter from the exhausting crowds of screaming people. A dignified looking gentleman, here with his daughter and grandchildren, takes an interest in us and inquires if our bicycles are motorized. With grandfatherly apprehension he admonishes us to stay away from the back roads and cheap rooms, enjoining us to stick to the main roads and proper hotels, and to be on the look out for petty thieves. My heart sinks at his disclosures. Handing us a business card, he assures us we will be safe if we follow his recommendations. If we ever find ourselves in difficulties, we shouldn’t hesitate to call on him for help. After he leaves in a chauffeured car that has been waiting in the parking lot, we discover, looking at his card, that he is an attorney-at-law.
The 85 kilometer journey to Pinnawala, Rambukkana, home of the renowned elephant orphanage and popular holiday outing for both Sri Lankans and tourists alike, is one of the most strenuous tours we have yet undertaken. Crowds of people stream towards the river where the elephants have just been driven for an evening bath. Before we can join them, a group of men stops us, asking to see our tickets. Explaining that we’ve just arrived, they recommend staying at a hotel on the river, which affords a view of the bathing elephants from its terrace with no additional surcharge. Inspired by this idea, we start down the alley towards the hotel, but are again stopped. We have to understand, the men explain grinning, exposing teeth discolored by betel chewing, that only one of us can look at the hotel room. They can’t have tourists faking an interest, in order to watch the elephants bathe free of charge.
I stay with the bicycles, while Christof follows a handsome, slick-looking fellow down the path. The group of men moves aside to let them pass before turning their gaze back towards me with an uncomfortable scrutiny. I watch the holiday traffic on the street, to avoid having to interact with them. Most of the visitors arrive by bus. A privileged few have their own vehicles, and entire families are squeezed onto one moped or the back seat of a tuk tuk. The alleyway guards chew betel and chat idly, spitting occasional streams of red juice onto the dirt road where it gradually changes color and dries in purplish black stains.
Christof returns saying he has booked a room in The Hotel Elephant Bay, a clean, modern building. Mohammed, his new ‘friend’, attaches himself to us like a burr, and running excitedly ahead leads us up the tiled staircase of a newly finished building to a large family room that has a pleasant view of the river from its balcony. He arranges a ‘special deal’ for us and insists after we finish installing our belongings in the room that we accompany him to thank the hotel owner for the ‘favor’. This done, he wants to ‘help’ us close another deal, and because I want to ride an elephant, leads us to the river where another group of men stand around two ancient elephants.
After purchasing a ticket for an elephant ride, I suddenly feel too exhausted to do another thing. I would love nothing more than sit somewhere quiet and protected, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. The elephant men assure us that the ticket will still be valid tomorrow. Despite our protestations, Mohammed insists on showing us a spice garden, claiming that it’s part of another special deal included in the charge for the elephant ride. He shuffles ahead of us awkwardly – his pointy-toed shoes are too long to walk in properly, so he has developed an inelegant shuffle to keep them from falling off his feet. His immaculate white shirt and flowing business pants clearly state the importance of proper business attire. He stops occasionally to tweak the cheeks of various alley boys, obviously impressed by his standing and flattered by his attentions. Mohammed, who speaks both German and English which he managed to pick up on his own, knows everyone and is constantly calling out and waving to friends and acquaintances.
We try to rid ourselves of him by saying that we’ll look at the garden tomorrow, but he isn’t easily disposed of, and now drags us off to look at a factory that transforms odorless elephant dung, which is disinfected, dried, and dyed with plant colors, into paper. Books bound with pieces of sandalwood neatly worked into the covers are made of the paper, and would make beautiful gifts. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have more space in our bicycle bags. Blurry-eyed from exhaustion, he leads us into a room containing wooden massage boxes that look suspiciously like coffins. Aching and bruised from our massage experience in Bangkok, only generous remuneration could induce us to lie down in one of them.
Having exhausted his repertoire, Mohammed holds out his hand for the payment incurred by his ‘services’. Christof pulls two notes, a five hundred and a three hundred Rs., out of his pocket, and hands him the smaller one.
– This is nothing, Mohammed says in an offended tone of voice gesturing for reasonability and returning the bill.
– That’s all I have, Christof answers firmly.
Having seen the larger note Mohammed suggests that Christof change it at the reception desk,
– How much do you want? Christof asks him directly.
– Thats not for me to say, Mohammed replies, affecting modesty and deferentially lifting his shoulders, you decide how much you want to help me.
Returning from the reception desk Christof quickly stuffs a bill into his shirt pocket to avoid further argument. Understanding the transaction to be complete, Mohammed takes his leave.
At last we are free of his sticky presence. Back in our room, we come to our senses. Anyone could step from the half-finished building next door onto our balcony and easily push open the door to our room which is secured only by a flimsy lock. Recognizing that we’ve been had, I go down to the reception desk determined to rectify the situation. Explaining how, taken by the river view and unaware that the balcony door couldn’t be securely locked, we feel insecure and won’t be able to sleep a wink unless we can make a room change. Even if it means sacrificing the view, we’d rather have a room that can be locked. The clerk shows us an unattractive room without a balcony, dark and gloomy because its sole window is oddly placed near the ceiling. We are thrilled. It is perfect in every way. The door to the hallway locks solidly and because the room is on the second floor and there is no adjoining building, there is no danger of anyone climbing though the window. The clerk rebooks us, promising to refund the difference between the two rooms (4,000 Rupees).
Our waiter during dinner is the clerk who helped us change rooms. He explains that coming to a hotel with a ‘friend’ only increases its price and advises us to avoid these friendships in the future. By the end of the conversation we realize that the man who blocked the road and prevented us from reaching the hotel, the one Mohammed dragged us to thank for the ‘special deal’, is none other than the hotel owner! He encourages hungry slum dogs to scavenge for customers, rewarding them afterwards with a commission of 1,000 Rs, or approximately 6 Euros per customer.
On the terrace we manage to eat only a small portion of the wonderful dinner brought to our table, as night descends turning the sky quickly from purple to anthracite. The peaceful sound of the water flowing through the shallow riverbed successfully washes the tensions and worries we had about cycling in Sri Lanka downstream.