We had great plans for our first day of cycling in Sri Lanka. We were going to get everything ready the evening before, set our alarm for the wee hours of the morning and hit the road before the traffic got heavy. But it wasn’t to be. After arriving back at our accommodation after a gruelling day on the visa trail in Colombo, we found the two Aussie cyclists who were staying there too, sipping on whiskey and vodka. They asked if we wanted to have a drink and we didn’t need to be asked twice! We took a brief sojourn to head to a local eatery for some tasty rice and curry, but the storytelling, chatting and laughter continued until one in the morning. We hadn’t inflated the tyres on our bikes, we hadn’t packed and we even forgot to set the alarm, so needless to say, the early start was out the window!!
When we did wake up with fuzzy heads and dry mouths, we realised we had slept well past our planned departure time so we set about putting things right. We packed anything we wouldn’t need for the next few weeks into our bike boxes to be left at the place we stayed and hastily stuffed everything else into our remaining panniers. We’re travelling much lighter now, the 30 degree sunshine and humid evenings mean that there is little call for the insulated jackets and heavy sleeping bags that were our most essential pieces of kit just a week ago! With our load nicely pared down, we had a quick coffee, a belly full of fruit, inflated our tyres with gusto and we were ready to be on our way. We said our goodbyes to Walter, the most helpful man in the world and caretaker at Amaya Chalets and finally hit the road. It was just after 10 am, we had missed our proposed slot by a long way but as we had planned a runcated first day to ease ourselves back in to the saddle, the distance didn’t pose a problem, just that midday heat!
Sri Lankan drivers are a pretty crazy bunch. Tuk tuk drivers show little regard for themselves or their fares but they pale in comparison to the bus drivers. These guys drive with the abandon of someone who’s been told they have 24 hours to live and bully everyone and everything else off the road while thoughtfully leaning on the horn so that you know that they’re careering towards you. And so for our first 10km or so today, we joined them on the main road, keeping ourselves out of the way as much as possible until we could reach the sanctity of a quieter road. We finally got to one and breathed a sigh of relief, even with a fair amount of tuk tuks zipping back and forth, they are a lot less of a worry. I’m pretty sure if one bumped into me, it would crumple around me, they seem like they’re made of tinfoil and toothpicks!
The side road was just what we needed. Beautiful glimpses of sandy beaches filled with colourful fishing boats flashed by interspersed with women selling fish by the side of the road, fishermen mending nets and lots of hellos and friendly smiles.
Stopping briefly to have a sugary drink, we spotted a stand selling short eats, generally samosas, spring rolls and other little bits and pieces. We bought some fried daal cakes and headed off to eat them with a little bit of peace and quiet. We stand out here and Sri Lankans seem to be a nosey bunch, we often get asked the same three questions: “where are you going?”, “where are you from?” and “Sri Lanka good?”. The standard interrogation is not limited to when we stop. It gets shouted at us as we cycle from the side of the road, people will cycle along side us and ask and even yelled from tuk tuks as they zip by. Not only do we hear these questions all the time, but people will often ask me and then ask Sam all over again. For this reason, standing close to a busy food stall to have a bite to eat is not an option, and so we headed to a cocunut tree fronted beach where we enjoyed our snacks in the shade. On the beach, the rusted hulking remains of an old ship sat in the surf close to the shore, a reminder of the tsunami that caused so much destruction. This is not the first evidence of the havoc that was wreaked, dotted along the road we have cycled there are the ruined remains of many houses and the sandy graveyards hold rows and rows of crosses bearing the same date, the 26th of December 2004. For the most part however, life has long returned to normal and the coast is really beautiful, crammed with fishing boats and a bustling place to cycle through.
Cycling along, we came to a sudden stop in the road, it became a beach and we could see where it continued on further. This was not the hard sort of compact sand that you might cycle or even drive on, it was soft and deep and so for a short distance, we hauled our bikes through the sand to rejoin our road. As we did, we spotted a sign in cyrillic, declaring there was a restaurant. It would seem a fair amount of Russians frequent this little stretch of coast and this became more apparent as a vision of a large Russian man, in speedos, sipping from a coconut came in to view, I’m glad to see they’re blending in with the locals! With our eyes forever imprinted with an image that we couldn’t unsee, we approached our destination. In Chilaw, we knew there was an old Government Rest House, once used to house travelling government officials, now a small hotel. We hoped it would be cheap but had no idea about any other accommodation in the town. The first three places we stopped at quoted ridiculous sums, a reflection of the fact that people price differently for locals and foreigners here. People seem to assume that if you’re from another country, you have a lot of money, and rates for a room with no air conditioning in a musty old hotel would bring a tear to a glass eye. Eventually we got to the old rest house and found the rates to be lower than everywhere else and so we took a room. It’s not the most luxurious place in the world, but at least it hasn’t left us broke.
Venturing out in to the town, we stocked up on fruit at the supermarket and bumped in to the Australians who had led us astray the previous evening and joined them for dinner at a small restaurant.
We haven’t cycled a huge distance today, but it’s hard work in the heat and humidity. We’re looking forward to a good night’s sleep and an early start tomorrow.