When we cycled to into Habarana, we were, as usual, tired and dusty. Stopping for a drink before we started the faff of finding accommodation, we were approached by a pretty crazy looking dude with a beard and a great big sack of something slung over his shoulder. Thinking that he was trying to hawk his wares, as everyone else does as soon as they see us, we brushed him off. But he insisted, pulled a fruit from his sack, smacked it against a wall cracking it in half and handed Sam what we are pretty sure is a wood apple and headed off on his slighty insane, merry way. And so we tasted it….. I can’t describe the taste, but it was so sour that it almost made my face fold in half! Still, you should never say no to trying something new! Our search for a hotel was mercifully short. We ended up staying a the Debara Inn, a small place with ourown little porch. Probably one of the nicest and cheapest places we stayed in Sri Lanka.
The next morning when we were up and about, having heard rumours of elephant washing taking place in a small creek near the village, so we decided to go check it out. With so many commercial activities involving these massive, yet stangely elusive in the wild, animals, we thought it would be a bit more fun to watch one just taking it easy. When we got down to the river surely enough, there was an elephant in the water, she was just chilling out, splashing around in the water and generally enjoying herself. After chatting a while with her mahout, he hopped in the water to give her a scrub and indicated we could do the same. We gave a hand with her daily exfoliation using coconut husks, moving around her great mass in the water while our feet were nibbled by little river fish. She seemed to love it and we whiled away a morning chiling with an elephant, amazing! Here we also met two fascinating people – Antonio and Andrea, the first being an amazing Italian photographer/world renowned printer and the second the owner of a travel company of which part of his work was organising Antonio’s trips. Both were very friendly and interesting to spend time with and in our afternoon spent with them we learnt quite a bit. Antonio’s style of photography is exactly the style that Sam aspires to, atmospheric black and white images of interesting looking people… Andrea filled our afternoon with stories of how Antonio spent three days living in a Mumbai asylum, a certain amount of time living in a Ugandan jail, had crawled down small waterlogged gem mines and numerous other crazy situations with his work. “Every man has his day” was his mantra, and with that he stuck himself into some crazy places. His website is here , the galleries are listed at the bottom left.
The next day we headed towards Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. The cycle was along busy roads and as we got closer to Kandy, it became more and more congested. The draw of Kandy does not just pull tourists in, it also attracts thousands and thousands of Buddhists who come to worship at the Temple of the Tooth. The temple houses a canine (tooth, not dog) of Buddha that remained after his cremation, it moved around India, often at the centre of conflict, before finding it’s way to Sri Lanka in 323 AD, smuggled in a princess’ hair, where it was rumoured that it would be safe in this seat of Buddhism for 5,000 years. It spent some time moving around following the Sinhalese Kings to their seats of power before finding itself in Kandy where it can’t be seen today. The reason it can’t be seen today is that it is stored inside 6 golden caskets, one inside the other, like Russian Dolls. This is what you get to see when you visit the temple. Kandy is a UNESCO world heritage site and has some beautiful buildings, but a lot of it is a sprawling mess. While there, we learned from an ex Irish Rugby Player over coffee, that Trinity College in the city was founded by the same guy that founded Trinity College, Dubin. Well bejayus, you learn something new every day!!
In Kandy, we decided we would take a train into the hills. Getting the bikes on a train was a bit of fun, but we managed. In fact, we sent them on a train the night before all by themselves, we waited til the next day and took a train in the morning so that we could enjoy the scenery and prayed to Buddha, Ganesh and baby Jesus that our bikes would make it there ok by themselves! The train ride was beautiful, the train wound it’s way slowly back and forth through jungle, tea plantations and mountains.It creaked and struggled it’s way from Kandy at 515m all the way up to 1431m in Haputale. As soon as we arrived at our destination, we dashed to the parcel office to make sure that our bikes were there and that they hadn’t been stripped for parts by some young lad working on the railways. They were exactly where they were meant to be, and with the usual pointless paperwork, they were released back to our care. It didn’t take us long to find a place to stay and we settled ourselves in a hotel with views, when the mist cleared, looking right down to the plains and the sea to the south of Sri Lanka. The cool mountain air was a welcome relief from the stifling heat down at lower altitude that can’t even be banished by the fan at night when it’s at it’s muggiest. When we woke the next day, the mist was still swirling and we set off downhill towards Ratnapura with a light layer of rain coating us, but nothing compared to what we had experienced in the north, it was refreshing!
The cycle down to Ratnapura was not easy. Despite an overall fall in altitude, the hills rose and fell the whole way, giving our legs very little in the way of respite the whole day. Ratnapura is the gem centre of Sri Lanka. Mining is carried out here on a small industry basis, pumps clearing the mines of water, while men search for precious stones beneath the surface. We had learnt about the gem mining operations from two Italians we had met in Habarana while we were washing an elephant! Antonio and Andrea, who we spent many great hours chatting with, had been to Ratnapura before us and had photographed the workers in the mines as part of a project encompassing the whole of the island of Sri Lanka. As we cycled through the fringes of Ratnapura, surrounded by paddy fields and small houses, we began to spot small mining operations, diy water pumps belching out smoke and piles and piles of rocks that had been sifted through underground by men desperate to reveal that tell tale glint and earn some cash.
(You will have to look at Antonio’s photos of the gem mines as I didn’t get a chance to go down one…)
The main reason for our visit to Ratnapura was to visit a friend’s family. Walter works at the guesthouse that we stayed in upon first arriving in Sri Lanka and was nothing but kindness itself while we were there. He was also very insistent that we visit his home place, and after some instructions on how to navigate through the city of Ratnapura, we were welcomed into his beautiful home by his mother, a softly spoken woman with a warm smile. The next day we had arranged to o and visit some of his relations that live in the hills north of the city. Passing through the city, we caught a glimpse of the city’s gem traders plying their trade, wth plenty of cowboys approaching us wanting to know if we wanted to buy “real gems”! We respectfully declined and continued out of the city, upwards to visit a waterfall with Walter’s cousins. And then disaster struck! I have a head like a sieve, and Sam is ALWAYS telling me to make sure that I put my wallet somewhere safe. I didn’t…… and when we were within 2km of our destination, I suddenly realised that I no longer had our wallet. Or the bank card…..
I spent the next few hours searching up and down the road. But my wallet was clearly gone, the lure of 10000 ruppees was no doubt too much temptation for the person that found it. I could hardly blame them, it’s a months wage here and people often don’t have much. Needless to say that Anglo-Irish relations were strained for some time after this incident, but thankfully due to the help of my little sister, Andrea, and my lovely Mammy and Daddy, a new bank card reached us some time later. Thankfully we had back ups and needless to say I have learnt my lesson, but it certainly put somewhat of a dampener on the rest of our time in Ratnapura, instead of visiting gem mines as we had intended, we spent our time cancelling and reordering a bank card.
The next day, we said goodbye to Walter’s lovely mother and headed back to Colombo, an uneventful and dusty cycle, to find ourselves back in Negombo. We stayed in a cheap place by the waterfront which seemed a litle dodgy, but we were saving a few quid and it was only for a night until we returned to our original guesthouse to box up our bikes, collect our Indian visas and pack everything up for the flight ahead. After meeting some very enthusiastic South Africans the previous evening, Sam left to drop our visas at the Indian consulate with a groggy head and I set about moving our gear to Amaya chalets and finding boxes for the rest of our gear. For a country that sells everything with a HUGE amount of packaging it was almost impossibe to get ourselves some boxes, but with perserverance, I managed to locate two perfectly suitable cardboard cuboids!
When Sam arrived back from Colombo, he had had even more fun than me, bargaining with tuktuk drivers, dealing with the imbeciles at the visa place and people trying to massively rip him off. Nonetheless, the passports were dropped off, ready for collection the next day and we began getting our bikes and equipment ready to travel once more. We got rid of as much as we could and chilled out for the evening. The next day, Sam was up early, ready for round two in Colombo. In that time, I focused on getting us packed up as best as possible. And then the bad news came through…. I had been given a six month double entry visa, Sam had been given three months! And we had no come back on it……. booooo! So with that cloud hanging over our heads,we finished our packing and began the rather late process of trying to book some transportation to the airport. It was late in the evening and Walter promised us that his friend Neemal would most DEFINITELY get the bike boxes in his larger than average tuktuk. We were unsure but tired and disheartened at the visa news, so we arranged for him to call at half four the next morning to get us to the airport for our early flight. Turns out we were right, they wouldn’t fit in the tuk tuk, but evenually with some string and faffing around, we managed to get one in and the other tied onto the roof. Somehow we managed to squeeze ourselves in around all our stuff and headed off to the airport. Except we couldn’t get in. Nameel, who I should point out at this stage is a dead ringer for Lionel Richie, had neglected to tell us that tuk tuks are not allowed into the airport and so were were dropped, bag and awkwardly shaped baggage about 100m from the terminal. It wasn’t over yet either. There was definitely going to be an issue with weight. Our back up plan was to hide some stuff as we checked in and sneak it into our hand baggage after weight checks. As it happened, there was no need. As we approached the desk, the young, smiley attendant behind us asked us how much our bikes weighed. He trusted our massive under estimations and just like that, all our baggage was checked in with no one checking how heavy it was, few!
And then, to top off our good luck, we ended up in first class! Despite the fact that there was no first class tickets on the flight, they hadn’t removed the seats. In row 6, we had big, snuggly blankets, brilliant service and tasty food. There was even cheese, CHEEEEESE! And just like that, our time in Sri Lanka was over. We had our ups and downs, and it was definitely more challenging than we expected but we still have added to the great memories and if anything, hopefully the challenges we faced will stand to us as we continue on.
A gallery with a few of our final weeks photos… you can click on the first one and cycle through them as a slideshow.