A long, long trip to Unawatuna

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 15, 2012

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Wednesday, January 11, 2012

We left Kandy early on a Sunday, taking the train at 6:10, bound for Colombo, with no idea of how we would travel the three hours from Colombo to Unawatuna where we had reservations that afternoon. No matter how you sliced it, this was going to be a long day.

We started in the rear of the train, in the first class observation car where I had expected to watch the Sri Lankan countryside disappear behind us from a pillowed throne like those on luxury Pullmans that journey across other countries. I expected to be waited on by demure and blushing toadies holding silver trays with white gloved hands, heaped with pots of English tea and crumpets, and a small jar of Gray Poupon. Instead we got a cramped, lumpy seat with a backwards look at the countryside through a dirty and steamed up window, with no place for luggage. Nobody offered us any food, of course, but three cars forward there was a snack bar in the local style, which served meat, fish and egg cakes, vegetable roti and other lumps of bread with unknown internals. They were served cold in wads of secondhand newspapers, some edible and some not. I guess that 'edible' depends on the extent of your hunger and your tolerance for bad food. We had inadequate amounts of each.

As we rolled away from the station most of the passengers went straight off to sleep, including the balance of my family. I was looking forward to this journey because it was an opportunity to see the raw countryside without all the roadside distractions and impending horrors that would ordinarily keep my foot seeking an imaginary brake pedal. Here, all I had to worry about was derailment.

As the mess of Kandy slowly receded and the outskirts of the city made way to suburbs, then farms and eventually raw countryside, the scenery became incrementally more lush and beautiful. This was the real Sri Lanka, a place I had been aching to see and hike through, of which we were able to do just a small bit while in Kandy. I saw a pair of Buddhist monks wearing bright orange sarongs standing under an umbrella smiling at the train from a deep green thicket of the jungle that lined a temple. I watched abandoned train stations left over from colonial times with dates like 1867 stamped above doorless thresholds. I saw large buildings that had once been occupied by British colonial society now used by large local families, with collapsed roofs and drying clothes draped over crumbling walls. Then the jungle took over entirely, only periodically speckled by signs of human life. There would be stairways of rough stone work that departed from the tracks into an almost vertical pathway up into the jungle aloft or a lone shack made of tin the size of an outhouse with a shirtless man in a sarong sweeping dirt from his front path. The hills of the jungle were bright red as each episode of rain peeled back a thin layer of vertical red face, and bright and shiny elephant ears, hybiscus and palms of such exquisite greenness it made my eyes hurt. Spent banana trees were overrun with vines that held their vertical shapes as the rotting vegetation beneath fed the vines that held them up.

From time to time cinderblock walls of stores or homes, painted ungodly colors would zoom by and then I’d notice a plateau dug out of the hillside to hold up a small plot of growing rice. Impossibly deep ravines showed the tops of tall palms and stands of bamboo at the train passenger’s eye level. Unfinished projects with rebar pointing to the sky littered the outskirts of small towns and places that looked prosperous in better days. Monkey ladders crossed over the tracks above our heads to keep the monkeys from being destroyed by slaughtered by trains, and the spires of granite that pointed hundreds of meters above us on both sides of the track reminded me that the jungle is not just made of plants, that there is some solid substance to support all that incredible vegetation. Rays of sunshine would stream through palm fronds from time to time, lighting up the mist in striped patterns when the sun would make it that far through the jungle canopy. Along this journey I saw hundreds of places that I wanted to get off and wander into the bush to live a couple of days among the beautiful foliage. And all the time the click clack of a Disney train filled my ears. I wish my kids could have lived this small experience with me. Sometimes dads have to live a life of disappointment.

We rolled into Colombo very hungry and with aching backs. We were unsure of where to go as the station was not really a station at all, just a series of tracks, a small ticket office and a sensationally dull cafeteria displaying day-old inedible food. I found an ATM, got some much needed money and started to look around for a bus or van to take us south to Unawatuna. We got vague directions from a man with a wagging head in a travel office, so we took a couple of tuk-tuks to the bus station a half kilometer away. There, the girls purchased some drinks and some local breakfast bread snacks while I sought out a bus going to Galle. We found a small bus with a very powerful A/C system that had a very reasonable price, so we climbed aboard. Since we had six bags and the bus had no baggage compartment, we stacked them onto two seats towards the front of the bus. We were then asked to pay for the seats, which seemed a bit funny to me, but each seat turned out to cost only about three bucks each.

Unfortunately, this bus took the local route and avoided the super fast highway to Galle. The reason was that along the way the driver could stuff the bus to bursting and overstress the A/C system and take an extra hour or so for the journey. But the scenery was good and we were able to see some of the beach communities we would later visit. When we got to Unawatuna two and a half hours later we were very hungry. We grabbed a jumbo tuk tuk to our hotel, the Sea View Bungalows. We piled our bags into the office and fell into the restaurant for a very late, well deserved lunch.

But lunch took over an hour to arrive, despite my many complaints to the waiter. It was the day of the full moon, one of the most celebrated events in Sri Lanka, and the restaurant was packed with locals from as far away as Colombo. They overflowed the restaurant and onto the tables that lined the beach across the road. We had our room reserved for only one night, and the hotel was fully booked for the rest of the week. Later that evening Estela and I would need to find another place to move into, which has become our normal routine.

When lunch came, it was extraordinary. I had ordered a vegetable curry, which wasn’t spicy in the least but filled with potatoes, carrots and small bits of green beans and onions in a yellow sauce that was better than anything I had eaten in Thailand. It was heaped over a pile of pulau rice, which is what Rice-a roni strived to emulate. I have to say it was a huge surprise to me, and surpassed my appreciation for any other ethnic food I had tasted so far on this trip. And that’s saying a lot. Estela and the kids ordered other plates, but for some reason I could not get Mason to try the Sri Lankan Curry, as much as he loves Thai curry. Because of the full moon, the government prohibited the sale of alcohol, which I thought was cruel and unusual. I just wanted a beer, but water turned out to be just fine. We were at the end of our road, at least for this week, and it felt good.
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