Test drive across Sri Lanka

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Broadland's Lodge

Flag of India  ,
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How do you plan a two-year, 50,000km, backpacking trip?

The truth of the matter is that you probably can't. You give yourself a start point, an end point, a wobbly trajectory and a loose time frame. Then you buy your ticket, hit the road, and just allow the wheels to turn.

There’s only one rule. Once the ride is under way, all transport must be earthbound, land and water, tyre and tiller, and the odd hoof in between

It’s very difficult to get sand between your toes, and impossible to get a tan while gazing through double glazing at 30,000 feet watching a vapour trail, no matter what cattle class you might choose to fly. There’s only one way to see the world – up close and personal. Anything else is virtual or vicarious.

I’d once crossed South America, back and forth for a year, east to west to east, mostly along the Amazon River, with a bit of the return leg on her south-westerly tributary, the Madeira River, coupled with a few buses over the Andes mountains. During a six-month stint in the US, Amtrak had offered a $250 40-day-ride anywhere in the country, so long as one did not hit the same station twice. Up the middle, and once around. Australia suffered my company from Adelaide to Darwin. The Ghan train was full, so buses and utes, country and western and didgeridoos rode and sang the songlines. And it was down the western length of Europe as a young man, as an apprentice traveller.

Then, after an 11-year work stretch in Hong Kong, the call to cross the final two continents (with apologies to Antarctica) just seemed to stretch out as one long road.

But to get to and through India, China and ride the Trans-Siberia called for more compass twists than you might find in a bowl of koeksisters.

And one had to contend with the Burmese curveball. Travellers cannot cross through the country by land. Fly in and roam around, yes, but land borders have long been the private cul de sacs of the local junta and its generals. Years previously I’d proved the point after taking a week’s stop-start bus and train ride from Hong Kong, across southern China, through northern Vietnam and central Laos. Often a border post that seems closed in theory or by public policy becomes more open the closer you actually get to it. Not into Burma.

Having worked for a newspaper in South Africa in the 1990s and happily seen off the historic 1994 elections, and stood roaring in ecstasy in Ellis Park watching Nelson Mandela hand the World Cup rugby trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, the 1997 'handover’ of Britain’s eastern pearl back to motherland China seemed an interesting interlude.

Let’s go for two years, and catch a bus home, was the plan.

Nearly all expats begin their tenure in Hong Kong with a short-term perspective, on contracts extendable, or in positions expendable. Most of those who stay, never planned to stay. But after 11 years of the good life and soft living, the body quietly began to murmur that it was not sure how much longer it would be happy, or able, to sleep in bus stops, train stations and on hard benches over the duration of a long road trip.

And a strange inevitability also broke over me; it was time to go home for heart-string reasons, that bushveld smell of acacias south of the Limpopo River, dusty African sunsets, hyaena calls, baobab silhouettes, a pollution-free sea and ubuntu in all its forms and guises.

Originating from a cloud-cuckoo-land country, I’d been an intermittent traveller for 30 years, most of my adult life  (and for different reasons, a lot of my youth). There had been an overriding fear of reaching 40, 50 or 60 years, arriving at a cove or hilltop, and saying ‘I should have spent my whole life here’.

But a consistent, 30-year refrain, a subconscious reflex, had never allowed me to truly settle away from home. "Fabulous place, until you go home … fabulous place, until you go home," had repeated itself at every stop and stage. At some point in Hong Kong, I finally abandoned the long quest, succumbing to some kind of primal inevitability.

So pack up Hong Kong.

Chuck the house into a big steel box, and put it on a ship.

Unbundle and untie a decade of noodle knots, stuff a backpack, throw in two cameras, four lenses, 50 rolls of Velvia 50 ASA as a manual back-up, some fishing gear, a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and chuck 27kg on to a city-slob’s back. Topped with a 10kg sling-bag.

A slog for someone who never had the pleasure of any pack-drill practice.

Betsy, my long-serving carry-all, who has been the hump on my back for nearly 30 years, mumbles distress, and requires a stitch job, having been promised that this will be her last ride. She’s a 1981 Karrimore Jaguar Mk IV, who was now to accompany me across every continent, with a tally of unrepeatable tales. Sail-stitching gear kindly given as a leaving present – leather mitt and thimble, heavy-duty waxed thread – does the trick. Don’t leave home for more than a year without it.

The specific aim of the journey was to fully cross the two continents, Asia, then Africa, my final two frontiers. Vladivostok, home of Russia’s rusty fleet, on Asia’s eastern extreme, had to be part of the game.

In the dream, a little chant gives birth: Asia to Cape Town, via Kathmandu and Timbuktu.

Some looked at me as if I were mad. “At your age … this is for people in their 20s!” (For god’s sake, I’m only 49!)

“If you want to go home, why don’t you fly?”

If you ask that kind of question, you are not even going to come near to understanding the answer.

I believed it is only when you have really been across the world, around the world, that you have the honest right to make otherwise odious comparisons, and more importantly, to find the common threads that bind humanity. The rest of the time it’s guess-work, educated or not.

We all need food, water, sanitation, a roof, education, some kind of labour. How do people in different parts of the world solve these common problems?

As with any kind of ride, you have to begin somewhere. I want to see India before leaving south-east Asia, and can’t get there by land.

So aim for southern India, but pop into Sri Lanka for a little warm-up.

It is a flight, but also the only way to get down there.

While a goal to cross all the continents would only empirically begin in Vladivostok, the zen and joy of the road would, in any case, begin in Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state.

Hit Colombo’s out-of-town Bandaranaike Airport by nightfall.  It’s not far from the seaside resort of Negombo, but be aware that school fees wait to be paid. The first taxi ride in each country is the same. Not quite sure of local tariffs in general, you are always squeezed. You know it, the driver knows it, and yet there is no escape. To get to an unbooked bed, at night, will also cost a premium. The art is to ensure you’re only taken for the first ride once.

A laid-back little village, Negombo carries a beach trickle of touristy bungalow-hotels. Taught ,colourful sails bedeck the flat shoreline, interspersed with net-mending fishermen and trinket trawlers that hook up behind you, haul themselves in and begin the sales pitch.

Disturbingly large flocks of crows gambol, sit and flap around. The scavengers, harbingers, reveal themselves widespread across the island. It’s war time. And sand flies niggle and nibble.

The New Rest House, a reasonable one-star, double-storied wood and mortar establishment parades itself – in more than one of your bottom-end guide books – as having once been graced by Queen Elizabeth II. Stay in Room 7, look at the same ceiling and think of England, goes the pitch.

Only thing is it’s in front of 200m of drying fish racks, salt fish, old fish, and the accompanying nascent odours of wrinkled, crinkled sardines and bonito.

The schpiel places Her Highness in the now-US$9 per night doss-down some time in 1958. Only problem is, all documentation, written and pictorial, puts her on her only state visit in 1954.

I take a pass on the vapour trail, and the chance to perhaps share a royal potty.

Ubiquitous, second-grade internet access slams me across the brow with a terrible new-generation home-truth. (After the blistering, state-of-the-art speed of Hong Kong broadband access, most of the rest of the world is second-rate in service.)

How difficult is it to drop out these days?

The last big adventure had been prior to mobile or on-the-road communication.

It had been in the unbeknownst dying era of poste restante freedom.

A person would wave goodbye at an airport, station or port, and disappear. Weeks later, family or acquaintances might wonder: I wonder how far up the Khyber he is, how far along the Ganges he is, whether he will get the post restante letter.

Post-cards arrived home from far-off, exotic-sounding valleys and villages. Hand-written, with shaky postmarks and rare stamps.

Long-distance calls on black, turn-dial Bakelite phones were of such haphazard connection quality and exhorbitant cost that they were only, if ever, used for terminal emergencies.

Travel was drift, pure and total, mostly completely cut off from the rest of the world. The experience was absolute 100 percent immersion. No distraction, no outside information. Survival by your own wits. Your life in your hands.

The new world on the road felt like a cold-steel chisel between the eyes. There was no escape! No real freedom.

Total disassociation had always been my liberation. It’s up to you: make it, or fold.

Now nearly every person has a cellphone, with reasonable satellite connection almost everywhere.

In an almost vain attempt at extracting myself from invasive communication, I deign to carry neither phone nor portable computer. Although the quiet irony is that in dire straights, somebody will most probably make one available for the appropriate penny.

There is fortune in having experienced both forms of travel, and a sadness  for younger roamers, who will never know what it was like to be completely unconnected. The innate freedom of adventure-travel has changed, for the worse, I believe.

Sri Lanka is the warm-up before the long road. Test the equipment, unbundle the overweight backpack, line her innards with anti-slash chicken mesh, and most importantly, get ‘in the groove’. Drop the city bustle, slow down, eat more healthily, meet new people, smell the roses. And check that my absinthe knee is up to the rigours of the ride.

Chinese new year, February 28, six months prior, overcharge the sixth or seventh glass of absinthe, fall off a wall, and have a highly skilled medical carpenter screw the fragmented plateau of my femur back together again.

Now, 50,000 km of road awaits. Will the body hold?

One awkwardness about travelling in Sri Lanka is that one is forced into a circle, something that sits a little heavily, staring down the length of road ahead. This journey needs onwards-onwards, if one is to get anywhere.

On and up to the hill country, Kandy country, away from the shoreline steam and swelter. Cool tea plantation and forest. The last capital of the ancient kings, who kept the Portuguese and Dutch at bay for 300 years, until signing a protectorate agreement with Britain in 1815.

Also home to the venerated sacred relic Tooth of Buddha.

Legend has it that after Buddha was cremated in Kusinagar, in far north-east India, a canine tooth was discovered in the ashes. A belief grew that whoever possessed the tooth had a divine right to rule the world.

Intrigue over centuries finally found the tooth in Sri Lanka, and eventually in Kandy, in the Temple of the Tooth, overseen by the royal palace.

Everybody is on their best behaviour, lest the gods and watchers in attendance to ‘the tooth’ perchance witness a mortal misdemeanour, resulting in another tenure for the Buddhist as a silkworm, or worse repeating a chapter as a stumbling human.

Home to wristidigitator ace cricketer Muttiah Muralitheran and swashbuckling national team captain and wicket-keeper Kumar Sangakkara (an old royal family), Kandy is also host to a wide range of twittering touts: “you must see hill carvings … lands end … elephant sanctuary … spicy garden …”

I want to see “spicy garden”. After all, this is serious spice country. Turns out it’s a scam to try and get you to pay for a massage and an aryuvedic potion. The old rule of the road is reconfirmed for the umpteenth time. Nothing is for free. Nothing.

The elephant sanctuary gives shelter to the beasts caught up in the long-running, now over, Tamil Tiger civil war.

About 50 or 60 elephants are lovingly cared for, and paid for by a steady stream of tourists who haphazardly wonder between their ranks. Tenders keep a very sharp look-out lest any of the big beasts shows the slightest ill-intent towards a patron.

One ‘patient’ roams around on three legs, having lost a foot to a land mine. A prosthesis is being prepared, one learns.

Newspapers carry uncomfortable stories of another kind of elephant horror. There are a number of wild pachyderms that still roam the countryside. Ostensibly in order to keep them from destroying farmers’ crops, a particularly sadistic device known as a hata baba has been invented, and commonly deployed.

Easy. A local jerk wraps a bunch of fresh, sweet grass or hay around a small, hand-made explosive. Lay it in an elephant track.

Elephant eats. Bang. Elephant has part of jaw blown off. A very angry jumbo with a very painful, very broken mouth slowly dies a pathetic death.

In town, enjoy the comforts of the Queens Hotel, residence to 19th century British governors, and the top-end lodging and dining establishment since 1894. Victorian splendour that has survived the rigours of history, independence and war. A magnificent mahogany bar area, resplendent with gentleman’s reading chairs, overlooks Kandy Lake and the Tooth Temple. Serious gin and tonic territory.

 Take the train down to Galle, on the south-western coast. The old port-fort city is slowly recovering from the 2005 tsunami which devastated the east side of Sri Lanka with a direct hit, and the western side after rebounding back off the tip of India.

The fort on Galle’s shoreline reveals a parallel architectural history to Cape Town’s fort.

Built initially by the Portuguese, the structure was expanded by the Dutch and finally topped up by the British. Southern India and Sri Lanka were the first ports of call by each of those nations after rounding the Cape of Good Hope in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Afrikaans phrase “ja-nee” presents a comparative poser. Local custom has Sri Lankans and Indians gently wagging their heads from side to side, in polite custom, a gesture that carries the meanings of yes, no, ok, maybe, it’s alright, I see you, I don’t know, I know. Is this the same as “ja-nee”? Did the Dutch leave both behind?

It’s the kind of abstract one is drawn to with many spare hours to ponder over slow libation.

The train ride down carries its own amusement. The sitting carriage is 90 percent empty. Yet a new passenger insists on sitting next to me, because “I like the breeze from that window”, before proceeding to tell me about his sick buffalo – and how much the vet is going to cost.

The train ride down to the beach village of Mirissa, on the southern tip of the island, carries an altogether different inflexion.

The seats are full. There are a number of coastal villages and stops along the way. Hustlers and hucksters get on and off at each stop. People are poor, many beg or ask for money. But most do something, sing, say a prayer, make a speech or try and sell something.

One man approaches holding his left arm, his shirt sleeve rolled up around his thinnish bicep. Suddenly, with a soundless snap, his arm – half-way between his wrist and elbow – is bent at right angles. His ‘good’ right hand holds the left wrist of an extremely grotesque sight.

The peculiar individual straightens the limb, then bends it again, straight, bend, sraight, bend, flapping the fingers of the disconnected hand, disconcertingly.

Finally, when straight, his right hand twists his left wrist and spins his lower forearm 180 degrees. I look at the pink, gnarled, wrinkled skin at the ‘flexible’ point.

The man looks sad, laughs, then puts on the poodle pout, and opens his hand for coin.

He has obviously broken it, or had it broken once, not allowed the bones to knit, and now uses it as his party trick. I can only, aghast, tell him to get himself to a hospital, too shocked even to grab a camera.

Welcome to the ride!

But even that was not as obscene as having a baby, around six months old, armless, being shoved into my face by her mother in a Phnom Penh park on a different journey. That baby’s amputated skin on my cheek still brings a chill of hell and horror whenever the moment is recalled.

If you have an inclination to break, our debase yourself, feel free. But don’t do it on somebody else’s shift.

Mirissa is a rural, seaside resort zone, slow of nature, and sweet of inclination. Accomodation options front on to a long, white-sanded beach. Rough tables and chairs idle below wafting palm fronds. Facing south across the ocean, the sun rises and sets low and slow over a neck-breaking shore-dump

It is the perfect place to chill out, lay back, realise the equipment has checked out. Nothing has broken. Extra clothing has been tossed out. The portable library has been read, and discarded, except for one book to change at the next opportunity.

Adust the compass for the ride back to Colombo, and then the flight to Chennai, formerly Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu. There is a cricket Test match waiting for me, South Africa versus India. The little master, Sachin Tendulkar, waits to entertain.

The little mini-circle is near complete. The jungles are humid, the people are chatty, prices are respectable, the curries are fine and mild, and the war is nearly over on this island of the short white cloud.

Two years is a long time on the road. All business, banking, debit orders, tenants have to be in place, with instructions robust enough to carry all through the traveller’s absence, yet dynamic enough to be able to deal with any emergencies.

“But what happens if the geyser blows,” asks a concerned house-sitter.

“What would you have done before you had a cellphone,” I reply.

Whatever it is, that’s the answer.

Because that is where I am going.

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