I can ask Mr PC to marry me (again) today. I can also wish my friend Scott a very happy birthday (married with two kids, he is just 9, or is it 10 years old). Today is Leap Year, the one time every four years that February has 29 days. I know exactly what I was up to last time round. I probably thought about all of the above at some point but mostly I remember very clearly that Mr PC had the day off work because something was being fixed in the flat. I was working at home as always, writing that novel that was never and will never be published (whispers: it was rubbish). The cats were probably being adorable and Jonah was definitely at school. It was Wednesday.
Just one more post on Sri Lanka and then I think I’m done. The further away we move from that frantic week, the more I realise that we probably did it a little bit wrong: way too much way too fast. A friend and fellow blogger has just moved to Delhi and is experiencing her first proper writer’s block, senses pulled this way and that as India absorbs her into its new adventures. She has managed her first post and there is going to be a lot for her to grasp. Sri Lanka being a neighbour of India, and sharing certain similarities, I find I’m undergoing my own case of tongue-tie. Just four more snippets.
My family tease me for being a WhiteFluffyTowel girl, a fact that I continue to reject: I do NOT need my towels to be white and fluffy, you can put me where you like, as long as there are marks of thoughtfulness, and as long as we get a solid base to decamp before setting off again. Good food and a peaceful night’s sleep are also up there on the requirements list and actually any old towel will do and I only need one, and I’m happy to share that one between the three of us, but it must be clean, free from stains and at least slightly absorbent. That’s it. Not always so easy to find.
We are a family who enjoy a bit of this and a bit of that – to ensure we maximise our travel lust we are careful with the cash, but mindful of things like bed bugs and rubbish quality sleep. Armed with those requirements, we found it hard to plot a mid-course through Sri Lankan guest houses.
Everyone we talked to had gone four stars or higher (apart from the 20-something backpacker brigade on Tripadvisor, making friends with bed bugs as they worked their way around the country). During the planning stages, our driver had generously insisted on doing all the bookings. First he read us wrong and took the top-star route, lavishly booking us into places with names like Cinnamon, Jetwing, Lighthouse – expensive boutique places that we felt weren’t necessary. Trouble is, once you’ve turned that lot down, there’s a whole different line-up of interesting experiences just waiting to bite you on the lower leg or rustle in your ear all night. When we asked him to tone it down a bit we found ourselves looking down the half-star barrels of places that had not – and will never – get anywhere near Agoda. We got there in the end, but it was a stringy assortment of places, some good, one really very lovely, and others notsogood.
It’s hard to plan for guests when you’ve never met them, and it didn’t always work out the way we all wanted. Most disarming was the two examples of us pulling up to the door of a great-sounding guest house (and we knew they were great-sounding because we had researched them all at home and then printed out all the details, as you do when you can’t quite leave the bookings to someone else) only to notice as our driver parked up and switched off the engine that the name above the door was entirely different to the one on our list.
‘Ah well,’ Gamini would wince, ‘in the end, very hard to get into that place so we are here instead.’
‘A little notice, please,’ seemed a completely foreign concept because, well, it is. Change is just how things happen in SL. Too bad. Here’s how it worked out in the end:
Night One, Kumudu Valley, Negombo: Neglected riverside shabby without the chic, the only good fortune being that we were in it for the least amount of time. Evil-looking guards, stained sheets, a rash of bites on Jonah’s legs and no guests. Dismal. Our worst night.
Night Two, Mountain Breeze, Kandy: Simple guesthouse on a mountainside road: peace & quiet, good food, great views and lovely people. Highly recommended.
Night Three, Araliya Green Hills, Nuwara Eliya: Not the Hill Club, then? No. Not the sepia-tinted, much written about fancy hotel, our token posh hotel for which we had packed one posh outfit for the one posh meal in the one posh restaurant? No. Instead this was a just-built, over-blown, faux posh layer of corridors and carpets that made it second to the bottom of our list, thanks to being unfriendly, uninteresting and unfinished with plastic food, zero ambience, guards swarming the entrance, minus points for unhelpfulness at Reception and a nasty wobble to the lifts. You can keep your white linen tablecloths, I was only after a map of the town.
Night Four, Ambiente, Ella Gap: Not the Ella Gap Panorama, then? Oh God, never mind – for Mr PC at least, this place turned out to be a favourite but got minus points from me thanks to serious mould and dilapidation and what seemed on arrival to be zero niceness. In fact we were soon won over by our awesome slow-cooked curry dinner and the loveliness of the staff. We’d arrived in the dark, in the rain, after the mother of all train rides and could only guess we were at a high altitude because of the way the car had been taking ominously tight turns on approach, and because of how we had all been pointing very definitely up on our ascent. Next morning when I drew back the curtains I was cross to find that we’d been given a room facing a white wall – but no, that whiteness was sky, miles and miles of it, with astounding views of tiny roads far, far below and elegant birds flying some way under our terrace. While Mr PC lost himself in curry pleasure (again) in the breakfast room, I took pictures of far-off waterfalls on mountainsides several hundred metres below us, and fretted about how on earth we were ever going to get down.
Night Five, Dickshon Campsite, Yala: Gamini insisted on us staying here, despite it having no write-ups anywhere. In the end a write-up suddenly appeared just before we left, and I talked to the guy who wrote it because he scored it rather low. Having been assured by the writer that it was a safe place, just not fantastic, we pressed on with plans to stay. It’s a newish place, that’s all, run by a kind family trying to make a go of life. ‘For once,’ said Mr PC, ‘won’t you just leave something to chance?’ So we did. And it was bonkers, and it was a bit half-ready, but, you know, it was lovely, actually. Jonah scored this place highest, because ‘the dogs were kind’. We loved its peaceful location by a lotus-filled lake. After four dusty days on the road, to unfurl among herons and waders, with bee-eaters playing chase through the trees, the sun setting over straw rooftops and Jonah throwing sticks for the kind dogs, was heaven on earth. Even massive holes in the mossie nets, scrappy curtains not covering the windows, dead things in the shower and flies all over the beds at night didn’t detract from its simple gorgeousness, and extra marks given for the super-nicest hosts of our trip.
Nights Six & Seven, Mama’s Guest House, Galle: Being a town girl this was my fave, the only one we booked ourselves, and the place we stayed at for longest (two whole nights). A rooftop restaurant with just two rooms, ours had a perfect view right down the street to the ocean. It was a bit noisy at night but so pretty, in an amazing spot full of cafes, little shops and buzzing with life, and with a yummy evening meal and fantastic roti breakfast, all with unbeatable views of the Lighthouse and walls, from both rooftop and room. Did I mention the location? Very recommended.
Curry. Divine. Don’t have Western, at best you’ll get oven fries, at worst a wet tomato sandwich. Curry is what the country is famous for, so soak it all up. We also liked curd (a form of yoghurt) with honey, and naughty sesame candy. John gamely tried a weird stinky fruit that, rather like durian, tasted better than it smelled (he said). Jackfruit, rambutan and watermelon can all be found and papaya is everywhere. Our favourite roadside snack came in the form of salted husks of boiled sweetcorn sold in bags and so searing hot that you had to hang them from your fingertips before eating – if you’ve been foolish enough to self-drive, don’t do both at the same time.
I’ve not really noticed my femininity for a while. I don’t really do bikinis any more and I’m mindful of what I wear, but happy enough with my shape: it’s all I’ve got, it’s impossible to change and it will have to do. Luckily I live somewhere where none of this really matters – clothing in Singapore is minimal because it’s just too hot to wear very much, so legs and arms are exposed most of the time, apart from in air con (often) or when we go into temples (not often). The national costume is ‘casual’, and it’s not unusual to see professional and office workers in teeny cocktail dresses and short shorts. I’m speaking in general terms and don’t mean anything by it – I love the fact that I’ve not worn tights in four years.
Hit Sri Lanka and it’s a different story. The locals are marketed as being smiley, happy people, another sweeping generalisation, and it’s certainly true that we met some completely lovely people. My aforementioned Delhi friend has just written in her first blogpost after moving to India that she is getting used to going for walks all the while being observed by ‘silent starers’, something that just doesn’t happen that often here, and that’s something I noticed in Sri Lanka too. I felt self-conscious for the first time in ages. Fortunately I’d had an idea that this might be the case and had packed appropriately, taking sensible outfits like long sleeves and trousers, and demure calf-length dresses, and wearing shorts only when I knew it was completely OK. Even so, I spent most of the time feeling like I was walking around half naked.
On a sunset stroll in Galle, when the whole town comes out to walk the walls before nightfall, the boys left my side to go and look at something for all of two minutes. In the very short while that they were gone I was approached no less than three times by different groups of men asking where I was from and who I was with. I wasn’t wearing a bikini or juggling ping pong balls, just doing a very ordinary bit of fully clothed walking. Clearly, I have been spoilt, here in bare-limbed, casually-attired Singapore. I’ve forgotten that the lone female traveller must always keep her wits about her wherever she is. The lone *any* traveller. Common sense, I guess.
You can’t get around Sri Lanka without this subject coming up, it is the biggest elephant in the room. ‘I won’t ask Gamini about it,’ I’d said on Day One in a show of Touristic Magnanimity. ‘I reckon he’s bound to be tired of everyone asking.’ What nonsense. The Tsunami of 2004 has become so much a part of Sri Lankan history that to not talk about it would have been more hurtful, and in the end he brought it up first, not me.
The year after the Tsunami, he said on our safari evening, as we sat by the bonfire, there were virtually no tourists in Sri Lanka. He said it has taken the full ten-plus years to get back to something approaching ‘normal’ in terms of tourism at least. He and his family, living in Kandy, were fine but yes, he knew of people affected.
As we journeyed through Sri Lanka with Gamini, his job as a tour guide and driver involved pointing stuff out, birds, temples, events on the road (monk’s funeral, sports day, food stands). It was only as we drove along the south coast from east to west that the snippets became interjected with Tsunami miscellania: ‘there’s a memorial… there’s a cemetary… place where entire train drowned… ruins of houses… more ruins… ruins again…’
I thought about my O Level school trip to the Somme in 1984 where lines of white gravestones dotted Vimy Ridge, and how it had been the first time I’d come close to appreciating a school outing, possibly because it was the first time I’d been able to compare the theory of something written down with the awful reality of it having happened.
I caught a bit of WiFi in Galle and did some research – by the time we were driving north to Colombo and the airport, Tsunami facts were embedded in my virtual scrap book. View of the cricket stadium from the Galle walls? That’s where they were all stuck on the top floor until the waters went down. Beautiful train tracks right by the beach? That’s why the train toppled over. Piled high with passengers, few of them stood a chance.
‘No one had seen anything like it,’ said Gamini. ‘The fishermen – everyone – all came down to the beaches to see what was going on. And, then, the wave.’
During another story, he talked about what happened next. A few days later, he said, they all drove down south to see what they could do. Everyone wanted to help. What they saw… He waved an arm helplessly around the driver’s space, nodding at the land speeding past outside our car window and shaking his head. He didn’t need to spell it out.
You just can’t come here and not think about it, so go ahead and give it a bit of your time. I think everyone should.
Don’t even try and do all that stuff on your list – that’s my first tip. Scrap half of it and play the rest by ear. We packed a lot into our seven-day half term, but we’re optimistic like that, and we came home exhausted. Standard. There is a way of getting to see all those hotspots – and that is to hire someone to take you bumping over the top of the country. You’ll end up seeing most of it from the back of a Prius Hybrid but you’ll go home with a series of intense snapshot impressions:
- Fairy lights draped around a bank
- Cows in the middle of a football game
- Smells and colours popping out: putrid rubbish, hot pink saris
- In Galle, somebody tap-tapping on an old typewriter from the back of a shop (hi, Mum)
- In Yala, fireflies on a night safari, and a bird flapping around in the back of our jeep
- Tsnuami memorial by the train track where an entire train drowned
- Big turtle playing in surf. Elephant’s bottom disappearing in the darkness
- Cheeky schoolkids asking for sweets at the rail station
- Perilous-looking miniature ferris wheel powered by steam
- Birds, birds, birds, curry, curry, curry, more pink saris
Just don’t do it. Roads in SL are hell. If you’re adventurous then take the train or bus – the former is cheap and wonderful but slightly chaotic, the latter is just chaotic. Otherwise, find yourself a good driver. Much better to have someone else threading you in and out of the clotted traffic, so all you have to do is sit back and relax, watching tuk tuks and buses come at you head on as you overtake on perilous mountain roads.
We accidentally had two – the one I’d been talking to via email, who had insisted on also doing all our bookings and being our guide, only to suffer a diabetic slump a few days before we arrived (the email chain suddenly went quiet). All credit to him, he managed to organise a replacement for us, from his sick bed, but the first we knew of it was when we rocked up to the airport at 10.30pm to find that the man holding the sign didn’t look at all like the man I’d seen in photos, being a whole foot shorter, with a slight afro. (It’s quite funny now. It wasn’t at the time. And I do realise that having diabetes isn’t funny either)
In fact, Sunil turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, straight up, a gentle hard worker with no less than three major careers on the go: music teacher, rice farmer, tour guide. Endlessly kind, thoughtful and funny. We’d got used to Sunil when our original guy, Gamini, arrived to take over, well recovered and wisely avoiding all our travel sweets. He was more fluent in English so he made a slightly better tour guide, but they both drove beautifully. Worth the dollars (and not a lot at that), these guys bust a gut to get you places. Sunil dropped us at a leaky mountain guest house in the dark, caught a few hours kip, then was on the 5.30am bus back home where he then had just two days to perfect his students’ band music for the annual school sports meet.
Four days later, Gamini dropped us at the airport at 10.30pm then had to do a three-hour drive back home through night-time mountain roads. He’d sensibly planned the next week off, otherwise his next tour would have been directly after ours. Somehow they stay awake and do it all with a smile – well, the good ones do.
It’s said that African safaris are better, but when you’re 11 and spotting crocodiles from the back of a jeep, you’re not really going to judge. You’re also not going to care if there aren’t any leopards because you’ve just seen bison having a bath, a family of elephants throwing mud around, huge peacocks, several funny diggy little mongoose (mongi?), jackals, massive monitors, and those crocodiles. Plus spotted deer.
Well, sort of. My family will do an amazed ‘whoop’ but then there’ll be raised eyebrows when they hear that the tents were huts, and had a flushing toilet each. But, fairplay to fussy me, there was a proper need for the mossie nets and those we had were covered in holes, there was a dead cricket in the shower (yes alright there was a shower), a spider nesting above the toilet*, and no light once the generator went off (but yes, we had electric lights). But, you know, camping! Jonah love love love loved it until we noticed the beds were covered in beetles and flies at night (cue small boy horrified face and imaginary death music), but once the mossie nets were up that was sorted. Well, actually, no, it was only a little bit sorted but I’m not telling Jonah that, and none of us sleeps with our mouth open, so all good. Yes I would do it again. I’m just glad I didn’t hear about the baby snake until we left, which is also just as we spotted a herd of bison wandering through the neighbouring field. THAT close.
I like my farms spread out over hills in swathes of green like a giant furry duvet (tea country, check), or dotted with happy cows (foothills, check), or fringed with lush waving rice tips (lowlands, check). I’m not at all keen on squat metal shacks with penned-in livestock, stinking tiny calves and dirty rabbits lying in cramped hutches in the dark. I’m sure there’s a reason for that kind of farming. I have probably been eating it. Maybe I need to be vegetarian? Don’t bother with New Zealand Farm if you share the same preferences.
On the night we arrived, Sunil had spent the whole day farming his own rice paddy. He’d paid people to finish the job so that he could switch to being a driver for us. Sri Lanka’s main outcrop is rice, with tea also bringing in the rupees. Tea farms are dotted with the bright saris of pickers. You can buy whole boxes of the stuff and have it shipped home, and you should expect to drink it absolutely everywhere. Orange Pekoe, please.
Another of my numerous fears, and the prospect of spending approximately half of the trip some 1800m above sea level meant I packed a strip of Xanax. Thanks to our great drivers I didn’t need them for the car, in fact the views were delightful, but a waterfall walk didn’t go so well. Got halfway to the viewing point then requested to be left to wait, hanging on to the shrubbery on my left and avoiding the drop on the right. After 10 minutes my eyes had convinced me that I was on some perilous ledge, rather than the ample footpath that small children were scampering up and down, and by the time I was collected for the return meagre 20-metre stroll back up to restaurant level, my knees were playing the tom-toms. I really don’t need heights. I can see from the car, honest.
Why, then, did the heights on the train not bother me so much? I can’t say. The whole three hours was so surreal, surely it wasn’t actually me flying through the sky in a weighty blood-red carriage around the very edge of the very top of a massive mountain? I’m a convert, I want to do it again. If you’re doing the train, (and I hate the word ‘should’, but you should), you should make sure that one of your journeys is the route that takes you high up into the mountains and beyond.
Mr PC was distraught when he saw that Gamini had booked us ‘First Class’ tickets, devastated at the thought of the promised ‘butler’ coming round and serving us drinks on trays, while air con froze us rigid. No, silly, this is Sri Lanka! And that website must have been written in 1548. First we waited for an hour. Then when the very late train strolled up we had to literally climb up the ladder on the side to get in. There was air con, yes, but it wasn’t switched on because the windows had all either been opened or had fallen open approximately 30 years before. Doors also stayed open for a purpose I will outline in a few sentences. What butler? There was a kitchen that looked like one of those Channel 4 programmes: ‘Hoarders From Hell’. Mr PC loved it, and made us both a nice enough cuppa in a proper mug, then hung out of the open doorway to drink it.
There were curtains – or had been, once, but I’ve no idea why the remains were still there. Tattered scraps simply got in the way of people sticking their heads outside, posing for pictures taken by someone else hanging out of the carriage door. A cheeky train guard joined in the fun by pretending to push a tourist out onto the track. Oh how she laughed. No, she really did.
Springs on these trains are as big as a large dustbin, so screaming around tight corners on viaduct bridges with absolutely nothing under you but air – well, that’s why those springs are huge. Honks of steam announced us at every station and road crossing. Walkers strolled along the tracks behind us, and when we finally chugged up to our stop in the dark, we had to get off onto the line itself then cross over and shimmy up onto the platform, helped up by fellow waiting passengers.
Our train was so late that the last hour of the journey was sadly in darkness, not sunset as planned, but this simply made it all the more atmospheric, and brought out the carriage’s bonkers golden-stencil patterns on the walls. There should have been a detective with a moustache and a 1930s love angst scene. We stopped in the pitch black at one point for a while, engine ticking in the quiet night, crickets chattering. I think there were cows on the line. Quite, quite bonkers and an absolute should-do.
All the best holidays have one, and ours came from Sunil’s collection of ‘Best Of’ albums all weirdly beginning with the letter B: Bob Marley, Boney M (oh, those Russians), Buddha Bar and Best Deep House. Divine choices for whatever scenery we were passing, which was just as well since we had the whole lot on a loop. I’ll leave you with my favourite, which will forever remind me of a series of switchback mountain roads in tea country, through which we cruised gently with Sunil at the wheel, tapping his hands in time. I felt like Bridget Jones before her hair went wrong, and frankly, every girl should be treated to at least one car trip where she feels like that.
I’m so sorry, but there’s more. So so much more. I’ll do it once I’ve come down from tea land. I might be some time.
*Just to say it was a very wobbly toilet with a curtain dividing it from the bedroom. I couldn’t see my feet in the dark. And a cockroach climbed into Mr PC’s washbag and came with us to the next guest house. But, you know – camping!