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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sri Lanka: Monks, monkeys and money

January 25, 2012 - February 7, 2012

In the last post we were getting ready to fly to Sri Lanka. With no consistency in protocol, we are at the mercy of the next dip-shit security officer. At the x-ray machine, the bikes won't fit flat into it. In the past we have put them sideways but this guy won't allow it. After a futile yelling match I have to unpack my bike so this idiot can do a visual inspection. He looks at the bike for about five seconds and reluctantly gives me the OK. Jokes on him, the dynamite is in the top tubes.

Michèle comments: Travel fatigue is hitting us again. The plane hops have become our worst enemy. I have a theory about world bicycle tours: the ones that last the longest use mostly surface transport to connect the non-cycling bits. It is the arbitrariness that gets to me. At times there are policies at airports and with airlines, at times none, some are followed, some are not. Even when it works in our favour, like not getting charged an extra fee for our bicycles, the whole process is ridiculously stressful. We've become so discouraged that it has even crossed our minds to ditch the bicycles somehow, by selling them or by shipping them home by cargo. As whiny as all this sounds, I really believe that so much plane travel was a big mistake in this trip.

Once in Sri Lanka we find cheap accommodation in a town call Negombo, about thirty kilometres north of the capital, Colombo. Our first order of business is to get a visa extension. To do that we must go to the passport office. So, we pile into a jerky shit wagon that has closed blinds on all the windows. As the bus follows the sea of tuk tuks into the downtown core, I try not to vomit from the motion sickness.

At the passport office it's the usual flock of people just itching to get out of there. We could have made full use of the corruption and pay someone to put our passports first in line but we opt for the long way. So, we wait and wait and pay and wait. I used my French passport to come in to the country. For some reason, French citizens pay less than Canadians; add to it getting into Turkey for free and the stupid thing has finally paid itself off.

When finally finished, we climb into another shit wagon to go back to Negombo. Yes, there is motion sickness in that direction too and because it's rush hour, it takes two hours for the bus to do the 30 kilometres. Once arrived, I have a headache and nausia and it feels like I've cycled all day; we decide to stay one more night.

When we get up, David tells us that the previous night a geezer came into the guest house with three young Sri Lankan men and a bottle of booze. They all went into a room and locked the door. We didn't hear anything but in the morning, while doing my laundry, I overhear the old man on the phone:
- Hello Jimmy, we have nice party last night. We have nice party tonight OK? Bye.
This won't be the last time we see old white males (and females) accompanied by one or several young Sri Lankan men. I guess it's two types of desperation that complement each other.

The next day is our first day of cycling in Sri Lanka. We follow a coastal road all the way to a town called Chilaw. Once there, we have lunch which included a delicious pineapple curry. Afterwards, we head to the train station to use the one and only public washroom. On the steps of the station is a giant monitor lizard.

We carefully take a few pictures, keeping in mind that one bite from this guy will induce an incurable infection. Unfortunately, the lizard is not the only freak there. A guy who is either drunk or drugged is sticking to me like shit to shoes; he winks and motions with his head to follow him. I ignore him and when Michèle gets back from the washroom, he starts staring at her. Then, he gets frustrated and grabs my wrist. I easily break his hold and he walks off yelling some gibberish. Maybe he would have had better luck with the geezer in Negombo.
- This place is full of CHUDs David says (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, a cheap horror film from the eighties about creatures living in the New York sewer system).

We get the hell away from the train station to look for a place to rest for a few hours. We turn onto the grounds of a Buddhist temple and ask if we can take a load off. The head monk is very kind, the way Buddhists should be. He offers us tea, fruit and sweets. After an hour of rest, he shows us around the temple. First showing us a set of old Buddhist scrolls that were hand written several hundred years ago. Then, he takes us to a meditation room filled with sculptures in explosive colours: the buddha in the centre is connecting heaven and earth with the glow behind his head.

It's time to say goodbye to the monk but first it's fresh coconut water right off the tree. Then we are back on our bikes and the race is on for a place to crash for the night. As the daylight leaves us so does the enjoyment of travelling. We try our luck at another Buddhist temple and get permission to camp. Tonight, it's bread and jam for dinner but at least we have a place to relax.

The next morning we pack up, but before we leave, we go say thanks to the monks. Turns out camping is not free. It was the day before but now the caretaker wants 600 rupees; claiming that many people camp here and they all pay this amount. We reluctantly give him the money and ask to speak to the head monk.
- He doesn't speak English he says.
This all feels very fishy and since it is the caretaker asking us for the money, we figure that the fix is on. It's a small amount so we pay it and leave but Michèle is upset at the false sense of generosity.

Michèle comments: After meeting the kind monk at the temple in Chilaw, I realized something that has been missing. The encounters with generous people reinfuse us with much-needed energy and help to combat the travel blues. They also inspire us to be generous to others and to pay forward the kindness that we have received. But when the generosity rings false as in the case with the second temple, it brings back my cynicism. I had been so happy that this trip was restoring my faith in the goodness of the world. Not anymore. My gut told me that there was something not right about a Buddhist monastery asking for a fee to stay the night. Especially when there was no mention of it the night before. So there I was, NOT believing what the caretaker at the monastery was telling us. That left me distressed and numb, not wanting to be present here in Sri Lanka, not wanting to smile, to say hello, nothing. Eventually I got over it. It helped that we met a nice family in Kandakuli who let us stay a couple of nights for free in their unfinished guesthouse. If you are ever in the area, their guesthouse is probably ready for business by now: ask for Neel Sudath Kithsiri or his daughter Nimasha who speaks a bit of English.

Up early to grab an overpriced boat to Bar Reef. The small motorcraft pounds our asses for an hour as we go upwind 15 kilometres. With the sea sickness not far away, we all jump into the water. The reef is in good condition and there are a lot of fish. There are some signs of general ignorance; fishing nets dragged across the reef; boats that dropped anchor anywhere they pleased. However, our boatman is very cautious and anchors on a sandy patch. He also tells us not to touch the reef. Back in the water, our six dollar snorkelling equipment starts to show its quality: within minutes, both our mask and snorkel are taking in water. This cuts our time in the water; Michèle and I get back to the boat to work on our sea sickness. Later, David comes back in after seeing two sharks. Now all of us are sea sick and the lunch that we brought no longer looks appetizing. David suggests we go back to shore. Then he says:
- I feel funny, and vomits.

Back on the road, and at a rest stop, a man waves me over. I look at him with a suspicious eye. He kneels down and opens a basket. Inside is a live cobra. He pokes the snake several times to provoke it so that it stands erect with its oval body underneath its head. He motions to me to take some pictures. Sri Lankans are not very nice to animals; the stray dogs are the worst we've seen yet. Like the one with a tumour the size of a 30 ounce steak hanging off its ass: the owner kicks it out of the way to make room for us to enter his restaurant. Or the ones so mangy that they look like armadillos. Or even better, the one with the front paw so broken that it points up; you would think it was "Staying Alive". Sri Lankans also feed wild animals to attract tourists. I give the snake guy a disapproving glare and shake my head from side to side. He quickly packs up and leaves.

Michèle comments: Daily my heart breaks when I see the sad state of the dogs here. My sister, a veterinarian, read with horror one of our posts from India about a dying puppy. Even though in Sri Lanka I have seen veterinary clinics and educational posters about the humane treatment of animals, the reality on the street is something else. I told her since that I actually feel relief, instead of sadness, when I see a dead puppy at the roadside; relief that it has been spared the misery of a torturous life. My sister was inspired to offer her services to organizations working with veterinarians in the developing world. A huge problem in these countries and I applaud every step in trying to solve it.

In the meantime, Dr Lianna volunteering at home in Canada

On Feb 4th we get on our bikes to ride to Anuradhapura. Today is Sri Lanka's independence day and it's just our luck that the president and every imaginable Sri Lankan government official is heading to the same place we are. The Sri Lankan president is named Mahinda. In pictures, he looks very friendly, with his bright smile and thick moustache: you want to put your arm around him and sing For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. The thing I find strange is that he is democratically elected and yet he is already on the money. However, some Sri Lankans don't seem to mind.

Anyway, Mahinda flew in to Anuradhapura, unveiled a symbolic monument and quickly went home. What he left behind is booked accommodation and inflated prices.

Michèle comments: About that Mahinda sign: One of the staff at a guesthouse approached us with a marker and a piece of cardboard. He wanted our help in making a sign for a protest that would be happening that day. Something about US involvement in Sri Lankan affairs. He first wanted us to write "Keep off Mahinda freedom". We told him that we didn't know what that meant. In basic English he told us his opinion of his country's president. So that is what I wrote for him on his protest sign. He seemed really pleased.

Tired from UN and government vehicles passing us at 150 km/h, we get to Anuradhapura to find that every hotel is full. Outside an expensive hotel, one of the employees tells us that his uncle, Mudhahl (not his real name), has an extra room in his house. At first we are supposed to be invited but then there is some mention of money. It's all very vague but we are tired so we decide to go to Mudhahl's place. Right away I get a strange feeling from him. At first, not really knowing if we will pay him for the accommodation, we invite him for dinner and take him out for drinks. When it's time to head back, all I want to do is go to bed but when we get to Mudhahl's place, his nephew is there pounding the hard liquor. Of course we are requested to join them and after several refusals we give in. If there was ever a time where I was not into bullshit drunken compliments and pats on the back this was it. We try to keep a smile and have a few drinks. During the small talk we get a bout of first world envy: Mudhahl's nephew tells us that he would love to quit his job as the hotel accountant and move to Canada. Once in the promised land, all he would have to do is scrub toilets he tells us. His salary would be so high that he could live like a king. I don't bother correcting these types of people anymore, especially after they've had a few drinks. We smile and nod.

Mudhahl likes to play the lamentations of the poor man. He's got the weight of the world on his shoulders. Why shouldn't he, 30 years of civil war and one tsunami has got to weigh a lot. Life is hard for Mudhahl despite owning his own house and running a business cleaning cars and renting vacuum cleaners. One afternoon, hard at work cleaning a car, Mudhahl calls over to Michèle with a face so long a thousand violins couldn't depict the misery.
- Look Michèle, this is my job.
Despite being Buddhist, Mudhahl is fascinated with every single gadget that we pull out: asking us where we got the item and of course, how much does it cost. One night, as I head out to get beer, Mudhahl wants to tag along and ride Michèle's bike. I reluctantly agree and when we get back he starts to ask us if we want to sell our bikes once we leave Sri Lanka. We beat around the bush and tell him that he wouldn't be able to find high-end bicycle parts in Sri Lanka and that he should stick with the bikes you can get here. Besides, I don't want to give him a heart attack telling him the price.

The only redeeming thing is Mudhahl's wife: a kind-hearted woman who saw to it that we were comfortable. She also cooked us three delicious meals per day. There was also Mudhahl's young daughter that they call Baby. A happy kid that Mudhahl used in his lamentations.

Mudhahl has all the clichés, including South Asia's fascination with fair skin.
- Baby loves white skin he tells me.
Another sentence for the shit list along with "Your country?", "What is your religion?", "Job?", and "How much this cycle?". I look at him with the desire to reply "Personally, I prefer skin with excema". I ended up saying nothing.
Then Mudhahl tells me
- Baby is going to cry when you leave. It is my problem. I will have to be there for her.
The next day, as we get ready to leave, Baby is all smiles; giving us homemade gifts for our journey.

Not really knowing what to pay him, I hand over 6000 rupees for three nights of room and board. A gesture that would have insulted a Turkish or Iranian host. Mudhahl gives me a smile, shakes his head from side to side and put his hand over his heart. At one point, I thought he would say our money is no good ... he quickly pockets the cash. So much for purging want and desires. You may think I'm being harsh on Mudhahl. That's because I've haven't mentioned his master plan.

Michèle comments: The Master Plan. Aka Mudhahl turns creepy. Upon arriving in Anuradhapura, I became sick with another cold. The second one in two months. The guys went out on bicycle to explore the ruins at Mihintale for the day. I was stuck indoors resting at the family's home trying to get better. The first hint of creepiness was when Mudhahl suggested that I stay there, as in for weeks or months, and let Benoit and David continue cycling in Sri Lanka without me. I told him no, I was not going to stay without the others. I explained that this trip is something that Benoit and I have planned for years and that our friend David has joined us for three months of the trip.
- Benoit is your brother? he asked.
- No he's my husband.
- But he is younger than you.
So what? I felt like screaming at him. But I didn't, reminding myself of cultural differences. He continually dropped not-so-subtle hints about sending gifts to his daughter from Canada. Another foreigner had stayed with them. He sent gifts at Christmas. Mudhahl yelled something to his daughter and in a moment she returned with a game in a colourful box. The evidence of the kind foreigner.
- I told Baby that if she is nice that you will send her gifts from Canada, he said with a smile and a nod to her.
There were more little things that he did and said that were very odd. Too many to describe here. What took the cake was when he started in on his Master Plan: his idea of having us move permanently to Sri Lanka where, with his help, we would open a hotel and restaurant and run package tours. Do I need to remind you that he has known us for a total of two days at this point? He started talking non-stop, new aspects to his idea fueling his tongue. The tours would start in India and continue into Sri Lanka. The tourists would visit this important site and that important site. They would stay at these hotels and in these cities, he rambled on. He had prices in mind too. Operating costs, profit margin, the works, as if he had been dreaming of this for ages and only now has seen a way to realize his dream. I tried to interrupt him, to say that what he was describing is NOT AT ALL our style of travel. Anything I said he didn't hear or would dismiss immediately.
- We want to return to Canada to rest after all this travel, I managed to interject.
- You can go there for one week or two for a holiday.
All he could think about was tapping into the tourist market and using us, and all our worldly contacts, to help him to do it. He was trying to sell the idea as him helping us to make money. What was underlying it, I am without a doubt, was HIS desire to make money. The main thing that I took away from that conversation, or rather monologue, was How Not To Do It.
As soon as Benoit and David returned, I took them aside to fill them in on the Master Plan. They were as creeped out as I was, maybe more. The next day we left under threatening skies. I was still sick with my cold, feverish and shivery. It poured rain on us that day. But ya, I would rather be riding ill in the pouring rain than spend one more moment with that guy. To end on a positive note, we met a truly hospitable Sri Lankan family that rainy day when we spied their very large veranda and ducked in for shelter. The family invited us in for tea and biscuits as we dried off. The twin daughters were English teachers and spoke beautifully. They also wanted to invite us for lunch. We wanted to stay, and perhaps we should have, but we pushed on into the rain. Thank you, Kalpana and Manoja, and your family, for your kindness!


  1. Michele, t'as menti à ce pov gars: t'es pas mariée à B., vous vivez dans le péché :-) Enfin avec tout ça vous avez un bon scénario de film !!


    1. Seb!
      Bien sur que tu as remarque le petit mensonge :)

  2. Your stories are hilarious. Thank you for making me laugh in this monotonous life over here while finishing school. You guys could write a movie scenario...it would be kind of Eat Pray & Love...but so much better! Hugs & keep pedalling!
    Daria from Montreal

    1. Hi Daria. I'm glad someone is finding the writing funny because we worry that it is not. Who would play me in the movie?

  3. Pour Benoit je verrai bien Christian Slater :-)