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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sri Lanka's animals

February 8, 2012 - February 17, 2012

Glad to leave Mudhahl's place, we hit the road to find that it's super busy. The worst are the buses that go as fast as they can to get a few extra customers. They constantly overtake and head straight for you without slowing down. For us, it's more close calls to add to the pile. When cycling gets this dangerous you question why you are doing it. Fortunately, the GPS takes us onto a quiet road. It's not too interesting but at least it has no traffic. We can now relax and enjoy the tropical farm land and wave to the confused locals.

Michèle has another cold. She would have liked another rest day but couldn't take another day at Mudhahl's place. To add insult to discomfort the skies darken and monsoon rain starts to come down.

We stop at the first guesthouse we find. The room is damp and smells mouldy but at least we are out of the rain. The manager seems nice enough. Later that night, he drives us to a restaurant so that we can get dinner. The next day, Michèle is still sick and needs another day's rest. So, David and I go to tell the manager that we will stay one more night. This is where we get another session of scamology. The guy tells us that the price he quoted for the room was the night price. Now, we must pay the day price. Trying not to laugh in his face we explain to him that it's not going to happen. After a short argument, he backs off. Sri Lanka is a country where you have to be on your toes. The bill is always more than the sum of its parts: it seems that more often than not, people will try to scam you despite the big smiles and the hellos.

Once Michèle is feeling better, we leave our mouldy guesthouse to cycle to the Ritigali nature reserve. We were hoping to see wild elephants but we just end up seeing dung.

Maybe that's a good thing because wild elephants are very dangerous; charging you when you get too close: more on that later. At the entrance of the nature reserve is an ancient stone path built by Buddhist monks some 2000 years ago. They were probably looking for a little peace and quiet on their journey to Nirvana. A silence long gone: making way for the blaring horns from anything motorized.

The path eventually stops and turns into a regular hiking trail. At the start of the trail is a sign saying that Ritigali is a strict nature reserve and a permission is needed to proceed further. It was tempting to keep going, knowing full well that permission just means giving someone money. However, we agree with the concept of a strict nature reserve so we end up turning back.

Back at the entrance of the nature reserve is an old man that drops his current affairs to waddle towards us.
- Money, money, money he says.
The old man has about four teeth left. All of them rotten to the core. Being a dentist, this is the first thing that David notices.
- Hi, I'm a dentist and I really want to pull those out for you David says. If I had my forceps, I would do it for free.

Back on our bikes and back to the busy road. I spend most of my time either counting kilometres or looking in my rear view mirror. We do get a treat however: a set of tamed elephants out for a bath in a river.

We stop to take a few pictures and much to my surprise, no-one is asking us for money which would have given me great pleasure to refuse to pay. We do get an offer of riding the elephant for $20 for half an hour. We declined the offer.

At the next guesthouse, our host is a nice middle aged woman who seems very honest. She does, however, say the odd thing.
- Couples here no problem. I rent room few hours. I have permit!
We give her a chance and try her food which ends up being way too salty. So, the next day, David and I head to town to look at our food options. At one restaurant, a slime bucket tout comes up to us offering all sorts of services like massages and elephant rides. I ignore him but David, with his inquisitive nature, listens to what the tout has to say.
- How much for the massage, David asks.
- 2000 rupees for regular ... 2500 with happy ending.
Feeling like a slime bucket myself, I ask him if I can get the happy ending on the elephant ride. He gives me a confused look and tells me that it's not possible. Apparently, he's never heard of sarcasm.

Michèle comments: With the monsoon rain, lots of water. With the water, lots of mosquitos. The guesthouse where we stayed in Habarana had an astounding number of the biting beasts. A gecko hanging out in our room had a big pink belly full with all the skitter goodness. Our room for three had two "double beds" that might be considered to be that size if you were a hobbit. But Benoît and I thought, why not, it'll be cozy. We draped the mosquito net over the bed (almost all the guesthouses in Sri Lanka have mosquito nets) and tucked into sleep. There wasn't quite enough room for the two of us on that bed. I awoke the next morning with what looked like a bad case of knee acne. My knees must have been pressed up against the mosquito net as I slept. Hundreds of bites! We pushed the bed up against the wall to make room to set up our tent. The sweet woman running the guesthouse noticed my knees. Soon she found me some ayurvedic balm to put on the bites. And she brought us tray after tray of Ceylon tea with a nice ginger zing.

I was still feeling like crap with my cold. Benoît had come down with a cold too. David rode to town one night to fetch us a meal of short eats and came back in a bad mood. His torch was missing. The first time in all his travels that he has lost anything. He suspected that someone stole it while he was buying dinner. That thought changed him. Instead of the perpetually happy David that we are used to, it has become No More Mister Nice Guy. He yelled at a restaurant owner for trying to charge inflated prices for a lukewarm rice and curry. He even refused a Sri Lankan man requesting a photo. So unlike David. I was beginning to worry about him. At least he was still engaging the locals in conversation, as in the time a tuk tuk pulled up beside us:
- Where are you going? asked the driver.
- Fifty metres from here, replied David.
- Tuk tuk?
- How much for 50 metres?
- 200 rupees, said the driver. (We think this should be the price for 100 times that distance.)
- How about free? How about some Sri Lankan hospitality? asked David with a big smile.
- Bye, was the answer and the guy drove off.

We jump on our bikes to head towards Polonnaruwa. We take the highway, which has a nice shoulder: allowing us to be more relaxed and enjoy the scenery. The road goes through a nature reserve and as I come around a bend, I come face to face with a wild elephant. Just like a moose in Newfoundland, the elephant runs into the forest as soon as he sees me. I stop and turn around to see if I can get another glimpse. By this point Michèle is with me and we both look into the jungle. Sure enough, the elephant is about 30 metres in. Then, he turns around quickly to face us. He moves slightly forward and all of a sudden, he makes a grunting sound and charges us with the cliché trumpet sound we know so well from nature shows.
- Let's get the fuck out of here I yell to Michèle in a panic.
Michèle turns her bike around and almost gets hit by an on coming car. We get on our bikes and pedal as hard as we can. Luckily, the elephant was only giving us a warning but for the next hour, we were both checking over our shoulders every two minutes.

Michèle comments: I was worried about being pancaked by the wild elephant and then in my rush to flee I was almost pancaked by a van. Thank goodness the van driver was quick on the brake. I must have twisted a muscle in my back when I hauled the 40 or so kilos of my bike in that sharp about-face. By that evening in Polonnaruwa I could barely move from the spasms of pain. The shooting pains disappeared the next day, only to be replaced by a stiffness that lasted for a week. Despite my injury I felt that we were lucky to have had that encounter with a wild elephant. It certainly taught us respect! Keep your distance and give them their space.

In Polonnaruwa the weather turn to shit. That doesn't stop David from going sight-seeing at yet more Buddhist ruins. As for me and Michèle, we end up doing nothing because we are tired of churches, mosques, temples, dagobas and any other religious shrine that may exist. We much prefer encounters with nature, like almost getting trampled by a wild elephant.

We leave Polonnaruwa without seeing anything but we don't really care. Back on the bikes it's towards Trincomalee that we ride. The map shows a secondary road that goes through a nature reserve. On the way is another ancient Buddhist temple ... OK, one more temple and that's it. On our way in, compassion becomes a mere buzz word as a young dog lies by the side of the path leading to the temple. His rear legs seem to be paralyzed and the only thing he can do is inch himself forward with his front paws. He does however manage to wag his tail slightly as we stop to look at him. We give the dog some comforting words ... not knowing what else we can do.

At the temple, a tout is totally confused to see us arriving on bikes. He asks us where our tour bus is, if we want a guide and if we have our tickets. We all ignore him and David and I head in to have a look at the temple. Michèle stays behind. The sight of the paralyzed dog and the constant scamming is not sparking any interest in religion at this point. Off in the distance, the Buddha has nothing to say. Why would he, he is just a chiseled piece of rock.

We hang out for half an hour, taking pictures. At one point, the tout freaks out and runs towards me because I forget to take off my shoes to entering the temple. When it's time to leave we see that the paralyzed dog has managed to move himself in the shade: a comfortable place to wait for reincarnation.

As for us, we pedal towards the jungle in the hope to find the secondary road towards Kantale. The road gets muddier and muddier to the point where there is so much mud in our mud guards that our wheels are completely blocked.

We turn around to head back the way we came. All the locals that tried to tell us not to go are laughing as we ride by. I am starting to get sick of being a subject of entertainment. In most of the countries we’ve been to, you are considered to be a clown for travelling on a bike. The poor man does not miss the opportunity to break the monotony of his daily life by displaying all sorts of annoying behaviours. The worst are kids who can go as far as throwing rocks or, like for David, getting his rear reflector smashed by a cricket bat. At the beginning you laugh it off. But it slowly eats away at you and after two years you are ready to get into a fist fight over some of these unwittingly disrespectful acts.

That said, Michèle’s day is not getting any better. It’s funny, it’s always the smallest thing that makes you lose it. After the scams, the dog and the mud, Michèle rides through a puddle. The result is more mud in her mud guards. She throws down her bike down and walks off for a twenty minute walk-about. David and I patiently wait. I am glad that I’m not the only one that can blow a spaz.

Michèle comments: I was all gung ho for the ride on the jungle road. Even with a fluttery-heart fear of encountering another wild elephant. By the time we realized that the mud was becoming more like quicksand, my bicycle wheels were fused to immobility and I had to drag it to get the damn thing to move. That probably helped to prolong whatever injury I had done to my back. With a stick and the last remnants of motivation I had in me, I degunked the mud from my tires so that my bike would roll. When I saw a puddle coming up, I thought that by riding through it, I could clear out even more of the mud. I rolled into it... and got stuck. Then something in me snapped. I was hopping mad, literally!

We end up staying in another guesthouse whose beds were too small and the next day, we ride through more forests to get back to the main road. This time we didn't get stuck in the mud.

We don't get to Kantale till the evening where our guesthouse has, what I like to call, 5 star envy. The price of the room is what it should be but we make the mistake of ordering dinner. With no menu we order an assortment of dishes and we tell the guy that a meal for three people should not cost more the 1000 rupees: a sum that could feed six or seven people at a road side restaurant. It takes them hours to prepare the food and when it finally comes there is barely enough for one person. We ask the guy when the rest is coming and he tells us that this is the amount you get for 1000 rupees. So, another argument breaks out. Starving from the day's ride I tell the guy that Sri Lanka is not part of Europe and that they cannot justify these kinds of prices. The guy stands there defiant and tells me that Europeans stay at the guesthouse all the time and that everyone pays 1000 rupees per person. By this point, everything in the village is closed and we go to bed hungry.

Michèle comments: This guesthouse experience was bordering on the absurd. That afternoon, our host asked if we would like coffee or tea. It sounded like it was complimentary. Not so: it ended up on the bill. Little did we know when we said yes to coffee for the next morning that we would be woken out of a deep sleep for this delightful service. Knock knock knock we heard. It couldn't be for us. The knocks got louder and more insistent.
- Who is it? I asked, finally awake and pissed off about it.
- (Knock knock again.)
- WHAT?!? I yelled this time.
- Black coffee, came the answer at the door.
- What time is it? I asked, incredulous.
- 7 o'clock.
?!?! We ignored him and finally he went away and we went back to catching a few more zeds.

In the morning we get the bill. The guy told us the previous day that there would be a service charge on the food. However, the bill shows a service charge on the room which I promptly tell him we are not paying. He starts to look worried. Not wanting to deal with it, I tell him to see David about the money. This is the time of the morning where David flosses his teeth and meticulously packs his things: a process that takes a long time. The guy paces back and forth, following David's every move; waiting for payment. At least we get entertained watching this guy wait for David. Then, finally David says:
- Hey, I should pay that bill!
David is much nicer than I am and ends up paying most of the unwarranted service charge: the bullshitting manager claiming the rest has to come out of his own pocket. Maybe he can compare notes on lamentations with Mudhahl.


  1. Hang in there guys/gal!!! So far India and Sri Lanka sounds like a grind....an opinion confirmed by other friends who have traveled "independantly" through this region. If possible, take a break, top-off your Health Points and find a mental happy-place.

    1. Hi cuz. Yes a bit of a grind but we do laugh about it later. Just not the dogs. We have found a mental happy place on the beach.

  2. aie aie ca a l'air complique, dans ce post ! bon courage, on pense a vous !


    1. Salut Seb, oui un peu difficile mais on fait avec. A bientot!