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Thursday, April 19, 2012

From Tangalle to Volonne

March 2, 2012 - April 14, 2012

Based on our last posts, people are telling us that we need to take a break. We couldn't agree more. Our exit from Sri Lanka is planned and ready to execute: we are heading back. First to France for the summer and then to Montreal where we will go back to work and think about what we have done, what we have learned and what we want to do next.

Michèle comments: In the last post, I wrote about Benoît's gaunt face and weight loss, but didn't provide the followup. We found good food in Arugambay! (Like the jumbo prawns that David is savouring below.) Sometimes it was more than we would have liked to pay, but hey, you can't have it all. The hollows in Benoît's cheeks filled in and all was well again.

My cold has passed and all our internet business has been dealt with. So, it's time to leave Arugambay. Today we did something that we haven't done in a long time; start riding early. With our panniers packed and clipped to our bikes, we start the ride by going through a nature reserve. Being Friday and a muslim area, most people are off feeling the privileges of prayer. For us, it's a few hours of peace and quiet. We take the time to stop and listen to the sounds of undisturbed jungle and to get a glimpse some of the wildlife: peacocks, eagles and for the grand finale, a wild elephant in the middle of a giant marsh filled with lotus flowers.

Shortly after, it's back to the usual sound track; blaring horns and all the cliché comments from the locals. The traffic grew and grew till we got to our destination: Tissamaharama; the launching pad for jeep safaries into Yala national park. This is where packaged tourists pay ridiculous amounts of money to sit in a fish tank attached to the back of a pickup truck. Once comfortably seated, you are driven into the glorified zoo of Yala national park. Your "guide" will attract wild elephants with bits of food so that you can have your priceless Master Card moment. Don't even dream about finding a proper guide competent enough to take you on a three-day trek into the park. In Sri Lanka, it's whore tourism: in and out and collect the money. However, it doesn't stop the more daring from going into the park for a night of wild camping. More on that later.

Before we get to Tissamaharama we get a jeepless taste of Yala by taking a road that goes through the nature reserve. This is where we witness that feeding wild animals is indeed a problem. At some point, in the middle of the road, is a massive wild elephant. Apparently, this elephant is there all day every day blocking traffic to get food.

If you don't throw him something, it will be very difficult to get by. For a long while we stand way back and wait for the elephant to head back into the forest. However, it's not on his agenda. So, we inch ourselves closer; taking shelter behind vehicles. At one point, a bus pulls up so we try to use it to pass by the elephant, but a guy inside the bus throws a bushel of bananas right in front of me. The elephant turns around and I end up face to face with him; I could have reached out and touched him. With flashbacks from the close call two weeks ago, we turn our bikes around to go on the other side of the bus. Once there we follow the bus past the elephant and avoid getting trampled.

The next day we head toward Tangalle where we will rest up for a few days. We leave early to take another detour past a small nature reserve. At first, it was nothing but the same old continuous village and most of our time was spent throwing rocks at packs of dogs; they tend to gang up and give chase. It's yet another annoyance. Frustrated, I hurl a big rock at one of the dogs. Being a lousy shot, I end up hitting a window which, luckily, didn't break. Finally, we get to the nature reserve which is actually a bird sanctuary. The highlight was seing a fully fanned peacock trying to impress some females. If you squint, you might be able to see it off in the distance.

Michèle comments: I'm a lousy shot too, so when I aim to throw a rock at a dog, I know that it will miss. Even a fake-out throw will scare away the snarly pack dogs. A few hours later, I was pedalling along the main road, minding my own business, when all of a sudden I felt a sharp sting on my leg. I looked down to see the rock that hit me and over to the side of the road to see the kid that had thrown it. Benoît was too far ahead to hear me yell that I was stopping. The kid ran between two houses with me in hot pursuit. I was enraged. A little old lady was in one of the houses; a family in the other. No-one had seen my assailant. I stomped and cursed when I realized that the kid had escaped me. Maybe it was a good thing he had, for I don't know what I would have done to him. The father of the family tried to calm my anger.
- Do you want a treat?
- No, I yelled back. I want to find that kid and tell him that it is NOT acceptable to throw rocks at people.
There was a long awkward silence. The father spoke again, slowly, as if he was choosing his words carefully.
- All the citizens of Sri Lanka, we say we are sorry.

Once in Tangalle we meet Joe: an American expat living in Japan for the last 20 years. Since we are interested in cycling around Hokkaido, we ask Joe about Japan. Being a cyclist himself, he gives lots of information about Japanese roads but he tells us of all sorts of strange happenings. Like how the police recently busted a fetish club where the prize sexual act was to eat the feces of the head mistress. If fecalphilia is not for you, there is a bar where you can pay an exorbitant amount of money to put your head on the lap of a young woman and have her clean your ears; I'm guessing all this is for men only. However, don't even think about getting Japanese citizenship. It is virtually impossible for an expat to get it unless you are famous or have lots of money.

A short while later, we bump into another cyclist. Adrian is from Australia and he is just starting his two year tour. We share some travel stories including his adventure into Yala national park. He tells us that he went in there for a few nights of wild camping despite the price, rules and regulations. He is more brave than we are: planting his tent where he could be visited by wild elephants.

We all decide to cycle together for a few days. As we leave Tangalle, I am struck with a disgusting sight: a monitor lizard eating a dead dog. A least one animal in this country is getting a good meal.

One of the days we all end up on a beach for beginner surfers. I've been wanting to go surfing for a long time. Adrian has been surfing all his life and he gives me a few pointers. Then, I plunge into the water to fight the shitty beach break all the way out. I end up having one good ride; following the break of the wave for a few seconds. After two hours, I'm left with chafed nipples, waxy chest hair and sore muscles. But the one good ride was all worth it.

Michèle comments: One piece of advice to combat against touring fatigue (see Eric and Amaya’s 3 cures) is to get off your bikes and try something new. For Benoît, it was surfing. For me, it was a cooking class. We found a guesthouse that offered "Mama's Cooking Class" for 500 rupees, and 300 rupees more if you wanted to eat what you prepared. Alex and Sibylle, from Germany, were also going to take the class.
- Do we go to the market? asked Sibylle.
- I have vegetables, said Mama. You no go. White people price too much.
The classroom was Mama's crammed little kitchen. She had prepped everything; we three, as students, mainly watched the assembly of ingredients. Class participation was in the form of stirring and sampling. I loved it. We made five dishes: four curries (dal, banana, pineapple and dambula) and a gotukula salad. My favourite was the pineapple curry. Once I get back on the rice-and-curry horse, I will make that curry again.

Another way to amuse myself was in looking for the charming misspellings in English, usually in menus. The ones I love the best are misspellings that form real words; that is, they are only misspelled in that context. Thanks for your corporation. Fright rice. Chop sue. Banana pencake. Ginger bear. Courselow salad. Card & honey. ("Curd" is a yogurt made from buffalo milk.) And on a child's T-shirt: Sweat friend.

We say goodbye to Adrian and meet back up with David in a town called Mirissa: a picturesque white sand beach next to a beautiful highway bloated with traffic. The beach looks very jet-set with the sand as white as the people on it. We join the fun and have a relaxing time basking in the sun. There are hidden dangers however. The waves on this beach can be massive. By looking at people swimming, I'm estimating some of the waves at 2 metres high. I decide to go into the water for a little fun in the waves. I duck into the water to go under one of the large waves but don't push hard enough to get under it before it breaks. The wave crashes on my back. All 2 metres of it. Not sure about the physics at work but my back ends up being arched way past the comfortable level. To the point where I was getting visions of a wheelchair. I managed to get myself out of the water and back on the beach. I sit down not knowing the extent of the injury. Later on, we find out that the previous day, someone broke their leg whilst playing in these waves and even later still, we find out that someone died. Our hearts go out to the familly. As for me, in addition to being physically and psychologically tired, I am now injured. Going home now seems like the best decision ever made.

With the idea that the cycling is over, we decide to part with David who only has a few days left before he goes back to Canada. It was fun trying to keep up with him but the truth is ... we're knackered!

We spend the next three weeks back in Tangalle at a beach-front guesthouse; things could be worse.

Michèle comments: We wiled away the time at the seaside. Sometimes it felt like a paradise; sometimes a prison. The days very slowly clicked by. Our waiter at breakfast one morning in Tangalle:
- You have been here for three months, no?
- No, but it sure feels like it.
Often there wasn't much going on, other than listening to the beach dog group howl in accompaniment to the tinny "It's a small world" or "Für Elise" of the musical tuk tuks selling ice cream and rottis. The waves at the main beach in Tangalle were treacherous. Big dumpy waves that could easily catch you off guard. I went in once, was immediately washing-machined, and scurried back to the safety of the shore as quickly as I could. For Benoît, swimming was out because of his injury. For me, swimming was out because I wanted a beach where you didn't feel on the edge of death.

So, we read a lot, and did some writing. The one-year anniversary of my mom's death was during that time. To honour her memory, I wanted to meet some people whom I could treat to food and drinks. Things that would meet with her approval: being social and picking up the tab. Serendipity placed in our path Tiina and Miko, from Finland, and with them we shared some kotthu and later some Lion lagers. Mom's treat.

A couple of weeks later and it was Benoît's birthday. Cheers to him!

We try to do our best to find good food. Sri Lankan food is actually really good when prepared properly. The problem is to find a good restaurant. We do luck out. Every lunch is spent at the Samagi restaurant where the owner prepares us something different every day.

Other than that it's all pretty boring. We spend our days hanging out with some of our new friends.

The big day has finally come: once again, it's time to head back to first world comfort; a journey that will take 48 hours. The ride starts with an expensive taxi to the Colombo airport. This is where I realize that riding in a car is not much safer than riding on a bike. Our driver is weaving through traffic and passing on blind corners whilst leaning on the horn: I guessing that avoids head-on collisions. The road is busy till we get to the brand new highway linking Galle and Colombo. Because it costs money there is virtually no traffic. It's smooth sailing for about an hour and a half. It could have been shorter but the driver kept driving way under the speed limit. After witnessing his psychotic driving I sit there puzzled.
- The speed limit is 100 km/h I tell him.
The driver replies by telling me that he is too scared to go 100 km/h.

Fast forward to Paris. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. With our luggage picked up, it's onto the TGV where we figure we are home free. As I lean back into my seat, I tell myself that I can finally relax. The problem is that we forgot the icing on our travel cake. As the ticket controller makes his rounds, he stumbles onto our bikes. Scornful and unhappy he calls us over. Apparently, bikes are not allowed on the TGV and it's a 160 euro fine for each. He also tells us that we will have to get off at the next station. France has always been drowning in its rules and regulations. You will never find anyone that can tell you exactly what's going on. They will always tell you the facts as if they’re carved in stone but it boils down to the personality of the person in charge: just like in the third world! The only difference is that things look a little bit cleaner around here: but for some reason, the stench remains. Luckily, another controller comes by who is a little "nicer". He tells us that if we pay the fine for one bike, he will make sure we get to Aix-en-Provence. Wanting to avoid the nightmare of being dropped off in the middle of nowhere I hand him the money. Now comes the chocolate sprinkles: the train is unable to stop at Aix because someone collapsed and died on the platform. Yet another tragedy that makes us sad for the family. For us, on to the next station we go to catch another train back to our destination. Once there, my parents' friends pick us up just has our rope reaches its end. Merci, Cathy et Jean-Jo, pour votre hospitalité!

The next day, it's a short car ride to Volonne, our final destination in France, where we will spend the next three months.

So, did India break us? No, but I think Sri Lanka did. On the positive side, I am proud of what we have accomplished with the documentation of this trip. Also, we have learned what type of cyclists we are. After travelling in this crowded part of the world, we have come to realize that we prefer the true lonely planet: wilderness, open spaces and wild camping.

Michèle comments: Naw, we know that you care... and we thank you for following us in our travels. Your comments on our blog posts, your emails, and just knowing that you were out there somewhere reading our blog helped us so much to keep going.

All of our Sri Lanka photos are here.


  1. est-ce le dernier post, du coup ?

    en tout cas c'etait cool de vous skyper le we dernier.


    1. Seb!
      Tu es encore le premier. Oui c'etait vraiment cool de skyper avec vous tous.

  2. Buns/Michele: Nice to see you take a breather!!! With a couple month repos, you will see you past and future differently, I'm sure. I have read and loved all your Blogs. Hard work, to be sure. Enjoy Volonne. My mom is with Gramps until the 23rd, I think. At least you are in time for the elections. Wish I was there. Will Skype soon. Kenneth

    1. Hey Kenneth. Yes, let's Skype soon. Your mom is coming for lunch with Gramps today. Thanks for following us. We are not done with travelling so stay tuned!!!

  3. Volonne looks really nice! See you in the fall... Viv

    1. Volonne is verrrrrrry quiet. It is almost eerie.
      A bientôt!