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Friday, April 6, 2012

Pockets of paradise

February 18, 2012 - March 1, 2012

After the fiasco in Kantale we head towards a town called Nilaveli where there's supposed to be a nice beach. On the way we see another wild elephant but this time there is an electric fence between us and the nature reserve. Many of these nature reserves have electric fences to prevent elephants from roaming. Not sure why, it would be a great way to reduce the number of tuk tuks in this country. Anyway, the fences looks like an electric fence for cattle, except bigger and with a much higher voltage.

When finally in Nilaveli, we check into a proper guesthouse. The manager is an honest man who serves us delicious food by the handful for a good price. That night, we stuff ourselves to make up for our horrible experience in Kantale.

Michèle comments: The manager at the absurd guesthouse in Kantale had told us that 1000 rupees is the price for one person's meal. At Nilaveli, we were fed more than we could possibly eat of chicken or fish curry, rice, salad and at least three vegetable curries, all for 350 roupees per person. And fresh fruit for dessert. We felt redeemed. Even the palm squirrels were well sated in Nilaveli.

With a comfortable room, a bar and good food, we decide to stay a few days. The guesthouse is next to a beach that Trashy Planet calls "... a beach you can only dream of". Well, your dreams will come true if you're wishing for a swim. Aside from that, the beach leaves you hanging. It has more dead sea life than road kill on the highway, and most other guesthouses look like gorilla army compounds; fully equipped with security guards and barbed wire. Despite the warm water, David is a bit disappointed: he has been hauling his snorkelling equipment, including a four-pound weight belt, since India; the snorkelling remains few and far between.

David and I head to the main town, Trincomalee. This town is unique as you can see herds of wild deer roaming the city. They are very tame and you can almost walk up and pet them.

After too many pictures of the deers, we cycle up a hill to a view point. At the top is another temple. I know that I said I was not going to visit anymore temples but we are more interested in the view. At the entrance, a security guard tells us that we must take our shoes off and leave them behind. So, we put our shoes beside our bikes. After we make our rounds and take a few cliché pictures we find ourselves back at the bikes. There's only one problem; no shoes! We ask the security guard where our shoes are and he points to the funniest scam yet. Someone has grabbed our shoes and put them with the "Shoe Watching Service". This is where you leave your shoes to have some jackass watch over them while you go to the temple; a service we did not ask for. A little pissed off, we grab our shoes and head back to our bikes. Then, one of the guys comes up to us and, you guessed it, asks for money.
- 20 rupees, 20 rupees he says!
Flabbergasted and awestruck, David and I call upon the gods of assholiness to have a good laugh at the guy's request. Then, we unlock our bikes and ride off while all the other scammers at the "Shoe Watching Service" are yelling:
- Money, money, money!
Fools, don't they know that god will reimburse them! Or, they could just ask Mr Mahinda for a small percentage of the fees that tourists have to pay to get into nature reserves and historical sites. I'm sure there is 20 rupees on that pile of cash. As for us, we roll away thinking that two can play at the scam game.

Back at the guesthouse it's time to get the bill. The cook, a young pretty woman, adds it all up for us and of course it doesn't add up. So, we ask to speak to the manager who is an old man with many missing teeth. As we wait for him to show up, David asks the young woman if the manager is her father.
- No she says.
Then, David asks if he is her husband. If her skin wasn't so dark her face would have turned beet red as she runs off into the kitchen with every staff member laughing hysterically. When the manager shows up we remind him of the prices he quoted us and he ajusts the bill.

Once everything is straightened out, we leave the luxury of the guesthouse to get back to cycling and all its discomforts. For me it's a perpetual sore ass and a pinched shoulder. The ride is mostly flat and uninteresting as we cycle south down the east coast. Aside from counting kilometres I entertain myself by counting the number of times I see an advertisement for Hutch, Dialog or airtel; some of Sri lankan cell phone networks. Michèle is bored too and for the first time during this trip she puts on her ipod to kill the time and drown out stupid comments from the locals. However, we do get a few nice view points and a hint of something that we have been curious about: the 2004 tsunami. More on that later.

At sun down it's once again time to find a place for the night. The only guesthouse in the area was destroyed by the tsunami. So, our only option is to camp. We try our luck at a Hindu temple. The guru looking guys give us the ok, but the only problem is that there is some sort of celebration. That means very loud music over treble-y speakers for god knows how long. We keep cycling and we find ourselves at a hospital where the grass is flat and freshly cut. David goes and asks the head doctor for permission and ends up taking a good 20 minutes. Turns out that the head doctor is a hot, young Sri Lankan woman who studied medicine in Australia. She gives us permission and once the tent is up, I head straight for bed feeling yet another cold coming on. Off in the distance we can still hear the Hindu temple blaring out gibberish and tabla.

Next morning it's back on our bikes. Now bored of counting billboards I play a little game called Symmetrical Greeting. This involves greeting someone in the same manner as received. Usually, it involves yelling back something incomprehensible, saying hello in a mocking manner or just saying hello. I also try to have a little fun with one south Asia's annoying habits; standing there and staring. When we stop for a rest and a crowd gathers, I will go up to Michèle or David and stand there with an exaggerated vacant look on my face, following their every move. With Michèle laughing hysterically the crowd probably thinks we are crazy (or just assholes) and usually disperses. Yes, I am slowly losing my sanity. Michèle is much stronger and still hangs on to hers.

Michèle comments: As we were packing up camp at the hospital the next morning, a garbage fire near the front entrance was billowing its smoke into the main building.
- For the asthma patients, David said.
Nevertheless, we were grateful for a place to stay the night and thankful that we weren't at the hospital as patients. We stopped by to thank the doctor again and went back onto the boring east coast road. I had been eagerly awaiting to cycle that road, having heard that it was newly paved after the tsunami and the war, and that it was relatively free of traffic. Newly paved it was, and with new bridges as recent as last October. But there was just as much dangerous traffic as always, and not much lovely countryside scenery to make it worthwhile. I later heard a more accurate description of that road as "one continuous village." It was a struggle to stay smiling in the face of boredom and disappointment. But I was determined to smile and wave in return for any greeting that appeared genuinely friendly. Those usually came from really young children; so adorable with their big grins and enthusiastic waves that made their whole bodies shake. How long, I wonder, before someone teaches them to fleece the foreigner.

We veer off from riding the east coast to go inland to a town called Ampara. The only thing there is a pagoda that has an elephant crossing. According to Trashy Planet, wild elephants go there every night. So, we head there and wait for a few hours but the only animals we end up seeing are a cat and dogs. Cute as the were, we leave disappointed. As we pass by a house a man says to us:
- Be careful of wild elephants!

The next day we get to Arugambay and hook up with a cheap room. My newly found cold is in full swing and our travel fatigue is getting heavier. I peel myself out of bed to get some lunch. As we walk down the main strip, there is a minivan filled with young men who are aiming a camera at us. Michèle crosses the road and sure enough the camera follows her. It's another pathetic display of south Asia's obsession with white women. Tired and frustrated to have our pictures taken without permission for the last six months, Michèle gives the finger. To them, it's all a fucking big joke. We're just tourists and there won't be repercussions; not today. The straw breaks my back again and I slap the camera out of the guy's hand. The rest is boiled madness. The whole thing comes to an end with the voice of reason telling me that I will not be able to leave this country if I kill someone. As we walk away, four police officers are having a good old knee-slapping laugh at the situation.

Later on, a local sympathises with me and explains that he is married to a foreign woman and that this sort of thing happens to them all the time.
- Do not worry about these men. They are stupid he tells me.
It gives me a boost in morale to have someone on my side. I thank the man and explain to him that we have been travelling for a long time and that the culture shock is getting to us.

Michèle comments: Each day our nerves frayed a bit more. The pocket of paradise that we had found with the food in Nilaveli seemed like a distant memory. Little annoyances loomed like overwhelming traumas: like, in one guesthouse toilet, getting soaked by the fire-hose gush of water when the toilet spray nozzle broke off; and having a huge airborne cockroach in our room that was ridiculously hard to catch even though it was so slow in flight. The difference in travelling styles between us and David was becoming more pronounced. We already knew that he had way more energy than the two of us combined. We were already used to him racing ahead of us, then waiting for us at a roadside shop that sold chilled coke. Then, maybe my paranoia setting in, but it seemed on a couple of occasions that he was trying to ditch us: racing way farther ahead and then stopping in a less than obvious spot, his bicycle hidden from view. Are these symptoms of travel fatigue? I want to reread those books about long-term cycling tours that I had read before this trip. I don't remember the authors writing about falling apart mentally. It could have been in there, only that I didn't want to notice it at the time. We would eventually find David at his new favourite place to stop: at a Food City, a local grocery store chain that had extreme air-conditioning and freezers full of ice cream.

Benoit's hacking cough lingered on. Plus he was dropping too much weight. More than just the normal skinnifying effect of cycling. His face was scarily gaunt; his cheeks hollowed in. The same thing happened to him in Indonesia, he admitted, when he got sick of the food and stopped eating. The intense heat was getting to us too. It's hard to keep your cool when you're in a full sweat and you haven't even had your breakfast. I especially am not built for this climate. My legs get a nasty prickly heat rash when I ride in these sweltering temperatures. I ran out of sunscreen (because I have to reapply it like a million times a day) and bought a new one that was supposed to be SPF 60. It was more like SPF Zero and left me with a painful blistering burn. That tube of sunscreen went in the garbage. To be burned later, I guess.

After incident with the minivan, we head to a guesthouse restaurant. At one of the tables is a British man whose sister is the owner of the guesthouse. The man is portly, chain smokes and seems to drink beer by the gallon. He also talks like a geek with a spitting lisp who has taken too much speed. On his laptop are all sorts of British comedy clips that we have forgotten about. This give us another boost in morale as we watch Eddie Izzard, The Two Ronnies and some others whose names we can't remember. He fills us in on all sorts of Sri Lankan gossip; like how corrupt the government is and how Sri Lanka is trying to become a luxurious tourist destination like the Maldives ... good luck.

On a more serious note, he tells us about the tsunami and how his sister and her husband were in it. At Arugambay, there was seven waves in total; the biggest one measuring fifteen feet. At the time, a marine biologist was staying at the guest house. Feeling that something was not right the marine biologist says:
- I think we should get the fuck out of here.
They all barely get to the front gate when the first wave hits them. All of them were taken more than a kilometre inland and survived with some major wounds from the debris. Another guy later tells us that he lost 25 members of his family.

After a few days in Arugambay it's time to leave again but not for us. I have a bad cold, so Michèle and I decide to stay for a week. David will go ahead and meet back up with us in 10 days. As for us, we move to a nicer guest house where there is Wi-fi. Our days are spent catching up on internet and planning our exit of Sri Lanka.


  1. bon bah je pense que vous etes dus pour des vacances de vacances !


    1. Nos vacances de vacances commencent bientot. Apres demain!

  2. Cool! Vous êtes où maintenant? Bonnes vacances de vacances!

    1. Merci Viviane! Où nous sommes ... c'est un secret! Mais pas pour longtemps. La réponse dans notre prochain post. Stay tuned.