Two Months in Europe. Spain, France and Italy. Running with Bulls in Pamplona, surfing with Basques in Biarritz, and meeting fascists near Florence.
Nothing prepared me for India.
First the primer, Sri Lanka. It’s like a kinder, gentler India. 25 years of civil war seems to have kept the country focused on the basics. Like not being killed. Typically, a Sri Lankan only needs to worry about hungry leopards, angry elephants, rabid monkeys, viral mosquitoes and natural disasters. But in the early 80's the conflict with the Tamil people, in the North of their little island, also brought a bloody Civil War into the mix.
In 2009 the Sinhalese people, of the South, solved this problem by defeating the Tamils. But not in a nice way. Apparently it involved the death of some 27,000 Tamils. And then there was the 2004 Tsunami which wiped out another 35,000.
All I’m trying to say is that basic survival has been an issue in recent years, and their culture has stayed relatively simple as a result. Things are pretty easy going, temples, trains, stoplights and markets are all loosely interpreted and generally accepted as optional.
The capital city of Colombo is a mix of buses, taxis, scooters and bicycles all trying to turn down the same lane at the same time. There are roadside temples honoring the Gods of pretty much every religion each block. From Vengeful Shiva to Placid Buddha, to the Disco Jesus, they are covering all their bases. And this deserves some respect, because driving in Sri Lanka definitely improves your chances of meeting at least one of them in person. If you are not interested in meeting your maker anytime soon just remember this basic lesson- the bus always wins.
Colombo, the big city, isn’t any more interesting than any other city, so the best part was leaving, which we did several times. The first time was the train to Kandy. Sounds fun right? Like a Willy Wonka ride. It’s actually a narrow gauge railway built by the British in the 1870's. Sometime in the 1950's, the Sri Lankan Railways company upgraded the steam engines to diesel in order to compete with kick-start scooters as a method of travel. Unfortunately they didn’t seem to upgrade the tracks as well, so the train ride to Kandy is like traveling through steep and cavernous jungle peaks on a paint mixer.
If you forget to bring Dramamine just remember to focus your eyes on the horizon, it helps.
Once you are in Kandy things generally slow down and become much more manageable. The centerpiece of downtown is the old prison, which is called the old prison because it was built a long time ago, not because they stopped using it as a prison. I guess 'old prison' has a better ring to it than 'current prison', or 'still prison'. It’s round, kind of like a coliseum. But were getting sidetracked here.
Other features of Kandy are the 'Palace of the Tooth Relic' and the Kandy Dancers, which are conveniently located next door to each other and feature events at staggered times so you can see the Kandy Dancers perform awkwardly choreographed numbers with huge enthusiasm, and then you can go and visit with one of the Buddha’s teeth.
We actually were so overwhelmed by the Kandy Dancers that we played it safe and opted for a plate of Hoppers, rather than take a chance with the tooth of the Buddha. Hoppers are basically crepes made from rice instead of wheat, they seem limited to Sri Lanka and are so good that they nearly make the trip worth it.
And here’s a tip for when you go to see the Kandy Dancers, sit behind the guy with the iPad, because it’s a sure thing that he’s going to hold it up over his head and record/photograph the performance with the built in camera. It’s almost like having someone hold up a TV screen for you, like the Jumbotron at a ball game. But smaller. And closer. And less optional.
Our next destination was Arugam bay, for surfing, and hunting Hoppers.
The typical way to get there is to hire a cab for the 6-7 hour drive from Kandy to Arugam, and a price of approximately $100. But one of the geniuses on this adventure had so much fun on the train ride to Kandy, and thought driving in Sri Lanka was such a great idea, and wanted the 'freedom of a car' in Arugam bay, so he convinced the other that we should quickly go back to Colombo and get a rental car.
The other option was the $100 cab ride and then being held hostage by the Tuk Tuk drivers in Arugam, who sometimes ask as much as $5 to drive you 20 miles to a surf break and then wait for 2 hours while you try to hurt yourself.
Naturally we went for the rental car.
You know 3 card monte? Where the street hustler is shuffling 3 cards around and you need to find the Queen? That’s what it’s like renting a car in Colombo. You NEVER accept the first car they offer. That’s the beater. They just want to get it off the lot to the first sucker that will go for it. Or the second. They are still testing you. That one might look ok from a distance, but up close you realize that it’s probably been involved in several fatalities and has been rebuilt with parts scavenged from military surplus. By the time you get to the third they know you are a problem customer and will become 'difficult' if you get a lemon.
Now they let you in 'the other lot', with the cars that they don’t really want driven across the island to Arugam bay. The cars that have not been caught in a flood, have no bullet holes in them, and haven’t had issues with wild elephants. But by this point you have wasted so much of their time with shuffling cars around, opening hoods, checking all four tires, making sure AC blows cold... they are committed.
We got a Honda with 4 different tires, poor body repair on every panel and an odometer that had either been rolled back or had surpassed the million mile mark. But it ran pretty well, and it had tinted windows, which might reduce the number of traffic infractions imagined by the police/military/guys-with-guns.
I typically use Google Maps to navigate. It’s been great, I no longer need to refold paper maps, ask for directions, or even think in advance. Google pretty much does all that for me. Except in Sri Lanka. Google seems to have given up on Sri Lanka and tells me 'Services not offered in this region'. So I was back to trusting in Allah and asking Laura if she thought we were going the right way.
It all worked out pretty well though, we just needed to follow the pavement at each intersection to continue on the inter-island motorway. There were times when I was convinced that we were lost on an abandoned, but paved, forestry road. But we persevered. And when we hit the ocean we took a right, and there we were, Arugam bay.
Cows, goats, elephants, dogs, monkeys and Europeans. The only thing missing was Americans. We were frequently told that we were the only Americans in town. You'd think the whole point of traveling is to avoid Americans, but it was actually a little strange. We are everywhere. And when told that we were the only Americans in town I felt a little ashamed, like walking on sacred ground, or dancing at a wake. But I don’t think that was how the locals felt at all. I think they were expecting me to do a trick, or say something inappropriate.
Unfortunately I don’t know any magic.... Luckily they are a kind and forgiving people. Especially the tuk tuk driver. The one with the red teeth and the idea that I wouldn’t haggle over a couple of dollars.
Anyway, the word has gotten out that Arugam has good waves, is still cheap and the war is over. The days of the surfers paradise are nearly at an end, prices are climbing, vacationers are appearing and you can’t really sleep on the beach when you might get run over by a fishing boat at 4 am.
For people based in Asia, Sri Lanka and Arugam are pretty great options, but for me, in North America, I'll probably choose Baja Mexico for the next surf trip.
Arugam was nice, but one of the highlights of the trip was going to the big Yala park and seeing a Leopard. In the wild. But get this... just after the rainy season there are many many water holes, referred to as “tanks” by locals. So many that the wildlife is really spread out and not conveniently located next to the snack shack in the state park. The chances of seeing leopards, and other creatures that don’t really like hanging out with people, are slim. To the point that the parks actually close for a month. The same month we were in Sri Lanka. No Leopards. Boo.
Now we know to go in the dry season when there are only a couple of tanks and we can probably see a Leopard at sunset. And now you know too.
By the time we had figured all this out we were pretty much ready for the next move which was India. So we drove the southern part of Sri Lanka and spent a day in Hikkaduwa, another surf town, but the swell was so choppy that no one was out.
We did meet a salty old British expat, with a unique perspective on yoga and a great sense of humor. He’s the one who suggested we spend some time in Dharamsala when he heard we were heading for Rajashtan. If you ever make it to Hikkaduwa look for the guesthouse that has Yoga Classes painted on it. Say hi to Lyndon and tell him we said it was ok to use the surfboard that we stashed with him.
And now we are on to our 3rd and final departure from Colombo. Nothing much happened during this visit. We returned the car, ate some hoppers and relaxed in the Clock Inn while waiting for our 2 AM flight to Hong Kong.
Back in Hong Kong for a couple of days is nice. We explored Mong Kok, the most populous place on earth. Discovered the Cupping Room, which is pretty much the best coffee shop on Earth, and I explored the Chung King Mansion in Kowloon. Someday I’m going to return to Hong Kong to stay in the Mansion for a couple of weeks. It should result in enough adventures that I can write a book about it. That place is insane.
Oh look, I’ve written enough to dull your senses and maybe make you sleepy and I haven’t even started on India yet.
India was so overwhelming that I need to stop now. I can’t even think about it.
I’ll let you sit with Sri Lanka for a while and take this time to get right in my head with our experiences in India.
We also need to sort through a million pictures, because words alone can’t describe that place. Even Kipling tried, and eventually resorted to pictures as well.
Kipling. Rudyard. Jungle Book, Mowgli..... that guy.