You’ve landed into Colombo, Sri Lanka; it is 3:30AM; and it is raining a fair amount. You have no waterproof clothing, no umbrellas, no bag covers and a fair amount of time before you are supposed to check in to your guesthouse. You had planned on spending this chunk of time finding and enjoying a beach in nearby Negombo, but it seems that plan is no longer.
You can take a train along the coast, towards Hikkaduwa, or head inland, towards Kandy. Those should take several hours. You know from a previous time* that the train along the coast is quite nice, but you did that in perfect weather as the sun was setting. You check the weather and find it is raining everywhere, part of a significant storm system. You could wait in the airport, but the amenities—outside of the littany of washing machine and refrigerator shops—are few. You could head to the guesthouse and wait, but will anyone be up at 4AM to let you in?
You spot an airport cleaning lady pushing a cart. You ask her for a garbage bag. As you crunch it up into your hand, she is smiling with a perplexed look. You thank her and continue on. Upon exiting the airport, past the water fountain that shoots its stream onto the floor, you turn in a southwesterly direction, passing by the tuk-tuk stand, a couple of taxis and the various people who have tickets to fly so early this morning. Several offers for transportation come but you wave them off, uninterested in any plan that expedites your guesthouse arrival.
The rain continues to fall, but mercifully, at this point, it has succumbed to a light drizzle. Vehicles blow by, on what is known as Canada Friendship Road, in a race to arrive on time at the airport which Canadian funds and expertise helped build. Every so often, a curious local pulls up in a tuk-tuk (tuk-tuk: a three-wheeled vehicle typically made in India – relatively akin to a golf-cart) to ask where you are heading. You assuredly appear to them to be drastically lost: heading away from the airport; with your luggage; on foot; in the rain. You assure them you are on a walk and intending to head the way you are walking. They seem confused and it conflicts with their helpful nature. But then again, getting them to understand what they don’t need to know will only make them think you might be interested in a ride, which you aren’t. You continue onwards.
At a certain point, you turn right down a small embankment onto a dirt road that runs into a small village of sorts. No one is awake, save for a couple stirring roosters, as the sun is just now arriving. The drizzle has now turned to a more steady form convincing you to pull the airport trash bag out from your bag, affixing it as a makeshift rain cover for your luggage. It sheds the water nicely.
At the end of the dirt road should be a northwesterly railway track that you can utilize to head in a direct manner to your guesthouse. Around the last house on the road, you find yourself at the edge of an overgrown field. At the other end of the field is, indeed, the railway track. Unfortunately, sandwiched between the field and the track, a large, metal fence stands.
You consult your map and locate an intersection between road and track. You imagine this will be a more preferable access point than one guarded by razor-wire.
Rain makes a nice sound hitting banana leaves early in the day.
You are walking northwest more or less as a train appears. You leave the track and watch it roll by, sparsely populated by locals. You walk back onto the track and continue towards the western-most boundary of the airport. A soldier in full uniform appears to your right on a bicycle, pedaling furiously towards the track. You look back towards the track and continue along as nonchalantly as before. He stops at the edge of the track and stares at you, so you wish him a good morning.
Soon thereafter you pass some armed soldiers who silently watch you approach and continue on by while planes arrive and depart just over your head. You pass a railway station with two soldiers and a boy chatting under the overhang.
The guesthouse has a thick, tall concrete wall that runs along the perimeter. The large entry fence is closed. You assume it is locked but the handle turns and the gate pushes open. You approach the doorway to the house, which you also assume is locked—and correctly so. You have made it through the rain on foot but it is still quite early and you wonder how long you will have to wait before you are let in.
As you are thinking such things, the entry gate opens and the caretaker, who you’ve met previously, appears.
“I saw you walking,” she notes. She is short and dark-skinned with beady, black eyes. Her hair pulled in a ponytail hangs halfway down most of her back. She is perhaps in her forties. “How did you get here?”
“From the airport?”
“Yeah, walked from the airport to the railway tracks and up to here,” you reply.
She looks at you like you with a preposterous glare. Something says she doesn’t believe you but she saw you walking so you deem it more to be a look of surprise than disbelief.
“That is why I am wet,” you add to lend credence to your credibility. “It was a nice walk.”
“How did you know that route? No traveler ever comes that way”
*It is late afternoon. The air is warm and the skies are clear. Through the noisy, chaotic activity you make your way to Maradana Rail Station. Since the train starts heading south to Galle and Matara commences from Maradana, you are guaranteed a good window seat on the starboard side.
The station train times are posted with removable wooden signs, hung by hand. The station is full of textural surfaces. Cinematic light bends its way across the platforms as the empty train pulls up to the track.
The tracks take the train through Colombo Fort Railway, a more crowded station. The train fills with workers on their way home. From the southern reaches of Colombo to a perfect view of the rustic coastline, the train hurtles along. Spiders cling and swing to various parts of the train, but no one seems to notice or mind. The windows are open, there are no doors and everyone generally seems content as the outside air is flung into the metal fans mounted on the train’s ceiling.
The various railway stations are very simple, but efficient at getting passengers on and off. Just as you had done earlier, you note that the railway tracks in Sri Lanka are used as walking paths, with the pedestrians listening for the familiar horn coming around the bend.
The rays from the setting sun, draping over the western coastline, are warming, both physically and mentally. The real estate on the beach is comprised of shacks, huts and other rudimentary buildings; a refreshing switch from the all too familiar “resort wall” found along the sea in so many places in the world.
Here you are on an old, soul-inspiring train clattering along the coastline with a setting sun. If you want to hang out the door with your camera you can. If you want to stick you head out the window and get slashed by a rogue weed or thorn bush, more power to you. As the world develops, freedoms like these disappear. It is a welcoming feeling where self-responsibility trumps the world of over-arching safety.
You get off the train in Hikkaduwa and start the sometimes slow process of negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers. You have an address, and a vague idea of where the guesthouse is, but you appear confident to the driver until you find out with a fair price.
Motoring down the road in the open air, you pass beachside restaurants, tourist shops, sewing machines and saws cutting hunks of trees. As this going on, you are passed by large rust-pocked busses and other vehicles, darting by and in front just before oncoming traffic throws a strong breeze at you.
After driving for a while, you realize the tuk-tuk has probably gone too far, and the driver turns and asks the same. You try pronouncing the street in thirty different variations, but nothing seems to suffice. He heads back towards town, and then heads back away from town, back and forth. He stops and asks locals on foot, he asks locals on bikes, he asks locals at storefronts and no one seems to know the guesthouse you seek.
Finally, two kids on motorcycles say they think they know the place. Sensing that the driver has done more than enough for you, you hop out and pay him extra for his efforts. Now you are talking to these two kids who are telling you to hop on their bikes. Absent jumping off a moving motorcycle, you are hesitant to lock yourself in to their whims. You explain that you will follow them on foot while they tell you to jump on their bike. Are they legit or are they about to take you for a ride you aren’t seeking?
At some point, they grow frustrated that you don’t trust them but you iron out an agreement to jog quickly behind them. They motor along and drive down a wild dirt path, far from the bustling activity of Hikkaduwa. They timidly motor up and over a minor hill and speak to each other. You follow them further and further down this road.
At this point, you see someone out in a yard and divert towards them. They look up and you ask if they know where the guesthouse is. They don’t appear to have any English at their disposal. Meanwhile, one of the motorcyclists pleads with the other to calm down; angry that you don’t trust him. You patch another rough spot and continue onwards.
“Here, guesthouse,” he points. A building set off from the road peaks through a green thicket. Just as there was no road sign, there is no house number. And just as there is no house number, there is no sign for a guesthouse. Where are you?
You walk down the driveway and onto the property, assuming a position on the porch as a smiling Sri Lankan lady comes out. She assures you this is the guesthouse you are looking for, but the owner, whom you contacted by email, is just out at the moment.
After a quick tour of the interior, you realize this is indeed the house, but the two kids on motorcycles have already left. You want to thank them, and apologize for not being more trusting, but they are nowhere near. It is sometimes hard to just blindly trust when in a foreign environment just after landing, but it is a lesson to at least consider such in the future. Sometimes over-arching safety is a hindrance, just like you realized with the trains back home.
The beaches are wild, full of high quality sand and swept by vigorous ocean currents. If you want remote, you can get very remote. If you want some company, you can find that as well. The development towards town is not stifling, but you prefer the more remote stretches to the south of Hikkaduwa.
“Excuse me, you buy?”
You open your eyes to see a local fisherman holding out a fish he just caught. “What do I do with fish?” you ask, given that you aren’t exactly in the middle of a kitchen. Outside of a prop for a photo shoot, there isn’t much you can do with a fresh caught fish.
“You go, they cook,” he explains, while pointing at a restaurant in the distance.
After a bunch of back and forth, you realize that far, far away from the regulated restaurant industry in New York City, you can simply walk into a restaurant in Sri Lanka and have them cook you your fish for a modest fee. Even still, not wanting to be dragging a fish around with you on the beach, you politely decline the sales pitch, and lay back down.
Palm trees are somewhat ubiquitous in locations such as this. You are now meeting two gentlemen who climb the palm trees for $0.50USD, hack away the dead growth, pick the coconuts as need be and perform whatever other maintenance you need. Of course, they have no ladders or bucket trucks with them—just a small piece of rough rope and some disfigured feet. Before you know it, one of them is flying up the tree.
You wake up early to the last sounds of rain falling through the banana leaves. You get dressed and wander out to the river that feeds the ocean. You stop to watch some monitor lizards—six-foot (two meter), 45-lb (20kg) reptiles that have been known to eat young alligators—minding their own business before the sun sends them to the shade.
At the southern end of Hikkaduwa, near the same river that runs by the local fishing port, there is a parking lot that was empty when you passed it yesterday afternoon. However, here in the early morning it is a bustling scene. You wander over to get a closer look and find an active fish market underway. Fish being chopped on the asphalt, thrown into bags and being inspected by astute buyers. Far from a warehouse, ice-packs, refrigerated trucks and all of the other accoutrements of the developed world, this market was alive with a special spirit.
It reminds you of another market you visited nearby, but that one more produce focused. At that market, you are transfixed not only by the vivid vegetables, but also the woman with sparkling eyes, the young boy with a heavily-focused demeanor who tries not to smile and the older gentleman with the beautifully-worn face that seems covered by stories behind every wrinkle.
It happens more often than not that you are in a circumstance where you don’t know if you should stay where you are, or if it is better to move onwards. Whether it is a relationship, a place you are living or a place you are visiting, you come to this fork in the road at times.
The outskirts outside of Hikkaduwa were great. You lived in an area where the schoolchildren run out with excitement that a visitor is roaming about. They come armed with questions, either to show their English skills or to learn about you. What is your name? Where are you from? Where do you go? Never mind that there are a reasonable number of tourists just a short ride away in Hikkaduwa itself, they are blown away that you are in their village.
This also gives you pause however. As you look around, you realize that you are probably more lucrative to the lone guesthouse in the area than what his neighbors earn in a ten-hour jaunt at sea chasing decreasing numbers of fish. It is a very large weight to realize that tourism can very easily shut down a whole ecosystem like this, and you are very keen to avoid assisting that in any way more than your presence alone allows. The last thing you would want to see is the fish market open for tourists, the local road filled with guesthouses and the local fishing fleet out of business.
You take a mixture of government (red buses which are quicker) and private buses eastwards, checking out places like Galle—a bustling city, more intimate than Colombo, with a touristy-fort town replete with upscale restaurants, Unawatuna, Mirissa—a quieter alternative to Hikkaduwa, and Matara. Eventually, you make your way out to Kirinda, a dirty, unkempt town at the gates of Yala National Park.
You’ve booked your stay at Suduweli Guest House. The idea is to check out the National Park, given the good things you have heard. Suduweli has told you that you can book a private tour with them, as they have a jeep, thereby allowing you to bypass the typical touts.
The bathroom is outside, far behind the house, through a garden and around a bend. You suppose it is better not to realize that there are Sri Lankan leopards, Indian cobras and crocodiles kicking around, as you make your way through the dark.
The next morning, you awake to find that your host will not be taking you on a tour, and you will not be going in the house-Jeep. Rather, without your input, they have called some tour guide to pick you and another couple up.
Long-story short, the tour-guide drives slow to the park, he sits in the long line of traffic of gawkers in the park (while other guides make successful efforts to pass the gridlock) and then steps on the accelerator once you leave the park, blowing by anything remotely of interest. In short, you see lots and lots of tourists and virtually no animal life. He goes slowly when you need him to go fast and goes fast when you need him to go slow. The only saving grace is the elephant that walks out of the brush and tries to grab your camera, before retreating back from whence he came.
Suduweli, despite its good reviews at the time, was an utter disappointment (and was indifferent to your complaints about their bait-and-switch, refusing to do anything about it), as was Kirinda and Yala National Park. You get the idea that maybe visiting one of the other nearby parks would have been a much better idea, or maybe you just went at the wrong time. Yala National Park was just an ugly-swath of traffic and people.
Before you left for Kirinda, your guesthouse host outside of Hikkaduwa has a good friend up in the hills, he tells you. You have told him you are considering going up that way. So he calls, gets you a reservation and hands you a stack of business cards to deliver (cross-pollination marketing scheme you figure).
Now you are on an old bus rumbling up the circuitous, tortuous roads on your way to Haputale, a relaxed mountain town in central Sri Lanka. After a couple of transfers, including one in a small minivan filled to the brim with passengers, you find yourself getting off at the bus terminal in Haputale. Almost instantly, someone comes up to you and tells you that your lodging is fully-booked and you should go with him instead. Quite experienced in the traditional scams of the day, you wave him off and continue walking in the direction of your guesthouse. He continues after you pleading that they are full.
You stop to consider the facts and circumstances. First off, you have not told him where you are staying. Second, you have not offered your name or any other identifying information. Lastly, you have a reservation through a friend and thus, the likelihood that they’d throw you out on the street is probably not a high probability. You continue on…and so does he.
At this point he has pulled out his phone and is calling “the” guesthouse. He hands you the phone. The English is choppy and the intermittent mobile connection is not helping your comprehension much. They are saying they are full and to go with this guy it seems; probably the wrong guesthouse.
You have finally gotten rid of this aggressive salesman, and you continue up the road which offers a beautiful overlook of the Dambatenne Tea Factory, well known for a gentleman by the name of Sir Thomas J. Lipton who started and lived at the plantation. Of course, once again, you are only vaguely certain of where the guesthouse is.
A man with a robe on has just passed you. His two arms are clasped together behind him, with one hand holding a wood saw.
“Excuse me, can you help me find Leisure Mount View Holiday Inn,” you ask him. He stares at you, turns and continues walking. A couple steps later, he turns and looks at you again, and with one of his hands, makes a “follow-along” motion. With the saw trailing behind him, he continues up the road and you follow close behind (having learned your lesson from Hikkaduwa).
Remarkably, he brings you to your inn, smiles, nods and disappears with you showering him in thanks. The Inn is perched up on an impressive overlook of the tea gardens below. The manager at the inn comes out, but, rather than welcoming you, explains that they are fully booked and there is no room for you here.
“We tried to send someone to tell you we were full,” he notes. Apparently the gentleman in town was indeed sufficiently adept at spotting the non-local squeezing out of the minivan that didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the townsfolk.
“But I had a reservation,” you stammer, to no avail. “Your friend in Hikkaduwa called and told us it was all set,” you state with a hint of a question.
“Yes, but we are full now,” they respond. All forms of logic don’t need to work here. The only logic that appear bulletproof is that they have X number of beds to fill and X number of beds are filled.
Most likely, your room rate, having been booked by a “friend”, is lower than what they were able to get from the stragglers who showed up earlier in the day.
“Well, if okay, you can rent our room for night,” he notes. He hashes out a discounted fare and shows you to a dark, musty workers’ quarters. There is no hot water in this room, or any of the other luxuries that exist in the other rooms, but for a night, you decide to settle for the mold-laden room.
Nights and mornings in Haputale can be quite cold, and when you awake, you watch your breath trailing out into the crisp air. After eating breakfast, you head down into the tea plantation, to hang out with monkeys and watch the tea pickers harvest the leaves off the bushes. After a good bit of wandering, you head back up to the inn to switch to the appropriate room.
“Oh, no room to change room,” they respond. “Fully-booked tonight,” they add for extra measure. It is time for a surgical strike to go down. You smile back at them and head out on a newfound mission.
You grab your bags, tell them you are leaving and walk out to your newly booked guesthouse, with views just as good as before, and without the mold. The first night you give them a pass, but they are now figuring they can increase their revenue by booking you again in the moldy room while fully booking the normal guest rooms.
The internet and the (typically worthless) guidebooks tell you of an extraordinary railway journey between Ella and Badulla, with mind-blowing scenery. The idea is to ride it all the way to Badulla, and then ride it back to Haputale. This journey and timing should put you smack-dab in the middle of sunset.
(Perhaps the scenery took a day off, but it is not overly stunning. As you later find out, the scenery between Badulla and Colombo is not nearly as interesting as that first train ride along the western coastline.)
As the train pulls into Badulla, an announcement is made that you can’t really understand. It seems important whatever it might be.
“Yes, the last train leaving Badulla is canceled,” says the conductor. Perfect – your escape vehicle is not escaping tonight.
The first thing you experience is a bunch of oil-burning tuk-tuk’s sputtering outside the train station. Past them, you see the visage of a market, and head there. Piles of organic refuse are spread about, as the nearby market closes down. Cows and dogs have buried their faces into the discarded, rotting produce—an all-you-can-eat buffet.
There aren’t many reasons to find yourself in Badulla, save for listening to bad advice and then having a train cancelled. After wandering a reasonable bit around town, you get the clear indication it is time to figure out an escape, train or not. A friendly local tells you where the bus station is and then tells you to follow him. A recurring theme in Sri Lanka is the friendliness of the people there.
Eventually you find yourself on a cockroach-laden bus blaring a cover of “I Can See Clearly Now”. The fog has set in and chokes off all visibility ahead as you wind slowly back through the mountains on your journey to Haputale.
Sometimes you win, and sometimes you get a fine story for another day.
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