The cool shoeshine club: Cycling the Sri Lankan west coast
Week 1: Colombo – Chilaw – Kalaoya – Anuradhpuram – Thantirimale – Mannar Island
Day 1: Colombo – Chilaw
Spinner Cafe was up and running at 630am. By the time I got there, they had already set up a stall serving green grams and coriander soup. I instead opted for a king coconut water and a tomato sandwich. It was early in the morning, I was still half asleep and I was starved. There was a young boy sweeping the floor and I asked him where the mechanic was. He smiled and said he was the mechanic. I refused to believe him until he stepped on to the elevated platform which was the servicing bay. My bike was already out if the carton and waiting to be assembled. I told him the bike was mine and that he should quickly assemble it for I was in a hurry. The sun was already out and the heat would not be kind to me on the first day.
Harsha, the mechanic, has to be one of the best mechanics I have come across. He looked about 15 but the waiter at the cafe assured me he was 18. He had a charm about his ways and was crafty with the tools in his hands. I could tell he had been mentored well by Mithun and the team. Harsha insisted that I allow him to clean the hub of the front tire. It was really dirty and the quick-release system wasn’t working because of all the dirt that had collected. Within minutes I had my panniers packed and sleeping bag fastened to the extra tire. I took a few pictures, rechecked everything and remembered The Ramp. The blessing of the riders on The Ramp was crucial for a safe tour.
The way out of Colombo was a shit storm. There was way too much traffic and the sun was glaring down on me. I had been really stoked to ride my bike but this city had others plans for me. I struggled out of the town and made way past Negombo. By now I had shifted to the less crowded beach road. It was really windy and I was facing a strong head wind. But the beach running parallel at all times and the ocean to look at every now and then was worth the suffering. I had a breakfast of dates, Milo and peanuts behind some fancy villa. The beach was right in front but I hesitated to go into the water. Now was not the time to indulge in the luxuries of nature. I hadn’t really covered much ground and still had a long way to go. Lunch was also a quick affair at Coco’s. It was a Sri Lankan Thali which had rice, chicken curry, veggies, fried fish and coconut powder. It was just what I wanted. Post lunch, the sun went down and the weather was rather pleasant. The winds were still a problem but I couldn’t complain. It was only the first day.
Day 2: Chilaw – Kalaoya
The head wind was worse in the morning than it was last evening and I couldn’t handle it anymore. My pace was much slower than usual and at this rate I wouldn’t reach in weeks. I switched to the main road and made my towards Puttalam. From Puttalam I turned right into the Centre of the island. I was still in the Western Province but had taken a detour to Anuradhapuram. The city was famous for the oldest tree in the world (or so they liked to believe), lots of ancient ruins and stupas. This usually isn’t my idea of a holiday but I made an exception for the tree. It was about 2000 years old and deserved my presence. I wouldn’t reach Anuradhapuram until the next day so I could relax and keep riding. Once in had turned in from Puttalam I was greeted with all sorts of terrain. I rode through mud tracks, slush, sand covered tarmac and wet trails. I had ridden just about the average mountain bike race till now. Things didn’t get better as I was greeted with a rolling terrain which ceased to end. Up and down slopes, one after the other.
Physically, the climbs were taxing. My ass was burning and the rest of my abdomen just hungry for some air. All the pressure was on my hands and ass; the weight of the panniers was new to me and my body hadn’t adjusted to the new system. Thankfully my legs were still fresh and not showing any signs of slowing down. Each time I hit a food wall, I would stop at a tea shop and down some Milo chocolate milk. Every shop across the island served this drink served in a tetra pack. It was the best thing to drink in such a position. My body cried for protein and I was in no mood to eat the dates I was carrying. Peanuts and milk had soon become my staple snack.
Around 1030am, I stopped at a very fancy looking restaurant. I just wanted to lie down and drink some Milo. They didn’t have any and I settled for Sprite. Halfway down the bottle, a big Volvo stopped by and out came a bunch of oldies dressed very fashionably. Their guide looked at my cycle, then me. He came and sat with me and we had a little chat about my travel plans. He was really impressed and wished me the best of luck. I went to the counter and bumped into him again. This Time, he was with one of the oldies. The group was Austrian and spoke to each other and the guide only in German. They knew English, and Surmali, their guide, told me that Wolfgang, the oldie standing next to me, cycled 80km everyday. Wolfgang was a very charming man and he was happy hat youngsters like me indulged in adventures such as mine. We spoke briefly about the Giro and the lack of Austrian cyclists in the Tour de France. Surmali gave me 1000 rupees and told me to enjoy a lavish lunch. I couldn’t refuse as it was meant to be a gift from ‘the people of Sri Lanka’. I said my goodbyes, thanked Surmali and Wolfgang for the lovely conversation and rode on. Ten minutes later a bus stopped behind me and began honking furiously. It was the bloody Austrians! They were all waving at me, all smiling and laughing. I noticed Wolfgang wave at me and I waved right back. Once the bus had crossed me, I noticed a tear or two roll down my cheeks. It was truly a sensational moment. It wasn’t the money (which would eventually last me through the rest of the day), but the humility with which I was greeted and welcomed in this beautiful country. People like Surmali are the ones I will always remember. They are the ones who represent the true nature of this country. Godspeed to you, Surmali!
Come evening, I was still climbing the slopes towards Anuradhapuram. The climbs were one level harder than the climb to Faridabad from Gurgaon. I recall remembering my ride with Arjun across Maharashtra. The ghats has been very cruel to us and we were really underprepared. This time,things were slightly different. I had trained hard and expected some sort of climb. I didn’t know where and of what gradient, but that didn’t seem to bother me. I called it a night in a small town called Kalaoya. By noon tomorrow I would be in the city with the ancient ruins and the tree that refused to die. The hotel room was nice and comfortable. There was a water dispenser right outside my room so I furiously downed as many cups of chai as I could. Dinner was fish curry and paranthas. I really enjoyed the shift from rice curry to parantha curry. Back in the room, I untangled the mozzi net and played some Simon and Garfinkel to lull me to sleep.
I had the most interesting morning when I woke up. The door to my room led straight to the main hall of the guest house. I walked out in my boxers for a glass of water, only to find a couple hundred people staring at me. I had walked right into a wedding. The lovely couple were at a distance and I couldn’t see them sniggering at me. I quickly filled my glass and ran back into the room. I changed into my cycling bibs and prepared myself for the embarrassment once again. This time, I was greeted with smiles. Everyone likes a bathed, clean and fresh looking boy. Whatever it was, I had a hearty laugh once I left the guest house.
I saw the last of those wretched climbs once I entered Anuradhapuram. The city was draped with small stupas and bits of ruins at every corner. The roads were wide and there was no sign of any traffic. Actually, after I had escaped from the wrath of the traffic in Colombo, life had slowed down on the road. Occassionaly a truck or mini van would drive by. There was no sign of any Tata or maritime car. There were a lot of Toyota Prius’ on the road, which were also used as taxis. People seemed to love their cycles and their was an abundance of them. I was amazed to see a huge array of bikes ranging from steel bikes to BMX bikes. Sometime in the afternoonibfound myself riding along with a young man on a medium sized bike. His seat was too low and I pointed it to him. He smiled and said it was adjusted so he could do wheelies. He happily showed me his wheelie and I was mighty impressed.
Back in Anuramdhapuram, I made my way past the police barricade to the tree. In was topped because my pants weren’t long enough. My bib shorts only covered the thighs and it looked rather inappropriate in this Buddhist complex. Fret not, there was a stall which provided foreigners with lungis to cover themselves. I put one on and headed inside.once inside the complex, I noticed that everyone was dressed in white except the foreigners. I too was wearing my Bianchi Jersey, which was partly white. There was a huge signboard in front of the entrance saying ‘Please dress in whites to respect the holiness of this area.’ I didn’t understand the logic behind that. Then again, I don’t understand the logic behind anything religious.
The tree was a bit of an anticlimax. It wasn’t huge or majestic. I had an image of a huge banyan tree – surrounded by people taking pictures – in my head. With this image in mind, I had walked past the tree thrice in an attempt to find it. Someone finally pointed out to a staircase made of stone with intricate carvings. The tree was in fact held together by the support of these walls. Its branches were so weak that it needed to be held up with gold pillars. It all made sense now. Whoever was in charge had turned the place into a buddist prayer room of sorts. There was a huge statue of the Buddha and people were chanting and praying in front of the massive statue.
I was lucky enough to record a video of a group of South Korean women chant whilst facing the tree. It was truly a beautiful sight. There on, I walked to the Buddist stupa. It was just a bunch of rooms with people praying and chanting. Every room had a fancier statue of the Buddha, and our man didn’t hesitate to try out new and innovative poses. I had had too much of the historic detour and headed back to the exit. It was 3 in the afternoon, the sun had calmed down and I had about 3 hours to ride as far as I could. Thankfully, the road was partially downhill and easy. The headwind was still causing havoc. I couldn’t do anything but keep my head down and keep pedalling. I was now on a single road and the scenery took over as the evenings entertainer. Tall palm trees, coconut trees, mango groves, Apple orchards, patchy lakes and an isolated tarmac.I had learnt from my experience while touring in Maharashtra and made sure I didn’t pluck any fruits. By 6pm, I had entered the small town of Thantirimale. There weren’t any guest houses here and I was directed to the Archeological Museum. This was the only thing this village was known for. Chanakya, the person running the museum told me there weren’t any rooms here and the the house the museum shared its space was occupied by a monk. No chance I’d get a place here. But he was kind enough to sort me out for the night. He took me to Sampaths house. Sampath was a timber trader and his house was stacked with all kinds of axes. I had to pay Sampath 1500 LKR for the room and dinner. The room had no fan and was infested with insects. But I couldn’t complain as my alternative was to camp in the corridor of the museum with my sleeping bag. I smoked myself to sleep as the insects managed to scrape their way through the bed net and all over my skin. It was a hard long night, but one I wouldn’t forget for a while.
Day 4 : Thantirimale – Mannar Island
I pushed off from this tiny village and made way to Mannar Island, which was about 85km from where I stood. There weren’t any climbs, the road was decently flat but trouble came in the form of strong head winds. Slowly, I pushed through the wind, with a quick lunch at a tea shop in Madhu Road. The couple running the place took a fancy for me and the bike. They kept telling me about their kids in London who were trained triathletes. A good meal of fish curry and rice was enough to stock up a decent amount of energy for the rest of the day. With every pedal stroke, the lines between development and the rural wild blurred and soon enough I was the only person on the road.
The outskirts of the island and the main island was connected with a causeway, a two laned road between the ocean. I managed to take a video of the causeway but had a lot of difficulty crossing it. It was 530pm, the ocean currents had taken over and I was a victim of the sea breeze. A 3km stretch took me about 20 minutes to cross. I didn’t seem to mind; where else would I be pedalling on water.
Mannar Island is a beautiful, eerily dry near-peninsula with lots of white sand and palm trees, gulls and terns, wild donkeys, and little lanes and fishing boats. Jutting out into the Palk Strait, the island is only about 30km from India. Because of its location, Mannar Island was hard hit by the war: it was a major exit and entry point to and from India, and became a key host of refugees. The island’s large Muslim population was driven out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990, and some of the land is still mined. The Vavuniya–Mannar road was aggressively fought over, and most of the villages along it were abandoned; bunkers and watchtowers still dot the road at 50m intervals.
As I rolled into Mannar Guest House – wet, exhausted and covered in filth – somehow I had forgotten about the day’s struggles. The elevation, strong head winds, the sun on top and the rains didn’t bother me anymore. I had come alive on these little climbs over the last two days and there was no place I’d rather be in, right here, right now.