With a little help: an ode to Sri Lanka
Four months ago I made a proposal to my parents, asking them to book me a flight to Sri Lanka so I could try and cycle around the island. Well, while you read this, I sit on my couch and I gloat about my experience. The 4 weeks I spent in Sri Lanka weren’t life changing or anything. I haven’t had any epiphany about my journey. It was a numbers game from the start, but things soon changed. 1600 km could have been increased to 2500 or reduced to 1000, the story line would remain much the same. It was a surreal experience, what with the landscape and Island life, and by the end of it all I had learnt a few things on these amazingly paved carpets of tarmac. One lesson that hit me the hardest was of humility. The humility of the People of Sri Lanka. Let me take this opportunity to give my two cents about the lovely community of people I met and all the help I got. Its the people that made the trip, and very often, it was people who knew nothing about a cycle, or an Indian. Hell, some of them couldn’t even speak English. But just with hand gestures, broken English and big smiles, they made sure I was comfortable and at ease.
I am sure that anyone’s travel in a foreign country is deeply affected by the people they meet, as it should be. But this one stands out because getting help whilst on a bicycle is heart warming. It is special.
The Shopkeepers and the Guys at Restaurants. I would usually ride for an hour and fifteen minutes and take a little break at a tea stall. Just the smiles I received and the little bit of conversation while picking my flavour of EGB was enough. They would marvel at the number of Milos I would ask for, come stand next to the bike and check it out front to rear. It wasn’t annoying like it is in India. They didn’t touch the bike or fiddle with anything. Just point at my pump, the bottles and almost always have a laugh when they spotted the extra tyre. It just kept me entertained and made sure my spirits were high. The joints I stopped over for lunch would let me lounge on the chairs like a lazy pig till whenever I wanted. You see, the thing is, when on the bike, one likes to be as comfortable as possible. The physical and mental effort is more than enough to handle. Any other trouble is not welcome. When people didn’t hesitate when I got comfy in their space, I was delighted.
The Couple Whose Wedding I Attended In My Boxers. I am sorry for making a fool of myself at your holy ceremony. The warden had said something about a wedding the night before but it had simply slipped my mind. Thank you for letting me watch you get married in my boxers, waiting for the water to boil for my morning tea. Though I watched from a distance, all eyes were on me, and I’m sure the lucky couple weren’t very amused with the whole situation.
The Cyclists Who Tried To Keep Pace With Me. Every once in a while someone would come along, panting furiously and pedaling with all their energy. Most of these guys were on single speeds, so its understandable that their effort to keep up with me and engage in some sort of conversation was huge. Two such occasions stand out. On the first day, one shortish man rode along the narrow road. When I told him his seat was too low, he said it’s so he could do wheelies. He showed off his wheelie skills and in those 5 minutes, he had managed to entertain me so much that when he turned away from the main road, I was a bit sad when he left. Another, an 8 year old boy cycling back home from the grocery store. He puffed and puffed but eventually made sure he was side by side with me. He demanded we take a selfie and for the next 2 km he kept staring at this alien bike that I was on and how smoothly it was moving as compared to his old rig.
The Motorcyclists Who Didn’t Try To Kill Me. In India, it is common for a cyclist to be followed by a motorcyclist. They first stalk you from behind, to get a straight view of the bike. Then they ride right next to you. It is bloody dangerous, as they refuse to move when traffic from the other end gets busy. They then go on to asking questions – How much is the bike for? Why are you doing this? How fast can you go? Are you alone? What is that? Once all these questions have been answered, they stay silent and just look at their speedometer, then at me. 25km an hour?! 30 km an hour?! These speeds tickle their curiosity and after about ten minutes, they finally leave. Its annoying, its dangerous, and above all, it just throws you off. I expected the same to happen in Sri Lanka. But it never happened. I got so bothered that they gave me my space. I tried to sprint and catch up with a few of them, hoping that I would catch their fancy. Sadly, it never happened, and for that, I am very grateful.
Sunimal, the Guide. On one of my Milo breaks, I was sitting in this fancy, open-air restaurant with funky music. After ten minutes, a bus stopped and out came a bunch of old people, all foreigners. With them, was Sunimal, their guide. He said he’ll help these guys to lunch and come have a chat with me, which he did. When I was leaving, he gave me a 1000 bucks and said, ‘treat yourself to a fancy meal!’ I made that money last for the next one and a half days, but it wasn’t about the money. I was so moved by his gesture. Im not sure if it was him or one of the Austrians I had spoken to, but it was moving. This had never happened before. I was pretty dumbfounded initially, but i found my footing and pretended to act casually. Once back on the bike, I looked back to see if they could see me. They couldn’t. And there it was. Tears rolling down my cheeks. One after the other. I couldn’t understand why. Goosebumps all around, really! I wasn’t short on money, and it didn’t make my life any easier. But it was a great gesture. It was moments like this that made my tour so positive, and for that I am very grateful.
Free Food and Drinks. There were many times when people refused to take my money. Free lunch, free chai and free coke. It was really sweet. I was never short on money and tried to pay for my meals but the locals weren’t having any of it. I had to work hard for the free service, not that I had a master plan to get treated. A good conversation followed by deep philosophical thoughts usually did the trick. Sometimes, jokes.
The Woodcutter and The Archeologist. When I landed up in Thantirimale, a small village with a population less than 500, I knew there was no chance I’d find a hotel. I headed to the museum, the village’s only claim to fame. But there was no space for me. Chanakya, the night manager, ran some rounds and made a few calls. Eventually, he set me up with Sampath, a woodcutter who was willing to share his abode with me for the night. Had it not been for them, I’d likely have spent the night at the bus stand. Not tonight!
The iPod. Boy, oh boy! Probably the greatest instrument that I carried with me. Even when my phone cracked and refused to work, this little guy kept me entertained to the very end. All those playlists which were fine tuned to every mood and every form of terrain. On the climbs – Flume or Oasis to push me on. Along the beach – Chet Faker or Neon Indian – just to keep the vibe flowing. Amidst heavy street traffic – George Ezra and Muse – music I can sing along and distract myself from the cars. It was funny, the sight of me shouting out ‘Our time is running out, our time is running out’ at the time of my voice at a red light. In the rain – The XX, Simon and G, CCR, Verve, AM. For everything else, Gorillaz. And so on.
The Locals. The tuk tuk drivers who helped me fix my chain in the middle of a sunny afternoon. They all failed, but the effort was well applauded. The fifth tuk tuk driver, who let me tag along till the next bike shop, one hand on the bike, the other helplessly holding onto his tuk tuk. The pizzeria cook working in France, who let me get excited about the Tour, Champs Ellises, Mount Ventoux and everything else I loved about that country one more time. Harsha, the boy at the bike shop in Colombo. He did a great job with my bike, lended me his bottle cage and cleaned my hub even though I insisted it was fine. I could feel the difference the moment I got on. Good on you, Harsha! Anne’s husband, who ran the guest house in Hambantota. Anne’s guesthouse was run by a Buddhist whose name I have penned down somewhere, but i prefer to remember him by Anne’s Husband. He had named his sweet little homestay after his wife, who was out travelling. He insisted I chill with him for a while. Anne’s Husband was an honest man. He was honest about his fascination with the bike, his love for the hotel and how much he loved his life. Last one, Husband. Husband and Wife ran the hostel I stayed at in Galle. Husband saw how tired I was when I walked in, and offered me tea and snacks. No charge, as usual. Even the morning tea was on him. He even sat with us for a bit and indulged in our intense talks of the afterlife. Nah…he wasn’t too keen.
All Those Thambilis. A King Coconut, or thambili in Singalese, was the perfect drink on a sunny day out, which was usually the case every day. King Cocos are mostly found in Sri Lanka, and the nectar is tastier and more in quantity than the green ones we get in India. On average – whenever I was going along the coast -I’d have about 7 king cocos per day. It was an obsession.
The Steady Flow of Foreigners. As much as I’d like to thank the locals, it was also the outsiders, much like me, who made life slightly easier for me. Ale, the Italian bartender I met in Colombo. I don’t know if it was a coincidence, but we flew in around the same date, stayed in the same hostel dorm and our flights back home were exactly at the same time on the same day. 930pm. When I returned to Colombo, Alessio was eagerly waiting for me. He wanted to share all his stories with me and a j by the beach. With Liam Gallaghers voice blaring from his Samsung phone. What a sight! Wolfgang, the 70 year old Austrian cyclist who couldn’t stop telling his friends about the young Indian cyclist he’d just met! That was lovely. Then, for a while there weren’t any foreingers on the road as i took the path less travelled, literally. Hardly anyone goes up North, towards Jaffna. It was only in Arugam Bay that I met some more travellers. At my hostel, I shared a few beers with Tyler, an American surfer who painted houses for work and used up all that money for travelling. He had been travelling for a few years and had much to share about his time in Bangladesh. He had done some social work with the people there and had made a positive impact on their lives. The lady at the bar had to push us out, it was terribly late and she wasn’t willing to entertain us any longer.
Then came a massive inflow of foreigners at Mirissa – the party capital. I stayed at Hangover Hostels, hosted by Max and Tuan. Two volunteers – Faiz and Simone – were also helping out. They were lovely hosts. Petr, the Czech who taught me all the important phrases in Singhalese. Alexandre, the Frenchman who was so happy when he missed his train and I missed my whale watching session. Clearly, we weren’t morning people. Faiz, the Pakistani, who wowed me with his eloquent use of Hindi. There was so much respect in his tone, unlike what we hear in the streers. It was mixed with Urdu, so naturally it sounded pleasant. Carl and Meg, the English couple. Carl helped me figure out what was wrong with my bike but we couldn’t quite fix it. Nicholas, the Welshman who I bumped into during lunch. We ended up chilling for the rest of the day, and he fixed up my bike in no time. He had a way with the bike that I’d never seen before. Even Raju at the bikestore on MG Road seemed like an amateur in front of this Welshman. I would love to have such great control over my vehicle some day! Nick was from a small town near Barry Island, an even smaller town in Whales. We probably spent a half hour talking about Gavin and Stacy, Smithy and Uncle Bryn. Oh man! Gavlaaar!
The Indian couple at the hostel was super fun, Esha and Ankur. Everyone was laid back in this town, and it was all about the beer here. What a life! Talking to all these people, it was a good change. We could share our stories, ask all sorts of questions, no strings attached. More importantly, I got to meet people from all across the world. English, Dutch, Danish, Welsh, Norwegian, Aussie, German, Belgian, Pakistani. And so on.
LVITUP. A special mention to the group of people I met in Galle. It was the last day of my tour and i was a little shaky. I couldn’t understand what I was feeling like. I wanted to end the tour, but ending the tour would mean no more of what I’d just done. It was a melancholic feeling, but it didn’t stay around for too long. Beth, Jason, Helen and George. First three Aussie, the last an Englishman. They were just so charming and entertaining, but not in the party-party way. We each got our beers and Helen stuck to orange juice and a free flow of rollies. The conversation I had with them that night was emphatic, it was unimaginable. I was in the company of a forensic psychologist, a community developer, a holder of three BA degrees and a welder. And boy did we have a laugh. The hostel was tucked away in a corner of the city, and we spent a long time sharing all our adventures. Most importantly, I was able to speak of the cause I had intended to initially. But with all the cycling, I had completely forgotten about it. I had intended to speak about mental illness to atleast one person, and here I had 4 people with their ears wide open, eyes staring at me, full attention. I received a lot of love that night. We all marvelled at the diversity of the night. And so on.
What is LVITUP? The number plate on Helen’s new BMW. What a gal!
John, the Seller of Souls. I doubt John will ever come across this, so it’s cool. While lunching at an Indian restaurant, I offered John the Lebanese a seat at my sea facing table. He was on his phone most of the time, but when I found out what he did for a living and what he was doing in Sri Lanka, I was a bit dumb founded. More on this in the next blog. Anyway, John treated me to the meal. Gesture for gesture, surely!
The Indian at the Airport. I stood in the queue at the Bombay airirport. As usual I was having a tussle with the staff. Something about oversized baggage. That word scares me. Oversized. It carried with it a suffix best described by excessive amounts of money. These scheming twats always tried to fleece innocent cyclists like me as soon as they spot a huge carton. Anyway, I was in the middle of a quarrel when a voice behind me said, ‘Are you going to the Tour of Nilgiris?’ Of course I wasn’t. I turned around and saw a carton just like mine. Subhash was a cyclist who was on his way to his first TFN. It is India’s biggest and most respected long distance race. I too, aim on racing in the Nilgiris some day. Here I was, face to face with yet another cyclist. I had had enough of meeting new people and exchanging stories. They had become repetitive and dull. I just wanted to be home and Youtube until my internet ran out. And again. But it wasn’t so with Subhash. Instead, I helped him with his round of quarrelling with the staff. We discussed the beauty of tour biking (he being one himself). It was overwhelming to meet such exciting people, people that you look out for, ones that you won’t come across in your day to day life. Running into like-minded people is so damn cool. I have started building a community of touring bikers and Subhash was the latest inductee of my fictitious group.
I don’t know the names of most of the people who helped me get along. Didn’t get a picture either. Its just the memory that’s going to last for a while. And this blog, of course.
Well there you have it.