Greetings from Sri Lanka!
Finally, somewhere other than Hong Kong. While I have very much enjoyed my time in Hong Kong, my feet were definitely getting itchy to get back on the road and moving again.
Sri Lanka is the first country I can remember as a kid understanding was a different place. Like, really understanding that it was a different place, with a different culture. In 5th grade I was obsessed with the Mayans (and Oregon Trail), but in 6th grade, we had a project for which we had to choose a country to study. Everyone picked Mexico or Canada or England. I have no recollection of what made me choose Sri Lanka (I was probably trying to be “cool” and just picked from the map), but I’ve been a bit entranced ever since.
“Sri Lanka is beautiful, but difficult.” A lesson I would certainly learn throughout the week.
I started in Negombo, the closest city to the airport, because my flight got in pretty late. I walked the beach, but didn’t swim, as I had been warned about leaving stuff on the beach to go in the water. The waves crashed on my feet, I tried to avoid stepping on washed up jellyfish, dogs napped in the sun and little boys rode their bikes around. It was exactly as I’d hoped it would be.
I was approached by several men on the beach, to chat, to buy souvenirs and I assumed, to practice lewd phrases they’d never said to women before. In less than a day I lost my desire to talk with locals. Worse, in the hostel, a group of us were chatting and two women finishing their trip were counting down the hours until their flight and didn’t plan on leaving the hostel until then. They were so exhausted from 9 days of being heckled and harassed that they would rather sit in a hot, un air conditioned hostel, than face it any more.
The country’s reputation is showing its face. I worried. But surely, it couldn’t be that bad, right?
The next day I decided that though the trains are meant to be absolutely stunning, this would be the country that I would conquer by motor bike. I’ve been wanting to rent a scooter and cruise around a country for so long, but have been to scared and worried about distance and time. Everyone with a bike in Vietnam and Thailand also has a cast, sling or, at minimum, plenty of bumps, cuts and bruises. But a smaller country with less traffic seemed much less intimidating. It was decided. I would rent the bike, take it down the west coast, and then back up through the mountainous middle, before returning to fly out.
The first afternoon was a short trip, just to the southern part of Colombo. This would allow me to get an early start the next day without having to go through the hectic capital city on a Monday morning. On the ride there, I started to get a feel for the bike. But it would prove difficult. Rolling blackouts that had started the evening before meant that I barely had power on my phone (my access to a map) and that when the twilight faded, it would be difficult to see anything.
I didn’t know at the time, but hardly any women ride bikes in Sri Lanka. In the whole week that I was on mine, I saw 4 other women driving, and 2 other women riding. This meant I stood out. On the way to Colombo, men slowed their bikes down or sped up to talk to me. Of most concern was that I didn’t want to be distracted while driving, but I also felt immediately vulnerable, without the shell of a vehicle to protect me. How bad could it be, you ask? The “conversation” typically went: [guy slows bike down] “Hi. Where are you from?” “United States.” “Do you like sex?”
That blunt and that quick. Because of the bike and the blackouts, I was worried at how exposed I was (not literally, I was totally covered up to hide from the sun). I cried. Because I was angry and a little scared. Are these guys going to ruin Sri Lanka for me? It got darker and I got more worried. But I found a hotel running a generator, charged my phone for a bit and got back on track. I was pissed off about the lewd advances and tired from the day, but determined to let Sri Lanka be my own experience, not anyone else’s (especially not the ladies in the hostel).
The drive down the coast is incredible. At many points, the road is so close to the water that you feel spray as the waves crash. The freedom of the bike meant that I could stop as much as I wanted to take in the sights, or, as was often needed, reapply sunscreen.
Driving in Sri Lanka is in itself an experience. They drive on the left side of the road, as long as it’s convenient. But when cars and buses and bikes and pedal bikes and tuk tuks share the road, it’s just chaos. But it somehow works. If a car is stopped for a pedestrian and they aren’t sure you can see them, the driver will put his arm out the window and wave it to make sure you stop. There’s lots of honking and hardly any rules. It’s amazing how much better that seems to work when everyone is just expected to pay attention.
After stopping in the Dutch fort town of Galle to explore the amazing coastline, the drive down the coast finished in the renowned Mirissa. Which, if I’m honest, was pretty underwhelming. It didn’t seem to be much special and was more expensive than the nearby Weligama, which seemed to have a cool vibe when I drove through it, so I went back.
One thing I didn’t know or expect was that Sri Lanka is a major surf destination. I hadn’t taken a lesson since Peru in 2014, so I figured it was time. I was not very successful and my instructor had the patience of an angel, but I had a lot of fun. And I think we cracked it right as my lesson finished. I was tempted to stay there until I got a hang of surfing, but that would mean skipping the inland of the country, so I ran off, showered and got on the bike before I could look back at the beach and tempt myself.
I felt pretty comfortable navigating the roads of Sri Lanka because I had gotten a SIM card, so I had Google Maps in my ear, keeping me on track. I also downloaded a disco playlist from Spotify to enjoy on the ride. Don’t worry, I was only one earphone in and low volume so that it wasn’t a distraction from driving. But on the way inland, Google Maps got a little confused.
I know, I know. It’s the end user’s responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on and you can’t blame an app when you walk off a bridge. At first I thought she was just taking me on a road with a dodgy part. I figured it would get better. It did not. I contemplated turning around several times, but there wasn’t really any way to do that with the slope of the road and I knew it would be just as tough to go back as it was to get there. The only way out was through.
I ended up in the forest, sun setting, moisture on the ground, getting the bike through dirt and rocks. At several points I was off the bike, shoeless, using all my strength to push it up over boulders and get it out of mud. It was, in short, absolutely miserable.
This is the point in the story where a decision needs to be made. And when you’re traveling alone, it’s on you and only you to make it. One side of you says, I’m tough, I’m strong, I can do this. The other side says, sh*t have you seen all those Facebook posts from parents who haven’t heard from their kids in weeks and don’t even know where to start looking??? I decided to meet in the middle. Because I had the SIM card and the slightest of signal, it meant I could get a Facebook message out. I chose someone who is also a traveler, so I knew that she would both take my message seriously and not freak out. She’s also connected and savvy with how to engage the right people in such a situation.
I didn’t end up needing her help, but was really glad to know that the cookie crumbs were laid if I needed to be found. Tough day on the bike in the books and I settled into my accommodation in Hatton, after coordinating a tuk tuk to arrive at 3:30 am.
Adam’s Peak is a trek of significance to the world’s four most prominent religions. It juts out above the rest of the mountains and is an incredible sight from the ground and from the hike. It is terrible. I mean, it’s beautiful and stunning and all that, but it is also basically 3 hours straight up on a stair machine. When I was prepping for it, everything I read said it was “easy.” I cursed these people on the way down and decided to make a video after, assuming that they wrote about it with the rose tinted lenses of memories after healed muscles. It was on the hike up that I met a Lankan who has been living in Texas for 5 years. As we huffed up and took in the sights, he summed up my trip, “Sri Lanka is beautiful, but difficult.”
Most people start the trek between 2:00 and 3:00 am to get to the summit before sunrise. I started at 4:00 and caught an incredible sunrise. I was surprised to see people finishing their hike (and back down) as I was getting started. It seems like if you’re up in the middle of the night like that, you should at least get the sunrise. But they weren’t there for a hike and a view; they were there to make a pilgrimage important to their religion and to worship. Everyone smiled and said good morning. The side benefit to starting a hike in the middle of the night is that the way down is just as surprising and beautiful as the way up, because you couldn’t see anything before. By 10:00 I was back down and guzzling a fresh coconut, ready for a nap.
From Adam’s Peak I headed to Kandy, which is said to be the “cultural” city of Sri Lanka. I requested a room on the ground floor, knowing that my legs probably couldn’t take stairs after the mountain, time on the bike and surfing. I got in town just a bit too late to see the Kandy dancers. While the dance is very interesting, reviews from TripAdvisor and from others at the hostel made me happy I missed it. Sounds like watching it on YouTube is the better way to see a good dance.
Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth, which I visited along with literally thousands of school children. Many were on trips from all over the country to worship. I also headed to a national park where I thought I would enjoy a quick hike to loosen up my legs. I got a great view of the city and when faced with a fork in the trail, I took the one with a bit of incline, thinking I shouldn’t cop out. When the upper trail seemed to end, I thought I could just go down the hill where I would eventually meet the lower trail. BAD ASSUMPTION. This steep hill was covered with slippery leaves, so I was slowly swinging using branches to brace and hold up my body. At one point I fell and did that cool move that you see in the movies and think is total bullsh*t because no one could really do it of sliding and grabbing a tree branch to save the fall.
Did I mention all of this is happening in flip flops? To the person who stole my sneakers in Hong Kong, I hate you. I hope that you really needed them and they brought you something positive enough to make up for the hell that was me not having them.
The ride from Kandy to Dambulla was short and meant to be on smooth roads. Google Maps got cheeky again, but not as bad. This time, she took me through winding, although bumpy, roads through tea plantations. It was nothing short of stunning. The women working the farms each waved, smiles lighting up their faces, shouting “hello” as I drove by. Either they caught me singing and dancing disco as I went, or were excited just to see me. Either way, it was a far cry from the “welcoming” I was getting on the bike earlier in the week and I was elated.
Dambulla would be my last visit and was a short ride to Sigiriya in the morning. Sigiriya is said to be the 8th Wonder of the World and is beautiful. Another set of stairs to climb to get the top of a huge rock? Great. I got there right at 7:00 when it opened to avoid the crowds and heat, and because I would still have 4 hours on the bike to get back into town for my flight.
Unlike Adam’s Peak, the grounds were basically empty. It was a tough, but quicker hike up and the payoff was incredible. When I reached the top, there were two other people up. Slowly more trickled up, but it was such a sweet feeling to have the space to ourselves. On the way back down, I chuckled to myself as the swarms of people were headed up. Had they just gotten up an hour earlier…
Another 4 hours on the bike dodging tuk tuks and buses, trying not to inhale too much exhaust and I was back in Negombo. Bike returned, showered up and ready to head to the airport. But not a tuk tuk in sight. Of course, when there are usually drivers everywhere hawking for a ride, a religious procession was starting, blocking the street. I headed off to keep in front of it and find a driver on a side street. He dodged around it, raced off and like that, I was out of the procession, at the airport and headed to the Maldives.