Final day negombo

Today is scorching. The sand too hot to walk on at midday, my neck feeling burnt. I have a long day to fill till my 3am flight. So far it’s languid. An early morning stroll along the shore from my guesthouse past beached catamarans and men under thatched shelters mending fishing nets. Nice not needing to wear anything on my feet as I step out, but I’m wary of walking in the water as I seem to have got an infected cit on my ankle. My breakfast is my second visit to grace’s juice bar where I’m am introduced to more fruits ive ever come across before. She prides herself on providing fruits nowhere eels does. I have an ambrrella and soursop mix.

I spend the rest of the morning in a patch of shade next to some fancy resort where westerners lie on clean sun loungers batting away the hawkers or lording over them from their reclined position like Egyptian queens yeah ing or nayimg a succession of bright dresses and saris the local women produce from bags a nd spread out on the sand. It feels a bit alien to me, but there is no. Shade anywhere else. A helicopter comes in to land further along the beach, depositing guests at an even fancier place.
Last night I spend an hour or so after dark with Dave and Donna on the beach with beer, sitting on a parked boat. Behind us was a party at a hotel. A stage, a do, dancing, bright lights., Sri Lankan techno, sounding both Africana and West Indian, rockets fired into the air, flashes of smoke and light from fireworks illuminating the distant dancing figures and their cars. Ex decide to approach, aware already grooving, but the party is small and it’s all men, so Donna going gangnam style is likely to get a lot of unwanted attention. So, we keep our distance as the party unwinds
Today is a good indulgence day, and getting rid of my cash. Lunch again at Edwin’s, this time a green leaf curry, a bitter cucumber one. Now at ice bear cafe, a colonial mansion light and airy Strauss or Mozart plays. waiting for my ice cream: brandy, cinnamon, cashew, honey flavours. I’ve just been scooting around the harbour, two guys chopping up tuna on wood blocks amid a sea of drying silver fish and a wasteland of fish heads being picked over by crows and cormorants. I cycle around the fishermens house and suddenly hear a hello in my ear as a young boy has jumped on the back of my bike for a quick ride. The harbour is sleepy, the boats are in. Men doze in the boats or fix nets.
The beach is collier, windier, fine sand stings as it sidling on my back. A fisherman tries to sell me the jaw bone complete with razor sharp teeth of a 20 kg shark. So how would that fit in my luggage? A guy from kandy chats with me and has my pic taken with him. I have to sort out his phone for him to send me the photo. The sun slips down, never quite making the horizon once more. The end of my daylight in Sri Lanka. Back at graces juice bar I have bello and pineapple mix and spend some time talking with. Bulgarian couple about football. Just before I leave grave makes me a present of 3 wood apples.

Finding Dave and Donna is as easy as cycling done the street. I arrange to meet them in Edwin’s again, as I return the bike. The old woman at the guest hous asks me each time is see her where I’m from. After paying for the bike she even asks for money for herself. A guesthouse owner begging for goodness sake. I have a dosa which really isn’t too good, thick and gooey rather than paper thin and crisp.weshare some more beers,catch the end of some performance outside the church, then see Liverpool lose to Chelsea in a bar.
I’m now at the airport. 2.41 and pretty damn tired.
A splendid post script. After a tiring groggy 18 hours getting to gatwick I’m informed my bag wasn’t loaded. I’m without warm shows, socks, rain coat and worst of all, no door keys. My phone is out of juice and when I do get some small charge I can’t get hold of Fran who has my keys.useless. I phone my letting agency bit they are closing early so I can’t get keys from them. I’m cold, hungry, jetlagged, want to go to bed.but even getting to Brighton is a nightmare. No trains from gatwick, and I queue in the cold outside the airport with a growing mass of very disgruntled newly landed holiday makers.there is no system and a weedy Marshall thanking us for waiting. 30 mins there then another wait at 3 bridges for a slow train. I still have no idea how I will get into my flat. Oh and the conversations on the bus. A one legged squaddie prattling om to the driver about traffic and bills and getting pissed with his mates. I don’t care. Shut the hell up. Give me a crowded srilankan bus instead. How dare they make me pay the normal rail fare for this debacle. It is not good to be back.

Negombo 2

A good sleep followed bya. Cycle along the main road past Hindu temples, juice shops, cheap samosa stalls and churches to the fish market. Old women crouched by their plastic sheets with tiddlers, men at butcher blocks chopping the larger catch, a cluster of curious men and boys surveying a 70cm ray of some kind. Seems nobody knows what to do with it. Beyond on the beach are sheets of small silver fish laid out to dry under the right sun. By. The shore the small boatsarelandi g their catches and teas of me and old women are shank out the nets. Women and men are gutting and sorting larger fishes further along. Catches are ferried by pairs of men by baskets on poles to the sea edge to be washed. Everyone is working fast and the bosses are circulating and handing out pay.

The town is divided into tourist strip, commercial main road, a market full of fabric shops and residential streets stretching along the canal and shore of the lagoon, larger fishing boats moored here. I see home made nativities of straw, plastic figures and fairy lights at many street corners, some constructed on abandoned boats. I see small boys crossing themselves as they pass the crucifixes at junctions.
Back at Lewis place I have a juice in a place run by a half Filipino family which has a variety of fruits new to me. Must go back there. My dinner cum lunch at Edwin’s restaurant is a very. Good and interesting curry and rice which includes a pineapple and soya korma type affair. I catch up with Dave and Donna on a stretch of the beach near some fancy hotels. The sea is refreshing, the surfs.aps you hard and is bracing. A wedding banquet is being set up on the beach, photos of the bridal pair taken at sun down by some catamarans. Some ponies are ridden by, Russians on sand mobiles drive up and down. We play cricket with some locals in underpants by the waters edge as the sun descends turning into a glowing orange disc, disappearing into cloud just a before it hits the horizon. There are quite a few hawkers with Xl polo shirts,saris, shorts, necklaces. Closer to the road is a guy with a monkey on a chain and a cobra which he offers to tourists to hold. A couple of cocktails later, I’m back at the guesthouse which is deserted. The soundtrack is fire crackers and the roar of the increasing waves.

Negombo

Reached negombo by bus from Anuradhapura, a local bus described as semi luxury. I don’t really understand that definition. Maybe it was driven faster, maybe because I was able to take luggage with me. Regardless it was crowded with many people standing in the aisle, and hot and airless when crawling through the towns. I closed my eyes and absorbed the sounds and physical sensations. The whirl of the Diesel engine, the rush of the breeze through the open door at the front, the sway and swerve as it cut out then cut in around traffic invisible to me in the thick of the crowd. The bass heavy groove of singhalese dance music. When I shift to the windows seat I can lean out but the air is so hot and the sunlight scorching at midday. I see in the side mirror the face of a moustachioed brightly coloured shirted driver in whom I have trusted my safety.
Negombo is a busy road full of guesthouses and more upmarket hotels, occasional fake xmas trees festooned with lights, and flimsy nativity scenes. There are churches here too. My guest house has Xmas decorations, and a catholic shrine too. There are many options to stay. The first two I look at are dirty, smelly, unpleasant. The third is extravagant and costly. I settle for a family home stay guesthouse at the end of the row on the beach. A curious old woman with 4 teeth constantly milling around. I have at tv, not that I need it, but later watch highlights from yesterday’s premiership. The beach itself is grubby, firework debris and assorted packaging lie around, the tide leaving black rings on the sandy shore.almost immediately my attempt to chill out is disturbed by a hawker opening his bags of necklaces and carved elephants, spreading them out on the sand in front of me and refusing to understand the words ” I don’t want to buy anything”. He finally gets lost, disappointed. I do mangea. Read and a doze. A wind builds and I rouse myself just before sunset, the beach is busier and some groups of locals are playing cricket.
I managed to track down Dave and Donna finally. Having located their guesthouse and got through to the staff who barely spoke any English that I wanted to leave a message, we hol up in the evening to have dinner and beer, trade stories and compare tans.
Back at the guest house is talk to the boss, who calls himself Adrain and for the first time I meet a local who openly criticises the government. He complains about the scarcity and price of protein foods such as cheese and meat, laments the cost of attractions to and thus the negative imapct this has on tourism. He calls the president a war president and even compares his behaviour and publicity ( the images you see everywhere) to sadaam. His friends are in agreement.

Christmas Day and Boxing Day

I’m on a big rock. In fact it’s a mass of enormous granite boulders which feel clumsily tumbled together by some giant. Trees twist In and out casting pools of shade. A small flat lizard with an orange head scampers by. This is called the 68 caves and all the gaps between these massive lumps. Were at one time hermitage meditation spots for monks.the view is extensive I am high up. But there is never silence. I can hear the old car horn honking of the ice cream seller and occasionally the wafting insidious annoy of the official at the mini tale site. The early after noon sun is hot, I’m drenched in sweat, a gentle breeze flows.
The minhitale site was a limb up a lot of stones it into the rock face. Apparently 1800 of them, but it felt less. Atthe enclosure at the top there are a number of peaks. The dagbola with more steps and a viewing platform that pilgrims ate queuing to access.an enormous white stupa,another peak with a plain white Buddha. It would be very calm and peaceful were it not for the described tan oh. I understand not a word, and the voice is staccato and dreary. These are not prayers.announcements of some sort.
It’s been a religious Christmas, at least in terms of the places I’ve been. Christmas afternoon was spent at the oldest tree in the world. A venerated 2000 year old boddi tree, a destination for barefoot white bedecked singhalese Buddhists and orange robed monks. There was a lot of groups praying together, chanting together, making flower offerings to the tree. I met a curious group of women, two nuns of some kind, in similar robes to the monks, sitting in the conversation hall peeling back the petals of lotus buds, dipping them in fresh water, preparing them for the pilgrims to leave at the alters. A parade is beginning led by small boys carrying cushions of white lotus flowers and elderly monks with yellow parasols, A long long roll of fabric, striped like prayer flags is unrolled and carried overhead by hundreds of pilgrims chanting satu satu sat. The procession is hundreds of metres long and winds around the tree, pilgrims jumping in and also clasping the flag, then leaves through the gate in the direction of another sacred site. The lotus women exchange addresses with me. This is becoming common. The following day an 11 year old boy gives me his number and tells me to call him. An old man at the parade asks me to send him photos.

Now out of site I can hear military drummingand marching sounds. What is happening? Could it be something to do with the masses of young soldiers I saw lounging in the park before the car park to the mihintale site?
Back at the carpark I have. Fresh coconut and chat with a guide who agrees that the tourist charges to the sites in Sri Lanka are far too high. I roll down the hill and look for the place he tells me about, black water. I find this after climbing a path through a forest, past some monk houses cut into the rock and lifting some tree branches to pass under. I emerge in an area of ruins next to a water tank, the water deep, dark, reflecting the huge boulders and hills scattered around. On the other site is a little island with the ruins of a temple. It’s very peaceful, quiet, empty, perfect. A young boy in a black shirt calls out to me from a rock then runs after me and starts a rudimentary conversation. He takes my picture, then walks with me to introduce me to his mother who is sitting on a wall next to the reservoir. We chat and then his other 2 brothers and father appear. More talk. The boy wants to take lots of photos. The family are from Matara and invite me there next time I’m here.
The ride back into town is incident free. Everyone calls out hello to me, the odd white curio. This is a country where people still stop to watch train passing and kids wave at them.
At the guesthouse I learn from the owner that the bicycle mystery hs been solved and the missing bike, the one I borrowed 2 days ago, has returned. The story is complicated and it transpires that I did take someone else’s bike when I was at the gin shop. The story was put together by the guy working there. My bike sat unlocked abandoned at the store for 2 days, then was stolen by a junkie today. The shops CCTV, identified this guy, helped them retrieve the bike, them they worked out it was mine from older CCTV. The guy remembered that I had asked directions or my guest house, so they phoned them and the bike got returned. I’m amazed. I’m amazed that it hadn’t been stolen over 2 days, that they use CCTV here, but most of all that I did in fact screw up. I was swearing categorically that I couldn’t have taken the wrong bike. I was sure I was riding the same bike. Being lost that night clearly scrambled my brain. Alls well that ends well, I guess.

Christmas in Anuradhapura

It’s Christmas Day and I have a hangover, as expected from the cheap local lemon flavoured gin I shared last night with Simone, a French guy from Strasbourg who is travelling around on a shoestring. He has stories of losing his passport in India, sleeping rough and being robbed in Greece. A sad story of his father disappearing at sea after an argument a few years ago. Boat found, but no body.
Last nights dinner at the lake view guesthouse was really delicious. The usual rice and curry. As usual a huge mountain of rice, far to big for 1 or even 2 people. In small bowls: Dahl, pumpkin and coconut, green bean, aubergine…actually I can remember all the curry dishes, or recognize the vegetables.
The journey here was quite swift and I settled on this guest house pretty fast. It’s family run, is low key, and should have been easy to find last night on my bicycle, but once more I became disorientated and the several people I asked for help were unable to read my map, or thinking they were being helpful gave me wrong information, or due to poor English were unable to explain adequately. It was dark,very dark and only 7pm, roads with few landmarks and far too many roundabouts with statues on for me to be confident that that was the one tha I needed. At the significant elephant roundabout ( it has a big elephant statue in the middle), a guy on a motorbike pulls up and right on the junction oblivious to the traffic engages me in a very broken conversation. He wants me to come and see his office, he is a doctor at the hospital, he wants my phone number, address, he wants to know about my family. He shakes my hand many times and restarts this one sided conversation several times before I am able to get away.
There is a mystery to solve after dinner. I parked my rented bicycle at the guest house in plain view of the terrace. As the owner is putting away the bikes she notices that one of her bikes has been replaced with an alien yellow one, which also has gears and different brakes. She reckons I must have mistakenly got on the wrong bike and ridden off with it on my way back. I’m adamant that this is impossible. Her husband even takes me out on my route back to see if I can spot their missing silver bike. Of course this is fruitless. It is 11 pm and anyway, I know I brought back the right bike. We don’t solve this problem. Someone else is responsible, not me..but who could have done this and why? The upshot is that the guest house now has a new and possibly better bike.
This mirrors an experience earlier when one of the Nepalese monks I meet finds that his flip flops have been taken and an identical but smaller size pair have been left in their place. I met these monks yesterday afternoon on my bike trip trying to find some free attractions. It was raining on and off, and my first encounter was with a plain clothes police officer who engaged mein conversation when I paused to watch a motorbike training course : guys weaving around 5 orange traffic cones on a patch of land next to a roundabout. The usual questions: country, family.married, if I like Sri Lanka, then more interestingly we talked about his job, which is to train and educate drivers. We compared notes on the horrendous driving habits of the bus drivers in Sri Lanka. The west side of the city has an open landscape of empty roads going to stupa sing rebuilt or already reconstructed, a cave temple in front of a lily pond, which I pay to enter, and it’s no great shakes. Like every monument in Sri Lanka there are bus loads of locals in their white clothes. At the lake further on, I see them disembarking to eat wadi and bathe in the waters en masse. The roads pass through paddies complete with egrets and storks, and past military compounds. Guarded roads blocked with yellow barriers, barbed wire empty machine gun posts. There isn’t all that much worth seeing around her, but the whole atmosphere is kind of bizarre. As I begin to head back I spy a cluster of 5 yellow and red cloaked monks shuffling along the road towards me under umbrellas. As we pass they call out hello and where are you going and I ask them the same back. We begin to chat and they persuade me to come with them to their nearby monastery, which takes a long time to get to, owing to their languid pace, our confused conversation and the avoidance of shortcuts across sodden paddy.

They are all 18, from Nepal and are studying here in Sri Lanka for 5 years, I think. They don’t have the dignified comportment you might expect from people devoted to a life of religion and austerity. They share savoury snacks with me, pouring them into my hands, and offer me bites of red lollies. They drop the wrappers, uncaring by the side of the road. The reason being that there is no rubbish bin. I’m sure also that they should be much stricter and not eat at this time. In one respect one is strict, as he declines my invitation for him to ride my bike. Lord Buddha forbids their driving of vehicles. I attempt to do a little interview with them. They struggle with English, though insist they want to improve. 2 of the boys want to talk the others too shy or unable. We exchange email addresses, and will become Facebook friends. Their monastery also has military guards.its quite a new building, 35 years old, with a massive white Buddha siting under a roof which lessens the impact. They invite me into the base of this statue to look at the illustrated through crude and childish wall paintings and painted models the story of the life of Buddha. I particularly remember the big eyed blue devils that looked like something from a children’s book, comic rather than scary. We are In a long white chamber which is sweatily hot, the statues and pictures are strangely behind metal grills like animals in a zoo.i teach the guys some words they should know, like temptation, resist, reincarnation. Then we walk around the stupa and they ask me what my biggest problem is… We talk about striving to improve oneself, about dissatisfaction. Then they take me into another room called heaven. More statues and paintings around a central white column. The piece de resistance comes when they ask me to stand in front of a black window in this column in a cubicle sectioned off by a gold curtain. One of the monks drops a coin into a box attached to the wall, and I see the craziest thing in the window. There are flashing fairy lights and wax work like statues of the Buddha reflected into infinity by mirrors on all sided in the chamber in the centre of the column. It is a cross between a gaudy Christmas light display and a scene from twin peaks. It’s so funny I can’t contain my laughter. The monks think it’s great too, but I’m sure they don’t share my reference points. It’s quite sad when we say goodbye. I don’t know how to say goodbye to a monk. Do we wai? I try this, but this seems to be a Thai habit. Shaking hands with a monk is not a done thing either, so we just wave. The dark skinned silent one gives me a handful of crunchy fruits. They look like marzipan pears.

Leaving kandy for Dambulla

Getting out of kandy was pretty tiring, and my patience has been tested a little. Breakfast was a wood apple lassi, a vegetable bun and a jam bun, both eaten on the bus later. I buy some local cardamon and am surprised by the price. There is a bull cart delivering vegetables, like something from the Middle Ages.
There is a scruffy tiring road where scruffy crowded buses are filling up. None of them have a sign for my chosen destination. Many in fact only have signs in singhalese, which I look at blankly. An elderly tuk tuk driver badgers me about going with him. I really don’t fancy a bumpy dusty smokey ride in a three wheeler being nudged constantly aside by the streams of buses. Plus I find buses interesting, mixing and watching locals, also they are cheaper. After 15 minutes he finally realises he won’t get me and offers to show me where my bus leaves from. The cheek of it, I leave him brusquely. The us station is. A nightmare of beaten up private white buses, beaten up state red ones and slightly less beaten up mini buses. There is no apparent order, no nice clear departure boards or helpful uniformed helpers. An anyway it’s not so bad, and I do find a minibus, where I have to jam myself in, rucksack on lap. Even the aisle of the mini bus is taken up with fold down seats. A couple with a new born sit in these rather dodgy looking places. The baby is cradled by the mother unsure her red and white flowery sarong, and doesn’t cry once. The minibus is considerably more expensive than a us but it’s quick. This due to the fact it. Rarely stops and is also more able to overtake quickly on the arrow windy roads.
Asana side I found out from the guys atthe hotel in kandy about buses and why they are. Driven the way that they are, ie fast, dangerously fast, impetuously overtaking and ramming passengers in, so they are hanging out of the door. The state bus drivers receive a salary, the private ones work on a percentage of fares, so they area,ways trying to get ahead of the state buses to pinch the waiting passengers. Apparently if they manage to reach their target, any extra fares go straight in the pocket of driver and conductor.

Digression.
Dambulla isn’t much more than a dusty road going past the golden temple, a kitsch monstrosity of an enormous gild Buddha sitting atop the Buddhist museum, this decorated with teeth, the doorway a mouth, it looks like something at a funfare: welcome to the horror house. I get a tuk tuk driver to show me some guest houses and take the most comfortable. It’s on a dusty track off the main road and has a rooftop terrace, which would be great if there was more life here than just me and my beer. But, actually I will be able to get back into my book now. Finding the guesthouse after dusk was pretty hard and I was beginning to panic a bit. There are no street lights here, houses are set back behind trees, there are a few basic stealers selling snacks and soft drinks. It’s too dark to see the face of the few people who do pass me. Yes I get lost. Before going out I took a photo of the sign of the guest house. The picture is a bit confusing as the name is partially obscured, and also I’m afraid that my camera battery is about to die. When I do try and use the picture, the guy I show it too doesn’t really catch my drift and walks me to another place. I’m looking for a road which, I remember, has a couple of dismantled tuk tuks. That would be hard to explain to a local with rudimentary English. In the end I do get my bearings and feel pretty relieved.
My late afternoon at the golden temple and cave temples was nice. At the bottom is a muddy batterered monastery. I get quite enthused to see orange robed young monks playing cricket. I know this is breaking their code of conduct…is this why they are slightly hostile to me taking photos?
The caves are at the top of a 10 minute climb up steps. The entrance fee is disproportionately high, as with all the monuments here. Is this money going into government funds? I hope not. There are 5 temples of varied size, the first one just containing a reclining Buddha. The second one is the most engaging with beautiful painted ceiling and a myriad of Buddhas in all manner of poses. There is a mix of locals, independent westerners and groups guided by loud locals. Unfortunately there is no hush, lots of loud voices, and too many flashes. I pace things and wait for more quiet moments to return to the temples and enjoy them much more. It’s is the end of the afternoon and dusk is falling. The sunset perched on the top of the rock is colourful, awesome, orange slowly faded over a lake rows of mountains and jungle stretching far and away. Red faced monkeys frollick and tumble.ive seen a lot of them everywhere today, starting with the rubbish piles in kandy.
The guesthouse peace is blown apart by returning guests. Shouting Italian parents and equally loud young kids.

Sacred tooth etc

Back into town late afternoon. Kingfishers And storks by the lake. I bump into ralf who has no memory of his performance last night. He goes shopping and I look for a wood apple juice, meanwhile scoring a samosa and visiting a medicinal herb shop. Would love to buy something but I have no idea what they are or how to use them. Parked outsi are some gaudily decorated chromed wood panelled trucks. I can see, and discover that eating after 4 here is tricky. The restaurants have extensive, but not vege menus. Rice and curry is only for lunch. The other choice is masala dosa. Later I do and sit in a restaurant but leave after an unsuccessful 15 minute wait to order.
I thought visiting the sacred tooth temple in the veining would less busy. Not really. The place is not especially overwhelming, crowded, a bit hectic, not really anywhere to pause and soak up any magic. There is a museum of the holy tooth on site too. Another poor attempt at exhibiting history. Not much signage, cases full of jewellery, bowls, ceremonial faded stuff. When I returned to the tooth chamber for the second time a ceremony was going on, drumming and some monks disappearing into the tooth room to do something holy. I reckon this is for tourists as the locals don’t linger and visiting monks don’t even pause. Outside is more interesting. The rows of candles and buring oil at dusk. Drumming, a call for the podia at the naga temple. This has started at the other one. Priest collecting notes on a tray, intoning some prayers then dotting the praying groups foreheads with red paint. Further on is the boddi tree high on a crenalated platform. There are two levels. One lower one where visitors buy bowls of holy water, incense and flowers, and are blessed by a chanting woman. The devotees then circulate the first level bowing at the alter then climb to the second level where they make 3 revolutions with their water and incense. The tree trunk is be robed in an orange cloth. It’s lower branches bedecked with lines of prayer flags, fluttering in the dolling night breeze. I sit in peace for 40 minutes.